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Op-ed: Turn Putin Inward

Op-ed: Turn Putin Inward

Seeking to merely “contain” Putin is not enough.  We have been outplayed, outsmarted and outmaneuvered in Europe, the Middle East, Venezuela, Africa and the Arctic. And at home. Point by point “cost imposing” measures against Russia have not worked. And simply repeating the pattern of reacting, deterring, responding, defending will not work.  Moscow–minimally as a beneficiary and perhaps more–emerges in seemingly Iran’s recent provocations in the Persian Gulf.  And now the possibility of a Presidential impeachment looms. We have anchored ourselves squarely at the confluence of dual domestic and international storms.

Putin’s swagger is thus more than justified. He has a purpose, a vision, a goal. He achieves them flexibly but decisively, constantly and consistently, accelerating the momentum that attends initiative and certainty of purpose. America has no end purpose, vision or goal. Without that, there can be no policy. With no policy there can be no strategy. Despite its sub-title, the Institute of War’s recent “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.” offers no new approach or over-arching goal for America other than ever more reaction, response, defense.  Nor does the Defense Department’s  recently released White Paper, “Russian Strategic Intentions.” Nor do our “Worldwide Threat Assessment” or our “National Security Strategy” or our  National Intelligence Strategy.  Nor does The National Defense Strategy Commission report, despite warning of our impending “national security emergency.”

America must reprise its goal in the 1980’s toward the then Soviet Union, and today affirmatively move beyond illusory containment of a revivified Homo Sovieticus. We must cause Putin to turn inward and contend with the “Russian Federation’s” endemic and growing demographic, social, economic, ethnic, regional and national vulnerabilities.  His regime cannot reform itself without self-immolation.  He knows this. Without avenues for protest and change, internal pressures are rising. The recent protests in Moscow are only one manifestation.  Much more consequential is the growing ferment among its almost two dozen non-Russian national republics, pointing to the dissolution of a faux “federation” astride eleven of the earth’s time zones. We must grow and influence the demographic, ethnic and regional initiatives that point to the Russian Federation’s dissolution as an imperial construct.

Answers to unavoidable questions dictate an affirmative American offensive strategy.  For example, how can a single country place the entirety of Western democracy on the defensive (including NATO’s 29 countries)?  Other than energy, Russia produces not a thing that the West wants. The U.S. and Europe have a combined population five times greater than Russia’s, and an economy ten times larger. Russia’s economy is less than that of Texas, and on a per capita basis lesser still. Russia contributes 1.5% to global GDP. The U.S. contributes 25%.  NATO’s 29  countries account for over half of the world’s economy.  Russian life expectancy is among the world’s shortest, and its suicide and alcoholism are among the highest. Its homicide rate is six times ours. By any measure of life and livability, and afraid of its own population and therefore bereft of state institutions other than “the power vertical,” Russia is a failed state in the extreme.

Putin has pulverized the world order and crossed the Potomac, not because of asset dominance or strategic brilliance, but because of our default.  A Russian analyst wrote that the Putin system today is “the most dangerous threat to civilization. More dangerous than aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, and more immediate than totalitarian China” because Russia metastasizes into the fault lines that all democracies suffer from. Putin overcomes Russia’s glaring weaknesses by exploiting our very essence. His arsenal is our open society, pluralism, debate, freedom of choice and government accountability. For him they are pathologies that invite what the late Prof. Robert Conquest labeled “slaughter of the mind.” They “allow us to reconstruct the enemy’s [America’s] psychic condition,” said Rear Admiral Vladimir Pirumov in Informationnoe Protivoborstvo.  In the film, The World Order–2018, Putin boasted: “The American system is demonstrating its inefficiency and cannibalizing itself.”  It’s Orwellian.  Why occupy real estate when occupation of the psycho-sphere provides such a greater return? That includes our too often self-denial of Russia’s vivisection of our society and very being as a nation.  We ratify Leon Trotsky’s aphorism: “You may not be interested in the war, but the war is interested in you.”

