Scenario 4: George Kennan, Offensive Realism, & Vladimir Putin

Scenario 4: George Kennan, Offensive Realism, & Vladimir Putin

By Rumen Kanchev
Plovdiv University “Paisii Hilendarski”, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Scenario 4: George Kennan, Offensive Realism, & Vladimir Putin

In this article, we will focus on the fourth scenario out of four possible ones, which is in continuation to Scenario One, Scenario Two and Scenario Three published earlier. Our main goal, however, is to use the scenario tools in order to “describe” a hypothetically possible development of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the context of the relations between the Kremlin and the Western liberal democracies. But the geostrategic focus of study will remain the same: the Ukraine-Russia crisis represents an attempt to redefine strategic relations a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War.

Scenario 4: George Kennan, offensive realism, and Vladimir Putin.

George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram, sent in February 1946 from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to the State Department established the parameters in the framework of which American political analysts built their policy conceptions regarding the Soviet bloc during almost the entire Cold War period. By force of habit, after the fall of Communism (1989-1990), this paradigm continued to be used as the most influential key to understanding Russia, which had already become a capitalist state. For strategists of the rank of Irving and William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strobe Talbott, Brent Scowcroft, Madeleine Albright, James A. Baker ІІІ, the authors of the “New American Century” project, the Cold War has never ended, since its main strategic goal―reducing Russia’s influence to that of a regional power in Asia, has not been fulfilled. All of these strategists, as well as the even more extreme ideologists of the Republican party, such as John McCain, Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama, and Richard Haas, are convinced that the events in Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Eastern Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, etc.) are the surest proof of their view. If this line of American foreign policy becomes predominant after the next presidential election in 2016, the pressure on Russia will grow to an extreme. A sign of this is the planned military budget of the U.S., which is expected to reach over 1 trillion U.S. dollars by 2020.

In 2007, I published a monograph entitled The Paradox of Russian Democracy. As is customary in such cases, I invited friends and colleagues to the presentation of the book. In the course of the discussion on the book and on the topic of the study, I was very impressed by the assessment of a young diplomat from the French embassy in Sofia. He had read the book carefully and wanted to talk to me. In the course of our conversation, I understood that he was impressed by precisely that part of the analysis that I too considered central to the book. When I asked him what he found most interesting in the book, he abandoned diplomatic caution and said to me straightforwardly : “I was most strongly impressed by the part of your analysis in which you point out that Russia is strongly pressured by the West, so that the country’s ability to make an honorable response is strongly reduced. Hence follows the very logical conclusion drawn in the book, that when ‘cornered’, Russia is prepared to do anything to restore its prestige as a world power, which it lost after the Cold War...” The French diplomat had understood something very important that I had tried to explain―as far as possible in a monograph―namely, that Western pressure on Russia has a limit, it cannot be without bounds.

In fact, this is where the most important part begins in the assessment of the Ukraine-Russia crisis. I am referring to the strategic capacity of the political decision- making elite in the Kremlin, to the strategic context created after the annexation of Crimea and the growing pressure brought to bear on Putin. If the situation continues and pressure grows stronger in the following years, there are three basic strategic resources upon which the Kremlin will be forced to build its balance with respect to the economic and nuclear missile power of the U.S. and NATO. In a possible prolonged confrontation with the world of the Western democracies, Russia will rely on Scenario 1) its strategic special-purpose nuclear forces (first and second-strike forces); 2) its economy, built upon an almost unlimited supply of energy sources, and 3) its enormous territory. The well-known political analyst of the realist school, John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), is right that the Russian president, unlike his American counterpart, is acting like a realist in the crisis [1]. In the realist perspective, the annexation of Crimea, which is entirely incompatible with the principles of international law and the UN Charter, is a purely strategic move aimed at restoring the strategic symmetry that was impaired after NATO and the EU extended their enlargement as far as the boundaries of Russia, which left the Russian Federation in a highly vulnerable position in military terms. At the same time, if in his next moves the Russian president continues to act like a realist and follows the principles of offensive realism, this would mean following the strategy of prolonged destabilization not only of the Donetsk and Luhansk region but of Ukraine as a whole. If Putin continues to perceive the three enlargements of NATO (1999, 2004 и 2009) as acts of misbalancing of the strategic relations with U.S. and NATO to the detriment of Russia, then, as an offensive realist, he would seek to restore that balance. But since Russia is technologically not equipped to build its own anti-missile defense of the American type, nor to establish a high tech aerospace system for intelligence and early warning against nuclear missile attack, then the “containment” priority in this context would in fact be to increase the capacity and effectiveness of the means for first and second nuclear strike as well as the announced doctrine of preventive nuclear strike. That was done in the new Military doctrine of the Russian Federation. If, however, we carefully read the texts that present the new Russian war doctrine, we will see that what they define as a “preventive nuclear strike” is essentially a first nuclear strike, since the circumstances in which Russia is obliged to defend its national security and make a preventive nuclear strike are defined all too broadly. Hence, in the context of increasing confrontation with the West, following their “containment” doctrine, the Russians will foremost develop their nuclear first-strike capacity. Under conditions of an anti-missile system that is in a weak or “critical” state, this is the only possible option for the Kremlin and is also justified from a political point of view. Evidently, this standpoint is perceived by the Russian political and military elite around Putin as being symmetrical with the pressure exercised by the West to draw Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s zone of influence and eventually accept it into NATO and the EU.

