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Anticipating Putin: How Russia's conspiracy thesis holds the key to predicting its actions
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Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation

Anticipating Putin: How Russia's conspiracy thesis holds the key to predicting its actions

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed


Russian President Vladimir Putin has surprised the Western foreign-policy community repeatedly in recent years. He did it when he annexed Crimea in February-March 2014; he did it again when he ordered air strikes in Syria on 30 September 2015; he did it for a third time on 14 March 2016, when he declared that the Syrian mission had been accomplished. 

Each time, the West has been left playing catch-up - powerless to prevent the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-driven bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, unable to do more than watch as Russian aircraft began their campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. In the process, the West's long-standing twin-track policy of pragmatic engagement on issues of shared concern such as proliferation, chemical weapons, arms control and terrorism, coupled with tough talking in areas where Russia was perceived to be opposing Western interests and values, has been exposed as, at best, of limited effect.  

This paper argues that the West's difficulties in anticipating and responding to Russia's actions stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Russian leadership's world view. Without that understanding, the policy of pragmatic cooperation based on a rational calculation of Russia's interests is bound to come up short, because it miscalculates what Russia's leaders think their interests are. 

In fact - and it is an uncomfortable fact - the Russian leadership appears to genuinely believe that the United States is out to get Russia. This belief goes beyond the rhetoric of Putin and his inner circle: It is embodied in the country's key strategic doctrines, and thus forms the backbone of their relations with the rest of the world. And it is this belief which appears to have driven Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and which can be expected to drive Russia's future policies. 

The West, and especially the U.S., should therefore adjust their approach to take this belief into account. Russia is basing its actions on a flawed understanding of Western, especially American, intentions; the best way for the West to respond will be to base its own actions on an accurate understanding of the Kremlin's view. 

This will require a strategy based on four pillars: Analysis, anticipation, reassurance and restraint. Analysis, to form a more detailed picture of the way the Kremlin views events and how it then reacts to them; anticipation, to predict and, where possible, prevent further aggressive acts; reassurance of American allies that the United States is committed to their security, while reassuring Russia that America has no designs on her security; and restraint in the way the West reacts to Russia's actions. 

This paper will first examine the thesis of conspiracy voiced by the Russian leadership and how it is translated into official doctrine. It will then assess how that thesis explains the Kremlin's crackdown on domestic opposition; how it explains Russia's creation of foreign-language propaganda broadcasters; and how it explains the Crimean and Syrian operations. It will review the West's response. Finally, it will examine the policy responses required.

The thesis of conspiracy 

The Kremlin's current world-view is stark, striking and scary. According to senior leaders, including Putin, America is attacking Russia. The United States, dismayed by the rise of Moscow as a global center of power which could challenge its post-Cold War hegemony, is using every dirty trick at its disposal to break up Russia's alliances abroad and foment revolution at home. To that end, it has sponsored fascists in Ukraine, terrorists in Syria and Libya and mercenary pseudo-politicians in Russia itself; and it is stationing missile defense systems in Europe and Japan so that it could not just launch a nuclear war against Russia, but win it. 

This narrative of conspiracy is clear and consistent, and it has been developed over a number of years. Putin and top officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov have set it out repeatedly. The following quotes give a flavor: 

"In the 1990s and early 2000s, ... the support for separatism in Russia from across the pond, including information, political and financial support and support provided by the special services – was absolutely obvious and left no doubt that they would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment." - Putin, address to the Federal Assembly, 4 December 2014.1

"Yielding to an unjustified sense of euphoria in connection with the end of bipolar confrontation, the United States tried to implement the concept of a unipolar world, where it could reformat the situation in all regions and any state in accordance with its own ideas and interests. (...) The United States actively employs techniques to destabilise countries whose governments do not satisfy it for various reasons, and has effected regime change in a series of 'color revolutions.' This continues to be US policy." Lavrov, lecture on Russian foreign policy, 20 October 2014.2

"To start with, (the Americans) tried to use the so-called 'non-system opposition' like a battering ram to, let's say, lower the authority of the state. It didn't work. After that, even before events in Ukraine, we could clearly sense that our foreign-policy course, and our domestic course too, didn't suit those across the pond. As if Russia had become too independent, disobedient, it dares to speak its mind. They started a massive information war. And sometimes they even turned the facts upside down, saying white is black, and even launched direct insults at the president." - Ivanov, interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, 24 October 2014.3

The conspiracy thesis in Russian doctrine

Beyond rhetoric, the thesis of conspiracy has a prominent position in Russia's foreign-policy and military doctrines. The foreign-policy concept, approved in 2013, sets out the "basic principles, priorities, goals and objectives of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation." Its description of the global situation (paragraphs 5 and 6) echoes the Kremlin conspiracy theory: 

