Strategic Russian Strategic Decision-Making in a Nordic Crisis

Here’s the second in a series of policy briefs 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 strategic goals in a Nordic crisis. With permission from the Marshall Center, I am posting the full text here, though please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version. The first of these briefs, focusing on the Baltics, was posted last April.


Executive Summary

  • This policy brief examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decision-making in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, political defeats at home.
  • Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. Russia is also working to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia in the event of a conflict.
  • We can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Nordic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Russian leaders will tend to pursue their goals through nonmilitary means and will be careful to avoid unintended escalation. The one exception to their preference for nonescalation would occur in the event of an attack on Russian territory, which would create a loss situation for Russia and therefore allow for a robust defense and/or counterattack.

Introduction

 This policy brief, the second in a series that addresses how Russian strategic culture can explain Russian foreign policy behavior, examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. The Nordic region is presented as a case study to generate conclusions with regard to the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

Overview of Russian Strategic Decision-Making

This analysis is based on a model of crisis decision-making developed by the Russian analysis team at CNA. As an abbreviated version of this model has already been presented in a previous article in this series, what follows is a brief summary. The model presents Russia as a prospect theory player on the international scene that takes greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than it does to pursue potential opportunities.

Russian strategic objectives are rooted in and derived from the following three principal Russian foreign policy motivations:

  • Maximizing security, which results in the pursuit of extended defense and has been the main driver for Russian aggression in its near abroad and Russia’s military modernization at home.
  • Russia’s desire for a privileged sphere of influence as an effort to achieve regional hegemony based on the goal of maximizing its overall power.
  • Maintaining great power status in the international system by ending U.S. primacy and thereby upending the unipolar nature of power distribution in the international system in favor of a multipolar one. However, this motivation does not necessarily mean that Russia wants to challenge the United States directly, given the power disparity.

Russian leaders prefer to achieve their political goals through coercion and threats of violence, rather than actual violence. Russian strategy in a conflict seeks to establish escalation dominance over potential adversaries by convincing them that Russia is able and willing to use force in pursuit of its objectives. When pressed to use force, Russia tends to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve its objectives in order to minimize losses and costs. This approach also allows Russia to maintain the threat of bringing in additional force if the adversary does not accept Russian objectives. Russia is happy to use force multipliers, such as local militias and mercenaries, to absorb the bulk of combat losses. Ambiguity is used to maintain plausible deniability and thereby slow adversary decision-making. Finally, Russia seeks to deter external actors from interfering in a conflict in order to prevent escalation.

Russia’s Strategic Assessment of the Nordic Region

Russia’s strategic calculus suggests that in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region, Russia will focus on the geographic and political environment in the region in determining its strategic objectives and minimum and maximum goals for the situation.

The geography of the Baltic Sea would play a particularly important role in Russia’s assessment of a potential maritime conflict scenario. The geography of the Baltic Sea in many ways mirrors that of the Black Sea, except that the geography favors NATO and its partners, rather than Russia. Like the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea is enclosed, with passage restricted by the Danish Straits. Although the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt are considered international straits, as governed by the Copenhagen Convention of 1857, they could easily be closed by NATO forces in the event of a conflict, effectively preventing Russia from bringing naval reinforcements to the Baltic Sea from the Northern Fleet or the Mediterranean. In addition, a series of islands can provide effective control over the sea itself. Bornholm (controlled by Denmark), Gotland (Sweden) and the Aland Islands (Finland), can be used to control the sea lanes in the Baltic Sea as well as the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. These islands thus can play the same role in the Baltic as Crimea does in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Estonia and Finland effectively control entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore to St. Petersburg.

Although Western analysts often paint Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave as a militarized territory that threatens the security of the NATO member states in the region, Russian planners view the region as a vulnerable outpost surrounded by potentially well-armed NATO states. As a result of these factors, Russia feels that the region’s geography is relatively negatively set up for Russian forces to act in the event of a conflict with NATO and its partners.

Russia’s political assessment also emphasizes the potential challenges of a military conflict in the region. Although Sweden and Finland are ostensibly neutral, Russian leaders fully expect them to be involved on the side of NATO in any conflict between NATO and Russia. They point to statements that the two countries have made, such as the European Union (EU) solidarity clause and the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort joined by Sweden and Finland in 2017, that strongly imply such a scenario. They also note that the two countries have been strengthening their military forces in recent years and have increasingly integrated these forces with NATO. Both Sweden and Finland have increased their frequency of participation in NATO exercises. These developments are seen in Russia as clear signals that neither country will stay out of the fight in the event of a conflict.

