In this week’s Western media highlights, in Foreign Policy Nikolas Gvosdev suggests a U.S. strategy that can be helpful in responding to the Kremlin’s aggression. And in his op-ed in the New York Times, Oliver Bullough compares Putin’s actions in Syria with his tactics in Chechnya. In the Russian media, some analysts discuss the latest developments in the political scene, as the country enters a post-Putin stage of development that can be defined as “politization.” Other experts delve into the reasons for Russia’s resurgent anti-Americanism.
From the West
Nikolas Gvosdev, The National Interest
Debates are being held around the Western world as to the appropriate response to Russia’s campaign of airstrikes in the city of Aleppo. Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, weighs the options for repairing diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia as Obama faces increasing pressure from his State Department to intervene. The risk of a face-to-face confrontation between American and Russian forces has become a real possibility in recent days as the prospect of an enforced no-fly zone is being proposed as a response to Russia’s continued bombardment of so-called opposition forces. However, Gvosdev suggests that as America is preoccupied with a less-than-friendly presidential election, the Kremlin is “working to establish facts on the ground,” thus leaving Putin in a position of advantage when the new president steps in. According to Gvosdev, America should have heeded Putin’s warning in his 2014 speech to the Duma when he said that “If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.” There are two prudent responses. One being to de-escalate the spring, which would involve concessions by the U.S. in order to introduce a new line of dialogue. The other being to “prepare for the springback,” in other words, make alterations to its defense spending and strategy to counter Russian aggression, something that has been broadly unpopular among NATO member states. Whatever the measure, the next U.S. president must not forget that “when it comes to the Kremlin, there are no risk-free options.”
Oliver Bullough, The New York Times
The two brutal Chechen wars are still fresh in the minds of many Russians, as well as many in the Western world. It is no surprise then that Putin’s bombing of Aleppo is being widely compared to his relentless campaign against militants in the city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which famously caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. In the New York Times this week, British journalist and author Oliver Bullough draws a comparison between the two campaigns, arguing that in the style of the Grozny campaign, “where infantry won’t go, he’s dropping explosives,” the lack of domestic opposition against his actions in Syria allows Putin to adopt the mindset of a chess player, making moves on the international stage, fighting against pawns rather than people. “War is peace” is the message that is being conveyed to the world. As with Chechnya, Putin thinks he is “bombing Syrians for their own good.” Bullough believes that an Assad victory with Russian support in Syria would be similar to the kind of peace that now exists in Chechnya after the Russia-favored candidate (Ramzan Kadyrov) was assisted into power: “one assassination away from chaos.” Putin should have learned that you cannot bomb people into loving you, and a success in Syria, although it would be hailed by the Kremlin as a victory for stability on the international stage, would remain “as fragile as the one he built in Chechnya.”
James Stavridis, Foreign Policy
James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, sets out his strategy for combating the Kremlin cyber-attacks in the wake of its recent attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election. Following the Obama administration’s promise of a “proportional response,” Stavridis sets out to define what such a response might actually look like. The U.S. must first get its definitions straight, and determine what actually constitutes an “attack,” rather than mere “nuisance activities.” Stavridis believes that the release of confidential information aimed at one particular presidential candidate “affects the heart of the U.S. democratic process,” and thus requires a direct response. The second step of the plan is for the U.S. to determine whom to hold responsible. And finally, a response must be crafted that is both proportional, yet distinctive. In Stavridis’ words “it should bear a clear and specific relationship to the original attack that is recognizable to all.” This includes exposing high-level Kremlin involvement in such attacks, and releasing names of individual officials. In addition, the U.S. could seek to make public the means by which the Kremlin is carrying out cyberattacks, for instance releasing codes and tool sets. Stavridis’ final and most aggressive approach is to leak sensitive information about the financial status of Russian officials, up to and including Putin himself. Stavridis stresses the need for NATO cooperation in the cyberwar, and that “the United States needs to show some steel or face much worse to come.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, Carnegie.ru
Political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky discusses current developments at the Russia political space, noting that the country has entered a new, post-Putin stage in which “politization” has become mainstream. “The theatre of de-politizaton ended after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov,” writes Pavlovsky, arguing that now the “political scene” has started to expand. According to the author, the pro-Kremlin majority in the newly elected Duma is in fact “crumbly, diverse, and dysfunctional.” Having brought together various political groups with their own interests, the Duma transformed into a place where they begin to crystallize into various factions that will fight for power. Pavlovsky also suggests that the so-called “Putin’s majority” doesn’t exist in Russia—in fact, there is no majority group of any kind (pro-Putin or anti-Putin); instead there are numerous influential minority groups. Politization has started, but it will be a long and difficult process: over the years of de-politization, a quasi-political, vaudevillian narrative mediated through state television dissolved any memory the Russians might have had left of the real political process. As for Putin’s plan to escape surging domestic problems through the triumphs of his bold foreign policy, Pavlovsky finds it well calculated—indeed, the West needed the “Putin game.” However, the Kremlin misunderstood the essence of the game and the role Russia was supposed to play in it. A new factor of Russia’s political reality is that the very apparatus of power no longer understands the logic of power, concludes Pavlovsky.
Vladimir Patukhov, Slon.ru
Vladimir Pastukhov, visiting fellow at St. Anthony’s College of Oxford University, delves into the issue of Russian anti-Americanism, describing it as a “new cult of Putin’s Russia.” Behind the absurd ultimata and “warnings” to the United States made by the Kremlin the author sees “a poorly disguised hysteria” that roots in quite rational ground. First, the Kremlin is being wily and exaggerative when, following the Soviet tradition, it shows indignation with U.S. policies. Thus, the Kremlin believes it sends a clear message—“leave us alone”—and it gets frustrated with Washington’s slowness to grasp the notion and therefore increases pressure. Second, anti-Americanism was initially used as a tool but now it’s become an end in itself. Pastukhov points to the “ability to get itself into a state of autohypnosis” as a typical trait of the Russian political culture. Third, increasing levels of anti-Americanism can be explained by anxiety. As the pressure of economic sanctions becomes more real, it compels the Kremlin to intensify its “banzai attacks” on the West with the goal of scaring it and forcing it to withdraw. If the West withstands these attacks and doesn’t weaken its pressure, Putin’s Russia will meet the same fate as the Soviet Union, concludes Pastukhov.
Kirill Rogov, RBC
Political commentator Kirill Rogov analyzes the appointment of Sergei Kiriyenko to the position of deputy chief of the presidential administration against the backdrop of new tensions between Russia and the West. According to Rogov, Kiriyenko can be considered “progressivist” inside the Kremlin’s “power vertical”; therefore his responsibilities as a key curator of domestic policies may include “normalization of the social and political infrastructure.” This could involve creating civil projects that could be funded by the Russian corporation and softly controlled by the Kremlin, and, say, founding a “progressive party loyal to Vladimir Putin in terms of key issues, but at the same time partially representing the interest of the urban class and a new political generation.” Among Kiriyenko’s other responsibilities could be optimization of regional governance, including economic administration, and recruiting relevant technocratic cadres. Rogov concludes that this appointment may be a sign of the so-called “cold modernization” that, in Putin’s view, complements well the idea of the Cold War with the West. The author contends that resolving economic issues remains the main weakness of such an approach: under conditions of confrontation with the West, Russia won’t be able to return to economic growth.
Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.