"The current stage of the world development is characterized by profound changes in the geopolitical landscape largely provoked or accelerated by the global financial and economic crisis. International relations are in the process of transition, the essence of which is the creation of a polycentric system of international relations. (...) The ability of the West to dominate world economy and politics continues to diminish. (...)  The emergence of new global economic and political actors, with Western countries trying to preserve their traditional positions, enhances global competition, which is manifested in growing instability in international relations."4

These are the first two paragraphs on policy (paragraphs 1-4 deal with general provisions); they set the scene for all that follows. It is thus legitimate to conclude that, as far as Russian diplomacy is concerned, the most important characteristic of the modern world is the tug-of-war for global influence between the decadent West and the rising (or resurgent) powers of Asia and the Pacific. By contrast, challenges which Western diplomats would most likely list as their foreign-policy priorities - terrorism, migration and proliferation - are lumped together in paragraph 16. 

The military doctrine tells a similar story.5 This is a particularly revealing document, because it was updated in late 2014, based on a version approved in 2010.6 The changes between the two documents are relatively small; it is therefore fair to conclude that their insertion was considered urgent enough to warrant a revision just four years after the original was signed.

The most important revision concerns the "characteristics and specifics of current military conflicts" (articles 12-13 in the 2010 doctrine; article 15 of the updated doctrine). According to the 2014 text, the first characteristic of modern conflicts is the "integrated employment of military force and political, economic, informational or other non-military measures implemented with a wide use of the protest potential of the population and of special operations forces". 

This wording greatly expands on the 2010 doctrine, which listed as the first characteristic "the integrated utilization of military force and forces and resources of a non-military character". The added elements in the 2014 characterization - political, economic and information measures, local protests and the use of special forces -  must, therefore, be taken as expressing Russia's understanding of conflicts which emerged after 2010. 

Apart from the Russian attack on Ukraine, the main conflicts which erupted in that period were the civil wars once dubbed the "Arab Spring". In each country - Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen - those conflicts began as a popular uprising against a dictatorship. They were spontaneous in nature, they were driven by local discontent with local conditions, and they took the United States by surprise as much as they did every other country. If anything, the primary characteristic of each conflict was the chaotic collapse of the state into warring factions divided along ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic lines. 

Yet if the Russian military doctrine is to be taken at face value, Russia's top military thinkers believe that a significant number of those uprisings were in fact staged by an aggressor who also used military force, special forces "and political, economic, informational or other non-military measures". While the aggressor state is not named in the doctrine, the only country which Russian officials regularly accuse of trying to orchestrate regime change is the United States. 

The doctrine also implicitly endorses the conspiracy thesis in its description of the military "risks" facing the Russian Federation. The 2010 and 2014 versions are almost identical; they both list, as their top four risks, NATO reinforcement and expansion; local, regional and global destabilization; "deployment (build-up) of military contingents of foreign states (groups of states) in the territories of the states contiguous with the Russian Federation and its allies"; and the establishment of missile defenses and other post-nuclear strategic capabilities. By comparison, terrorism features tenth on the list.

Three of these top four risks are clearly U.S.-centric. Russia has always seen NATO as a U.S. puppet; the reference to military deployments by "groups of states" around Russia's borders can only realistically apply to NATO (since Russia is a member of the other major alliances in the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization); and the reference to missile defense is couched in terms Russian officials repeatedly use when speaking of U.S. missile defense. 

Moreover, the 2014 risk-list adds three features to the 2010 list. Two of those three are also U.S.-focused. One is the "implementation of the global strike concept", a U.S. concept which Putin regularly criticises.7 The second is "the establishment of regimes whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation in the states contiguous with the Russian Federation, including by overthrowing legitimate state administration bodies." In the context of 2014, which regime in a state "contiguous with the Russian Federation" can the Russian military experts have had in mind? Only the Ukrainian regime of Viktor Yanukovych - whose fall Putin says he "knows for sure" was orchestrated by the United States.8

These are not mere rhetorical devices: They are policy documents drawn up by senior thinkers in the military and diplomatic corps, and approved by the president. Thus Russia's foreign-policy and military doctrines are entirely consistent with the thesis that the U.S. is out to overcome Russia, and has already instigated a string of revolutions to do so.

The theory in action (I) - foreign agents    

The Kremlin's actions, both at home and abroad, reflect the same world-view: They appear calculated to stave off a U.S. plot to undermine Russia with enemies at home and encircle it with enemies abroad. 

