The unpredictable behavior of Russian forces and the local militias they control in the Donbas pose important questions for analysts: How to evaluate information from Russian open sources? How to define the Kremlin’s actual plans while separating out obvious propaganda? What guarantee do we have that western analyses will not be weaponized by the Russians? Is it possible to make any predictions, given Russian unpredictability, when even the leading experts have it wrong?
I hasten to note that I do not presume to provide all the answers, and I hope that the centers of expertise can become fora for fruitful discussion of this matter. I shall endeavor to suggest a few criteria that might help in evaluating information.
1.Besides the assertions of Kremlin analysts, politicians, and journalists there are also facts – not opinions, but facts that under no circumstances should be ignored. For example, these include information on the concentration of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border, information gleaned by foreign intelligence services, the complaints of the leadership of the Baltic States about incursions into their airspace by Russian aircraft, and most importantly concrete data on increasing Russian military expenditures.
2.When analyzing the statements of this or that Kremlin analyst, expert or politician, it’s important to take into account how much they reflect the goals, ideas, and ambitions of Vladimir Putin. It’s not difficult to understand these ambitions. Here are some facts:
2.1. I doubt that anyone will dispute that Putin considers not only Ukraine, but all the territory of the former Soviet Union as a zone of his absolute influence. Within this space, he believes he has the right to act unilaterally, without the agreement of any other country, and he demands total loyalty from the presidents of neighboring countries. Remember that the Russian leader more than once has referred to the fall of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe,” and in the sensational film “President” went even farther:
“We all had illusions: it seemed to us then that after the fall of the Soviet Union and after Russia voluntarily – I emphasize – voluntarily and willingly accepted absolutely historical limitations connected with surrendering our own territory, industrial capacity, etc., it seemed to us that with the removal of the ideology that separated the former Soviet Union from the rest of the civilized world the chains had fallen and ‘freedom was on the doorstep, and our brothers would return our sword.’”
In actual fact, the present Russian Federation falls within the very same borders as the RSFSR, that is, insofar as Russia is concerned there were absolutely no territorial changes associated with the dissolution of the USSR. The countries that became independent after 1991 were never part of the RSFSR. Thus, when Putin speaks of Russia’s territorial losses he is saying that all the former Union republics are Russian territory. To the bitter end Putin will promote policies with no regard for the sovereignty of the former republics.
2.2.Putin desperately fears NATO expansion and the appearance of NATO military bases near his borders. Right now such bases might theoretically appear in the Baltic States, and the likelihood of increased Russian provocations is high. At a minimum, two factors come into play here: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were part of the USSR that Putin no longer terms just “my taiga,” but “Russian territory,” and they are NATO members.
Besides this, the “defensive” rhetoric" of Kremlin analyst Rostislav Ischenko that advocates a pre-emptive occupation of the Baltic countries to defend against imagined threats, is more attractive and understandable to Putin than the abstract ruminations of the Director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, Leonid Reshetnikov, about “Russian civilization.” However, it is likely that Putin actually fears open military conflict with NATO and would not risk direct military aggression in this region.
1.1.As for the former members of the Warsaw Pact: In the same film, “President,” Putin is quick to offer to the West his model for the ideal world order, one in which no decision of geopolitical importance is taken without the advice of Russia, and spheres of influence are determined by mutual agreement between the US and Russia. Vitaliy Portnikov speaks of this in his analysis the new Russian documentary, “The Warsaw Pact:” “Putin doesn’t plan to stop with Ukraine. He believes that sooner or later everything lost by the Soviet leaders will be returned to him – everything: the former Soviet republics and the former “countries of peoples’ democracy.”
Several foreign analysts already have noted the increased activity of Russian special services and pro-Russian organizations in Eastern Europe. But it's important to keep in mind that regardless of success in this region, Putin needs for the West to recognize his "multi-polar world," i.e. that the world accept Russia's increasing influence. Such recognition might well be more important for him than actual victories. As put so succinctly by Stanislav Belkovskiy, Putin wants something like a “Yalta-2."
Should the West demonstrate fortitude and not kowtow to Putin's ambitions, Russia's economic situation will continue to deteriorate, and the money to buy foreign politicians will finally run out, leaving Putin to retreat within the borders of the CIS and use his successes in the Balkans as bargaining chips.
1.2.Because Putin thinks in terms of objectives and does not understand the nature of irreversible processes he is convinced that everything is negotiable. For him, talks are a signal that a bargain is possible and that he can achieve his goal: to decide the fate of the world in tandem with the USA. In order to truly frighten the Russian president it is necessary only to isolate him and treat him as an international criminal.
1.3.If he sees that negotiations are possible, Putin will raise the stakes, especially concerning areas he thinks are within his sphere of influence (the former USSR), for which he requires the West's acquiescence.
2.Analysis may also be improved by taking into account what is happening inside Russia. How do the decisions of the Russian leadership reflect the internal situation? Now the Kremlin finds itself in a situation where in order to deflect the attention of an increasingly restless population from burgeoning internal problems it was necessary to create a war, though not necessarily in the Donbas or Crimea. The war just had to be near-by, so close that the nation would have to rally around the "national leader" out of fear that should the state weaken, the war would move into Russia itself.
These sample criteria may in one way or another help predict Moscow's next actions facilitate realistic forms of defense against the mounting aggression.