In a recent documentary Vladimir Putin recounted that when planning the annexation of Crimea he even thought about calling a nuclear alert. Whether this remark is true or false, Putin undoubtedly was striving to impress upon the audience an image of the gravity of the crisis as he saw it and therefore to appreciate his masterful and resolute management of the crisis. But for us this remark raises deeply troubling perspectives and not just because it shows how hysterical and inflated Russian threat perceptions are and how they could lead to the ultimate military miscalculation of nuclear weapons use.
Scholars analyzing Russia habitually pay insufficient attention to issues of Russian threat assessments, civil-military relations in Russia, and the urgent need of democratizing Russia’s security sector. This episode shows why such reform has long since become urgent. If Putin actually considered calling a nuclear alert, this shows that the special services and armed forces, who are tasked with providing accurate threat assessments, are not just out of control but are also systematically and deliberately mendacious, habitually inflating threat assessments to cater to Putin’s worst instincts and enshrine their own bureaucratic position. Furthermore, they do so with insufficient appreciation and even a cavalier approach to the risks they thereby run. This point heightens the danger that we, Russia’s people, and neighbors face from this regime’s continuation. Not only is this entire network of security organizations exempt from any kind of effective democratic control, it is apparently becoming increasingly brazen in its actions and more pathological in its views of the outside world.
Indeed, Putin’s March 26 address to the FSB’s board is notable for the complete acceptance and institutionalization of the xenophobic, besieged fortress mentality that licenses this systematic threat inflation. In fact such centrally mandated but also long-established threat perceptions have both fostered and now dominate policy. In effect such thinking reinforces the inherent structural tendencies towards systematic paranoia in Russian security thinking (and we are not dealing with deranged individuals). The fostering of this uncontrolled atmosphere of pervasive fear, menace, and the corresponding systematic organization of hatred is visible throughout Russian policy and cripples not just people’s lives but also their mentalities. And at the same time it justifies an inordinately large military and police establishment and the increasing international isolation of Russia in world affairs. But most dangerously this mentality and its institutionalization all but guarantees the ever-present specter of real war that Putin has now created and which could spiral out of his control due to the fundamental misreading of the outside world.
On the other hand if Putin is cynically lying about the consideration of nuclear weapons because he knew or should have known that there never was any Western or NATO threat then we are again encountering a systematic policy to create a situation of mass delusion and psychosis among the Russian people. This internal xenophobia already manifests itself in heightened attacks on Jews and Muslims in Russia, as well as on dissidents. This is an atmosphere in which the poisonous rivalry between the special services and Ramzan Kadyrov’s hit teams can flourish and leads the way to the recreation of conditions favorable to the incitement of mass terror and repression inside Russia.
In other words, if Putin was telling the truth on this point he is deliberately bringing the country to the brink of an international and/or domestic catastrophe while also stimulating the development of what I earlier described as the collective psychosis of mass militarization against unknown and seemingly all-encompassing enemies. And even if he is merely cynically posturing for enhancement of his domestic ratings and for the deeper institutionalization of this paranoia and mass delusion, Putin is setting the stage for an internal war like others we have seen in Russian history. This domestic explosion of all the trappings of the full-blown police state does not have to reach the levels of the Oprichnina under Ivan Groznyi or Stalin. It will be bad enough if we come to see the kid of conspiratorial police state that appeared under Alexander III or Nicholas II where police and revolutionaries freely intermingled and the police or their agents among the revolutionaries conducted political assassinations of prominent political figures, including members of the royal family. Alexander Herzen described this as the romance of the police. And we have now reached the stage of Russian history where the police are in full control and rule through unchecked absolutism and despotism.
All these considerations make it ever more urgent that we understand the urgent need to advocate in and out of Russia not just for civil and human rights, including property rights, and the rule of law but also for the democratization of the entire system of national security structures. Yeltsin’s failure to do so was among the most glaring failures of the 1990s and the potentially catastrophic consequences, reaching all the way to potential use of nuclear weapons have now openly appeared. And the fact that the absence of effective democratic controls over the system of state security has such potentially global repercussions means as well that the democratization of the entire state, including this sector, has now become a matter of international urgency. Experts like Aleksandr’ Golts and Alexei Arbatov warned about the dangers of failing to address these issues twenty years ago but they were not heard. If we fail to grasp the vital necessity of addressing these issues as well how long will we have to wait until the chance to do so arises again? Neither is it pleasant to imagine under what conditions this question may become so topical as to become clear to all observers In many ways, and not only the ones we have discussed here, the continuation of Putin’s regime means war. Do we have to wait for another, larger war to grasp the urgent necessity of addressing these questions?