Moscow still bets on nuclear blackmail and other threats of escalation, believing that at some point it will work. As long as the Western leaders are focused on a need to de-escalate, they are in fact deterring themselves instead of Russia, argues political analyst Mykola Riabchuk. However, as soon as Putin encounters a rival who doesn’t back down, he’s lost. The only way to defeat him is to push him into a corner and prove he’s a little fearful man.
Russian foreign policy adviser Sergei Karaganov often has expressed his hawkish and anti-Western views. Photo Valdai Dicussion Club
by Mykola Riabchuk
The leaked report with a catchy title ‘Problems and Lessons of the Recent History of Domestic Foreign Policy (and Possibilities for Correction)’ did not make international headlines nor was it actively discussed, dismissed or approved in Russia itself. It was prepared allegedly by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy of the National Research University Higher School of Economics at the request of the Russian Presidential Administration,.
One reason for the lack of reactions was probably the document’s doubtful authenticity: shortly after its publication, the report was disqualified by several experts as a hoax, with apparent mistakes, incoherencies and contradictions. Predictably, none of its alleged authors (Sergei Karaganov, Alexander Kramarenko, Fyodor Lukyanov and Dmitry Trenin) confirmed its authenticity – though did not deny it either. It seems the document’s authors (or leakers) were not much interested in its broad promotion: by all indications, it was a test balloon, a targeted signal to a specific audience who can read and properly understand it.
In a country that lives in a virtual world, where all the domestic politics is a hoax and the international politics is unabashed chutzpah, where ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’, as Peter Pomerantsev and famously put it, we should certainly not buy any ‘news’ at face value but also should probably not ignore it, insofar as it may have some real meaning in a broader context.
Breaking with the West and its rules
‘Karaganov’s Report’, as it was dubbed after the name of its most probable author, the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, largely repeats the ideas he expressed prolifically in his earlier articles and interviews, albeit in less radical forms. These ideas essentially have two points: one is a sharp criticism of Russia’s alleged ‘Westernizing’ illusions and erroneous acceptance of international (de facto ‘Western’) rules; the other one, largely derived from the first, castigates Russia’s arguably ‘naïve’ adherence to those rules, in particular to the treaties on disarmament and non-proliferation.
Russia, the document argues, has no chances to compete with the West while playing along the Western rules (disguised as ‘international’), so it should radically break with both the West and the rules, reorient all its policies toward the East and Global South (Global Majority, as they put it), abandon the nonproliferation treaty, make preventive nuclear strikes at Ukraine and its active supporters (Poland, the Baltic states, Germany), and support tacitly nuclear armament of some states, Iran in particular.
With all its radicalism, the Report does not essentially contain anything new – anything that has not been expressed before by Russian officials (Dmitri Medvedev alone may fill all the entries) – with one exception, however: none of them called so far openly for nuclear proliferation, none has been arguing yet that the global spread of nuclear arms would contribute to the much-coveted multipolarity, international stability and erosion of Western dominance. This is probably the main point of the document and the primary goal of the leak: to check the reaction and to upgrade the nuclear blackmail to a new level. ‘If you don’t give up on Ukraine, the Kremlin implies, ‘we’ll not only employ the nukes, we also shall pass them to all the rogue regimes that hate you as much as we do’.
Vice-president of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev is one of the most agressive Russian officals in his verbal attacks against Ukraine and the West. Photo Kremlin
Manipulating Western leaders with nuclear saber-rattling
The good news that comes out from this document is that the Russian authorities still do not dare to articulate the most outrageous ideas openly and hint vaguely at the need to persuade their would-be allies at the Global South that the ‘preventive’ nuclear strikes are justifiable and that non-proliferation regime should be terminated. Moscow’s need to upgrade the nuclear blackmail to a new level is also a positive sign inasmuch as it indicates that the past attempts at blackmail did not work as Moscow expected. The bad news, however, is that Moscow still bets on blackmail with an apparent belief that at some point it will work if they manage to escalate further on.
This belief is not quite groundless insofar as there are many experts and politicians in the West and elsewhere who buy these threats at face value and tend to succumb to them. Moscow has perfectly learned how to manipulate the Western risk-averse leaders with nuclear saber-rattling – ‘deliberately ambiguous in nature and highly choreographed for maximum impact’. ‘With nuclear threats’, an American intelligence expert remarks sarcastically, ‘Putin plays the West like a fiddle’. By means of skillfully calibrated influence operations, he ‘successfully deters the West from scaling up military aid to Ukraine, providing new types of weapons, and fully backing Kyiv’s victory over Moscow’. As long as the Western leaders are focused on a need to de-escalate, they are in fact deterring themselves instead of Russia.
