Reassuring the Baltic States

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have had a direct impact on the security perceptions of the Baltic States. Baltic leaders see Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as a potentially serious precedent for future Russian actions against the Baltic States. Russia’s statements declaring that it will protect ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation are of particular concern, given the large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. Russian naval maneuvers in the Baltic Sea that took place at the time of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea were seen by regional leaders as an attempt to put pressure on the Baltic States. Furthermore, Lithuanian officials have accused Russian naval ships of harassing Lithuanian civilian vessels in Lithuanian territorial waters in conjunction with a Russian naval exercise held in May 2014. A Lithuanian fishing vessel was seized by Russian border guard vessels in international waters near Kaliningrad in September 2014.

Public sentiment in the Baltic States is strongly anti-Russian in normal times, and has been exacerbated by Russian actions in Ukraine. The public and most commentators are convinced that Russian leaders would like to restore the territory lost in 1991 and that they still consider the Baltic States to be part of Russia’s sphere of interest. Repeated Russian efforts, both overt and covert, to become involved in Baltic domestic politics have further encouraged anti-Russian and nationalist attitudes.

In response, Baltic leaders have asked for and received assurances of an increased NATO presence in their region. Notably, to this end, President Obama has recently (3 September 2014) pledged in Estonia absolute non-discrimination in NATO collective defense (Article 5) guarantees. The NATO nations have pledged additional presence in the form of rapid rotation of troops from NATO states (including the United States) through Poland and the Baltic States, where they will participate in regular training and exercises but also provide “persistent” presence as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. Maritime plans include the deployment of a standing mine countermeasures group, increased Baltic state participation in regular naval exercises, and planning for new naval exercises in the Baltic Sea.

While Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed, the likeliest form of threat is increased interference in Baltic internal political affairs or covert actions, rather than direct military action. Russia has a track record of promoting domestic instability in the Baltic, including encouraging violence during incidents such as the Bronze Soldier protests in Tallinn in 2007 and the annual protests on Latvian Legion Day. Russian intelligence personnel are suspected of involvement in pro-Russian political parties and movements in all three states. Russia may seek to use its influence and agents in the Baltic States to destabilize domestic politics. These scenarios could morph into an armed conflict over time.

Baltic defense planners describe the range of potential Russian actions in their region to include issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in the region, backing referendums on the status of the Russian language in the Baltic States, and attempting to influence Russians living in the region to support a scenario similar to the one taking place in eastern Ukraine. Ethnic-based conflict is a possibility, given the lagging integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in the region. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase their resentment and make them more susceptible to the Russian government’s influence.

Covert actions, such as the recent kidnapping of an Estonian security officer at a border post, are also seen as likely to continue. Latvia and Estonia, with their large ethnic Russian populations, are seen as more vulnerable than Lithuania in this regard.

Baltic defense planners fear that these kinds of actions could lead to Russian sponsorship of an insurgency in Latvia or Estonia that will be judged by NATO leaders to fall short of a direct military attack, and thus leave the Baltic States to their own devices in dealing with a Russian-sponsored insurgency. While statements made by President Obama during his visit to Tallinn and by NATO leaders at the recent summit in Wales have made clear that NATO will defend the Baltic States from direct attacks, they have not indicated how the alliance would respond to domestic instability or covert actions.

Baltic planners believe that a direct Russian military intervention is highly unlikely, both because of the NATO security guarantee and because Russian military planning documents de-emphasize the importance of the region for the Russian military. This is especially the case in the maritime realm, where the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets remain the primary focus of Russian naval development. Official Russian military journals and publications argue that the primary purpose of the Baltic Fleet is to serve as a location for new ships and submarines to be tested after launch and as a training area for new sailors and officers.

Despite President Obama’s recent statements, Baltic leaders remain sensitive to the possibility of abandonment by the NATO Nations given the lack of clarity on triggering conditions for Article 5, and the extent of such a response should it occur. Statements in the regional press suggest, while the symbolic significance of the president’s visit is well received, there is interest in more tangible expressions of solidarity, e.g., the deployment of military forces to bolster local defenses.

The Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed. The European Reassurance Initiative provides an important set of signals that the United States and NATO are serious about ensuring Baltic security and will defend these countries from direct Russian aggression.

These steps need to be combined with reassurance from political leaders at the highest levels that NATO will also provide support in the event that a Russian-sponsored insurgency is organized on part of the Baltic States’ territory. Since Baltic State leaders and security officials consider Russian efforts to destabilize these countries from within far more likely than a direct military intervention, such reassurance will do much more for assuaging Baltic security fears than the augmentation of military forces in the region.