On the other side, Swedish planners fear that Russia might preemptively attack Gotland in a conflict in order to take control of the middle section of the Baltic Sea. They have responded by placing troops on the island for the first time in over a decade. Although the force is only the size of a regiment, it is meant as a symbol of Swedish intent in combination with the reintroduction of military conscription. Russia has decried this move as a step toward the further militarization of the region.

Finland’s history of relations with Russia makes its leaders cautious about exacerbating tensions with Moscow. They point to their losses in previous wars with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which resulted in the policy of “Finlandization” that effectively meant that Finland did not have full control over its foreign policy orientation until the end of the Cold War, a period of over 40 years. As a result, Finnish leaders have generally avoided hostile rhetoric against Russia while retaining more contacts with Moscow than other countries in the region. Furthermore, most of the Finnish population remains opposed to their country joining NATO. Although Finland has supported EU sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, it has retained significant trade relations and has a sizable expatriate Russian population in Helsinki. Russia has proved adept at using trade links and expatriate Russian populations in other European countries to undermine anti-Russian policies. Similar tactics could be used in the Nordic region.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. To this end, Russia has undertaken a propaganda effort to show the citizens of these countries that Russia does not threaten them. Russia has pursued political influence operations to prevent the growth of negative political attitudes toward Russia. To this end, there are concerns that it has used the Russian expatriate population and other pro-Russian activists in the region, especially in Finland, as a supportive element. It has also provided support to political parties and societal organizations critical of the EU and especially of NATO as a way of limiting the trend toward closer cooperation between NATO and the two nonmember Nordic states. Russia has also sought to maintain and enhance economic linkages with Nordic states, most notably through the strategic use of its role as an energy supplier to Finland. It is estimated that forty percent of Finland’s energy comes from Russia, and Russia has taken steps in recent years to make the import of electricity cheaper for Finland in order to maintain that connection.

In regard to military issues, Russia has worked to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. To this end, it has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. Russian media has highlighted popular opposition to NATO membership within these countries, noting the likelihood of negative political consequences for any government that chooses to pursue NATO membership. Russian officials have threatened political, economic, and military consequences for Sweden and Finland should they choose to formally join NATO. The implicit threat is that not only would cheap energy supplies end and trade be negatively affected, but Russia could use tactics it has pursued elsewhere, such as cyberattacks and funding of antigovernment groups, to undermine political stability in these countries. Russian media have also suggested the possibility that Russia might offer inducements to Sweden and Finland for remaining neutral or at least not joining NATO formally.

In the event of a regional crisis, Russian leaders would seek to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia. They would seek to preempt the threat by neutralizing Nordic militaries through a Russian military buildup in the region combined with the threat that Russia would target these countries’ territories should fighting break out. Russia’s minimum goal in a Nordic crisis is thus to maintain and exacerbate existing divisions in the Nordic states that prevent them from seeking to join NATO and to inhibit further integration of their military forces with NATO forces short of membership. Russia’s maximum goal is to reverse the existing close integration of the military forces of the Nordic states with those of the United States and NATO and ideally to have these states recommit to neutrality in deed as well as in word.

Russia’s Vulnerabilities

Russia’s vulnerabilities in a Nordic crisis are to a large extent the same as its vulnerabilities in other regions, though there are some aspects particular to this region. The Russian military has relatively few forces in northwestern Russia because its main focus in recent years has been on securing the Caucasus, reinforcing its border with Ukraine, and building up forces in the Arctic and the Far North. Russian forces in northwestern Russia are not equipped for a short-notice conventional conflict, with relatively few mechanized units and a command structure not set up to fight a war in this region. As noted above, the geography of the region makes a maritime conflict relatively complicated for Russia, though that disadvantage may be mitigated in a broader engagement due to the Nordic region’s proximity to Russia and the relatively long border with Finland.

Russia is hampered by its lack of allies in the European theater. Although Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a Russian military partner, it would be unlikely to actively participate in a Russian military campaign. It might, however, reluctantly allow Russia to use its territory as a staging area in a conflict with NATO. Recent political tensions about the extent to which Belarus can be expected to integrate with Russia have highlighted the limits of the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Other allies are even less likely to get involved. Neither Russia’s other CSTO allies nor China will want to get involved in a fight with NATO and (with the exception of China) would not be able to contribute significantly to the effort.

