Read original article at Rzeczpospolita
The question of the scale of the Russian military threat has been worrying us for more than 300 years. In recent decades, after the fall of the communist regime, as well as Poland's accession to NATO and the EU, the situation has certainly changed, but our eastern neighbor is working hard so that we do not forget the risk of attack and consider it quite real. And it is actually real.
At the same time, it should be noted that despite a large number of journalistic works and analytical literature, it is not so easy to find correct estimates of Russia's goals in its foreign policy. At the same time, the question of what the Russians are guided by and how they have been acting for many years has been the subject of (most often fruitless) discussions of politicians and experts in the most important world capitals.
It is quite obvious that in order to understand Russia's security strategy, it is necessary to understand how it prioritizes its goals and what criteria are Russians being guided by in their policy.
The most important goal and task of the Kremlin oligarchy is to preserve power, not to allow developing processes threatening it and at the same time to weaken political and ideological opponents. To clarify further arguments, one truism should be recalled: Russia is an autocratic state that does not recognize values such as democracy and freedom of speech. Its leaders are not going to lose power as a result of the elections, and therefore they hinder the formation of an effective opposition and try to stop possible attempts to help it from abroad. To protect such a system, a special ideology was created, within which Russia acts as a global reference point, and liberal democracy appears to be a source of weakness and decline.
Stop the domino effect
In recent years, Moscow has been a cause for concern: the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the so-called Arab spring, and finally a riot on Maidan, which already directly affected the consciousness of Russian society and at the same time (in a different way) the Kremlin. The desire to break the chain of events that resulted in removal of dictators from the power, became the direct cause of the attack on Ukraine and the beginning of the operation in Syria. Moscow successfully identified and prevented threats, and then, through determined and effective actions, achieved its goals. Bashar Assad will undoubtedly become the strongest partner in the negotiations on the future of Syria. Even Americans and their European allies do not argue with this.
In Ukraine, in turn, the war continues. This state is under the constant military and political pressure of Moscow, and in the coming years there will be no chance for a real conversation about membership in the EU and NATO. The Ukrainian authorities have to constantly resist the actions of Russia, trying to question their legitimacy and strike at their vital interests.
The next common element of wars in Ukraine and in Syria (and this is the main rival and benchmark for Russian foreign policy) is the United States. In the Russian picture of the global order, the US is the main factor forming the world politics (both in the case when they plan and implement concrete decisions, and in a situation where they (intentionally or unintentionally) abstain from them).
It's surprising that Washington paid very little attention to Russia in the 21st century (the situation changed somewhat due to Moscow's interference in the US presidential election), but Russians connected almost every event in the world with the actions of the United States. The entire Russian propaganda apparatus during the Ukrainian crisis promoted the idea that Americans inspired a coup d'état and contributed to the dismissal of Viktor Yanukovych, although the United States under Barack Obama (unlike Poland and the EU) did not de facto conduct any policy towards Ukraine.
It is the US, and not the Ukrainian allies in Europe, that remain the goal of Russian propaganda and politics. The Russians have always played their game with respect to the EU more subtly and skillfully. Moscow appreciated the "pragmatic" approach of Berlin, Paris or Rome, which took into account its interests. The criticism of the shortcomings of the Russian "sovereign" democracy sounded on their part was only a point of view. It was limited to media reports after official meetings and almost never resulted in a change in the approach to joint business projects (this was the case, for example, with the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline).
The Russians consistently adhered to one principle: to discuss important issues directly with the leaders of European countries, without entering into negotiations with the EU bodies and its representatives. The political crisis that erupted after the annexation of Crimea and the attack on Ukraine complicated relations with Germany and France, the main architects and "lawyers" of the Minsk agreements, but the methods of the Russian diplomacy have remained unchanged, which can be seen, for example, in recent statements by politicians from the Visegrad Four countries or Bulgaria.
Divide and rule
Here we come to the next goal of Russian policy - the disintegration of NATO and the European Union. Even when some of the states that are part of these two organizations, have conducted their own policies towards Russia, Brussels has treated Moscow's actions with criticism, stemming from an orientation toward its own values.
The European Union, which Moscow regards as weak, not dangerous and not even worthy of special attention, has become for many countries of Eastern Europe a symbol of social stability, legality and prosperity. It appears to be the complete opposite of the "Russian world", which relies on logic derived from the experience of the KGB and allows bribing or intimidating partners and adversaries. If it is impossible to receive victory in rivalry with them, it means that it is necessary to quarrel them among themselves in order to split this community.
