As academic Keir Giles argues in recent books, Russia’s invasion wasn’t a bolt from the blue provoked by the expansion of NATO, as University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer argues. It is much more complex. The invasion was the latest in a series of hostile acts from Russia stretching back decades, and following a pattern of behaviour dating back centuries.
Russia has long seen itself at war with the West, well before the invasion of Ukraine, and also before any talk of expansion of NATO. In short, we are unlikely to go back to an easy peace after the war, because we did not have peace with Russia before the war.
Recent history of hostile acts against the West
There are many high-profile recent incidents of Russian aggression against the West. The most notable was perhaps the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, in which 298 passengers and crew members died.
In the UK in 2006, Russia was responsible for the assassination by poisoning of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. In 2018, again in the UK, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were poisoned, although they survived.
Russia has long been motivated to destabilise Western societies and political systems through its interference activities. Again, there are many high-profile examples like disinformation campaigns to support Donald Trump in the US 2016 presidential campaign, the UK’s Brexit “leave campaign”, and anti-vax movements in Europe (which they stepped up when COVID-19 arrived), as well as providing finance to France’s extreme right wing National Rally party. Targets for Russia’s cyber-attacks have included the World Anti-Doping Agency, The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Tokyo Olympics.
Separately, Russia has been behind several ransomware attacks, with threats to publish victims’ personal data or permanently block access unless a ransom is paid off. The Russian state, business and organised crime are virtually fused together in these criminal activities.
Russian propaganda campaigns have also inculcated in the West a “fear of escalation” with a nuclear power if the West were to tackle Russia’s actions more seriously. Most regrettably, it is this same fear of escalation which has prevented the West from supplying Ukraine all the arms it needs to win the war decisively, and led the West to ban Ukraine from striking into Russia, something which insulates the Russian population from the consequences of war. Ironically, while Russia’s war campaign is struggling, the West has been playing by Russian rules in the conduct of the war. At the same time, Russia is employing the same tactics it employed in Syria, as it creates a humanitarian crisis by destroying critical infrastructure.
These examples are intended as just a brief reminder of Russian hostile acts against the West. The root cause of Russia’s actions is a fundamentally different world view from the West.
Russia’s world view
Russia’s world view is irreconcilably different from that of the West. It is convinced that it is entitled to empire, to lord over its neighbouring countries. Westerners think of countries like the Baltic states or Ukraine as sovereign, independent countries with the right to decide their own future. But this is not Russia’s perspective. Russia wants the world to be in 1914 again, for it to have great power relationships with smaller states around its periphery.
Russia has not moved on to a post-imperial mindset. Its economy is only the 11th biggest in the world, about the same size as Brazil or Canada, but it still sees itself as a great power. Russia’s 1914 great power attitudes were frozen and preserved throughout the period of the Soviet Union, only to confront a highly unsuspecting West at the end of the Cold War.
Today, Western countries live in peace with each other and with their former colonies. But Russia has not made this adaptation. Indeed, it feels threatened by the EU, not because of a possible invasion—but because the EU brings market rules, transparency, and rule of law, which are inimical to the Russian leadership and how its business works. At the same time, Russia is in a state of denial about its own challenges in the future, dealing with demographic decline and the impact of decarbonisation on its energy exports.
When did Russia’s hostile acts begin? According to Giles, despite the “end of the Cold War”, Russia never stopped its hybrid warfare activities. Its expansionist instincts under Gorbachev and Yeltsin were just as strong as they are today. Their desire to regather the countries of the Soviet Union within some sort of successor organisation under Russian control, never really stopped.
The West underestimated Russia’s intentions because it was not very effective in the 1990s. Western countries like Germany, under the spell of post-Cold War optimism, ignored warnings from the Baltics, Poles and Ukrainians in the 1990s. They were already experiencing the weaponisation of organised crime, dirty money and information attacks. Russia then became more active from the 2000s, thanks to resources from rising oil and gas revenues, and its embrace of the internet as a weapon of hybrid warfare.
Dealing with Russia
Giles is convinced that the West has greatly mismanaged its relationship with Russia since the end of the Cold War. It goes through cycles along the following lines—high hopes, disillusion and frustration on both sides, a crisis, and then a “reset” with high hopes again. This cycle overlooks the reality that Russia and the West have completely incompatible strategic priorities.
It is pointless attempting a reset, detente, rapprochement or looking for ways of cooperation, if the fundamental structure of the relationship is so contradictory. But the UK and other Western countries have been even more negligent than that. Indeed, Russian interference in the British economy and politics is commonplace in the UK, as well as in many other Western countries.
According to the Intelligence and Security Committee Russia report of 2020, UK governments have “welcomed the [Russian] oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures”. Sadly, this report’s release was delayed as Boris Johnson tried to hide it away.
In other words, while many Western countries have been victims of Russian interference, they have also often been complicit in interference activities, and too little is being done to address these issues. Indeed, local Western “enablers” have helped the Russians, people like politicians who push through Russia-friendly legislation and then move to work for Russia, lawyers and accountants who facilitate the movement of dirty Russian money, Westerners working for Russia media, as well as the veritable army of covert influencers, propagandists and useful idiots.
Russia needs and deserves a catastrophic loss in the Ukraine war—not a nice negotiated settlement. But the West must remove the shackles from Ukraine to ensure its victory. Russia must then understand that it has to change. As much of the Putin regime as possible must be demolished, and the West must set very strict limits on Russia’s exercise of power. Even then, Russia will take a long time to change. The big risk is that Western businesses will push their governments to go soft on Russia after the war, given the country’s immense natural resources.
As some have remarked, another great problem for the West in dealing with Russia is that because Russians look like Westerners, and sometimes describe themselves as Europeans, there is a temptation to assume that Russians are European, with a European mindset.
As the exiled Russian author, Sergei Lebedev, has said: “If Russia is to have any future, it will have to become another country”.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).