Is Putin’s Russia a bully or a brat? This may sound like an abstract or polemical question, but it matters in the sense that each says different things about the country and each suggests different responses.
The question is sparked by the recent escalation in provocative and dangerous antics such as the close-quarters buzzing of US warships in the Baltic. Even while grappling with a growing political malaise at home (the creation of a National Guard and Investigations Committee chief Bastrykin’s calls for Chinese-style internet restrictions are proof enough of that), continued economic woes, and the perennial dilemma of what bonanza to put the Rotenbergs’ way next, Putin appears to be ratcheting up his geopolitical trolling of the West.
On one level this has been characterized as bullying, but that hardly fits the facts. A bully comes from a position of strength, and Russia is scarcely that. Putin might be able to arm wrestle Obama or judo-throw Merkel, but Russia itself is poorer, weaker, more extended, and less globally respected than the West by orders of magnitude. Its greatest strengths in many ways are its will, and its readiness to break the etiquette of modern geopolitics.
And this is really the mark of the ill-tempered toddler or tantrum-prone pre-teen. Adults are always bigger, stronger, possessed of greater weight in their world; but they are also restrained by law, culture, and custom. The child gets his or her way by exploiting — knowingly or not — the way that the adult cannot or will not (usually, thank heavens) use that superior muscle. The little devil’s hope is to be ignored, indulged or, best yet, bought off, whether with a lollipop or a later bedtime. This actually sounds a lot more like Kremlin policy.
Of course, this is hardly a flattering parallel for Russia, and it is an arrogant one for the West. Nor is it a wholly accurate or comprehensive one. There is much more to Russia than an infant screaming blue murder on the supermarket floor. It does have some genuine beefs, it can be responsible and restrained by its own lights. The way Putin’s evident and genuine fury over the Turkish ambush of a Russian jet failed to lead to anything worse than sanctions and snark is a case in point. Furthermore, the West is not Russia’s parent; we have every right to resist encroachments and challenges, but if sovereignty means anything, it gives Russia the right to determine its own way (within broad parameters) within its own borders.
However, if one does accept the brat thesis, with these caveats, does it help illuminate options for Western policy? The classic ones — without passing any judgements about how just or appropriate they may be — would be to spank, to apply some non-kinetic punishment like sending the kid to bed early, to ignore, to indulge, or to seek to reason with the miscreant.
Toddlers rarely have nuclear weapons, or the ability to invade neighboring countries, so direct action would appear both foolish and wildly unlikely. Sanctions are not so much a spank as seeking to send the child to his room without any dinner. Alas for the West, the child has squirreled away a goodly stock of apples and chocolate bars in his room, and his partners in crime Iran and China are willing to order him pizzas so long as his savings hold out, so this is rather less effective than one might hope, at least in the immediate term.
At the same time, the toddler is of an age when attempts to reason with him will generally founder on retorts that “you’re not the boss of me” and that you are stinky. That fails to offer at present the desired results.
Indulging him is out of the question, especially as it would almost certainly be at the expense of someone else. Why should Ukraine lose her teddy bear, just because Russia threw his out of his pram?
But can ignoring a tantrum really be a wise move? In the right way, and to for the right ends, it just might. The Russians buzz warships, just as they talk about moving their nuclear missiles, or send their bombers into NATO airspace, because they know it gets a rise out of the West. It gets politicians fulminating, journalists reporting, TV cameras rolling. It helps contribute to what Brian Whitmore has called the “fake Cold War”, a theatrical extravaganza which helps dismay and divide the West and empower Russia. Because we let it. Indeed, if anything we contribute to this farce when we insist on talking about Russia and Putin as if they were more powerful, more strategic, and more cunning than they deserve.
In the short term, not rising to the bait might provoke Putin to up the ante, but we ought also to recognize that at heart he is quite risk averse, and the Russians have a keen sense of their relative weakness. Indeed, much of the current sound and fury is the product not of confidence and ambition so much as fear and defensiveness. We may think they have us on the ropes; the Russian elite actually tend to feel as if they are ones beleaguered and under threat.
In the longer term, though, the West needs to fix the damage it has already done by excessively meek responses to challenges that really matter - such as Crimea and Donbas - and, perhaps because we are trying to over-compensate, unduly hysterical ones to things that don’t. If a Russian plane cuts it too close and crashes into a USN destroyer, that’s another matter, but otherwise many of these antics deserve derision or disdain rather than hyperbole. Just as the best responses to over-the-top Russian propaganda gambits have tended to be laughter rather than rebuttal (such as this memorable triumph by the US embassy in Moscow), so too this would help stop Moscow from regarding these methods as effective.
Then, maybe, it would be time to try reason. Or even a more robust answer. That will await some clearer consensus in the West of just quite what its strategic aims towards Russia are, though. Again, if we are to extend this metaphor of geopolitics-as-child-rearing, there needs to be a clear, consistent and firm message as to just what is and is not acceptable and expected.
But at present, we run the risk of letting our strategic policy be driven by knee-jerk responses to trolling from Moscow, and that is exactly the way Putin likes it. And so he gets the lollipop.