What Does Russia Want?
No. 2 2011 April/June
Julian Lindley-French

Member of the Strategic Advisors Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, Associate Fellow of Chatham House in London and Eisenhower Professor of Defense Strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy.

An Attempt to Solve the Mystery

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Winston Churchill, October 1939

What does Russia want? It is a question that many a Western leader poses these days. Nor is it an easy question to answer as so often Russia’s actions seem contradictory. What Russia wants is, of course, closely linked to how Russia is perceived. From a British perspective the current perception is not a good one, whatever the perpetually diplomatic Mandarins in London’s Foreign Office might say. This article offers a friendly but blunt British assessment of Russia’s international standing and the way it is perceived. With Russia’s presidential elections due in 2012, this question will become ever more pressing. Whoever wins power in 2012, Moscow needs to fix the problem of its national security strategy before Russia and its Western partners are further impoverished of power in this ultra-competitive world. Russia and the West sink or swim together – history is moving on.

Scotland, June 2010. It is four o’clock in the afternoon at Royal Air Force Kinloss. The entire base is standing in Hangar Four listening to a senior RAF officer announcing the scrapping of the Nimrod MRA4 advanced maritime patrol aircraft as part of cuts to the British armed forces that were announced under the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR). As he speaks, an ageing American P3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft that happens to be at Kinloss takes off to search for two Russian nuclear hunter-killer attack submarines that have gone missing near British waters. It is a scene straight out of the Cold War. The moment is not just ironic but vaguely pathetic that in this day and age Moscow still feels the need to play such games. Be it sending nuclear attack submarines in or close to British waters at a time of defense cuts or sending ancient TU-95 Bears to probe Britain’s advanced air defense system or even the 2007 harassing by Nashi of the British Ambassador to Moscow, such behavior does no credit to one of the world’s great powers. Indeed, far from intimidating the British it merely irritates and, of course, creates the conditions for what one day could be a tragic accident.

The paradox of such missions is all the more bizarre when one looks at Russia’s geo-political position. The only stable border that Russia has is with the West, its major trading partner; and yet much of the rhetoric that emerges from the Kremlin leads one to think that much of official Russia is still engaged in some form of Cold War. In reality Russia is in strategic partnership with the West but seems utterly reluctant to recognize – at least publicly – the fact of it. Indeed, given the nature of change in the world and Russia’s relative decline in it (much like Britain’s), Moscow has no logical alternative, unless of course the Kremlin wishes to accelerate the pace of Russian decline.

It is the inherent tension between Moscow’s declaratory policy and its behavior, between partnership and a false but still predatory instinct on occasions that is the focus of this article. Why are Russia’s most important set of strategic relationships seemingly so conditional, and why is Russia so eternally prickly in its dealings with the West, when strategic logic would suggest not just a reset but a wholly new approach? Be it Europe’s major powers – Britain, France and Germany (all of whom are economically stronger than Russia) or even the U.S. –all find it very hard to establish a strong, balanced and mutually constructive relationship with a Moscow that continues to act in an often capricious and unpredictable manner. To this seasoned Western observer old habits seem hard to kick, even if those habits habitually self-harm Russia’s security and standing.

The bottom strategic line could not be clearer: Russia is no longer a superpower even if some in the Kremlin seem to hanker after such standing. Consequently, Russia must recognize the nature of its decline (just like Britain) and better prepare for today’s challenges rather than re-fighting old ones. Consequently, no amount of irritating Britain – apparently as a way to send a proxy message to the Americans – will convince Washington that Russia deserves a special place in its policy beyond the natural standing that Russia merits.

