Conspiracy theories dominate East-West relations: time for realism

New article by Mark Galeotti for Raam op Russia   about the latest big Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad-2017.

The big Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad-2017 is in full swing. Speculations as to what Russia is up to abound. The Kremlin, bizarre as it sounds, genuinely fears that some day it might face a military challenge from the West, while it is closing its ears to critics of its own conspiratorial world view. But something similar can be said for the West, argues security expert Mark Galeotti for RaamopRusland. So we witness mutual incomprehension exacerbated by the retreat of expertise and a clash of world views. High time for a realistic assessment of our relationship.

The much-discussed joint Russian/Belarusian Zapad-2017 military exercises are in full swing and, at least as of writing, Russia has not mustered 100,000 troops on NATO’s borders, invaded Ukraine or the Baltic States, shown signs of planning to occupy Belarus, or done any of the things that the more alarmist Western reports suggested. Instead, they seem to be precisely what one would expect, a major, regular sequence of training exercises, with a side-order of psychological warfare to exacerbate and exploit European neuroses. Zapad offers a useful window into Russian military thinking and capacities, but it also provides an interesting example of one of the fundamental issues behind the current Russia-West crisis: mutual incomprehension exacerbated by the retreat of expertise and a clash of world views.

Western worries…

In part, the Western hype about Zapad reflects institutional and individual interests. Getting European countries to reach the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence is an uphill struggle, and there is a political imperative to keeping people nervous as a means to this end. For Ukraine, and some frontline European states, there is also an advantage in leveraging a presumed threat from Moscow to attract support and deflect criticism. Then there is also a growing body of self-proclaimed experts eager to capitalise on the crisis of the moment with all kinds of half-understood but fully-bloodcurdling assertions about a mythical 'Gerasimov Doctrine' and a 'new way of war'.

Yet at the same time, it also reflects understandable concerns about a Russian regime that is not only still involved in combat operations on the territory of one of its neighbours, but also maintains a high tempo of intelligence and subversion activities across the West. It is also pouring a considerable proportion of its resources into military modernisation (around 30% of the total federal budget goes to security in its various forms), and its exercises seem to be wargaming aggressive, 'shock and awe' operations. Combine that with the bellicose rhetoric of the Kremlin and its propaganda mouthpieces, such as TV presenter Dmitri Kiselev’s relish at the thought 'Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust', and suspicions about the Kremlin’s intentions are not conjured from thin air.

You can read the full article here.

Dr Mark Galeotti is the IIR Senior Researcher, the Co-ordinator of the Centre for European Security of the IIR as well as an internationally recognized expert on transnational organized crime, security issues and modern Russia.