Russian Interests and Policies in the Arctic

I have a new analytical piece up on  War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview:

Russian leaders have in recent months focused on the importance of the Arctic region to their country’s security and economic goals in the 21st century. Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. However, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert their country’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory, and through steps to assure Russian security in the region.

Russian policy is pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic, as well as declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. The second track seeks international cooperation in order to assure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. Managing the lack of alignment between these two tracks, and the potential for counter-productive setbacks caused by inconsistencies between them, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

The rhetoric of sovereignty claims

Russian officials have frequently made statements and taken symbolic actions to assert Russian sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. Many of these actions have had to do with enforcing Russian territorial claims in the region.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

Who shot down MH 17?

Today’s press conference by the Russian MOD shows that the Russian government has decided to double down on its narrative that the Ukrainian military is responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17. The Russian case is comprised of two parts. First, the Russian MOD released imagery showing that Ukrainian Buk systems were located in the region near where the airplane crashed. Second, the Russian MOD stated that its radars had noted two Ukrainian aircraft, one of which was a Su-25 fighter jet, tailing the Malaysian airliner immediately prior to its crash. The Russian government speculates that either 1) Ukrainian air defense forces were mistakenly aiming at the Su-25, having assumed it was a Russian plane, shot down the airliner by mistake or 2) they deliberately shot at the airliner in order to pin the attack on the separatists.

Since I am not an expert in imagery analysis, I will leave that to someone who is. As for the Su-25, Russian sources have pointed out that it’s maximum altitude is 7,000 meters, well below the 10,000 meter altitude at which MH17 was flying. Furthermore, there is no actual evidence beyond the words of the Russian spokespeople that Ukrainian aircraft were shadowing MH17. Furthermore, the presence of such planes would conflict with the second version of events. Why would Ukraine send up its planes into an area into which it is about to fire an air defense missile?

On the other hand, while the evidence for MH17 having been shot down by pro-Russian separatists acting with direct Russian assistance is circumstantial, it is nevertheless fairly strong. This includes information and video provided by separatist fighters at the time of the incident that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft. These statements and video were deleted once it became clear that the aircraft was civilian. In addition, Ukrainian security services have released tapes of conversations among separatists first reporting that a plane had been shot down and then reporting that it had turned out to be a civilian plane rather than one carrying armaments. Even if one chooses to not believe Ukrainian government statements, the statements of the separatists still remain.

The attack on the plane also followed separatist claims to have captured a Ukrainian Buk surface to air missile system. Such claims have in the past been used by separatists to mask the transfer of heavy military equipment from Russia across the open border. Video evidence has surfaced showing a Buk system being moved earlier in the day in an area near where the plane went down and then again being transported in the direction of the Russian border with one of its four missiles notably absent. The Buk system is equipped with its own radar system and can hit targets at altitudes up to 49,000 feet, well above the 32,000 feet at which MH17 was flying over Ukraine.

Furthermore, the separatist forces have in recent weeks compiled a record of shooting down Ukrainian aircraft at increasingly higher altitudes. On July 14, a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane was shot down while flying at an altitude of over 21,000 feet, well above the range of man-portable air defense systems that the separatists have admitted to possessing. Separatists took credit for this attack, though some evidence shows that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile fired from Russian territory.

Finally, the separatists’ reaction since the downing of the plane is highly suspicious. If they had not had anything to do with the attack, why would they not allow the OSCE to secure the site and allow foreign investigators full access? Their best hope of having their story accepted would be if the investigation is seen as credible in the West and absolves them of responsibility. Instead, the media has been talking for days about how the crash site has been looted by separatists and evidence tampered with. If they truly believed that the Ukrainians had done it, the separatists’ behavior over the last five days has only made it more difficult for them to get Western observers to accept their version of the story.

It appears that the key unresolved question is whether the missile that was launched at MH17 was fired by separatists or by Russian operators who had arrived with the system in separatist-controlled territory. It is impossible to tell which was the case, though some analysts have argued that since operating a Buk system requires 6-9 months of training it is unlikely that separatists could have operated it themselves. On the other hand, there have also been reports that Russia has been training separatists in air defense warfare in recent weeks. Since the systems in question appear to have been moved back to Russia and evidence about the attack is being destroyed, it is likely that this question will never be definitively answered.

