Keeping on digging

Is Russia Europe’s greatest threat? This is the question that Carnegie Europe asked a group of ‘experts’. Their answers are revealing.

There was remarkable consensus among the experts. With a few exceptions, the respondents agreed that Russia is a threat to European security but not the ‘greatest’ one. What really threatens Europe, the majority feel, is ‘complacency’. The problem is that Europe lacks resolve and isn’t willing to defend itself. This invites attack from a Russia which is continually probing for weakness and looking to exploit it. The greatest threat to Europe is therefore its own internal feebleness. As one expert, Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform, puts it:

The biggest threats facing Europe are internal. Reluctance to invest in defense, unwillingness to tackle violent extremists of all sorts, failure to invest in civic education, failure to tackle inequalities in society—all of these are bigger long-term threats than a sparsely-populated country with terrible infrastructure and an economy smaller than South Korea’s. Russia is a threat to Europe only because Europe allows it to be.

Others take a very similar line. For instance, Ian Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Centre, says that:

The Kremlin is constantly probing for weak links and is … also extremely adroit at exploiting opportunities (such as the Brexit referendum and other elections) … Only slowly has the EU woken up to this threat, and its response to date has been totally inadequate.

Along the same lines, Anna Maria Kellner of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation notes that, ‘Europe’s biggest threat is Europe’ and cites ‘the shortfalls and credibility gaps of NATO and the EU.’ Stefan Meister from the German Council on Foreign Relations similarly remarks that Vladimir Putin is able ‘to challenge the Western liberal order – not because he is so strong, but because we are weak.’ Andrew A. Michta of the George C. Marshall European Center considers that ‘the greatest threat confronting Europe today is internal … Europe needs to find enough political will to spend resources on real defense capabilities within NATO.’ Elizabeth Pond and Gianni Riotta both identify ‘complacency’ as Europe’s biggest threat. What is needed, Riotta argues, is for Europe to ‘keep building a twenty-first-century ready military defense, support the Baltic states, apply stern sanctions, and not give in to Putin’s macho bluff.’

What we can see here is quite a consistent view of the world – one in which Russia is inherently aggressive, but not very strong and therefore only able to succeed if Europe lets down its guard, at which point Putin will mercilessly exploit any sign of complacency. Russia per se isn’t a danger: rather, European decadence is. The solution is to be strong, talk tough, and back it all up with a big stick.

All of which goes to show how detached from reality the broad consensus of security experts is. Europe could hardly be said to be weak. As I never tire of pointing out, it spends four times as much on defence as Russia, and outguns it in just about every military department. Furthermore, one could hardly accuse European states of passivity vis-à-vis Russia. NATO expansion, for instance, wasn’t exactly a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, the EU is planning to continue its own expansion into the Balkans.

Furthermore, there is good reason to consider the EU’s Eastern Partnership program (which seeks to strengthen the EU’s ties with former Soviet states) as targeted specifically against Russia. An American document leaked by Wikileaks notes that one of the Eastern Partnership’s creators, former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, described it to US officials as designed, among other things, to ‘stem growing Russian influence’. The primary purpose of the program, according to the document, was to ‘Counter Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe.’ It was, of course, the refusal of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign up to the Partnership which led to the protests in Kiev, his eventual overthrow, the annexation of Crimea, and war in Donbass. In other words, it wasn’t EU ‘weakness’ and ‘complacency’ which led to the conflict in Ukraine, but rather an effort by the EU to expand its own sphere of influence and ‘counter Russia’s influence’ – in effect, the exact opposite of what the respondents above claim.

Behind the consensus displayed in the answer to Carnegie Europe’s question lies an assumption about Russian motives and behaviour which is faulty – namely that Russia is bent on undermining Europe and will exploit any opportunity to do so. The possibility that Russia might instead be reacting to what it perceives (rightly or wrongly) as European efforts to undermine Russia is never considered. Consequently, the solutions proposed involve doing more of exactly the kind of things which led to the problem in the first place. It’s often said, ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ It’s advice European security ‘experts’ seem incapable of heeding.

9 thoughts on “Keeping on digging”

  1. “Behind the consensus displayed in the answer to Carnegie Europe’s question lies an assumption about Russian motives and behaviour which is faulty – namely that Russia is bent on undermining Europe and will exploit any opportunity to do so. The possibility that Russia might instead be reacting to what it perceives (rightly or wrongly) as European efforts to undermine Russia is never considered. ”

    This has been true in the West since 1945 Paul, and very likely much longer than that. McGuire’s late ’80s work on Soviet threat perceptions makes the point that Stalin kept pressing for ‘The Grand Alliance’ to remain intact into the postwar period, because he believed that the great future threat to the USSR was going to be Germany, in 15-20 years, and that since the western USSR at the time was a smoking depopulated ruin due to a war of racial extermination waged with Teutonic thoroughness & attention to detail, and suffering a major postwar famine to boot, Stalin believed the USSR was going to need ‘The Grand Alliance” again.

