Whenever NATO launches an important initiative to strengthen transatlantic security accusations that Russia is being “provoked” gain currency. Similar charges are leveled against Washington or European capitals whenever they openly support pluralism and decentralization in Russia. This persistent narrative needs to be challenged, as its primary purpose is to disguise Moscow’s imperial revisionism.
NATO is a voluntary multinational alliance established on the principle of upholding state sovereignty. Contrary to Kremlin disinformation, NATO did not expand to Russia’s borders in order to threaten Moscow. Former Soviet satellites made strenuous efforts to join the Alliance to protect their independence. NATO has no ambitions to forcefully expand its borders and Russia’s cohesion is not under threat from NATO enlargement.
As Washington mulls the possibility of permanently stationing a limited contingent of U.S. troops in Poland, a new salvo of anti-NATO criticisms has again appeared in the Western media. Although most critics do not claim that the Alliance is planning strikes on Russian territory, they depict acts of self-defense to deter military attacks on NATO territory as provocative maneuvers. This contorted argument indicates that the Kremlin’s real fear is that an adequately equipped and effectively positioned NATO can neutralize Russia’s persistent intimidation of its neighbors.
Even on NATO’s home ground, Moscow now claims that defending Western democracies constitutes a hostile act against Russia. For instance, when United States Cyber Command briefly took offline a Kremlin-directed “trolling factory” in St. Petersburg on U.S. Election Day (November 6, 2018) to prevent attempts to disrupt the midterms, the Kremlin used the event as an excuse to promote restrictive internet legislation allegedly to shield the country from “foreign cyberattacks.”
At a recent conference in Estonia, this author raised the question of how Washington and its allies should prepare for a potential crisis inside the Russian Federation, having previously failed to anticipate the Soviet collapse. Some respondents seemed alarmed that focusing on potential state dissolution would be too provocative and would confirm for Moscow that Western leaders are intent on fragmenting Russia. However, such arguments not only fail to counter Kremlin disinformation, but perversely they also help sustain its anti-Western offensive.
Moscow perennially accuses the United States of interfering in its internal politics or staging colored revolutions close to its borders. Instead of engaging in defensive denials that do not alter the Kremlin narrative, Washington should clearly and repeatedly declare what it does support: the transformation of a hostile Russia into a democratic state and a genuine federation. If this fails, Russian citizens may no longer support the current imperial construct. Ultimately, the future of Russia is in their hands. Such a policy would be based on the rational calculation that a pluralistic and decentralized Russian state is more likely to curtail its multi-pronged attacks on the West and even become a genuine partner for NATO.
In the age of mass disinformation, Putin’s Moscow is adept at manufacturing foreign conspiracies to hide its own internal discontents and it banks on tepid responses to its anti-American bombasts. In a recent speech at Moscow’s Academy of Military Science, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, alleged that Washington was employing opposition groups to topple the regime and violently break up the country. This alleged U.S. offensive, code named “Trojan Horse,” will supposedly engage a fifth column to destabilize Russia and at the opportune time destroy government targets with precision-guided cruise missiles.
Such imaginative scenarios give Moscow pretexts to intensify its crackdown on domestic resistance depicted as U.S.-sponsored covert operations. It also indicates that the Kremlin is increasingly fearful of an internal crisis and even public revolts.
Paradoxically, in avoiding statements about Russia’s future, Washington gives free space to Moscow’s disinformation campaign. It fails to effectively challenge the narrative that NATO is planning the violent overthrow of the Putin regime and fails to explain the real reasons for NATO expansion and the positive impact of a U.S. troop presence in Poland.
The United States needs a comprehensive strategy toward Russia, including options on how to handle various scenarios of internal instability that could have serious external reverberations. Policymakers will have to closely monitor Russia’s social, economic, political, ethnic, and regional weaknesses and investigate whether supporting democrats and regionalists will help or undermine their internal initiatives to transform the state.
Russia is not a monolith and the Putin regime is not permanent. Observers who warn about provoking Moscow should consider whether a kleptocratic elite that has stripped enormous wealth from the Russian state would be willing to sacrifice their businesses, bank accounts, and properties in the West for an outright shooting war with NATO.
Avoiding the bolstering of NATO’s eastern flank or neglecting Russia’s growing domestic problems will prove more damaging to Western interests than planning for all credible eventualities. Warnings about Moscow’s reactions were also heard thirty years ago during the Soviet collapse. Instead of a reasoned calculation about the consequences of any new policy initiative, an exaggerated fear of how the Kremlin may react has always been the real “Russophobia.”