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Updated: 3 weeks 4 days ago

Midrats: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Thu, 14/04/2022 - 17:27

I was back on the Blog Talk Radio show Midrats this week, talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s strategy, what might happen next, and consequences for Russia’s domestic politics. The recording is now available on the show’s website. The show description is as follows:

Episode 621: Russian Military SITREP with Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg

For over 11-years, once a year or so today’s guest has joined us on Midrats to discuss the latest military and national security developments with Russia.

With the war waging in Ukraine and in the process of transitioning to a new phase, there couldn’t be a better time to hear from Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg who will be with us for the full hour in a wide ranging discussion about the buildup to war, and the important takeaways so far.

Russian Media Analysis, Issue 12, March 25, 2022

Mon, 28/03/2022 - 16:01

Here are the abstracts from the latest issue of our Russian Media Analysis newsletter. You can also download the full text PDF version.

1. INVASION OF UKRAINE: NATO STRATEGY

Russian analysts are still focusing on the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine. Many point out that the ongoing war, while leading to a de facto defense arrangement between the “collective West” and Ukraine, has also hindered it from formally joining the alliance. Many authors believe that this is a benefit to Russia, although it has come at the cost of NATO unity and an amplification of arms supplies to Ukraine.

2. INVASION OF UKRAINE: EU STRATEGY

Connected to, although distinct from, the issue of Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, is the desire by its political leadership to join the EU. While Russian commentators are broadly pessimistic about how much defense cooperation there now is between Ukraine and the West, they are more optimistic that Ukraine’s EU bid will remain stalled for the foreseeable future. Although both sides have made many symbolic gestures to signal an agreement for membership down the road, concrete steps are harder to find, and the internal political machinations of the EU will further slow down integration.

3. INVASION OF UKRAINE: RESPONSES TO WESTERN SANCTIONS

More than a dozen articles offer responses to international sanctions against Russia, featuring reactions ranging from optimism to pessimism, and including skepticism and determination to wreak economic havoc on the West. Some serve to reassure the Russian public that even though foreign industries are leaving, they will still be able to access certain goods. Others discuss the prospect of more serious sanctions, such as EU bans on Russian oil and gas imports, or a U.S. sea-route trade embargo against Russia. The authors argue that such measures would introduce a number of cascading effects that would harm countries “hostile to Russia.”

4. INVASION OF UKRAINE: RESPONSES TO NATO MILITARY AID

The details and implications of NATO and U.S. military aid and efforts to arm Ukraine are the subject of several articles. It is evident that there is concern for the unified support that Ukraine is getting from the West, but there remains a confidence in the narrative surrounding Russian capabilities against the perceived lackluster quality of provisions going to Ukraine.

5. INVASION OF UKRAINE: U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Several articles address U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s decision to cancel a Minuteman III missile test following President Putin’s announcement that Russia put its nuclear forces on a “special combat regime duty.” While some experts characterize the test cancellation as an effort to avoid nuclear escalation, one article suspects that it helped avoid drawing attention to the stagnant U.S. nuclear modernization process. An additional article takes issue with the optics and messaging that the U.S. is responsibly conducting nuclear policy, when it has conducted “mock nuclear strikes” in recent exercises and increased the frequency of nuclear-capable aircraft flights near Russia’s border.

6. INVASION OF UKRAINE: PERCEPTIONS OF A NO-FLY ZONE

As Ukraine’s request for a West-enforced no-fly zone remains unmet, Russian commentators caution against the implementation of anything remotely close to it and highlight the escalatory nature of such potential actions by NATO and the U.S..

7. INVASION OF UKRAINE: UKRAINE AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS CONSPIRACY

A recent issue of the Ministry of Defense newspaper posits the conspiracy theory that “Ukraine’s scientific establishment has sufficient competencies to create a nuclear explosive device.” The content of this article appears to be drawn from a TASS report that cites the Russian intelligence agency SVR as a source of claims that Ukraine had an advanced missile and nuclear weapon program.

8. INVASION OF UKRAINE: THE BIOLABS CONSPIRACY

Coverage of the conspiracy theories about U.S. DTRA reference laboratories in Ukraine continues to proliferate across Russian media sources. It now includes official newspapers as well as MOD and MFA officials. Coverage has also begun to note statements made by Chinese government officials on this issue.

9. CHINESE-RUSSIAN RELATIONS

A number of articles in the Russian press assess the state of the Russian-Chinese relationship as well as China’s diplomatic and economic relations with the United States and the broader West. Many commentators are quick to point out that China is resistant to following along with the West’s sanctions regime against Russia, although also acknowledging that there remains much to be desired in terms of China’s closeness to Russia itself.

10. SCANDINAVIAN COUNTRIES AND NATO

The ambitions of Scandinavian countries to join NATO continue to be a worry for Russian commentators. Yet given the scale of hostilities in Ukraine, experts are quick to note that parallels with Ukraine-and any potential Russian reaction to new Scandinavian member-states-are improper. Although Russia assesses the membership of Sweden and Finland to NATO in a very negative light, it is clear that this issue is not an existential one compared to Russian perceptions of Ukraine’s or Georgia’s entrance into the alliance.

11. IRAN AND THE JCPOA

Russian commentators have maintained a close watch over U.S. actions and engagement with other OPEC+ and oil suppliers ever since the U.S. sanctioned Russian oil. Analysts have focused on the U.S.-Iran relationship and the relevance of Iranian oil to the JCPOA negotiations. They remain critical of U.S. moral flexibility and assert that the “special military operation” in Ukraine has had a profound impact on long-term global security, as is evidenced by the changing oil environment around the globe.

12. FOREIGN ACQUISITION OF U.S. ARMS

Several articles focus on and are critical of the proliferation of U.S. weaponry abroad. They include the legal sale of arms to Egypt and the resulting arms capabilities of the Taliban after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

13. U.S. STRATEGY IN THE ASIA PACIFIC

Amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian media maintain a close watch on U.S. policy developments in other areas of the world, especially the Indo-Pacific region.

14. INFORMATION WARFARE

Two articles address alleged acts of “information warfare” against Russia, tending to take on a defensive tone about Moscow’s leadership and the progress of the “special military operation.” The first article responds to recent quotes from U.S. Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby, who noted Russia’s history of use and potential future use of chemical and biological weapons. The second article details alleged activities from the 72nd Center for Information and Psychological Operations (CIPO) of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which the article claims was trained by the UK.

15. U.S. AND EUROPEAN MILITARY CAPABILITIES

Several articles report on developments of U.S. and NATO capabilities and weapons systems. One article reports on funding cuts to the U.S. Air Force’s first hypersonic missile, the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). A second article reports on a reorganization of the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment that puts combat groups on the first and second island chains of the Pacific at a moment’s notice. A third article reports on Germany’s decision to purchase 35 American F-35A fighter jets to replace the Tornado fighter-bombers it uses to carry American B61 nuclear weapons.

Russian Media Analysis, Issue 11, March 11, 2022

Fri, 11/03/2022 - 15:31

Here are the abstracts from the latest issue of our Russian Media Analysis newsletter. You can also download the full text PDF version.

1. Invasion of Ukraine: Putin’s speech

In a February 24 speech, carried in full by Krasnaya Zvezda, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin gave remarks that sought to provide background and justification to Russian actions in Ukraine. As his past speeches, this one offered an extensive overview of his grievances against the United States and the West and what he perceives as disregard for Russian interests in the post-Cold War order.

2. Invasion of Ukraine: Justifications

Five articles provide various justifications for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several identify defending the people of the Donbas region as the primary factor for the invasion, echoing President Putin’s justification of protecting people “who have been subjected to abuse [and] genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years.” Others argue that the main reason for the invasion is to protect Russia from the military threat posed by Ukraine’s increasing ties to NATO. Articles also claim that there are Western information operations concerning the motives of Moscow’s military actions.

3. Invasion of Ukraine: Russian Domestic Perceptions

The views of the Russian population on the conflict are still undergoing initial polling, and divergences are expected across polling companies. One company, Russian Field, conducted a poll that Novye Izvestiya reported as being particularly supportive of the conflict. The poll was on the larger side, with 2,000 respondents across Russia.

4. Invasion of Ukraine: Discussions of Western Strategy

A large number of articles discuss Russian perceptions of Western strategy towards Russia and towards the conflict in Ukraine. Articles published before the invasion focus on the role of the United States in fomenting the conflict, and highlight US weaknesses that made Vladimir Putin decide that now was a good time to push to renegotiate the post-Cold War global order. Articles published in the early days of the invasion argue that the West is in the process of realizing that it underestimated Russian power and resolve and is looking to salvage its position.

5. Invasion of Ukraine: Nuclear Issues

Several articles discuss nuclear issues. An article in Topwar.ru argues that the US is potentially considering the infliction of a first disarming strike against Russia. An article in Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie (NVO) discusses the possibility of Belarusian and Ukrainian nuclear weapons. In Gazeta.ru, Irina Al’shaeva writes about the “special combat duty regime” requested by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin for the Russian strategic forces. A Novye Izvestiya article points out that open source researchers have been tracking the movements of the US Boeing E-4B AWACS aircraft on the flight from Lincoln, Nebraska, after the Russian initiation of the Russian war in Ukraine.

6. Invasion of Ukraine: The Threat from NATO

Russian media also focused on the direct threat that NATO poses to Russia and to regional stability in Europe. The articles focused on the destabilizing effect of NATO force deployments near Russia’s border, NATO’s history of using military campaigns to achieve its geopolitical goals, and the risk of a broader conflict between Russia and NATO.

7. Invasion of Ukraine: NATO Enlargement

The potential further enlargement of NATO is both a cause and consequence of the conflict with Ukraine in the eyes of several Russian writers. Framed as a genuine threat to Russia, articles discuss the possibility of Scandinavian states joining the alliance as well as states in the Balkans such as Kosovo. Other writers reiterate the Russian line that NATO was never supposed to expand in the first place.

8. Invasion of Ukraine: Responses to NATO Military Aid

Russian media reflect a variation in attitudes on NATO military aid in Ukraine. Numerous commentators doubt the utility of Western assistance and dismiss it as disinformation; they say that the West is only providing older arms and materials, and criticize the selfish nature of overall Western involvement in the conflict. Other journalists express legitimate concern about the impact that such significant aid could cause in Ukraine. There is an unprecedented coordination of support, and it seems there is some surprise among journalists about the swift nature of such collaboration.

9. Invasion of Ukraine: Ukrainian EU and NATO Membership

Ukrainian membership in EU and NATO is still a point of interest in the media, especially amidst an active invasion in Ukraine. Several articles posit that an acceptance of Ukraine, if it occurs at all, is in the very distant future, especially considering the presence of Russian troops. Others highlight Ukraine’s application as a forced response to Russian assistance in Donetsk and Luhansk and caution that Georgia and Moldova may be likely for EU candidate status as well. Overall, there is a shared opinion that Ukrainian membership in EU and NATO is not out of the question but has been made significantly more complex with current Russian activity in Ukraine.

10. Invasion of Ukraine: Responses to Western Sanctions

Numerous articles in the Russian press discuss the recent sanctions imposed on Russia and largely dismiss the significance of their long-term impact on Russian society, stating that they are more damaging to the West. Media commentators even welcome the challenge, stating that such independence will fix issues of Russia’s import dependence and brain drain. Additionally, the Russian media analyze the challenges that the imposed sanctions will cause for specific Russian industry, such as shipbuilding and aviation capabilities and technology and computer chip development.

11. Invasion of Ukraine: Russia’s Future in the New Order

Several articles focus on how Russia and its role in the world will change in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. These articles suggest that sanctions will cause some pain but the sacrifice will be worthwhile to achieve the goal of ending the threat posed by an anti-Russian Ukraine and restoring Russia’s greatness and sovereignty. The possibility of increasing internal repression to ensure national unity is also discussed in a positive light.

12. Invasion of Ukraine: Role of Neighboring States

States in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine are seen as potentially vital interlocutors in both the positive and negative sense for several Russian commentators. Poland and the wider east-central European NATO member-states are viewed as having taken a turn towards a decisive rearmament and preparation for future conflict. Meanwhile, Belarus holds its position as a key Russian ally, underlining its important role for Moscow as a constituent part of the Russian-Belarusian “Union State” and very likely a further consolidation of de facto Russian control over more elements of Belarus’ statehood and independence.

13. Invasion of Ukraine: Turkey’s Position

Russian commentators remain concerned about Turkey’s role in the Russo-Ukrainian War and the geopolitical fallout from the conflict. Perspectives vary, from those who note Turkey’s unwillingness to go along with the full spectrum of sanctions proposed by European and North American states, to others who reiterate the concern about the longer-term designs of Turkey’s leadership in the broader Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and even Central Asian states. Observers are particularly wary of Turkey’s naval presence, which for some is described as a genuine threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, alongside Turkey’s ability to block passage through the straits. The growing role of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 combat drones also add impetus to commentator concerns.

14. Invasion of Ukraine: The Biolabs Conspiracy

Several articles once again raise the conspiracy theory about the role of US DTRA reference labs in the former Soviet Union states, but this time in Ukraine, referencing recent coverage in the UK newspaper Expose. In an article in Sovetskaya Rossia, Valentin Kasatonov argues that “US military biolabs in Ukraine” are the reasons for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. In Topwar.ru, Yevgeniy Fedorov provides more conspiracy theories that the labs are a part of growing NATO infrastructure in Ukraine.

15. China’s Geopolitical Position

Russian commentators have noted the parallels between Russia’s ongoing intervention into Ukraine—and the West’s reaction—and China’s presumed geopolitical designs for Taiwan. Some argue that while such parallels exist, they do not necessarily mean that China intends to support Russia’s goals in Ukraine. Indeed, they argue that it is possible that this could be a major test of the strength of the Russian-Chinese relationship at the highest levels. Others are more sanguine about the relationship and argue that this provides a potential test-case for a future Chinese effort to retake Taiwan.

16. Russia-Nicaragua Relations

Although most commentary in Russia remains focused on events in Eurasia and Eastern Europe, some look to other parts of the world as a means of shoring up the global picture of Russia’s alliances and international relationships. An article in NVO looks to the political regime in Nicaragua. It argues that there is a friendly face in this Central American country, and that Russia can use it as “something [with which] to respond to US pressure in Europe” by further improving relations with this “soft underbelly of the United States.”

17. Information and Hybrid Warfare

Several articles discuss how Russians understand the US/NATO approaches to information warfare and hybrid warfare. An article by Aleksandr Bartosh focuses on what he explains is a hybrid warfare in US and NATO strategies. An article in Krasnaya Zvezda focuses on the Western concept of “cognitive warfare.” In an article in Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er (VPK), Sergey Korotkov argues that the “heat of information (hybrid) war [against Russia] has reached a critical point.” In another VPK article, Leontiy Shevtsov analyzes what he calls “US and NATO information warfare operations.”

18. Shortcomings of the US Military

One article responds to US Navy chief of staff Michael Gilday’s recent comments that the Navy needs a fleet of more than 500 ships to meet its commitments in the forthcoming National Defense Strategy, noting that US shipbuilding capacity will be a major obstacle to reaching that goal. A second article examines the evolution of US aircraft carriers, and argues that the capabilities of current air wing configurations to counter an enemy are “significantly lower than they were” in the 1970s and 1980s. A third article examines US missile and air defense capabilities, arguing that capabilities were inefficiently developed due to US overconfidence in its pilots and aircraft.

19. US and European Military Capabilities

Three articles discuss developments of specific US and European capabilities and systems. One article discusses the US Navy’s public launch of its Snakehead underwater drone, “which apparently is being created in analogue to the Russian Poseidon submarine platform.” A second article discusses the US Space Force’s Deep space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) project, which “will allow the delivery of accurate strikes against enemy satellites, and will also complete the formation of a unified system for coordinating the actions of the US armed forces around the planet.” A third article discusses the “Eurodrone” project between Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

Upcoming panel: Russia’s War on Ukraine

Thu, 10/03/2022 - 02:37

I’m going to be participating in the following panel tomorrow. Great lineup, encourage those interested to sign up.

Putin Invades Ukraine: Regional Fallout?

Wed, 09/03/2022 - 14:38

Yesterday, together with Pavel Baev I participated in a Marshall Center panel on the regional fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My colleague Graeme Herd put together the following summary of the discussion…

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on March 8, 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

Context

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a devastating impact on humanitarian conditions within Ukraine itself. Critical national infrastructure in Ukraine is under attack. Ukraine’s transport system, hospitals and communication networks are being degraded. The UNHCR reports that over 2 million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have become refugees in neighboring countries, particularly Poland. At the same time, Russian military advances in Ukraine appear to have stalled in most operational theatres. Explanations for this unexpected outcome include logistical difficulties, poor planning, long and vulnerable supply lines, and an inability to execute combined arms warfare effectively. In places where Russia has taken territory, a hostile civil population protests in the rear, even in Russian-speaking regions such as Kherson. Can captured territory be held?

However, the picture is fluid and Russia is not yet fully committed. While Russia will seek to bombard the pivots and hubs used to supply military materiel through Poland and Romania, its usable precision guided weapon stockpile for this “special military operation” is fast depleting, though reserves are available for operations against NATO. Ukraine is able to create reserve battalions around Lviv and receive air defense and anti-tank capabilities. Poland has offered to hand over its entire inventory of 23 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to the US at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for potential transfer to Ukraine pending a NATO decision. These combat aircraft can be flown by Ukrainian pilots. Romania, Slovakia and Hungary also have MiG-29s in their inventories and some or all of these could also be provided to Ukraine. Russia does not have the troop to task ratio to occupy an unwilling Ukraine. And Ukrainian resistance is growing, with the calculation in Kyiv that any deal made today will not be as good as the one made a week from now.

