Understanding Russian National Security

Photograph Source: Крылов Иван – CC BY-SA 4.0

In the 1980s and 1990s, I was a member of the Russian studies group sponsored by the Brookings Institution.  In the 1980s, members of the Reagan administration would present papers that inflated the military and economic power of the Soviet Union to justify increased U.S. defense spending.  In the 1990s, members of the Clinton administration would proclaim that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not threaten Russian national security.  I regularly opposed these views, but the conventional wisdom even at Brookings—a so-called liberal think tank—supported both administrations and the mainstream media echoed these views.

These administrations could not have been more wrong, and it is important to know why.  The Reagan administration was dealing in disinformation, using the politicized intelligence of the Central Intelligence Agency led by two ideologues—Director William Casey and Deputy Director Robert Gates.  I was a Soviet analyst at the CIA in those years and testified to Gates’ deceit in his controversial confirmation hearings in 1991.  My testimony contributed to the decision of a newly-elected president, Bill Clinton, to end Gates’ stewardship of the agency in 1993.  Sadly, the Clinton administration then turned around and, resorting to misinformation, ignored the commitments of the George H.W. Bush administration to foreswear expansion of NATO and unnecessarily expanded the military alliance against Russia.

The conservatives in the Reagan administration (e.g., Casey, Gates, Secretary of Defense Weinberger, Deputy Defense Secretary Perle) never understood the importance of arms control agreements to the Kremlin.  The SALT and ABM treaties in 1972 from the Soviet point of view meant that the United States finally recognized Soviet power as legitimate and natural and that detente with the United States would include European detente as well.  The significance of the West German ratification of the Renunciation of force Agreement between Bonn and Moscow was similarly not appreciated.  The treaty signaled Bonn’s acceptance of the post-war territorial status quo and served as a catalyst for East-West detente.

The so-called realists of the Clinton administration failed to understand that the expansion of NATO signaled that Washington would return to the policy of strategic superiority, which prolonged the Cold War. Clinton’s realists failed to appreciate that any shift in the balance of power in Europe would be particularly threatening to Moscow because it meant the United States had the support of both West and East European members of NATO.  Russia in the 1990s lacked the economic resources to address the worsening imbalance, but I warned that eventually the Kremlin would have the power to alter the equation, which could lead to less predictable Russian actions and a more volatile bilateral relationship.  No one could have predicted the savagery of the Russian war machine in Ukraine, but it was predictable that the Kremlin would eventually respond to the geopolitical encirclement and the threat to Russian sovereignty.

For most of its history, Russia has been a weak state masquerading as a strong one.  Russian leaders have always feared encirclement, and Russians have always prided themselves on making needed sacrifices, particularly against Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th.  Historians often quote Winston Churchill who said in 1939 that Russia was a “riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, inside an enigma,” but they typically ignore Churchill’s conclusion that the “key” to the riddle was understanding Russia’s view of its national interest.  The Russian state over the centuries has been structured to reduce risk; to ensure predictability; and to maintain an authoritarian state.  The Russian folk saying “If thunder isn’t loud, the peasant forgets to cross himself” reflects the importance of an authoritarian state.

As a result of threats to their western and southern borders, Russians have had a harsh view of history, very different from the optimistic U.S. view of its history that dwells on progress and good fortune.  Between the 14th and 20th centuries, Russians were often at war, which created a xenophobic mistrust of others as well as themselves.  The folk saying that prescribes “Don’t carry garbage outside the hut” reflects this insecurity and fear of exploitation.  At the same time, the saying “Don’t try to skin the bear before its dead” points to the danger of increased U.S. involvement on behalf of Ukraine and the threat of a wider war.

It is this personal view of Russia and its history that explains my concerns about a continued war that will eventually lead to an expanded war.  As long as Ukraine believes that it can win this war against Russia, and that all of its occupied territories (including Crimea) must be returned, there will be no end to the fighting.  And as long as the United States provides increasingly lethal weaponry to support Ukraine’s goals, the risk of direct confrontation with Russia will exist.  A close partnership with Russia even in the long term is difficult to imagine, but a substantive dialogue between Moscow and Washington offers the only chance for a cease fire or an armistice.

Only the United States can offer the concessions that Russia presumably will seek to end the war.  These concessions would include no NATO membership for Ukraine; closing the U.S. base in Poland; and ending the rotation of forces through the Baltic states that were once Soviet republics.  As a result, President Vladimir Putin possibly would consider yielding some of the Ukrainian territory that Russia occupies, although Crimea is probably a done deal and will never be returned.  Ukraine believes that its military can regain all of the occupied territory, but that is extremely unlikely without much more lethal weaponry from the United States.

Western analysts believe that Russia must be defeated to ensure that Moscow will not try to use force against another Western neighbor.  For all practical purposes, the Russian military has already been defeated on the battlefield and will be in no position to open another front, particularly with a NATO member.  If Russia sustains greater losses in the near term, it is possible that Putin will be replaced by a greater troglodyte who will resort to even more brutal and savage use of force.  In any event, prolonged fighting is not on the side of a rational or reasonable outcome.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.