As with any conflict with a powerful but distant adversary, Russian leaders would be concerned that the overall force balance between Russia and NATO would become highly unfavorable in a longer-term conflict. For this reason, they would want to keep the conflict short and ensure that any conflict in the region would not result in horizontal escalation, which could expose Russian territory to defeat by the much larger and stronger U.S. military in a regional or even global conflict. They would be particularly concerned about the possibility that the conflict could spread to other theaters, especially the Mediterranean, which would cause Russia’s forces to be stretched thin in a fight on multiple fronts.

Finally, Russian leaders may be concerned about the impact of any kind of extended or costly intervention on Russian domestic politics. They will want to make sure that they avoid costly and long-lasting entanglements that might result in the Russian public turning against the intervention. Such a situation would be especially likely if Western states pursued strong economic countermeasures that had a direct negative effect on the Russian economy or on Russians’ ability to travel to Europe. In particular, this scenario would be a problem in a conflict that the Russian public might see as a war of choice rather than of necessity, especially one that becomes costly in either financial or human terms. For this reason, Russian leaders will seek to avoid both defeat and long-term entanglement in a Nordic conflict, as these circumstances would increase the likelihood of a strong negative effect at the domestic level.

Red Lines and (De-)Escalation Drivers

As in the Baltics, Russian leaders would view a crisis in the Nordic region primarily as a potential opportunity to realize strategic gains rather than as a threat to Russia’s vital interests. As a result, they would consider the stakes to be relatively low in most situations. This assessment would lead to a strategy of managing the crisis carefully in order to keep costs low and avoid triggering a vigorous response by NATO. Although it is important for Russia to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO, Russia would not be likely to mount a military response if the two Nordic states take steps toward that goal. Concerns about the vulnerabilities described above, especially the danger of horizontal escalation to other theaters and the risk of loss of popularity at home due to high casualties or serious financial impact from a conflict, would encourage Russian leaders to de-escalate hostilities in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region.

The one exception to this calculus would occur in the event of a NATO attack on Russian territory. Such an attack would lead to escalation as it would pose a direct threat to the homeland and regime survival while uniting the Russian population in defense of their homeland. The Russian people have shown repeatedly that they are far more likely to accept sacrifices to defend the country than to engage in a war of choice, so Russia should be expected to escalate any conflict where control of its own territory is at stake.

Conclusion

Russia’s main peacetime goals in the Nordic region involve preventing further military integration of the Nordic states with NATO. The primary means to carry out these goals are political and cyber in nature, rather than military. In a conflict, Russia’s main goals would be similar: to keep the Nordic states out of any conflict with NATO or to keep NATO out of any conflict with a Nordic state. Escalation poses serious risks to Russia, so Russian leaders would be unlikely to initiate a conflict in the region. Russia would be much more willing to defend itself if threatened or attacked but otherwise would limit itself to using indirect means to weaken the Nordic states and to undermine their unity with their NATO partners.

A guide to becoming an admiral in the Russian Navy

New analytical article up at War on the Rocks, co-authored with Kasey Stricklin. Here’s a preview of the introduction.


It is widely acknowledged that general and flag officers are important actors. Senior uniformed leaders are, of course, crucial in determining the trajectory of a country’s military development and in some cases even of its foreign policy. Yet, with vanishingly few exceptions, even those Americans who closely track national and international security focus little on the generals and admirals of other nations’ militaries. In the case of Russia, the U.S. national security community has an almost comical obsession with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, and his eponymous (but largely fictional) doctrine. But that’s where it ends.

American national security analysts and practitioners would be well advised to follow who is rising to the senior ranks of the Russian military. Over the decades, these leaders have been important in shaping the trajectory of a foe that was once America’s most formidable and remains, arguably, its most troublesome. From the decision to avoid developing aircraft carriers in favor of cruisers and submarines during the Cold War to the debate over the primacy of ground forces or strategic rocket forces in the post-Soviet period, Soviet and Russian generals and admirals have played critical roles. Understanding the background and preferences of those who are likely to be the next set of leaders of the Russian armed forces thus can give analysts a better idea of how it will develop over the next two decades.

….