This deadlock is dangerous as Putin needs a “special military operation” victory to support his “everything going according to plan” narrative. Thus, if “victory is not possible and defeat is not an option” – if the choice is between bloody debilitating occupation or withdrawal – then Putin may seek to escalate by opening new fronts to present the Russian public with distracting mini-breakthroughs and victories in the wider region. Short-term risks in the Black Sea region appears highest. Longer-term risks include disruptions to energy and food exports from Russia and Ukraine, and conflicts around Exclusive Economic Zones in the Black Sea, for example, as borders are redrawn but not recognized. This summary identifies short and longer term spillover risks in both regions.

Black Sea Region

Had the “special military operation” actually gone to plan, Kyiv would have fallen within 2-4 days, and in a “best case” scenario from a Russian perspective, resistance would implode and Ukraine suffer sullen occupation. At this point the risks of spillover to Moldova and Georgia would have been much higher. The ideological narrative constructed by Putin around “Slavic unity” and regathering “ancient Russian lands” may have included Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If not, then this would have suggested EU membership was off the cards for both states and imposed neutrality (“demilitarization”) would have been attempted by Russia.

However, without first capturing Odesa (still possible through a combined air assault and amphibious landing operation) and finding troops to occupy Ukraine in the context of a hostile and debilitating insurgency, military operations into Moldova do not appear viable. Transnistrian forces themselves have no offensive capability and rail links to Odesa region from Tiraspol are cut. Thus, while in Moldova pro-Russian parties and opposition groups in the breakaway Dniester region and the pro-Russian Gagauzia oppose EU accession, Russia aggression in Ukraine propels the majority of the society to support this westward economic and normative reorientation, as is the case in Georgia.

However, the seizure of Georgian territory is possible. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been remarkably passive and inactive and still has the reserves and capacity to act. The seizure of Poti region in Georgia is a possibility, supported by Chechen forces formally subordinated to Russia’s Rosgvardia (National Guard) but actually under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov. If Putin’s power weakens, Kadyrov may also plan to act more autonomously into the Pankisi Gorge, even if in the name of Putinism and justified with reference to Russian national goals. In such circumstances, Azerbaijan might look to complete “unfinished business” towards Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Georgia itself, the Russian invasion of Ukraine further polarizes society. There is pressure on Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and ‘Georgia Dream’ party who have adopted a “neutral” policy towards Russia. Neutrality translates into a policy of not supporting international sanctions and keeping Georgia’s air space open to Russian aircraft. Since 24 February opposition rallies in Tbilisi have protested daily against the Russian invasion outside the Georgian Parliament, demanding: 1. A visa regime with Russia; 2. Banning Russian media/propaganda outlets in Georgia; and 3. Closing Georgia’s airspace to Russia.

The role of Turkey is pivotal. Turkey attempts to avoid alienating Russia by keeping its air space open to Russian commercial flights and not applying sanctions. As a result, Turkey, like Georgia, is not included on the Russian list of hostile states. However, Turkey does send effective military aid (drones) to Ukraine. Turkey, citing Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, has closed the entrance to the Black Sea to the navies of the parties to the conflict. With its “sea bridge” unable to function, Russia is forced to resupply Syria using a more expensive and more limited air bridge. This in turn weakens Russia’s presence in Syria relative to Turkey’s. At the same time, the US and NATO face a difficult choice regarding the sending of combat ships into the Black Sea in support of Bulgaria and Romania. Turkey attempts to dissuade allies from requesting access, but the need to protect two exposed allies is growing.

Baltic Sea Region

The risk of spillovers into the Baltic-Nordic region are less than the Black Sea region, at least in the short-term and while the “active phase” of Russian aggression in Ukraine is ongoing. Risks associated with Kaliningrad proves to be the exception to this general rule. If the closure of air space is joined by cutting rail links to Kaliningrad, then this could generate a Russian kinetic response. In addition, reports of resignations and refusal of Belarusian officers and soldiers to follow orders and deploy to Ukraine suggest that Lukashenka’s regime may be less stable than supposed. Does Russia have the spare capacity to bolster Belarus, when Rosgvardia is needed at home as a praetorian safeguard to quell protest potential in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia?

The Estonian Center Party has severed ties to the United Russia Party. On 5 March, 103 members of its extended board, with no abstentions, voted to rescind the cooperation protocol signed in 2004. In Latvia, though, the polarization of society is a danger, with pro-Russian supporters using provocative rhetoric to radicalise their potential voters ahead of parliamentary elections. Two potential conflict dates loom – the commemoration of Latvian Legionnaires on 16 March and the Soviet Victory Day on 9 May. Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis has stated that Vilnius has no red lines regarding possible sanctions against Russia – including oil and gas.

Non-aligned Finland and Sweden seek even closer defense cooperation with each other and with NATO. Indeed, the potential for NATO membership has increased and this will lead to heightened tension in medium to long-term. Defense spending is set to increase in all Baltic States. Lithuania adds an extra $0.5bn and its parliament agrees to increase defense spending to 2.5% of GDP. Spending will likely be on deterrent gaps in capabilities necessary to counter Russia’s way of war, such as air defense and drones.

Points of escalation might be driven by the possible use of thermobaric bombs in Kyiv, and/or the slaughter of Ukrainian refugee convoys struggling to reach the Polish border from Lviv. Such horrific violence would stress-test to destruction the ability of NATO member states to achieve all three of its objectives: 1) apply sanctions to Russia and provide humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine; 2) uphold
national interests, democratic values and principles; and 3) avoid miscalculation, spillover and escalation. As RHSS#3 summary noted: “In the context of mass civilian casualties, how does the West calibrate and balance moral principles that reflect its values with pragmatic approaches in line with interests? At what point does “responsibility to protect” trump other considerations?” Almost certainly risk calculus in NATO would change, with a much greater emphasis on alleviating immediate suffering and the “responsibility to protect”.

Conclusions

• The invasion has also shaken the Putin regime in Russia. The Putinist system, born in the violence of the Second Chechen campaign, has grown organically over the last 23 years. It weathered the ‘Moscow Maidan’ protests of 2011-12 and was boosted by the Crimea annexation of 2014. Putin and the players in the system understood the rules of the game, how these rules could be enforced and the necessity of a balance between the normative state, parastatal entities and oligarchs. In 2022, the pressure of sanctions disrupts and destabilizes oligarchs, the business models of parastatal entities and the normative state moves to a war footing, its lead representatives complicit in the war and war crimes.

• In this context, escalation does not have just to be horizontal – a spillover into the wider region – but it can be vertical. The possibility of an accidental radioactive discharge due to Russian attack on nuclear power plant is high. If nuclear signaling is needed, Russia could withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and then promptly stage a nuclear test to intimidate and deter. A low likelihood event involves a Russian “false flag” operation around CBRNE might be considered. A “dirty bomb” fits Russian media narratives that a US-controlled “neo-Nazi” regime would practice genocidal “nuclear terrorism”. The function of this narrative could be to provide a retroactive justification for invasion – prevention of nuclear terrorism – and to place the blame for any nuclear radiation leakage on Kyiv. Such leakages would massively impact on refugee flows westwards. For Putin such flows would be understood in terms of an asymmetric responses by Russia to western pressure.

• Might Putin be tempted to declare martial law or a state of emergency in Russia? Putin may calculate that full mobilization is a necessary means to offset 1) battlefield losses through conscription; 2) economic isolation and rent redistributions to shore up elite support; and 3) evidence the idea that this is an existential fight for Russia, that Ukraine is merely the territory upon which Russia battles the real enemy – NATO. Such reasoning concludes that once battle is joined all measures are justified by Russia if this leads to the defeat of NATO.

• If such reasoning prevails, martial law and mobilization in Russia could prove to be the second and last strategic blunder by Putin. Russian military reforms introduced by Defense Minister Serdyukov 2009-2012 means mass mobilization is not possible – the Russian military does not have the capacity or infrastructure to train such large numbers. Moreover, such a move might precipitate a societal revolt, one in which the Russian security services would struggle to maintain order. Alternatively, it could encourage a military coup, with a charismatic and politically acceptable Defense Minister Shoigu at its head. Given “everything is forever until it is no more”, the entourage and inner-circle around Putin may well calculate that the president himself is the problem and his removal the solution.

• Fear of failure in Ukraine and fear of revolt and removal in Russia likely increases Putin’s isolation and paranoia. He may then adopt a differentiated understanding of risk. At home he is risk averse. Martial law or declaring a state of emergency is avoided. Putin likely compensates by accepting greater risk abroad. This suggests a Black Sea Fleet “special military operation” against Poti could come into focus, or Russia looks to conducts a dirty bomb “false flag” operation in Ukraine. In Putin’s mind, both options would create disruptive situations to generate options and new opportunities for leverage and exploitation.

Defense One Radio: Vlad the Invader

Mon, 28/02/2022 - 15:33

I was on the Defense One Radio Podcast on Friday, together with some other guests, talking about the larger context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You can listen or read the transcript here. Here’s a sample:

Watson: I’m wondering, what is your read on this next generation of power brokers in Russia, and their interest in Putin’s kind of, you know, revanchist tendencies here?

Gorenburg: It’s, you know, it’s really hard to tell what, how things, you know, what any of these next generation people really think. And, you know, one movie that I think is well worth watching, not just for the history, but also for just when you start thinking about how a bunch of psychopaths interact with the Supreme Leader’s, is the “Death of Stalin.” And you see that kind of cow-towing, right? But also, what the actual history of that time tells us is that the survivors, the people who stuck around in positions of power became very good at hiding their true beliefs while Stalin was around. And so, we don’t really know what a lot of these people think, because the ones that had clear positions that were contrary to what Putin wants have been sidelined.

Watson: What are the long-game considerations that maybe the U.S. officials in the policy community may not have been thinking about as much as perhaps they ought to? 

Gorenburg: Well, I think we’re heading into clearly a time of NATO-Russia confrontation. A lot will depend on how this goes. If this goes well and easily for Putin, then I think the appetite may increase. If it becomes complicated and painful, then there’ll be a time of reckoning, recalculation, or even just a time of trying to assimilate what’s been gained. But if it does go well, then I worry a bit about Moldova, honestly.

Russian Media Analysis, Issue 10, February 25, 2022

Fri, 25/02/2022 - 21:45

Here are the abstracts from the latest issue of our Russian Media Analysis newsletter. You can also download the full text PDF version.

This newsletter covers developments up to February 21, 2022. Russian media discussions of Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on February 21, 2022, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, will be covered in the following issue.

1. HIGHLIGHTS OF PUTIN SPEECH

The key points of Vladimir Putin’s speech on February 21 include the following: Ukraine is preparing for a conflict with Western military support. Ukraine will seek to create nuclear weapons, or potentially get Western assistance to do so. Ukraine joining NATO is just a matter of time. Ukraine in NATO is a “direct threat to Russian security.” The US and NATO have sought not only to arm and train but also to integrate Ukraine’s military. These actions present a threat to Russia. NATO military bases are already present in Ukraine. Previous rounds of NATO expansion have not led to an improvement in relations with Russia, as the West has promised. Russia has unsuccessfully sought to cooperate with the West in various formats. Instead, the West has “cheated” and NATO infrastructure is now on Russia’s doorstep. US missile defense and strike capabilities are expanding and will pose a threat to Russia from Ukrainian territory. The West has “ignored” Russian proposals to resolve the current situation and this will have consequences.

2. PERCEPTION OF US GOALS IN THE CRISIS

Several articles discuss Russian perceptions of what the United States is looking to achieve in the current confrontation between the West and Russia. They focus on US domestic problems and fears of a loss of world domination as reasons that Washington is provoking a confrontation with Russia. They also suggest that the current confrontation is just the culmination of a long-term US plan to weaken Russia. They also argue that the US feels that Russia has little to offer in the way of potential concessions to end the crisis.

3. RUSSIAN GOALS IN THE CONFRONTATION

Several articles discuss Russian goals in the confrontation with the West and what Russia has achieved. Unlike Western analysts, who tend to focus on efforts to stop NATO enlargement or reorient Ukraine, Russian analysts address possibilities such as averting a new European missile crisis or forcing Ukraine to carry out the Minsk agreements. Russian achievements during the confrontation including bringing the US and its European allies to the negotiating table on major security issues, while negative consequences include reinforcing Western unity and creating a more negative perception of Russia in the West.

4. THE CONSEQUENCES OF WAR AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Two authors discuss the potentially dangerous consequences for Russia of a war in Ukraine, while several offer possible solutions to the crisis. Writing from opposing perspectives, a conservative commentator and a liberal former FSB general agree that Russia is not prepared for war in Ukraine and for confrontation with the West. Possible solutions to the crisis focus primarily on the possibility of a neutral Ukraine, though some propose a broader array of confidence-building measures to reduce the extent of confrontation in Europe as a whole.

5. IMPLICATIONS OF US AND EUROPEAN SANCTIONS

Numerous articles in the Russian press discuss and even dismiss the potential implications of US efforts to impose sanctions on Russia. In Gazeta.ru, Anatoliy Akulov analyzes the challenges of US consensus-building among European actors to sanction Nordstream 2. In Topwar.ru, Aleksandr Staver critiques US targeted sanctions against Russia, arguing that they in essence view the children of Russian investors in the UK as hostages. In Izvestiya, Mariya Vasil’eva focuses on the sanctions’ potential impact on the Russian embassies abroad, arms exports, and electronics, among others. In Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er (VPK), Vladimir Eranosyan writes about the challenges that the US faces in making good on its threat to disconnect Russia from SWIFT as well as about the INSTEX system created in the wake of Iran’s disconnect from SWIFT. Finally, in another article in VPK, Vitaliy Orlov writes about how Russia could transition away from the use of the US dollar for exports of Russian armaments abroad.

6. WESTERN FORCE DEPLOYMENTS GARNER RUSSIAN ATTENTION

As the crisis between Ukraine and Russia heats up, Russian authors have been quick to point out new military deployments by Western powers in the region. American deployments to Poland and Slovakia have been of interest, as well as UK support elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Overall, the articles view these deployments as ominous, but also par for the course given the bellicose trajectory of interstate relations in recent months.

7. UKRAINE ARMS FOR WAR

Many articles in the Russian press are reviewing current political and military tensions surrounding Ukraine. Taking a variety of tacks, articles largely focus on the state of the Ukrainian military and its support by Western powers. They encompass details about military equipment and technology transfers, discuss the broader abilities of the Ukrainian armed forces, and launch critical broadsides against Ukraine’s perceived bellicose position relative to Russia and the separatist republics.

8. BELARUS AIDS IN RUSSIA’S MILITARY BUILDUP

Cooperation between Russia and Belarus are a point of interest for several observers, especially as tensions continue to ratchet up with neighboring Ukraine. Belarus and Russia are jointly undertaking combined-arms military exercises in the form of “Union Resolve – 2022,” which some view as a further step away from any putative neutrality by Belarus. Others noted that Belarus has taken a hard line vis-à-vis Ukraine in terms of public declarations of support for Russia’s side, which is a shift from previous years. Finally, a military doctrine for the Russo-Belarusian Union State has been recently approved, which has further underlined the considerable alignment between the two countries.

9. TURKEY AS A MEDIATOR FOR THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT

An Izvestiya article interviews Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, who discusses Ankara’s offer to mediate the Russia-Ukraine crisis. While Turkey claims that it is “the only country” that can meet both Russia and Ukraine halfway to find resolution, the ambassador has doubts of Turkey’s impartiality, noting its “well-known military-technical ties with Ukraine.” Moreover, the ambassador suggests that Ankara may not adequately understand the extent of Russia’s grievances. He states, “If our Turkish partners can influence the Ukrainians and encourage them to fulfill the previously-made [Minsk] agreements and obligations, this can be welcomed.”

10. SIVKOV CAUTIONS US ABOUT NUCLEAR WAR

In VPK, Russian commentator Konstantin Sivkov extrapolates from what he alleges to have been a statement made by Gen. David Goldfein about “three steps to destroy Russia.” He concludes that a nuclear conflict between the US and Russia would be fatal for both Russia and the United States—and lead to the dominance of other states in the international system. This, he notes, should force “global and US elites to think—should they free up a “place in the sun” for others?”

11. PERSPECTIVES ON INFORMATION WARFARE

In a February 11 article in Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie (NVO), Yuriy Yur’ev writes about the concept of information warfare as a “component part of hybrid warfare” and traces the evolution of US information warfare concepts, arguing that Russia has lost the initiative to its opponents in this area. In Krasnaya Zvezda, Oleg Martynov discusses the creation in Poland of a cyber defense force. This article traces the evolution of US and NATO concepts in the cyber domain and posits that NATO has long “viewed the cyber sphere as a domain for military action.”

12. NEXUS OF CRIMINALS AND TERRORISTS IN HYBRID WARS AND COLOR REVOLUTIONS

In VPK, Konstantin Strigunov focuses on the nexus of criminal and terrorist groups as a potential globalization trend that weakens state governments. He argues that criminal, terrorist, and other groups are also utilized in “non-classical wars” such as hybrid wars and color revolutions.

13. US EXERCISES AND WEAPONS SYSTEMS

VPK and Kommersant discuss US and allied exercises and weapons systems. In Kommersant, Marianna Belen’kaya discusses Western reactions to the Russo-Belarusian Allied Resolve 2022 exercises and Russian commentators’ perspectives on military activities in the region. In VPK, authors discuss US presence in the Mediterranean for the Neptune Strike-2022 exercises, the testing of the joint air-to-ground missile, and US ballistic and cruise missile programs.

14. CHINESE-RUSSIAN STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

Several articles reported on the meetings between presidents Putin and Xi on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics: the leaders declared that there were no limits to their strategic partnership; they vowed to counter instances of foreign interference in internal affairs; and Beijing announced that it joins Putin in opposing further NATO expansion. While some articles gloat at these new developments, others are more cautious—noting drawbacks and inequities in the alliance in the context of the Ukraine conflict. Another article argues that the US is trying to use Ukraine to drive a wedge between China and Russia.

