Deciphering the Russian enigma

Churchill famously thought Russia was a riddle – but his less famous solution to the riddle still holds. Russian foreign policy is based on self-interest. Simon Wilson explains.

What drives Russia?

Foreign writers who try to grasp what drives Russia’s foreign policy often cite Churchill’s 1939 observation that Russia is “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma”. But as Tim Marshall notes in his bestseller Prisoners of Geography, few writers finish the quote, which ends, “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian self-interest.”

And in 1946, Churchill added: “there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect for than weakness, especially military weakness”. He could have been talking about today’s Russian leadership, reckons Marshall, which “despite now being wrapped in the cloak of democracy, remains authoritarian in its nature with national interest still at its core” – and a belief in open aggression as a legitimate form of self-defence.

What governs its self-interest?

A fear of encirclement and invasion; the lack of a warm water port other than on the Black Sea; and the need to control a vast, sparsely populated territory. Vladimir Putin’s Russia also wants still to be seen as a major global power, following the collapse of the Soviet Union – viewed by the Russian president as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”.

Less than 30 years ago, Russia was one of two global superpowers and the dominant player in a multi-ethnic state of almost 300 million people, with a buffer of communist states under varying levels of Soviet dominion in central and eastern Europe. Today it is a relatively friendless country with a declining population of 144 million. By 2004, just 15 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, every former member of the Warsaw Pact (except Russia) had joined either the EU or Nato, or both.

What does Russia spend on defence?

Around $60bn or $70bn a year (figures vary according to source), making it the third-biggest global spender after the US (more than $600bn) and China (more than $200bn). Over the past decade, this has grown hugely. The 2008 war with Georgia was a turning point. It confirmed Russia’s ability to deploy outside its borders with no military response from the West, but also laid bare the weaknesses of Russia’s ill-trained conscripts and outdated equipment.

Since then, billions have been spent on new missiles, tanks and fighter jets. Reforms have created a more professional army, and Russia took full control of its naval HQ in Sevastopol when it annexed Crimea in 2014. It has become far more aggressive when it comes to, for example, flying close to US reconnaissance aircraft in Europe. And it has pursued “hybrid” warfare, from the (supposedly clandestine) Russian troops fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine, to its online troll factories.

Are these tactics new?

No. In a 1946 telegram from Moscow, George Kennan, the “wise man” of US diplomacy, wrote that Russia would use non-military means “to undermine the general political and strategic potential of major Western powers, to disrupt national self-confidence, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity” – including fanning the flames of distrust between Western allies. This summary could nicely describe Russia’s internet-era tactics in terms of cyber-attacks, disinformation and interference in the domestic politics of both neighbours and more distant nations.

In Soviet times, the KGB had a special department for “active measures” aimed at weakening the West via disinformation. When the cold war ended, the department was renamed but never dismantled. It now employs thousands of professional “trolls” to spread disinformation via social media – an ideal channel for sowing multiple versions of events, and encouraging the debilitating belief that there are no facts, only opinions. Moscow also spends around $300m a year on its soft-propaganda TV news channel RT.

Does trolling work?

No one knows for sure. The latest elections supposedly targeted by Russian trolls include those in Italy, the Czech Republic and Mexico. But hard evidence of success is thin on the ground. The CIA and FBI are sure that Russia tried to influence the 2016 US election, in order to damage Hillary Clinton and sow distrust in the democratic process. That saga clearly has further to play out.

In the UK, there have been suggestions that Russia influenced the Brexit vote. But again, there’s scant evidence. One study by the Oxford Internet Institute found that only 416 tweets out of 23 million could be sourced back to the Internet Research Agency, one well-known Kremlin troll farm. That said, notes The Economist, researchers have not had access to equivalent data from Facebook. “Dismissal of the Russian connection would be premature.”