    However, the Truman Administration, led by a guy who responded to 22 June 1941 with “If it looks like the Russians are about to win we should help the Germans, and if it looks like the Germans are about to win we should help the Russians, so that they will kill as many of each other as possible” had made the exact assumptions you now criticize. According to McGuire, it wasn’t until mid ’47 that the Soviet government finally got the message that ‘The Grand Alliance’ was over and that the USSR faced a US opponent that was determined to rebuild Germany against them.

    A perceptive observer at the time, a British Army officer who served on the British military mission to the USSR, minces no words.

    “Even in Russia, the land of immensities, it means that one in every twelve Russians alive in 1941, one In twelve men, women, and children, has died a violent death, in order that the others might resume their lives with a swing and, if possible, a flourish. And most of those fifteen million were adults.

    The survivors will not, of course, forget this. But we seem to have forgotten it. Because now, with this great country shattered, ravaged, and exhausted, with her people strained to the breaking-point, and with her adult manhood more than decimated-now, at this moment, there are many loud voices in the West crying out that another war is coming quickly and that this time the aggressor is Russia. And these voices, which cry out of a depth of imbecility, or ignorance, or unimaginativeness which is truly horrifying to contemplate, are widely believed.”

    Edward Crankshaw-Russia and the Russians, 1948, pgs 200-201

    Imbecility, ignorance, unimaginativeness. Of a depth which is truly horrifying to contemplate. Hallmarks of the postwar US foreign policy elite, from the get-go.

    Surveying West-Russian relations since the early 1880s, the only times the West has ever actually liked Russia have been when Russia was bleeding for the West’s purposes… WWI, WWII, the 1990s… And even during WWII, support for aiding the USSR was FDR & General George Marshall deep in the US Executive Branch. Most other US State & War Department leaders for instance, opposed US Lend-Lease to the USSR. The bureaucratic foot-dragging on Lend-Lease got so bad that FDR had to cut State out of the process entirely, appointing BGEN Philip Faymonville as his personal representative in Moscow for coordinating Lend-Lease. The bureaucracy responded by waging bureaucratic war against Faymonville, accusing him of being a Soviet spy, or a closet homosexual being blackmailed by the Soviets, the whole nine yards of standard Mccarthyite accusations, that eventually cost Faymonville his career.

    So what you’re talking about are bone-deep attitudes among Western security specialists, which would probably have provoked a West-Russia war already were it not for the fact that Mr. Putin has such an iron will not to give in to such provocation as the West has continually given him.


    1. rkka,

      Just a small spelling correction. The name was actually Michael MccGwire (it may seem incredible, but apparently the family were descended from Chiefs of Fermanagh in Ireland, and remained proud of the idiosyncratic spelling.)

      Interestingly, the original typescript version of his July 1987 paper on ‘The Genesis of Soviet Threat Perceptions’ surfaced some time back on the net.

      (See .)

      A shortened version of the paper was published under the title “National Security and Soviet Foreign Policy,” in the original 1994 edition of the symposium entitled ‘Origins of the Cold War: An International History’ edited by Melvyn Leffler and David Painter.

      In the second edition of the book, published in 2005, MccGwire’s piece was replaced. One can see why this was, in that it was a conjectural reconstruction done before relevant Soviet archives opened.

      However, in his 1995 paper ‘The Big Three After World War II’, which discusses papers produced by Maisky, Litvinov and Gromyko in 1944-5, Vladimir Pechatnov refers to it as ‘an insightful description of Soviet threat perception at the end of the War (quite similar to what emerges from the documents reviewed here …)

      (See .)

      As regards the history, Pechatnov has interesting things to say on the way that ideological blinkers led not only Stalin but the Soviet foreign policy specialists whose writings he is reviewing to fail to grasp the way in which the attempt to realise what were in essence the agendas of pre-1914 Pan-Slav radicals, to guard against a renewed German threat, was likely to backfire.

      An interesting feature of the paper is that it points to the fact that George Kennan, the figure generally – if misleadingly – credited as the architect of the ‘containment’ strategy, was providing, in September 1944, an analysis of Soviet policy which ‘meshes’ both with the Maisky, Litvinov and Gromyko papers, and also that of MccGwire.

