A Russian nuclear missile rolls through Red Square during the parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24 (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

October 27, 2020   6 mins

To read the newspapers, one would think it impossible to go online without being subject to Russian misbehaviour. From overt state propaganda (delivered by RT), to disinformation (delivered via Facebook), to outright cybertheft, Russia stands accused of delivering the 2016 Brexit referendum to Leavers, helping Trump to victory in the same year by undermining Hillary Clinton, and hacking and releasing gigabytes of documents from President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign. And only last month, the FBI reported that Russia is currently interfering in the 2020 US elections (with a pro-Trump bias). Reportedly this is because Russia wants to destroy Western democracies.

I am not saying that Russian has not developed, and is not using, a relatively sophisticated set of clandestine schemes to operate in the online world. But Russian activities on the internet (and on social media) receive much more prominence in the news relative to their actual importance in shaping the world in which we live. Most probably this is because journalists are obsessed with social media: it has upended traditional journalistic business models and made them all poorer with more stressful lives.

After all, the success or otherwise of a clandestine scheme could be said to be linked to its clandestine nature, which, judging by the number of legislature-led inquiries, reports, arrests and shutting down of Russian networks could lead us to conclude that the Russians are not achieving their aims. Furthermore, it is not clear that Russian activity has changed the course of a democratic event anywhere. As the outgoing head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Alex Younger, said recently:

“I haven’t seen in the UK any occasion where this stuff has made a strategic difference … The Russians did not create the things that divide us — we did that. They are adept, albeit in a rather crass manner, at exacerbating those things.”

(The UK conducts the same sort of cyber activities in Russia too, just as ineffective, and more as a result of the need to be seen doing something rather than doing something.)

So to a wider point: what are Russian strategic aims in 2020, and are they being reported accurately in the media? This is not a dig at the media per se. It is difficult to report on strategic issues: they are complex, multi-layered, and usually intertwined in a detailed history. Moreover, the public generally has a penchant for controversial articles and a short attention span, particularly for foreign affairs and defence matters. But here is what I think is the real story about Russia.

Russia has two main geostrategic aims. The first — an eternal one for Russia — is to establish a series of allied states in its near abroad. This region stretches from the Baltic states, through eastern Europe and the Caucasus, to the ‘stans. It would love to extend this ring of countries to Mongolia, but that battle has already been lost to China. In short, it is trying to recreate the breathing space that it had in Soviet days, pushing opponents — and their armies, listening stations, and espionage—further away from their border. Russia is so vast that it considers this buffer space geostrategically essential.

This aim, if you like, is driven by fear and we can clearly see the Russian activities that go some way to achieving this aim: the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the covert/proxy Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, as well as its current support for the Lukashenko government in Belarus, and towards Armenia in its current dispute against Azerbaijan.

Russia’s second geostrategic aim is to be a global player again. It wants to be listened to; it wants other countries particularly powerful ones to listen to it. It wants to be respected. This isn’t as silly as it sounds, in fact it is incredibly human: lots of countries’ leaders are driven by the perceived status of their country. And for President Putin, who considers the fall of the Soviet Union to be the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, this aim is driven by the idea of re-establishing Russian honour.

It is hard to see how Russian online activity achieves those two goals. Is “disrupting” democracy an end in itself, or a means to an end? It is far more likely to cause people worldwide to consider Russia a pariah state. Russia doesn’t want to be a pariah state; it wants to be a great power. The social media stuff feels, at best, like a distraction.

So what is going on?

Great powers are usually referred to as such because of vast economic, political or military power. Taking them in turn: Russia has a GDP a bit more than half of the UK’s (with approximately twice the population), a 10th of China’s, or a 14th of the United States’. Its political alliances with other countries are paltry compared with the US, or even China. Realistically, Russia can only compete on military terms.

Some figures. There are four militaries greater than a million-strong in the world: China, India, the US, and Russia. Russia has a similar sized navy to the US, twice as many main battle tanks, similar numbers of submarines, half as many aircraft … in short, while not at the same level as the US (or China) in terms of technology or global deployability, Russia’s military is at least in the same bracket as other great powers, particularly when that bracket is widened to include France and the UK, the other UN security council members. But there is one area where Russia does have parity with the US, and exceeds the capabilities of all the other great powers: nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are special in many obvious ways, but not least in the fact that they are the only type of weapon (along with their delivery systems, and systems that can defend against those delivery systems) that have been subject to arms control agreements where Russia and the US have specifically agreed to limit, or reduce over time, the numbers of specific types and categories of weapon.

Both countries understand that by limiting specific short range missiles (the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty), or systems to shoot intercontinental ballistic missile systems out of the sky (the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty), or overall numbers of warheads or delivery systems (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)), it is possible to reduce uncertainty about what one’s opponent is doing, and remove their ability to launch a successful first strike. If you can achieve these two things, nuclear weapons are much less likely to be used, or so the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction goes.

The problem is that these treaties have been breaking down. In 2002, the US pulled out of the ABM treaty because — they said — they needed missile defence against North Korea and Iran. In 2019, the US pulled out of the INF treaty citing Russian violations. The only nuclear arms control treaty in force is START: it came into force in 2011, and features limits on warheads and delivery systems that are a small fraction of the high numbers held during the cold war, and has robust inspection and verification mechanisms — but the treaty runs out in February next year.

Russia has proposed a five-year extension on the same terms (an option enshrined in the original treaty), but the US is saying that it wants to bring China in as well, as well as to expand the treaty to cover all nuclear weapons, not just those covered by the current treaty. Russia says this is not possible without a discussion about anti-missile defence, which the US says is off the table.

So, as a result of the breakdown of the ABM and INF treaties, Russia began to develop a range of new delivery systems including hypersonic missiles. From its perspective, it had to restore the balance that a more developed US missile defence system would upend. These new weapon systems are both short range (at a range that would have been covered by the INF) and intercontinental. One of the long range missiles has an ability to hit its targets at Mach 27 — yes, 27 times the speed of sound — which completely negates US missile defence.

Unveiling these (and other) weapons in 2018, Putin said “No one has listened to us … You [will] listen to us now.”

How did we get into this position? Unfortunately, the attitude of the US towards Russia during the pre-Trump decade can be summed up in President Barack Obama’s 2014 statement that Russia was a “regional power”, acting out of weakness rather than strength. It was not a top geopolitical foe, he said. Perhaps, rationally speaking, Obama was right, but he got the psychology so, so wrong. And strategy is profoundly psychological. Russia, and particularly Putin, wants to be a top geopolitical foe. It wants to be seen on equal terms.

Joe Biden has 16 days after his (probable) inauguration to agree to the Russian proposal of a five-year extension to START, the only current nuclear arms control agreement. Of course, the US needs weapons controls agreements with China, but they probably need to focus on AI, rather than nuclear weapons. Fundamentally, Russia wants to play at the top table, and an arms control agreement is a cheap way to allow them to do so: it implicitly acknowledges Russian “strength”, at almost no cost.

Issues such as these are the true strategic currents in the world today, not inconsequential meddlings on Facebook; if only the media would cover them that way.

Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.