 

Ukraine: Putin is trying to rectify a historic wrong

I was interviewed by Erika Korner of Euractiv on the Ukraine crisis. Here’s the beginning of it.

In April US President Obama spoke of applying an “updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” in light of Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine crisis. Is an association with the Cold War useful? And is containment an appropriate remedy for the conflict?

To some extent, the association is useful but I would not overplay it. In the Cold War, the key feature was an ideological difference between the two sides that is almost absent now. There is no big ideological fight, where Russia is trying to convince the rest of the world to follow a completely different system of economics and government compared to the US. What is left, is much more of a general foreign policy difference in terms of perceptions of interest and so forth. Having said that, clearly it is not in the US interest to let Russia have a sphere of influence. This is what Russia seems to want in its immediate neighbourhood.

So from that point of view, I would not use the word containment because of all the ideological baggage from the Cold War. Instead, it would be a situation where the US tries to give the countries around Russia more options in terms of their foreign policy course. But this is something the US has been doing for the last 20 years or so.

What are some similarities and differences between the current state of Russia’s relations with the West and those during the Cold War?

I mentioned ideology. Another important difference is that the Soviet Union really strove for autarchy during the Cold War, for self-reliance among the Soviet Union and its allies and as few interconnections as possible with the rest of the international system. It never really achieved this completely, at least not after the 1930s or so, but the goal existed.

Whereas now we are dealing with an environment where there are a lot more connections both in terms of economic ties but also freedom to travel, for example, allowing Russians to go abroad.

That creates a lot more interdependence between Russia, Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. This has a moderating influence on relations.

That is the general difference, but we can talk about more specifics within that, like energy ties. While the Soviet Union certainly exported energy to Europe, starting in the 1970s, at that time it was much less central than it is to the relationship now. Energy is playing a more central role now in policy.

How much of the current conflict in Ukraine can be traced back to Western or Russian antagonism, and how much can be perceived as an organic movement from the Ukrainian population?

At the first stage of the crisis, before it became internationalised with the intervention, it was primarily a domestic crisis. Then, at least for a while after Yanukovych left, it shifted to becoming primarily an international crisis over Crimea.

(Please read the rest of the interview at the Euractiv website.)

Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

While in Moscow a few weeks ago, I was part of a group of U.S. scholars that met with Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and BRICS sherpa, who has particular expertise in arms control and European cooperation. The meeting with Ryabkov was in many ways the complete antithesis of the Russian speeches at MCIS, which took place the next day. He said that Russia did not want to remove anything from the bilateral relationship with the United States, expressed concern that the push for sanctions in the U.S. had taken on its own dynamics while perceptions of the other on both sides were only consolidating, and declared Russia’s intention to maintain all possible channels of dialog.

He mentioned three possible areas for bilateral cooperation, including Syria’s chemical disarmament, limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and management of climate change. In particular, he highlighted the danger of nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East,  depending on how the Iranian negotiations turn out. U.S. and Russian interests on this issue are very close, so prospects for cooperation are good. However, given the current state of relations, Russia will not seek to develop a new agenda for cooperation with the U.S. until after the dust settles on the current crisis — 12-18 months. Until then, Russian leaders will simply try to manage the situation to limit the damage to the relationship. At the same time, there is no plan to revise Russia’s fundamental foreign policy approach toward the U.S.

He said that there is no need for Moscow to backpedal on its Ukraine policy. Russian leaders truly believe in their explanation for why the crisis in Ukraine occurred and subsequent developments in the crisis will depend on further events in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure that we got the message that Russia has no ambition to further deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. He noted that Ukrainian plans for dialog were a step in the right direction. Russia would like to ensure that there is a new division of powers in Ukraine and to secure the status of the Russian language. He stated that a quest for establishing Novorossiya, either as an independent state or as part of Russia was out of the question and was not being considered by the Russian leadership in any way. He said that there was no risk of further deterioration in Ukraine and that therefore there was no basis for sectoral Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, Ryabkov ruled out the possibility of any kind of negotiation with Ukraine over Crimea, since Russia considers the issue closed. Though he did not exclude the possibility of compensation of individuals or businesses for lost property, he said there would be no settlement on a government level.

