An article by Dmitri Trenin, entitled “How Russia must reinvent itself to defeat the West's 'hybrid war': Russia's very existence is under threat,” may be one of the most consequential published in Russia in recent times — partly for what it says, and partly for who is saying it.
Dr. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center until the Russian government closed it in April, was for many years one of the most important pragmatic Russian voices in support of cooperation with the West and the “westernization” of Russia. He was one of the few Russian figures still to retain some of Gorbachev’s hopes for a “common European home.” (I should say that I have known Dr Trenin since I was a British journalist in Moscow in the 1990s, and I was his colleague at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace between 2000 and 2004).
The significance of Trenin’s article lies in the evidence it gives of a consolidation of the Russian intellectual elites in support of the war effort in Ukraine. It is not in many cases out of a desire to conquer Ukraine (many of the figures joining this new consensus were strongly opposed to the invasion and loathe Putin), but out of an increasingly strong feeling that the United States is trying to use the war in Ukraine to cripple or even destroy the Russian state, and that it is now the duty of every patriotic Russian citizen to support the Russian government.
“[T]he US and its allies have set much more radical goals than the relatively conservative containment and deterrence strategies used toward the Soviet Union. They are in fact striving to exclude Russia from world politics as an independent factor, and to completely destroy the Russian economy. The success of this strategy would allow the US-led West to finally resolve the "Russia question" and create favorable prospects for victory in the confrontation with China. Such an attitude on the part of the adversary does not imply room for any serious dialogue, since there is practically no prospect of a compromise, primarily between the United States and Russia, based on a balance of interests. The new dynamic of Russian-Western relations involves a dramatic severance of all ties, and increased Western pressure on Russia (the state, society, economy, science and technology, culture, and so on) on all fronts.”
“It is Russia itself that should be at the center of Moscow's foreign policy strategy during this period of confrontation with the West and rapprochement with non-Western states. The country will have to be increasingly on its own…"Re-establishing" the Russian Federation on a politically more sustainable, economically efficient, socially just and morally sound basis becomes urgently necessary. We have to understand that the strategic defeat that the West, led by the United States, is preparing for Russia will not bring peace and a subsequent restoration of relations. It is highly probable that the theatre of the "hybrid war" will simply move from Ukraine further to the east, into the borders of Russia, and its existence in its current form will be contested…In the field of foreign policy, the most pressing objective is clearly to strengthen the independence of Russia as a civilization...In order to achieve this objective in the current conditions – which are more complex and difficult than even recently – there is a need for an effective integrated strategy – general political, military, economic, technological, informational and so on. The immediate and most important task of this strategy is to achieve strategic success in Ukraine within the parameters that have been set and explained to the public.”
This is a call for reforms, including anti-corruption measures; but explicitly part of a strategy of strengthening Russia and Russian society in order to resist the West and succeed in limited Russian strategic goals in Ukraine. Particularly striking is Trenin’s call for Russia to be strengthened as a separate “civilization” — an idea that he would never have supported in previous years.
It would be easy to dismiss the change in Trenin (now a member of Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy Council) as simply a matter of bowing to regime pressure. This would however be to ignore that he only represents, in a more abrupt and radical form, a shift in the Russian centrist intelligentsia that has been building up gradually for many years.
For a time, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the mid-1990s, the attitude of most of the Russian intelligentsia to the West was one of blind adulation, and the change from this went through a whole series of stages. The shift began with the decision to expand NATO, generally seen in Russia as a betrayal. Fear of NATO expansion grew with NATO’s attack on Serbia during the Kosovo War. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was widely seen as proof that the United States wished to impose rules on others that it had no intention of keeping itself.
A key turning point came with the offer of future NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, followed by the Georgian attack on Russian positions in South Ossetia, and the West’s misrepresentation of this as a Russian attack on Georgia. Western support for the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, generally seen in Russia as a nationalist coup against an elected president, finally doomed genuine rapprochement between Russian centrist intellectuals and their Western counterparts.
However, Russian hopes for some form of limited compromise either with America or Europe lingered on for many years. Realists to the core themselves, members of the Russian establishment found it hard to understand why America, faced with intractable problems in the Middle East and the rise of a powerful China, did not seek to reduce tensions with the far less dangerous Russia. Similarly, they were bewildered by what they have seen as a European failure to understand that with Russia as a friend, they would face no military threat on their own continent.
Three developments in particular kept these hopes alive. First, the French and German brokerage of the “Minsk II” peace agreement over the Donbas in 2015 allowed the Russians to believe in the possibility of an agreement with Paris and Berlin over Ukraine — though this hope faded as the French and Germans did nothing to get Ukraine actually to implement the agreement. Then the election of Donald Trump in 2016 gave hope of a friendlier America, a split between Europe and America, or both. And finally, the Biden administration’s prioritization of China as a threat revived hopes of diminished U.S. hostility to Russia.
Russian hopes for co-operation with France and Germany could revive if these governments seek a compromise peace in Ukraine — with or without the United States. Failing that, however, Trenin’s article indicates that not just Putin’s inner circle, but much of the wider Russian establishment, will approach the war in Ukraine in a spirit of grim determination, at least until there is a possibility of a peace agreement that meets basic Russian conditions.
Now the determination of a Moscow policy analyst of course is a different and less demanding thing than the determination demanded of a Russian soldier fighting Ukraine. Nonetheless, it is potentially an important counterpoint to the hope in many Western capitals for an early collapse of the Russian collective will to fight, or an elite coup against Putin.
There seems to be a growing belief in the Russian elites — including many who were horrified by the invasion itself — that the vital interests, and even perhaps the survival, of the Russian state are now at stake in Ukraine. Unlike the Russian masses, these well-informed figures have not been brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda. Most of them see quite clearly the appalling mess in which Russia has landed itself in Ukraine and the terrible suffering inflicted on ordinary Ukrainians. But the only way they seem to see out of it is through something that can at least be presented as a victory.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
View of the monument to Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (autumn evening) from the side of the main building of Moscow State University (MSU) on Sparrow Hills in Moscow. (J55/Shutterstock)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?