15. KURIL ISLANDS DEVELOPMENTS; RUSSIAN-JAPANESE RELATIONS

Several articles report on an alleged US Virginia-class submarine incident that occurred near the Kuril Islands on February 12, which the Russian Ministry of Defense characterized as “a gross violation of international law.” According to reports, the submarine entered Russian territorial waters during a planned Russian military exercise, ignored warning messages instructing the vessel to surface, and was chased away by a Russian frigate. Other articles discuss the Japanese-Russian territorial dispute surrounding the South Kuril Islands, and how potential anti-Russian sanctions from Tokyo might affect the bilateral relationship.

16. IRAN NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS

Two articles discuss the US decision to reintroduce sanction waivers to Iran in hopes of reviving the nuclear negotiations. In an interview, the Russian Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna notes that this step “should have been taken long ago” but welcomes the decision. A different article questions whether this is enough to save the Iran deal, noting Tehran’s lack of enthusiasm in response to the waivers, and the lack of trust that a diplomatic resolution would be upheld by future US administrations.

Russian Media Analysis, Issue 9, February 11, 2022

Fri, 11/02/2022 - 17:43

Here are the abstracts from the latest issue of our Russian Media Analysis newsletter. You can also download the full text PDF version.

1. The Ukraine Crisis: Views of US-Russia Negotiations

Negotiations between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine-Russia crisis are widely discussed across Russian media, from a variety of angles. Most commentators are in agreement that the United States and its allies are engaging in bad-faith negotiations, given their continued military-technical support for Ukraine, although some note concern with Russian posture. The negotiations themselves are seen as a first step, and meetings with Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov, as well as the formal diplomatic response from the United States to Russia over their treaty proposals, are treated in a variety of ways.

2. The Ukraine Crisis: Perceptions of US Strategy

In discussing the current confrontation between the United States and Russia, a number of publications consider causal factors affecting US strategy. The focus is on the impact of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and its effect on US assessments of geopolitical risks and US aggressiveness. The articles also discuss the US predilection for narcissism and double standards. Some analysts do note the clear rejection of a military response by US leadership as leaving open the possibility of a compromise solution.

3. The Ukraine Crisis: Discussion of Russia’s Strategy

Russian media published a number of articles discussing Russian goals and strategy in the Ukraine crisis. Several articles focus on Russia’s need for security guarantees as a key driver of the current crisis. Other articles suggest that Russia’s real concern is not NATO enlargement per se but specifically the placement of NATO military hardware near Russia’s borders. Others suggest that in provoking a crisis now, Russia is reacting to a perception of weakness on the part of the United States in order to push the US into making concessions on Russian security demands.

4. The Ukraine Crisis: Signals of Potential Elite Unease

Two articles highlight the possibility of concerns within the Russian military about how an invasion of Ukraine would play out. The two authors, both well connected with segments of the Russian military and defense industry, suggest that a Russian military intervention in Ukraine could go badly and does not correspond to Russian national interests.

5. The Ukraine Crisis: Reaction to Potential US Sanctions

In Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er (VPK), Vladimir Vasil’yev of the Institute of USA and Canada Studies (ISKRAN) argues that the Russia sanctions bill proposed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez is “Cold War 2.0 legislation.” Vasil’yev notes that one way to interpret the bill is that it intends sanctions to “speed up and ease the Ukraine’s accession” to NATO. In a Topwar.ru article focused on how sanctions on exports of high technologies to Russia can be incredibly damaging to the Russian economy, Andrey Mitrofanov posits that US sanctions seek to turn Russia into North Korea 2.0.

6. The Ukraine Crisis: Reactions to Western Military Activities and “Information Warfare”

Numerous articles in the Russian press focus on the US deployments to Europe and the shifts in force postures and military activities in the region. Kommersant describes the state of “information warfare” and “hysteria” around Ukraine. Nezavisimaya Gazeta describes the military exercises and troop movements in the region, noting that NATO “assumes Russian aggression against Ukraine, [while] the Russian-Belarusian side [is concerned about] the possibility of NATO provocations that could push Kiev to resolve the problem of Donbass and Luhansk by force. Anton Lavrov, Roman Kretsul, and Andrey Fedorov discuss changes in the US force posture in Europe and quote a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs official as saying that some can be regarded as a “menacing maneuver.”

7. The Ukraine Crisis: Military Aid to Ukraine

More than 10 articles report on training and military aid to Ukraine, including new shipments from the US and UK, as well as transfers of US weapons from the Baltics, UAVs from Turkey, and artillery shells from the Czech Republic. While one article suggests that the acquisition of these new capabilities proves Ukraine’s intent to invade the Donbas, most are skeptical that these weapons provide Ukraine with any new meaningful capability.

8. The Ukraine Crisis: Ukrainian Military Developments

Several articles report on Ukrainian military developments “which confirm the fact that it is preparing for aggression against the [Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics].” Two articles report on movements of the 58th Separate Motorized Infantry and 53rd and 54th Separate Motorized Brigades, transport of portable demining units, military exercises near Crimea, and Zelensky’s decree to increase the size of armed forces by 100,000. A Topwar.ru article argues that Ukraine has been preparing to take back the Donbas by force since 2014. A fourth article reports on the low morale of Ukrainian troops.

9. Reactions to NATO Development Plans

Several articles address how NATO is planning to develop in the near to medium term and the threat that the organization’s plans pose to Russia. The topics include the expansion of NATO’s zone of operations to new territories, such as the Middle East, and new domains, such as space. NATO enlargement and its aggressive militarism, in the context of an overwhelming conventional force superiority over Russia, are highlighted as the main threats to Russia. The possibility of an unwanted NATO-Russia war being caused by Ukraine is also mentioned.

10. Scandinavia and NATO Enlargement

Yevgeny Fedorov, writing in Topwar.ru, discusses the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO. He argues that even though the two countries recently reiterated that they are not currently interested in joining the alliance, they retain the right to join at any point in the future while remaining so closely integrated with the alliance that membership would be merely a formal change in status.

11. Concerns About Turkish Expansionism

An article in VPK discusses how Turkey is increasingly being used by the US and UK as a proxy to contain Russia on its southern flank and to pursue expansionist ambitions in Central Asia. The article argues that despite some tensions with its NATO allies, Turkey remains firmly committed to the alliance’s strategy to weaken Russia by forcing it to defend all of its borders and to impact its economy by creating alternative energy sources for Europe.

12. Potential Russian Military Development in the Caribbean

Two articles discuss potential Russian military developments in Caribbean states-namely, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. A Topwar.ru article argues that because NATO is “increasingly, unceremoniously settling in close to Russia’s borders from the Barents to the Black Sea,” including US missile deployment, Russia is forced to respond in kind. A Novye Izvestiya article argues that while US influence on Venezuela and Cuba may prevent them from being viable hosts of Russian military bases, Nicaragua may be a more suitable option. Both articles acknowledge the challenges associated with challenging US hegemony in the region.

13. US Support for Japan’s Military Goals

Russian commentators continue to be concerned about a further deepening of the US-Japanese security relationship, arguing that Japan’s military-strategic plans to reemerge as an important player in East Asia have led it to follow the US lead on geopolitical issues elsewhere. Writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Valery Kistanov explores the question of why Japan wishes to become a military power, and what it is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve this. Although suspicious of Japan’s claims to be concerned about national security, he nevertheless writes that it is necessary to take this as-is and focus on the fact that a considerable military buildup is in its early stages.

14. Chinese-Russian Relations as a ‘Biathlon’

The Olympic Games in Beijing may bring about renewed and strengthened diplomatic ties, according to Yuri Tavrovsky, the head of the Expert Council of the Russian-Chinese Committee for Friendship, Peace, and Development. Writing in Moskovskii Komsomolets, Tavrovsky argues that upcoming meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in the context of the games are a perfect venue for continuing down a line of close cooperation between the two at a personal level.

15. The CSTO in Central Asia Versus NATO

The deployment of CSTO forces into Kazakhstan during political troubles earlier in January has led to some Russian analysts to reappraise the organization. One article in Gazeta.ru by Viktor Sokirko and Dmitry Mayorov attempted to assess the CSTO’s military capabilities at the alliance level. They argue that in fact the CSTO, while inferior to NATO in general, is more than capable of maintaining order in Central Asia and ensuring a form of moderate collective defense. This is more than sufficient, given that the CSTO has very different goals from NATO in the first place, according to the authors.

16. Russian-Iranian Cooperation and Reactions to JCPOA Negotiations

Topwar.ru provides an update on the JCPOA negotiations and expressed criticism of the US position in the talks, highlighting Russian opposition to artificial deadlines. An article in Ekspert about the recent visit by Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to Moscow highlights areas of Russo-Iranian cooperation, and says that the visit was aimed at securing Russian support in the face of US pressure for additional concessions from Iran as part of JCPOA negotiations.

Russian Media Analysis, Issue 8, January 28, 2022

Mon, 31/01/2022 - 17:28

Here are the abstracts from the latest issue of our Russian Media Analysis newsletter. You can also download the full text PDF version.

1. Russian perceptions of the NATO threat

Several articles describe Russian perceptions of NATO and the threat that it poses to Russian security. They focus on the role of the alliance as a weapon of US domination in Europe, the threat posed to Russia by NATO’s previous expansion to the east, and the possibility that it could expand further to include Sweden, Finland, or Georgia. These Western actions can be countered either by NATO and the United States providing binding security guarantees to Russia or by Russia extending its security border to the Soviet Union’s previous western border in Belarus and Ukraine.

2. Karaganov argues that NATO is a metastasizing “cancer” that needs to be “limited territorially”

On January 19, the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty interviewed Sergey Karaganov, dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, on the state of Russia’s relations with the US and NATO. In the interview, Karaganov also discusses Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, contrasts Russia with the Soviet Union, and discusses potential steps that Russia could take in response to the ongoing crisis.

3. US-Russia diplomatic engagements

During this reporting period, recent diplomatic efforts are frequently mentioned. These include US-Russia talks in Geneva, NATO-Russia talks in Brussels, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) talks in Vienna, and a phone conversation between Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Blinken. Several articles discuss Russia’s motivation behind the talks, which followed unrealistic demands for security guarantees and largely ended in stalemate. They also discuss what lies ahead.

4. Plans for US sanctions against Russia

Several articles highlight potential US plans to further strengthen sanctions against Russia. Draft US plans to impose personal sanctions against top Russian officials are dismissed as unlikely. However, the possibility of serious measures to limit interactions with Russian financial institutions and to prohibit the transfer of a wide range of technology to Russia (and the use of that technology by Russia) is taken more seriously. Russia could respond with highly disruptive countermeasures and may see the most severe measures as, in effect, a declaration of war.

5. The West prepares for conflict

Russian media published extensive discussions of statements being made by Western officials in response to Russia’s deployment of forces near Ukraine. These articles focus on the deployment of additional NATO forces to Eastern Europe, reports about the evacuation of Western and Russian embassy personnel from Kyiv, and US efforts to find alternative sources of natural gas for EU member states that would be engaged in a conflict with Russia.

6. NATO, Russia-Belarus military exercises

One article discusses NATO’s upcoming Cold Response exercise, which will take place in late March and early April and will include 35,000 military personnel from 28 states. The article notes that “such large-scale exercises as Cold Response-2022 have not been held in Norway since the 1980s.” Earlier in the year, on February 10–20, Russia and Belarus will hold joint military exercises, titled “Allied Resolve.” Two articles discuss the size, scope, and motivation of the maneuvers. A fourth article reports that the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau requested that NATO hold military exercises in the region in response to the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises.

7. Nuclear risk reduction and potential Western reactions to Belarusian nukes

Several articles cover nuclear issues. Krasnaya Zvezda focuses on Russia’s views on the importance of the P5 Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races, and the importance to Russia of the “inadmissibility of any war between nuclear states, whether nuclear or with the use of conventional weapons.” Aleksey Poplavskiy in Gazeta.ru offers Russian expert commentary on potential Western reactions to the unlikely placement of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. (The December 6–16, 2021, issue of Russian Media Analysisaddressed this latter issue.)

8. Options for new Russian missile bases as competition grows

As geopolitical competition increases, Russian authors are suggesting possibilities for new staging points that can counter perceived NATO encroachment. Two articles in Topwar.ru point out the potential for sites in Cuba and Serbia, respectively, as states that may be particularly open to hosting new forward-deployed arms. While Cuba is seen with a glow of Soviet-era nostalgia, the Balkan case represents a more novel vision in any future arms race.

9. Western information warfare against Russia

In Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er (VPK), Sergey Korotkov argues that the US (and the West) are leaders in disinformation and have used this in the past to create a justification for wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia. The article posits that “the US views the internet as the main instrument of conducting hybrid warfare to achieve global domination in the global information space” and “aggressive propaganda in the form of disinformation campaigns is conducted at the state level and is a component of the ‘systematic deterrence of Russia.’” Separately, an article in Topwar.ru offers perspectives on a January 6 Atlantic Council event that featured retired general Wesley Clark, who argued that Putin is a war criminal and that Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine.

10. Military aid to Ukraine

Many articles have focused on the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, looking specifically at new plans for military aid being developed by NATO countries to assist Ukraine in light of a potential Russian military action. Several articles focus on aid from the UK, which is stated to be moving faster and with greater qualitative effectiveness than other aid plans at present. Other authors review US military aid being debated in Congress as well. In general, the articles frame UK and US military aid as a means of ratcheting up the local threat against Russia, further destabilizing the regional security environment, and further cementing Ukraine’s de facto position as a quasi-member of NATO and the broader Western security architecture.

11. Tumult and fragmentation in Ukrainian domestic politics

The domestic travails of Ukraine were recently noted by two Russian authors, each arguing that the internal politics of the country were riven by scandal, faction, and dissent. Both articles are provocative: one, in Topwar.ru, asks why Ukrainian statehood had ever even been considered; the other, in VPK, drives home the point that Western efforts to aid Ukraine are not always clearly appreciated by Kyiv.

12. How future wars will be fought

Two articles by noted military specialists address the question of how wars will be fought in the future. Aleksandr Khramchikhin suggests that UAVs are likely to become the most important weapon in future wars, because they would be virtually impossible to eliminate and could be used to eliminate enemy air defense infrastructure. Viktor Murakhovsky is, on the whole, more skeptical about the dominance of technology in future warfare. The ineffectiveness of high-tech warfare in Afghanistan and Yemen suggests that future warfare may not be as technology dependent as visionaries on both sides believe.

13. Concerns about Turkish geopolitical designs

Multiple articles in Topwar.ru look at the geopolitical place of Turkey as well as ethnic ties across the Turkic peoples of Eurasia. Focusing on the potential for military cooperation along a pan-Turkic basis, as well as the prospects for major military expansion by Turkey in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, the articles add to a growing sense of paranoia about the prospect of alternative regional power blocs based on ethnic relations.

14. US accused of stirring up extremist groups in the North Caucasus

According to an article by Evgeny Fedorov in Topwar.ru, the United States is seeking to undermine internal Russian stability by way of encouraging extremist movements in the North Caucasus. Fedorov argues that American support in organizing and propagating Islamic extremist movements over the internet has grown in recent years, with the goal of provoking protest and confrontation between the authorities and local radicals. Fedorov highlights a new memorial set up by a local extremist organization, 1ADAT, as a new means of American meddling in internal affairs.

15. Alarm about new Kazakhstan biosafety-level-4 lab

Several articles in the Russian media and on online sites discuss the planned construction of a BSL-4 laboratory in Kazakhstan. Articles in Topwar.ru and Izvestiya argue that reference labs and biosafety facilities in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan are an enormous cause for concern for Russia because they are nontransparent and potentially unaccountable facilities conducting dangerous work close to the Russian border. While both of these articles include disinformation, they also exemplify the perspectives of Russian military analysts about CTR-supported installations in Eurasia.

New CNA Russian Media Analysis newsletter

Thu, 20/01/2022 - 19:00

CNA’s Russia Studies Program is pleased to announce a new biweekly newsletter that analyzes Russian perspectives on Western military activities. The newsletter examines how US and NATO actions are perceived and described by Russian officials and experts. I’ll be posting the abstracts from each issue here. Full text of all issues will always be available on the newsletter webpage and through the CNA Russia Studies Program website.

Here are the abstracts and a direct link to the full text of the most recent issue.

1. The crisis in US-Russia relations

Russian media devoted extensive coverage to the crisis in relations between Russia and the West. Discussion of the Russian set of proposals for a new security agreement for Europe, and the subsequent videoconference between presidents Putin and Biden, was a major aspect of the coverage. Russia’s publication of a draft agreement is seen as a show of strength by President Putin, though most authors believe that the United States will reject the proposal. The December 30 conversation is portrayed primarily as a way for the two principals to clearly define their positions prior to the start of bilateral talks in mid January.

2. Perceptions of US and NATO strategy

Several long articles published in late December 2021 describe Russian perceptions of the strategy being pursued by the United States and NATO to contain and weaken Russia. Several articles highlight Russian perceptions that the United States is focused on organizing regime change in Russia and its allies, including through hybrid warfare. Other articles discuss the US shift to Asia as part of a continuing effort to preserve US hegemony in the world.

3. In year-end speeches, Putin and Shoigu articulate concerns about US and NATO threats

In a December 21 speech and in his December 23 annual press conference, Putin expressed frustration at what he describes as the persistent disregard by the US and NATO of Russian concerns about NATO expansion, alleging that the US supported “terrorist organizations” in the North Caucasus against Russia, and argued that the US and NATO are aiming to weaken and collapse Russia. In a December 21 speech, Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu summed up annual results of modernization and activities in the Russian armed forces, according to Krasnaya Zvezda. Shoigu also extensively discussed Western activities and the political-military and threat environment around Russia.

4. The situation in Ukraine

Coverage on Ukraine remains a key area of focus in Russian media. Several articles address the January 2 Biden-Zelensky call in which President Biden pledged to “respond decisively” should Russia invade, and to keep Ukraine fully involved in the ensuing effort to resolve the crisis. Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concerns about military developments in Ukraine. Several articles also address Defense Minister Shoigu’s recent allegations of nefarious US military actions in the region, including the transfer of chemical weapons and provocations from private military contractors.

