Following a decade of relatively good Russian-US relations where the man who ordered shelling of the parliament for trying to remove him from office enjoyed red-carpet treatment in Washington, relations began to decay at the turn of the century. By 2012, Washington had grown openly hostile toward the Kremlin. That year, US congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a list of Russian citizens based primarily on the claims made by Bill Browder.
In 2014, heavier sanctions were levied over Crimea and events that followed US State Department dealings in Ukraine. The details of these events are beyond the scope of this article. Those sanctions hurt. The Russian Ruble, which had been trading in the 30s against the dollar, suddenly found itself in the 60s range. This means that Russians who had purchased their flats in dollars saw the dollar value of their homes halve nearly overnight. It also meant that the price of imports started to go up and the cost of traveling abroad became much more expensive.
The list of events that led up to Putin’s March 1, 2018 Address to the Federal Assembly are numerous and complex. By 2016, factions inside the US government and its media had all but declared open war on the country and the rolling events promised to snowball well outside the framework of risk that the world endured during the cold war era. At home, Putin, who still enjoyed high approval ratings for his efforts in Syria and an ever-rising standard of living, among other things, faced grumblings starting from the populists in the government like Zhirinovsky, among others, who felt that Russia was taking too many hits and not hitting back.
It was against that backdrop that the president called the bluff of strategists in Langley, who had been using the excuse of intermediate range missile defense systems in Poland to deploy actual intermediate range missiles directed at Moscow. Washington’s plans were no secret – not to anyone who had chosen to go outside the narrative of the media and chosen instead to read their actual literature. They wanted nothing more and nothing less than full spectrum dominance, including first strike capability.
In other words, the intended outcome of decades worth of planning and building was US ability to destroy even a nuclear power like the Russian Federation before they could get off a response. Had they accomplished this goal, they would have command of her resources and they could write her off as a geopolitical threat.
In his address, Putin laid out his cards and let Langley know that they had not only lost, but that they had been tarred and feathered with a kind of humiliation that it would take decades to recover from. The address outlined a list of technologies that had been in development – some since the Soviet era – and had now reached a stage that it not only made any attempt toward full spectrum dominance obsolete, but it even made the entire US Navy obsolete – including those expensive aircraft carriers.
No longer could the US depend on its dollar dominance to provide it with military superiority. This speech ushered in an era of what political scientists refer to as multipolarism. That means that there was no longer an all-powerful hegemon (world leader) that could dictate its will on the globe with threats of retribution or worse to those who don’t get in line.
Allow me to elaborate on these weapons.
Russia’s advanced arms are based on the cutting-edge, unique achievements of our scientists, designers and engineers. One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile – a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range. It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defence and counter-air defence systems. I will repeat this several times today.
What he did here and in the rest of the address is unveil a list of weapons and missile tech that the US and no one else has any defense against and won’t hope to have any defense against in decades. These developments did not increase Russia’s offensive capabilities, but they make it virtually invulnerable defensively from both a convention and nuclear standpoint. Game. Set. Match for the Dr. Strangeloves of the world.
Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy is often summed up by his statement ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. Vladimir Putin’s spin on this might be: ‘speak softly and then when they are confident, hit them between the eyes with a reality check’. This is what he did in 2018, and regardless of what you may have read in response, those behind the scenes back in Virginia who matter know it and are still licking their wounds.
The Hits Keep on Coming
Despite the reality that direct assault on the country has been settled – no duel necessary – Washington has had great success in accomplishing its goals asymmetrically. When mutual assured destruction (MAD) is back in tact, the fight doesn’t stop in a world where Euromaidans and Arab Springs are still realities.
The script doesn’t even change. In 2006, western governments and security agencies leveled the charge that the Russian government had taken the life of Alexander Litvinenko via radioactive sushi. Just days after Putin’s Assembly Address, it was claimed that Russian government agents had been at work in London yet once again; this time employing an old Soviet nerve agent named Novichok. Novichok just happens to listed in a list of banned substances in the Chemical Weapons Convention, unlike the sushi, so its use automatically triggers treaty protocols, including sanctions.
Last summer, Novichok, the ill-fated substance that has trouble killing its targets, but which always triggers sanctions, reared its ugly head once again. This time, western governments, specifically Germany, claim that it was used on a favorite, of the west, opposition figure, Alexey Navalny. Navalny enjoys about a quarter the support opposition figure Zhirinovsky enjoys and he scored 5.66% of the vote in 2018. Grudinin is Putin’s biggest opposition leader, and he took nearly 12% of the vote that same year. In other words, while western media paints him as a major opposition leader, in Russia, he’s pretty small potatoes.
From the point of view of the Kremlin, Russia is once again under attack. What we learned from the past 20 years of Russian history is that the current government is soft-spoken, but also that its patience has a limit. We also learned that it tends not to respond in kind or directly, but that it instead chooses to send a pointed message to those it believes are really calling the shots. The public doesn’t easily recognize the message, but those it is directed to most certainly do.
Putin Responds Again
It’s in this context then that I think we can read the president’s speech in Davos last week.
Who was Vladimir Putin addressing when he spoke these words:
We are seeing a crisis of the previous models and instruments of economic development. Social stratification is growing stronger both globally and in individual countries. We have spoken about this before as well. But this, in turn, is causing today a sharp polarisation of public views, provoking the growth of populism, right- and left-wing radicalism and other extremes, and the exacerbation of domestic political processes including in the leading countries.
The Russian Federation has not seen increased social stratification (the trend has slowly been the opposite). Sharp polarization of public views and growth of populism sounds a whole like specific country whose initials are not RF.
All this is inevitably affecting the nature of international relations and is not making them more stable or predictable. International institutions are becoming weaker, regional conflicts are emerging one after another, and the system of global security is deteriorating.
Klaus has mentioned the conversation I had yesterday with the US President on extending the New START. This is, without a doubt, a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, the differences are leading to a downward spiral. As you are aware, the inability and unwillingness to find substantive solutions to problems like this in the 20th century led to the WWII catastrophe.
In 2018, Mr. Putin’s words were intended to make the western institutions that were engaged in asymmetrical tactics against Russia in their stated war against the same be put on warning and to quite honestly render them a big ol’ black eye.
A new administration in Washington hits the ground running and Russia once again determines it is under attack. This time it’s not delivering any black eyes. This time, it’s handing out dire warnings that asymmetric methods cannot be easily contained and that right now, they are spiraling toward something no one wants.
It’s easy then if accepting the premise of a pattern here to assume that the message given at Davos was once again directed at Washington and perhaps also Virginia. How likely are they to respond to a warning of this sort? It’s more likely that those being warned are in London, Paris and Berlin given the metaphor used in the warning. Last time a warning of this sort was delivered, it was also delivered with a punch (the reality check). Is the punch this time the implication that the Russian Federation won’t sit calmly and accept an attack that targets the very autonomy of its government?