Domestically, the most obvious embodiment of this phenomenon is the Kremlin's notorious law stating that NGOs which received funding from abroad should be registered as "foreign agents".9 The law was passed soon after an unprecedented wave of protests against Putin's rule, in the first half of 2013. On 14 February 2013, Putin commented on the importance of implementing the law to the FSB board: "The regime governing the activities of NGOs in Russia is in place, and it also applies to funding from abroad. Obviously, these laws must be complied with. Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on our country or on our allies and partners, is unacceptable."10

Putin's choice of words (as translated by the Kremlin's official service) is indicative. He labelled the foreign funding of NGOs "interference" and "pressure", and he did so in a speech to the FSB. This places the actions of Russian civil society squarely in the arena of national security, and in the context of foreign "interference". While there are a number of potential explanations for this action, as we shall see below, the simplest is that Putin genuinely believed that Russian NGOs which received funding from abroad were acting as foreign agents, and "interfering" in Russian internal affairs. 

The thesis in action (II) - information weapons 

One key result of the Russian conspiracy thesis has been the Kremlin's much-discussed "weaponization of information".11 This has had both domestic and foreign-policy implications, and while the domestic decisions can easily be explained with the thesis that Putin is a cynical dictator clinging onto power, the foreign decisions cannot. 

Domestically, Putin took the key steps early in his first term, when he ensured Kremlin editorial control of the main TV channels. However, following the 2012 demonstrations, he extended his control of the Russian information space by decreeing the dissolution of the RIA Novosti news wire, and its replacement with the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, headed by anti-Western commentator Dmitry Kiselyov (memorably described in his European Union sanctions listing as the "central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine").12 This step was widely - and probably accurately - seen as an attempt to make sure that popular discontent never had a second chance at 2012. 

However, Putin's concern with information as a weapon goes beyond the Russian-speaking world. During his presidencies, Russia has progressively expanded its foreign-language broadcasting in an increasingly strident anti-Western campaign. While considerable time and effort has been spent on analysing the campaign, relatively little analysis has been dedicated to the question of why the Kremlin thinks it needs a (primarily) English-language propaganda campaign that costs it billions of roubles a year.  

That campaign has been running for over a decade. It began in 2005, when the Kremlin launched the TV station "Russia Today", ostensibly to "reflect Russia's view of the world." It gained a new impetus and a new actor in November 2014, when the Rossiya Segodnya agency launched the Sputnik "news" service, a multi-language service on the internet and on radio. Tellingly, Sputnik describes itself as a "provider of alternative news content ...  entirely geared toward foreign audiences".13

The two outlets' production goes well beyond efforts to present Russia's actions in a positive light. Sputnik, for example, has been found to have skewed its coverage of the United Kingdom's debate on European Union membership in favor of the "Out" campaign,14 while in the U.S., according to former RT America anchor Liz Wahl, RT's main goal is "to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West, and ignoring anything which is to its credit."15

These activities simply do not fit the narrative of a cynical kleptocrat muzzling the domestic media in order to stay in power. Indeed, if Putin's main purpose were domestic control, the significant funds allocated to the two (RT's 2016 budget stands at 19 billion roubles)16 would have been better spent on Russian-language media.

However, they do fit squarely with the image of a regime fighting back against a perceived information attack by the Western media. It is worth noting that Russia Today was launched in 2005, immediately following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, while Sputnik was launched in 2014, following the Crimean annexation. While post hoc does not necessarily equate to propter hoc, both Kiselyov and Putin have placed their information services firmly in the context of a competition with the West.  

Kiselyov himself explained the launch of his service in terms of U.S. hegemony: "There are countries that impose their will on both the West and East. Wherever they intervene, bloodshed, civil wars and color revolutions ensue. Entire countries fall apart. Iraq, Libya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, to name just a few. Many people already understand that the world doesn't necessarily have to believe that the actions of the United States work for everybody."17

Putin's own words reinforce this. In a speech to RT staff on 11 June 2013, he said: "When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the international scene, a player that wouldn’t just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also try, let me stress, I mean – try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams."18

As anyone who has ever compared, for example, the reporting of Fox News and MSNBC will know, there is no such thing as a monolithic "Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams". US broadcasters are marked by a plurality of ownership, a variety of outlooks and, in the case of outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC, a tendency to espouse diametrically opposing views. In the UK, meanwhile, broadcasters are subject to a code of conduct which includes the obligation to preserve "due impartiality" in their news reporting19, and can be sanctioned for breaching it (Fox and RT have both been found to have violated this code in the past).20

Yet Putin appears sufficiently convinced of the existence of such a "monopoly" to have invested billions of roubles into channels designed to fight back against it. If he does not believe his own thesis that his country is locked in conflict with the West, why did he set RT and Sputnik up? 

The thesis in action (III) - Ukraine

Far more damaging to international security than the launch of RT and Sputnik, however, has been the Kremlin's launch of military action in Ukraine and Syria. The first, and most striking, incident was the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.   

While much has been written on the effect of the annexation, relatively little analysis has been devoted to the reasons which lay behind it. Yet those reasons are worth examining, because taken at face value, the annexation was an extraordinary and risky act, carried out by a regime which had not, in general, previously shown itself to be fond of gambling.  

