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4 September 2015

Do the Russians want war?

Micromilitarism instead of plan for global expansion

On an early autumn day, on September 1, 1939, World War II broke out in Europe starting with a staged attack on a radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz. Whatever politicians were to say decades later, nearly all superpowers, including the Soviet Union, were ready for the war. By September 17 Soviet troops had crossed the border of Poland, they annexed the Baltic states in 1940 and took control of Bessarabia before invading Finland a while later. Undoubtedly, compared to what eventually transpired, against the backdrop of the Nazi war crimes and the tragedies of entire peoples, the aggression of Stalin’s USSR seemed  less significantbut today the historical memory of it makes Russia’s neighbors uneasy especially given Moscow’s increasingly ‘desperate’ foreign policy .

Should we draw a parallel between the events of 76 years ago and what is happening now in the East of Europe? As much as we would like to do so, I would insist with all urgency that any such analogies are erroneous and are likely to create the wrong impression of the new political realities taking shape both inside Russia and in its peripheries.

The only thing that could somehow remind today’s people of the events of that distant time – this is pointing to the fact that Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is trying but to ‘gather’ shards of the formerly great empire. However, a closer examination will easily show that Crimea and/or South Ossetia have nothing in common with Eastern Poland or the Baltic States: the seizure of the latter was an episode in the large-scale plan for global expansion, a step in the grandiose project aimed at a new re-division of the world (which was partially carried out following the end of World War II), whereas the strategic value of allies and/or territories now obtained by Russia is, to put it mildly, questionable. And the more one compares the past and the present, the more dubious the thesis that Russia is striving to unleash a new war in Europe today.

‘Do the Russians want war?’ – a question which seemed unthinkable in years gone by, can and should undoubtedly be asked today – but the answer to this question, no matter which way you look at it, cannot be affirmative.

First of all, one shall refer to the behavioral stereotypes of the population since no mention can be made of military preparations without considering the population’s willingness to mobilize. And here we can see a number of developments which disavow the widespread fears in the West.

Firstly, ‘patriotism’ in Russia, which is alarming for many, is largely fictitious today. The overwhelming majority of citizens are not against the increased greatness of the country, ‘rising from its knees’ and ‘Crimea is ours’ sentiments. However, practically no one is willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the state. In order to dispel any doubts, it is suffice to call for a ten-year loan in rubles with 3% interest rate for the development of the economy of Crimea – and the absence of advocates for such a provision will reveal a lot about the real patriotic upsurge in Russia. Today, patriots are mainly those who have not lost much due to the growth in aggressive rhetoric: even a fleeting glance reveals that mainly expensive foreign-made cars are emblazoned with St. George’s ribbons in Moscow. However, should the rhetoric be replaced by real hardship, such patriotism will vanish into thin air.

Secondly, as in the majority of developed countries, the value of human life is very high in Russia today. In the first half of the 20th century, in the era of two world wars, mass repressions, concentration camps and executions, war was perceived as commonplace – but this is not so today. President Vladimir Putin’s adopted decree to classify information about military casualties in ‘peacetime’ is extremely indicative in this respect: society is clearly not ready to learn about dozens of ‘cargo 200’s’ arriving from the Donbas, South Ossetia or anywhere else. And this is an outlandishly self-incriminating step – in fact, the reverse side of readiness for war is the recognition of the fact that ducle et decorum est pro patria mori. And should there be pro-war sentiments in Russia, ‘volunteers’ would have to be honored with solemn, public funerals and in the absence of silence or lies surrounding their deaths.

Thirdly, pro-war sentiments, unlike patriotic flossing, should have grounds. Over the course of the last hundred years, Russia/the Soviet Union has waged either defensive or ‘liberation’ wars. Besides, the latter presumed that locals welcome ‘polite people’ as their benefactors (which was true of Bulgaria in 1878 or Prague in 1945, whereas the same effect was created by propaganda with respect to Estonia or Bessarabia in 1940). As soon as the USSR launched military operations not supported by those they were intended to make happy, its influence started to decline – starting with Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 through to Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, it is clear today that nobody intends to attack Russia while ‘liberation’ is not expected from us after Transnistria, Abkhazia, Crimea or the Donbas. And so, it is simply impossible to ‘sell’ wars of conquest or even ‘preventive’ wars in Europe to Russians.

