Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Containing the Russian threat to international order

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visit Russia's Navy Headquarters during Navy Day in Saint Petersburg on July 30, 2017


In March 1992, former US President Richard Nixon wrote a paper to then acting President George H.W. Bush with regards to Russia and the importance of supporting democratic transformation in the former Soviet countries. Mr Nixon encouraged President Bush to support economic reforms in Russia, as the country was on the verge of political chaos. He argued that if the United States did not support and help Yeltsin to overcome economic troubles and implement political reforms in the country, Russia had the potential to pose a threat to international peace and security. “If, for example, Yeltsin is replaced by a new aggressive Russian nationalist we can kiss the peace dividend goodbye. Not only would the world be far more dangerous but our defense foreign policy would be far more expensive,” Mr Nixon wrote.

In his book Beyond Peace in 1993, he said that Russia maintained the capacity to once again become a threatening power and “remains vulnerable to extreme nationalists and reactionaries intent on reversing free market and democratic reforms”. Nixon predicted that a Russia that reverted to authoritarianism would likely seek to extend its power over Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.

The confrontation in the Kerch strait once again pushes the international community to focus on Russia and its re-emerging threat to peace and stability in Europe and the world. Initially, on 25 November the Russian coast guard intercepted three Ukrainian ships by firing on them and captured their crew. Later Moscow scrambled jets and helicopters and blocked the Kerch strait, closing access to the Sea of Azov and Ukraine’s main ports. It did not take long for international condemnation of Russia’s unlawful actions. Mainly, European nations stood by Ukraine and condemned the Russian stance; US President Donald Trump announced that he would be cancelling his planned meeting with President Putin at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. Ukrainian President Poroshenko declared a state of emergency in the regions bordering Russia and prohibited Russian men aged 18-60 from entering his country. Many international observers do not rule out a possible escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as tension is running high. The Ukrainian president even declared that his country is expecting an invasion from Russia.

The Kerch incident once again highlights Russia’s global ambitions. It shows that the Kremlin poses a serious threat to peace and stability in Europe and Putin’s main objective is to put an end to the US-led liberal international order by bringing back Russia’s past status as a superpower. The Russian strongman aims to gradually destroy democracies abroad with the aim of securing Russia from the spread of democracy. Mr Putin sees democratization as the biggest threat to Russia, which prevents it dominating international relations as it used to do during the Cold War. This attitude will eventually make Russia a hegemonic state able to project its political, military and economic interests around the world.

Ironically, many Western experts overlooked Mr Putin’s background when he came to power in 2000. Coming from the ranks of the Soviet KGB, Mr Putin has always made it clear that his primary goal is to make Russia “respected” again. It is no secret that his definition of respect is to bolster Russia’s military, economic and above all political influence in most of its neighbouring countries. Since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Mr Putin has engaged in a seriously well calculated and so far successful policy. Having not been punished by the international community for his invasion of Georgia, Mr Putin felt that the Western democracies do not have a united front to contain him. He got away with impunity for his military aggression in Georgia.


From Georgia via Ukraine, Syria, meddling in the 2016 US elections and the Salisbury attacks to the latest Kerch incident, Russia is engaged in serial subversive actions to weaken democratic nations and allow Mr Putin to restore Russia’s superpower status. If carefully studied, it becomes clear that all these actions bear a unique KGB hallmark. Interestingly enough, even though Russia has engaged in covert warfare against democratic nations, Moscow is still denying any involvement. The Kremlin is using its long established sophisticated media tool to present its narrative to ordinary Russians that the West wants to destroy Russia. This resonates with the many Russian citizens who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a personal tragedy.

So what tools does Mr Putin use to work towards his goals? They include spreading fake news or propaganda through various news networks, such as Russia Today, websites and of course social media trolls. He tried to interfere in various elections in Europe and notably the 2016 US presidential election. Mr Putin’s regime has built an army of trolls on various social media apps and turned this technological invention against democratic nations by promoting fake news and disinformation abroad. Facebook and other social media networks were once thought to be a free platform for dissidents and political activists in nondemocratic nations, where the disenfranchised could share their opinions without interference from the state censor and unite around the cause of freedom and democracy.

Sadly, Russia and other dictatorships have turned social media against democracy by making use of the growing dissatisfaction of many people in Western democracies with the traditional political establishments. Today, the rise of right-wing, nationalist and even fascist parties and movements in Eastern Europe is a direct result of the Russian information war. Putin controls well organised nationalist-fascist groups in Russia and uses them to help him stay in power. Now he is promoting this kind of dangerous idea among the Eastern European nations in an attempt to make liberal democracies malfunction. Moreover, the US Republican Party, which had been known for its assertive foreign policy views and strong stance on Russia prior to the 2016 elections, became unrecognisable; rather than being critical of Russia then presidential nominee Donald Trump and his supporters were sympathetic towards the Kremlin and Putin personally. Despite strong evidence, backed by the CIA and FBI, President Trump was reluctant to acknowledge the fact that Russia tried to meddle in the elections in 2016. Although he changed his opinion later, it did not hide the fact that the traditionally conservative Republican Party, which had been so united against the Soviet Union and its aggressive polices during Reagan’s presidency, had changed 180 degrees.