If Putin's own account of the invasion,21 given on highly patriotic documentary a year later, is to be believed, he ordered the operation into immediate action after one all-night debate with top military officials. Not only that, he judged it to be sufficiently risky that he considered placing Russia's nuclear weapons on alert.22 In the event, while war was avoided, the diplomatic and economic costs were considerable. Why did he take such a risky step in such a hurry?

Two main analyses have found favor in the West. Opponents of Putin argue that the annexation was a cynical ploy to boost his domestic standing, while his supporters argue that it was a response to the threat that Ukraine might join NATO. 

Neither theory really covers the facts. The "NATO enlargement" argument misses - among others - the fact that Putin had managed to torpedo Ukraine's membership bid as far back as 2008 by making sure that NATO members such as Germany, France and Italy opposed it. In the heat of the crisis caused by the flight of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it is hardly likely that Putin's most urgent concern was a possible change of heart from NATO leaders such as François Hollande of France and Antonias Tsipras of Greece, both of whom favor good relations with Russia, and would be unlikely to do anything as antagonistic as to accept Ukraine into NATO.

The argument that it was effectively a PR stunt for domestic consumption, meanwhile, tends to understate the risks that the operation faced. If Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Crimea had resisted their Russian attackers, or if the West (and especially the U.S.) had reacted more decisively, the operation could have ended up in a shooting war - as did the later attempt on the Donbass. While Putin's approval ratings at the time stood just under 50%, he still controlled the entirety of the state media, and was four years away from having to campaign for re-election - hardly a situation for political panic.23 If the Crimean adventure was a domestic gambit, it was a dangerously disproportionate one. 

It is therefore worth considering Putin's own language when he gave the order for the annexation - again according to his own account a year after the event: "I told all my colleagues, 'We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia'." 

This could be a lie, designed to reinforce the narrative that Russia had no choice in the annexation; Putin's record of truthfulness on the Crimean issue is less than pristine. However, in this case he was speaking long after the fact, to a wildly patriotic Russian-language documentary which had no need of convincing of the justice of his cause. There is, therefore, at least a reasonable chance that he was speaking the truth.  

If so, what forced his hand? In the speech he gave24 to announce the annexation, he advanced three main reasons: the people of Crimea wanted it, the Russians of Crimea would have been in danger from Ukrainain neo-Nazis, and the "fact" that Ukraine was discussing joining NATO: "Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia."

None of these reasons holds water. The reference to the "will of the people" can be safely ignored: The operation was staged as a takeover at gunpoint which left no chance for the Crimean people to express their will. The reference to fascists is a trope of Russian propaganda, demonizing the Maidan protests as a "coup" staged by "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites". As we have seen, even the reference to NATO is scarcely sufficient to explain such a rapid and risky move. NATO accession takes years, if it happens at all; it is hardly likely that Putin was so worried about his ability to block Ukraine's path to NATO (again) that he felt he had to give the order for the immediate annexation of Crimea.   

While none of these reasons appears to be true, Putin nonetheless gave an indication of his thinking in his speech: "Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun (...) They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle 'If you are not with us, you are against us.' (...) There was a whole series of controlled 'color' revolutions. (...) A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine." 

This passage - being a repetition of long-held grievances - was largely ignored by analysts (including this author) at the time. However, it holds the key to explaining Putin's Crimean gamble: That Putin saw the fall of Yanukovych as one step in a U.S. game aimed at overthrowing him and cowing his country. 

Only seen in that light does the Crimean adventure, and the subsequent invasion of Donbass, appear rational and proportionate. The chain of logic is then clear: The U.S. fomented rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 to deprive Russia of its traditional allies there. It then tried to sponsor rebellion in Russia in 2012. Failing in that attempt, it organized the overthrow of Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2013-14, not merely to remove one more Russian ally, but to station its own warships in Ukraine's Black Sea bases - warships armed with the precision-strike capabilities highlighted in Russia's military doctrine. And as chance would have it, the U.S. had sent two warships into the Black Sea in February 2014: The USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor.25 Both ships were still in the region when Putin gave his fateful order, the Mount Whitney heading for Istanbul,26 the Taylor reportedly run aground.27

Thus Putin and his military advisors, in the sleepless night after Yanukovych fled, could have seen his overthrow not as the end of the affair, but the beginning of a much more dangerous one. They might well have interpreted the Kiev coup as one step in a U.S. plot designed to bring missile-armed U.S. ships in Sevastopol. Far more than any dip in opinion polls, that would have appeared to be an immediate, compelling and existential threat. Thus Putin's comment on the danger of "NATO navies" being stationed in Sevastopol appears to contain a grain of truth.

