Moscow's History of Unforced Errors Is the West's Hidden Advantage

commentary

Mar 4, 2024

Flowers at the grave of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny following his funeral at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024, photo by Stringer/Reuters

Flowers at the grave of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny following his funeral at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024

Photo by Stringer/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 3, 2024.

In challenging the West, Russia often shoots itself in the foot. It has done so again with the murder of Alexei Navalny on the cusp of a Ukraine vote in Congress.

Moscow's mistakes are so frequent or serious that they substantially weaken Russia's position.

The West commits unforced errors too, but Russia does more self-harm. Over the years, Moscow's missteps have rallied support for NATO, prodded Congress toward action against Russia, and angered European governments.

While policymakers cannot count on Russian blunders continuing, it's worth considering the number of unforced errors Moscow has committed over the years and the consequences it has been forced to endure.

History may judge the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to be modern Russia's greatest blunder. Ukraine has thwarted assaults on its largest cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa), recaptured half the land lost at the war's outset and sunk or damaged a third of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. More than 400,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and wounded. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are joining Europe and likely NATO, which is rebuilding and deploying more forces closer to Russia.

History may judge the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to be modern Russia's greatest blunder.

Share on Twitter

In dealing with the West, how could Russia have erred so badly? Well, it has had a lot of practice. And it may not have learned the right lessons.

Astounding blunders began early in the Cold War.

In 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded Allied land access to West Berlin (countered by the Berlin airlift) and organized a coup in once-democratic Czechoslovakia. These outrages helped the West build support for the creation a year later of NATO, a military alliance the USSR despised.

In 1962, the USSR secretly tried to install nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. After the United States imposed a naval quarantine, it withdrew. Soviet leaders saw the retreat as “bordering on humiliation.” The United States won wide praise for deftly managing the crisis.

Kremlin aggression sometimes causes unwelcome blowback in Congress.

In June 1979 amid fanfare in Moscow, Presidents Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II Treaty to limit long-range nuclear arms. The invasion of Afghanistan six months later jinxed Senate approval. And some 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

In the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Americans demonstrated against President Ronald Reagan's proposed nuclear arms buildup. In 1983, the USSR shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing all on board including 62 U.S. citizens. This eased the passage of Reagan's nuclear plans.

Aggression can also provoke special ire in Europe.

In the 1970s, the USSR began secretly deploying SS-20 missiles against Europe and Japan. In 1977, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called for NATO to respond. A few years later amid shrill Soviet threats, the alliance deployed its own missiles.

Over a half-century, Russia became a dominant natural gas supplier to much of Europe. But Russia's share of European Union imports has nosedived from over 40 percent in 2021 to 8 percent in 2023. Germany closed Russia's Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

The burden of this history of own goals is weighty. Yet at times, Russia escapes blowback because the West has other priorities or is naive.

In the 1990s, the G7 invited Russia to join even though it was not a stable or prosperous democracy. (Russia was ousted after it annexed Crimea.) When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the West had other interests: NATO wanted and gained Russian rail access to supply its forces in Afghanistan, and the United States was eager for the 2010 New START Treaty, which reduced both sides' long-range nuclear arms.

The West is not without blunders that benefit Moscow. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-trained anti-Castro exiles embarrassed the United States. America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite opposition from Russia helped it gain stature. Now, after the horrific Hamas attack last October 7, unstinting U.S. support for Israel leaves Russia an opening in the Global South.

Western support for Ukraine could hasten Russia's decline or weaken its imperial regime.

Share on Twitter

In Ukraine, Russia's history of blunders with the West may have come full circle.

Like the Berlin blockade, the war on Ukraine is giving lifeblood to NATO. Like the invasion of Afghanistan, the Ukraine war may nudge Congress to punish Russia. As with the fielding of SS-20 missiles, Europe sees the Ukraine invasion as a direct assault on its security interests. Unlike in 2008 with the war on Georgia, this time Western pressure on Russia is mounting, even amid the Gaza crisis.

Western support for Ukraine could hasten Russia's decline or weaken its imperial regime. It is drawing down reserves to fund the war economy. The civilian economy faces a scarcity of Western capital and technology. Living standards may soon bear much of the war's cost and could demoralize Russians. These factors likely abetted the collapse of the USSR.

The West cannot count on more unforced errors by Russia. But President Vladimir Putin and his ex-KGB cohort seem more likely to double down on their Ukraine blunder than to make amends.


William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND, and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and senior advisor at the Helsinki Commission.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.