A new type of ‘countersanction’ Maxim Trudolyubov explains how torturing Alexey Navalny and repressing his supporters may fit into the Russian government’s larger foreign policy strategy
The Russian authorities recently threatened to designate the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens' Rights Protection Foundation, and Team Navalny’s offices as “extremist organizations.” In Russia’s hierarchy of “internal enemies,” any connection to an “extremist” organization can carry even more severe consequences than a connection to an “undesirable” organization or a “foreign agent.” Designating Navalny’s organizations as extremist would bring with it a wave of repression, implicating the many people who have helped these groups either through personal participation or financial contributions. The Russian authorities issued the threat immediately after the U.S. government announced new sanctions against Russia. Maxim Trudolyubov, editor of Meduza’s Ideas section, believes that the current wave of pressure on Navalny and his associates might be Moscow’s new way of issuing “countersanctions” in the absence of other options.
Please note. This article was originally published on April 19, 2021. You can read it in Russian here.
In any high-stakes game, whether political or economic, words have limited importance. The negotiations and final statements that get covered by the media are only the visible, final part of dialogues between countries, politicians, or entrepreneurs; what matters most are the gestures, threats, shows of force, and brinkmanship. Strategies like these are intended to strengthen one’s negotiating positions — to put pressure on one’s opponent, forcing him to take undesirable actions; to scare, confuse, and force one of the players to try and guess the other’s intentions.
It’s all a game
In the past, every country’s primary means of exerting pressure on other countries was military force. America’s “gunboat diplomacy” in dealing with Japan is a famous example. In 1853, Japan agreed to abandon its centuries-old policy of isolationism and sign a trade agreement with the United States. The decision-making process was likely expedited by the American navy ships waiting just off the country’s coast, threatening to shoot at the capital.
Decades later, Theodore Roosevelt described his approach to foreign policy with the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was referring to the United States’s right to interfere in Latin American countries’ affairs — in order to keep in place regimes acceptable to the United States. At the end of his second term, Roosevelt sent 16 American Navy ships (the “Great White Fleet”) on a trip around the globe, during which they made courtesy visits to various ports to demonstrate America’s military power as well as its peacefulness. Most importantly, the trip served to remind Japan, which had recently become a major maritime power after winning a war with Russia, that America had access to the Pacific Ocean as well as the Atlantic.
American politicians have contributed greatly to the coercive diplomacy lexicon. “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art,” said John Foster Dulles in an interview in the 1950s (see the description of Stephen Ambros’s book Rise to Globalism below). The Cold War as a whole can be seen as a continuous balancing act that was occasionally interrupted by periods of mutual escalation such as the Berlin Crisis of 1961 or the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the first case, tanks on either side of the Berlin Wall stood pointed at one another, while in the second, the two countries aimed nuclear weapons at each other.
The U.S. and the USSR kept this up for the entire second half of the 20th century, consistently avoiding direct military confrontation. Despite the prospect of mutually assured destruction, each side used aggressive rhetoric in an effort to convince its opponent that the use of force was possible. In this case, coercive diplomacy was effective, as both parties had both strength and evidence that there was a real possibility of it being used. In that kind of opposing relationship, it’s important to study the behavior of one’s opponent — to be able to decode their actions and understand them. After all, the point of the competition isn’t to exchange statements, which can be dishonest or misleading, but to exchange actions.
Running out of options
By building up troops on the Ukrainian border and continuing its escalation in the region, Russia’s actions resemble those of the Soviet Union in the Berlin Crisis: building a wall, sending in tanks, then demanding negotiations on the status of a territory (then it was West Berlin, now it’s the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics). It’s exactly the kind of brinkmanship that was typical during the Cold War. In general, threats of armed forces becoming operational, including nuclear weapons, as well as reports of new weapons and other military announcements, have come from Russia practically every year since at least 2008.
But a lot has changed since the Cold War era. Confrontation has become much more difficult and multifaceted, while nonmilitary methods of influencing one’s opponents have multiplied. Weapons are largely considered too crude to solve today’s foreign policy issues, their effects disproportionate to politicians’ goals. Political, economic, technological, and digital spheres of influence are created through market dominance, not military intimidation. These kinds of achievements are their own kind of force, but they don’t require a country’s navy to show up at an enemy port.
Thanks to American financial and technological dominance, the U.S. has a fairly large set of ways to influence Russia beyond the use of military force (China also has an increasing number of such measures). In addition to the sanctions recently announced by Washington, which cited evidence of a Russian cyber-attack as well as Russian interference in American elections, it’s possible that the U.S. will impose new restrictions on Russia. For example, they can block Russia’s access to certain technologies and opportunities on the global financial market such as various loans, they can make life difficult for oligarchs close to power, and they can continue to make public their data on Russian intelligence activities abroad.
