Washington In his chilling account of the Romanov dynasty, the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore quoted Peter Stolypin, who was interior minister for Nicholas II, the last of the tsars: “In Russia, nothing is more dangerous than the appearance of weakness.”
Montefiore explained that in the 300-plus years of Romanov rule, power had been an instrument not simply of governing, but of survival. He cited the aphorism of the French writer Madame de Stael: “In Russia, the government is autocracy tempered by strangulation.”
President Vladimir Putin embodies this Russian paranoid ethic, never more than in his belligerent March 1 speech boasting of a new generation of “invincible” nuclear-powered missiles and super-fast torpedoes. Putin’s address included video mockups of new cruise missiles that were so hokey they would embarrass a Hollywood studio.
What should Americans make of Putin’s speech, and the policy challenge it implicitly poses for the United States? Some analysts were quick to discount Putin’s military claims as fanciful. The new Russian technologies he described were already well-known to U.S. intelligence agencies, analysts said.
The speech was obviously a message to Washington, but one with several layers of meaning. On its face, it was meant to frighten and intimidate, but at that level, it surely failed. The U.S. has vast military power to deter Russia, including new weapons systems that are at least a match for what Putin described.
At a deeper level, Putin’s speech was a plea for attention, by a leader who sees himself avenging his nation’s humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite Putin’s wounded, chip-on-the-shoulder posture, this struck me as the core of his address, and worth a well-considered response.
The crux of Putin’s argument is that Russia was ignored during its years of weakness and is taken seriously now only because it looks threatening. Putin recounted that before he took power “the military equipment of the Russian army was becoming obsolete, and the armed forces were in a sorry state.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, the nation had lost 23.8 percent of its territory, 48.5 percent of its population, 41 percent of its GDP and 44.6 percent of its military.
“Nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem (of the nuclear-weapons balance), and nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now,” he demanded.
Putin is a bully, but a predictable one. He has been advertising his desire to restore Russia’s lost glory since he became president in 2000. Last month’s indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller of 13 Russians for meddling in the 2016 election describes an organization, the Internet Research Agency, that, according to other accounts, field-tested his internet manipulation techniques in 2014 in Ukraine before deploying them in America. To manage these covert actions, he turned to a billionaire oligarch pal, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who also helped organize Russian mercenaries in Syria.
Ukraine has been Putin’s laboratory. Oleksandr Danylyuk, chairman of the Center for Defense Reforms in Ukraine, warned in a 2016 paper for the Naval Postgraduate School that Russia has “been carrying out not only information operations but also other clandestine and special operations against Ukraine for more than a decade.” His conclusion: “Russia is not preparing for war with the West; the war is already being actively conducted — on Russia’s terms.”
Just because Putin proposes renewed discussions with the U.S., that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan and India all have serious dialogue with Russia about key foreign-policy issues, but the U.S. doesn’t. That’s a mistake, especially now.
It was unwise, for example, for the U.S. to suddenly cancel talks on cybersecurity that were planned for late February with a 17-member Russian team headed by Putin’s cyberadviser, Andrei Krutskikh. The Russians responded by canceling planned discussions about strategic stability. The two countries’ militaries continue to have daily “deconfliction” consultations in the congested battlespace of the Middle East, but the dialogue should be broader.
This barren Russian-American landscape is a perverse consequence of Putin’s attempts to meddle in U.S. politics and foster the candidate who kept proclaiming what a great guy the Russian leader was and how much he wanted a rapprochement. Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s election has made dialogue with Russia politically toxic, and arms control has all but disappeared from the U.S. agenda.
“In an autocracy, the traits of character are magnified; everything personal is political,” wrote Montefiore about the Romanovs. Putin is inescapable. The U.S. military will counter Putin’s death-star weapons, but in the meantime, American diplomacy needs to open better channels. Ignoring Russia may be good politics, but it’s bad policy.
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.