Would Russia Attack the West?
Would Putin dare attack the West? The question is alarmist, but it needs to be asked, especially as the Kremlin turns increasingly desperate in Ukraine and the rhetoric of Russian policymakers and propagandists turns increasingly harsh. Russian policymakers have generally stated that their response would be harsh only if the West attacked Russia or if some combination of events were to endanger the Russian state’s existence. Russia’s television personalities, propagandists, and dime-novelists are a different matter. Can the West or Ukraine seriously threaten the Russian state’s existence? Is there a red line that they dare not cross lest the transgression provokes World War III?
Short of invading Russia proper and advancing in Blitzkrieg-like fashion or firing missiles on Moscow, there is none. Unless the Russians just happen to decide that a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive or a Western military presence constitutes transgressions of some serendipitously generated red lines (although even then they’re far more likely to respond with a renewed attack on Ukraine’s civilians than with an attack on the West). To make matters worse, a desperate Russian elite could decide that firing a missile at Warsaw or invading northeast Estonia might be a convenient way of acting tough at home and abroad, testing NATO’s resolve to follow through on Article 5, and thereby enhancing the Kremlin’s deteriorating legitimacy. That being the case, Western policymakers have to build uncertainty and unpredictability into their assessments of Russian behavior.
Given such high levels of uncertainty, the West can best defend itself from some sudden onset of aggressive Russian madness by clarifying its own position and making it crystal clear to Moscow. As to what those harsh measures would be, it’s best to keep the Russians flat-footed and guessing.
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