To celebrate Russia’s exhibition Army 2023 (Armiia 2023) in Moscow, the influential head of Putin’s Council on Foreign Policy and Defense, Sergei Karaganov, led a roundtable discussion with other defense intellectuals and officials on August 15, plus an Americanized Russian commentator, an Israeli politician, and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan for Africa.
They agreed that Russians are God’s chosen people and that the Almighty backs the Kremlin’s campaign against the 50 nations — that is, the West and its fellow travelers — who seek to destroy the Russian Federation. The panelists agreed that to win this struggle, Russia must rely on the support of the great deity and the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal; a sort of modern version of Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
The exhibition of advanced Russian military technology, as described in Izvestiia on August 15, continued from August 14 to 20, and was sponsored by First Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov and ministry adviser Andrei Il’nikov. The exhibit showed some of the fearsome Western materiel that now opposes Russia’s war on Ukraine, or the Special Military Operation (SMO) as the Kremlin likes to call it.
Perhaps inspired by the regular rusting displays of shattered Russian military equipment in Kyiv (Russia has now lost more than 12,000 significant items of kit, including almost 2,300 tanks), it featured 870 examples of Western and Ukrainian arms, including tanks, armored vehicles, and other weapons captured in Ukraine.
Leading the roundtable was Sergei Karaganov — one of the foreign-policy ultranationalists who gained Kremlin influence under Vladimir Putin, especially since 2012. Known for his Karaganov doctrine (1992), that Moscow should pose as the defender of the human rights of ethnic Russians living in the “near abroad”, he was a key figure in building the groundwork for the war against Ukraine.
Karaganov told the roundtable there are now two major ideologies: Russia’s, supported by the great majority of the world’s population, and Western liberalism, backed only by a minority of humanity but equipped with rich resources. Russia defends humane values and honors every major religion except liberalism, which denies that humans are made in the image of God. To triumph in the war of ideas, it must propagate the Russian dream. “We are God’s chosen people called on to defend freedom for all countries and peoples. To do so, we must rethink how we use nuclear weapons. We must employ terror (ustrasheniie) as part of nuclear deterrence (sderzhivanie.)” (This Russian word is sometimes rendered as containment but the root of deterrence in English is terror.)
Not long before the roundtable, in June, Karaganov wrote that God had given humans a weapon that could bring about World War III. Russia should not hold back from using this weapon selectively against NATO Europe to put the United States and its allies in their place.
His thesis was backed by Dmitri Simes. The son of dissidents, he came to the United States to find freedom in 1973; he has since taken a very understanding approach to Russian acts of aggression. He claimed that the West has tried to exclude nuclear weapons from the real balance of power and thus eliminate Russia’s status as a great power and referred to American commentators urging the West not to worry about escalation. In Simes’s view, Russia must convince NATO states that they are vulnerable to Russia’s nuclear might. The “collective West” should understand that it will pay a “high price” for its behavior, the former Nixon advisor argued.
Similarly, praise for the SMO came from Viacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister who co-authored the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that sought to erase Poland from the map. Now first deputy chairman of the Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, he argued that Russia’s invasion had contributed to intellectual decolonization, that no world religion had originated in the West, that the US dollar is no longer king, and that Russia’s ruble is becoming a world currency.
This summary of the roundtable comments is based on notes by TV commentator Andrei Perla. He defined the expert consensus: Russia needs a strategy to prevail in a mental war (mental’naia voina) against the West — not just in Ukraine, but worldwide. The main battle is for minds, but victory will be impossible without a new nuclear weapons doctrine.
Russia must show its readiness for nuclear war, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory. The absolute essential is that a majority of citizens become willing participants in a fighting [voiuiushchia] Russia, The whole country must become a fighting force — a veritable army of the citizenry.
Readers of this litany may feel these statements amount to cries of desperation, but they are also a warning. Lacking a worldview to fill the gap left by the demise of communism, the Kremlin mobilizes its sophist brain trust to energize a crude form of nationalism. Russia, they say, is a state civilization that leads global civilization. To achieve real peace, the Kremlin says, it must roll the dice and risk Armageddon.
Walter Clemens is an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Boston University. His latest book is Blood Debts: What Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.