Ukraine, Belarus, and the bogeyman of the West: the triggering of perpetual crisis as a sign of Russia’s internal weakness.
“A country that has been great does not easily give up its imperial dreams. […] The truth is that power does not change its nature and there is always a new master behind the door ready to enter. He doesn’t knock, he doesn’t ask for permission. He breaks through and breaks in.”
(Demetrio Volcic, in an interview for the italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, 2015)
Welcome back to Unpredicatablepast.com,
Months ago, specifically on May 12, I published an article that concerned the crisis on the border between Ukraine and the Occupied Territories backed by the Russian Federation (commonly known as ORDLO). Those days, we are there once again: with the same premises, uncontrolled rumors, accusations, threats and the fear that this time all hell may break loose. We have roughly the same situation in front of us: ground troop movements, list of possible targets provided by intelligence, counts of forces on respective fields, and perhaps some kind of more serious provocation. Several reports, such as that of Politico, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Mirror, Bellingcat and the Insider once again showed the (very little) secret movements of Russian regular troops and mercenaries on the Ukrainian border. If last time there seemed to be a target in the Crimean Canal, this time the threat seems more generalized to an elusive intervention in the event of a violent escalation in the Donbass region. Then, as months ago, probably nothing.
When asked “why?” there are two answers, one more obvious and the other less so.
The clear answer is the one we have had under our eyes in recent years, first from the events in Maidan Square, and then from the Belarusian crisis, but also on other less mainstream occasions (Georgia, Central Asia, Caucasus) and which sinks its roots at the end of the Cold War. Since then, the Russian Federation has tried in every way to regain its “status” as a lost superpower, including, initially, trying to share the role with the United States, rather than counteract them, but over the years, events have taken completely different fold, becoming the situation we face.
Exactly as I wrote last time, I still find the hypothesis of a violent escalation very unlikely, and the reasons are exactly the same, summarized as “Russia cannot afford it“. In spite of the manifest aggression, it is possible to note how the Kremlin’s targets are always carefully selected to prevent the situation from degenerating: just as the top officials of both government and army know they cannot stand a confrontation with the West, on this side of the fence no one would even think of going beyond words, as in the 1930s, no one is going to “Die for Crimea“. As in May, a meeting was held between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, who officially, like last time, discussed the same problem, and repeated barely the same things (except one sentence, apparently insignificant, but revealing in this case). Even threats from authoritative personalities like Lavrov and Stoltenberg now sound hollow and only good for cameras.
So why are we talking about it?
This is the less obvious answer I was talking about in the beginning. Some more, some less, noticed that the international situation has changed: on the sly, as always, since generally the most relevant events are always a result of others that undeservedly receive less attention. Those who follow me already know that I have often talked about how the Russian Federation has waged an image war against the United States, which until recently have responded in kind; but, especially in the last year, the implementation phase of that “low profile” policy that the White House began to plan at the end of the Bush administration and the turbulent period of the early 2000s has begun: it surely deserves a serious study, but for now, we can deal with what is happening.
In recent months, we have heard abundantly about the “Failure of the West”, but are we really sure? As for now, in fact, the leaders of the FR are those that really feeling that the earth is slipping under their feet: the American “enemy” has turned attention and new strategies to counter its real competitor in the geopolitical field, I am obviously talking about the People’s Republic of China. All American initiatives seem to be aimed at transforming “hard power” into “soft power”, and it is a field on which Russia simply has few tools to compete. True, it has managed to create divisions and friction within the EU, through a skilful use of propaganda and psychological warfare, which has also affected the United States, but when it comes to concrete, all these efforts vanish like smoke. Thanks to the SARS-COV2 pandemic, the West has reunited and has set in motion its economic machine to face the emergency, and in this field there is no propaganda that holds, although the problems have certainly not disappeared.