How can the Kremlin play the very card of dissension and discord against us, supremely aware of its own crippling vulnerabilities?  Because Fiona Hill’s conclusion in her book about Putin that he is “unable to understand the mindset of Americans and Europeans and their political dynamics” is demonstrably, categorically wrong. The Kremlin has been refining its assessment of our psychological profile for generations, and now plays the recidivism of our national psyche. Our failure in self-assessment, our ingenuousness, our lack of strategic instinct, our ignorance of history that then immunizes against the lessons of our own experience, have coalesced. They license  Russia to play a massively weak hand with stunningly opposite results.

Putin sees America’s 1980’s abandonment of containment’s response-only straitjacket as the apostasy that it was.  Furthermore,  Putin knows enough not to engage in a full-blown arms race that bankrupted the Soviet system. Hence his “war by other means.”  On that battlefield he knows that our inability–or unwillingness–to exploit Russia’s own fault lines is our one vulnerability that compensates for his many. He broadcasts his self-assurance by accusing us, now for years, of pursuing the very goal that we do not.  Hugely concerned as he is about his vulnerabilities, he is not concerned that his vituperation will spark our epiphany.

Furthermore, we long passed the point of being able to ensure our national interests strictly with nuclear throw weight and military headcount. Indeed, do we understand that we already have suffered two strikes against us precisely when our military superiority was unquestioned?

After WWII America was unscathed, pre-eminent globally on all fronts.  We had The Bomb. The Soviet Union was prostrate.  By the early 1980’s, our global security posture deteriorated massively, enamored as we were of “peaceful co-existence” and “detente.”  We not only lost our strategic superiority but in some areas our situation was grim. How could we have ever allowed such a stunning reversal? Weren’t we containing the Soviet Union?

After the disintegration of the USSR, though not nearly as paramount as after WWII our global security posture nevertheless appeared assured. A generation after “we won the Cold War, didn’t we?” America and the democratic West are approaching a dire state. Again, how could we have allowed such a reversal? What if in either case it had been the Kremlin that wielded the military and economic supremacy?

And do we understand the consequences of reputational catastrophe? Our fecklessness in dealing with Russia has not only validated and encouraged its own marauding, but has transfused contempt into tyrants worldwide. We have become a force multiplier for Pyongyang, Damascus, Beijing, Teheran, and Caracas.  Our hectoring Ukraine to surrender the world’s third nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for “security assurances” has had disastrous results. With uncommon adroitness, Korea’s “rocket man” has scampered up the learning curve, alternating the lead with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani.

And how do we undercut “terrorism”?  Russia organized and ruled the USSR as the quintessential terrorist state. Putin celebrates it. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Moscow institutionalized the indoctrination, training and funding for Middle East terrorism, spun as “Arab nationalism.”  What do we think Osama bin Laden’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was doing in Russia for six months in 1997? This was in Dagestan, the same region that was the springboard for the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston Bombing infamy.  Zawahiri later helped bin Laden plan 9/11.  Who supports, funds, arms ISIS, the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah? Why aren’t Russian embassies attacked?

Recoupment of our military capacity, alone, is of little moment when Putin kneads our brain into an “altered consciousness.”  We succumb to “reflexive control” that our open society cannot identify, much less counter.  Most recently it is precisely our instinct for military response that Russia seeks to judo against us in the Persian Gulf.

Has no one absorbed Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics, co-authored with General Nikolai Klokotov of the General Staff Academy: “It is particularly important to introduce geopolitical disorder into America’s internal activity, and to promote all kinds of separatist and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all opposition movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thereby disrupting internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics….”  Russia should also work to isolate Britain from Europe, introduce discord both within the EU and between the EU and US, and destabilize Turkey. An independent Ukraine, as the catalyst for change in Russia, “represents an enormous danger.” And Iran is to be a key player in a Russian-Islamic alliance against America. (The blueprint was written in 1997, at the time that Washington was lobbying for Russia’s inclusion in the G7.)

