And it’s not important whether we ask what Putin’s and Kremlin’s direct goals are, or we merely try to find out whether Moscow is eventually planning to stop, and where. Though it is tough (and probably impossible) to find a single answer, it’s worth analysing taking into account historic parallels. Our own actions also depend on this answer, although it’s yet hard to tell whether the Western world will take on measures to stop Russia.
To analyse Kremlin’s desires and actions I decided to focus on a few main aspects.
First of all – analysing the theory and practice of Russian foreign policy. Secondly – reviewing the arsenal of ‘active measures’ that are frequently used to weaken and demolishing the West. Thirdly – historic parallels in three carefully chosen countries: Greece, Czech Republic and Germany. All of them, I believe, might become a perfect illustration of the threats that KGB posed and are still posing to the West. This is why this time it will be a series of six related articles on the same topic.
Restoring the empire?
It is often assumed that Putin’s goal is to restore the empire. People often remember his famous quote back from 2005 when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. But it would be superficial to try to define the whole strategy of Putin and Russia based solely on this quote. Especially having in mind another famous quote by Putin which is often ‘overlooked’ by those who are talking about Putin’s targets and the current Russia.
‘He, who is not sorry about the collapse of the Soviet Union, has no heart. But he, who wants its restoration in its former structure, has no sense’, – these words were uttered by the Russian president back in 2010 during the public Q&A session on Russian television called ‘Interview with Putin. The sequel’. I decided to remember this quotation because both Putin and the former representatives of USSR secret services tend to consider, plan and analyse not only their actions, but their desires as well. And they certainly aren’t out of touch with reality like it was popular to say in the West at one point after the aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, this quote perfectly illustrates Putin’s belief that there is no chance for the restoration of the Soviet Union in any form. So it is doubtful if this could be Russia’s goal. Even the aspects of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (which is often said to be Putin’s personal project) are not the evidence that Kremlin is actually trying to restore the former empire. Looks like the idea of the post-Soviet integration never built any strategic vision because there are now ideas to synchronise and eventually combine into one unit the EEU and China’s project ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’.
What is more, although so far it’s just talk, there are announcements about Syria’s wish to join the EEU, and Jordania’s, Mongolia’s and even Zimbabwe’s intentions to join the free trade zone with this Russian-dominated club. Vietnam has already signed the free trade agreement with the EEU.
Local power – global targets
So the EEU project, even externally, does not look like a tool to restore the empire. On the other hand, Russia is not hiding that the goal behind all these efforts (the attempt to integrate EEU with Silk Road Economic Belt, the enticement for Zimbabwe to join the EEU free trade zone) is to create geopolitical confrontation for the West with all the possible allies – not only those in the same region. However, the EEU itself is merely a tool (and not the only one) in this strategic vision of Putin’s Russia. Lately, despite all of the aforementioned news about the EEU, it’s really tough to name Russia’s main points of attention and efforts: Eurasian Union or, say, strengthening BRICS group. At least for the BRICS, Russia seems to have clearer objectives and strategies. Not to mention the fact that this group was created by Russian initiative back in 2006 , not now when the confrontation with the West has become extremely tense. And Putin himself always saw BRICS as a political organisation rather than economic union. It’s not important whether these Kremlin’s hopes will come true, but these goals sum up Russia’s vision pretty accurately. Lately (especially after the aggression in Ukraine) Kremlin’s activism in this group has become very eloquent: it was openly said that Kremlin might see BRICS as a replacement for the Big 8. By the way, international arena has only recently started to discuss some ‘new’ Russian goals. However, these goals and the tools to implement them are not far from the famous Primakov Doctrine. The main target of the Primakov Doctrine was clearly defined in 1997 by Ariel Cohen, senior analyst at ‘The Heritage Foundation’, in his analysis called ‘The Primakov Doctrine: Russia’s Zero Sum Game with the United States’. It is a strategic way to challenge America’s leading role in the global security system.
It’s not a coincidence that I’m mentioning it all again – I believe these arguments illustrate the fact that Kremlin’s goals have always been more global than local (like the Western world tended to think). Even if it strengthened Russia’s power, creating the empire in the post-Soviet space would reflect targets that are more local. So even if Russia is strengthening its impact on the neighboring regions, it is merely a tool to reach the main goal, not the goal itself. Russia’s official rhetorics also confirm that Kremlin’s dream is related to global domination. Therefore, although Barack Obama had a reason to call Russia a ‘regional power’ that is posing no direct threat to the US, it is still important to have in mind global goals when trying to understand what Putin is aiming at. Even the famous ‘Russian world’ concept, in my belief, was mistakenly perceived as the territorial vision of the new empire. Firstly, it should rather be called a tool to reach the goal, not the goal itself. Secondly, it’s more a civilizational (having fascism features due to the insistent emphasis on the alleged uniqueness and exclusivity of Russian civilization) rather than the territorial concept. And if we choose to interpret it this way, it is obvious that Russia tends to firstly consolidate its power, and then dominate not only in the neighboring regions or the so-called ‘Russian world’ (with very vague borders) but worldwide.