      However, Pechatnov does not raise the $60,000 question of why the analysis Kennan provided in the famous ‘Long Telegram’ sent from Moscow in February 1946 was so much more apocalyptic. Apparently he is writing a book on Kennan, so perhaps he will discuss the matter there.

      Among the things making MccGwire’s piece of continuing interest is that it is very much a military planner’s view of the Cold War. Like the Directors of Naval Intelligence in the two world wars, ‘Blinker’ Hall and John Godfrey, he had his schooling at the Dartmouth officer training facility, where he graduated as chief cadet captain and went to see as a 17-year-old midshipman in May 1942.

      After the war, he opted for Russian language training, and ended his service as head of the Soviet naval section of our Defence Intelligence Staff in 1965-7. In the paper, he was using habits of mind rooted in this background – it is necessary to clear your mind of everything that seems obvious to oneself, and painstakingly reconstruct how the world looks from the adversary’s point of view.

      What makes the paper particularly interesting is that it is partly intended to provide a context for the argument with which it ends, and which MccGwire and his Brookings Institution colleague Ambassador Raymond Garthoff were making on the basis of detailed analyses of changing Soviet negotiating positions at the time – that radical change in Soviet military strategy was likely.

      A central purpose of the paper, however, was to argue that in order to understand the present it was necessary to grasp that key elements of the analysis of Soviet policy in the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950 had turned out to be wrong. An irony however is that the intellectual heirs of that paper, the so-called ‘neoconservatives’, were able to claim that their view of the Cold War had been vindicated by the retreat and collapse of Soviet power.

      And that is a large part of the reason why we are in the mess in which we now find ourselves.


  2. “According to McGuire, it wasn’t until mid ’47 that the Soviet government finally got the message that ‘The Grand Alliance’ was over and that the USSR faced a US opponent that was determined to rebuild Germany against them.”

    This is one-sided, to put it very mildly. The Soviet Union was interested in continuing the “Grand Alliance” on the condition that it could extend its sphere of influence by whatever means it chose. To tell the story of continuing American and Western European hostility to the Soviet Union without taking into account Western reactions to Soviet activities in Poland, Turkey and Persia is downright dishonest.


    1. “This is one-sided, to put it very mildly.”

      Well, MccGuire’s paper (thank you David) is about Soviet threat perceptions, so of course it’s one-sided, since it’s about the threat perceptions of one side in the mid-late 1940s.

      And part of Soviet ‘new thinking’ in the late 80s was that Stalin inadvertently brought the Cold War on by the actions he took to secure the USSR against the future German Threat.

      Unfortunately, recent events show that the West now, and very possibly then given Truman & most of the US Executive Branch’s attitude towards Russians, will be/would have been hostile to any Russian/Soviet defense of any Russian/Soviet interest outside Russia’s present borders, so that line of Soviet ‘new thinking’ now lies completely discredited.


  3. What’s frustrating about this analysis is that it’s so close to getting it right. The authors are actually right that Europe is the greatest threat to itself, and even hint at the way this is actually true by talking about the “failure to tackle inequalities in society”. Of course, it’s complete nonsense to say that Europe is weak militarily, and although it certainly has its issues economically, these seem to be manageable. The real crisis of Europe is a crisis of legitimacy. It’s the richest place in the history of the world, and secure from any realistic threat, but no one’s quite sure what the point of it all is, although they tend to be quite sure that their self-appointed leaders don’t have any answers worth listening to. Michel Houellebecq’s book “Les particules elementaires” is a better guide to what’s wrong with Europe than what these “experts” are peddling. The trouble is that the kind of problems Houellebecq identifies are not susceptible to the kinds of technocratic solutions that leave “the right people” in charge and unquestioned. That’s how the need arises to externalize the threat so that the issue is Russians or Muslims or whoever else the bad guy of the day is.


  4. This think tank is there to propagate the Russia is a threat narrative

    Look at who funds them and that will explain their purpose.

    The type of people they employ are all there to sing the Russia is a threat tune

    Why ?
    USA hegemony, keeping the USA in Europe, and the Russians contained. The Cold War continues.


  5. Certainly, the EU spends 4X what Russia spends on the military, but it does seem Russia gets more for what it spends–although that’s not what the Carnegie idiots mean. As James points out, they’re singing for their supper and I doubt they’ll stop unless events (aka inconvenient reality) force them to.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s