5. European reaction to Russia’s position

Several articles highlight European reactions to the growing confrontation with Russia. The dominant perspective is that the EU and its member states want to make sure they are included in high-level discussions and that the US and Russia do not make any decisions without their input. Other articles highlight NATO efforts to heighten military readiness in response to Russia’s arms build-up near Ukraine and note that Russia is acting to counter NATO threats on its border.

6. Russian reactions to Finland’s military role

Several articles address developments in Finland’s force structure. One article calls for a realistic assessment of Finland’s military aspirations, referencing Helsinki’s recent purchase of 64 F-35a fifth- generation fighter-bombers from the US. The author characterizes this deal as an “unfriendly step towards Russia.” Several other articles discuss recent statements from senior Finnish officials that reiterate Finland’s right to apply for NATO membership should it choose to. One expert characterizes these statements as “typical rhetoric” that “should not be taken seriously” while another suggests that Russia should strengthen its Baltic Fleet forces if Finland enters the alliance.

7. Russian views of Australian dependence on the US and growing Chinese power

Many Russian writers focused on issues in the Asia-Pacific theater, especially in light of the AUKUS deal, the changing US-Chinese naval balance, and new developments in the Russian-Chinese relationship. Although the articles were disparate in their subject matter and approaches, most took a pessimistic and doubtful view regarding the United States and its efforts in the region, noting the increasing dependence of Australia on American military and economic support, as well as confirming that the rise of China is a key point of interest for Russian observers.

8. Japanese military developments

At least three articles addressed Japanese military developments during this reporting period. One article notes that Japan’s draft budget has increased next year’s military spending by 6.5 percent, to a total of US $51.5 billion. Another article reports that Japan is also interested in hosting a US military base on the Ryukyu Islands to prepare for a possible escalation of the Taiwan conflict. One author notes that while Japan sees China and North Korea as its primary threats, it is increasingly worried about defense cooperation between China and Russia.

9. Fallout from Afghanistan continues

The fallout from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan remains a source of interest for Russian foreign policy commentators. Vladimir Vinokurov asks “what the US defeat in Afghanistan” means nearly half a year on. In a wide-ranging argument, he concludes that the withdrawal represents a significant blow to the hegemon status of the United States and is likely to usher in fully the multipolar world that has been long suggested by commentators. Similarly, Aleksandr Khramchikhin underlines the alliance-disrupting impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

10. Democracy summit ridiculed as desperate attempt to bolster an “operetta democracy”

The recent Summit for Democracies was a subject of interest and ridicule by Russian political analysts. An essay by Grigori Nikonorov and Igor Rodionov expresses this framing of the Summit in full form. The authors describe the United States as an “operetta democracy,” due to a “series of failures in domestic and foreign policy.” The authors frame the event as a means for the United States to “consolidate the shaky position of the United States as the leader of the Western world,” but find it not up to the task given the diffuse troubles of the current world order, the rise of China and Russia to international prominence, and the legitimacy crisis besetting Western democracies in particular.

11. US and NATO weapons and threats to Russia

Numerous Russian articles provide overviews of current and emerging Western weapons technologies, including US and NATO missile defense infrastructure, unmanned aircraft that could potentially accompany the B-21 Raider bomber, and missiles and hypersonic systems.

12. Reaction to restrictions on export of US space technologies

Evgeniy Fedorov discusses a bill introduced in December 2021 by Senator Marco Rubio called the Space Protection of American Command and Enterprise (SPACE) Act. He notes that the bill seeks to reduce risks of industrial espionage to the US space industrial base and restrict the export of space technologies to Russia and China.

Summary of Russia China naval power discussion

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 15:09

Yesterday, I participated in a Marshall Center panel on Russian and Chinese naval power. My colleague Graeme Herd put together the following summary of the discussion…

GPCSS#2, November 16, 2021: ‘Russia and China and the Maritime Dimension: Red Lines and Risk Calculus?’ Context of Sino-Russian Maritime Cooperation

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Great Power Competition Seminar Series (GPCSS) webinars held on November 16, 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

Context of Sino-Russian maritime Cooperation

Since 2012 Russia and China have undertaken increasingly frequent and more complex exercises (e.g. combined air defense, anti-submarine, amphibious operations, passing through key straits) within an expanded geographical range (2015 Mediterranean, 2017 Baltic Sea, 2021 Sea of Japan) designed to counter and limit US maritime dominance.  This is part of an overall expansion in military cooperation between the two.  China has the world’s largest navy (battle force of 355 ships and submarines) but Russia enjoys an operational and technological lead in several areas, such as submarines, mine warfare and use of long range bombers at sea.

Russian Maritime Approaches

Russia adopts the concept of an integrated military strategy.  Rather than a separate naval strategy we should talk of operational art in the naval domain and naval policy which supports the military strategy. ‘State Policy on Naval Activity’ highlights the duties of the Russian navy to prevent the U.S. (the Russian navy’s benchmark) and allies from achieving naval superiority in the world ocean, limiting Russian access and territorial claims and mitigating missile threats from the sea to Russian land targets 

Core missions:

  1. Defend nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN) patrol areas and maritime approaches to ensure strategic deterrence (calibrated second strike nuclear retaliation and escalation management) and prevent strikes against critical targets in the homeland.
  2. Conduct conventional and nuclear strikes to degrade critically important military and economic adversary targets.
  3. Naval diplomacy – defend Russian interests, maintain presence intimidate and negotiate from strength, project status of great power. Soviet legacy large ships better suited for this role than they are warfighting.

Russian Naval Perspective – four zones: Russia is able to conduct ops in all four zones and distribute ships according to rank depending on fleet’s mission and threat environment

  1. Coastal – defended by coastal vessels, small landing craft and patrol boats with the objective of sea control(i.e. can use sea for own purposes).  Borei and Yasen class nuclear subs of Pacific and Northern Fleets can deploy and enter patrol areas in the Far Sea and World Ocean.
  2. Near Sea (up to 1000 km from the Russian coast)deployments includecorvettes, guided missile boats and minesweepers, for example, in the Black Sea, Baltic, Barents.  Here Russia seeks sea control. 
  3. Far Sea (up to 2000 km from the Russian coast)deployments includenuclear powered and diesel electric submarines, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, large/medium landing ships, large/light frigates, and heavy corvettes.  From Iceland to Norway and the North Sea, the Aegean and East Mediterranean, the Russian navy seeks sea denial(i.e. spoil the use of the sea for NATO) and reduce the military and economic and command and control potential of the adversary.  As an example, a joint Russian-Chinese three-day naval exercise ‘Naval Cooperation’ (held since 2012) formed a flotilla with five Chinese ships in the Sea of Japan, October 14-17, 2021.
  4. World Oceans (all sea beyond 2000 km from Russia’s coasts) is protected by nuclear powered submarines, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, large landing ships and larger frigates.  In this zone the objective is to demonstrate Russia’s great power status by ‘showing the flag’ and power projection. Physical presence can have strategic effect. Demonstration of credibility a fundamental part of deterrence. As examples, ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet take part in Aman 2021, Arabian Monsoon 2021 drills, counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden. Pakistan’s Zulfiquar participated in the Main Naval Parade in St Petersburg July 2021.  Pakistani vessels were also present in joint China-Iran-Russia naval exercises.  

Naval Policy and Prioritization:

  1. Atlantic and Arctic – strengthen military potential and presence, ensure survivability of nuclear deterrence and inter-theatre mobility.
  2. Pacific – balance of power and good relations with China.  Fleet upgrade as regional arms race.
  3. Indian Ocean – maintain periodic naval presence.

Sensitivity and Risk

  • Operational advantages in Barents and Baltic Sea, can prevail in small military clash, close to borders, with well-prepared Russian forces that are quickly mobilized, involve hybrid threats and coup-like attacks with limited objectives.Black Sea and Arctic more unstable than Baltic and Barents.
  • Marketing: Ability to launch land attack cruise missiles from ships (e.g. Caspian flotilla to Syria) illustrates the navy’s contribution to an integrated military strategy and helps sell the function of the navy to a land-warfare centric General Staff and ensures funding.
  • Limited expeditionary range (Syria) capability but not World Ocean passed Suez and South America. Russia disadvantaged in a prolonged non-nuclear conflict with NATO.

Chinese Maritime Approaches:

  • Unprecedented emphasis is placed on the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the Xi era, as its integrity is linked to the future of the state: “Historical experience tells us that countries that embrace the sea thrive, while states that spurn the sea decline.” (Xi Jinping, July 30, 2013); “We must strive to build the People’s Navy into a world-class navy.” (Xi Jinping, April 12, 2018). 
  • China seeks a leadership role on the global stage and to that end naval power is critical. Xi Jinping seeks to “build the PLA into a world-class military…a powerful military on par with that of a world power…in order to provide strategic support for China as it moves towards the center of the world’s stage.” (National Defense University Strategic Research Department). 
  • Aspirations of global leadership are reflected in a shift in China’s ‘rights-stability’ calculus – protecting what it understands to be its maritime rights as set against the maintenance of stable relations with neighbors: “China must weigh the two big picture issues of stability maintenance and rights protection.” (Xi Jinping, July 2013). In the past stability was privileged, now both are in “dynamic equilibrium”.  As Zhang Haiwen, State Oceanic Administration, noted: “In the past, China’s big aim was a stable periphery. Everything else yielded to stability. In my view, for 10–20 years stability maintenance held the dominant position. But in recent years, China has balanced this out, meaning that stability maintenance and rights protection are now in a dynamic equilibrium.”
  • China adopts a grey zone approach to protecting ‘maritime rights’, using the PLAN as a back-stop and deploying its Coast Guard and militias on the front line, able to undertake non-lethal measures such as bumping, water cannons, cutting cables, seizing equipment.  The Coast Guard reported to the People’s Armed Police which in turn was subordinated under the Central Military Commission (CMC), highlighting a militarization of China’s law enforcement agencies under Xi.
  • PLAN is aware of its own weaknesses and limitations.  President Xi has stated: “Internationally we are basically undefended and without any effective options. If we encounter some great risk, we can evacuate our nationals, but our ability to secure our citizens and legal persons is very limited. You talk about weaknesses—this is a very big weakness. We must…gradually increase overseas security support capabilities, protect the  security of our citizens and legal persons located overseas, and protect our financial, oil,  mining, shipping, and other overseas commercial interests.” (Xi Jinping, December 2015).  In an article titled “Eliminate the Harms Caused by a Long Period of Peace, Make Solid Efforts to Prepare for War” a Chinese academic analyst noted: “Not fighting a battle in many years has caused some officers and soldiers to suffer from different degrees of ‘peace disease.’”
  • The role of PLAN is to protect China’s “overseas Interests” and these include: 1. Energy and resources; 2. Strategic sea lines of Communication; 3. Institutions, personnel, and assets abroad. To that end we see anti-piracy operations and evacuation of citizens from war zones, but what else might we expect?  As a general trend, these overseas interests are expanding in terms of importance, number and geo-strategic range: “Today, our country’s interests are continuously expanding and requirements for the Navy are continuously expanding. Our capabilities must therefore continuously improve…China is export-oriented, so our military strategy cannot just focus on protecting our homeland.”  And: “Wherever our merchant ships sail, Chinese warships should be present. Wherever our overseas interests extend, the People’s Navy should be there too.” (People’s Daily, 2018). 
  • China’s maritime interests expand.  According to an article titled “Scientific Compass for Achieving the Chinese Nation’s Dream of Becoming a Maritime Power”: “China’s global maritime interests are continuously expanding. China not only possesses sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdictional rights over 3.0 million km2 of maritime space. It also has broad maritime rights/interests in the polar regions, deep sea, and other ocean areas.”  China’s naval strategy is also updated: “Today, the Navy is accelerating its transformation towards ‘near seas defense, far seas protection, oceanic presence, and polar expansion.’”(People’s Navy, July 13,2018)
  • Looking to the future, the PLAN plans to do more: “When our major overseas interests are threatened, the Navy must be able to quickly cross the ocean barrier. Operating from the sea, it must be able to conduct military operations against key enemy targets in the littorals or on land. It must be able to deter, contain, and smash enemy operations, ensuring the security of China’s important overseas interests.” (“On the Navy’s Strategic Positioning in the New Era”, National Defense, May 2018). 
  • One indicator of Chinese intent will be the role of marine amphibious expeditionary forces: “Safeguarding the security of China’s overseas development interests urgently requires that China build the PLAN Marines into a force that can conduct amphibious operations overseas…and possesses rapid-response and independent operational capabilities to deal with crises. When necessary, it must be able to maintain long-term deployments in waters crucially related to China’s overseas interests and it must ensure that it can respond rapidly and take decisive action once there is a problem.” (People’s Navy, January 2017).

Sino-Russian Maritime Cooperation: Current and potential future?

  • Current: Arctic understandings.  PLAN patrols the Aleutian Islands (2021) and Sea of Japan which is en route to the Arctic.  It actively seeks to develop knowledge of the Arctic and caries out acoustic experiments using hydrophones for sound propagation which would enable potential future military operations in the Arctic.  While China is revisionist in the Indo-Pacific it is status quo in the European theatre – Russia is the opposite.  Thus Putin calls for “peaceful negotiation” with regards to Taiwan, China does not recognize the annexation of Crimea and its presence in the Arctic mitigates Russian militarization.
  • Future: Indicators in the maritime domain of a potential future shift from functional axis to deeper partnership could include, for example: 1) Chinese warships pay port visits and dock in Sevastopol during a period of heightened Black Sea tension; 2) Russia and China conduct a maritime exercise off the coast of Taiwan. 

GCMC, November 17, 2021.

Acknowledgements: This summary gratefully acknowledges insights shared by Mike Kofman of CNA at an RSI seminar held on 10 November 2021 (“Russian Naval Strategy”), not least his superb understanding of the role of Russian naval operational art and policy in support of Russia’s military strategy and the functions of and force structures dedicated to the four maritime zones: Coastal, Near Sea, Far Sea and World Ocean. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Dmitry Gorenburg, Graeme P. Herd and Ryan D. Martinson)

RUSI Global Security Briefing on Black Sea

Fri, 16/07/2021 - 17:22

I recently participated in the RUSI Global Security Briefing podcast hosted by Neil Melvin, Director of RUSI International Security Studies. Together with Neil and Maryna Vorotnyuk, we discussed how security relations have shifted around the Black Sea following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent build-up of regional military forces, including the significance of the recent confrontation between the UK warship HMS Defender and Russia’s armed forces in waters off Crimea.

Here’s the full show description:

Episode 7: Regional Security in the Black Sea

In this episode, the panel discuss the fast-evolving security environment in the Black Sea region, including the significance of the recent confrontation between the UK warship HMS Defender and Russia’s armed forces in waters off Crimea.

Dr Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist at CNA in the US, and Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk, RUSI Research Fellow, discuss how security relations have shifted around the Black Sea following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent build-up of regional military forces with host Dr Neil Melvin, Director RUSI International Security Studies.

The HMS Defender Incident: What happened and What Are the Political Ramifications?

Thu, 01/07/2021 - 17:13

I wrote a piece on the HMS Defender incident for Russia Matters. Here’s a preview. You can read the whole article here.

On June 23, the HMS Defender—a British Type 45 destroyer—was involved in a confrontation with the Russian military while sailing near the Crimean Peninsula. The ship was in the Black Sea to participate in NATO’s Sea Breeze exercise. Prior to the start of the exercise, it had completed a port visit to the Ukrainian port of Odesa and was on its way to make a similar port visit to Batumi, Georgia. As it passed through territorial waters claimed by Russia, the ship was closely shadowed by Russian forces. Furthermore, the Russian military claimed that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the vicinity of the ship, forcing it to move into international waters. What actually happened during the incident? Why did the British and Russian governments take the actions they took? What is the likely impact of the incident on the confrontation between Russia and NATO? And how does it affect the likelihood of future escalation?

Timeline

The HMS Defender was part of a NATO naval task force participating in Operation Sea Guardian, NATO’s counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean. It entered the Black Sea on June 14 after a port visit to Istanbul. Its first stop was Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port. While they were moored in Odesa, the HMS Defender and a Dutch navy ship had their automatic identification system (AIS) signals spoofed by Russian electronic warfare systems to indicate that they were traveling toward Crimean waters, approaching to within two nautical miles of the entrance to Russia’s Sevastopol naval base. In actuality, video evidence showed that the ships did not leave Odesa harbor for several more days. After the visit to Odesa, the HMS Defender was scheduled to make a port visit to Batumi, Georgia before joining the multi-national NATO-led Sea Breeze exercise that began in the Black Sea on June 28.

The most direct route from Odesa to Batumi involves a passage through Crimean territorial waters off Cape Fiolent, and this was the route that the HMS Defender took on June 23 as it transited from Odesa to Batumi. The ship entered Crimean waters at either 11:50am (according to British sources) or 11:52am (according to Russian sources). It was shadowed by two Russian Coast Guard ships. Approximately 20 Russian aircraft, including a Su-24 bomber, a Su-30 fighter, and a Be-12 amphibious aircraft flew near the British ship. At noon, the Coast Guard warned that a live fire gunnery exercise would start imminently. At some point, the Russian military warned the HMS Defender by radio that it would fire if the British ship did not change course. One of the Russian ships fired shots in the general vicinity of the British ship at 12:08pm. According to Russian sources, the Su-24 dropped four unguided OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs at 12:19pm. However, no video evidence of this action has been released and the British Navy has repeatedly rejected the claim that any bombs were dropped in the vicinity of its ship. The HMS Defender then departed Crimean waters at either 12:24pm (according to Russian sources) or 12:26pm (according to British sources) and made its way to Georgia without further incident. In his call-in show on June 30, Vladimir Putin claimed that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was in the vicinity and operating in concert with the HMS Defender, suggesting that the two countries were therefore working together during the confrontation.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

The arrest of Ivan Safronov

Wed, 15/07/2020 - 19:03

I was recently a guest on Kevin Rothrock’s Naked Pravda podcast on Meduza.io, talking about the role of military journalism in Russia and the potential impact of the arrest and prosecution of Ivan Safronov. Here’s the description of the show from the Meduza.io website, where you can also hear the full interview.

