The „Knight of the Ice Fields” and the Russian world order

A Neokohn főmunkatársa, Izraelben élő biztonságpolitikai szakértő.

For Russian decision-makers, „rational” decisions grow out of a completely different strategic culture, the culture of the endless plain, where paranoid knights of the ice fields must control a whole world order in order to feel somewhat secure. Analysis by Robert C. Castel.

According to an old Eastern joke, every Arabic word has three meanings. The meaning itself, the opposite of the meaning, and a kind of „camel.” The same can be said about the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Some analysts say the conflict will lead to an inevitable war, while others say a necessary path will lead to compromised peace. However, they are not yet talking about any „camel.” This kind of cacophony produced by the various expert opinions does not inspire excessive confidence in the layman; thus, in the future, it will be very difficult to convince him that we are not simply grabbing these analyses out of thin air.

I could put forward a whole series of arguments in our defense, but for now I will content myself with hiding behind the methodological pluralism of the profession. There are many ways to write a nice, tailor-made geopolitical analysis. One approach is based on the highly improbable axiom that the players in a crisis are fully rational, i.e., have all the necessary information and are therefore capable of making fully rational decisions. An analysis consists of the analyst taking the place of a player of his choice on the geopolitical chessboard and trying to identify the main dilemmas and make the best decisions in the given situation in accordance with their best judgment. 

            This method is generally accepted, but it is often misleading. 

In the mid-70s, an Israeli military intelligence commander issued a lengthy report explaining why Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would never make peace with Israel. When, in November of 1977, the Egyptian president landed his plane in Israel, journalists naturally held the general to account for his mistake. What was the expert’s response? „Sadat was wrong.”

Another method I’m going to use here does not attempt to consider the reasonableness of different decisions, but tries to understand the context in which they are made. Let us call this context, for lack of a better term, strategic culture. What is strategic culture? A nation’s traditions, values, behavioral patterns, symbols and past responses to national security challenges.

Which method is more effective? Neither is better than the other. Only a combination of different methodological approaches can provide a truly comprehensive analysis. The following analysis is not a criticism of Sz. Bíró Zoltán’s analysis, but complements it, looking at the issue from a completely different angle.

The cradle of Russian strategic culture is an endless plain with no natural borders and therefore under constant threat from all directions. The greatest threat on the endless plain is a simultaneous attack from several directions. The infinite plain is both a problem and a solution. A problem because infinite space requires infinite manpower to defend it, and a solution because, in the absence of geographical barriers, the distance itself can be made an obstacle. If we manage to push the borders far enough, sooner or later they will be based on natural barriers, mountains, rivers, deserts. Since these natural borders are very, very far away, Russian strategic culture is forced to calculate on a scale of thousands of miles.

Geopolitical short-sightedness on a vast plain can be deadly. It is this infinite plain that means that Russian strategic thinking can never be content with a regional perspective, but will always be forced to articulate itself at the level of the world order.

The greatest long-term threat to them is when a foreign power appears on the edge of the endless plain and imposes its world order on Russia.

This geopolitical Procrustean bed has been the incubator of Russian strategic culture from the nation’s myth-obscured beginnings. It is here that the problem-solving reflexes were formed that repeatedly reappear whenever a foreign power tries to impose its world order on Russia and the Russians have the opportunity to resist.

The first of these cases relates to a person who has been dead for seven centuries and yet to this day remains one of Russia’s most popular historical figures. For the older generation, who have still received their prescribed dose of Russian cinema, I probably do not need to introduce Alexander Nevsky, the “Knight of the Ice Fields.” Eisenstein’s classic film of the same name has all the trappings of a Russian geopolitical nightmare. A hostile civilization and a hostile military threat, the Catholic Teutonic Knights, invading the Russian plains from the west, the almost simultaneous Swedish threat from the north and the allied Tatar pressure from the south and east.

The emergence of Western Christian armies brought with it not only a military threat, but also a new and alien world order that threatened to engulf the no less ancient and no less Christian Russian civilization. Alexander Nevsky’s triumph on the ice of Lake Chud [Ed. note: Lake Peipus] did not only ensure the survival of Novgorod, but also the slowly emerging hegemony of the Russian world order in the world of the endless plain. The Knight of the Ice Fields and the cataclysmic battle on the ice of Lake Chudo became one of the most important symbols of Russian strategic culture.

The almost hopeless struggle against an invader with a quantitative and qualitative advantage, the defense of the homeland as a religious war, the Russian people ready to sacrifice everything as a collective hero at the center of events.

The latter is of particular interest to those of us who grew up on the epics of the individual heroes of the West. The contrast between the Four Tank-Men and a Dog and Top Gun, between the ideal of the collective hero and the individual hero, is the essence of the difference between Western and Russian strategic cultures.