In May 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a transition in the senior leadership of the Russian Navy. Adm. Vladimir Korolev, having served as commander in chief of the Russian Navy for three years, retired and was replaced by Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov, who had served as commander of the Northern Fleet since 2016. Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseyev moved from his command of the Black Sea Fleet to replace Yevmenov at the Northern Fleet and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov was appointed as the new head of the Black Sea Fleet. Some commentators were surprised by the appointment, including one analyst who suggested that Moiseyev seemed a stronger candidate on paper. Now is therefore an opportune time to examine the career factors that lead to the selection of Russian naval leaders and to make some predictions about who is likely to rise to the highest positions in the Russian Navy in the coming years.

Our analysis of career trajectories of senior Russian naval officers highlights the career mileposts that increase the likelihood of promotion to the senior-most positions in the Russian Navy. These mileposts also help to explain why Yevmenov was appointed to head the service ahead of Moiseyev. In fact, our initial research, completed in early 2018, highlighted Yevmenov as the most likely candidate to succeed Korolev as commander in chief.

How to Reach the Highest Ranks in the Russian Navy

To develop our findings, we put together a database of Russian Navy flag officers who were active between 2005 and 2016. For this part of the analysis, we examined the career trajectories of 199 officers who had already retired at the rank of rear admiral or higher. Fifteen officers reached the rank of admiral (including two who made admiral of the fleet), 48 officers retired at the rank of vice admiral, and 136 officers retired as rear admirals.


Read the rest here.

5 things you need to know about the explosion in Russia

Michael Kofman and I co-wrote a short piece on the August 8 explosion in Russia for the Monkey Cage. Here’s a preview.


An Aug. 8 accident at Russia’s Nonoksa missile testing facility left seven dead and caused a brief radiation spike in a nearby town. What went wrong?

Vague and potentially misleading statements by Russian authorities have only added to speculation that scientists were working on a nuclear propulsion system for one of the country’s more secretive weapons projects, possibly the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Accidents happen frequently in the Russian military

Ever since the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the Russian military has had an image of being accident-prone. There have been at least six fires on Russian submarines since 2006 — and at least three explosions at ammunition storage depots since May. In July, a fire on the Losharik deep-sea submersible in July caused 14 deaths.

Repairs are a dangerous time for the Russian navy, not just with the fires on submarines in dry dock, but also with the accidental sinking of the PD-50 floating dock in 2018, which almost sank and indefinitely disabled the sole Russian aircraft carrier.

But the recent deadly accidents involving nuclear-powered platforms like the Losharik and the Burevestnik missile are particularly dangerous for both the health of Russians in the vicinity and the reputation of the Russian military.

2. And the military looks to cover up the story

The Russian military’s initial reaction to bad accidents is to try to cover them up. Despite evidence from atmospheric monitoring devices in Severodvinsk, the Russian military initially denied that any radiation had been released during the explosion, telling nearby residents that everything was safe and to avoid panic.


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How Much Did Orthodox Church Help Revive Russia’s Military and Nuclear Complex?

I have published a review of Dima Adamsky‘s excellent new book on Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy on the Russia Matters site. Here’s a preview.


Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy
By Dmitry Adamsky
Stanford University Press, April 2019

“Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy,” an important new book by the Israeli scholar Dmitry Adamsky, explores the critical but highly understudied juncture between religion and the military. Focusing on the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the restoration and development of the Russian nuclear weapons complex in the post-Cold War period, Adamsky highlights the organizational and ideological impact of the church on the gradual remilitarization of Russia over the last three decades. Adamsky has written a highly readable and informative book on a woefully understudied topic, though one that at times reads like a continuous success story for the church and raises many questions. Also, the book would have been strengthened by a more comparative focus, vis-à-vis both the role of other religious faiths in Russia and the experience of other countries.

The main argument comes in three parts. First, the church has played and will continue to play a crucial role in promoting the rebuilding of the Russian military in general and the nuclear weapons complex in particular. The book demonstrates that the church was among the earliest advocates for the nuclear weapons complex, at a time when the military and nuclear agencies were generally unpopular among Russians and neglected by a cash-strapped government. Second, the church has influenced the direction of security thinking among both Russian politicians and military leaders. Finally, church advocacy has resulted in a gradual conflation of national defense and rearmament with holiness and spirituality. The protection of the state and nation through armed force has been portrayed as a holy act that is highly compatible with religious belief and spiritual values.

