Blown out of the sky: Putin and Russia’s strategic ‘trilemma’

For the Motherland! EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Whether or not MH17 was shot down on purpose or was just a ghastly mistake, international opinion is overwhelmingly that the airliner was downed by separatist rebels and that they were trained – and their weapons supplied – by Russia. The consequences of this tragic incident have yet to fully play out and may take a generation to do so because it has profound implications for the politics, not just of the region, but of super-power geopolitics.

Russia understands itself to be a “Great Power” – a key global decision-maker, number eight on the list of economies, possessing the third largest sovereign wealth fund and backed by the nuclear triad of air, land and sea launch which secures its strategic autonomy. For Russia, the West is no longer the unquestioned bearer of geopolitical order, economic power and military supremacy; one that, in Putin’s words, seeks to “sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position”.

Until the downing of MH17, the conflict in eastern Ukraine was fading from the global strategic agenda as other issues vied for international news coverage. The conflict appeared to be developing into a low-intensity, Ukrainian-on-Ukrainian conflict, confused by accusation and counter-accusation.

Russia’s state-controlled media was effective at holding the line; by July 2014 Putin’s popularity rating was at an all-time high of 83%. Of course, the view from outside Russia was a different matter: Russia’s narrative had been dismissed by Barack Obama as “an alternative reality” and Putin himself, according to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was living “in another world”.

But neither the US nor European states could agree a common position on Russia. Some EU and NATO member states viewed Russia as an outright aggressor and strategic adversary, others as a misunderstood – though perhaps increasingly unreliable – strategic partner.

Blown out of the sky

MH17 has blown a hole in Putin’s carefully constructed alternative reality, which now appears cynical, self-serving, implausible and unacceptable. Putin himself is relegated from strategic genius to reckless gambler, sucked into taking short-term positions with regards to eastern Ukraine that run counter to the notion of Russia as a restored Great Power.

A dilemma occurs when powers are faced with two desirable but mutually incompatible objectives and so find that only one of the two is possible. Russia’s strategic dilemma is simply stated: Russia wants to maintain the Great Power truce and avoid a Great Power conflict. At the same time, Russia seeks to undermine US hegemony and consolidate itself as an independent pole in a multipolar world.

Maskirovka, or disguised warfare, and the “Novorossiya Project” (Putin’s assertion of historical rights over “New Russia”, a territory that acceded to the Russian Empire in the 1700s) appeared to provide Putin with the ready means to resolve the dilemma. The annexation of Crimea and the Novorossiya project via maskirovka brings into question the territorial status quo which has remained sacrosanct for 25 years – and thereby the US’s credibility as guarantor of Euro-Atlantic order.

This binds the nations that make up its sphere of influence to a dependency relationship with the Russian Federation and, at the same time, underscores Russia’s “order-producing” and “managerial role” in the region and so its “centre of global power” status.

However, as events in eastern Ukraine demonstrate, disguised warfare is increasingly unsustainable in a globalised and technologically advanced world. The provision of covert military, political and financial support has backfired – Russia is too involved to claim plausible deniability but, ironically, not sufficiently involved so that it can fully control and calibrate its proxy forces in eastern Ukraine. This provided opportunities for unanticipated boomerang effects as the downing of flight MH17 demonstrates.

Putin’s strategic trilemma

A trilemma occurs when we are faced with three desirable objectives but find that only two of the three can be combined; one has to give. Putin’s mismanagement of Russia’s dilemma has backed the president into a strategic trilemma of his own making.

First, Putin wants to maintain Great Power peace. Second, he seeks to elaborate an alternative and attractive vision for a post-Western international order in which Russia finds itself a leading player. Third, Russia must deny culpability for the disaster while at the same time maintaining its influence in eastern Ukraine.

This last point is an immediate and existential concern as Putin fears a “first Kiev, then Moscow” domino effect. He needs nationalism to legitimise his regime as Russia’s economy stalls and is seeking to avoid the destabilising intra-elite infighting which the loss of Ukraine would trigger.

So how can Russia maintain influence in Ukraine, preserve good relations among Great Powers and also be at the heart of a new international order? How to break the rules and still be loved? Putin’s problems are multiple. An admission of culpability would indicate that he was either unable or unwilling to control his own military and intelligence services. If unwilling, then the international community has to conclude that Russia has chosen to be a state sponsor of terrorism – in other words, a pariah, in need of sanctioning, isolation and containment.

On the other hand, if he was unable, then if follows that the Russia’s military and intelligence services are autonomous, able to undertake unauthorised arms transfers and not just shape but determine Russia’s foreign and security policy. The emperor would truly have no clothes: Russia would appear to be a failing state, an unreliable and unstable partner for the West and an unattractive global brand able to present the vision of, let alone capable of leading, an alternative international order. The Great Power truce would be in jeopardy.

If he backs off from an oxymoron – “clear covert” support for the rebels – “real” Russian nationalists will talk of abandonment and appeasement in the context of their inevitable defeat. More importantly, Russian influence in eastern Ukraine will be visibly curtailed, at least in the short-term. Putin will have “lost Ukraine”, gained the liability of Crimea, effectively damaged the Russian economy, and scared many of Russia’s neighbours – to what end?

Boxed in

Logically, therefore, Russia appears boxed in, with one self-defeating option left open: to deny culpability loudly and repeatedly and focus on shifting blame through elaborating conspiratorial explanations. Hence the dominant official line is that, rather than a nexus between Russia and the rebels, there is in fact a connection between the US and Europe and the “fascist junta” in Kiev, who plot to discredit Russia.

To delegitimise Western and now global narratives of Russian culpability by scapegoating Kiev and denigrating Western action only leads to an increasingly virulent, paranoid and anti-Western foreign policy. This risks even harsher sectoral sanctions (denying Russia Western technology, knowledge and capital investment for a generation).

What then? Russia is in a strategic cul de sac. Pre-existing negative long-term economic trends and the predispositions of its ruling elite towards “hard authoritarianism”, buttressed by anti-Westernism through manufactured actual and virtual emergencies, suggests an inevitable default outcome. The elite is young, rich (they own Russia), cynical and pragmatic, and want to stay in power but have a vested interest in avoiding economic structural reform (this would mean they lose their wealth and political power).

In this event Russia could then either adopt an increasingly hard authoritarian self-reliance based modernity paradigm or consolidate its positon as a subordinate of China (a raw materials appendage and safe strategic rear). Both of these options undercut Russia’s Great Power status. Both negate a leadership role in an attractive alternative world order. Crucially for Putin, both would lead to regime change in Russia.

A seat at the table

Russia’s seat at the table and Great Power status is still intact though tarnished and hanging in the balance. Did Putin peer over the precipice but refuse to jump? On July 23, just as US intelligence began to “row back” direct Russian involvement, Russian television broadcast pictures of President Putin telling his divided Security Council – as many glum faces testified – that self-isolation was not an option to be countenanced.

But by July 25, US and Ukrainian intelligence noted an escalation in quantity and sophistication of rockets (Tornado), tanks and other combat vehicles to the rebels. Incursions into Ukrainian air space by Russian jets and unmanned surveillance drones, as well as mortar and rocket fire support from Russian territory, were reported.

When victory is not possible and defeat is not an option, what is to be done? Declare victory and leave? Compromise? Double down and go for broke? President Putin’s management of Russia’s strategic trilemma will shape the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security systems for a generation.