The next Western power that succeeded in temporarily imposing a world order dreamed up by foreigners on Russia was Napoleon’s France. Russia cooperated with Bonaparte’s continental regime out of necessity for a time, but when the Czar backed out of the Continental System in 1810, the French had no choice but to try their luck where the Teutonic Knights had failed 600 years earlier. After the defeat of the Grande Armée in Russia, the Tsar’s armies did not stop at the borders of the empire, but pushed into the heart of Western Europe to ensure that Russia would be one of the co-owners of the new world order that followed Napoleon’s fall.

We saw the same pattern emerging in the turbulent years following the First World War. Russia’s defeat and the peace treaties that ended the war re-imposed a world order on Russia that was created by foreign powers and served their interests. But the new Russia, slowly emerging from defeat, revolution and civil war, did not accept the status quo. The consolidating Soviet power, guided by both revolutionary ideology and traditional Russian strategic culture, worked from the outset to replace the Versailles world order with a Soviet-Russian one. Within a few decades, at the end of the Second World War, Russia again played a decisive role in the creation of the new world order and succeeded in extending its influence far beyond its historical borders in an unprecedented way.

Why is all of this important for understanding the current Ukrainian crisis?

Knowing Russian history and Russian strategic culture, we can say that there is a very distinguishable pattern. In the long run, Russia has never been willing to live in a world order that they did not define, or at least did not play a decisive role in shaping. Even if they are forced to bow down to external pressure from time to time, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will not hesitate to withdraw from the forced world order, dismantle it, and take part in the formation of a new one.

Can this historical pattern be applied to the current Ukrainian-Russian crisis?

The answer is a definitive yes. With the fall of the Soviet Union, a world order collapsed, and the bipolar world was replaced by the Pax Americana. Its European proxies, NATO and the EU, have gradually encroached on the parts of the endless plain whose control had been a matter of life and death for Alexander Nevsky. Like the Catholicism of the Teutonic Knights, we are not talking about a foreign security threat here, but about the invasion of the heart of Orthodox Christianity by a heretical and materialistic civilization.

This invasion triggered the same strategic reflexes as the arrival of Napoleon’s, the Kaiser’s, and Hitler’s armies on Russia’s western border.

Westerners find it difficult to understand Russian paranoia. After all, we firmly believe that neither NATO, nor the EU, nor even the US empire mean any harm and only wish to bring peace, democracy and the ideals of liberalism to Eastern Europe. To this, a Russian general, after having had a good laugh, would reply that in the 1930s, the Germans were dancing in tights in the decadent Weimar cabarets, less than 10 years before they were at the gates of Moscow. The Russians cannot direct their defense based on the intentions of potential conquerors. Intentions are hard to fathom, they are amorphous and change rapidly. Russia is forced to make calculations based on the perceived capabilities of potential adversaries.

Russia’s determination to replace the American world order with a Russian world order, or at least one that is favorable to Russian interests, is not just a consequence of NATO and the EU’s eastward expansion.

This desire grows out of the roots of Russian strategic culture, and the ill-conceived eastward forays of the Alliance and the EU have only accelerated an already inevitable process. Russia’s long-standing rapprochement with another revisionist superpower, China, is eloquent evidence of this.

Only one question remains.

Does Russia find that the moment has come to join with the other „disenfranchised” superpowers in dismantling the American world order? Has US commitment to its Old World partners weakened sufficiently under the administrations of three rather isolationist presidents? Can the fault lines within NATO and the EU be exploited to divide, weaken and ultimately dismantle these constructs? Can the internal weaknesses of the Western world be exploited? Will it succeed in adequately weakening the problem-solving capability of an already distracted US superpower by fomenting multiple parallel crises?

If the Russian strategists answer these questions in the negative, there is the possibility of a peaceful resolution, or at least localization, of the current crisis. In this case, the greatest danger for the West is that of complacency, because the threat of Russian geopolitical revisionism will remain, and will continue to grow by the day; thus it would only be a matter of time before it erupted again.

If, on the other hand, Russian strategists answer these questions in the affirmative, Ukraine’s territorial integrity will become a very secondary issue. Why? Because this decision would mean that Ukraine would be only the first in line and that the same Russian road roller that rolled westwards across the endless plains on numerous occasions over the last two centuries would start moving again. And by road roller, we do not necessarily mean Russian armored divisions.

The Russian expansionist policy has many instruments, and it is not necessarily movements of conventional military force that we would see and feel.

Regardless of the means chosen, the US world order faces an immediate and serious challenge, and there is no guarantee that the entities that are axiomatic for us — NATO, the EU, the US dollar as the world currency and globalization based on US maritime hegemony — can withstand the test of endurance.

This all sounds very scary. Per rational thinking, or more precisely rational thinking as we know it, it may seem like a mistake or crazy to start such a process. However, it is important to bear in mind that the diversity of rationality increases with the square of the distance. What is “rational” for the European public is embedded in an extremely pacifist, passive and strategic culture devoid of autonomous agency.

For Russian decision-makers, however, “rational” decisions grow out of a completely different strategic culture, the culture of the infinite plain, where paranoid knights of the ice fields must dominate an entire world order in order to feel somewhat secure.

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