The public tends to perceive the current state of relations with the U.S. as a natural outcome of past events and therefore unavoidable. Many people don’t care about or about how American political elites think of Russia. There’s no obvious vision on how build a different kind of relationship. As for the annexation of Crimea, most people see it through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and believe that one part of that historical injustice has now been remedied. References to Kosovo among some Russian commentators are to some extent artificial. The trope of “if others can do it, why can’t we?” only emerged after several cases of Western intervention. But at the same time, each case is unique, one can’t draw parallels even with the intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

Given this divergence in views between Russians and Americans, it would be better to focus on less politically loaded issues. Russia needs to try to communicate in a more focused way with those who work Russia issues in Washington. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been speaking almost daily on the crisis. This has helped a more reasonable direction to emerge, including the involvement of the OSCE and international observers, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops in late May. He believed that the situation in late May was much better in a political sense than it had been 2-3 weeks earlier.

I asked a question about the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Arctic once the current crisis is less acute. Ryabkov noted that contacts are still being maintained on practical questions, including monitoring fisheries limitation agreements and channels on environmental issues such as oil spill cleanup and protection of polar bears. Work in the Arctic Council is continuing, with a gradual consolidation of approaches by the Arctic littoral states. While competing claims to sectors on the continental shelf may produce some difficult motives, all sides have been trying to keep the dialog open and to keep it low key.

Another question was asked about other areas of cooperation. Ryabkov highlighted the importance of maintaining cooperative programs in peaceful nuclear energy. Although the U.S. canceled its participation in a June meeting in Russia on how to use spent fuel in energy production, the meeting was simply shifted to France. He mentioned cooperation with GE in this field and said that it was unfortunate that the U.S. government was influencing U.S. businesses against engaging with Russian economic actors.

 

Why do Russian leaders think the U.S. government is out to get them?

The following op-ed appeared in the Moscow Times today. As usual for op-eds, the headline in the Moscow Times is not mine.

——

The May 23 to 24 Moscow Conference on International Security, sponsored by Russia’s Defense Ministry, focused not on conflict zones or technology advances, but on the role of popular protest — specifically “color revolutions,” in international security.

The speakers, among them top Russian military and diplomatic officials such as Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, argued that color revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They argued that this was part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept U.S. hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

While the West considers color revolutions to be peaceful expressions of popular will opposing repressive authoritarian regimes, Russian officials argued that military force is an integral part of all aspects of color revolutions.

According to them, Western governments first attempt to topple opposing governments with peaceful protests. But military force is is still an option.

If the protests turn out to be insufficient, military force is then used openly to ensure regime change. This includes the use of external pressure on the regime in question in order to prevent the use of force to restore order, followed by the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces.

If these measures are not sufficient, Western states organize a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Russian officials at the MCIS conference described color revolutions as a new technique of aggression pioneered by the U.S. and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique, compared to military intervention, is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu argued that this scheme has been used in a wide range of cases, including Serbia, Libya, and Syria — all cases where political interference by the West transitioned into military action. Now the same scheme is being followed in Ukraine, where anti-regime protests have over several months been transformed into a civil war, and in Venezuela, where the so-called democratic opposition is supposedly organized by the United States.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find it hard to swallow the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the U.S.

Although uprisings in countries whose governments were closely allied to the U.S., such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

Listening to the speeches at the conference, I was left with one big question: Do the Russian officials actually believe this? Or is it just propaganda meant to convince the Russian population and leaders of other countries?

If it is merely propaganda, then perhaps Russian leaders are acting from a realist playbook. In that case, the West just needs to convince them that it is against their interests to try to create a bipolar world where countries are either with the West or against it.

But if the former is true, then the opposition to the U.S. and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. If this is true, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the U.S. is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the U.S. does not get such an opportunity.

In this environment, Russia’s current policy in Ukraine is not just about geopolitical calculations regarding Ukraine’s economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union, or even potential Ukrainian NATO membership. Instead, a main goal may be to strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population.

Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the population against anti-regime or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-U.S. domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

One thing that may strike observers is that the supposed U.S. strategy laid out by Russian officials very closely parallels Russia’s actions in Ukraine in recent weeks. While Russian officials certainly did not organize the Maidan protests, NATO has accused Russia of backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly used the threat of force to try to influence the actions of the new Ukrainian government, both by making statements in which they reserve the right to intervene in the conflict and by staging several military exercises on the Ukrainian border.

Is this a case of Russian officials giving the U.S. what they think is a taste of its own medicine? Perhaps the Kremlin thinks that U.S. policy is aimed at destabilizing opposing regimes because such activities are a standard part of their own policy toolkit.

MCIS 2014 photos and tank maneuver videos

I’ll have a wrap-up post on the MCIS tomorrow. In the meantime, a few photos, courtesy of Ruslan Pukhov from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and from the MOD Press Service. Also, if you are interested in Russian tank maneuvers, make sure to scroll to the bottom for some videos I took on the second day of the conference.

SAVX5090-1_

Sergei Shoigu addressing the conference.

SAVX5211-1_

Sergei Lavrov addressing the conference.

Displaying SAVX4991.jpg

Left to right: myself, Chief of the Russian Navy Viktor Chirkov, and CAST Director Ruslan Pukhov.

SAVX4984_

Left to right: myself, Sergei Koshelev (the head of the Defense Ministry’s Chief Administration for International Military Cooperation), Chief of the Russian Navy Viktor Chirkov, chair of the State Duma Committee on Defense Vladimir Komoedov, CAST Director Ruslan Pukhov, and director of the State Duma expert council on defense Boris Usviatsov.

SAVX5729_

Panel on Stability in Afghanistan.

SAVX6073-1_

Head of Military Initellgence Igor Sergun.

And here are links to a few videos from the second day of the conference, during which we were taken to Alabino to observe a tank ballet and tank biathlon.

 

Moscow Conference on International Security 2014, part 2: The panels

In addition to the plenary panel, the MCIS conference included two panel discussions, one on the Middle East and North Africa and the second on Afghanistan.

The panel entitled “Finding Ways of Stabilization in the Middle East and North Africa” was moderated by Vitaly Naumkin of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Participants included Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, General Vladimir Zarudnitsky — the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Deputy Syrian General Staff Chief Mahmoud Abdul Wahab Shawa. Deputy Director of the Israeli Institute for National Security Udi Dekel, Director of the Iranian Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies Kayhan Barzegar, Chief of Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence of the Lebanese Army Fadel Edmond, and CIS Executive Secretary Sergey Burutin.

Since I am not a MENA specialist, I was primarily interested in how the region influenced Russian foreign policy. The only speech directly relevant to this topic was by Vladimir ZarudnitskyThe Russian language text of his remarks is also available. Like the plenary speakers, Zarudnitsky focused on the military aspects of colored revolutions. He argued that while the West considers colored revolutions to be a peaceful way of overthrowing undemocratic regimes, events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown that military force is an integral part of all aspects of colored revolutions. This includes external pressure on the regime in question to prevent the use of force to restore order, the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces, and if these measures are not sufficient, the conduct of a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Colored revolutions are thus a new technique of aggression pioneered by the United States and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.

Zarudnitsky argues that since this type of warfare is based on the network principle, it has no front line. It is used primarily in urban areas, frequently using civilians as shields. Commonly accepted rules of warfare are ignored, since official state-run armed forces are not used. Instead, criminal and terrorist forces and private military companies are allowed to act with impunity. Counter-guerrilla warfare tactics are required to defeat this type of warfare.

The key question for military planners is which state will be targeted next. Weak states with poor economies are generally the most vulnerable to these tactics, but the main factor in determining targets is the geopolitical interest of the provoking state. For this reason, such revolutions are organized primarily in countries with significant natural resources or ones that have an important strategic position and conduct an independent foreign policy. The destabilization of such countries allows for a major shift in the balance of power in a particular region (in the case of the Arab Spring — the Middle East and North Africa).