Fourthly and finally, wars have long been not purely geopolitical events but ideological ones, too. For the people to even consider accepting a war, the enemy must be presented as the devil incarnate; threatening the existence of the country or the whole of mankind. The contemporary West – unlike, for example, ISIS let’s say – does not fit this image in the least. Even more so, since, in the minds of the majority of Russians, the West is synonymous with high living standards, glaring achievements and material wealth – in short, with the majority of what they themselves see as an idyllic society. One should not forget that the history books do not contain examples of countries’ wars against the bloc whose territory became home for up to 5% of its own population having arrived there of their own accord over the preceding period of 15-25 years.

One can come up with additional arguments but even those cited above will suffice in order to arrive at the conclusion that assertions about the readiness of the Russian population for military mobilization are extremely overstated, and results of public opinion polls which reveal a 60%-‘readiness for war’ are steered solely by specific wording contained in questionnaires.

That being said, the seriousness of the intentions of the Russian elite to bring about a fully-fledged military confrontation with NATO and other north-Atlantic structures is also no less than doubtful.

Firstly, it is a well-known fact that the Russian elite are too strongly bound to the West economically and personally: their (un)lawfully acquired capital is stored there, they purchase and register real estate there, their children study and live there etc. A common response to this is that intertwined economic interests, for example, did not prevent leading superpowers from entering World War I in 1914. However, the difference lies in the fact that then, decisions were made by politicians whose dependence on the ‘enemy’ was minimal (in terms of the family ties of monarchs – this was in line with the practice in Europe for hundreds of years) whereas it was financiers and industrialists who bore the losses from the severance of economic ties. While in Russia today it is officials who are precisely the category of citizens who are the most interested in maintaining peace and tranquility ‘on the Western front’.

Secondly, in the Russian political reality, war, or the threat of war, is considered solely as an instrument available to the current elite through which they can tighten their grip on power and garner popularity for their actions undertaken whilst creating conditions for access to a heartier ‘helping’ of budget funds. Whereas real war, as time has told: the European monarchies which entered World War I serving as a good example, often turns out to be a political and economic catastrophe, culminating in a revolution. Even large local wars – like the Vietnam War which brought about the collapse of the Breton-Woods system or the war waged by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan which triggered the economic downslide – do not serve to increase ‘stability’. Hence today, ideally, a war should not only be ‘victorious’ but, more importantly, ‘small’.

Thirdly, war – even successful war – is the most powerful means of turning illusory mobilization into real mobilization, which also poses a serious problem for the authoritarian regime. In terms of examples from Russian history, one immediately thinks of the results of the Patriotic War of 1812, and the Decembrist revolt, and a patriotic upsurge of the end of the Great Patriotic War which put the flywheel of repression into motion again since the level of freedom in society had become ‘dangerous’ and the extent of the influence of outstanding Soviet commanders seemed threatening to the top leadership. Meanwhile, today’s power elites are most afraid of uncontrolled processes in political and social life. And that is why they undoubtedly understand and carefully evaluate dangers brought about even by victorious military campaigns.

Finally, fourthly, the authorities in Russia are thievish and insufficiently competent but by no means reckless. And they are only too well aware of the fact that today the country does not have sufficient capacity to break down the resistance (of course, if you do not take into account the use of nuclear weapons) of any of the large European armies not to mention NATO. Yes, Moscow does realize that NATO is not going to fight for the absolute preservation of the status quo in Europe and that is why it does not hesitate when it comes to carrying out operations in South Ossetia, Crimea or the Donbas. But, for the same reason, no Russian soldier whose entire battalions ‘wander off course’ before turning up near Debaltseve will get lost in Estonian marshes or Lithuanian woods. And should an old, dilapidated aircraft crash in the vicinity of Norwich, this will not prompt a war, but rather the largest damages settlement ever paid to innocent victims.

Russians of the early 21st century do not want war. Russia’s policy today is based on tactics expertly described at one time by Emmanuel Todd as micromilitarisme théâtrale (see Todd, Emmanuel. Après l`Empire. Essai sur la décomposition du système américain, Paris: Gallimard, 2002, p. 71). In the case of Russia, the confines of this ‘micromilitarism’ are the borders of the countries outside NATO; a scale which is non-threatening to the economy of Russia as such; and the nature of which guarantees illusory (theatrical) but not real social mobilization. It goes without saying that this cannot and should not reassure Georgians, Ukrainians or Moldavians. However, it gives firm grounds to believe that in the part of the world formally calling itself Europe, people can enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep and go about their daily routines without having to worry about an imminent threat coming from the East.

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