The core message of this piece is also clear: Russia is a vital member of the Euro-Atlantic security community. Together, Europeans, North Americans and Russians (both European and Asian) represent a cornerstone of regional and global security and stability. However, if that cornerstone is cracked or rests on instable foundations then the adversaries and enemies that Russia shares with its Western partners will flourish. For that reason Russian concerns and its strategic view are extremely important to the West. That is why so much effort is invested by the West to develop a strategic partnership worthy of the name. Equally, Russia will never be given, nor can it demand, a veto over EU or NATO policy. Put simply, consistency, clarity and a constructive approach to challenges are needed from Moscow, and in return Russia will get the respect it apparently craves. Too often Moscow acts as the spoiler seemingly obsessed with thwarting the West even when it would be in Russia’s interest to side with the West.



‘Respect’ is a word Russians often utter when talking of and about the West. It is a mantra repeated by Russian officials high and low. Of course, Russia has the West’s respect. However, respect does not translate from Russian into English to mean special status. First, Russia is accorded the respect its relative position in the international system demands. According to The Economist, Russia is the world’s eleventh largest economy (after inter alia the U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain) and the ninth biggest defense spender (after inter alia the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Italy). And yet Russia seems only obsessed with being treated as an equal with the United States, which is clearly no longer the case.

Of course, Russians would argue with some force that history gives Russia a special status. That may have been the case in the post-WWII era, but as Britain understands – that was then and this is now. At the very least, for a balanced contemporary policy and strategy Russians will have to re-write their history if they do not want to be constrained by it. No one in the West of any sensitivity and historical sophistication underestimates Russia’s contribution in the Great Patriotic War and the fight against fascism which began for Moscow in 1941. Twenty-three million dead has an eloquence all of its own and gave Russia a special place in the victory over the Nazis. And yet for Britain, France and, of course, Poland (and much of Europe) the war began in 1939. Had not Stalinist Russia sided with the Nazis in August 1939 and conspired in the division and destruction of Poland, then the European war would have been won far more quickly.

Russia did not win the war alone and the effective refusal to acknowledge that fact for so long was a calculated insult that did much harm to Russia’s standing in key Western states. Thankfully the place accorded to the allies in the 2010 Moscow commemoration of the 1945 victory suggests that Russians are indeed beginning to recognize the sacrifice of others, not least the British, in the defeat of Nazi Germany and, indeed, the critical role the British played in keeping Soviet Russia supplied at great cost. How one views history shaped, how one views the present and the recognition of others will be vital if a stable contemporary, truly twenty-first century strategic relationship between Russia and the West is to be established.

Indeed, the recognition by Russia of Stalin’s guilt for the Katyn massacre of the Polish officer corps was a vital step on the way to normalizing perhaps the most sensitive of Russia’s relationships, that with Warsaw. It is only to be regretted that Moscow has been less than open with the full facts concerning the tragic crash of the plane carrying the Polish President Lech Kaczynski in April 2010. This has again stalled momentum towards a strategic partnership at a critical moment.

Respect is, of course, the flip side of the object of any national strategy – influence. Every country seeks it and crafts strategy according to its position, strength and opportunity. Not being a member of either the EU or NATO and having by far the longest land border of any country on the planet, Moscow must exert influence in very different and differing places and on a shrinking power base. It is no mean challenge. Moreover, no state today – not even the mighty United States – can achieve that alone, something a challenging decade has taught Washington. There was no, nor ever has there been, a unipolar moment. Partnership is critical for all.

Sadly, the Kremlin too often seems to eschew such partnership pursuing self-isolation. The anti-Western tone of the May 2009 Russian defense strategy may have been an attempt to communicate concerns to the Americans about modernization of their nuclear forces and capabilities but it back-fired, like so many of Russia’s attempts to “communicate.” At times the language seemed to Western observers not only arcane but verging on absurd. It is self-evident that the West is not the most likely source of threat to Russia, but clearly the most likely source of benefit.

