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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

What Is Behind the “Russian Expansionist Threat”

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By Prof. Manlio Graziano

In his famous “Long Telegram,” dispatched from Moscow on February 22, 1946, George Kennan, Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, explained to Washington the dire state of affairs in the USSR in the aftermath of the World War II and highlighted some of the constant features of Russian policy. Among these, he stressed the physiological expansionist inclination of both the Tsarist Empire and Stalin’s regime (between which he saw no solution of continuity). Kennan emphasized how the drive for expansion was rooted in the essence of the Russian state, as evidenced by its persistence despite the significant losses incurred during the conflict. However, he contended that this impulse posed a threat not to Europe, nor the Americans, but rather to Russia itself. He explained how the “Soviet internal system will now be subjected, by virtue of recent territorial expansions, to series of additional strains which once proved severe tax on Tsardom.” He added: should the irresistible urge to expand prevail despite all else, we must remember that Russian power “is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason, it can easily withdraw--and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”

To prevent the industrialized powers of Western Europe from exploiting Germany’s defeat to bolster their strength, the United States allowed the Russians to take Berlin and Prague in April 1945. Furthermore, at the Yalta Conference, the U.S. granted them not only all the territories previously promised by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact but also half of Germany and half of Europe. When Moscow, true to its nature, attempted to exceed the limits of its acquisitions despite its weakness – as in Iran in 1945-1946, Berlin in 1948, Korea in 1950, and Cuba in 1962 – Washington’s “strong resistance” forced it to retreat, precisely as Kennan had predicted.

The American (and Kennan’s) stance toward the USSR underwent a reversal between 1946 and 1947. Rather, the strategy to contain Europe was refined: alongside leveraging Russia against Western Europe, the United States decided to leverage Western Europe against Russia. This dramatic shift happened when the United Kingdom and France formed a political-military alliance (the Treaty of Dunkirk) in 1947, which was not directed against Russia (which was not even mentioned in the text), but rather aimed to counter “any renewal of German aggression” as well as “the unwelcome prospect of greater economic dependence on the United States,” as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said in the House of Commons. The Treaty of Dunkirk, expanded in 1948 to include the Benelux countries, was “hijacked” by the United States and, in 1949, transformed into NATO, an organization created to address the alleged threat of Russian expansionism.

Despite Kennan’s assurance that “Russia will remain economically vulnerable, and in a certain sense, impotent,” the entire political and military framework of the Cold War was constructed around the narrative of the “Russian expansionist threat.” This myth was exploited by Washington to compel the British and French to relinquish any vague aspirations of autonomy, dismantle their colonial empires, and keep Europe (and Germany) divided for forty-five years.

To be clear, as Kennan well knew, Russia is inherently, instinctively expansionist. In his 1987 political memoir, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt quoted a sentence attributed to a nineteenth-century Russian minister: “The Russian border is secure only when there are Russian soldiers on either side”. American historian G. Patrick March traces the remote origins of this mindset to the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. Since then, he observes, “a paranoid fear of invasion led to a compulsion to expand over their neighbors, lest they be expanded over.”

All that is true. However, wanting to expand and having the capability to do so are two very different things. The myth of the Russian threat, upon which the Cold War was built, is a perfect case study for understanding how an ideology can be fashioned: by taking a fragment of reality (Russia’s inherent expansionist tendencies), disconnecting it from historical context (the impossibility to expand), absolutizing it (the threat is always present); and finally, by adorning it with a range of compelling representations to sustain psychological mobilization, such as atomic shelters and instructions on surviving a nuclear attack.

Today, we are in a similar situation once again. Over the past few months, the threat of Russian aggression has become ubiquitous, with the possibility of war – ostensibly to repel a Russian attack – being voiced by nearly every European leader. From Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, the head of NATO’s military committee, who asserts that “a war in the next 20 years cannot be ruled out”, to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who suggests we have entered a “pre-war” era, to the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Sweden, the sentiment is widespread. The French president has even mentioned the possibility of deploying European troops to Ukraine. Whereas disarmament was once regarded as a virtue – with the former Italian President Sandro Pertini’s call to empty the arsenals and fill the granaries as a cornerstone of good civic education for Italian kids for decades – it is now viewed as a blameworthy vice. Sacrifices are being deemed necessary across the board, diverting public spending from social services to war production. “Tanks or kindergartens,” as summarized by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in late January, presents a stark choice facing our societies. Nonetheless, we are told, it serves a noble purpose; as Der Spiegel explains, the army of “citizens in uniform” would become “a defense force for democracy”. Only Putin’s friends, it is subtly suggested, dare to claim otherwise.