Russia depends on imported goods, including technology, automotives, and produce, as well as foreign infrastructure, including financial and digital. When a country in that position declares traditional countersanctions, it’s usually its own citizens who get hit hardest. Almost any countersanctions Russia can implement have costs for the residents of Russia and not for residents of America or Europe; this has become clear whenever Russia has banned various produce, medicines, and software from being imported. Similarly, interfering with Europe’s gas supply serves primarily to hurt Moscow, while simultaneously strengthening the EU’s desire to diversify its oil and gas supplies; it’s ultimately Russian citizens who pay the price. The overused meme about “bombing Voronezh’’ is, unfortunately, evergreen.
The elephant in the room
While the US has limited itself to relatively soft measures thus far, it still has ways of ramping up pressure on Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has no comparable reserves. In their desire to continue moving towards a Cold War-style showdown, Russian leaders are running out of options. Russia’s government could have spent the past two decades creating the foundations for true self-determination in the 21st century: strengthening its financial system, encouraging technological development, and investing in digital infrastructure. But the only relatively successful Russian reform remains that of the military — a necessary part of development for a large country, to be sure, but not enough on its own.
In light of this, the Russian government’s plans to designate Navalny's organizations "extremist" can be considered another response to a fresh batch of US sanctions. After the attempt to poison Navalny in August of last year, and the increased publicity it brought to Navalny’s cause, a simple “dictator vs. opposition leader” narrative took hold outside of Russia. Western media outlets now talk frequently about Navalny and his associates, while Western leaders and diplomats have begun regularly reminding Putin about the opposition leader's fate. By declaring these people “extremists” and thus effectively placing them outside of the law, the Russian government is transferring at least part of the responsibility for their fate to its Western opponents. The Kremlin’s essential message is that if Western countries keep turning up the pressure, they won’t be hurting Russia — they’ll be hurting their own “agents” inside of Russia.
By insisting that Navalny is a “foreign agent,” and possibly an “extremist,” the Russian government is turning him into a hostage who can theoretically be traded for Russia’s own agents detained in the U.S. and other Western countries. If President Putin is reminded again and again of Navalny’s fate, he’ll be sure to remind others about arms dealer Viktor Bout, for example, who is currently in an American prison. The fate of Navalny and his associates, therefore, may be a negotiating tool.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it’s just torture and a slow execution.
In a high-stakes stand-off, it’s vital that each side analyze its opponent’s behavior — after all, it’s not words but actions that are important. However, it’s extremely difficult to understand Russian leaders’ behavior, because they’ve consciously chosen to leverage their unpredictability as a competitive advantage. Unable to respond to its opponents proportionately, Moscow embraces recklessness; the authors of a report on Finland’s NATO membership prospects, for example, wrote that Russia takes “pride in a decision-making process as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. The ability to make strategic decisions quickly and to implement them militarily and politically with great speed and agility sets Russia apart from the tsarist Empire or the USSR.”
In a famous parable about wise men and an elephant, several blind men try to study an elephant. One, feeling the trunk, decides it must be a snake. Another, standing next to the elephant’s leg, determines it’s a tree. A third, leaning on the elephant's side, believes that there’s a wall in front of him, and so on (there’s a poem about this by Samuil Marshak). Just like the "elephant in the room,” the Russian state seeks to crowd out any other large creatures and occupy the entire space.
The minds behind the “elephant” of Russian politics have a clear advantage over blind Western analysts and Russian commentators. We’re currently wondering why the accumulation of troops near the Ukrainian borders is necessary and how far the authorities plan to go in the fight against the opposition, but these questions have no good answers. The Russian authorities are constantly creating and changing their bargaining terms. The current Kremlin is a difficult-to-describe object, opaque; its motivations are obscure, and its rational decisions are being replaced with hysterical ones.
Recommended reading on this topic
The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas C. Schelling (1980)
A classic book by Nobel Prize-winning game theorist Thomas Schelling, first published in 1960. According to Schelling, most conflict situations are actually bargaining situations. This doesn’t mean that conflicts are zero-sum, however. The conflicting parties have a common interest-the search for a mutually beneficial outcome.
Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938 by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley (2010)
Rise to Globalism is considered by many to be the "definitive" history of American foreign policy. Historian Stephen Ambrose and his student Douglas Brinkley thoroughly analyze all the major conflicts involving the United States, from the start of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to the end of Bill Clinton's first term.
Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin (2009)
Russia’s “non-civil society” consisted of hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the party elite, the nomenklatura, the army, the police, and intelligence services. This force was opposed by a demoralized opposition and an intelligentsia that was unable to agree on anything. Stephen Kotkin connects the fall of the pro-Soviet regimes in Central and Eastern Europe not with the victory of the opposition, but with the USSR’s refusal to provide them with the support they had previously enjoyed. Kotkin compares the Soviet Union in 1989 not to a popular uprising but to a stock market bubble bursting.
Translation by Sam Breazeale