At the same time, Baltic leaders need to know that the integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in their countries must continue. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase resentment and make these populations more susceptible to Russian government influence. EU and OSCE officials need to make sure that integration programs continue and that local Russians are treated as full and equal citizens throughout the Baltic States.

The impact of the Crimea annexation on Russian naval interests

As part of a broader modernization program for its Navy, Russia seeks to  develop a naval force that can dominate the Black Sea and  expand Russian presence in the Mediterranean. While not all the ramifications of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea are yet fully apparent, one consequence is that the Russian Navy will now be able to modernize and expand the Black Sea Fleet with fewer constraints. Previously, any Russian aspirations for expanding its naval presence in the Black Sea were limited by the need to get agreement from Ukraine for any new ships stationed in Sevastopol.  Given Ukrainian resistance to the expansion of the Russian fleet at Sevastopol, Russia had long faced a situation where only one of the fleet’s combat ships could deploy outside the Black Sea on a regular basis. With the annexation of Crimea, this circumstance is rapidly changing.  After taking over Crimea, Russia quickly upgraded the region’s air defense and coastal defense systems and announced plans to station long-range bombers, fighter planes, and ASW aircraft at air bases in the region. The Russian Navy has plans to replace the Black Sea Fleet’s Soviet-era ships with modern frigates and diesel submarines. If these plans are carried out, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will be on a path to once again become the dominant naval force in the region.

It is likely that this enhanced Russian Black Sea  fleet will be used to expand Russian influence in the Black Sea and also to reinforce Russia’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. In March 2013, Vladimir Putin announced plans to establish a Mediterranean naval task force, with up to 10 combat ships permanently operating in the region. The core of this force, including the command element, is expected to come from the Black Sea Fleet once that fleet has been modernized.

Because of Crimea’s geographic position, full control of the port of Sevastopol will give the Russian Navy the opportunity to enhance its posture and presence in the Black Sea. Over the longer term, Moscow is likely to use its expanding presence in the Black Sea to project power and influence toward the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the broader Mediterranean littoral. The ensuing expansion of Moscow’s perception of its strength and influence may encourage Russia to pursue unilateral policies in the region, reducing incentives for cooperation through existing mechanisms such as BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony.

An expanding Russian Black Sea is of direct concern to Turkey. As the Russian Black Sea Fleet capabilities and readiness declined over the last two decades, Turkey effectively became the dominant naval power in the Black Sea region. Turkish leaders have not reacted publicly to Russia’s naval ambitions in the region; however, according to one close observer of the Turkish Navy, if the Russian Navy does once again seek to become the most powerful naval force in the Black Sea, Turkey is likely to react.  According to that observer, Ankara may be prepared to “dust off and update” Cold War-era plans designed to prevent the Russian Navy from gaining control of the Turkish Straits during a conflict.

Russia’s plans to expand its Mediterranean squadron derive from its aspiration to restore its role as an important naval power in the region. Russia takes pride in the fact that it currently maintains more ships in the Mediterranean than the United States does. In recent years Russia’s naval forces have consciously and deliberately been used to complicate and/or challenge U.S. and NATO actions (such as in Syria), and they may seek to do so again in the future.

To operate more than a few ships forward on a permanent basis in the Mediterranean, Russia needs to have access to local ports for replenishment and repairs. With access to its only base at Tartus complicated by the civil war in Syria, Russia is looking to develop alternative relationships that could lead to port access and eventual basing rights. Egypt, Cyprus, Montenegro, and even Greece may be potential targets for closer naval ties.

While the Ukraine crisis does not yet make it clear whether Russia intends to take a more assertive role in countering U.S. and NATO interests in the Black Sea region, the U.S. should probably not expect a return to the period when NATO and Russian naval forces engaged in partnership activities in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, such as Active Endeavor and Black Sea Harmony. Future cooperation is likely to be limited and to occur only in narrow areas where U.S. and Russian interests happen to coincide.

Countering Color Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy and its Implications for U.S. Policy

The next PONARS Eurasia policy conference is happening next Monday and Tuesday. Here is my policy memo for that conference. For more information about the conference, including the full program, visit the PONARS Eurasia website.

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The May 2014 Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense, was focused on the role of popular protest, and specifically color revolutions, in international security. The speakers, which included top Russian military and diplomatic officials such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister 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 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 argue that military force is an integral part of all aspects of color revolutions. Western governments start by using non-military tactics to change opposing governments through color revolutions that utilize the protest potential of the population to engineer peaceful regime change. But military force is concealed behind this effort. If the protest potential turns 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 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 United States 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.

