Riga, Latvia. 24 September. Power and freedom speak with a clarity and eloquence that is matched only by history here in Latvia. Tonight I will address NATO commanders with a speech entitled “Countering Strategic Maskirovka”. I coined the term Strategic Maskirovka because it seemed to me terms such as hybrid or ambiguous warfare are far too limited and too military to describe contemporary Russian ambition, strategy and actions. Rather, Moscow has adapted its traditional art of military deception (maskirovka) into a strategic campaign from the head of state down in a bid to exploit the many divisions within Europe and the wider West and offset Russia’s many weaknesses. Strange then that in the past fortnight Russia suggests it is open to partnership in the struggle against ISIS and despatched upwards of fifty combat aircraft to Syria to reinforce the point. What is Moscow up to?
In fact, Russia’s actions over the past fortnight or so all conform to the tenets and goals of strategic maskirovka, including the forced removal of a hard-line separatist leader from ‘office’ in eastern Ukraine. The aims implicit in Russian strategy can be thus summarised: the creation of a contested but de facto ‘buffer zone’ to Russia’s south and east, and acceptance of a special sphere of Russian interest incorporating EU-NATO ‘neighbourhood’ state such as Latvia; to keep Europe and the wider West strategically-divided and politically off-balance, to establish de facto legitimacy for Russia’s conquest of Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine; and to use the threat of ISIS to establish a transactional strategic relationship with the US over the heads of the EU, NATO and most Europeans.
Any such ‘partnership’ would be fraught with dangers. Russia’s aim is to blur the distinction between influence, co-operation and competition by exploiting ‘strategic ambiguity; i.e. the refusal of many European leaders to face up to the reality of Kremlin’s strategy and actions. The very act of deception is an eloquent statement of influence designed to force leaders who want to look west to look instead east. This goal is both implicit and explicit in recent ‘snap’ military exercises around this region all of which imply the political circumcision of the Baltic States from the rest of Europe, and the nuclear intimidation of allies who might seek to come to their rescue; a strategic an end in and of itself.
That is why Russian offer of partnership against ISIS must be treated with extreme caution, especially so as its come at a moment when the Obama Administration’s strategy is on the brink of failure. Critically, implicit in any mil-mil talks over Syria and the defeat of ISIS would be a de facto acceptance that Russia is an indispensable partner, not just in the Middle East but also here in Europe, and in effect reward Moscow the special status it craves. It is that prospect of an enhanced Russian role that led hard reality Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to hot-foot it to Moscow this week to seek assurances that Russia would not support Assad and by extension the Iranians so they could intensify their attacks on the Jewish State.
Like it or not Putin has in the short-term out-manoeuvred the West and succeeded in giving the impression Russia is far more powerful than it actually is, another goal of Moscow’s ‘strategic ambiguity’. That is why negotiating with President Putin from a position of his strength is dangerous. Sadly, someone, somewhere in DC, Brussels or Berlin is today suggesting that a deal with Moscow over Syria could help President Putin realise his prejudice about the West is utterly misplaced and thus lead him to return to the path of partnership. Apart from the sobering consequence of the oil shock on the Russian economy I see absolutely no evidence of such a shift in President Putin’s prejudice or Russian strategy.
That is why NATO exercises here in Latvia such as Steadfast Pyramid and Pinnacle are so important. They demonstrate not just a commitment to collective defence and strategic reassurance, but also a form of forward deterrence. Dishonourable it may be but if Russia succeeds in establishing a transactional relationship with the West then part of that transaction must be the integrity and freedom to choose allegiances of states like Latvia. If that means NATO troops being stationed here permanently to ensure transactions are honoured so be it.
Which brings me full circle to countering Strategic Maskirovka. Maskirovka lives in the dirt down underneath the broken floorboards of international relations, amidst the dust and cob-webs of de-stabilisation, deception and disinformation. Now, I am no naïve when it comes to international relations and sometimes dirty deals must be done. However, such deals should at least be thought through because the implications to say the least are profound.
Right now President Putin and his Kremlin team believe they are winning this sordid little ‘war’ they are waging with the West and any such deal would confirm him in his prejudice that we are weak. However, Putin also needs something from this deal – to come in from the cold. Therefore, any form of co-operation in the Middle East must only be countenanced in return for clear evidence of Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine and an end to pressure on Latvia and the other Baltic States. Crimea? Done deal I am afraid.
Latvia’s freedom is Europe’s freedom. Fail here and President Putin could succeed in his efforts to replace the rules-based community concept of international relations so beloved of Europeans with his hard-edged dark power politics. Any deal that permits Putin to believe de facto or otherwise he is a vital broker in Western security after all that Moscow has done over the past twenty-four months would come dangerously close to appeasement and must be resisted at all costs. Rather, Europeans and North Americans must together ask why they have failed so badly in Syria and move to correct that failure before many more die and possibly millions more decide to move the Middle East to Europe.
Russia: the indispensable power? Prefer not.