Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its subsequent military invasion of the Donbas sent shockwaves through NATO, bringing an end to the idea of strategic partnership with Russia. Moscow’s confrontational posture is unlikely to end quickly. The coming decade will be a very dangerous one, and Russia will likely continue to escalate and further militarise its foreign policy.
Three main factors support this prognosis. First, Russia has learned from previous wars that aggression pays off. Second, the unstable domestic situation in Russia means foreign policy success is seen as a tool to foster societal and elite cohesion. Third, although NATO has begun to strengthen its eastern borders, rearmament and retraining in the West will take time. Meanwhile, the modernisation of Russia’s military is continuing despite the country’s economic troubles, providing Russia with opportunities to exploit Western weaknesses and indecisiveness.
Lessons learned from previous wars
Moscow and the West learned very different political lessons from previous military conflicts. In the West, analysts emphasise Russian military shortcomings and its failure to achieve war aims beyond controlled instability. But in Russia, past military campaigns are generally regarded as political successes.
The war in Georgia displayed deficiencies in Russia’s military apparatus: its clumsiness and weak inter-service coordination prevented it from achieving ambitious political goals like regime change in Tbilisi. But Moscow achieved other goals. Most importantly, it “stopped NATO enlargement”: any practical discussion of Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership was postponed indefinitely. Second, the war sent shockwaves to Kyiv, reinforcing the domestic troubles of the post-Orange Revolution government. Kyiv’s insecurity was dramatically increased by the knowledge that Russia was serious about military aggression and that NATO would offer no tangible protection. As Moscow saw it, this insecurity was instrumental in securing a smooth transition to Viktor Yanukovych’s rule in 2009/2010. Third, Russia successfully deceived the West. The war was conducted during the administration of a lame duck United States president, while the US, Russia’s “main adversary”, was militarily overextended in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Because Moscow had overestimated the US’s direct interest in Georgia, Washington’s slow reaction was overestimated in Moscow’s defence circles as a success of Russian deterrence.
The Europeans, meanwhile, were fooled by the selective implementation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ceasefire plan and hence de facto accepted Russia’s conquests. The EU-Russia Modernisation Partnership was not affected by these developments, so the Kremlin believed that Europe would never endanger its business ties with Russia for the sake of the post-Soviet periphery. And the Georgian war was a considerable success for the Russian propaganda machine. Russia implanted its version of the conflict – that the war started with Georgian “aggression” against South Ossetia – into the mindset of European politicians and policymakers.
The Kremlin views its intervention in the Syrian war as a success too. The West regards Russia’s intervention as a limited operation contributing nothing to the defeat of the Islamic State and producing only an unstable ceasefire on other fronts, but from Moscow’s perspective, it achieved its aims. The war broke the Kremlin’s international isolation after its actions in Ukraine. It forced the West, and particularly the US, to negotiate with Russia on “equal terms”, boosting Russia’s prestige beyond its actual capabilities and power. Russia successfully prevented regime change in Syria, and its retraining and re-equipping of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces make the Syrian leader’s overthrow unlikely. And by withdrawing immediately after achieving Russia’s diplomatic goals, President Vladimir Putin signalled to the West that he would neither be trapped in a Syrian quagmire nor need US support for a withdrawal.
Western and Russian assessments of Moscow’s military endeavours differ even more on Ukraine. In the West, Russia’s war is regarded as a colossal failure. It ended in diplomatic isolation and deep economic troubles at home, and it guaranteed the permanent loss of Ukraine. But for Moscow, the final verdict on the war is still out. It considers Ukraine a failed state that will collapse if pushed further. This explains Russia’s unwillingness to implement the Minsk agreement or freeze the conflict in Donbas. The Kremlin still believes it can gain from Ukraine’s collapse, regaining a major role in Ukrainian politics once the current government is removed. It regards the annexation of Crimea as a success and, for some, even as a turning point in Russian history: Russia is expanding again.
The Kremlin perceives its military operations as largely successful. Key Western governments failed to predict Russian military decisions and to understand the Kremlin’s intentions and risk assessments. This inability to predict Russian actions will embolden the Kremlin to look for and exploit further weaknesses and blind spots in Western policy.
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