Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington D.C. think tank whose stated mission is ‘bringing information to those who make or influence the foreign policy of the United States.’ Dr. Blank is an internationally recognised expert on Russia and sat down with the Foreign Affairs Review in July 2016 to discuss Russia’s foreign policy goals, long-term strategic vision, and impact on international relations.
Russian foreign and domestic policy, according to Dr. Blank, has one and only one ultimate objective: preserve the Putin oligarchic system. In the coming decades, the network of elites that constitutes the Russian governing structure can be expected to serve no one – not the Russian state, not the Russian people, not the international community – but itself as it crafts the nation’s international strategy. Western talk of ‘international norms,’ threats of diplomatic isolation, and even Russia’s own hard commitments to alliances and agreements are merely dust in the wind if they do not serve to advance the oligarchic interest in a given moment. As Blank puts it, for Russia’s elites, ‘accepting the status quo is always just an expedient, always contingent.’
In foreign policy, this manifests itself first and foremost as a compulsive need to dominate neighbours. By promoting insecurity in surrounding states, Blank asserts, the Kremlin reinforces its status as the ‘biggest kid on the block,’ removes its nearest potential threats, and fosters dependence in smaller states hoping to profit from the Muscovite bandwagon. At home, Russian elites actively spin their narrative of stability in an unstable neighbourhood to great effect. In ex-Soviet republics and even ex-Warsaw Pact nations, Russian influence is particularly pronounced. Russian thought leaders and policymakers never accepted the sovereignty of these states and have actively worked to reassert Russia’s hegemony.
Ukraine is the obvious case study. Dr. Blank relates the story of a visit by Ukrainian parliamentarians to the American Foreign Policy Council in October 2013, before Maidan. When Blank posited to the Ukrainians that Vladimir Putin would likely invade if Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed a treaty of association with the European Union, the visiting officials replied that they knew this all too well. There could be little doubt of it, given Russia’s tendencies; a Ukraine plugged into the prosperity and strength of the West was a Ukraine which might embarrass or even threaten the Russian oligarchic structure. Blank also points to Russian ambitions in Crimea as early as 2005, in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, as evidence of the Kremlin’s commitment to its neighbour’s instability.
Turkey represents another theatre for Russia’s destabilising tactics. The Black Sea, says Dr. Blank, has been a region of critical interest to the Kremlin for centuries, and a strong Turkey threatens Russia’s presence there. Moscow has a long history of actively undermining various Turkish central governments through the years by arming separatist minority groups, such as the Armenians and Kurds. Now, as Turkey and Russia are drawn deeper into opposite sides of Syria’s civil war and skirmishes over airspace threaten to escalate, Russia may be poised to take more overt action against their Black Sea competitors.
Russia’s aggression poses existential dilemmas for its neighbours. From Eastern Europe to Central Asia, governments are justly rattled by the Kremlin’s apparent disregard for the borders and sovereignty of post-Soviet states. Estonia has already weathered a massive Russian cyber attack. Kyrgyzstan’s government was toppled in 2010 in a brutal, Russian-instigated uprising. Georgia suffered an actual Crimea-style invasion in 2008. As Dr. Blank points out, however, their options are few. On the European side, NATO seems reluctant to provide conventional deterrence measures close to the Russian border and the European Union is still reeling from a tumultuous two years. To reassure its eastern flank, Blank asserts, NATO must recommit itself to deterrence by stationing troops in Eastern Europe permanently and providing the infrastructure to support them. Defence spending must increase from all member-states, he says, especially on ‘effective military capability.’ The European Union’s problems are more complex. Mired in slow growth, waning public confidence, and a massive migration crisis, the EU must get its house in order if it is to protect the stability of its eastern members. Blank points to the migrant crisis as a crucial burden that has hamstrung the EU’s response capability. To ease the pressure, the EU must strengthen economic and informational tools to deal with migrants and help its governments. The spectre of another Brexit also hangs over the supranational body. A successful pro-growth economic strategy would go a long way towards easing widespread dissatisfaction with the EU, according to Dr. Blank, and enable it to act more decisively to counter Russian economic clout. Finally, the United States, with its traditional investment in European stability, has a critical role to play. The revival of European economies must be a priority, Blank suggests, and a strategy with the scope of the Marshall Plan may be required. Russian energy, the primary economic weapon available to the Kremlin, must be side-lined and alternatives developed, such as American oil, Baltic natural gas, and a renewed commitment to ridding the Eastern European energy sector of endemic corruption. All these, Blank claims, would diminish Russia’s capacity for destabilising its neighbours and prevent future encroachment.
Whether or not the West chooses to pursue a comprehensive strategy to deter Moscow, Russia’s foreign policy will always boil down to one simple mantra: preserve the oligarchic system. By destabilising and pressuring their surrounding states, Russia’s elites shore up their regime with promises of stability and imperial dominance. As Dr. Blank puts it, Putin’s Russia ‘cannot have autocracy without empire and cannot have empire without autocracy.’ The stronger Russia appears in relation to its peripheral states, the more entrenched the regime becomes. According to Blank, the pillars of Russian government today are reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: astonish and inspire the people with ethno-imperial expansion (Miracle), cloak the ruler in a cult of personality and power (Mystery), and countenance neither opposition nor dissent (Authority). ‘There are three Powers, three unique Forces upon earth, capable of conquering forever by charming the conscience of these weak rebels–men–for their own good; and these Forces are: Miracle, Mystery and Authority.’