02 May 2022

Strengthening Russia: Austin's misguided policy goal

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After the meeting Austin made a statement that Moscow will almost certainly take as a provocation and that the US may come to regret. The BBC reports:

At a news conference in Poland after the visit, Mr Austin told reporters the US wants to see "Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine". . . . BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale observed that Mr Austin's comments calling for a weakened Russia were unusually strong for a US defence secretary. It is one thing to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression, it is quite another to speak of weakening Russia's capabilities, he said.

During a dangerous time such as the present, government officials must weigh their words carefully to avoid unnecessarily aggravating existing tensions. I would suggest that Austin's remarks do not conform to this principle. Given that Vladimir Putin has expressed concern at Russia being surrounded by NATO and would prefer to see a cordon sanitaire between his country and the west, one might question Austin's wisdom in expressing what may or may not represent a change in US policy. I would furthermore suggest that US policy should support a strengthening and not a weakening of Russia.

After several weeks of war between Russia and Ukraine, Russia's weakness is on display for the entire world. Moscow has been unable quickly to bring Ukraine back into its own orbit. Its troops are demoralized and have committed atrocities against the Ukrainian people. The supposed fraternal relationship between Russians and Ukrainians is in tatters, and Russia has now created a genuine enemy at its doorstep with Ukrainians more determined than ever to defend their country's independence. The stupidity of Russian policy is evident to most observers. Such stupidity is born of weakness. A strong country would see no need to treat its neighbours as Russia has Ukraine.

But Russia is not strong. Its political institutions have not successfully withstood one man's centralization of power in his own hands. Since the adoption of the 1993 Constitution, durable political parties have not developed, except for Putin's own United Russia and the remnants of the old Community Party. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are not the tightly disciplined military contingent needed to defend the country. Their personnel appear to have received no education in the historic principles of the just war and in how to conduct warfare with minimal collateral damage and civilian casualties. An unusually large number of Russia's generals have been killed in the present conflict. With weakness comes desperation, with desperation comes overt rage, and with rage comes the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. These are not the acts of a strong country but of one painfully aware of its own vulnerability in the international realm. American threats to weaken Russia further are not only diplomatically reckless but will likely be counterproductive over the long term. To aim for military weakness in a nation with nuclear weapons only increases the general risk to everyone.

I am persuaded that the world will be a better place with a strong Russia, secure in its own identity, with stable political institutions, and a professional military capable of keeping the country together and defending its vast territory against external aggression. Most of all, Russia needs a civic culture with public-spirited citizens capable of holding their leaders accountable for their actions without fear of reprisal from the top. This will not be easy to nurture and it goes against centuries of history, but it will be absolutely necessary if Russia is ever to outgrow its successive dysfunctional political regimes and move into a future characterized by greater civic well-being and widespread prosperity. In the short term, international sanctions are needed to impose a cost on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. These will presumably lessen its ability to wage its current war. But over the long term, those of us on the outside should favour making Russia a stronger and more successful constitutional democracy than it has been during the three decades of the post-Soviet era.

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