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. In 2014, the same scheme was followed in Ukraine, where anti-regime protests over several months transformed into a civil war, and in Venezuela, where the so-called democratic opposition is supposedly organized by the United States. While Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view, they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were close to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011, are harder to explain, such inconsistencies do not appear to trouble the Russian government.

Furthermore, while Russian discussion of the destabilizing role of color revolutions usually portrays U.S. actions as taking place around the world, there is a clear perception that Russia is one of the main targets. This drives fear that unrest in the post-Soviet region may be a wedge for the United States to force regime change in Russia itself.

Russia’s Counter-Strategy

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although the Russian government has not produced any kind of document summarizing this new strategy, the key aspects can be gleaned from an analysis of Russian leaders’ statements and Russian actions in recent months. The counter-strategy combines political and military actions.

On the political side, Russia has stepped up its efforts to make alliances with other authoritarian regimes that are similarly concerned about the possibility of a popular uprising that could lead to their loss of power. This strategy has been used by Russia to some extent throughout Vladimir Putin’s presidency, with efforts to develop ties with former Soviet allies in the Middle East and Asia. The MCIS conference highlighted a renewed emphasis in this direction. The presence of the Iranian defense minister, the Egyptian deputy defense minister, the chief of defense from Myanmar, and deputy chiefs of defense from Vietnam, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a large delegation from China, all indicate the primary focus of attention for Russian military engagement this year. The absence of official representatives from NATO member states particularly highlighted the shift in emphasis of Russian military cooperation. By comparison, the 2013 MCIS had no representatives from Middle Eastern or Asian countries outside of post-Soviet Eurasia, while senior officials from most NATO member states were in attendance.

The second part of Russia’s political strategy is to damage the unity of the Western alliance. This effort has been pursued for several years through the development of political alliances with right-wing parties throughout Europe and in the United States. As described by Marlene Laruelle and Mitchell Orenstein, among others, Russia has supported European nationalists’ anti-EU and anti-immigrant positions. The core of Russia’s alliance with the European far right has been a shared opposition to increased ties between the EU and its eastern neighbors. The European right has also been sympathetic to Russia’s positions on issues such as the role of religion in society, same-sex marriage, and gay rights generally. These positions have also gained Russia some unlikely supporters among the Christian right in the United States, where Russian support for anti-abortion and anti-gay rights views has, in turn, been reciprocated by what would be otherwise surprising sympathy for Russian foreign policy positions on issues such as human rights and democracy promotion.

On the military side, Russia has determined that the best way to counter the perceived U.S. strategy is through a combination of strong support for existing authoritarian regimes around the world. This support has included military and economic assistance, as well as public support for actions taken against protesters, who are often conflated in Russian rhetoric with terrorists or supporters of radical ideologies such as radical Islam or fascism.

In circumstances where this proves insufficient and the situation is in an area deemed crucial to Russian national interests, Russia has shown that it is willing to go further by providing direct support to forces opposed to those supported by the West. This support may include the simulation of popular uprisings, support for local insurgents, and the threat of direct military force to protect co-ethnics.

Russia claims to reserve the right to protect Russians living abroad. Given the large numbers of Russians living throughout post-Soviet Eurasia, this claim has the potential to provide Russia with an excuse for intervention anywhere in the region. Furthermore, it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which governments of other post-Soviet states come to distrust their ethnic Russian populations, leading to discrimination that creates the conditions for a potential Russian intervention.

The Russian Strategy in Ukraine

The actions that Russia has been undertaking in Ukraine in recent months are based on this strategy and closely parallel Russian officials’ perceptions of how the U.S. color revolutions strategy works. Russian officials provided the Yanukovych government with advice on how to deal with anti-government protesters. This advice appears to have involved encouragement to use repressive measures, though the government appeared to lack either the capacity or willpower to carry it out to the end. Officials from Russian security services met regularly with Ukrainian government officials, with FSB Colonel General Sergei Beseda present in Kyiv on Feb 20-21 as the Yanukovych government collapsed.

At the same time, the Russian government provided economic assistance to Ukraine, including a $15 billion aid package and an agreement to lower the price Ukraine paid for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas from $400 to $268. This assistance was canceled after the change of government in Ukraine.

When Russian assistance proved inadequate to maintain the Yanukovych government in power, Russia took immediate steps to weaken the new anti-Russian government that was being formed in Kyiv. It seems highly likely that Russian agents were involved in organizing counter-protests in eastern Ukraine and Crimea after Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from Ukraine.

