(First published Strategic Culture Foundation
This site has just published my assessment of what Putin (and his team) got right in the program laid out, twenty years ago, in his essay “Russia at the turn of the millennium”. I concluded that he outlined four main projects: 1) Improve the economy. 2) Re-establish central control. 3) Establish a rule of law. 4) Improve Russia’s position in the world. I assessed that he accomplished three of them triumphantly and one reasonably well.
But, re-reading the essay, I noticed something that he did not mention. A something that in the twenty years has become rather important. Here is his only mention in the essay of that thing.
Russia was and will remain a great power.. It is preconditioned by the inseparable characteristics of its geopolitical, economic and cultural existence. They determined the mentality of Russians and the policy of the government throughout the history of Russia and they cannot but do so at present. But Russian mentality should be expanded by new ideas. In the present world the might of a country as a great power is manifested more in its ability to be the leader in creating and using advanced technologies, ensuring a high level of people’s wellbeing, reliably protecting its security and upholding its national interests in the international arena, than in its military strength.
Once. That’s it. That’s the only time “military strength” is mentioned and it is mentioned disparagingly: other things – technologies, wellbeing, diplomacy – are more important in this new world of the Twenty-first Century as Putin then saw it.
There is, in fact, almost nothing in the essay about the outside world and therefore little from which to deduce Putin’s expectations of how his program would be received. At one point he writes that Russia, after the dead end of the Soviet years, “has entered the highway by which the whole of humanity is travelling”, in another that an important aim is to “integrate the Russian economy into world economic structures”. This sounds as if he either expected Russia to be welcomed into these structures or that its arrival on the highway would, at least, not be impeded.
But, in one of his first interviews to a foreign source, a German newspaper in June 2000, the outside world made it presence known in three issues – the US flouting of the ABM Treaty, US missiles in Europe and NATO expansion. A year later an interview with American reporters (JRL 20 Jun 2001) is almost completely given over to American plans to place ballistic missile defences in Europe. In short, he wasn’t at his new job very long before his daily schedule started to have a large foreign component. And, from his perspective, all problems. We see in these first interviews points that Putin will return to over and over again in the coming years. He doubts that the Bush-era ABM systems have much to do with “rogue states”; he regards the ABM Treaty as vital to nuclear stability; he objects to the expansion of NATO. But most of all, he talks of a multipolar world, or as some call it a “Westphalian” system, of sovereign countries. This, he argues, again and again, is the only route to peace and stability. These themes feature in almost every speech on foreign issues he has made since. Given weight by the knowledge that Moscow wasted 70 years on the exceptionalist, moralistic path – a dead end as he said in his millennium essay.
So if, as the essay suggests, Putin was expecting the mostly domestic task of reconstructing Russia – “the price which we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union” – to proceed with a benign reaction from the outside world, he was soon disabused of the notion. The West, for all its honeyed words, was taking advantage of Russia’s weakness.
In short, he forgot the saying attributed to the Emperor Alexander III that “Russia has only two allies – its Army and its Navy”.
Eventually missiles were emplaced in Europe, the ABM Treaty and two of the other keystone arms control treaties were abandoned and NATO kept expanding. And much else. By February 2007 Putin had had enough and said so in the famous Munich Conference speech. The essence of his speech – and who today can deny its prescience? – is that that “security for one is security for all”. He proclaimed the unipolar world dead – as it has become. He decried the ignoring of international law; today there isn’t even the pretence: keep their oil, Bolivia coup. He pointed out the broken promise about NATO expansion – no longer can it be denied. He never quite gives up hope: who can forget his question, referring to the mess in the Middle East caused by Washington and its minions (September 2015): “I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done?” or (October 2016) “I address the players once again: The extremists in this case are more cunning, clever and stronger than you, and if you play these games with them, you will always lose.“
So, at some point between 1999 with the millennium essay and the Munich speech of 2007, Putin realised that the reconstruction of Russia would have to proceed in a hostile atmosphere; Washington and its allies did not want a strong Russia as a partner or or even as peaceful competitor: they wanted the Russia of 1999 – poor, divided, lawless and insignificant. Or perhaps his turning point was NATO’s destruction of Libya in 2015. Or when Washington did kill the ABM Treaty in 2002. Most likely, though, it was a gradual process by which Putin and his team realised they had to look to Alexander’s allies.
And they did. They warned – Putin told the American reporters in 2001 “We are offering cooperation. If that is acceptable, we will do this with pleasure. If not, then we will act independently” – and, quietly, they did.
In March 2018 he showed the Federal Assembly and the world what the Team had been working on. A final reminder:
We proposed working together in this area [prolonging the ABM Treaty – ‘the cornerstone of the international security system’] to ease concerns and maintain the atmosphere of trust. At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected. And then we said that we would have to improve our modern strike systems to protect our security.
Six new super weapons: the Sarmat ICBM, Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile, Poseidon nuclear powered underwater cruise missile, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile, Avangard hypersonic manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle and the Peresvet combat laser. He warned:
Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.
He couldn’t resist adding “nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.” They scoffed: just virtual reality. But they’re not; US inspectors have been shown the Avangard which, with its ability to hit anywhere in less than half an hour, ends the US dream of antiballistic missile defence. The two cruise missiles present a unprecedented threat – lurking over Antarctica or in the ocean deeps for months ready to strike? A volley of Kinzhals coming in at Mach ten will obliterate any carrier group or staging harbour or base in Europe. Checkmate.
But there’s more: great advances have been made on conventional defence as well. As I argue here, the Putin Team understood that the two essentials of NATO’s war-fighting doctrine are air superiority and assured communications. They won’t have them against Russia. The First Guards Tank Army has been revived and far exceeds anything that NATO has in offensive power. NATO has been writing NSF cheques for years and Moscow has called its bluff.
So, eventually, the Putin Team did take Alexander’s advice. Russia’s army and navy and air force have probably made Russia more secure against attack than at any time since his Great Uncle entered his capital in triumph two years after Napoleon’s attack or when Marshal Zhukov accepted the enemy’s surrender in his capital four years after Hitler’s attack.
And, as an afterword, at Munich Putin said this:
It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.
Do we not see this today? The USA is tearing itself apart over imagined Russian collusion, imagined Russian electoral interference and real Ukrainian corruption. And, meanwhile, the forever wars go on and on.