Guided by this principle, Russia supports nationalistic, separatist, populist and authoritarian tendencies in Europe, as they lead to the destruction of NATO and the EU, which existence is based on the solidarity of cooperation between democratic states. In this format, this cooperation is a threat to Moscow's interests.
The next task that Russian policy sets is to maintain control over the post-Soviet space, which was called the "near abroad" in the past. The right to a dominant political position in all the countries of the former USSR, except for the Baltic States, has become one of the cornerstones of Russian strategy. Although Russia has already accepted the fact that it will not be able to play the role of a hegemon in the previous style, it is absolutely necessary and natural for it to struggle against the spread of the influence of other players (especially the US and EU, but also Turkey or China) on this territory.
In practice, this transforms into a struggle against the democratization of these states, countering their potential rapprochement with the European Union and NATO, as well as in attempts to create alternative structures such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Union of Russia and Belarus, or the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this context, Russia's attack on Georgia or Ukraine looks, from Moscow's point of view, a defensive operation, because the strategic goal was to block these states from the way to NATO and the EU.
An essential factor that made it possible to predict the scale of Russian military activity was always an assessment of the potential reaction of the enemy. Military operations in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria became a reality, as the Russians were convinced that they could achieve all military goals without fear of a Western response (from NATO, the United States).
There were no great military risks during these wars. The most dangerous situation was during the conflict in Ukraine. The Russians knew about the catastrophic state of the Ukrainian army, but it was a surprise to them that the volunteer units showed such selflessness, and the pro-Russian sentiments outside the Donbas were not as strong as expected. The decisions of the Kremlin have always been based on cold calculation and have been put into practice according to a pre-designed plan in which potential threats (as it turned out later) were determined exclusively correctly. These were no spontaneous adventurous operations, but an example of the almost exemplary use of military means to achieve political goals.
Useful Idiots 2.0
How does this information help assess today's military threats for Poland and the countries of the eastern flank of NATO? Russian, and in the past, Soviet political discourse, of course, was always built on the idea that Moscow has to defend its sovereignty from encroachments of the West, NATO and the US, but now it has finally become adequate to reality. With one caveat: for the Russian state, the West represents not a military, but a civilizational threat. However, this nuance disappears from the logic of the Kremlin strategists, so it turns out that in order to repel an attack, it is necessary to build up the military potential and isolate Russian society from the influences of the democratic world, even at the cost of its own economic development. Moscow today, surprisingly, has become closer to North Korea than to European states. On the old continent, everyone understands that Russian foreign policy is destructive.
Apparently, Russia is most tired of pretending that it can become a democratic and pluralistic state. The Kremlin leaders, trying to maintain power, frighten the world with their weapons, realizing that they have no other tools. In addition, when making strategic decisions, they can afford not to pay special attention to public opinion.
Although the Russian military and policy-makers are wondering whether an attack on one of NATO members will mean a confrontation with the alliance, Russia is not interested now in attacking the Baltic countries, and even more so Poland. The Kremlin believes that NATO has learned from the Ukrainian crisis and was able to clearly show that it is ready to really protect its members. It also remembers the serious military potential that Ukraine has today.
At the same time, Russia is striving to create a reputation for a strong state in the organizational and military terms, capable of protecting its interests in the region and in the world. An example of this is the propaganda exercises "West", which allowed some of our allies to see the real scale of the Russian threat. Now Moscow wants to legitimize the accession of Crimea and achieve the lifting of economic sanctions, and in approaching world crises puts the question of what impact they have on the price of oil and gas.
The real confrontation is now where Russia is engaged in the destruction of the Euro-Atlantic community. In this area, Russians do not bow down by any means. From their point of view, the internal European problems and the tension that has arisen in the relations between Europe and the United States is an excellent chance, and the "Alternative for Germany", SYRIZA, the "National Front", the "For Better Hungary" party, the Brexit supporters or the Catalan separatists – are "useful idiots" in version 2.0. Thanks to the allies in Europe and the US's decision to ensure that the power in Russia remains "sovereign", that is, undemocratic, Russians will be able to achieve great success not by invading the Baltic countries or Poland, but by working for the collapse of the existing order.