From the start of the conflict, Russia repeatedly used the threat of force to try to influence the actions of the new Ukrainian government, both by making statements reserving the right to intervene in the conflict and by staging several military exercises on the Ukrainian border. The statements initially focused on the right of the Russian government to protect its co-ethnics abroad, though as the conflict accelerated over the summer they have shifted to the need to protect civilians in general from a humanitarian disaster. This parallels past Western statements that use the doctrine of the international responsibility to protect civilians to justify interventions in internal conflicts.

Finally, Russia has engaged in covert military action in Crimea and, at a minimum, provided military and financial assistance to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The quick Russian intervention in Crimea was made possible by the presence of a relatively large contingent of Russian troops (approximately 14,000) who were already based in Crimea and the strong antipathy of the local population to the new Ukrainian government. The Russian naval infantry based in Sevastopol were augmented by special forces troops from Russian military intelligence, who occupied key locations on the peninsula, including government buildings and the isthmus connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine, and surrounded Ukrainian military bases in the region. Many of these actions paralleled Russian military exercises that had taken place a year earlier in the Black Sea region.

Russian actions in eastern Ukraine have escalated more gradually, as the conflict has dragged on in recent months. Initially, Russian support consisted of a mass media propaganda campaign in opposition to the “fascist junta” that had taken power in Kyiv and in support of the actions being taken by protesters in the Donbas. As the conflict became more violent in April and May 2014, volunteers from Russia joined in the fighting. Many of these volunteers were recruited (unofficially) through military recruitment offices in Russia. While no conclusive evidence has surfaced, there is a strong likelihood that agents from Russian security services were involved in coordinating protests in eastern and southern Ukraine from their earliest stages.

Russia’s role in the conflict has increased over time, especially after the separatist forces began to lose territory in late June 2014. Early on, local protest leaders were sidelined by Russian citizens, some of whom had a background working for Russian security services. Beginning in June, Russia began to provide heavy weaponry to the separatist forces, including multiple rocket launchers and air defense weapons. Beginning in July, Russian forces have shelled Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent Ukraine from sealing off the border and ending the provision of military assistance to separatist forces. In August, the Russian government responded to continued Ukrainian victories by sending in a limited contingent of Russian troops and opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol in southern Donetsk region. This escalation in Russian military assistance caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout the Donbas and losing control of approximately half the territory they had gained over the summer.

Russian actions in Ukraine appear to mirror the actions Russian leaders believe the United States has been taking in its efforts to eliminate unfriendly governments around the world. While the increase in military support for separatist forces during the summer of 2014 appeared to have been largely improvised, the earlier actions to destabilize Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv seem to have been based on existing contingency plans. It is possible that Russian leaders believe that the United States actively seeks to destabilize opposing regimes because such activities are a standard part of their own policy toolkit.

Impact on U.S. Policy and Recommendations

There has been a continuing debate on whether domestic or international factors are primary in Russia’s current foreign policy. In reality, it appears that both are working together. Russian foreign policy appears to be based on a combination of fears of popular protest and opposition to U.S. world hegemony, both of which are seen as threatening the Putin regime.

Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukraine’s economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even its potential NATO membership. Similarly, the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal has been to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism is the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal explains the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

In this environment, it is not worth spending time trying to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States 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 United States does not get such an opportunity.

The U.S. response to such a position needs to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime and a restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it prefers to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular regime.

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Russia’s Stealth Invasion of Ukraine

It appears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I have feared since March has now begun in earnest, with the opening of a new front in the vicinity of Mariupol on the shores of the Azov Sea and a major counterattack in Luhansk Oblast leading to the retreat of Ukrainian forces from positions they have occupied (in some cases) since before the June ceasefire. This separatist counter-offensive has generated a lot of discussion among analysts and commentators about whether the forces attacking Novoazovsk and Mariupol belong to regular Russian units or irregular forces, as part of an effort to determine whether or not these new developments amount to a Russian invasion or just a new escalation by separatist forces.

I would argue that the specific provenance of the fighters involved doesn’t actually matter very much in this context. There is no doubt that the forces attacking in the south, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol came directly from Russia, not from territory already controlled by the separatists farther north. To do so, they had to be allowed through the border by Russian border guards. Furthermore, there is also no doubt that they are using weapons and equipment supplied by the Russian government, since they are no longer even trying to claim that the equipment they are using was captured from defeated Ukrainian forces.

In these circumstances, why does it matter which specific people are sitting in the tanks? 

And if it did matter, there is now more and more evidence being uncovered in Russian social media and in independent reporting that active duty Russian personnel ARE fighting in Ukraine. This includes the 10 Russian soldiers that the Ukrainian government has claimed to have captured on Ukrainian territory, as well as the various Russian soldiers from units such as the 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov who have been reported to have died recently in unexplained circumstances. 