The book is organized chronologically by decade. The first, labeled the Genesis Decade, follows the collapse of the Soviet Union and is the period during which the church-nuclear nexus was first developed, beginning as a grassroots phenomenon within the nuclear complex that combined with outreach efforts by the ROC. The second decade, labeled the Conversion Decade, features the emergence of a top-down trend that supplemented the bottom-up initiatives of the 1990s. During this period, which coincides with Vladimir Putin’s first 10 years in power, the increased role of religion in Russian society and political life merged with a gradual increase in societal respect for the Russian military to result in the formulation of the “nuclear orthodoxy doctrine.” The Operationalization Decade of the last 10 years, Adamsky argues, has resulted in peak clericalization of the Russian military and Russian foreign policy. During this period, “Orthodoxy became the main pillar of Russian nationalism and the basis of state ideology”; in the military sphere, “religious rituals became tightly interwoven with … combat activities” while “priests have penetrated all levels of command.”


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Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis

As part of a collaborative project on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative, I have published a policy brief on Russian strategic goals in a Baltic crisis. Here is  the executive summary and some highlights. The full brief is available through the Marshall Center website.

Executive Summary

  • This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decisionmaking in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.
  • Given this strategic calculus, we can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Baltic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Based on Russia’s limited stakes in the region, Russian leaders are likely to be highly reluctant to risk a major military confrontation with NATO through any overuse of Russian military forces. They will be careful to limit both the level of risk and the level of effort they would take on in this scenario.
  • Russia’s approach to managing a Baltic crisis scenario is based on the recognition that the balance of stakes and capabilities in such a situation ultimately would favor the West. If Baltic governments and their NATO allies both hesitate in their response, Russian leaders may seek to use the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. However, if Russian leaders see a forceful response in the early stages of a crisis, they would be likely to de-escalate in order to avert major losses.

Introduction

How relevant are the concepts of strategic culture and operational code in explaining Russian foreign policy behavior? This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region (that is, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The goal is to use the Baltic case study to generate conclusions about the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

….

Applying Strategic Calculus to the Baltic Region

Given the strategic calculus described above, Russia would be expected to act far more cautiously in the Baltics than it did in Ukraine in 2014. Unlike that crisis, Russia is not facing a loss situation in the Baltic region. In Ukraine, Russia was facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic loss of power and influence if Ukraine joined the Western alliance system against Russian wishes. The Baltic states, on the other hand, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) and are therefore outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. Any effort on Russia’s part to attack or politically destabilize the region would thus be an effort to make gains, not avert losses. In effect, the Baltics have already been lost to Russia, and the geopolitical impact of that loss has been fully absorbed into Russian strategic thinking.

That said, Russia could benefit politically and militarily by achieving greater control over the Baltic region, which would allow Russia to strengthen its position as the dominant regional power while simultaneously enhancing its security. But these gains would be fairly small and hardly worth the enormous risk of attacking a NATO member state. Moreover, these gains can easily be overstated. The Baltics are too small to provide much of a security buffer for Russia, and they cannot host a large Western military force. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act already limits the number of Western forces that can be permanently deployed in the region. All of these factors reduce the significance of the threat to Russia from the Baltic states, even though they are firmly allied with the United States and are part of NATO.

….

Russian Strategic Objectives in a Baltic Crisis

In a Baltic crisis scenario, Russia would have two primary strategic objectives. First, it would seek to use the crisis to achieve geopolitical gains at the local, regional, and global levels. At the local level, it would first and foremost seek to defend the ethnic Russian populace to vindicate its compatriot policy and increase its influence in Baltic domestic politics. At the regional and global levels, Russia would seek to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in Eastern Europe and inflict a political defeat on NATO.


The policy brief may be read in its entirety here.

Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Asia

Paul Schwartz and I have published a new policy memo through PONARS Eurasia. Here’s a preview. Full memo may be found here, and the complete report that it summarizes was also published last week by IFRI.

To great fanfare, in May 2016, Russia hosted the third ASEAN-Russia Summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Russia’s acceptance as an ASEAN dialog partner, this summit was intended to give new impetus to longstanding efforts by Russia and Southeast Asia to forge closer economic and security ties. Defying efforts by the West to isolate Russia, leaders from all ten ASEAN member states attended the summit.[1]Despite having recently skipped several high-level ASEAN summits, this time President Putin led the Russian delegation himself. He also met separately with the leaders of all ten ASEAN states. After the summit, Putin proclaimed that the two sides had reached agreement “on building a strategic partnership over the long term.” Demonstrating that this was not just mere rhetoric, the two sides also announced a raft of new measures during the summit, on topics ranging from security relations to closer political and economic ties. However, Russia’s ongoing Sino-centric focus, ASEAN’s limited ability to act collectively, and Moscow’s preference for bilateral relations will continue to predominate in its overall relations with the region.