In particular, the sovereign free choices of sovereign free European states to join NATO and/or the EU are not aggressive, anti-Russian acts. Indeed, for too long the implications of NATO and/or EU enlargement have been deliberately interpreted by Moscow as anti-Russian moves rather than reinforcing European stability. Ironically, such enlargement often concerns getting rich Americans and Western Europeans to pay for the defense of poor Europeans. Moscow should welcome such moves. Therefore, talk of “near abroads” and “spheres of influence” is as outdated as it is misguided. The result is that much of Russia’s foreign and security policy and strategy appears counter-intuitive – designed to counter the very partners the Russians should be cultivating. It is as though Moscow needs to remind the West of its existence because the West does not awake every morning obsessing about Russia.

Furthermore, the perception persists in the West of an occasionally aggressive state all too willing to go beyond the boundaries of acceptable state behavior to quell dissent or intimidate neighbors. The 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen and former KGB agent, is perceived by many (both official and non-official) to have had enjoyed semblance of state sanction. In spite of claims that Moscow was tracking Litvinenko’s killers prior to the act (which only came out in late 2010) such perception makes critical cooperation over counter-terrorism very hard to establish on a firm footing. The perception may or may not be true but it is there and it is damaging.

The same can be said for the 27 April, 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia amid the row over the positioning of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. The attack swamped the cyber-nets of much of official Estonia and was of sophistication hitherto unseen. The Estonian President linked the Kremlin directly to the attack, although no proof has ever been found to that effect. However, the impression in the West was that Moscow was once again engaged in a form of aggression. This is strange on two counts. First, political and popular perception is the fundamentals of any partnership or alliance and the attack had an impact on Western perception of Russia far beyond the borders of tiny Estonia. Second, if the West turned its world-beating cyber-capabilities against any state, the systems of said state would soon be fried.

This perception of counter-intuitive policy, posture and practice seems to be reinforced by the myths that have emerged in Moscow since the end of the Cold War. The most prevalent is the false idea that somehow the West “lost” Russia in the 1990s. Let it be clearly stated: Russia lost the West in the 1990s. The door was open to the West but the demands Moscow made were too great and the efforts at reform too little for Russia to meet the exacting standards of democracy, transparency, free movement and free speech that are critical to Western states.



Whilst many exaggerations are made of the “power” of emerging and re-emerging powers in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) new strategic power realities are apparent that will form and shape new relationships. Russia is, of course, included in the BRIC and, more importantly, was a founder member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. At one level, the SCO makes sound strategic sense. A stable axis between Moscow and Beijing would be good for Asian security and equally good for the stability of Russia’s periphery – the membership of the SCO reflects that goal. Moreover, both Russia and China face the challenge of Islamism from within and around their respective borders and Moscow is correct to position Russia to benefit from Asia’s economic growth.

And yet, the way that the SCO was established suggested that again old-fashioned thinking was all too alive and well in the Kremlin. Moscow, it seems, was intent on “balancing the power” of the West. Even if Moscow could be forgiven for interpreting U.S.-led incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan as either the latest iteration of the 19th-century Great Game which Russia lost to Britain or a new version of Containment, any such interpretation invests what passes for recent U.S. grand strategy with far more credit than it deserves. Moreover, even the most casual of glances at China’s interest in Russia’s Far East suggests that even in Kremlin thinking Moscow in fact needs the West far more than it needs China.

And therein lays the basic problem: in geo-strategic terms Moscow clearly needs the West far more than the West needs Russia. There are those in the Kremlin who might argue that the West is an artificial construct itself born of the Cold War and that with a bit of a push Moscow can “disaggregate” the constituent parts of the West. That would be over-simplistic and way over-optimistic. The values shared by North Americans and Europeans founded as they are on enduring institutions are more robust than many Russians seems to realize. Critically, North America and Europe together represent 70 percent of the world’s economy and 70 percent of the foreign direct investment flows both ways across the Atlantic, not the Pacific. The 21st century will still be the West’s century long before it becomes that of an instable and fractured Asia.