It is an uncomfortable conclusion, but the annexation of Crimea appears to have been driven by the Russian leadership's conviction of a U.S. plot against Russia, rather than political or geopolitical realities. 

The thesis in action (IV) - Syria 

The latest manifestation of Russia's new-found activism abroad is its campaign of air strikes in Syria. Unlike in Crimea, this operation was preceded by a considerable public-relations campaign designed to portray it as a crusade against the terrorist group ISIL. It is instructive to read how Putin paved the rhetorical way for the strikes, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015:28

"We all know that after the end of the Cold War the world was left with one center of dominance, and those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that, since they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN, which, instead of rubber-stamping the decisions they need, often stands in their way. (...)

"We remember examples from our Soviet past, when the Soviet Union exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress. It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are 'democratic' revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

"In fact, the Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere. It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes."

Yet again, here is the accusation that the U.S. instigated the Arab Spring, coupled with the inference that ISIL was in fact a U.S. creation. A few weeks earlier, Lavrov had even implied in an interview that the U.S. was shielding ISIL targets from attack:29

"I hope I’m not talking out of school if I say that some of our colleagues from the coalition say they occasionally get access to information about the exact location of ISIS units, but the coalition’s commander (of course, the United States) does not authorize an air strike."

Once more, analysts interpreted these comments as a smokescreen, designed to cover the real goal, which was to provide military support to Assad by bombing the forces fighting him (and which did not, primarily, include ISIS). Analysis of open-source and social-media intelligence (OSSMINT) from Syria quickly showed that, indeed, the majority of Russian strikes were not targeting ISIS, and throughout the campaign, it was evident that the main beneficiary of the strikes was in fact the Assad regime, which progressively regained strongholds which it had lost.

That impression was reinforced when, on 14 March 2016, Putin unexpectedly declared "mission accomplished", in a televised statement also published on the Kremlin website:

"The objective set before the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces is generally fulfilled. I order the Defense Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of our military group from Syria."30

What objective had been generally fulfilled? Putin's definition was short and to the point: "We were able to radically change the situation in fighting international terrorism and take initiative in nearly all areas to create the conditions for the start of a peace process."

But it was also inaccurate. ISIS had, in fact, suffered relatively little from the Russian bombing campaign. Its key losses over the 2015-16 period had come in the north, at the hands of Kurdish forces; its losses to Assad's troops were relatively minor.31 The al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, meanwhile, had lost some of its territory, but it remained strong enough to launch an offensive against the more moderate Free Syrian Army just days before Putin gave his order.32 The Russian campaign did have some impact on international terrorism; to say that it "radically changed" it is wildly overstating it.

Indeed, the primary effect on the ground was to reinforce Assad. In the summer of 2015, regime forces suffered a string of high-profile defeats, losing their grip on Latakia and the area around Aleppo. By the time Putin declared the mission accomplished, Latakia was retaken and Aleppo was largely in government hands once more. The majority opinion among Western analysts is that this - the reinforcement of Russia's key ally in the Middle East - was the main goal of the Russian operation. This author would agree with that assessment.

However, the strikes did also have another effect, and that was to weaken significantly the U.S.-backed opposition forces fighting Assad. OSSMINT analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of air strikes in the early stages of the Russian campaign targeted precisely those rebel groups supported by the U.S. The tendency has been to explain this by postulating that Russia was fighting for Assad; however, it is worth at least considering the thesis that Russia was also deliberately fighting against the U.S. Certainly, the Russian strikes both made it more likely that Assad would keep his hold on power in Syria, and less likely that the U.S.-backed forces would manage to maintain a significant power base. More research is needed to clarify this point.

The Western response 

It has become a central plank of Western policy, and Western analysis, to ignore Russia's wild-sounding thesis of global conspiracy. This is entirely understandable: To Western experts, who are familiar with the difficulties their governments have running their own countries, the idea that they are involved in a U.S.-led conspiracy for world domination seems too outlandish to take seriously.

On the official level, the standard response has been to ignore the Russian leadership's wilder statements. The response by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf to Putin's December 2014 speech is enlightening in this regard:

"I’m not going to get in a back-and-forth, I think, with President Putin over an address he gave. What we’re focused on is working together when we can and making clear when we’re unhappy."33

This is the perfect definition of rational engagement: Ignore the irrational rhetoric and focus on the deliverables; or, as the British royal family might put it, keep calm and carry on. It is a policy which has always served American diplomacy well.

Western analyses also tend to dismiss the rhetoric. In essence, their thinking appears to be that the narrative of a U.S.-led conspiracy is so outlandish that Russia's leaders cannot possibly believe it; therefore the narrative must be a smokescreen for another, more cynical and devious policy.

