Guerrilla is probably a term thrown around a little too much. But there is political and unconventional warfare coming out of Russia.
A similarly subtle, shape-shifting approach informs the Kremlin’s manipulations in the world of ideas and political narratives. For a country that President Obama claims “has no global ideology,” Putin’s Russia cares very much about ideas, carefully controlling media, education, and parties inside the country and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in international broadcasting, intellectual influencers, and think tanks abroad....
These are not the innovations of a bankrupt state mired in the “old ways,” in President Obama’s words. Rather, the Kremlin is ideologically supple and cleverly maneuvering through a globalized world. But what does Russia want? What are its aims?Whether or not the Kremlin has a grand global vision, it does have several priorities on its international agenda. Since the annexation of Crimea, President Putin has pegged his domestic popularity to victory in military campaigns in his near abroad, and in order to maintain his standing he might well need to provoke more—with Moldova and Estonia, for instance. Still fully engaged with the West, despite his aggressions, Putin will continue to try to undermine the EU so as to create a continent under Russia’s energy thumb. Globally, Kremlin leaders are encouraging the decline of a rules-based system, which sets the stage for the prosperity of “global reiders” such as themselves.
This is quite a conclusion:
The core EU-US alliance not only needs to be rehabilitated but supplemented by an approach to the new, successful democracies of the global south. As historian Anne Applebaum points out in a recent “Democracy Works” paper for the Legatum Institute, India, Brazil, and South Africa should all be examples of how liberal democracy can be successful. But during the crisis in Ukraine, Western diplomacy didn’t take the trouble to present its case to these nations, so Russia was able to manipulate residual anticolonial, anti-Western resentment in all three, and all three refused to condemn the annexation of Crimea or back sanctions against Moscow. These “swing states” need to be made stakeholders in the camp of international democracy, and the idea of the “West” needs to be expanded to include them.Particular attention must also be paid to what is perhaps the strongest weapon in the Kremlin’s armory: the ability to corrupt Western elites, which both stymies geopolitical action and in turn strengthens the Kremlin’s underlying argument that Western democracies have no true values. Once upon a time, for example, Russian and Ukrainian dissidents used to speak of the West generally, and London in particular, as their guiding beacon. Today, by being so ready to take post-Soviet money and ask so few questions, these places are now increasingly perceived as supporting the autocratic, corrupt systems of Moscow. “Don’t you realize you risk creating a global system where corrupt, state-connected companies from Russia win and your companies aren’t able to compete?” asks Vladimir Ashurkov of the Anti-Corruption Fund.
Yes, Russia Matters: Putin’s Guerrilla Strategy
The Obama administration seems to believe that Vladimir Putin should not be taken too seriously. The annexation of Crimea and belligerence over Ukraine are, to quote the president and his secretary of state, a sign of “weakness,” the hallmark of a “regional” power stuck in “the old ways of doing things,” leading no bloc of nations and having “no global ideology.” These assumptions may be comforting rationales for a lack of response to the Kremlin’s recent moves, but they misread the game Putin is playing—and underestimate its significance.
It is true that Russia is relatively weak compared to the Soviet Union, to which its current leader looks back with nostalgia. It faces demographic problems, its economy (the eighth-largest in the world) is flatlining, and its military spending is only a sixth of America’s (though still the third-largest in the world, and growing). But today’s Kremlin has seen something: in the globalization and interdependence of the twenty-first century, it’s how you use your relative weakness that counts.
One way the Kremlin advances its interests is by making other states reliant on its money and markets, approaching each country according to its unique vulnerability. Britain, for example, has wedded itself to a development strategy of becoming the capital of global finance, so Russia keeps its money flowing into London to help keep the economy purring. The London Stock Exchange, whose regulations are looser than those of the US, is perceived as a more hospitable place for Russian companies, more than seventy of which are listed and traded there, with companies from the former Soviet states raising $82.6 billion in the past two decades. And that’s just the transparent money. Much more is thought to flow from Russia to London through the UK’s network of murky offshore zones such as the British Virgin Islands. According to the British Financial Services Authority, approximately one-third of UK banks appeared willing to endure “money-laundering risk if the immediate reputational and regulatory risk was acceptable,” an attitude which has led London to be nicknamed “the money laundering capital of the world” by the satirical magazine Private Eye. “I’ve regularly told the UK Financial Services Authority to investigate Russian state companies in the UK,” says Vladimir Ashurkov, head of the Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Fund, “but they never do: at one point you realize it’s a question of political will.”
The UK is addicted to these financial flows not because the amounts are huge, but because clamping down on the Russians would signal that London was willing to surrender its position as global financial capital for larger principles. The Kremlin is aware that the British will not take such a stand. “The UK should not support for now, trade sanctions . . . or close London’s financial center to Russians,” one of the British government’s key security advisers wrote in a strategy memo accidentally leaked to the press during the crisis over Ukraine.
On the continent, it is energy, not money, that is Russia’s great trump card. Since the annexation of Crimea, companies entangled in Russia’s energy market, including Germany’s BASF and Italy’s ENI, have been vocal in opposing EU sanctions against Moscow. But while Russia positions itself as a reliable energy partner to Western European states, it can be far more aggressive in its negotiations with direct neighbors such as Lithuania, where Russia has raised the gas price by four hundred and fifty percent over the last seven years in what many see as geopolitical punishment. “Russia shows a different face to different parts of Europe,” an energy security adviser to a Central European government told me recently. “So when we talk about Russia, we find we’re talking about different Russias, and that makes building a unitary position difficult.” It is a complex game. In the South Stream pipeline project, which aims to deliver Russian gas via Southern and Central Europe, Moscow is setting countries like Bulgaria and Hungary, which would benefit from it, against the European Commission in Brussels, which believes the bilateral deals Russia struck are in breach of EU law. The net effect of all these energy games is to break the political unity of the European Union, and increase Russia’s dominance over the continent.
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