On the morning of July 7, federal agents arrested Ivan Safronov, a longtime journalist who recently took a job as a communications adviser to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin. Safronov is being charged with treason and faces up to 20 years in prison. 

His lawyers have been granted limited access to the case file compiled by the Federal Security Service, which indicates that Safronov is suspected of selling secret information to Czech intelligence agents about Russian military cooperation with an unnamed African Middle Eastern country. The Czechs supposedly recruited him in 2012 and he allegedly sent them the data over the Internet five years later in 2017.

Outside the FSB’s headquarters in Lubyanka Square, during Safronov’s arraignment hearing on July 7, dozens of journalists picketed, each taking turns holding up signs in his defense, and police officers arrested them, one by one, for an unlawful assembly. 

Russia and Collective Security: Why CSTO Is No Match for Warsaw Pact

Wed, 27/05/2020 - 23:49

I wrote a piece on the CSTO and the Warsaw Pact for Russia Matters. Here’s a preview. You can read the whole article here.

This month 65 years ago, the Soviet Union announced the formation of the Warsaw Pact. For the next three and a half decades, the pact remained the security alliance of the Communist world, designed to counter NATO in Europe, before becoming defunct in 1991. Almost immediately, however, post-Soviet Russia laid out a new collective defense organization. Officially known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), that post-Soviet pact has proved to be no match for the Warsaw Pact. Neither CSTO nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the other collective security pact of which Russia is a member, pose a real threat to the U.S. and its allies above and beyond the threat posed by their individual member states.

The Warsaw Pact was formally founded on May 14, 1955, as Moscow’s answer to the integration of West Germany into NATO. Its members included the Soviet Union and its East European satellite states: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Albania was initially a member, but withdrew in the 1960s after siding with China during the Sino-Soviet split. The pact obligated member states to mutual defense, allowed for member states to station troops on each other’s territory and set up a unified military command under Soviet control. During the 35 years of its existence, the pact only undertook one operation as an organization—the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, though Hungary’s withdrawal from the pact in 1956 was one of the proximate causes of the Soviet invasion of that country. Both of these actions were practical applications of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified intervention in any socialist state if socialist rule was considered to be under external or internal threat. The pact’s dissolution in July 1991 was a key signal that the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe had been broken and that the Cold War was truly over.

After the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union, leaders of several of the newly independent states signed a new collective security treaty. Although the treaty was signed in 1992, no practical actions were taken until the early 2000s, when six states formed a new organization on its basis, imaginatively called the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Through this new organization, the member states sought to enhance the existing treaty’s mutual security commitments to develop a standing organization that enhanced security cooperation through regular exercises, while aspiring to further integration including an eventual joint command structure. However, the organization was largely moribund for several years after its founding. Although it became more active in the last decade, organizing regular and increasingly frequent military exercises since 2012, it still does little more than provide a venue for cooperation among the military forces of its member states.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

An Emerging Strategic Partnership: Trends in Russia-China Military Cooperation

Wed, 29/04/2020 - 15:15

One more policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russia-China military cooperation.  Several sections of this brief are based on previous work on Russia-China cooperation that was co-authored with Michael Kofman, Paul Schwartz, and Katherine Baughman.

As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.

Executive Summary
  • Since 2014, Russia and China have developed a strategic partnership, primarily due to enhanced military cooperation, including sales of advanced military equipment and an increasingly robust program of bilateral and multi-lateral military exercises. Economic and diplomatic cooperation have also increased, though to a much lesser extent.
  • Bilateral cooperation is unlikely to advance to the level of a full alliance because of differences in geopolitical interests and asymmetries of power, with Russia remaining reluctant to fully acknowledge China’s geopolitical rise.
  • Actions by the United States to pressure both Russia and China have the effect of pushing the two countries closer together. To prevent a closer partnership, the United States should focus on creating areas of policy divergence between the two states.
Introduction

There is widespread consensus among scholars that, although Russia and China have been moving toward closer cooperation through the entire post-Soviet era, the trend has accelerated rapidly since 2014.1 The relationship was boosted by Russian leaders’ belief that Russia could survive its sudden confrontation with the West only by finding an alternative external partner. China was the obvious candidate because it had a suitably large economy, was not openly hostile to Russia, and was not planning to impose sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Since 2014, the bilateral relationship has been focused on increased military cooperation, closer economic ties, and an increase in coordination on responses to various issues in international politics. Although some advances have occurred in all three areas, military cooperation has advanced the most. As discussed in more detail later in this paper, Russia and China have institutionalized a comprehensive mechanism for military consultation, expanded military technical cooperation initiatives and military personnel exchanges, and expanded regular joint military exercises. In the diplomatic sphere, Russia and China have supported each other in various international organizations and worked to establish new international institutions that could act as alternatives to existing Western-dominated institutions.2

Although economic cooperation is the weakest aspect of the Russia-China alignment, it has progressed a great deal, particularly in the energy field. “China is eager to increase energy relations with Russian companies,… [while] Russian concern over its increased dependence on China in the East is deemed secondary to expanding Russia’s customer base beyond the still dominant European market.”3 At the same time, there have been limits to this cooperation, particularly in the economic and financial sectors outside of the energy sphere. China refused to help Russia overcome the effects of Western economic sanctions and bilateral trade and trade in national currencies has remained limited, with little diversification of trade and investments. On the political side, neither country has shown itself to be prepared to support the other’s geopolitical interests if doing so would hurt its own interests.4

This policy brief focuses primarily on strategic and military cooperation, where the two sides have made the greatest progress. After briefly discussing the prospects for a strategic partnership between Russia and China, I examine the progress in and remaining constraints on expanding bilateral military cooperation, outline three scenarios for future cooperation in this sphere, and conclude with a discussion of how the United States should respond.

Strategic Partnership?

As bilateral cooperation has progressed, analysts have increasingly examined whether the Russia-China relationship has reached a level of strategic partnership. The growing consensus is that it has.5 According to Alexander Korolev, the partnership is neither ad hoc nor temporary and provides clear benefits for both sides: “Through this partnership, Russia can gain access to more instruments for promoting its agenda of balancing the United States and enhancing its version of multi-polarity in Europe. China, in turn, receives Russia’s political backing and access to Russia’s energy resources and military technologies, which are essential assets for China in its growing tensions with the U.S. in Asia.”6  Some Russian scholars are even more optimistic about the trajectory of the relationship, suggesting that, over time, the two states might even develop an alliance.7

At the same time, there is a similar consensus forming that the current upward trend in Russia-China strategic cooperation should not be viewed as irreversible. In particular, scholars note that, should Russia’s challenge to the United States start to destabilize the international system, it may also jeopardize China’s peaceful rise. This would lead to a divergence in the countries’ interests and potentially cause a rift between the two powers to emerge.8 Some scholars argue that the geopolitical and economic factors that have hindered Russia’s past Asian pivots could have a similar effect again, although this is distinctly a minority position. One possibility proposed by analysts who hold this view is that a future leadership transition in Russia might result in a policy shift back toward a preference for closer relations with Europe, undermining the long-term prospects of Russia’s partnership with China.9

Central Asia represents one potential area of tension between Russia and China, because the two states have formulated competing regional influence projects for the region. As a result, some analysts believe that the two countries may be heading toward a strategic rivalry caused by China’s increasing desire to play a role in Central Asian security and by competition over energy export routes and trade connectivity in general.10 A more likely scenario, however, is that the two countries will maintain a division of responsibilities that allows them to continue to cooperate in the region, with Russia taking primary responsibility for security issues while China focuses on economic development.11

The global coronavirus pandemic initially introduced another source of tension into the Russia-China relationship, especially since Russia moved quickly in late January to close its borders with China. This move was seen by some observers as an indicator of a lack of trust in Chinese information, since China at the time was still making an effort to minimize the scope and threat of the epidemic. At the same time, the almost immediate decision to reopen the border to commercial traffic highlighted Russia’s dependence on Chinese goods.12 As it turned out, even this partial closure proved to be economically damaging, especially in the Russian Far East.13 However, any residual tension was overcome once China largely ended community spread of the virus. Once the threat of spread was over, the two countries developed complementary information campaigns designed to highlight their mutual assistance in the crisis and the superiority of authoritarian systems over democratic ones in marshalling resources to fight the pandemic.14

Future of Bilateral Military Cooperation

Russian senior officials have highlighted the special nature of Russia’s defense relationship with China by characterizing the ties in terms of a strategic partnership. As the two countries have expanded the number of military exercises and consultations while deepening military technical cooperation, analysts have suggested a growing alignment between the two countries at a political level that allows for stronger defense ties. This does not mean that Russia and China are about to enter a military alliance. As cogently argued by Michael Kofman, Russian and Chinese leaders have labeled the relationship a strategic alliance because a military alliance is not needed, given that the two countries do not need each other for security guarantees or extended nuclear deterrence. That said, they have sought to make their ties more formal, as shown by the 2017 agreement on a three-year road map to establish a legal framework to govern military cooperation. This framework is expected to be completed and signed later in 2020, further codifying various aspects of defense ties, including the option of conducting joint long-range aviation patrols.15

Military Technical Cooperation

Although China was Russia’s leading client for military hardware in the 1990s and early 2000s, the arms sales relationship sharply declined after 2006 because of a combination of Chinese unhappiness with Russian pricing policies and the poor maintenance record of Russian equipment, as well as Russian concerns about China’s tendency to reverse-engineer Russian equipment for both its own use and export abroad. Russian arms sales to China saw a modest revival post-2011 but expanded most substantially after the Ukraine crisis, with agreements for the sale of S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 combat aircraft signaling the end of Russia’s informal ban on sales of advanced weapon systems to China.16 In October 2019, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was helping China develop its own ballistic missile early warning system. Russia’s new willingness to share information related to strategic nuclear weapons highlights the extent to which old sensitivities about sharing advanced military technology with China has dissipated in recent years.17 Russia has also turned to China for electronic components and naval diesel engines that it could no longer obtain from the West. Most significantly, military cooperation and defense ties improved as defense sales declined, making clear that such ties are driven at the senior political level and not tied to arms sales.

However, Russia faces a difficult choice this decade in either providing advanced technology to China, knowing that the technology will most likely be copied, or forgoing arms sales but with the expectation that China’s defense sector will develop comparable systems in the near future. The previous Russian arms export strategy of selling the “second-best” technology available while staying a generation ahead is no longer viable. China’s defense industry has sufficiently caught up with or worked around Russia via defense-cooperation deals with other countries that it is now only interested in the most-advanced Russian weapons available. China’s advances in weapon design and general goal of self-sufficiency in military production suggest that Russian arms sales will never reach the peak achieved in the early 2000s and that China will emerge as a stronger arms market competitor to Russia over time.

Military Exercises

Military exercises are a central pillar of bilateral military relations. Moscow and Beijing have recently been rapidly expanding the scale and pace of their joint exercise activity far beyond the two traditional programs, the Peace Mission ground forces exercises in Central Asia and the Joint Sea naval exercises. Both of the long-standing exercise programs have had an anti-U.S. character, with gradually increasing levels of complexity and joint activity. However, the exercises have been criticized for being overly scripted and poorly coordinated, as well as for continuing to lack a joint command structure.18 These criticisms are not necessarily warranted, as the purposes of the exercises are primarily to build military ties at the senior level and to signal political intentions rather than to establish interoperability. There has been no evidence that Russia and China intend to operate in a joint command structure; such a structure would not make sense for two countries that have not entered a formal military alliance.

The naval exercises between Russia and China have been more effective in terms of providing realistic operational experience, although they have not focused particularly on interoperability between the two navies. Naval exercises are not only becoming more frequent but also are being held in new geographical areas. Before the Ukraine crisis, Russia refused to hold bilateral exercises in such controversial territories as southern China near Taiwan. Since 2015, however, naval exercises have been held in areas such as the Baltic and South China Seas as a way of signaling the two countries’ growing power, expanding military ties, and mutual displeasure with the United States.19 Recent trilateral exercises with Iran represent another example of this steady expansion in the use of exercises for political signaling, now including third nations.20 Given China’s desire to be more visible in the European maritime theater, one can expect an increase in exercises that serve the Chinese desire to show its flag in distant waters.

Since 2015, the two countries have expanded their repertoire of exercises, including adding joint missile defense exercises in response to the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Most observers are aware of growing Chinese participation in Russian strategic exercises, including Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019. A joint Russian-Chinese bomber patrol in July 2019 demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly willing to disregard the interests of other states in the Asia-Pacific region in its pursuit of a closer military relationship with China.21

These exercises are primarily focused on setting a positive tone for military-to-military ties at the highest levels, rather than increasing interoperability at the tactical level. The exercises suggest that Russian-Chinese military cooperation in the air domain, which lags naval exercises, will increase. Stronger participation of Chinese air assets in Tsentr-2019 further substantiates this observed trend.22 Space is the next likely frontier for expanding cooperation, although it may be limited given sensitivities about the technologies involved in this domain.

Limitations on Bilateral Military Cooperation

Despite steady progress over the past decade, there remain significant geopolitical and technical constraints on military cooperation between Russia and China. Although senior Chinese and Russian officials repeatedly and publicly affirm that their relationship is characterized by great trust, in reality, a lack of mutual trust remains an obstacle to more robust cooperation. Although Russia and China formally settled the last of their border disputes in 2008, there are still regions where the two sides’ geopolitical interests may not align in the long term. Russia remains concerned over potential Chinese encroachment into the Russian Far East. Russia’s concerns are fueled by a combination of past Chinese claims to territory Russia annexed in the 1800s and the contrast between the sparsely populated Russian Far East and the densely populated Chinese border regions, which have generated ongoing Chinese immigration. A military incursion is seen as unlikely by Moscow relative to the more insidious problem of what Russian leaders fear could prove to be (1) a creeping annexation, in which China projects influence into parts of the Russian Far East on a de facto basis through a large influx of illegal Chinese immigrants, and (2) a steady reorientation of the Russian Far East toward more economically attractive Chinese markets and away from the distant center of power in Moscow.

As the relative balance of influence in Central Asia continues to shift more in favor of China, the potential for the two sides to clash over interests in the region remains significant. Beijing has steadily supplanted Russia as the principal economic power in Central Asia in terms of investment and lending. Still, countries in the region continue to look primarily to Russia to defend their security interests; additionally, Russia remains the principal labor market for this region.

Thus far, this de facto division of labor has enabled Russia and China to maintain a reasonably stable working relationship in Central Asia, such that they do not step on each other’s vital national interests or security concerns. However, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative develops, its economic footprint in Central Asia is likely to grow larger, which could lead to tensions between Beijing and Moscow.

Russia has sought to play a key role in the development of the Arctic region; in particular, it plans to capitalize on new energy sources, as well as the opening of the Northern Sea Route. While Moscow has been willing to work with other members of the Arctic Council, Russia has been reluctant to allow non-Arctic powers, such as China, to play a major role in the region. By contrast, a resource-hungry China has plans to extend its presence to the Arctic and is building its first domestically-produced icebreaker. Although none of these geopolitical concerns are currently likely to cause tensions that could limit military cooperation between Russia and China, they could be factors in the long term.

The asymmetry in economic power between the two countries, including their potential regional influence and global heft, has grown more visible. Furthermore, Russian strategic culture, long having seen itself as superior to China, is visibly struggling with the new realities of this power balance. As a result, Russian political elites have yet to come to terms with China’s rise. Finally, both countries are deeply nationalistic and prestige-seeking, which means neither would be particularly willing to subordinate its military to the leadership of the other. Russian leaders’ desire to maintain an independent foreign policy means that they will not accept Chinese leadership or impose limitations on their relationships with other countries for the sake of Chinese foreign policy. Although the two countries seek to manage conflict over core interests, most international competition is seen as fair game, whether it is arms sales or foreign direct investment.

Russia and China have placed a low priority on achieving greater interoperability during joint military exercises, reflecting an enduring lack of interest on the part of both sides in developing the kind of integrated military capability needed to conduct effective joint military operations.23 At the tactical level, issues such as language and communication highlight that these are decidedly different military structures, with different planning processes and organizational cultures. This limits what the Chinese are able to learn from their counterparts.

China is seen as a predatory power by many Russian experts, so there is a natural degree of apprehension among the Russian military. General Staffs plan contingencies around capabilities, because intent can change. This is especially so when dealing with another great power that is self-admittedly revisionist in its ambitions. Despite the positive outlook of Russia’s national leadership on the benefits of a growing Sino-Russian alignment, the military establishment will always see the Chinese military as a potential adversary and plan accordingly.

Scenarios for Future Russia-China Military Cooperation

The impact of various scenarios for the development of Russia-China military cooperation on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region is inversely correlated with their likelihood. That is, the most likely scenarios are relatively low impact, while the highest-impact scenarios are very unlikely to develop. In this section, I outline three scenarios for future military cooperation between Russia and China.

Low Impact, High Probability

In a low-impact, high-probability scenario, Russia and China expand their military cooperation by holding additional joint naval exercises with countries that are seen as adversarial to the United States and expanding the visibility of their maritime presence both in the Pacific and the Mediterranean regions. As noted earlier, previous joint naval exercises have been conducted in the South China Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Baltic Sea, and future theaters could include other areas within the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Expanded exercises in these regions would serve the two countries’ respective purposes, as Russia seeks greater visibility in the Asia-Pacific and China seeks greater visibility in the European maritime theater.