Whether directly or through Yemen’s Houthi rebels as its proxy, Teheran’s responsibility for the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities facially seems clear.  But ultimately it is Russia’s collaboration–perhaps puppeteering–that stalks in the background. Putin’s typical probing pattern is evident. First, the May 12 Fujairah attacks, then two days later the attack on Saudi Arabia’s East-West Pipeline, then the June 12 attack on two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. (MI6 is reported as investigating false GPS coordinates provided by Russia to a British oil tanker to steer it into Iranian waters.) Then the June 20 shootdown of a U.S. drone.  Classic provokatsia and maskirovka–war will increase the price of oil, replenishing Kremlin’s coffers.

Two days after the latest attack, Putin offered Russian weaponry to Saudi Arabia to protect against future attacks—it would be a “wise government move.” And to complete the hologram, Russian Energy Minister Novak intoned that Russia would have to re-evaluate security at their own oil facilities. Transparent? Certainly.  Effective?  Paradoxically, even more certainly.

“Paradoxically” because of our stalwart guilelessness. A 2008 NYTimes Op-Ed concluded, “Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia.”  Eleven years later, DOD’s white paper Russian Strategic Intentions stunningly recommends that Washington and Moscow “work together to corral the others who are now making dangerous progress with intermediate and other—including long-range—weapons.”  Who is behind “the others”?  Endless arms control agreements with Washington and the Soviet Union “working together” are precisely what allowed the Soviet Union to outstrip our strategic supremacy in so many areas . . . as we were “containing” it.

Mere “containment” of Russia is thus a siren call, the bureaucratic verbalization of a policy of drift. As before, it condemns us to responding, reacting, ricocheting from crisis to another . . . endlessly.  With not even the reward, we remain Pavlovian. . . and we are losing, in the process stoking Putin’s contempt.  Our altered state of mind leads to hand-wringing bewilderment as we learn of Russian targeting California and Texas as secessionist states, a twist on Vyacheslav Molotov’s call to reclaim Alaska as “historically Russian land.”  It encourages Russian offers of para-military training to the Charlottesville far right, and Russian spies posing as ISIS threatening to kill US military families or intimidating the families of NATO pilots.

Why should we continue to abdicate the initiative to Moscow (or its designees of North Korea, Iran, Syria and Venezuela), and to its selection of time, place and concatenation of circumstance?  Why are we content playing catch-up?  Moreover, this is in the face of  constantly evolving dezinformatsia, maskirovka, kompromat, agitatsia, and provokatsia. In turn, our own legal and regulatory structure makes timely neutralization of Russia’s assault essentially impossible.

 And how long is this to continue? To what ultimate end?  Dare we think anything can be redeemed? In November 2014, I warned that if American “policy” toward the Kremlin was not fundamentally revised, we could soon be confronted by another Cuban missile crisis, whatever the geography. In February of this year Putin openly threatened precisely that. This, on the heels of last December’s deployment of nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, as well as troops and military hardware. And Russian warships have anchored in Havana. Small wonder that the late Walter Lippmann  called containment a “strategic monstrosity.”

In 2008, General Rupert Smith wrote,  “If your opponent has found a way to negate your industrial and technological advantage, and for whatever reason you are unable or unwilling to change your own parameters so as to regain the advantage, then you must fight on the battlefield he has set and on his terms. Russia defined the battlefield years ago:  “The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures, applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.”

We must address Russia on that same battlefield, and target Russia in all spheres, through all avenues and utilizing all modalities.  Some–sanctions and recent cyber operations–are already in play but are reactive, only, are ineffective, are dissipating quickly and must be radically strengthened. After four full years of sanctions Russia’s GNP grew 1.5%, more than Germany (1.1%), Italy (0.7%) and France (1.4%).  Germany’s investment in Russia is at a 10 year high, and French/Russia trade increased last year by 11%. The Russian market is up 21%, back to pre-sanction levels, and its sovereign debt is oversold. And not a single major Russian bank has been sanctioned after more than half a decade. How does that compare with sanctions against Iran?  Putin knows that Russia’s money in our financial institutions is secure.  What does that say about us?