Since Mr Putin came to power, Russia’s military and intelligence establishments have been advocating a more aggressive foreign policy in order to strengthen the country’s sphere of influence abroad. Covert operations and assassinations of regime critics abroad show that both the military and intelligence community are deeply involved in Putin’s policies and share the same vision of the future. The Salisbury incident earlier this year made it clear that Russia does not hesitate to use chemical weapons in pursuing its goals. Further confirmation is provided by the chemical attacks against civilians by the Assad regime in Syria with Russian backing. The use of chemical weapons to achieve policy objectives has almost become a routine practice by Moscow. This is a gross violation of international law and agreements banning the use of chemical weapons.


Donald Trump’s America First policy was a flawed approach from the start, as he campaigned to disengage from global affairs. Perhaps because he is a populist or has no political background Mr Trump seemed unaware of the international order and how American leadership is key in maintaining peace and security around the world. Since the end of World War Two, every US president’s primary objective was to contain the Soviet Union by maintaining the global order intact. That was the key foreign policy objective which prevented nuclear confrontation with Russia. President Reagan’s policies towards the Soviet Union were based upon the famous saying “peace through strength”. He realized that the Soviet Union spent more than half of its budget on arms and the military industry, while the American economy on the other hand grew because of its technological inventions. Mr Reagan calculated that if there was an arms race, the Soviet economy would lose and eventually Russia would be defeated. That policy, where the US led the free nations in a united front against Russia, was a decisive approach that knocked the Soviets out of history.

However, both President Obama’s “lead behind the scenes” and President Trump’s “America First” foreign policies have created a golden opportunity for Mr Putin to fill the US role in various regions of the globe. The cases of Syria and Crimea are good examples. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia was unable to sustain any political influence in the Middle East, let alone have a strong military presence in the region. Mr Putin has been trying to present himself as a key decision maker on Syria which gives him extra chances to carry on his subversive policies.

First of all, his rapprochement with the authoritarian Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, means that he is aiming to disrupt further Turkey’s relations with NATO, though Turkey’s president is responsible for the low level of relations between Turkey and its Western allies. Second, Russia is extending its arms sales and Mr Erdogan has already announced that he is keen to purchase Russian made S-400 anti-missile defence systems. Pentagon officials have made it clear that if Turkey purchases S-400 systems, then the country will be excluded from the F-35 joint development program as a member state. Another American ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, has also made agreements on the S-400 systems with Moscow. Russian-made arms are entering new markets and that means two things: first, Russia’s military influence will increase in those countries that will depend on its arms and that will naturally shift to a larger political influence; second, after the annexation of Crimea the Russian economy is in a worse situation due to US sanctions. The Kremlin was even forced to increase the retirement age, which received an angry response from the people. Selling arms around the world is supposed to lessen Russia’s economic isolation and hardship.


All this requires a well formulated political approach towards Russia. Growing disagreements between the European nations and US are a factor that needs to be addressed. US and European interests do not coincide in many areas, such as Iran and Russia. Not too long ago, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the creation of a united European army. The call itself is populist and does not represent the current reality in Europe. Considering that certain Eastern European nations are Russia friendly, their interests are unlikely to align with French or German interests and the idea of a European army will not be welcomed. In addition, Germany has to fix its Russia policies, as it is constrained by its dependence on Russian energy supplies. This dependence also prevents other nations from becoming full member states of NATO. In 2008 at the Bucharest Summit it was German Chancellor Merkel who prevented Georgia joining the alliance, despite the fact that President George W. Bush was in favour of Georgia’s NATO integration. That problem has to be solved before other issues can be addressed.

But what is most important is decisive, firm and assertive American leadership to confront Putin and Russia and maintain peace globally. American foreign policy needs to adopt Ronald Reagan’s ideas regarding Russia. Supporting democratization and freedom in Russia’s neighbourhood, the area considered to be Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence, would most certainly reduce Mr Putin’s attempts to undermine Western democracies. The biggest threat to Russia is to see democracy spread in its neighbouring countries, particularly, in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. This requires political will and well calculated policies. Granting NATO membership to Georgia, supporting Armenia’s new democratic government both financially and politically and the instigation of political changes in Azerbaijan would block Russia from having a strong foothold in the South Caucasus region, which has always been considered Moscow’s soft underbelly. Democratization and the cause of freedom need to be given priority in US and European foreign polices as an antidote to Russia’s dangerous aggressive foreign policies. It would constrain Moscow and, as in the 1980s, it would force the future Russian leadership to respect international order.

The last two decades have shown that global affairs matter a lot and when America doesn’t lead, the international system can be threatened by a rogue state. The Trump administration announced recently that the US will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 prohibiting ground launched medium-range missiles, as it has been violated by Putin’s Russia on many occasions. Defence Secretary James Mattis’s remarks that the US “simply cannot trust Putin” shows that the Russian president does not respect international agreements anymore. Putin’s record can be compared to Hitler’s in terms of disregard for international treaties. This can have major consequences, as was the case before World War Two. In fact, Russia has always been an aggressive nation since its creation. The problem might have been solved if Russia had transformed into a nation state.

Detente can be established with Russia if its malign activities are stopped first. This can be achieved through a combination of various means, including the promotion of democracy in Russia’s neighbourhood, sustaining and strengthening American allies, expanding NATO and isolating Russia economically and diplomatically.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.
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