Both countries seek to reciprocate U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations to the extent possible by visiting the Western Hemisphere. Russia and China could agree to hold a naval exercise in the Caribbean Sea, hosted by Venezuela or Cuba. Such an exercise would have little long-term impact on either Russia’s or China’s geopolitical influence in Latin America and it would not do much to improve their military capabilities or naval interoperability. It would, however, generate a great deal of media attention, highlighting the countries’ ostensible global reach and potential strategic partnership. In other words, both countries could feel that they had scored a propaganda win at relatively low cost, but the actual impact on regional security would be negligible.

Medium Impact, Medium Probability

A medium-impact, medium-probability scenario might focus on additional sales of Russian advanced military equipment. The most interesting systems for China would include diesel-electric submarines, over-the-horizon radar systems, early warning systems, space-related technology for satellites, microchips, and next-generation aircraft engines. In return, Russia might accelerate the purchase of Chinese defense-industrial components, such as heavy-lift cranes, machine tools, and circuitry board components and parts. Although Russia would benefit substantially from procuring Chinese surface combatant vessels, given the shortcomings in those parts of the Russian defense-industrial complex, the financial interests of Russia’s domestic defense industry would likely prevent such deals from being made.

The two countries could also build on Russia’s recent sale to China of S-400 long-range air defense systems to agree to the sale of Russian S-500 air defense systems once those come online. S-500 systems would have a longer range than existing systems owned by China and may have the capability of defending against a wider range of missile types. These capabilities would lead to a significant improvement in Chinese air defense capabilities versus the United States and its allies. China would seek to acquire the 40N6 extended-range (400-km) missile, which has reached initial operating capability with the S-400, either as part of an S-500 deal or on its own for China’s existing S-400 systems.

High Impact, Low Probability

A number of highly unlikely but potentially very damaging scenarios present themselves. One such area would involve greater Russian-Chinese defense industrial cooperation on sensitive technology, such as theater hypersonic weapons or submarine quieting. Although military establishments on both sides would almost certainly resist allowing the other side access to such technology, if such cooperation did develop, it would substantially affect the ability of the United States to maintain a favorable regional military balance and retain a technological edge in certain domains over China. One possibility for enhanced defense cooperation that has been discussed in recent years, though with little progress to date, is a potential technology transfer deal in which Moscow would provide Beijing with the RD-180 rocket engine in exchange for space-grade microelectronic components.24 Past discussion centered on trading finished equipment, but a  closer relationship between Russia and China may result in consideration of exchanging production technology in the future. Such a deal would increase China’s lift capacity and Russia’s ability to produce advanced guidance and control systems.

Another scenario in this category is a joint military intervention, most likely in a Central Asian country in the event of a political crisis or instability, because Russia and China have previously conducted exercises to deconflict areas of responsibility in this type of scenario. However, one should not exclude the possibility of a joint Russian-Chinese intervention in Africa or the Middle East. While the countries lack core interests in these regions, the cost and risk of intervention is also dramatically lower and the barrier for entry in such operations is not especially high. Both countries have the expeditionary capacity to conduct relatively small force deployments around much of the world and might well seek to do so together in response to a contingency where their interests align.

The least likely, but nonetheless possible, scenario is a military crisis with the United States in which one country takes advantage of a situation to press for geopolitical gains. For example, in the event of a standoff between the United States and China, Russia would seek to leverage the distraction of the United States to make opportunistic gains. Russia could deploy forces to Asia or provide military assistance via deniable means to China in order to raise costs to the United States. Because China is quite remote from Europe, the likelihood of Chinese involvement in a crisis between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe is too low to be worth considering.

How Should the United States Respond?

There is a general perception among experts that greater cooperation between Russia and China is inevitable, given the core precepts of present-day U.S. foreign policy. Scholars focused on relative power suggest that the two countries will inevitably balance against the most powerful country in the international system.25 Furthermore, U.S. efforts to pursue a hard line against either Russia or China, and especially against both at the same time, have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. For some scholars, this suggests that accommodating them within the existing international order would be a more effective response.26 Scholars focused on the role played by ideas highlight the perceived threat of liberal ideology and suggest that if the United States reduces its emphasis on democracy promotion and regime change, this would reduce the impetus to Russian-Chinese cooperation.27

In this geopolitical environment, actions by the United States that threaten Russia and China in a similar manner or present a common security challenge will have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. This is especially true if the actions are strategic in nature. Examples of such actions include the deployment of missile defense systems or freedom-of-navigation operations near the shores of either Russia or China. Both of these actions create a perception among Russian and Chinese leaders that they share a common global security challenge from the United States—and one that is serious enough that they would be best served by facing it together.

On the other hand, actions that disaggregate the nature of the threat perceived by Russian and Chinese leaders would help create divergence in their interests and thereby slow the trend toward a closer bilateral relationship. For example, the United States could challenge Russia in ways that are exclusive to the European theater, such as by pulsing additional troops to NATO member states for exercises. Similarly, China could be challenged in the regions of Taiwan and Southeast Asia rather than in East Asia or maritime territories adjacent to Russian territory. Russian relations with such countries as Vietnam and India could be exploited to highlight potential tensions between Russia and China.

Notes

1 Alexander Gabuev, Friends with Benefits? Russian-Chinese Relations After the Ukraine Crisis, Carnegie Moscow Center, June 29 2016, https://carnegie.ru/2016/06/29/friends-with-benefits-russian-chinese-relations-after-ukraine-crisis-pub-63953.

2  Alexander Korolev, “How Closely Aligned Are China and Russia? Measuring Strategic Cooperation in IR,” International Politics, May 2019.

3 Tom Røseth, “Russia’s Energy Relations with China: Passing the Strategic Threshold?” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2017, pp. 23–55.

4 Mikhail Korostikov, Дружба на расстоянии руки: Как Москва и Пекин определили границы допустимого [“Friendship at Arms’ Length: How Moscow and Beijing Determined the Boundaries of the Permissible”], Kommersant, May 31, 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3984186.

5 Tom Røseth, “Moscow’s Response to a Rising China: Russia’s Partnership Policies in Its Military Relations with Beijing,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 66, No. 4, 2019, pp. 268–286.

6 Korolev, 2019, p. 29.

7 Vassily Kashin, “Is the Conflict Inevitable? Not at All. How Reasonable Are Western Expectations of a Russia-China Confrontation?” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2017

8 Andrej Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership: Cautious Riser and Desperate Challenger,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2017, pp. 299–329.

9 Chris Miller, “Will Russia’s Pivot to Asia Last?” Orbis, Winter 2020. See also Mikhail Karpov, “The Grandeur and Miseries of Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’: Russian-Chinese ‘Strategic Partnership’ in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis and Western Sanctions,” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2018.

10 Carla P. Freeman, “New Strategies for an Old Rivalry? China–Russia Relations in Central Asia After the Energy Boom,” Pacific Review, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2018, pp. 635–654.

11 Liselotte Odgaard, “Beijing’s Quest for Stability in Its Neighborhood: China’s Relations with Russia in Central Asia,” Asian Security, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 41–58.

12 Jake Rudnitsky and Evgenia Pismennaya, “Russia Closes Border With China to People, Not Goods,” Bloomberg News, January 30, 2020,  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-30/russia-closing-border-with-china-to-affect-people-not-goods.

13 Andrew Higgins, “Businesses Getting Killed on Russian Border as Coronavirus Fears Rise,” New York Times, February 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/world/europe/coronavirus-russia-china-commerce.html.

14 Van Ivej, “Выход из Кризиса и Преимущества Китая, [Exit from Crisis and China’s Advantages],” Russia in Global Affairs, April 1, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/vyhod-iz-krizisa-i-preimushhestva-kitaya/; Fyodor Lukyanov, “Вирус Разнообразия [Virus of Diversity],” Russia in Global Affairs, March 25, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/virus-raznoobraziya/.

15 Michael Kofman, “Towards a Sino-Russian Entente?” Riddle, November 29, 2019, https://www.ridl.io/en/towards-a-sino-russian-entente.

16 Siemon Wezeman, “China, Russia and the Shifting Landscape of Arms Sales,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, July 5, 2017, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2017/china-russia-and-shifting-landscape-arms-sales.

17 Dmitry Stefanovich, “Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System,” The Diplomat, October 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/russia-to-help-china-develop-an-early-warning-system.

18 Daniel Urchik, “What We Learned from Peace Mission 2018,” Small Wars Journalundated, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/what-we-learned-peace-mission-2018.

19 Chris Buckley, “Russia to Join China in Naval Exercise in Disputed South China Sea,” New York Times, July 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/world/asia/russia-china-south-china-sea-naval-exercise.html and Andrew Higgins, “China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea,” New York Times, July 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html.

20 Andrew Osborn, “Russia, China, Iran Start Joint Naval Drills in Indian Ocean,” ReutersDecember 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-china/russia-china-iran-start-joint-naval-drills-in-indian-ocean-idUSKBN1YV0IB.

21 Franz-Stefan Gady, “The Significance of the First Ever China-Russia Strategic Bomber Patrol,” The Diplomat, July 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/the-significance-of-the-first-ever-china-russia-strategic-bomber-patrol/.

22 “China to Send 1,600 Troops, About 30 Aircraft to Russia’s Strategic Military Drills,” TASS, August 29, 2019, https://tass.com/defense/1075535.

23 Paul Schwartz, “The Military Dimension in Sino-Russian Relations,” in Jo Inge Bekkevold and Bobo Lo, eds. Sino-Russian Relations in the 21st Century, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 105.

24 Eric Berger, “Russia Now Looking to Sell Its Prized Rocket Engines to China,” Ars Technica, January 18, 2018, https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/russia-now-looking-to-sell-its-prized-rocket-engines-to-china.

25 Robert S. Ross, “Sino‑Russian Relations: The False Promise of Russian Balancing,” International Politics, September 2019.

26 Krickovic, 2017.

27 John M. Owen IV, “Sino‑Russian Cooperation Against Liberal Hegemony,” International Politics, January 2020.

The Political Elite Under Putin

Wed, 22/04/2020 - 22:34

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on stability in Russia’s political elite during Vladimir Putin’s rule. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.

Executive Summary
  • Russia’s political elite has undergone relatively little change under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Only sixty people have been ranked twentieth or higher at least once between 2000 and 2019 in the annual Nezavisimaya Gazeta list of the most politically influential Russians. Eighteen people have appeared on every list during this period. The greatest shift in elite composition occurred between 2007 and 2008, with smaller shifts around the presidential elections of 2004 and 2012.
  • Most of the political elite originate in the government bureaucracy in Moscow or St. Petersburg or came to their positions of influence through personal ties to Vladimir Putin, either in St. Petersburg or in the security services. Only ten percent came to power through electoral politics; another ten percent are businessmen who made their money independently of any connections to Vladimir Putin.
  • The elite is fairly evenly divided between individuals who have political influence solely because of their positions in government and individuals who have influence outside of their official role. People in the first group generally drop off the list quickly after leaving government or being demoted, and people in the second group tend to retain influence regardless of their position at any given time and remain influential for extended periods, even after departing government service.
Introduction

For most of the post-Soviet period, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta has conducted a monthly survey of Russian political experts. This survey asks its respondents to rank the 100 most politically influential Russians in the previous month. Throughout this period, the newspaper has also published an annual ranking,1 based on the average rank of those mentioned during the previous calendar year. These data can be used to identify the most politically influential members of the Russian elite during the twenty years of Vladimir Putin’s rule.2

Characteristics of the Data Set

The dataset used includes all individuals identified in Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s survey who ranked at least twentieth at some point during the period from 2000 to 2019. Since the annual rankings run through 2019, they do not include changes in elite composition resulting from the government reshuffle that took place in January 2020. Such changes will be reflected in the next annual ranking, which is expected to be published in early 2021. This group is composed of just sixty individuals. Although most of those named are politicians or senior government officials, eight are well-connected businessmen or executives of state corporations. Only six individuals came to power through electoral politics. Two are religious leaders. Only three are women. Almost all built their careers in Moscow or St. Petersburg, with only three originally coming from the regions.

The dataset shows each individual’s average annual ranking if they were in the top 100 that year. In the graphs below, gaps indicate periods when the individual in question fell out of the top 100. The primary characteristic of the list is the extraordinary longevity of the people on it. Eighteen people have appeared in the top 100 every year from 2000 through 2019. Nine of them also appeared in the 1999 list, indicating that their political careers extend at least to the late Yeltsin period.3 Only four people have returned to the top 100 after spending more than a year off the list.

Members of the Putin-era political elite can be characterized in various ways. Many analysts have divided them according to their background, as having emerged from the security services or from Vladimir Putin’s circles in St. Petersburg or from private businesses established in the 1990s.4 Others have divided them according to the nature of their position.5 These are very useful ways to categorize, therefore both background and position are mentioned in the discussion below. However, I take a different starting point and categorize the elite on the basis of when they attracted the notice of expert analysts of the Russian political scene as being influential in that scene. This undoubtedly creates some artifacts. Some individuals undoubtedly flew under the radar for some period of time before attracting the notice of experts. Most importantly, individuals who may be influential advisors to senior leaders but stay in the shadows may be undervalued or missed entirely. Nevertheless, given that the main goal of this study is to examine elite stability and change, a primary focus on the chronology of the subjects’ appearance on the scene is more appropriate than one that puts the main focus on the subjects’ background or role in the political system.

Survivors of the Yeltsin Era

Ten members of the political elite can be characterized as long-term survivors of the Yeltsin era. These are individuals who have appeared on the list since at least 1999, which is the earliest year for which data is currently available. Strikingly, half of the group is still considered among the top thirty most politically influential people in Russia in 2019, twenty years later. This group of Council and former Governor of St. Petersburg Valentina Matvienko; and current Presidential Envoy of to the North Caucasus region and former Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika. With the exception of Putin and Matvienko, these are people who have made careers as appointed senior officials rather than elected politicians.

The group of survivors also includes a number of people who have made their careers primarily in the business world, including such prominent oligarchs as Roman Abramovich and Vagit Alekperov. Vladimir Potanin is also included in the graphic as an oligarch known for his ability to maneuver through changes in Russia’s political scene and remain influential, although he is not part of the dataset, having never reached the top twenty in influence in any year measured. Although Anatolii Chubais was a prominent government official earlier in his career, during the period being analyzed here he has made his career in the world of state corporations, first as head of Russia’s electricity monopoly and then as head of the Rosnanotech state corporation. All four of these individuals have seen a decline in their influence in recent years, reflecting a general decline in influence among oligarchs in favor of bureaucratic officials.

The two other members of this group deserve a brief mention. Aleksandr Zhukov is a survivor who has played a variety of roles in government, including as a leading member of the State Duma, as the head of the Russian Olympic committee that organized the Sochi Winter Olympics, and as a deputy prime minister. Like the oligarchs, his influence has declined sharply in recent years. Finally, there is the case of Aleksandr Voloshin. Throughout Putin’s first term as President, Voloshin was the head of the presidential administration and considered one of the most powerful people in Russia. More interestingly, unlike other holdovers from the Yeltsin team described in the following section, he has consistently remained on the list of politically influential Russians since his resignation in 2003, albeit in relatively low positions.

Yeltsin-Era Politicians Who Did Not Last

A second group of members of the political elite were also survivors of the Yeltsin era, but have not retained their influence. These nine individuals are a fairly diverse group. Five of the nine were senior officials in the central government who stepped down at various points between 2001 and 2011 and thereafter disappeared from political life in Russia. These include Viktor Gerashchenko, who headed the Russian Central Bank until 2002; Aleksandr Veshniakov, who headed Russia’s Central Election Commission until 2007; and Mikhail Kasianov, who served as prime minister during Putin’s first term as president. There are also two former government ministers: Mikhail Zurabov, who headed the pension fund from 1999 to 2004 and was thereafter health minister until 2007 and Viktor Khristenko, who was deputy prime minister in both Yeltsin’s last year as president and in Putin’s first term and thereafter the minister of industry until 2012.

The other four members of this group can be described as more eclectic. Aleksei II’s influence came from his position as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. As we will see below, after his death in 2008, his successor retained a roughly similar level of influence. Yuri Luzhkov rapidly lost influence after his removal from his post as mayor of Moscow in 2010. The two businessmen in this group had very different trajectories. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, for a time, the most influential private businessman in Russia and remained influential even after his arrest in 2003, but he disappears from the list after his trial and imprisonment in 2005. Finally, Mikhail Fridman is somewhat different from the rest of this group. He is a businessman whose influence has gradually faded over time. In this, he is most similar to Vladimir Potanin in the previous group (the “survivors”), with the main difference being that the degree of his fade has taken him out of not only the top twenty, but the top 100, in recent years. Other than Fridman, the members of this group are all notable for having derived their influence from their positions, rather than their personal power. Unlike several people in the survivor group, their influence did not outlast their dismissal from their government positions.

Putin’s Original Team

When Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, he quickly installed his own team of loyalists. With only one exception, these twelve individuals who first appeared on the list in 2000 have remained highly influential players in Russian politics over the next twenty years. The majority of the team are connected to Putin, either through their work in the security services or from Putin’s time working in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s.

The security service contingent includes Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev, and Vladimir Ustinov. The first three people on this list have been among the core members of Putin’s inner circle throughout his time in power. One key difference when compared with the group of individuals that did not last is that the security service contingent’s influence has remained high regardless of the various positions they have held. Thus, Igor Sechin has variously served as deputy head of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister (while Putin was prime minister), and head of the Rosneft state oil corporation. His influence did not decrease when he departed from his government position in 2012 and he remains one of the ten most politically influential people in Russia to the present day.

Similarly, Nikolai Patrushev has been highly influential, both as FSB director and as secretary of the Security Council, despite the latter organization’s relatively limited formal power. Sergei Ivanov was highly influential first as defense minister, then as deputy prime minister, and finally as head of the presidential administration. His influence has faded in the last three years after his departure from the presidential administration, but the fact that he remains on the list despite having virtually no significant official role in Russian politics speaks to his personal connection to the president. Vladimir Ustinov is a somewhat different case. Although he played a powerful role in Russian politics while serving as prosecutor general, his removal from that position in 2006 was interpreted as a political defeat and resulted in a sharp decline in his perceived influence, even while he was still serving as Minister of Justice. After his dismissal from that position in 2008 and his transfer to the role of presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, he disappeared from the rankings entirely.