In the words of historian Walter Laqueur, for example, "The most important component in Putinist ideology is nationalism accompanied by anti-Westernism. The origins of this intense anti-Westernism are not entirely clear; anti-Americanism did not exist before the Cold War to any significant degree. But from an eminently practical perspective, it has to do with the need of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, to justify its existence, budget, and policy. And Putin is a man whose mindset comes out of the KGB."34

In a similar vein, the Kremlin's use of the "foreign agents" law and its broader rhetoric of "foreign interference" in the wake of the 2012 demonstration is primarily interpreted as a cover for domestic repression by an undemocratic elite. In this analysis, Putin's main goal is to stay in power, and the narrative of U.S.-led subversion is a convenient and cynical excuse for a crackdown. In the words of Freedom House in its 2015 Nations in Transition report, "President Vladimir Putin’s decisions in 2014 to seize Crimea, invade eastern Ukraine, and deepen political repression at home can all be attributed, at least in part, to his fear of losing power after 15 years as Russia’s paramount leader. The Kremlin needed to marshal public support while distracting attention from growing economic problems and preventing any emulation of Ukraine’s protest and reform movement."35

There is a good deal to be said in favor of these arguments. They focus on specific policy goals, and leave aside debate about an ill-defined and wild-seeming conflict of superpowers. They highlight genuine issues of corruption and repression in Russia, and they avoid any danger of tit-for-tat rhetorical escalation, which could in turn lead to diplomatic repercussions.

However, they are all predicated on the assumption that Russia's leaders do not mean what they say. And the problem with such an approach is that, if Russia's leaders do, in fact, mean it, the West's entire policy set is starting off in the wrong place. After all, diplomacy is largely the art of working out what the other guy wants, and then using that knowledge to negotiate the result that you want. Starting off by miscalculating the other guy's wish list is hardly the best way into a negotiation.

And, as we have seen, there are a disturbing number of indications that Russia's leaders genuinely believe that the U.S. is trying to bring them down so that it, and the West more broadly, can hold onto the dominance it won after the Cold War. This thesis has been aired in countless speeches; it features prominently in the Russian state's military and foreign-policy doctrines; it provides an explanation for Russia's information wars and shooting wars which is at least as compelling, if not sometimes more convincing, than the idea that the Kremlin is run by a dictatorial clique trying only to hang onto power.

There is, indeed, one group in Europe which has tended to take the Russian comments at face value, and those are politicians who argue that the West "provoked" Russia by policies such as NATO enlargement, and that the correct response would therefore be to promise not to enlarge any more - or even to dissolve NATO. However, while this argument does take the Kremlin's words into account, it is nevertheless predicated on two other misapprehensions: That conflict with Russia can be prevented by making concessions, and that Putin and his inner circle are justified in what they say.

In fact, the most worrying thing about the Russian conspiracy theory is that it presents the world as a conflict which has already started. According to this theory, the United States began it in the 1990s by sponsoring Chechen rebels, and it is still going on today. Moreover, by doing so, the United States is opposing the "objective" course of history, which foresees the end of U.S. dominance and its reduction to the status of one Great Power among several. Those two ideas effectively lock Russia into an antagonistic paradigm whose logical goal is the "defeat" of the American "aggressor" and the restoration of the "objective" decline of the United States. No one concession in one area will be enough to satisfy that logic.

The second problem is that this approach assumes that the Russian leadership are justified in their complaints. This misses a vital point. NATO expansion is the factor most often mentioned by Western politicians when they make the case that the West antagonized Russia; but Russia's leaders in fact name the U.S.-instigated "color revolutions" in Ukraine and the Middle East at least as often. This is crucial, because those revolutions were actually spontaneous and domestic, not made in Washington. Therefore, the Kremlin's narrative of a Western "attack" is based largely on fantasy, not fact - and no amount of factual policy change will dispel the essential fantasy. 

How to respond?

The question for the United States, and the West more broadly, is how to respond. Whatever the justification for Russia's actions, they are aggressive, destabilizing and (in some cases) illegal. As such, ignoring them is not an option.

At the same time, Russia's perception of a non-existent conspiracy renders it more dangerous, because it is unpredictable. A realistic policy based on an understanding of the Kremlin's world view will therefore have to steer between two equally dangerous extremes. Ill-considered concessions could provoke a further clash; ill-considered action could provoke a Russian over-reaction.

To solve this, key planks are needed: analysis, anticipation, reassurance and restraint.

The first response must be to increase the West's own expertise through greatly strengthened analysis. While Russia is, realistically, only the "regional power that is threatening its neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness" that President Obama called it,36 it is still a militarily capable and nuclear-armed power which is able to cause enormous damage. The fact that it is governed by a relatively closed circle who are not subject to traditional democratic checks and balances, and who appear to share a common perception of a global conspiracy against them, should not be taken as cause for complacency.

