Book Review: Putin’s Master Plan to Destroy Europe, Divide NATO And Restore Russian power and Global influence by Schoen, D. (with E. Roth Smith)

Schoen, D. (with E. Roth Smith) Putin’s Master Plan to Destroy Europe, Divide NATO And Restore Russian power and Global influence. London: Encounter Books, 2016. Hb. pp.179. Index.

The authors of this book, Douglas Schoen, a Democratic campaign consultant and political advisor both in the US and to the heads of states of 15 countries, and Evan Roth Smith, a political strategist and communications consultant, seek to sound an ‘urgent wake-up call’ to deter further Russian aggression. To achieve this, they blend a denunciation of Western policies (chapters 1 and 3) with assertions of a Russian plan to establish a “Russian century” (chapter 2), bolstered by descriptions of Moscow’s re-armament and development of a ‘new kind of warfare’ (chapter 4), and various other aspects of nefarious Russian activities, including its use of spies, propaganda and cyber warfare (chapter 5), attempts to build international relationships with ‘rogue regimes’ (chapter 6) and use of Russian oil and gas (chapter 7) and political proxies (chapter 8) to influence European politics. The guiding thread is Western weakness and indecision compared to – and imperiled by – growing Russian strength, decisiveness, and aggression, a thread which sets up a series of proposed ideas that the authors claim will not just resolve the problems in Ukraine and deter Russia, but take the initiative and roll back the Russian threat.

The central arguments of the book do touch on important themes. The Euro-Atlantic community has not always handled its relationship with Russia well, and there is indeed a Russian strategic agenda. And over the last decade Russia has emerged as a competitor to the Euro-Atlantic security model, both in the wider European context and further afield, most obviously in Syria. Furthermore, many of the points the authors make will chime with a prevailing, orthodox view of Russia. And, of course, it is timely. Though written at a time when many in the US political elite – presumably including the authors – expected a Clinton victory, the authors emphasise that their recommendations draw on advice from across the US political landscape, from both Republicans and Democrats, servicemen and civilians, and long-term Cold War warriors and twenty first century optimists (p.124). Chiming as it does with a certain cross-section of the US political elite, it is well positioned to make a contribution as many seek to influence the incoming administration’s policies.

Yet if it appears to portray today’s predicament plausibly, this book is highly problematic and it will not serve to prepare an incoming administration of any hue in the USA (or Europe) for dealing effectively with Russian diplomacy or understanding the nature of Russian strategy, policy making and its priorities. It joins a lengthening list of supposed “wake-up calls”,[1] but its repetition of a series of frequently trumpeted Russian misdemeanours – though politically correct – induces a sense of pseudo familiarity with Russia that is based on headline recognition rather than fresh thinking or subject matter expertise. Worse, its simplistic approach leads both to misdiagnosis of the Russian “master plan” and the missed diagnosis of the ongoing process of Russian state mobilisation. Its recommendations, as a result, are short sighted and built on a confusion in the book’s own argument that renders them dangerous.

The book is little more than a harangue, critical of allies and foes across the world alike, but offering little insight into Russia and how it works (and does not). In its haste to make its case, it includes numerous gaps, imprecisions, confusions and sleights of hand, whether in terms of specifics regarding Russian military plans, comparisons in terms of defence spending, or in its framing of bigger questions such as the situation in Ukraine, which is highly simplified, and the suggestion that the Syrian migrant crisis precipitated the UK’s Brexit vote (p.10).

A large part of the problem is that the authors appear to have come fresh to the subject of Euro-Atlantic security, and, given the contents of the book, apparently without any previous knowledge of Russia. They suggest that the book is the ‘first comprehensive attempt to systematically explain (sic) Putin’s global strategy’ (p.vii), and that Putin’s unified strategy and vision for Europe has not been ‘thoroughly discussed or articulated in any meaningful way until now’.

Not so: there is a considerable amount of (much more) sophisticated work that has been done on most of the themes that they lay out. Russia’s energy diplomacy, for example, has been a topic of much interest for more than a decade, as has Moscow's critical and negative approach to the Euro-Atlantic security architecture; and lately the Russian cyber challenge has been explored in depth by subject matter specialists. Documents such as the Russian Foreign Policy Concept and National Security Strategy to 2020 have also both been analysed in depth – though there is no recognition of that in this book.

