Post-Soviet Period: Changing Perception of ‘Power’ in Contemporary Russia

The Soviet Union did utilize coercive diplomacy, especially after the Second World War. There was a number of its military interventions into ‘satellite countries’, where the Soviet army was sent to crush oppositional political and popular movements (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968). The system of institutions for the regulation of global security during the Cold War was subordinated to the UN Security Council at the top of the pyramid. Within the framework of the UN Security Council, as well as by bilateral US-Soviet diplomatic dialogue, many conflicts were settled and mutual interests respected. Starting from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, this system effectively guaranteed that any conflict between Washington and Moscow would be managed ‘in a civilized way’, that is, avoiding deadly military confrontation. The weak element of the system was that it allowed and even encouraged US-Soviet ‘proxy wars’ as well as a nuclear and conventional arms race.

This system was destroyed in the early 1990s without significant opposition from Moscow. It was followed by a transition period (1992-1999). NATO’s War against Yugoslavia in March 1999 sent a clear message to Moscow that it is a new post-USSR era arrived, in which the USA had a monopoly on coercive diplomacy in any region of the world. The bombing of a sovereign state’s capital at the centre of Europe was an attempt of the US-led unipolar world to confirm its monopoly on coercion across borders of sovereign states.

Despite the formidable military power of the USSR, its diplomacy had no real experience in using coercive diplomacy. There were almost no examples of successful Soviet interventions abroad (Afghanistan, multiple examples of missions of Soviet military advisors to North Korea, Vietnam, and African states). In all cases, the long-term consequences of Soviet military engagements abroad did not bring sustainable results favourable to the Soviet Union, even if immediate military outcomes of interference looked victorious.

Not long after the shock to the structure of the international security system from the bombing of Yugoslavia in spring 1999 the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the USA turned around the ‘unipolar moment’, opening a way to real and effective multipolarity. Full understanding of the global dimension of these terrorist attacks and the need for international dialogue to deal with newly emerged threats did not occur instantaneously. Still, already during his Presidential campaign of 2008, future US President Barack Obama recognized that to deal with the rapidly changing threats to international security, the USA and its allies needed to establish a new set of international institutions. Since then the major powers of the world have been invited to discuss this challenge.

The Russian Federation sees itself as a great power rising after two decades of military and economic decline. That is why Moscow’s principal goal in the international arena is to consolidate its great power potential inherited from the USSR. The strategy ofrapprochement with the USA to establish collaborative relations with the only superpower and with US-dominated alliances (NATO, Western European Union), failed dramatically. Growing Kremlin irritation with the George W. Bush administration’s unilateralism reached its peak in November-December 2004 during the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Since then Russian leaders have intensively opposed the West’s export of democracy to post-Soviet countries as the key threat to regional security. In addition, the Iraq War, which was launched in March 2003, had already demonstrated the crisis of the existing Euro-Atlantic structures. Moscow found itself in a group of strong opponents of US unilateralism together with Berlin and Paris. The most typical examples of Russian coercive diplomacy could be found in recent events in Ukraine and Syria. They represent the culmination of Russian coercive diplomacy that began well before the intervention in South Ossetia in August 2008. Earlier example of coercive diplomacy can be found inside Russia, in the response to events in Chechnya in 1999-2001. In the late 1990s, the majority of Russian and foreign experts considered the Chechen problem as unresolvable. ‘The Chechen Curse’ was threatening the territorial integrity of Russia and even its very existence. At that time Russian leaders discovered a combination of diplomatic and military practices for the settlement of the conflict. Western leaders reacted only to the negative news coming from Chechnya, they ‘were disturbed by information about human rights violations in Chechnya, casualties among the civilian population, and the prevention of international observers and independent media from being able to follow the situation’ (Zaslavskaya 2011, p. 279). However, the combination of diplomatic and military practices used in Chechnya established a few years later a unique and successful model of coercive diplomacy. We argue that Russia repeated the same pattern later, in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, Syria, and currently in Turkey. Of course, there were modifications from the original ‘Chechen Model’, but it was only due to the peculiarities of international relations compared to domestic politics. There are five key elements in this model:

First: the demonstration of superior military power and limited military victory. For the Kremlin the key verifier that a conflict is over on favourable terms is the re-establishment of territorial control and the partial military defeat of the adversary. ‘Territorial control’ and ‘military defeat’ may sound like terms from previous centuries, but the Chechen case took these patterns back to day-to-day realties. ‘Control’ and ‘defeat’, both partial, not total, are key elements of coercive diplomacy as well as of conflict management. The model also includes finding at the beginning of a conflict’s ‘military’ stage a politician in the enemy’s camp, who is ready to start negotiations with Kremlin. This role was performed in autumn 1999 by Akhmat Kadyrov, the Mufti of Chechnya and one of the leaders of the anti-Russia opposition. His motivation was obvious for the local public: to avoid further casualties among the military and civilian population, even if Chechen radicals called him a ‘traitor’. The Chechen example shows that it is possible to present military defeat not as ‘total’ but just as ‘partial’, as the failure of small group of ‘radicals’ to find common ground with legitimate authorities, to demonstrate military power and to find a partner for dialogue in the opponent’s camp.

Second: the rejection of the celebration of ‘victory ’ over the defeated enemy. According to traditions of the twentieth century, total war needs total victory (Hobsbaum 2002, p. 31). Contemporary Russian coercive diplomacy rejects that view. There were no ‘unconditional surrender declarations’, ‘victory celebrations’, ‘victory parades’, and widespread ‘awarding of heroes’. This has been Russia’s political innovation. There are no doubts that the Russian army defeated international terrorists and local radicals in Chechnya. However, neither army nor society celebrated that victory. Military and political deprivations of Ukrainian army’s units in

Crimea (February-March 2014) were broadcast live by international TV channels and web cameras of civil activists all around the world. Even Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, who have never demonstrated any signs of sympathy for Russian foreign policy, had to admit in The Washington Post that the operation of Russian Air Force Units in Syria was a humiliation for the USA: ‘ we should never have gotten to a place where the Russians are warning us to stay out of their way’ (Rice 2015). However, Russia did not celebrate this victory. Such policy leads to rapid de-escalation of conflict, open way for its peaceful settlement.

Third: the readiness to consider ‘transitional deals’ as inherently valued, and in some cases as optimal for keeping a favourable status quo. Experts like to ask rhetorical question: ‘How can Vladimir Putin, with a sinking economy and a second-rate military, continually dictate the course of geopolitical events?’ (Rice and Gates 2015). For a proper answer we should study how the Russian leadership has concentrated diplomatic efforts and military resources available in one place and at one time. This is a risky policy, but if everything is done professionally, it may bring positive results. It is because of the risky nature of coercive diplomacy, Russian leaders prefer ‘transitional deals’, and in almost all of the cases President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in negotiations: the Minsk negotiations concerning Ukraine on August 26, 2014 and February 12, 2015; talks on Syria with US President Barack Obama in New York on September 29, 2015; negotiations with Turkish President Recep Erdogan in Saint Petersburg on August 9, 2016. Agreements at these negotiations could be considered as ‘transitional’. Still, it was as much as Russia could get at the moment of negotiations. So, the key leitmotiv of Russian coercive diplomacy is: ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’.

Fourth: the personal involvement of President Vladimir Putin in decision-making and management of coercive diplomacy. In a recent documentary film ‘Crimea: The Way Back Home’, which was based on a long interview by Vladimir Putin about the Crimean crisis in February-March 2014, he explained in detail why his personal involvement in all stages of the conflict was a crucial precondition for its success. From his point of view involvement of the highest official (the First Person) was a powerful signal to everybody involved in the operation that it was not his or her personal risk, but the political will of Russia and all available resources would be employed. With ‘blessing’ from the president, ministers have not been afraid to act decisively, and ordinary performers of these giant operation knew that Russian authorities would not change their mind in the process, and not cheat.

Fifth, and the most important: already at the initial stage of a conflict Russian leaders can formulate explicitly what they want as its final result. In using coercive diplomacy Russian leaders have learned how to formulate its ‘simple aims’ in a realistic way. After securing ‘simple aims’, more ambitious plans for Moscow’s coercive diplomacy come almost automatically. Still, achievement and preservation of ‘simple aims’ is the most important objective for a conflict. In Syria, the aim is to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and to stop the epidemic of ‘the Arab Spring’. In Ukraine, Russia is looking for a neutral status of this country as well as for leaders who will be supportive of the strategic interests of Russia and independent from US pressure. Russia’s aims could be formulated in an even more dramatic way: it is searching for anybody in Kiev, who will be ‘handshakeable’, that is, for a self-sufficient partner. As soon as the simple aims of the Kremlin are achieved, Russia will find resources to develop a political and security dialogue with Kiev and restart economic and trade relations.