In the first instance, much more analysis is needed in order to forge consensus in policy-making circles on the extent to which Russia's rhetoric of conspiracy does indeed match its actions. The author of this paper believes that Russia's actions can more easily be explained (and predicted) when the narrative of conspiracy is taken into account than when it is dismissed as a smokescreen; however, significantly more research would be needed to prove (or disprove) the thesis beyond reasonable doubt.

Beyond that, however, more expertise is needed to study the correlation between Russia's foreign-policy and military doctrines and its actions, and the correlation between external events apparently unrelated to Russia (such as the Arab Spring) and Russia's military deployments and exercises. Understanding how the calculus of conspiracy drives Russia's actions will be the first step towards working out how to handle it.

The second response must be to learn to anticipate Russia's actions and over-reactions, based on its perception of a U.S. conspiracy. There are many ways in which this could play a role.

Imagine, for example, a hypothetical pro-democracy revolution breaking out in Belarus. Judging by recent history, the West's instinctive reaction would be to praise the demonstrators, call for calm, offer limited support in return for sweeping reforms, and sit back to watch developments. However, Russia's instinctive reaction could well be to see the revolution as a U.S. coup and the precursor to the stationing of U.S. military hardware in the country; Western statements in favor of the revolution would be taken as confirmation of that fact.

Thus the West and Moscow would have completely different views of the gravity of the situation. That being the case, Russia could well come up with a reaction (such as the intervention of armed forces or paramilitaries to "restore order" or "protect Russian strategic interests") which would appear in the West to be a complete over-reaction. As such, it would be likely to draw at least criticism, if not sanctions, and this would feed the Russian narrative of a strategic battle with the West, and fuel a downwards spiral of recrimination and reaction.

To prevent such a spiral of over-reaction, if such a domestic upheaval were to break out anywhere around Russia's borders - not just Belarus, but Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or any other of Russia's neighbors - it would be vital for the U.S. to engage with Russia on the highest possible level at the earliest possible moment, to make clear that military intervention by either party must stay right off the cards. Telling Russia to stay out would simply feed its delusion; only a message that "We're staying out, you have to do the same" would have any chance of success.

Such anticipation would be even more important if a pro-Russian group were to come to power in a NATO state and to push for leaving the alliance. There is a real danger that, if that were to happen, Russia would see it as a golden opportunity to take the country out of the U.S. "conspiracy", assume that the U.S. saw it the same way, and launch a military intervention to pre-empt the anticipated, but entirely imaginary, U.S. strike. In Russia's calculus of conspiracy, the ends - protecting a now-friendly country against a U.S. counter-coup - would justify the means; but NATO would see it as an entirely unprovoked attack. To prevent such a risk, it would be crucial for the U.S. to engage with the Russian leadership as early as possible, to make clear that the country in question was off-limits to any form of foreign intervention.

Above all, anticipation of Russia's likely (over)reaction would be vital if Sweden and / or Finland (it is commonly assumed that the two would move together, if at all) were to make serious steps towards joining NATO. From Putin's point of view, this would be a catastrophe: An extension of NATO's border with Russia by some hundreds of miles, and the complete encircling of St Petersburg and Russia's Baltic outlet. As such, it could provoke an unpredictable range of Russian pre-emptive actions.

At the same time, it would present NATO with an awkward dilemma: The two Nordic countries are among the most democratic states in the world, while their militaries are already highly advanced and integrated with NATO. There would, in short, be no shadow of an excuse to reject, or even postpone, any membership bid (as was done with Ukraine and Georgia in 2009), other than that it would annoy Russia. And NATO cannot, for political reasons, give Russia a veto over its membership.

Pre-emptive diplomacy, strongly led by the United States, would therefore be critical from the moment the two countries' parliaments began seriously debating whether to abolish their traditional neutrality. Such a debate has begun in Swedish and Finnish society, and has led to a sharp rise in support for NATO accession - ironically triggered by Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine and its aggressive rhetoric towards themselves - but it has not yet reached the level of government policy. The diplomatic approach would need to have three goals: 1) ensure the independence of the debate in both countries, 2) maintain NATO members' cohesion behind the idea that Russia cannot be allowed to veto enlargement decisions, and 3) reassure Russia that any enlargement would not pose a threat. 

Balancing those second and third goals would be extremely challenging: Any insistence on the two countries' right to join NATO would almost inevitably be interpreted in Moscow as a message to Russia that it should shut up and let it happen. This is a case in which the most promising action might be a suggestion of a legally-binding agreement: Not the colossal (and unworkable) "new security architecture from Vancouver to Vladivostok" called for by Russia, but a modern equivalent to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. This should be aimed at limiting, and verifying, the deployment of key weapons systems in the "zone of contact" where NATO and Russian territory directly abut one another; and it should be aimed, not at building trust, but of managing mistrust. 

