Russia under Vladimir Putin is far more dangerous to the West than the Soviet Union ever was, two Russian analysts argue; and the West for the moment at least is far less capable of dealing with the challenges and threats the Kremlin leader now poses, according to a third.
The two analysts who suggest that Putin’s Russia is a greater threat both draw on the work of Western analysts: Radio Liberty’s Yaroslav Shimov on Bulgarian scholar Ruslan Stefanov and Svobodnaya Pressa’s Pavel Shepilin on French author Nicholas Henin.
Stepanov, the director of the Sofia Center for the Study of Democracy, is one of the co-authors of the CSIS study, “The Kremlin Playbook” which examined Moscow’s new approach to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. But the Bulgarian scholar extends its conclusions to the West more generally.
He suggests that because the Kremlin is prepared to use money far more freely than the Soviet Union ever did, it can acquire positions of power in many countries both among those who are prepared to sell to it or who hope for economic advantages in trade with Russia, something the USSR could not do as well.
And he adds that because the current Kremlin is less interested in promoting a single ideological agenda than was the USSR, it can build ties to groups that in the past would have opposed Moscow and can achieve its goals by promoting nationalism in particular countries and chaos internationally rather than seeking to expand its bloc as such.
French journalist Nicholas Henin in Shepilin’s telling completely agrees. He points out that Russia now has “a multitude of levers of influence” and is far more skillful in forming public opinion both at home and especially abroad.
“If you support leftist views,” Henin says, today’s Russians “will play on your anti-Americanism. If you are a businessman, they will seduce you with promise of major contracts. If you are in the military, they will tell you that ‘in the contemporary world, we are the only country which knows how to make use of force.’” And “if you are a Christian, [the Russians] will say, ‘we share your desire to struggle against the spread of secularism.’”
Soviet operatives could never be that flexible and dexterous or that generous in the use of funds.
According to the French journalist, Moscow doesn’t care whether it has to use money or propaganda to achieve its ends, and it is exploiting the rise of angry anti-globalist forces within various countries to break down the West as an entity and thus increase Russia’s relative position and power.
Across the West, Henin argues, many in the population think they have been sold out by trans-national elites; and Moscow under Putin is playing up those fears in order to displace existing governments and undermine the European Union and other international organizations. When you win by supporting chaos, this is a good strategy, at least for a time.
The split between elites and populations in many countries has become so great that Moscow does not have to do much to win by supporting the anti-globalist, nationalist and traditionalist side. The “angry people” it is speaking to, in many cases don’t have the ability to take power yet; but they are already changing the balance in Moscow’s favor.
Putin’s success, however, is likely to be temporary, Liliya Shevtsova says, because it reflects not his strength but the current demoralization of the West. And history shows the West can come back especially when as now it is presented with a challenge. In short, Putin may be laying the groundwork for his ultimate defeat.
Twice in the last century, the West was in a similar position, at the end of the 1920s and then again in the 1970s, but in both cases, the Moscow-based Brookings Institution analyst argues, “the existence of an opponent in the form of the Soviet Union forced the West to bring itself up to snuff.”
After the disintegration of the USSR, the West lost this external stimulus, and “liberal democracy began to lose its drive.” But Putin’s recent actions have begun to help the West recover. After trying the soft approach of sanctions, the West has recognized that it has to use hard power as well to contain Moscow.
In the short term, NATO’s response has allowed the Kremlin to generate a certain “military patriotism” at home, Shevtsova says; but that will not last. And in the end the Kremlin leader will discover that he has already “given the push for the consolidation in the West of new political forces.”
The old elites who thought that what happened in 1991 was forever will either have to change their views or be replaced by others who recognize that the new reality is going to be very different than what many had imagined or at least hoped for. And Western countries will be forced to recall their currently forgotten principles – and to act upon them as in the past.