Why do we say that this recent conventional wisdom (“Russia is going to attack”) is an ideology, i.e., a twisted representation of the reality? Simply because Russia lacks the capability to invade anyone, least of all a NATO country. It is not a matter of lacking the will, but rather the sheer inability to do so. Throughout the two years of this futile war in Ukraine, Russia has sacrificed 49,281 of its soldiers, whose names were tracked down by the independent Russian website Mediazona. This is a toll more than three times greater than the casualties suffered during the ten-year conflict in Afghanistan (1979-1988), all for the sake of gaining a few additional square kilometers beyond those already occupied in 2014. In exchange, Russia has pushed two new countries into NATO’s arms, catalyzed the military reinforcement of its former sphere of influence – now extremely hostile – in Central and Eastern Europe, lost its French and German connections in Western Europe, lost control of the Caucasus, and is progressively losing its grip on Central Asia. Furthermore, it risks estranging India and it is increasingly at the mercy of China, a country that has historically instilled fear in the Russian leadership (as evident from Schmidt’s account of Brezhnev’s apprehensions in 1974, despite that at the time, China’s economy was scarcely larger than Spain’s and it was embroiled in a civil war). Moreover, internal tensions within Russia are simmering and may culminate in future upheavals. Even in the very improbable event of conquering the entirety of Ukraine, Russia would emerge from this war significantly weakened, facing many more enemies, exhausted and fearful, potentially reduced to a satellite of Beijing – unless the United States or some European good Samaritan extends a lifeline.

From where does the apocalyptic depiction of a potential Russian invasion arise? Essentially, it comes from an empirical (albeit flawed) observation and from various sets of needs, aspirations, and fears, which are more influenced by the reality of escalating international disorder than the specter of the “Russian peril” itself.

This empirical observation arises from the fact that the attack on Ukraine was executed despite being meaningless and absurd. Indeed, it lacked any sense, but the Kremlin held certain expectations regarding the behavior of the Russian army, the Ukrainian army and population, as well as the reaction of Germany and France, expectations that were contradicted by reality. Furthermore, when the test was conducted, it resulted in catastrophic outcomes. Repeating such actions after the Ukrainian disaster would only accelerate Russia’s eventual collapse. Putin, who sought to emulate Peter the Great, would instead be remembered in history books as a petulant replica of Nicholas II, devoid even of the aura of martyrdom.

The needs, aspirations, and fears stem from an increasing international disorder, to which Russia has certainly contributed but is far from being the linchpin. A year ago, in his last interview, Henry Kissinger, alluding to the U.S.-China relationship, remarked that “we are on the path to great-power confrontation,” in a scenario reminiscent of the conditions preceding World War I. Since then, the global landscape has deteriorated further, primarily due to the diminishing reliability of the United States.

For nearly eighty years, Europe’s security has relied on the American political order and American military protection. The same is true for Japan, South Korea, Australia, and numerous other Asian nations. India has constantly flirted with Russia but has always kept a possible American loophole open, especially since the rise of China. Today, however, nothing is assured, as American influence wanes and isolationist temptations become more pronounced – a tendency epitomized not only by Donald Trump’s bluster but also by Washington’s diminished capacity to manage global crises. Inevitably, international nervousness grows.

However, as mentioned earlier, needs, aspirations, and fears vary significantly from one place to another. In Europe, countries heavily reliant on the United States, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are deeply concerned not only about Russia but also about the newfound activism of Germany and France. Germany finds itself in a state of confusion, unsure of its next steps, divided between those hoping for American resipiscence, those willing to accommodate French initiatives, those contemplating how to re-establish ties with Moscow, and even those quietly reconsidering the possibility of the Sonderweg, Germany’s “special path,” in all its potential nuances. France, on the other hand, is more worried about the prospect of a German Sonderweg than with the “Russian threat”. Therefore, Paris seizes the opportunity presented by America’s growing difficulties to revitalize its “European strategic autonomy”, a strategy aimed at trying to restrain Berlin’s movements.

To hold it all together, and to mask these divergent interests and strategic disagreements among all the soon-to-be Washington’s orphans, nothing serves better than a “common enemy”, the specter of Russian expansionism. In the meantime, this makes it possible to warm up the psychological machine to ready the public for the sacrifices required for a widespread rearmament effort, the new ideal for the years to come.

Manlio Graziano, PhD, teaches Geopolitics and Geopolitics of Religions at Sciences Po Paris, at la Sorbonne, and at the Geneva Institute of Geopolitics. He collaborates with the Corriere della Sera and with the geopolitical journals Limes and Gnosis. He founded and directs the Nicholas Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis. He published several books in the US, with Stanford UP, Columbia UP and Palgrave. His latest book is Disordine mondiale: Perché viviamo in un'epoca di crescente caos.

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