Today is the 17th anniversary of the August coup in Moscow. The hardliners of the Politburo conspired with the Soviet military and security services to overthrow the reforming Communist, Mikhail Gorbachev. However, as we know, the coup failed and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
In the past week, we have had to confront the fact that the defeat of the hardliners was by no means as complete as it seemed at the time. The secret organs of the Soviet state have turned out to be far more robust than we had hoped. Indeed, almost any figure of consequence in the modern Russian Federation- seemingly with the sole exception of President Dimitri Medvedev himself- is a former member of the Soviet security services.
The education of the so-called "Siloviki"- the "security people", has been rather unusual. The core values of the KGB and the GRU were based upon a ruthlessly Manichean view of the world- Leninist conspiracy would undermine the capitalist "Imperialists". Any victory of the Soviet state was, ipso facto, a defeat for the hostile "Imperialist" powers and vice-versa. The strategic battle for control could not be seen in win-win terms, but only in a zero-sum game.
This has shaped the thinking of almost all of the power elite of the Russian Federation. In that sense, Russia is- and sees itself as- rather more than the legal successor to the Soviet Union. As I have previously noted, Vladimir Putin regards the fall of the USSR as a colossal geo-political defeat for Russia, and therefore his primary security goal is to restore decisive Russian control over the geo-strategic space of the former Soviet Union.
The increase in Russian influence over the former Soviet space might not, of itself, prove any kind of threat to World peace, were it not for the way that the Siloviki view power projection. Maintaining the zero-sum game view of geopolitics in the post-Soviet space leaves little room for non-Russian influence and no room at all for alliances across the former Soviet frontiers. The Siloviks do not respect the idealist school of international relations, and take an ultra-realist position in terms of the military balance.
NATO has therefore made a series of strategic blunders over the past few years. Despite the criminal nature of the Milosovic regime in Belgrade, Russia regarded Serbia as a friendly power- linked by history, language and Orthodox culture. "He may be an S-o-B, but he is *our* S-o-B" sums up their view fairly accurately. In that sense, what worried Russia was not the use of hard power- the NATO bombing- but the extent of Western support for the revolution that ultimately overthrew the regime.
When, in due course, the Rose revolution took place in Georgia, and the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the Siloviki believed that they were facing a challenge that was not only undermining Russian influence on the former Soviet space but which, indeed, posed a threat to their own rule in Moscow. The consequence has been that Russian hardliners now view any democratic movement anywhere in the former Soviet Union as implicitly hostile. As a result they have supported the existing authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan - at least partly to eject the American base there, while also rolling back the "tulip revolution" in Krgyzstan in order to achieve the same goal in that country. Perhaps the first critical NATO blunder was to establish bases in those two countries, particularly since Moscow began to see democratic change as a challenge to dominant Russian influence.
The next critical blunder has been to dilute and to over-extend the military power of NATO. When the bloc was formed, NATO was an integrated military alliance that fully expected to have to face a military challenge from Soviet aggression. However, following the end of the Soviet Union, it has ceased to be a military alliance but has become as much a diplomatic forum- and one struggling to find a real role. In the end, NATO membership has become simply a badge to denote support for Euro-Atlantic values. The irony is, that despite Russian concerns, NATO is not only far less inclined to oppose Moscow, it is actually not militarily prepared to do so.
The Russian aggression against Georgia now shows that Russia is quite willing to use overwhelming force against any country that it deems hostile. It judges, probably rightly, that neither the United States, Britain nor France is now prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend the newly expanded alliance. This leaves a security vacuum at the heart of Europe. NATO was built upon the strategic reality that in the face of a Soviet attack, such weapons would be used: mutual assured destruction thus became the ultimate reality and, it tuned out, a highly effective deterrent against Soviet attack.
NATO is not merely abandoning nuclear deterrents, but is leaving a fatal ambiguity in the minds of Russian strategic planners. The "empty words" that NATO has used against Russia show the alliance to be divided. The onslaught of Russian subversion against Germany and other powers has essentially paralysed any unity of purpose within the alliance- and left NATO's northern flank very exposed indeed. Russia has been infuriated by the hostile rhetoric, but is now contemptuous of NATO's ability to defend itself.
Russia will not respond well to the increasing independence of Ukraine, and will certainly seek- through all means- to impose its will there. Although some rather ill-informed observers have argued that the Russian minority renders Ukraine defenceless, in fact only 17% of the population is Russian, and of these the majority identify clearly with the Ukrainian state. What may actually render Ukraine defenceless is the lack of political will to support the legitimate Yushchenko government in the face of Russian threats. The Siloviki have already demonstrated that they are prepared to use assassination as a weapon against their enemies- including an attempt on President Yushchenko himself.
In the past year we have also seen deliberate Russian subversion against a NATO state: Estonia.
In the light of what has happened in Georgia, it now seems foolhardy to delay the establishment of a large-scale and permanent NATO presence in the Baltic. The repeated violation of NATO Baltic airspace is only reinforcing the Russian impression of NATO weakness. In addition, it seems clear that Swedish and Finnish applications to join NATO should be actively supported- and as quickly as possible.
Good fences make good neighbours, and the ambiguity that both the Bucharest summit and yesterday's Brussels summit is creating is highly destabilising. When dealing with the Siloviki, it pays to be very clear about where the boundaries are. Leaving the impression that NATO is no longer prepared to commit to the full defence of it members could be fatal. Leaving the impression that Ukraine is still part of the Russian sphere could be just as dangerous as defying such influence. As Russia continues to delay its withdrawal from Georgia- and to prolong its punishment of a previously loyal Western ally- the West must not merely talk- it needs to make a practical demonstration of the limits of its future tolerance.
A failure to do so will destabilise the whole of European security- and allow the restoration of Russian power even beyond the former Soviet border. Those who believe in political or national freedom would not survive long under the rule of the Siloviki, most of whom who still remain loyal to their origins as the Soviet secret police.