TAG Virtual Conference: The State of Russia, January 12th, 2023

By Julian Lindley-French

“Peace restored will be no place at all”

Headline: Russians are inured to positive change. Changing Russia will be almost impossible, it is the West that must change if it is to collectively deter and contain the threat Moscow poses firmly anchored in long-term strategy. Ukraine fatigue is a metaphor for Russia fatigue and must be resisted.

The first TAG Virtual Conference of 2023 considered the state of Russia and was led by Keir Giles who has just published his latest book “Russia’s War on Everybody: and what it means for you”. Keir said that the future of European security depended on the state of Russia. Putin’s Russia is determined to rebuild the Russian Empire of old and even if the Ukraine War ends the threat to wider Europe will not disappear.  Support for Ukraine is only likely to be a short-term fix as both the Russian elite and people firmly believe Russia should govern Ukraine. Russian victory in Ukraine would reinforce Russian ambitions; catastrophic ‘strategic’ defeat would reinforce Russian paranoia about the West.  Russia is content to be the “happy loser” a self-perceived victim of Western calumny and treachery to explain the unremittingly miserable nature of Russian life.  If Russia is simply beaten back but remains intact the threat posed to the West might dissipate over time but such change would be generational. Keir recalled the advice of a Russian diplomat who said the West should “do to Russia what it had to [Nazi] Germany during World War Two”.  

The subsequent debate focused on the deterministic nature of Keir’s thesis and the extent and utility (or otherwise) of Western instruments of power.  One school of thought broadly agreed with Keir’s thesis and that Russia only understood the language of coercion.  There was Messianic quality to Russia’s world-view informed by the cynicism of the old KGB with the Russian Orthodox katechon that prior to any deliverance any restraint (the democratic West) must be removed and Russian nuclear orthodoxy and the use of nuclear threats.  If Russian attitudes cannot be attenuated, Russian behaviour possibly can but that would require the West to impress the Kremlin with the strength of its resolve to confront Russian adventurism reinforced by security and defence capacities and capabilities ranging from offensive military and cyber forces to reinforced resilience of civil society (‘whole of society defence’) and critical infrastructures.  Russia will pursue a hybrid grey zone war by all and every means possible to exploit the many vulnerabilities of democratic societies.  Russia wants to do the West harm but the threat that Russia poses has been ‘under-narrated’.  Enhanced resilience would thus require Western leaders to be honest with their respective publics about the threat Russia poses.  Nor must it be assumed that any such attacks would be limited to the smaller states around Russia’s borders which many Russians simply do not believe have a right to exist.

Another school of thought was somewhat more optimistic.  The future of Russia is uncertain and Western policy should be flexible to enable the democracies to both exploit opportunities and contain threats.  There are several possible outcomes to the Ukraine War and its consequences for Russia.  These range from internal collapse that sees various warlords vie for power, a right wing coup that sees an ever more hard-line regime take power in Moscow, the confirmation of Putin as a Great Russian to fragmentation.  Russia should be engaged across the diplomatic, informational, military and economic spheres not least because that is the nature of Western democracies.

 Possible courses of action proposed ranged from taking the fight to Russia by Ukraine membership of both NATO and the EU; excluding Russia from the European economy; reinforcing Western (mainly European defences) to re-envisaging Harmel by engaging Russia even as Western military power is reinforced.  One critical course of action could be to engage China, India and other emerging Great Powers in an effort to convince them the West is not determined to impose its hegemony but also that support for Russian adventurism would be injurious to their respective interests over the medium-to-long terms.