One can invade a country through a direct frontal assault. Or one can do it in secret, a little bit at a time. The Russian government has chosen the second path. It doesn’t make it any less of an invasion.

It also means that the Minsk talks are almost certainly a diversion, meant to distract Western leaders from the reality of what is happening on the ground. The idea is that as long as world leaders think there is a chance at successful peace talks, they will refrain from strong words or actions condemning what Russia is doing in Ukraine. This seems to be working out for Russia so far, but it should not distract us from events on the ground. 

I should be clear that I don’t think Russia is currently planning a full takeover of any part of eastern Ukraine. The goal remains what it has been for months now: to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable and weak. For now, in order to accomplish this goal, Russia needs to make sure the separatists are not defeated and remain a viable force. Both the escalation in assistance and the opening of the new front are a response to the losses that the separatists had suffered in recent weeks.

In the long run, the only acceptable end to the conflict for Russia is one that would either freeze the current situation in place with separatists in control of significant territory in eastern Ukraine (the Transnistria variant) or the removal of the pro-Western Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian one. Participants in peace talks have to understand that this is essentially a red line for Moscow. Putin will not allow the restoration of control over eastern Ukraine by the current Ukrainian government by peaceful means and is clearly willing to directly involve Russian forces in military action to ensure that it doesn’t happen through a Ukrainian military victory. 

Given Russia’s superior military capabilities this is a war that Ukraine cannot win, at least not by military means. The alternatives are to make a deal with whatever terms are possible or to continue the struggle for a long time, hoping that inflicting a high cost on Russian forces will eventually turn Russians against their government’s adventure. The former will lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. The latter will take a very long time at best and result in huge numbers of civilian casualties. 

Personalization and Patriotism

The following article originally appeared at the Carnegie Forum on Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations, where it is one of a number of contributions by eminent experts such as Henry Hale, Mark Kramer, Thomas Graham, Steven Pifer, and many others. 

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American media narratives generally tend to excessively personalize politics and international affairs, and recent coverage of Russia is no exception to this overall trend. During the entire Ukraine crisis, and especially in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as an evil leader bent on some combination of restoring the Soviet empire and destroying the international order. His motivation has frequently been framed as a sense of pique for the exclusion of Russian leaders from key decisions, such as on the Iraq war, on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and on NATO enlargement.

While Russian leaders certainly do have a sense of grievance over perceived slights by the West, and particularly by the United States, against Russia that have accumulated over the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these grievances are not sufficient to explain Russian foreign policy. Instead, Russian foreign policy is driven by a combination of a desire to restore Russia’s great power status, the perception that Russian security can only be guaranteed if Russia is surrounded by friendly states, and the fear that the United States is taking active measures to overthrow the current Russian government.

Furthermore, the personalization of Russian foreign policy hurts U.S. policymaking toward Russia by creating a perception that Russian actions, as guided by Putin, are irrational and therefore cannot be dealt with through strategies other than containment. Furthermore, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) undercurrent that the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations will inevitably continue unless and until Vladimir Putin is removed from his position as Russia’s leader.

While Vladimir Putin has unquestionably installed a repressive domestic regime in Russia and pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to establish a set of dependent buffer states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy does derive from a rational set of beliefs, goals, and interests. The inability of many Western commentators and some policymakers to see the world from the Russian point of view damages the ability of the U.S. government to adopt a Russia policy that allows for a reasonable response to Russian actions without defaulting to the outdated image of Russia as a direct descendant of the Soviet “evil empire.” In addition, Western analysts neglect the likelihood that if Vladimir Putin is forced out of office, his replacement is unlikely to be a pro-Western politician. Instead, any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent.

Throughout the current crisis, Russia has been acting from weakness, rather than from strength. While various commentators have described Putin as playing a chess game against the West, I would argue that he has actually been primarily reacting tactically to what he saw as a major defeat. After all, in late February, Ukraine went in just a few days from having chosen alliance with Russia over Europe to a victory by anti-Russian forces and the prospect of a close alliance with the West, and the potential loss of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.

Russian leaders see the protests in Ukraine as part of a Western plot. For them, colored 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 have argued that this is part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept American hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were tied more closely to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

If this is the dominant perspective, then Russia’s opposition to the United States and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. In that case, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States 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 United States does not get such an opportunity.

In that environment, Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukrainian economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even with potential Ukrainian NATO membership. And the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal is to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. response to such a position would have to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime with the restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it would prefer to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular government.

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.)