Just as Putin exploits America’s very essence, we must exploit Russia’s. Its essence, however, has been studiously ignored–the very size and constitution of one seventh of the earth’s landmass. In the 1890’s, the Russian General Staff conducted a study of Russia’s military campaigns between 1700 and 1870.  Russia fought 38 wars.  Only two were defensive. One of its regions, Kolyma, is the size of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan (combined) or, if you prefer, larger than France, Spain, Japan, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Greece, Sweden and North Korea (also combined).

Today, the renamed “Russian Federation” is anything but.  Its fault-lines as a multi-national empire are its non-Russian republics and multiple other federal regions. Consistent with its stratospheric ambition of reversing the international order, the Kremlin’s imperial ambition is cosmic:  “All people should become Russian and Russian above all else, because the Russian national idea is universal,” was Dostoevsky’s prescription. Small wonder that protests are rising in the non-Russian republics against rampant russification, forced assimilation and crushing centralization. They join with rising anger over economic exploitation, including Moscow’s usurpation of mineral and hydrocarbon resources, and “taxation without representation.” The phantom of “separatism” wrought by Russia’s alchemy in Ukraine is beginning to boomerang, and a bona fide populist/anti-establishment identification with “separatism” is being voiced by the non-Russian nations.

  • Nations such as Tatarstan that feed the input end of Nord Stream 2 are protesting against their economic exploitation by Moscow and the ensuing ecological destruction.
  • At a public rally earlier this year the President of Yakutia openly declared that nation should become master of its land and no longer allow Russia or others to command them.
  • A group in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, appeals to Finland, their fellow Finno-Ugric nation, for help in alleviating economic disasters.
  • Soon two years ago, on the anniversary of the Russian sacking of Kazan, representatives of the peoples of the Middle Volga–“Idel-Ural”–create a coordinating committee to fight Putin’s language and nationalities policies.  “An enormous region, Idel-Ural . . . unites the nations [that] sit astride all Russian communication and transportation links between European Russia and Siberia.”
  • Last year, “Free Idel-Ural,” an organization aimed at restoring the “real sovereignty” of the Idel-Ural (Volga region) republics, picketed Russia’s diplomatic missions picketed the diplomatic missions in various European countries.
  • Seeing themselves as another United States or Canada, Siberians declared the independence of the Siberian Democratic Republic on July 4, 1918. With a flag that resembles ours, excepting snowflakes instead of stars, the call today is clear: “[A]fter the inevitable fall of the Kremlin imperial regime, the Siberian people will again have to decide everything independently, as it already began to determine its fate in 1918.”

Though the non-Russian nations present an obvious focus, the deep and growing estrangement from the center by Russians themselves make regionalism a powerful factor as well.  Russians on the periphery are increasingly alienated, viewing the center as an occupying power: “there are first-class people [in Moscow] and second-class people [everywhere else]. That is a colonial policy.” A Russian commentator emphasized that “regionalism does not take anything away from Russians . . . but rather it gives them something critically important – the possibility of being masters of their own land rather than remaining subjects of empire.”  A website,, says it all. Importantly, regions are beginning to communicate and coordinate their grievances.

Fifteen years ago Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov declared that the goal of unnamed foreign forces  “is the destruction of Russia and the filling of its huge area with numerous dysfunctional quasi-state formations.” Russia again excoriated the West and the US for alleged shadowy machinations during the Arab Spring, and “colored revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. Repeating the point made earlier, Moscow has divined our psyche sufficiently to be comfortable with the accusation and not risk its realization by us.  Exactly a year after Surkov, Russia itself acted with that very goal, implementing those very methods in Ukraine, and then in Europe and the U.S–and is upping the assault. We should act on the accusation, and adopt precisely the offensive goal that we purportedly have been presciently implementing for so many years.

As China looms, we dare not countenance containment’s strategic aphasia concerning Russia.  Continuing to outsource Orwell’s “reality control” to the Kremlin is felonious.  Minimally, a true federalization of Moscow’s  empire would itself offer significant assurance of our national security. Without rediscovering our resolve, shedding our asceticism, and undertaking an affirmative, offensive posture toward Russia we will not survive strike three. We must apply Dugin in reverse.

Victor Rud

Past Chairman, Ukrainian American

     Bar Association

Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs

September 2019