The obstacles to such a treaty would, of course, be considerable. Russia could be expected, for example, to demand that there be no expansion of NATO until the deal is done (in effect gaining a veto over future NATO membership); it could be expected to insist that the current U.S. plans to station missile-defense elements in Europe be abandoned. Longstanding sticking-points such as the Russian presence in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine would need to be dealt with; a method would need to be found to define the "zone of contact" in a way that makes surprise attack impossible, without exposing key Russian (St Petersburg) or NATO cities (Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius).  However, the benefits would be considerable in terms of transparency and predictability; and the offer of a treaty, followed by serious negotiation, would allow the West to address Russia's thesis of a conspiracy without giving in to it.  

Thirdly, the U.S. should continue to reassure its allies of its commitment to their defense, while doing what it can to reassure Russia that its intentions are purely defensive. This is, of course, a delicate balancing act, and may not always be possible. However, a twin-track approach to reassurance offers the best chance of success. 

On on the one hand, then, America should continue to reassure its allies inside and outside NATO that it is committed to defending them, including through the regular deployment of troops to their territory for exercises. Arguments that such deployments might provoke Russia miss the point: As Ukraine's experience showed, Russia is capable of invading its neighbors without the least provocation. Indeed, the greatest danger to the West is not that Russia would respond to an American "provocation" with overwhelming military force: It is that Russia would see a provocation where none exists, and attack anyway. The best way to prevent such an event is to make sure that NATO has enough forces in position to render a rapid, Crimean-style occupation impossible.

However, reassurance can go both ways: It would be prudent to ensure that all such deployments are carried out with as much transparency vis-à-vis Russia as possible, to reduce the danger of any misunderstanding. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is less a concern for U.S. land deployments in the Baltic States than it is for U.S. maritime deployments in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. As Russia's military doctrine sees it, the existential danger which the U.S. poses stems from its arsenal of precision strike capabilities, coupled with the growing U.S. missile-defense capability. U.S. tanks in Latvia will not be seen as a long-range precision capability; U.S. guided-missile cruisers in the maritime approaches to Russia might. 

Transparency would also be more important when it concerns deployments or exercises in non-NATO countries (above all Ukraine and Georgia) than when it concerns deployments within NATO. This is because, as far as Russia sees it, the worst has already happened with NATO states: They have already fallen into America's clutches, so military deployments which present a less than existential threat would not be viewed as an attempt to drag the country out of Russia's orbit. However, American deployments to NATO hopefuls such as Ukraine and Georgia would be taken as proof that the U.S. is trying to extend its steel rampart around yet more Russian territory, and be more likely to trigger an over-reaction. 

The final plank of a potential policy would be to exercise restraint in tackling Russia's already-existing campaign against the West. It cannot be denied that the campaign is ongoing, nor that it has found supporters, especially among those far-left37 and far-right38 groups which share Russia's conspiracy theory. However, the tools for dealing with such attacks are largely in place. There may well be a call to refine them; it would be highly unwise to go beyond them by contemplating any sort of counter-attack. 

This applies in the military, diplomatic, economic and information spheres. Militarily, the U.S. is right to reinforce its defensive presence in Eastern Europe (both NATO and non-NATO); it should not contemplate a deployment on a scale which could be viewed as a preparation for an attack. This is a relatively easy balance to strike on land, more difficult by sea or air. Here, as mentioned above, the key lies in ensuring transparency, so that the risk of misunderstandings is reduced. 

Diplomatically and economically, the best way forward at present is to preserve the current state of affairs unless a major change happens, for better or worse. Russia has already been excluded from the G8; many of its top officials and some of its economic entities have been sanctioned. Adding to the sanctions at this stage would be inflammatory, but removing them would be inadvisable: It would be seen as a sign that Europe is no longer willing to back America, and therefore invite further Russian pressure on Europe to break America's "hegemony". 

In the information sphere, finally, countermeasures could be considered against the Russian disinformation broadcasters, RT and Sputnik, when it is found that they have violated journalistic standards of impartiality (RT has already been sanctioned by the British telecoms regulator, Ofcom, for repeated breaches of those standards).39 Given that each country has a different approach to media standards, it is up to each country to debate whether the existing standards are strong enough; what is clear across the board is that there should be no attempt to conduct an information campaign within Russia, whatever the temptation may be. 

The reason for this restraint is simple: Any move to counter-attack, to use against Russia the weapons which it is now using against the West, would only serve to reinforce the delusion of conspiracy. That would risk turning into a spiral of paranoid over-reaction which could escalate into all-out war. 

In the final analysis, there is little the West can do to disprove the Russia's leadership thesis that there is a conspiracy against it; the most it can do is limit the damage to itself. That means not falling into the trap of behaving like the aggressor Russia already believes it to be. After all, it would be the crowning tragedy if the Russian misperception of a world war for domination were to turn into a real one. 

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