What is the planned world order?
Having in mind Russia’s weak economic power, these goals may appear unrealistic. But it is still worth to at least listen to what world order Kremlin is aiming at. It is also crucial to remember that Putin’s regime is not some new formation but a transformation of the USSR (I tried to support this thesis in the former articles in this series).
Even though the KGB’s plan of the USSR reform has mutated significantly, the current Russian government representatives from the former KGB and other USSR secret services are not only reaching the same objectives as in the Soviet era, but also thinking in the same categories. Especially when many of them are second or third generation representatives from the secret services or military structures with a full-fledged KGB mentality. And this mentality is based on the ideas of inevitable global confrontation between Russia and the West. This is why I deeply believe that it is crucial to study the history of KGB global activities during the Cold War, and at least try to compare it to what is going on now. But let’s start with defining Kremlin’s world order. It has been openly discussed for quite some time by Russian political scientists and experts of international relations who are often presenting and defending government’s point of view. The best-know and most influential experts, like Fyodor Lukyanov, Alexei Arbatov, Sergey Karaganov and others, are basically talking about the same things – at least from the beginning of the Ukrainian war. They say this war marks the end of the transition period after the Cold War, and the necessity to create and establish the new world order.
Even the famous Valday club, which is often considered to be a tool for spreading Russian influence and ideas, prepared a big report called ‘New rules or a game without rules’, which was first introduced during the traditional annual Valday meeting in October 2014, and later amended and improved taking into account the former discussion. All of these and many other analytic publications by Russian experts have the same bottom line – the best system of international relations was the so-called ‘European Concert’ of the ninetieth century (sometimes referred to as Vienna’s international relations system). And although all authors talk about some sort of reservations and acknowledges that it is impossible to return to the ninetieth century, it is basically obvious that Russia’s main target is such world order.
Lukyanov formulated it more openly: Russia wants power balance. And that a ‘rational conversation about the power balance and interests would be much more productive’ than the so-called win-win policy which was constantly proposed to Russia after the collapse of USSR. Even the official rhetorics of Russian authorities and unofficial suggestions regarding Yalta-2 and Helsinki-2 (now Russia usually uses the term ‘Helsinki+40’22) reflect the same goal to return to the power politics which will allow Moscow to strengthen its global influence.
Obstacles: NATO and the EU
However, it is obvious that in the current global power balance when the Western world remains united into two powerful clubs – EU and NATO (that are way ahead of Russia in terms of economic and military impact) – even the power balance wouldn’t help Russia reach its targets.
This purpose is to dominate at least in Europe. Various Russian authors, when speaking about the ‘European concert’, always accentuate ‘Russia’s key role’ in this international relations system, while Igor Ivanov (the former minister of foreign affairs and influential foreign policy expert) in his book ‘Russia’s New Diplomacy – Ten Years For State’s Foreign Policy’ argues that the basis of Russia’s relations with Europe is an active and irreplaceable Russia’s participation in the ‘European Concert’.
Therefore, it is obvious that Russian analysts and foreign policy experts see EU and NATO as the main obstacles for Kremlin’s goals. And in this case destroying them becomes the ultimate goal of Putin’s regime. It is enough to listen to Sergey Lavrov’s (minister of foreign affair) public addresses to make it obvious that Kremlin does not see EU it its strategic visions at all – at least not in its current form.
‘US goal in Ukrainian crisis is not to allow us to deepen partnership with the EU. Even more – it is to throw this perspective off, especially between Russia and Germany. Diplomatic and intelligence data only reinforce Moscow’s belief that preventing Russian-German rapprochement is US’s main task. Active partnership between Russia and Germany is crucial to shake the EU. And to have a dominating course of protecting the interests of member states, not giving it away to marginals who are basically following instructions from over the ocean’, – said Lavrov on radio stations ‘Sputnik’, ‘Echo Moskvy’ and ‘Govorit Moskva’ in April this year.
Moscow’s long-standing policy to solve all issues bilaterally, rather than at the EU level, indicates that Russia sees EU as the main stumbling block. But Lavrov’s quotes already remind of Alexander Dugin’s geopolitical concepts about Moscow-Berlin’s axis and its significance.
Marius Laurinavičius is senior analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre.