Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

Stratfor, the company that provides  “global intelligence” to the world, seems to have completely lost its collective mind. It is currently in the middle of publishing a four part series on “Russia’s Expanding Influence.” (The reports are only accessible through the website to subscribers, though they are being reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List.) No author is listed, so I must assume this means it is a collective product that has the imprimatur of the entire corporation.

To summarize briefly, the introduction indicates that because of its geographic indefensibility, Russia needs a buffer zone around its borders to be a stable and strong state. The next part is the core of the argument and worth quoting in full:

First are four countries where Russia feels it must fully reconsolidate its influence: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries protect Russia from Asia and Europe and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. So far, Russia has reconsolidated power in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and part of Georgia is militarily occupied. In 2010, Russia will focus on strengthening its grasp on these countries.

This analysis is so wrong as to be funny. To say that Russia has reconsolidated its influence in those three countries is to be completely ignorant of current events. Belarus has recently turned away from Russia and is trying to get closer to the EU. Kazakhstan is primarily focused on developing its economy and is turning more and more to China in the economic and even inthe security sphere. And anyone who thinks that Yanukovich will do whatever Russia wants will be sorely disappointed. All signs in Ukraine point to him driving a hard bargain and making Russia pay for what it wants — it won’t be the knee-jerk anti-Russianism of Yushchenko, but he won’t meekly submit either.

Furthermore, as Keith Darden has shown in great detail in his recent book, for most of the last 20 years, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been spearheading re-integration efforts in the former Soviet space, efforts that Russia has repeatedly resisted. The story of the Belarusian efforts to increase political integration with Russia is instructive in this regard. After years of getting nowhere on implementation, Belarusian President Lukashenka has finally given up and has turned to the EU to balance his previously completely Russia-focused foreign policy. With Kazakhstan, Stratfor discusses  the gradually increasing Chinese influence but underplays its current role in the country and in Central Asia as a whole. In fact, rather than Russia having “reconsolidated power” in Kazakhstan, there is a three-way competition for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China and the United States. Russia is for the moment the strongest player in this competition (and the US is clearly the weakest), but its influence is waning while China’s is increasing. Kazakhstan, just like the other states in the region, is quite happy to play off these three powers against each other to preserve its own freedom of maneuver.

Anyone who thinks that the result of the recent Ukrainian elections means that Ukraine is returning to Russian orbit will be in for some nasty surprises in the coming months. As we saw as far back as 1994, Ukrainian politicians who campaign on pro-Russian themes are likely to adopt a more middle-of-the-road foreign policy once they get elected. Yanukovich’s early signals indicate that he is likely to follow the same trajectory as Kuchma did more than 15 years ago. Even analysts who are deeply suspicious of Russia, such as Jamestown Foundation’s Vlad Socor, believe that Yanukovich will try to balance Russia and the West in order to preserve his own freedom of action. In today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Socor writes:

The Brussels and Moscow visits have probably set a pattern for Yanukovych’s presidency. He is moving almost without transition from a pro-Russian electoral campaign to a double-vector policy toward Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovych has no real popular mandate for new policy initiatives, having been elected with less than one half of the votes cast, and lacking a parliamentary majority (although he and Donetsk business may cobble together a parliamentary majority). For all these reasons, the president is not in a position to deliver on any agreements with Russia at this time.

Ukrainian-Russian relations will certainly be less strained than they were over the last five years, but by no means does this mean that Russia is anywhere close to controlling Ukrainian politics.

Overall, I find this analysis puzzling. I can’t imagine that the folks at Stratfor are so clueless that they don’t already everything I wrote above. The only alternative, though, is that they are distorting the situation in the region in order to pursue some kind of political agenda dedicated to resurrecting the Cold War-era confrontation between Russia and the United States. I find this possibility even more disturbing than the possibility that they are actually unaware of the political situation in the region.

Update: I just read part 2 of this series, which includes a section about the Baltics. While I have no desire to go into it at length, the following sentence was just too amusing not to note: “Estonia is also mainly Ugro-Finnish, which means that Russians are surrounded by Ugro-Finns on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.” Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.

8 thoughts on “Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

  1. I don’t think the Stratfor guys are cluless, but I tend to agree with your assessment they are following a political agenda. These guys are a bunch of neocons and would love to see a restart of a Cold War so they can get back into “business.” However, I don’t think it will happen.

    Regarding Yanukovich, you give him too much credit. The man will repeat what his advisors will give him to read. Rinat has a very tight leash on him.

    • Thanks. Regarding Yanukovich, that may be the case, but I don’t think his advisors want a straight-up pro-Russia course either. When I say Yanukovich, I mean his administration, not him personally.

  2. I think Stratfor’s analysts fell into the common trap of seeing only what supports their point of view. I think the way it works is that Friedman outlines a certain long term trend and analysis framework and the analysts are following that framework and/or approaching all developments through the prism of the long term trend layed out by Friedman.

    What I see lately is the lack of real due diligence and more of a rumor mill disguised as analysis. It is a pity – they used to be quite informative back in late nineties and earlier this decade. They can still do good work but most of the work related to Russian now seems to be rather superficial. Not bad and not entirely incorrect but just seemingly superficial.

  3. In Part III, they go on and on about the immensely strategic geographic location of Moldova (?!). I’m underwhelmed, I agree with Sergei, they used to be a lot better

  4. I lost all my respect for Stratfor when I learned that George Friedman believes that a war between the U.S. and Japan in invevitable in the next 100 years or so (he’s been hawking that one since the 80s).

  5. “Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.”

    It’s much more frightening for the Russians (an isolated island of Indo-European languages!) — in their rear, ready at any time to complete the Finno-Ugric encirclement, is the Finno-Ugric strategic reserve in Khanty-Mansiysk and Mariy El.

    Another fine example of the nonsense written about Russia.

    Stratfor burst on the scene during NATO’s Excellent Adventure in Kosovo where it read the tea-leaves reasonable well. But it’s always been pretty weak and predictable on Russia.

  6. It is gratifying to see others share my take on Stratfor. Reading some of their analyses not just on Russian foreign policy, but on their domestic political dynamics as well (the phrase “Surkov on the brain” comes to mind), I can only speculate what sort of agenda they are trying to advance. I’d like to think they can’t actually believe some of the things they write.

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