Never before has the attention paid to Russia as an “enemy” or “alternative model” been so low as in this period, and the Kremlin knows this well. The complete failure of the “vaccine geopolitics” strategy to be implemented through Sputnik V, the clumsy attempt to foment a border crisis between the European Union and Belarus through the conniving Lukashenko government on the one hand and the populist-conservative Polish one on the other, and finally, above all, with the question of the change of power in Afghanistan, which in other times Moscow would have taken advantage of hands down to put the United States in a bad light.
About this, Michael Wasiura, in one of his articles for the IMR that I invite you to read carefully, entitled “The ballot, not the bullet: Russia’s pursuit of a geopolitical buffer zone“, explains very well how Russia is also desperately aiming for a change of strategy: in short, it would be a question of creating, or maintaining, in a series of key states, political regimes similar to the Russian one, as, so to say, the belarusian one. An evident poor strategy in my opinion. Of course, this does not mean it will be without consequences, just think of the question of energy supplies, but not so incisive as to create for Russia that “role” that it so desperately continues to seek, and that I strongly doubt that anyone would be able to sell itself well politically, given the background that has been committed to building in the past decades, and that as time passes it begins to tighten like a noose around the neck of its creators.
Faced with economic power, Russia is out of the game: just as it loses ground in Asia to China, sooner or later it will also lose its grip on Europe’s borders. The countries on which it tries to build a sort of “wall” to stem its competitors need to rebuild and/or reshape their disastrous economies, which certainly will not recover thanks to the Army of the Russian Federation or its propaganda machine (look at Moldova or Georgia, just to have an example). Even the supremacy in the worldwide export of raw materials, which for a certain period had become the winning weapon of the “New Russia”, is seriously compromised, unless you want to transform the country into a huge open pit mine for use and consumption of the PRC.
At this very moment, probably, in the rooms of the Kremlin the discussion is about which tree is best to hang. At the expense of everything, it is inevitable that in Moscow they feel the earth is missing under their feet: the mythology of the Cold War is something that was developed without looking into the long term, a long term in which the most dangerous enemy was your “ally” and your most precious ally could turn out to be just that “enemy” so reviled in public.
Obviously, everything is not to be underestimated at all. Despite the previous considerations, the situation has become a Gordian knot that will certainly not melt so easily, and, the more time passes, the more the mechanism becomes complex to maneuver, and the risk that something gets out of hand is fleeting, but there is. Moreover, the lack, perceived or real, of an alternative to the current state of affairs for the country is another problem that cannot be underestimated: Vladimir Putin did everything to not be like his predecessor Yeltsin, and he succeeded, but now, unlike him, he cannot simply walk away and leave everything in the hands of a “stranger”, even if he were a high-profile member of his entourage, given that the image of a Russia closely linked to the its President and the commitment to ensure that every ganglion of the state machine ends up being managed by the executive have created a situation that we could define with the words attributed to Madame Pompadour, lover of Louis XV of France: “Après nous, le deluge”, took in a much more pragmatic and less fatalistic sense.
Finally, here the talks that Vladimir Putin is having in these days come into play: both those with the West and those with the East (China, but, pay close attention, not only). It is clear that the issue is much broader than it appears, and that the “turmoil” on the borders of Europe is only a symptom. Despite Biden’s “strange phrase” that recognized Russia as a Great Power, it is actually evident that the country finds itself walking on a suspended thread, with the two real powers trying to pull it to one side or the other. Over the past few decades, Russia has pretended that the future did not exist, rebuilding itself around an idea of the past that never existed. Now the future has arrived and the time will soon come to choose where to go, in any case a painful choice, as it will end up deciding who will be the real “Enemy at the Gates” of the country.
For now, that’s all, take this writing as a reminder, and, as usual, for any question you have I’m avaible to answer.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Demetrio “Dimitrij” Volčič (1931 – 2021). He spent most of his life trying to tell the world beyond the Iron Curtain, whether it was the USSR or Yugoslavia, with professionalism and empathy rare to find today. We just need to continue his work, in our own way but taking it as an example to use the best of our ability and efforts, now that a new era appears before us. Thank you very much, for everything.