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  • 23 Jun, 2024

Stir the bear and understand: Why the West should heed Russia's warnings now.

Stir the bear and understand: Why the West should heed Russia's warnings now.

The recent altercation over provocations that challenged Moscow's boundaries demonstrates that dismissing the Kremlin's concerns is no longer viable.

We have experienced a significant, though somewhat subdued, crisis in the ongoing political-military standoff between Russia and the West concerning Ukraine. The crux of this crisis is straightforward: Kiev and its Western backers have lost ground in the Ukraine conflict and face the possibility of defeat, as acknowledged by senior Western officials with increasing frequency.

In response to this predicament, several key Western actors have threatened further escalation. Notably, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron publicly suggested that Kiev use British Storm Shadow missiles to target Russia directly. French President Emmanuel Macron also hinted at the possibility of direct, rather than covert, intervention by French (that is, NATO) troops. Additionally, reports surfaced about the deployment of 1,500 troops from France's Foreign Legion, although the credibility of these reports was difficult to ascertain.

In retaliation, Moscow issued stern warnings, delineating or underscoring red lines. It announced drills involving tactical nuclear weapons, while Belarus, closely aligned with Russia, did the same. Furthermore, the British and French ambassadors received blunt messages about the risks posed by their governments' actions.

In addressing London, Moscow made it clear that any attempt by Kiev to strike inside Russia with British missiles would have dire consequences, including potential Russian retaliation against British forces anywhere. Concerning France, Moscow criticized its aggressive and provocative behavior and dismissed French efforts to maintain "strategic ambiguity" as futile.

For now, the immediate crisis appears to have subsided, with some indications that the West has taken heed. NATO's Jens Stoltenberg, for example, has emphasized that NATO has no plans to openly deploy troops to Ukraine.

However, it would be premature to feel completely reassured. This crisis fundamentally represented a clash between, on one side, a persistent Western problem that remains unresolved and, on the other side, a consistent Russian policy that many in the West still fail to take seriously enough.

The Western dilemma lies in the fact that a defeat at the hands of Russia would be exponentially worse than the debacle of the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Ironically, this is because the West itself has imbued its unnecessary confrontation with Russia with the potential to inflict unprecedented harm on NATO and the EU:

Firstly, by treating Ukraine as a de facto almost-NATO member, the West has tied Moscow's defeat of Ukraine to a significant blow to Washington's key alliance. Secondly, by funneling substantial and increasing amounts of money and resources into this proxy war, the West has not only weakened itself but also exposed its vulnerabilities. Thirdly, by attempting to cripple Russia's economy and international standing, the West has inadvertently strengthened Russia in both spheres and exposed the limitations of Western power. Fourthly, by subordinating the EU to NATO and Washington, the West has exacerbated geopolitical damage.

In essence, when the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2013/14 and escalated greatly in 2022, Russia had vital security interests at stake, whereas the West did not. However, the choices made by the West have elevated this conflict and its outcome to pose significant strategic threats to its own credibility, cohesion, and power. Overreaching has its consequences. This is why the West finds itself at an impasse and remains there even after this crisis.

On the opposing side, we have Moscow's persistent nuclear doctrine. Much Western commentary tends to overlook or underestimate this factor, dismissing Russia's repeated warnings about nuclear weapons as mere "saber-rattling." However, in reality, these warnings reflect a policy that has been developed since the early 2000s, spanning nearly a quarter-century.

A pivotal aspect of this doctrine is Russia's explicit retention of the option to use nuclear weapons relatively early in a major conflict and before an adversary has done so. Many Western analysts have interpreted this posture as facilitating a strategy of "escalating to deescalate," aimed at ending a conventional conflict on favorable terms by deterring the adversary from further aggression through limited nuclear weapon use.

The concept of "escalate to deescalate" originated in the West, not in Russia, and this Western interpretation of Russian policy has influenced Western politics and debates, attracting critics as well. Additionally, while some analysts argue that the idea of "escalating to deescalate" is not unique to any specific country and may be inherent in the logic of nuclear strategy, others doubt its effectiveness, regardless of who adopts it.

Furthermore, Russia's nuclear doctrine is predictably intricate. While French President Emmanuel Macron often showcases a consistent inconsistency he terms "strategic ambiguity," Moscow is adept at instilling genuine calculated uncertainty in its adversaries, employing less boastfulness but more effectiveness. Thus, one aspect of its nuclear doctrine underscores that nuclear weapons would only be employed if the survival of the Russian state was at stake, a point recently reiterated by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. However, to interpret this as a pledge that Moscow would solely resort to nuclear weapons under dire circumstances where half of Russia's territory or population were already lost would be naive.

In reality, there is also a provision in its nuclear doctrine regarding the treatment of the "unconditional territorial integrity and sovereignty" of Russia as crucial thresholds. How do we know? Multiple Russian documents confirm this aspect of Moscow's policy, as Ryabkov has just reminded us, alongside the emphasis on the criterion of "state existence." Take note, Emmanuel.

A crucial point that merits attention: Russia has never limited its option to use nuclear weapons, or any type of weapons, to the confines of a specific local conflict, such as Ukraine. Quite the contrary. Moscow explicitly reserves the right to strike beyond the boundaries of such a battlefield, a message President Vladimir Putin made unequivocally clear in his address to Russia's Federal Assembly in February of this year. It is this very message that Britain received in the recent crisis as well.

Regardless of how one interprets it, official Russian nuclear doctrine conveys specific messages to potential adversaries. Moscow has consistently adhered to this doctrine throughout the Ukraine War and in its recent warnings, both through drills and diplomatic gestures, to its Western counterparts.

However, there lies the challenge: The West has a track record of stubbornly ignoring Russian messages. This is how we found ourselves in this war in the first place. Russia had repeatedly cautioned the West since at least President Vladimir Putin's well-known speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. The last significant warning came in late 2021 when Russia, with Sergey Ryabkov at the forefront, offered the West a final opportunity to abandon its unilateralism and NATO expansion, instead proposing negotiations for a new security framework. The West dismissed this offer. With nuclear weapons at stake, it is imperative that Western elites finally heed Russia's serious warnings.