Furthermore, Russia’s foreign and security policy often seems to contradict Russia’s economic policy. Economically, Russia is clearly a part of the West. For that reason Russia seeks to establish a virtually monopolistic supply-chain oil and gas relationship with the rest of Europe (particularly the rich states). And yet, Russia’s capricious behavior and its tradition of using such levers to impose strategic influence make European leaders very wary of giving Russia such an opportunity. Indeed, it seems not to have dawned on some in the Kremlin that Russia might be blessed with copious amounts of oil and gas but for a one-commodity economy to be tied to one group of Western end-users ties Moscow to the West as much as it ties the West to Russia.

And yet, on critical regional-strategic issues Russia has continued to prove an extremely prickly partner. The cutting of oil and gas to Ukraine, allied to overt interference in that country’s internal political development, only reinforced the sense amongst many in Western chancellories that Russian policy was at times too aggressive, too inconsistent and too conditional for the Kremlin to be trusted.

This inconsistent conditionality at the heart of Russian policy was reinforced by the 2008 invasion of Georgia which, for the many profound mistakes made by Saakashvili’s Tbilisi regime, was an old-fashioned Realpolitik mistake of the first order given the damage it did to Russia’s image near and far. Again, it gave the impression of a Moscow obsessed with competing against partners rather than adversaries. This paradox of policy has been nowhere more apparent than in Russia’s attitude to the Iranian nuclear program, with Moscow seeming uncertain as to whether Tehran should be treated merely as a client of Russian technology and expertise, whether Russia should act as a leading Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council or whether Russia should see Iran as an opportunity to continue an outdated Realpolitik struggle with an American-led West. Blocking for the sake of blocking? Clearly, a nuclear-tipped Iran can only make Russia’s periphery even more instable.



Nowhere do the contradictions in Russian policy and strategy seem apparent than in its dealings with and about NATO. NATO holds a special place in the Russian mind being the totem of the Cold War and the end of Soviet empire. Surely, after a decade of incompetent strategy and the wholly ineffective use of force over the past decade it will sooner or later dawn on the Kremlin that NATO poses no threat to Russia. And yet, Russia still obsesses over NATO.

It was important to have Russia attend the Lisbon Summit and the launch of the 2010 Strategic Concept. And the emphasis on crisis management, cooperative security and strategic reassurance should itself reassure Moscow that finally it can rest assured that NATO is not and never will be an anti-Russian organization. Indeed, one can only hope that finally the NATO-Russia Council will emerge to become a truly useful forum for dialogue, rather than the hostage to occasional but fairly frequent Russian displeasure that it has been thus far.

There are also further grounds for limited optimism. Russia’s recent constructive attitude towards supporting the troubled NATO mission in Afghanistan by allowing critical supplies to transit Russia is welcome. Moreover, New START has given real impetus to the modernization of strategic nuclear policy all round, although the same cannot be said for the pressing need to modernize the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty.

The challenge for Moscow will be how it reacts to the long-overdue need by the Alliance to modernize Article 5 collective defense which necessarily must be considered in a global context rather than merely regional. This critical point is something Moscow seems to have missed – be it inadvertently or willfully. Considering NATO’s place in global security and defense is a whole world away from creating the aggressive NATO suggested by the Security Council Secretary, Mr Patrushev, back in 2009. Implicit in the Strategic Concept is indeed the ambition (although not the funding) to modernize collective defense and it is a legitimate ambition.

Russia should be part of such efforts, for it is clearly in Russia’s interests. Indeed, of critical and urgent importance is the need for all the Great European Powers (Britain, France, Germany and Russia) to work together with the United States towards such an end. This very process will reassure former Warsaw Pact NATO members (and partners) that new security relationships are being established across the Old Continent for the benefit of all.

Given that context, the 2010 Franco-German-Russian meeting to consider new European security architecture was at one level helpful. However, the quite deliberate exclusion of Europe’s strongest military power, Britain, was unhelpful, churlish and a little pathetic. Moreover, it critically undermined the utility of the meeting, making states that should be partners suspicious of not just Moscow’s motives but those of Berlin and Paris as well. Indeed, there was something very nineteenth-century about the whole concept, given that surely the lesson from Europe’s collective history is that institutions rather than blocs ensure sustained security and stability. Again, an opportunity missed.