Importantly in a book that seeks to describe the challenge posed by Russia, and the “Russian Master Plan”, the authors have not used Russian language sources. They attempt to cover over this by taking quotes from Russians that have appeared in English language media (The Economist, The Washington Post, The New York Times all feature prominently), even when referring to Russian documents and speeches that are readily available in English. On the odd occasion when “Russian sources” are used, they are flaunted as “smoking guns”: RT features, occasionally, and the National Security Strategy to 2020 makes an appearance at the very end of the book, but only in the form of “Gotcha!” moment.[2] The authors supplement this with material drawn from interviews with a range of unnamed individuals in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Georgia to bolster their argument, but not only does this import a certain approach to understanding Russia, it serves to emphasise the sense of remove the authors have from their subject, and the book in many ways becomes “Russia without the Russians”.

This sourcing has two important consequences for the quality of the book. First, it short-changes the reader and misdiagnoses Russia and the nature of the challenge. The Russian leadership does have plans, and is indeed pursuing a strategic agenda – but even though they are directly relevant to Russian foreign policy and Euro-Atlantic security these do not feature in this book.

The Russian leadership has long criticised the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and often in terms much more vivid and direct than Schoen and Smith cite. It would have been useful, therefore, to have included Russia’s proposals for a reconsideration of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and even a new European security treaty. These were proposed (not for the first time) by Moscow in 2008-2009, and led subsequently to the OSCE’s Corfu Process. The proposals were flawed in many ways, but their features still underpin the Russian leadership’s long-term approach to Euro-Atlantic security.

A bigger problem is the omission of the so-called “May Decrees”. Signed into force by Vladimir Putin in 2012, senior figures in the Russian leadership, including Putin himself, repeatedly indicate that they frame Moscow’s strategic agenda. Importantly, though these documents provide an outline of Russia’s foreign and security policy priorities, they also point to an extensive domestic agenda. Indeed, that domestic agenda dominates the May Decrees (9 of the 11 decrees address domestic subjects) but it is entirely absent from this book. With such significant gaps, it feels only incidental to note that the authors do not even acknowledge the existence of, let alone examine the various specific strategies and doctrines published by Moscow that would have been relevant, such as the energy strategies, and Information Security doctrine. Nor do they mention the establishment of important organisations in Russia, whether they be the Popular Front or the National Guard, and their role in Russian strategy making.

The second consequence is that the authors are unable to explore the well-documented problems that the Russian leadership faces in implementing its plans. The result is that Vladimir Putin is presented as decisive, even omnipotent and omniscient, as able seamlessly to command and control a wide network of international proxies and allies – when achieving effective command and control even within Russia is actually a challenge. Moreover, while the book sketches out a series of supposed Russian strengths, the weaknesses and problems Moscow faces are largely absent. True, the military is being modernised – and spending has been high of late. But this follows decades of almost no investment in military and security capabilities. True, Moscow has some economic tools, including energy, for influence on the international stage. But the Russian economy more broadly is unreformed, much of the industrial base is obsolete, and national infrastructure is limited and often decrepit. Grasping this albeit ambiguous balance between strength and weakness, and where the Russian leadership is in its long-term modernisation transition – and the problems it encounters in doing so – is central to understanding the scale of the challenge that Russia both poses and faces, but it is entirely absent from this book.

Yet another superficial rendition of “Putin's Russia”, Schoen and Smith’s is the usual one dimensional version – one more notification of and linking up of several externally visible dots of various aspects of Russian bad behaviour, all built on the false assumptions that Russian strategy is both made in a vacuum and also somehow impervious to any – all? – of the problems that all strategists everywhere have always faced. Why the Russian leadership acts in the way it does not feature in any meaningful way, nor does any sense of strategy as the bridge between plans and their implementation, the coordination ways and means to achieve goals in a dynamic environment.

The approach the authors take to the Euro-Atlantic community, its response to the current predicament, and the situations in Ukraine and Syria, is similarly simplistic. To be sure, there is room for self-criticism: the Euro-Atlantic community, including the US, has been repeatedly – and often unnecessarily – caught by surprise by Russia, and mistakes have been made: government expertise on Russia has been allowed to wither, and many have simply assumed, against much evidence to the contrary, that Moscow would simply fall in line with Euro-Atlantic thinking and become a partner.

As so often with these “wake-up calls”, however, the tone of the denunciation, even for a political advocacy book such as this, is unnecessarily vituperative – the invective directed towards some Euro-Atlantic leaders, particularly but not only Barack Obama, is often little short of that directed at Putin himself. The authors also simply dismiss the many and various political, economic and military initiatives under way to address the situation, asserting that they are merely “token gestures” (p.vii) and “handwringing” (p.123).