—–

The final panel covered the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security. It was moderated by Deputy Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. Speakers included GRU Chief Igor Sergun, Special Representative of the Russian President for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, First Deputy Kyrgyz Defense Minister Zamir Suerkylov, Deputy SCO Secretary General Keneshbek Dushbaev, President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute Sohail Amin, and Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis Senior Fellow Phunchok Stobdan.

Zamir Kabulov described the security situation in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban is active in all parts of the country and has parallel organs of power. Most Afghans are opposed to the Taliban but fear and insecurity make it difficult for people to express their opposition. He also mentioned that there are more than one kind of Taliban fighters, including nationalists fighting against foreign occupation, local religious activists, and global jihadis of the younger generation.

Igor Sergun‘s speech was made available on the conference website. He noted that the Taliban views the withdrawal of ISAF forces as a success. They expect victory, so see no reason to bother with negotiations at this point. He discussed the three most likely scenarios for future developments in Afghanistan, including some fairly ridiculously exact percentage likelihoods for each scenario:

  1. Balance of political forces within the country remains relatively unchanged, supported by a limited Western presence. Afghanistan remains a source of terrorist, extremist, and drug threats for Central Asia. Likelihood 39 percent.
  2. Taliban seizes power in the absence of a foreign presence. Islamists could begin infiltrating Central Asian states. Likelihood 27 percent.
  3. Afghanistan disintegrates and is divided into ethnic enclaves. This scenario leads to an increase in battle for influence by local and regional powers. Likelihood 31 percent.

In the second part of this speech, Sergun discussed the logistics of the ongoing withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan. Given the amount of equipment present in the region, his analysis showed that Western states would not be able to withdraw their equipment in the allotted time frame. He argued that while the 40,000 personnel could be withdrawn by the end of 2014,  it would be impossible to complete the withdrawal of 40,000 vehicles and 300 helicopters any earlier than 2017. As a result, he claimed that Washington will soon need to start a propaganda campaign to convince the international community that U.S. presence in the region will need to be extended at least through 2024 in order to ensure regional stability. However, this will not change the threat posed by the Taliban to Central Asian states.

(A small editorial comment on this score. While I claim no expertise in logistics and have no idea whether the GRU analysis is valid or not, it does seem clear that it ignores the fact that a large part of US equipment in Afghanistan is being scrapped on site, rather than removed. That seems likely to change the calculations of how much equipment can be removed by what date.)

And, to conclude, a few key points from other speakers and from the Q&A.

Sokhail Amin‘s key points

  • The drawdown in Afghanistan is well-planned and being done gradually
  • If it is done right, Afghanistan will be stable for the future
  • The process of reconciliation in the country must be led by Afghans

Phunchok Stobdan‘s key points

  • It would be best to have power-sharing between the leading candidates for president of Afghanistan
  • The West is preparing for future activity in Central Asia
  • Sectarian conflict is spreading from the Middle East to Afghanistan, in part through the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia
  • There are training camps in Central Asia, Chechnya, and Pakistan’s FATA region that have been negatively affecting Afghanistan’s security

Key points from Q&A

  • A journalist asked about the fate of the joint NATO/Russia helicopter project for Afghanistan’s military. The cancellation of this project was described as a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Actually, the project was not canceled, the U.S. just chose to not pick up the option on additional orders — DPG) Stopping other NATO/Russia cooperation, such as counter-narcotics work and training in demining, is also not helpful.
  • It seems that NATO is removing itself from responsibility for Afghanistan, handing it over to the international community.
  • Alexei Arbatov noted that the U.S. operation in Afghanistan was the greatest blow against the success of the operation to stabilize Afghanistan. It gave comfort the the Taliban. Now, the Taliban is trying to maximize civilian casualties to increase discontent and fear. They have lots of financing and can stay in the field indefinitely. He argued that if they win in Afghanistan, the Taliban will definitely try to destabilize Central Asia.
  • Yevegeny Kozhokhin argued the the Taliban threat to Central Asia is overstated. When the Taliban previously controlled Afghanistan, they showed no intention to attack Central Asia and instead sought talks with Russia.