As an instrument of coercive diplomacy, Russia concedes the possibility of limited military conflicts. From the political perspective, losing a military conflict may have dangerous ramifications for a leader, who insisted on the transformation of a diplomatic conflict into a military one (Bueno de Mesquita 1995). In reality, only a few risk-taking politicians are likely to make that choice. However, there are two requirements for successful ‘coercive diplomacy’ - the vast majority of population should support it and the risk of failure should be moderate. These two conditions were met in August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and later, in 2014-2016, in Crimea and Syria.

For almost three quarters of a century, the USSR and today the Russian Federation have had a dream that the USA, as the master-builder of global security, will take seriously into considerations Soviet/Russian national interests. The bombing campaign in Yugoslavia and two US-inspired coups d’etat in Ukraine (2004 and 2014) clearly demonstrated to the Kremlin that Washington openly ignored Russian security interests. We may guess that in late 2004 Kremlin leaders made a crucial decision: conflict with the USA in the post-Soviet area is unavoidable and Russia should be ready for it. Even more important, Russia needs indirect conflict with the USA (proxy war) to demonstrate its power in the post-Soviet area. If the conflict is in this area, Russia has favourable environment for coercion.

In the ‘CIS area’ the Kremlin may project its power (economic, military, soft power) in the most efficient way. On the other hand, the resources of US diplomacy in the region are rather limited and their use is associated with significant risks and costs. So, the Kremlin’s decision to be ready for confrontation with Washington was perfectly logical; that is why coercive diplomacy has been pursued by Moscow since 2004.

Today, in the CIS as the region of Russia’s ‘privileged interests’, its diplomats do not think about ‘face saving’ for the USA in those conflicts where the two countries are the key stakeholders, as in Ukraine and Georgia. Previous Russian attempts to assist ‘American partners’ in ‘saving face’ are now considered as irrelevant to new conflicts between two nations. Russia did provide diplomatic assistance to Washington at the final stage of military operations in Yugoslavia (June 1999), as well as in September 2013, when Barack Obama badly needed an excuse for nonintervention in Syria after remarks about drawing ‘red lines’, which Bashar al-Assad had crossed by using chemical weapons. The motto of the Russian diplomatic service today is: ‘never again’, no more assistance to Washington in difficult situations. Instead of ‘face saving’ for US diplomacy in Ukraine, Russian leaders are looking for a humiliating ‘defeat’ of US ventures in Tbilisi and Kiev. For Russian leaders these conflicts should continue until new ‘rules of the game’ for Europe and Eurasia have been formalized. Russia utilizes coercive diplomacy in Ukraine and Syria today in the attempt to force US diplomats to sit down at the negotiation table and start equal dialogue. Nowadays the Kremlin is ready to wait as long as it takes to get positive results, probably for years. Public opinion in the country generally supports this stance.

The distinctive features of Russia’s coercive diplomacy today include its complex nature, that is, concentration not just on threats and occasional military operations (Georgia, Crimea, Syria), but on a broader set of actions, including sales of the most advanced weaponry to opponents of Washington (Iran, Venezuela), financial assistance (member-states of the Eurasian Economic Union), the opening of domestic markets for friends (Serbia, Vietnam), and their closing for opponents (the EU, the USA);

Generous utilization of public diplomacy instruments for engaging foreign citizens in dialogue along lines of Russia’s interests is another aspect of the policy, as is respect for sovereignty as the highest value in international arena, which was typical for previous historical periods and is returning to the centre of interstate relations at the insistence of Russia and China.

Ignoring the rights and interests of small states, which Moscow considers as semi-sovereign, (e.g. small states in Central and Eastern Europe, which are members of NATO) is also a part of the policy, as is maintaining the status quo in the post-Soviet area and neighbouring regions of the world as the most enabling environment for contemporary Russia.

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