The St. Petersburg team includes Dmitry Medvedev, Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, Dmitry Kozak, and Boris Gryzlov. These are also figures who have exhibited political influence regardless of the position they held. Medvedev served variously as deputy head and then head of the presidential administration, first deputy prime minister, president, and prime minister, retaining a position among the ten most influential Russian political figures since his appointment as head of the presidential administration in late 2003. Gref and Kudrin survived their departures from positions as minister for economic development and trade and minister of finance, respectively. Gref has retained influence in his role as head of Sberbank, while Kudrin remained highly influential despite having no major government or business position from 2011 until his appointment as head of the Accounts Chamber in 2018. Boris Gryzlov was highly influential as minister of internal affairs and as speaker of the State Duma, but disappeared from the list after stepping down as speaker in 2011. He returned in 2017, however, despite having a fairly low-level position as the president’s representative to the contact group on the Ukraine conflict.

Dmitry Kozak has held a wide variety of positions over the last twenty years, both in Moscow and in the regions, while remaining highly influential. His peak of influence was in Putin’s first two terms in office, when he held senior positions in the presidential administration and as presidential representative to the Southern Federal District. Note that his high level of influence in the latter position contrasts with the case of Vladimir Ustinov, who dropped off the influence list after replacing Kozak in this position. This strongly suggests that Kozak’s influence during this period was related to his personal connections, rather than the office he held.

Three other members of the team are not connected to Putin through prior service. Vladislav Surkov and Aleksei Gromov were already working in the central government in the 1990s but first rose to positions of prominence under Putin. Surkov served in the presidential administration until 2011, then briefly as head of the government executive office before becoming a personal advisor to Putin. Although his influence declined in the latter position and he is likely to drop out of the rankings entirely in 2020 after his very public resignation in February, he remained on the list throughout the period of the study. Gromov was the president’s press secretary in his first two terms, followed by twelve years in the presidential administration as deputy and first deputy chief of staff. His influence has steadily increased over the years, especially once he moved into the presidential administration. Finally, Oleg Deripaska is an outlier among this group, as his role is in business rather than government. Although he is linked more closely to Putin than some of the businessmen who appeared in the other groups, his influence has declined in the last decade as power has shifted away from people in business and toward government officials. People Who Became Influential During Putin’s First Term

Individuals who joined the list of politically influential figures between 2001 and 2004 fall into very similar categories as Putin’s original team. Once again, the majority are figures whose background is in the security services or in the St. Petersburg government, while a few rose through other channels. Unlike Putin’s original team, few of these individuals have the political capital to have influence separate from their positions.

Siloviki, political figures who rose to power in the security services, such as Mikhail Fradkov, Rashid Nurgaliev, and Viktor Ivanov, are good examples of this tendency. Fradkov, for example, appeared in relatively low positions on the list as head of the tax police in 2001 and 2002, then disappeared from the list entirely while serving as Russia’s representative to the European Union in 2003. He then spent four years as one of the most politically influential people in Russia while serving as prime minister, before again disappearing from the list entirely after losing that position. He returned to the list in 2013 while serving as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, but disappeared after being dismissed from that position in 2016. Similarly, Rashid Nurgaliev was highly influential while serving as minister of internal affairs from 2004 to 2011, but disappeared from the list immediately after stepping down from that position. Viktor Ivanov spent several years as an assistant to President Putin and then several more as director of the Federal Narcotics Service. He disappeared from the list after being dismissed from the latter position in early 2016.

The political figures who came out of St. Petersburg are a relatively diverse group. Among them are two who have remained on the list throughout the period since their initial appearance in 2001–2002. Sergei Mironov served for many years as the speaker of the Federation Council, although he retained a certain amount of influence after moving to the State Duma in 2012. Aleksei Miller has remained among the twenty-five most politically influential Russians continuously since 2003 while serving as the head of Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly. Vladimir Iakunin was on the list only during the period from 2005 to 2015, when he headed the Russian Railroad state corporation. His immediate disappearance after his departure from that position in 2015 suggests that his influence derived from his position, rather than his personal power. Viktor Zubkov first made the list while running the Financial Monitoring Committee and reached higher positions on it, having served as prime minister and first deputy prime minister. He dropped off the list after losing the latter position in 2012.

The remaining four people in this group have had highly varied careers. Igor Shuvalov has served in a variety of roles in the government, including as the government’s chief of staff, as an assistant to the president, and as first deputy prime minister. He was most highly ranked on Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s list in the latter period, although he retained some influence even after departing that position in 2018. Aleksandr Khloponin is one of the few people on the overall list who appeared on the list while holding a position outside of Moscow. He was, for many years, the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai and then served as deputy prime minister. The peak of his influence was in the period 2010–2014, when he concurrently served as deputy prime minister and presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. Even during this period, his highest position in the survey was twentieth in 2010, highlighting the extent to which Moscowbased political figures dominate the rankings.

Dmitry Rogozin first came to prominence as one of the few elected national-level politicians on this list. He was one of the leaders of the right-wing Rodina party until 2005 and was thus one of the few influential politicians with an independent power base. However, he dropped off the list after departing the party due to conflicts with other leaders. He returned to a position of influence in 2012 after being appointed deputy prime minister in charge of the defense and space industries. Finally, Sergei Pugachev is unique, in that he only appeared on the list for two years, but in very high positions. He was a businessman with close ties to Putin, but quickly fell out of favor after refusing to reinvest his capital in Russia. He has since renounced his Russian citizenship and now lives in France.

People Who Became Influential During Putin’s Second Term

A fairly large group—thirteen people—became politically influential during Putin’s second term. Although a few of these people appeared on the list early in the term, most joined or rose to high rankings in 2007 or 2008. Individuals who joined the political elite during this period fall into two major categories, with a few outliers.

Five people in this set had close ties with Putin, mostly dating to their schooling in the 1970s and 1980s or through working together in the security services in the 1980s and 1990s. All five of these individuals rose to highly influential positions at around the same time and have remained near the top of the list throughout Putin’s presidency. Aleksandr Bastrykin was a university classmate of Putin. He worked at the Ministry of Justice and in the Prosecutor-General’s office before being appointed in 2007 as head of the Investigative Committee (IC), an anti-corruption agency within the Prosecutor-General’s office. His influence increased further in 2011, when the IC became an independent agency directly subordinate to the president.

Sergei Naryshkin has served in a variety of roles over the years, including chief of staff to the prime minister, deputy prime minister, head of the presidential administration, chair of the State Duma and, most recently, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service. His influence has always come less from his position and more from his close ties to Vladimir Putin, whom he has known since the early 1980s, when they studied together in the Soviet security service (KGB) schools in Leningrad. He was perceived as having been appointed head of the presidential administration under Dmitry Medvedev in order to ensure Medvedev’s loyalty to Putin.6 Aleksandr Bortnikov spent his entire career in the KGB or its successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), primarily in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) office. He was appointed deputy director of the FSB in 2004 and became its head in 2008. Although all three are influential because of their positions, they achieved these positions through a combination of their previous work and their connections to Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, Sergei Chemezov and Yuri Kovalchuk have attained their positions almost entirely through their connections to Putin. Chemezov worked with Putin in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s and again in the Presidential Property Office in Moscow in the late 1990s. Since Putin became president, Chemezov has held senior positions in a variety of state corporations, beginning with Rosoboronexport (the state defense export company) and since 2007 as general director of Rostec, which, under his leadership, has become the dominant player in Russia’s defense industry. Although Yuri Kovalchuk did not go to school or work with Putin, he has had close ties to the president dating back to the 1990s. Like Chemezov, he has never worked in the Russian government, having instead used his personal ties to Putin to amass a large fortune as the head of Bank Rossiia, a position that has led him to be labeled as “Putin’s personal banker.” 

A second set of five people rose to political influence by rising through the ranks of their agencies. Sergei Lavrov is perhaps the archetype of this figure. He has served as foreign minister since 2004, having previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as Russia’s representative to the United Nations. Although he was, for many years, described as someone who is a civil servant and chief implementer rather than a member of Putin’s inner circle, his longevity in his post has gradually translated into greater influence on decision-making. 

Tatiana Golikova rose through the ranks of the Ministry of Finance, becoming Deputy Finance Minister in the late 1990s. She was then appointed as Minister of Health and Social Development in 2007, going from that role to the position of Chair of the Accounts Chamber in 2013 and then becoming Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy in 2018. Similarly, Elvira Nabiullina rose through the ranks at the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, becoming the head of the ministry in 2007. She has retained influence since transitioning to her current position as head of Russia’s Central Bank in 2013.

Arkady Dvorkovich rose through the Finance Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Development, having developed close ties to German Gref in the latter ministry. He first rose to prominence as then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief economic advisor and then as deputy prime minister once Medvedev assumed the position of Prime Minister in 2012. He dropped off the list of politically influential Russians after losing that position in 2018, and now serves as president of the World Chess Federation. Finally, Patriarch Kirill rose through the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and headed the Church’s Department for External Church Relations from 1989 until his election as Patriarch in 2009, following Patriarch Aleksei’s death.

He first appeared on the list of influential people in 2007, when it became increasingly clear that he was likely to become the next patriarch, even as Aleksei’s health was declining. All five of these individuals are influential because of their positions, rather than through personal ties.

Only two members of this group attained their positions through the political process, both initially in regions outside of Moscow. Sergei Sobianin has had a long career in electoral politics at the regional level, first winning election in 1991 as mayor of a small town in Siberia, gradually rising to higher positions in the region, including a five-year stint as governor of Tiumen. He moved to Moscow in 2005 to serve as head of the presidential administration, and has remained a fixture in the top twenty most influential Russians since 2007. He has been the mayor of Moscow since 2010.

Viacheslav Volodin won his first election even earlier, serving on the Saratov city council beginning in 1990. He represented Saratov in the State Duma beginning in 1999, serving as the Duma’s deputy speaker. He succeeded Sobianin as head of the government executive office in 2010 and has remained on the top twenty list since then, serving as deputy head of the presidential administration and, since 2016, as chair of the State Duma.

Finally, Anatoly Serdiukov is unique among this group in that he achieved his influence by virtue of his ties to someone in the top elite other than Putin. He appears on the list in 2007, when he moved from his previous position as head of the Federal Tax Service to Defense Minister. He dropped off the list in 2012, when he was dismissed from that position. His appointment was linked to his connection to Viktor Zubkov, as he was married to Zubkov’s daughter. Despite constant criticism from members of the military, he remained in the position until his wife filed for divorce in 2012, at which point he was quickly accused of corruption and removed from his position.

People Who Became Influential in the Last 12 Years

Although much has been written about efforts by Russia’s senior leadership to renew Russia’s political elite, very few people have joined the ranks of the most influential Russians since 2008. In fact, only one person who joined the list while Dmitry Medvedev was president has become highly influential, while another four rose to top positions between Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and the end of 2019. As we saw in the previous section, a few others appeared on the list earlier, but only became highly influential after 2012. The five people in this group come from a variety of backgrounds, though most share the characteristic of rising to positions of influence through the ranks of the organizations they now lead, rather than achieving that position through personal connections to Putin or members of Putin’s inner circle. Dmitry Peskov rose through the diplomatic service and then through the presidential press office before becoming Putin’s press secretary in 2008. Anton Siluanov rose through the finance ministry, replacing the previous minister in late 2011. Anton Vaino rose through the presidential administration and has headed it since 2016. Vladimir Kolokoltsev served in various positions in the interior ministry, followed by a term as the Moscow police commissioner, before being appointed to head the interior ministry in 2012. Viktor Zolotov is the one exception in this group because he has been personally close to Putin since serving as a bodyguard to St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak in the 1990s. Although he only appeared on the list of influential Russians in 2016, he headed the presidential security service from the start of Putin’s tenure in 2000 until his appointment as head of the newly established National Guard in 2016. He thus serves as a good example of the type of individual who was missed by expert rankings because of his tendency to keep out of the limelight.

Inflection Points

Although Russia’s political elite has experienced relatively little change over the last twenty years, there have been a few key moments of substantial renewal, most immediately before or after presidential elections. After the initial introduction of Putin’s team in 2000–2001, an initial shift took place in 2003–2004. This was a period of consolidation, during which holdovers from the Yeltsin administration such as Kasyanov and Voloshin left their positions and the influence of independent businessmen was largely eliminated after the arrest of Khodorkovsky. These figures’ residual influence meant that they remained on the list, though in relatively low positions, for some time thereafter. However, starting at this point, all senior officials were either members of Putin’s circle or technocrats.

A much bigger elite transition took place in 2007, with the departure of Veshniakov, Fradkov, and Zurabov and the decline in influence of Chubais, Gref, Zhukov, and Viktor Ivanov. At the same time, a large number of new people appeared on the list, including Chemezov, Bortnikov, Bastrykin, Kovalchuk, Golikova, Nabiullina, Dvorkovich, and Serdiukov. In addition, Naryshkin, Zubkov, Iakunin, and Shuvalov, who had all been on the list previously, first attained high levels of influence in 2007 or 2008. These changes occurred as part of the transition to what became known as the “tandemocracy,” a period during which Medvedev served as president while Putin was prime minister.

There was a second major transition around the 2012 presidential election, with the departures of Zubkov, Gryzlov, Khristenko, Nurgaliev, and Serdiukov and the decline of Kudrin and Surkov. At the same time, Shoigu, Bastrykin, Volodin, and Peskov became highly influential for the first time while Siluanov, Rogozin, and Kolokoltsev either first appeared on the list or returned after a lengthy absence. This date marked the consolidation of the conservative turn in Russian politics, with security officials in the ascendance and economic modernizers relegated to secondary roles.

Putin’s third term was characterized largely by stability, with only a few significant shifts in influence. There were early signs of a generational shift, although few younger officials had yet reached positions of highest influence by the end of 2019, as highlighted by the dearth of people in the final group discussed above. Although a big government shakeup took place in January 2020, initial monthly polling suggests that this will result primarily in a reshuffling, with potentially limited impact on the composition of the top elite beyond the addition of the new prime minister. The shift to a new generation is coming, but the highest level still consists primarily of the people who have been with Putin since the early days of his rule. This will likely remain the case at least until the next presidential election in 2024.

Conclusion

The small number of people represented in the elite suggests a high level of elite continuity, which has allowed the regime to remain remarkably stable over a twenty-year period. Regime stability can be fleeting and authoritarian regimes, in particular, can shift from the appearance of eternal stability to collapse in a brief period. Nevertheless, the level of elite continuity in Putin’s Russia has allowed for relatively high level of policy consistency. While Putin’s team certainly has its share of tensions, everyone in his inner circle understands how the others operate.

The expert survey data clearly show that Russia’s Putin-era political elite includes two types of officials. Members of the first group have influence because of their roles or positions in government, while members of the second group have influence independently of their positions because of their ties to Vladimir Putin. Those in the second group tend to remain influential even when they are no longer in positions of power, while those in the first group drop out of the rankings as soon as they step down from their official role. This finding suggests that the number of people with real power may be even smaller than the sixty people represented in the data set, as only the second group has lasting influence at the highest levels. It also suggests that the members of the elite who were displaced in the government turnover of January 2020 will have different fates. People who have close ties to Putin, such as Dmitry Medvedev, will remain influential, while those who have had power because of their roles in government, such as Surkov, are likely to disappear.

Notes

1 The most recent annual rankings were published in Dmitri Orlov, “100 ведущих политиков России в 2019 году,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 1, 2020, http://www.ng.ru/ideas/2020-01-13/7_7766_people.html.

2 The question of how well an expert survey of this type reflects actual power dynamics in Russia is a valid one. Because the main goal of this study is to examine political influence, ratings by Russian experts on domestic politics are likely to be a fairly accurate representation, especially because the survey used a consistent methodology throughout the period under study.

3 “1999 год. 100 ведущих политиков России.” https://ru.telegram.one/CorruptionTV/1499.

4 Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “Putin’s Militocracy,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 19(4):289-306, 2003.

5 Tatiana Stanovaya, “Пять путинских элит на фоне транзита,” Carnegie Moscow Center, February 27, 2020. https://carnegie.ru/2020/02/27/ru-pub-81158.

6 Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Stott, “Medvedev’s Kremlin chiefs are Putin men,” Reuters, May 13, 2008. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-cabinet-kremlin/medvedevs-kremlin-chiefs-are-putin-men-idUSL1323497720080513.

New CNA reports on Russia’s strategy for escalation management

Tue, 21/04/2020 - 04:19

My colleagues at CNA’s Russian Studies Program — Michael Kofman, Anya Fink and Jeff Edmonds — have written two excellent reports on Russian deterrence and escalation management. I contributed a bit to the research. The summary and links to the reports below is taken from Michael Kofman’s description of the research on his blog:

CNA’s Russia Studies Program recently produced two reports that discuss in depth the main concepts comprising Russia’s strategy for escalation management or intrawar deterrence, their origins in military thought, and the current state of concept development. The first is titled Evolution of Key Concepts, covering essential deterrence concepts, current stratagems for escalation management, the role of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons, types of damage, views on targeting, etc. The second key debates and the players within Russian military thought provides an intellectual road map to the conversation among Russian military analysts, strategists, and the players involved. To better socialize the findings from these research products I’ve decided to post their respective abstracts here, though I suggest those interested download the reports from the CNA Research site.