A Pivot Toward Eastern Relationships?

In the aftermath of renewed conflict with the West over Ukraine, Russia sought to accelerate its much-discussed “turn to the East” in a bid to avoid isolation and to circumvent Western sanctions. This initiative, which was first launched after the 2008 financial crisis, was intended to allow Russia to reduce its dependence on the West, while harnessing the dynamic growth of the Asia-Pacific region as a means for modernizing the Russian Far East and ultimately Russia itself. The first concrete action to this effect was Russia hosting the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok in 2012, followed by an acceleration in efforts to increase economic cooperation. While Russia has consistently placed the highest priority on increasing its ties with China, it also sought to diversify its relations with other Asia Pacific countries in order to avoid becoming overly dependent on Beijing. Southeast Asia figured prominently in this effort, as Russia sought to build upon its existing relations with countries in the region, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, to maintain its strategic independence. In a move reminiscent of its recent policy in the Middle East, it also sought to expand relations with countries long considered U.S. allies such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The pivot to Asia came to include three components:

  • a civilizational alliance against Western “universal values”;
  • a geopolitical effort to provide a regional alternative to the U.S.-centered alliance system; and
  • a geo-economic push to integrate Russia into Asia’s dynamic economy.

Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo

 

The Kerch Strait skirmish: a Law of the Sea perspective

The following article was published as a Strategic Analysis piece by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It’s an expansion of some of the themes mentioned in a piece I co-authored with Michael Kofman for the Monkey Cage in the immediate aftermath of the Kerch Strait skirmish.

The November 25 naval skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Kerch Strait was significant first and foremost as an open military confrontation between the two countries’ armed forces. But it also highlighted the fraught legal status of the strait and the Azov Sea, a status that Russia has been exploiting in recent months to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine.

A slow march to confrontation

The confrontation began months before the recent events that brought the conflict to worldwide attention. In March 2018, Ukrainian border guard vessels detained a Russian fishing vessel in the Azov Sea for violating exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”, namely from Crimea. The crew of that vessel remained in detention for several months, until they were exchanged in October for Ukrainian sailors. The captain of the Russian ship remains in Ukraine and is facing prosecution for illegal fishing and “violation of the procedure for entry and exit from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”. Since that incident, Russia has retaliated by detaining several Ukrainian fishing vessels.

In May, Russia also began to regularly hold Ukrainian commercial ships for inspection before allowing them to pass through the Kerch Strait. The initiation of this inspection regime largely coincided with the opening of a road and rail bridge across the strait. Russia claimed that the inspections were required to ensure the safety and security of the bridge at a time when some Ukrainians had publicly threatened to attack the bridge. The delays caused by the inspection regime, together with ship height restrictions caused by the bridge, have led to a 30 percent reduction in revenues at Ukraine’s commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, raising fears that Russia is trying to strangle the economy of eastern Ukraine.

In the same period, Russia also began to build up its naval presence in the Azov Sea, with at least three missile ships based there since summer 2018. Reports indicate that Russia plans to set up a full-fledged flotilla in the Azov in the near future. Ukraine has also strengthened its naval presence in the region, placing several armoured boats in Berdyansk and seeking to expand the base there.

The transfer of ships from Odesa to Berdyansk that caused the skirmish was part of this effort. Ukraine had moved naval ships through the Kerch Strait as recently as September 2018, but these ships were not armed. In that case, the ships were allowed to pass through without incident, although they were closely followed by Russian border guard vessels. The passage of two armoured boats through the strait in late November was thus the first attempt by the Ukrainian Navy to bring armed ships through the Kerch Strait since tensions began to mount and the bridge was completed in spring 2018.

The legal background

The status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is regulated by a bilateral treaty that was signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2003. According to the terms of the treaty, the sea is considered to be internal waters for both countries, and both Ukrainian and Russian commercial and military ships have the right of free passage through the strait. Furthermore, the treaty does not specify any particular advance notice procedures for passage through the strait. Foreign commercial ships are allowed to pass through the strait and enter the sea if they are heading to or from a Ukrainian or Russian port. Military ships belonging to other countries may be allowed passage if they are invited by one of the signatories to the treaty, but only with the agreement of the other signatory. In 2015, Russia unilaterally adopted a set of rules requiring ships passing through the strait to give advance notification to the Russian authorities, ostensibly to assure safety of navigation. These rules have not been accepted by Ukraine.


 

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