However, it is missile defense that has become the true test of Russia’s strategic relationship with the West. To a Western observer it is self-evident that missile defense as currently envisaged is not only an essential element in a modernized Article 5 NATO collective defense (together with cyber-defense/deterrence, critical infrastructure protection and counter catastrophic terrorism) but is patently not anti-Russian. And yet the conditions Russia seems to be implying will be needed for Moscow to really participate appear yet again to be an attempt to veto an essential part of Western defense. If Russia persists with such a line, not only will Russia be denied partnership (and rightly so), but the West will proceed with such a defense in the face of Russian opposition rather than in partnership with Russia. This would be a failure for all concerned. Certainly, much of Moscow’s future relationship with NATO and beyond its strategic relationship with the West will depend on how Moscow handles this pivotal question.



This article set out to consider the question: What does Russia want? There is no clear answer. ‘Strategically incompetent’ is perhaps the kindest cut one can make against Moscow. It is an incompetence Moscow shares with London. From a Western perspective, it can only be because Russian foreign and security policy shows all the hallmarks of being the product of a very parochial bureaucratic politics internal to the factions within the Kremlin. Talking partnership and then sending submarines and aircraft against Britain can only mean either that the Russian armed forces are not under civilian control or that “policy” emerges from a constant process of compromise between various power-brokers. If either is true, then it does not augur well for the establishment of consistent policy and strategy vital for any real strategic partnership.

Of course, Russia is not a democracy in the Western sense. Indeed, sovereign democracy is not something Western democracies would recognize. However, nor is Russia an autocracy. Clearly, Russian public opinion matters to Russian leaders, just as Western public opinion does to Western leaders. However, is it not time to put aside the temptation to play on Russian traditional and popular fears of the West and resist those elements who want to take Russia and Europe back to a past that is where it is – the past? How the West is used and abused in the run-up to presidential elections will be watched closely and will impact upon relations with the West thereafter.

Nor is any serious Western commentator suggesting that Russia merely follows the West. Russia’s way will always be a distinctive way and respected as such. However, friendly advice would suggest Russians once and for all recognize what the West has become – a benign idea reflective of a stable partner. It is still an idea that millions in North Africa and the Middle East are struggling for. In any case, Russians already enjoy their own version of it – freedom.

There will be tensions. The trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky have left many in the West firmly of the belief that insufficient distance exists in Russia between the executive and the judiciary. The exploitation of natural resources in the High North will have to be carefully managed to avoid tensions, as will the future status of the Black Sea Fleet and its Sevastopol base. There is, of course, the complex and difficult situation in the North Caucasus. Much will depend on Russia’s sensitivity towards NATO’s extraction from Afghanistan and Moscow’s attitude to Iranian nuclear ambitions, as well as the turmoil in much of the Maghreb and North Africa mentioned above, the latter clearly being issues of legitimate European interest. Efforts to make life difficult for the West therein will only perpetuate a cycle of mistrust that for too long has prevented the establishment of a real partnership.

Certainly, the door is still open to Russia – it always will be. Indeed, Russia can have virtually any constructive relationship that it wants with the West. Russia is a truly great country, one deserving of utmost respect. Russia certainly has the profound respect of this author, hence the honest tone of this article. That respect will continue. Critically, the Russian elite must stop pandering to those elements in Russian society who define Russian “greatness” simply in terms of irritating the West. Russia is too great to be merely an irritant.

What does Russia want? Only Russians can answer that, but to do so they must be clear about what Russia needs and where Russia’s real interests lie. The essential mystery, which is part of Russia’s charm, will always persist, but the world is getting too dangerous for riddles and enigmas.