Mine Own Worst Enemy is Myself: A Commentary on Russia’s Foreign Policy

by Stephen Bryen

As this is written Russia is gearing up its Vostok 2018 military exercise, a massive show of strength taking place in Russia’s far east. In parallel, Russia is hosting the 4th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Many dignitaries will attend, and Russian President Putin has been busy lining up bilateral meetings with, among others President Xi of China and Prime Minister Abe of Japan.

Russian President Putin and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe

The Abe meetings are especially interesting because they come about in a “difficult” environment vis-à-vis Russo-Japanese relations. The sticking point is over what Japan calls its Northern Territories, and what everyone else calls the Kuril Islands. At the end of World War II, as agree at the Yalta summit of the Allies Russia was awarded the Kuril islands. This was just at the moment Japan was surrendering, but before Japan put in place a formal surrender deal. Taking advantage of a fluid situation and Stalin’s suspicion that the Americans would not grant the Kuril concession, Russian forces hurriedly implemented an invasion force to take control of the key inhabited island. Some Japanese felt it was preferable to surrender to the Russians rather than the Americans, but this was not what motivated the Japanese forces in the Kurils, who put up a strong fight and likely would have defeated the Russian force leading the attack were it not for Tokyo calling their Kuril forces off and demanding they immediately surrender to the Russians. This they did, reluctantly. Russia took control of the island chain and even demanded more from Washington, but this is what they got. In 1946 Russia expelled all the Japanese population of the islands. Today the Kurils are full of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and more recently imported labor. While the economy of the islands is mostly fishing, Russia regards the islands and the sea passages as militarily significant. Thus every time Prime Minister Abe has tried to convince the Russians to make some sort of deal for at least the southern-most islands in the chain, Putin has refused.

So why is Abe so interested in meeting with his Russia’s President? There are different answers to the question, but the most compelling is that Japan needs to counterbalance China and Chinese military power. While Japan has US air, navy and US Marine bases on its main island and at Okinawa, and wants to further strengthen relations with the United States (notwithstanding serious differences on trade issues), Japan is far from sure that the US has the muscle by itself to deal with a rising China. Russia, thusly could (for a price) help protect Japan provided outstanding issues between Russia and Japan are resolved.

What does this mean? It means that Japan probably needs a face saving way to back off its demands over the Northern Territories. Whether Abe can find this remains very much an open question.

While Russia has done some clever things in pursuit of its international objectives, including taking a huge risk in Syria and Ukraine, in other ways Russian policy has been incredibly narrow and self-defeating.

A good example is that as Vostok 2018 gets underway and with it the Eastern Economic Forum, the Russians are running old but lethal Tupolev T-95 bombers off the coast of Alaska, provoking an American Air Force response using F-22s to chase the Russian bombers away. How exactly this helps the Russian cause is hard to see: in fact it is almost as if the Russian military is not only behaving badly but perhaps sending a message as much to Putin as to Trump.

The Russians have been running a policy of provocation for some time –in the Black Sea, in the Baltic, in the English Channel, in the Mediterranean, and off the East and West Coast of the United States. These provocations stay marginally within the rules of engagement (although Russian pilot “hot dogging” has almost led to actual shooting), but it is hard to see what point there is in bringing down the wrath of America and NATO on Russia.

Consider for example the Baltic States. Russia has been running a hostile program against NATO for some time now, most recently in reinforcing the Russian enclave Kaliningrad with threatening missiles. And what has this achieved? It has led to the United States committing far more forces to the Baltic States and Poland in the north, and reinforcing its Black Sea oriented NATO members including Romania and Bulgaria at Russia’s expense. To a degree it also has exposed Russia’s main vulnerability, which is a paucity of assets to bring to any conflict zone, and a military budget that remains far too small to match Russia’s overseas pretensions.

Yet the Russians persist. Why?

Russia has always had a complex about being surrounded by enemies and seems compelled to even invent threats to satisfy its myopia. But that in and of itself is not enough to explain the tactic we see today.

Why for example are the Russians interested in promoting cyber attacks against American and European democratic institutions? There is no Russian party that would benefit from any of this, and tempering with foreign elections only invites tampering with Russia’s opposition and causing the regime trouble. Anyone who understands politics also knows that there are huge risks in tampering with another country’s internal system, and the chance for it to backfire (as it has) causes more harm than any potential benefit. Yet Russian hackers hack away.

The Russians also run around poisoning their opponents with polonium or Novochuk, throwing them out of windows, beating them up or shooting them on the street. How does this help Vladimir Putin gain respect in the world community? Like the hacking, it just raises serious doubts about Russia’s reliability and credibility, which is a big problem if Putin hopes to get some agreed settlement in Ukraine or even in Syria. Worse yet, it makes it clear to foreign leaders there is a big risk in engaging such a tyrant.

During World War II, despite having murdered millions of his own people (and covering up atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers and secret police against POWs and the Polish intelligentsia in the Katyn Forrest massacre in Poland), the West needed Stalin and the Russian army to defeat Hitler. Without them the West would have lost the war or would have had to resort to atomic weapons in Europe to force a conclusion to the fighting. But the result of that was the capture of Eastern Europe by Stalin and the Cold War including the still remaining nuclear power struggle.

These are the sort of decisions one makes where there are not any alternatives. But today there remain choices for the West and in spite of the erosion in NATO and Europe’s attempt to portray itself as a sovereign power (even in the shadow of Brexit), treating with Putin is an option, but not one that is in any sense either guaranteed or even necessary. Thus Russia’s behavior in the world carries against any serious rapprochement, and diminishes the chance for Russia to play a constructive role in the world. It is worth asking, what is Putin thinking? Does he understand he is digging his own hole in the ground?