The basic theoretical principle of the realist school is the balance of power (rivalry). Realists view the global political stage as characterized by “anarchy”. This anarchy is systematically generated in the world, and the only “instance” capable of containing (balancing) it is the power of each state.

Analyzed from a structural realistic perspective, the pressure put on Russia will generate a strategy of response based on the tendencies and realities indicated above. If this is so, the Kremlin can be expected in the coming years to sharply increase its military strategic potential and to restructure the Russian economy in favor of the military industrial complex. The results of the other two geostrategic realities will be integrated into a policy subordinated to this priority. In assessing the possible conduct of the Moscow political elite, we should take into consideration that the stronger the pressure exercised by the U.S. and the Western democracies on Russia, the more insistently will the military and political circle around President Putin seek an asymmetrical response to that pressure. Given the impossibility to base this response on Russia’s relatively weak economy, its corrupt business elite isolated from the West, and its gross national product obtained mainly from production, transport and trade with energy sources, the focus will be on the country’s military-industrial complex, armed forces and the development of an offensive nuclear ballistic missile potential. In the middle-term perspective, this strategy will generate certain negative consequences for the political development of the EU, and in the long term, it will lead to conflict between Russia on the one side and Europe and America on the other.

On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda made three terrorist attacks on symbolically important sites in New York and Washington. Moscow’s response was indicative and entirely in the framework of the Russian political elite’s understanding that partnership with the U.S. is of strategic importance. The Russian president immediately expressed his full support for the U.S. administration and his wish for equal partnership in the fight against the impending new threat facing the world―international terrorism. At President Putin’s initiative, Russia provided intelligence information on the terrorist bases of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, where the Soviet army had fought for eleven years and gave concrete logistic support for their localization and neutralization. Russia was prepared to resume a course of rapprochement with the U.S. but under certain conditions. The price of this “deal” was very precisely analyzed by Dmitriy Trenin:

“In 2002, it was said that Russia accepted American global leadership without undermining American positions; moreover, Russia was prepared to be the chief ally of the US, if in return it was given freedom of control over the post-Soviet space and the processes going on in Russia. At the end of 2002, Putin... began to realize the fact that he could not support such a position of collaboration with the USA, since, from the viewpoint of the political elite surrounding him, it was not producing real results”.

This was essentially an attempt to redefine the zones of strategic control between Russia and the U.S. It proved unsuccessful, however. The reason for its failure was not only America’s desire to expand its presence in Central Asia and in the post-Soviet space. The wars that Americans had started in Afghanistan (2001-2013), Iraq (2003- 2012), and the sharp rise in oil prices after 2004 provided Russia with the serious chance to get out of its state of economic collapse and to gradually abandon the idea of a strategic partnership with the US. What followed was the sharp attack against U.S. world leadership made by the Russian president in his speech at the annual Munich Security Conference (2007), his idea of a “Eurasian Union” (2011), and the annexation of Crimea (2014). Certain theoreticians from the school of neoliberal foreign policy consensus have tried to present this period as a time of “ups and downs” in Russian-American relations. I do not agree with this description. If we carefully retrace Russian and American foreign policy in the last ten or twelve years, we will easily find that there has been a gradual escalation of confrontation in the relations between the two countries. For more than 15 years, the Kremlin and Washington have been irreconcilably opposed on the most important strategic issues: NATO enlargement, the U.S. constructing a high tech anti-missile defense system and stationing it in Europe, the enlargement of the EU, etc.

Taking into consideration all the facts and tendencies analyzed above, we will easily reach the conclusion that the Western democracies and the U.S. must be prepared for a new as well as a long strategic rivalry with Russia. For the Russians, this rivalry has already begun, and the Russian strategy has already been defined in terms of its key parameters and elements. The western democracies need to elaborate a new containment strategy that takes into account the strategic context following the annexation of Crimea and the forthcoming destabilization of Eastern Ukraine and, possibly, of all Ukraine, as well as the clear statements made by the Russian president regarding Russia’s desire to return to the world political stage as a strategic player on an equal footing with the U.S.

Cite this Article:

Kanchev, R. (2016) “Krimnash”: Is the Cold War Over?. Open Access Library Journal, 3, 1-22. doi: 10.4236/oalib.1102766.


Copyright © 2016 by author and Open Access Library Inc.This work is an excerpt taken from a research article which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY 4.0).


    [1] Mearsheimer, J. (2014) Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014, 77-90.