Again, there is plenty of room for the authors to have suggested improvements: there is a sense, for instance, that these initiatives might all be more coherently coordinated to make them more efficient and effective. But beyond repeating a call to protect and assert Western values, Shoen and Smith instead assert a ‘host of straightforward, achievable measures’ to turn the tide against Putin and his ‘goon squad of fellow tyrants’ (p.124). These include the ‘enormous amount’ that can be done for Ukraine, they suggest, starting with the provision of lethal weapons and financial assistance to address the Ukrainian economic crisis. Similarly, in Syria, the West should on the one hand establish a “no-fly zone” to close air space to Assad and the Russians, and on the other arm and supply Syria’s Kurds, even in the face of Turkey, ‘which has done little to warrant American deference’ (p.128).

These measures – and the others that Schoen and Smith propose, such as permanent US bases in Eastern Europe, and NATO ‘expansion’ (sic) to ‘capture the dynamism of so-called New Europe’, even including the possibility of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership – are in fact not straightforward but highly contentious and difficult. Ukraine’s profound and structural economic crisis is not simply due to Russian sanctions or ‘forced on (Ukraine) at the barrel of Russian guns’ (p.125) and thus cannot simply be fixed by fire-hosing it with international money, nor will its security be improved by a ‘straightforward’ influx of weapons. Furthermore, supplying the Kurds regardless of any opposition from an important NATO ally would have important ramifications for the alliance that the authors do not consider, and the question of a “no-fly zone” in Syria has already been addressed – the Russians have established one. To attempt to break this would undoubtedly lead to an exchange of fire between the US and Russia, with obvious escalatory consequences.

Such nuances or concerns do not appear to worry the authors, who advocate ‘a vigorous assertion of US power’ (p.140), and even explicitly state that, ‘in short, America must be ready to act militarily to force the cessation and eventual reversal of Russia's acts of aggression. If we refuse to do so, Putin has won already’ (p.135).

This call to arms, however, is at odds with much of the book’s own argument about the state of the Western alliance. Though they note in passing at the outset of the book that the US and Western Europe constitute the greatest military, political, economic and cultural force in human history with an overwhelming preponderance of the world's military and economic strength (p.7.), the rest of the book focuses on NATO and Western weakness, on ‘just how unprepared the West is to respond to Russian aggression’ (p.xii), and how, even if politicians wake up to the threat, it will take ‘years to refocus budgets, procurement, training, and strategic preparation on Russia’ to bring NATO militaries up to speed (p.31). ‘As it stands’, they argue, ‘NATO is a failure, both in Europe and the US. Our militaries are dilapidated and shrinking’ (p. 41). There is ‘no strategy, no plan and no tactics’ (p.vii) to deal with Russia. This is not a sound foundation from which to deploy force – and there should be little doubt that almost all the policies recommended here would certainly create the conditions for, and likely lead directly to war, one for which the authors themselves acknowledge the Euro-Atlantic community is not ready.

There is much to say about Russian strategy. And yes, the Euro-Atlantic community’s relations with Russia have been at an impasse for nearly three years (and they were stagnating well before then); indeed an increasingly obvious contest over both values and interests has emerged over the last decade between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia. But this book does not – cannot – illuminate these points to Western policy makers, and thus it cannot provide an incoming US administration (or those in Europe in 2016 and 2017) with the tools to deal more effectively with Russian policies.

In some ways, though, this is more of a book about US and its foreign policy. In arguing for a reassertion of US power to protect and advance the Western values (the ‘global project of liberalization’) that have underpinned the international global order since the end of the Cold War, the authors argue that ‘the pitiful state of the American-centred alliance system is clear evidence that the way we approach foreign relations needs to change, and soon’ (p.134). Yet their recommendations, which indicate that the authors have paid barely the briefest of nods to what has already happened this century, are tantamount to the advocation of “more of the same, but more assertively”. Successfully dealing with Russia, and the range of other challenges that the authors point to (the ‘reassertion of global Islamic jihadism in the form of ISIS, Iranian expansionism, Chinese revanchism, and a host of other foreign policy catastrophes around the world’ (p.134)), will require a blend of strength, resilience and dialogue built on a more nuanced and sophisticated diagnosis of these challenges individually and as a whole. Perhaps the next “wake-up call” will include some consideration of this.

[1] See review of Shirreff, R. 2017 War with Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command, As an aside, it is worth noting that the loudest of these “wake-up calls” have often been written not by Russia subject matter experts, but instead those with knowledge of Western political or military developments.

[2] ‘In an updated version of Russia's national security plans, released publically, Putin names the United States as a direct threat to Russia's interests, writing that Moscow's international goals have prompted “counter actions from the USA and its allies, which are striving to retain their dominance in global affairs”. There we have it, straight from Putin, an indication of how he views the United States as a threat and obstacle to Russian plans’. (Emphasis added) p.139. If this is indicative of the state of awareness and understanding of Russian thinking in US political circles, then we are in a great deal of trouble.