This approach is harmful not only for Ukraine – inasmuch as it protracts an exhaustive war and rises dramatically the costs of Ukraine’s eventual victory. It undermines international order and global security – insofar as other rogue states are tempted to imitate Moscow and use nuclear blackmail for political gains. And implicitly, it sends an encouraging signal to Moscow whose past experience with Western leaders implies that blackmail and bluff work well and that the people who want to be fooled would be fooled.
There are actually two types of arguments that Putin’s critics employ to dismiss his nuclear threats. One is normative, drawing on moral principles (the blackmailer should not be rewarded since it undermines the law and encourages other criminals); the other is practical, drawing on common sense and sober reasoning: Putin is not suicidal, on the contrary, he values his life and health very much (as his erratic behavior during the covid pandemic clearly indicated); he never attacks the rivals who are stronger and more resolute than himself; and even if he runs amok, it is very unlikely that all his subordinates would follow his suicidal orders – if only they know, surely, that there would be immediate and adequate response.
In other words, it is a matter of proper communication: the rogue regimes should not have any doubts that their rogue deeds would evoke tough response and that they would be themselves the primary targets of that reaction. The biggest mistake the politicians can do vis-à-vis a blackmailer is to assure him that there would be little if any response to his banditry – as the US president did in December 2021 when he ruled out publicly any direct support for Ukraine, thereby giving de facto green light to Putin’s invasion.
When the British prime minister made a similar ill-conceived statement, Keir Giles of Chatham House exclaimed bitterly: ‘It is baffling why leaders do this – for all it may be unrealistic to expect US or British troops to arrive to defend Ukraine, advertising this fact to Moscow only provides comfort, confidence, and encouragement to Russia’s planners by instantly removing a wide range of worst-case scenarios from their risk calculus’.
Understanding whom we're dealing with
Putin was lost during Prigozhin's mutiny. Photo from Telegram
Back in March 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion, Roman Kechur, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, aptly described Putin as ‘antisocial psychopath’ – not in terms of medical diagnosis (as a doctor he was not entitled to do it) but in terms of the mental patterns that organize such a psyche. ‘Putin is not subject to rational logic’, Kechur contended.
‘He is guided by emotions. His main affections are envy, anger, and fear... He cannot love anyone, but can only envy, rage and fear. And feel maniac excitement when he has “outplayed everyone”... In order to control others, he uses manipulation. Everything he says is aimed at one goal — to control... The threat of nuclear weapons is the last argument in attempts to control people... Western leaders mistakenly saw him as a weirdo — a little weird, not very healthy and a little vulnerable. They tried to negotiate with him, to make concessions — they behaved like rational people. [But] the only language that such people [as Putin] understand is the language of force... With such people, you need a minimum of emotional investment. One should not try to understand Putin or put oneself in his place … We shouldn’t care of what he thinks or says, how he looks, where he sits, whether he is sick or healthy — this is not our problem at all. Our problem is to drive the animal into a cage... I understand it is difficult to perceive to normal people. A normal person is always capable of empathy, compassion, love. But such persons don’t understand that. They perceive good as a weakness. Arrangements are understood as a way to cheat. Words are used to control others, not to communicate one’s experiences, thoughts, or intentions. We need to understand well who we are dealing with’.
As time passes, Roman Kechur’s assessments that may have initially looked too harsh and hawkish, becomes increasingly appropriate and perspicacious. Putin is strong and unbeatable as long as he can escalate while all his opponents are preoccupied with de-escalation. But as soon as he encounters a rival who does not back down and can escalate himself, Putin is lost – like during covid, during Prigozhin’s mutiny, during a failed Kyiv Blitzkrieg or, remarkably, during a short ‘Turkish crisis’ when Erdogan without further ado shut down Russian military plane that crossed Turkish border from Syria.
Putin’s rivals should escalate – as this is the only way to defeat him, to push him into the corner, to humiliate him and alienate from him all his allies, to make him toxic for all his entourage, and to prove ultimately that he is neither a macho nor superman but a little fearful man, Kleine Zaches from Hoffman’s novella, pathetic with all his nukes, rhetoric, and ambitions.
 Keir Giles, 21.12.2021, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/12/putin-does-not-need-invade-ukraine-get-his-way