The first report on evolution of key concepts assesses the evolution in Russian military strategy on the question of escalation management, or intra-war deterrence, across the conflict spectrum from peacetime to nuclear war. Russia’s overarching approach to deterrence, called “strategic deterrence,” represents a holistic concept for shaping adversary decision making by integrating military and non-military measures. Key concepts in Russian military thinking on deterrence include deterrence by fear inducement, deterrence through the limited use of military force, and deterrence by defense. These approaches integrate a mix of strategic nonnuclear and nuclear capabilities, depending on the context and conflict scope. In a conflict, Russian escalation management concepts can be roughly divided into periods of demonstration, adequate damage infliction, and retaliation. Russian strategic culture emphasizes cost imposition over denial for deterrence purposes, believing in forms of calibrated damage as a vehicle by which to manage escalation. This so-called deterrent damage is meant to be dosed, applied in an iterative manner, with associated targeting and damage levels. Despite acquiring nonnuclear means of deterrence, Russia continues to rely on nuclear weapons to deter and prosecute regional and large-scale conflicts, seeing these as complementary means within a comprehensive strategic deterrence system. The paper summarizes debates across authoritative Russian military-analytical literature beginning in 1991 and incorporates translated graphics and tables. The concluding section discusses implications for US and allied forces.

The second report on key debates and players offers an overview of the main debates in Russian military thought on deterrence and escalation management in the post-Cold War period, based on authoritative publications. It explores discussions by Russian military analysts and strategists on “regional nuclear deterrence,” namely the structure of a two-level deterrence system (regional and global); debates on “nonnuclear deterrence” and the role of strategic conventional weapons in escalation management; as well as writings on the evolution of damage concepts toward ones that reflect damage that is tailored to the adversary. Russian military thinking on damage informs the broader discourse on ways and means to shift an opponent’s calculus in an escalating conflict. The report concludes with summaries of recent articles that reflect ongoing discourse on the evolution of Russia’s strategic deterrence system and key trends in Russian military thought on escalation management.

Midrats: Russia’s 2020

Mon, 24/02/2020 - 04:22

I was back on the Blog Talk Radio show Midrats this week, talking about Russia’s government shake-up, Russian foreign policy,  its relations with the United States and China, etc. The recording is now available on the show’s website. The show description is as follows:

Episode 529: Russia’s 2020

As Russia’s navy starts to transition away from the last of her legacy ships, to her approaching endgame in Syria, join us for the full hour to investigate the latest developments with Russia’s national security posture, including the domestic power politics and relationships with its near abroad that influences the same.

Russian Foreign Policy Narratives

Tue, 12/11/2019 - 16:01

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian foreign policy narratives. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.

Most of the data collection for this policy brief was done by Katherine Baughman and Umida Hashimova. Thanks to Kasey Stricklin for putting together the trends graphic.

Executive Summary
  • This Marshall Center Security Insight provides a summary of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions by analyzing statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The analysis found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use.
  • The narratives described in this brief include Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization, Russia as a bastion of traditional values, Russophobia, whataboutism, fraternalism with Russia’s near abroad, ties with Soviet-era allies, outside intervention in sovereign affairs, Russia as a proponent of stability in the world, Russia as a proponent of multipolarity in the world, and the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role.
  • The most frequently used narratives included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia.
  • Although the foreign policy narratives of Russian officials are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core.
Introduction

This policy brief provides a summary of results of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions using statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The research team monitored Russian and Western media over a ten-month period, from September 2018 to June 2019, collecting both Russian- and English-language statements. We found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use. We conclude with some preliminary frequency analysis and trends of use over time during the study period.

Eurasia Versus Europe

This narrative tends to portray Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization with its own sovereign path that is separate from the rest of Europe. According to this argument, Russia is separate and different from the rest of Europe and should not be expected to integrate with it on purely European terms. This argument reflects a long tradition of Eurasianist discourse among Russian intellectuals that goes back to the early twentieth century and also hearkens back to an even older debate about Russian identity between Slavophiles and Westernizers that goes back to the tsarist era.

Officials focusing on this narrative discussed the need to form a greater Eurasia to safeguard the region’s distinct path, often in contrast to decadent European values. For example, in April 2019, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov stated, “We believe that there is the need to aspire for Greater Eurasia, which includes the European Union, our Eurasian Union and various Chinese initiatives.” This statement highlights the significance placed by Russian officials on deepening Russia’s relationship with China and especially highlights Russia’s role as a conduit for Chinese trade with Europe.

Russia as a Bastion of Traditional Values

According to this narrative, Russia possesses a distinct civilization that embodies and promotes “traditional” religious, societal, and other values in contrast with the more liberal, “decadent” West. This has been a common trope for Vladimir Putin. For example, in November 2018, he stated, “There is one thing I do not doubt: the voice of Russia will be dignified and confident in the future world, which is predetermined by our tradition, domestic spiritual culture, self-awareness, and, finally, the very history of our country as a distinctive civilization that is unique but does not make self-confident and loutish claims of exclusiveness.”

This narrative has been particularly favored by senior leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church, such as Patriarch Kirill, who said the following in November 2018: “The narrow paradigm of the New Time speaks of globalization as an inevitable process. Hidden underneath the word “inevitability” is the western principle of global development which features liberal secularism and modern forms of colonialism. . . . This mistake is a departure from tradition, the system of passing values from generation to generation which forms the civilizational code of peoples with its cultural, spiritual, and religious paradigms, relying on God-given and thus invariable moral values which have accompanied the humankind throughout history. Experience shows that the trampling of these values has led to tragedies and cataclysms in personal, societal and international relations.”

Russian leaders have focused on traditional values, particularly in their domestic messaging, as a way of contrasting Russia with the supposedly immoral member states of the European Union. This narrative helps Russian leaders justify their caution about developing close ties with Western Europe and their policies aimed at curtailing Western influence in Russia.

Russophobia

Russophobia refers to the narrative that the policies and actions of Russia’s opponents are motivated by an unjustified prejudice against Russia, rather than legitimate disagreement over policy or differences in geopolitical interests. Russian officials frequently highlight the role of Russophobia in accusations by U.S. politicians and media commentators of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

For example, in April 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented on the publication of the Mueller Report, “Unfortunately, there is no sign that US political circles, particularly those who seek to score political points in the Congress from Russophobia, are ready for dialogue. The document is most likely to have no effect from the standpoint of improving relations.” He added that Washington “continues to bombard the public with anti-Russian allegations. Russian officials often argue that Russophobia makes it easy for Western politicians to blame Russia for all of their problems, rather than dealing with the actual causes.

Whataboutism

Whataboutism is the narrative that other powers are engaging in the same activities that they accuse Russia of engaging in. During the study period, Russian officials resorted to whataboutism frequently, including when criticizing the United States and its allies for interfering in Russian elections. In May 2019, the Federation Council released a statement noting, “Washington, its allies, and its partners are using available instruments, including information, political, administrative, diplomatic, organizational, technical, and financial ones, for illegally intervening in Russia’s sovereign affairs, including in the period of preparation for and holding of electoral campaigns of various levels in Russia.” This statement was clearly designed to highlight the equivalence between U.S. activities in 2019 and accusations of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Russian officials also highlighted violations of freedom of the press in Western Europe and compared Russian police actions against protesters with French police actions against Yellow Vest protesters to show that Russian actions are no different than those of the countries that regularly accuse Russia of violating human rights and international norms. For example, Vladimir Putin highlighted restrictions placed on RT broadcasting in France by noting, “We hear from our Western colleagues that the free dissemination of information . . . is one of the most important principles of democracy. . . . States should not hinder information spread through administrative routes, but rather put forward their perspective and let the people decide for themselves where the truth is and where its falsification is.” Commenting on European government actions against domestic protesters, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said, “Unlike France and Germany, Russia never uses water cannons, tear gas or rubber pellets to disperse protesters.”

Whataboutism is also used to reject criticism regarding Russian military and political influence activities abroad. In April 2019, referring to Russian support for the Venezuelan government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “What do they mean by insolent remarks that the countries [outside] the Western Hemisphere are not allowed to have any interests there? But what is the United States doing? Take a look at the map of the US military bases: the entire world is dotted with red spots and each of them poses rather serious risks.” Overall, the whataboutism narrative is used to suggest that Russia is no different from the Western states that regularly condemn Russian behavior both domestically and on the world stage.

Fraternalism with Russia’s Near Abroad

The Near Abroad is Russia’s preferred term for the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the arguable exception of the Baltic States. The term is associated with fraternalist narratives concerning brotherly links, paternalistic relationships, and special historical and cultural commonalities with these countries.

Officials using this narrative during the study period made references to the continuing fraternal relationship with Belarus during a period of intense discussion of potential closer integration of the two states. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov highlighted the special fraternal relationship, noting, “I don’t think anyone in Moscow or Minsk would dispute the existence of de facto and de jure special and allied relations between the two countries.” Officials also lamented the destruction of brotherly ties with Ukraine by fascists and nationalists bent on tearing Ukraine away from Russia. For example, in reference to Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said, “As for the long term, no matter what happens, no matter who is in power in Kyiv today, the Russian and Ukrainian peoples have always been and will forever be fraternal and very close . . . . This political scum will go away, recede.” Similarly, Peskov stated in May 2019 that “[Putin] has always stated that the relations between the countries’ leadership should not in any way be projected to the long-standing close and brotherly relations of the peoples of the two countries.” These statements highlight Russian leaders’ tendency to continue to consider former Soviet states, especially Ukraine and Belarus, as “naturally” belonging to Russia’s cultural and political sphere of influence.

Relations with Soviet-Era Allies

This category refers to the set of Russian narratives that relate to “traditional relations” with partners that have maintained close ties with Russia since the Soviet Era, such as Vietnam and Syria. When discussing new initiatives with foreign states that fit this category, Russian leaders commonly refer to the history of bilateral ties in the Soviet period. During the study period, Vladimir Putin mentioned such ties during official meetings with leaders of Vietnam and Serbia, and Sergey Lavrov highlighted the history of close relations between Russia and Latin American countries. This emphasis is especially common in situations in which the two sides are discussing military assistance. For example, in April 2019, Russian Presidential Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov noted “Sudan’s willingness and readiness to develop cooperation with Russia on the basis of traditionally friendly relations spanning since 1950s.” Although this is not a frequent narrative, it does play an important role when Russian officials seek to further links with states with which Russia had ties during the Cold War.

Outside Intervention in Sovereign Affairs

This category describes the narrative that certain domestic policies and developments in a given country are the result of meddling from outside powers, most often the United States, rather than the outcome of internal factors. Russian leaders frequently express vehement opposition to such activities, although many countries accuse Russia of employing similar tactics abroad. During the study period, Russian officials made strong statements against U.S. intervention in Venezuela, citing the principle of noninterference in sovereign affairs. For example, in May 2019, Sergey Lavrov stated, “Mike Pompeo called me, urged [Russia] not to support [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, and urged us and Cuba not to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. This whole story sounds quite surrealistic. I answered him, based on our principled position, that we never interfere in somebody else’s affairs and call on others to act the same way.”

Russian officials have made similar statements about how U.S. military operations in Syria and support for specific political groups in Ukraine were instances of interference in sovereign affairs. In the context of the Syria operation, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin condemned the “United States of America, which continues using terrorists and extremists as a tool of pressure and direct inference in the affairs of sovereign states.” Regarding Ukraine, Russian officials accused the United States of getting involved in the conflict over the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and condemned its influence on Ukrainian elections. Sergey Lavrov’s assessment was that, “The current leadership in Kyiv is guided not so much by the interests of their country but by the ambitions and ‘recommendations’ and often direct orders from other capitals.” When asked about similar Russian activities, Russian leaders argue that unlike the United States Russia only acts when invited by a country’s official government.

Russia as a Proponent of Stability in the World

Russian leaders frequently argue that Russia’s activities at home and abroad are justified by the need to maintain stability, while portraying opponents’ actions as attempts to destabilize a given situation. For example, in April 2019, Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov criticized Western humanitarian operations around the world in the following terms: “Frequently, the so-called humanitarian interference is done under the pretext of promoting democracy, thus provoking intra-state instability. For Western countries, unilateral actions towards other states carried out with disregard for the opinion of their legitimate governments and not authorized by the UN [United Nations] have already become the norm.”

Around the same time, General Alexander Levin, one of the commanders of the Russian military base in Tajikistan, highlighted the beneficial nature of the humanitarian operation there, saying, “The joint actions by the Russian base, units of the Defense Ministry and other security structures of Tajikistan are becoming a guarantor of peace and stability in the region.” This pair of statements highlights the Russian trope that Russian interventions promote stability in the world, while interventions by Western countries, especially by the United States, sow chaos.

Russia as a Proponent of Multipolarity in the World

Russian officials often describe the current world order as being unfairly dominated by a single power—specifically, the United States. In response, they promote the idea that the international community should welcome multiple arbiters, including and especially Russia and China. In the meantime, they highlight how most of the world’s problems are caused by the United States trying to resist the natural development of a polycentric world order. In late May 2019, Lavrov noted, “As we can see, security problems have been piling up in the Asia Pacific region and the world at large because Western countries are trying to stall or even reverse the objective formation of a polycentric world order.” Also that month, Vladimir Putin called for the establishment of an efficient security system that would be equal for all states, arguing that only through a collective response can radical extremist ideas be defeated.

Russian officials generally argue that the U.S. effort to maintain its unilateral dominance is a fruitless battle, and one that the United States will eventually lose. For example, in April 2019, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu argued that “[o]ur Western colleagues cannot accept the fact that the era of the unipolar world order is nearing an inevitable end so they are trying to protract this natural process.” These statements highlight the key idea of this narrative: that multipolarity is inevitable, and that efforts by Western states to resist it are both futile and counterproductive.

Promotion of International Structures in Which Russia Plays a Leading Role

This narrative refers to Russian leaders’ tendency to promote the involvement in international negotiations of organizational entities in which Russia has a dominant or equal voice as compared with Western powers. Such organizations include, most prominently, the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Security Council. Conversely, Russian leaders frequently criticize structures in which their country is less empowered, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Council of Europe.

During the study period, Russian officials frequently argued that international crises could only be solved through the UN. This was particularly noticeable during the peak of the effort by the Venezuelan opposition to replace Nicolás Maduro with Juan Guaidó. Sergey Lavrov stated, “We with our Venezuelan partners share the opinion that any use of force in circumvention of the [UN] Security Council is fraught with disastrous consequences for modern international security as a whole.” Similarly, Vyacheslav Volodin argued that the Kosovo conflict can only be solved under the auspices of the UN: “A solution to the Kosovo problem can definitely only be sought via dialogue based on decisions made in the UN. Primarily, UN Security Council Resolution 1244.”

Russian officials also sought to use other international organizations, especially the OSCE. The OSCE was used to promote Russian interests in Ukraine, as highlighted in the following statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry: “Regardless of this fact, Russia will utilize its right to monitor the elections within an international mission in another OSCE member state, in this case in Ukraine. Our steps are based on the mutual obligations of all OSCE members to provide reciprocal, and unimpeded access by observers to one another’s elections. This measure needs to ensure that electoral processes are transparent and democratic.” These statements show that Russian officials prefer to promote their country’s interests through international organizations in which Russia plays a prominent role, while avoiding or denigrating organizations from which Russia is excluded (such as NATO).

Frequency Analysis

As shown in Table 1, the frequency with which these narratives were used by Russian officials during the period of analysis can be divided into three groups. The most frequently used included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia. A second set of narratives was used somewhat less frequently, including references to Russia’s near abroad, Russia’s focus on multipolarity versus Western unilateralism, and Russia’s role as a promoter of stability as compared with the Western tendency toward destabilizing interventions. The least frequently used narratives included references to Soviet-era allies, the importance of Russia’s Eurasian identity, and Russia’s role as a bastion of traditional values.

Table 1. “Frequency of Narratives Used by Russian Officials”

In terms of trends over time, most of the narratives were relatively evenly spread out over the entire ten-month period of observation. In particular, Russophobia, whataboutism, and references to the near abroad occurred at a fairly constant rate throughout the period. Figure 1 shows that some narratives have noticeable peaks and valleys over time, especially sovereign affairs and the promotion of international structures. The February peak in the sovereign affairs narrative is related to the peak of the crisis in Venezuela and concurrent Russian fears of a U.S. military intervention there. However, the smaller April peak in that narrative and the February peak in the promotion of international structures both include mentions of a wide variety of topics. For the former, these include discussion of Western intervention in Libya and Venezuela and discussion related to Brexit and cyberattacks. For the latter, Russian officials refer to a wide variety of crises that they say should all be dealt with either in the UN Security Council or the OSCE, including Ukraine, Syria, Macedonia, Kosovo, and the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Figure 1. “Trends in Key Narratives”

Conclusion

Although Russian official foreign policy narratives are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core. These narratives all connect with prevalent perceptions of the world and of the role of Russia and the United States in it. By starting with a core element of truth, Russian officials are able to create narratives that resonate with the dominant frames through which their audiences view the world.

Thus, they tend to highlight Russophobia and traditional values to domestic audiences. They also highlight the tendency of the United States to intervene in other countries and connect this tendency to increased instability in regions such as the Middle East in order to create the narrative of the United States as a destabilizing actor in world affairs. Whataboutism is used with both domestic and international audiences to highlight instances in which Western actors fall short of their stated principles, making the argument that Western leaders have no standing to criticize Russian actions. The end result is a relatively coherent picture of the world as a chaotic place and of Russia as a stabilizing agent within it.

A Note on Sources: Materials were collected through a variety of sources, including Opensource.gov, the Eastview database of Russian newspapers, and direct access to the TASS news agency and the websites of major Russian and Western newspapers. The bulk of the materials came from newswire reports, such as TASS in Russian and Interfax in English. Russian-language sources also included all major central newspapers. English-language sources also included Western English-language newspapers and media sites of record, such as the New York Times and the BBC. All materials were hand-coded by one of the two team members. Our analysis assumes that statements in Russian-language sources are aimed primarily at a domestic audience, while statements in English-language sources are aimed primarily at an international audience. Links are provided to sources that are available on the internet. Citations to all sources may be found on the Marshall Center’s version of this article.

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