Valdai Club 7: Military reform and international cooperation

This is the final post in my series on the Valdai Club military section meeting. The last discussion panel of the conference was entitled “New Challenges – New Alliances: From Ideological Alliances to Interest-based Coalitions.” The three presenters were Yves Boyer, the deputy director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique in Paris, myself, and Alexander Sharavin, the director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.

Panel on international cooperation

Boyer’s presentation covered recent developments and future prospects for a common European Defense Policy. He said little about Russia per se, except to note at the end that Russia feels isolated in a globalized world and therefore the EU should develop close cooperation with Russia in order to reduce its sense of isolation.

My presentation focused on the possibilities for US-Russian cooperation in the Caspian region. The core of the argument can be found in my recent PONARS memo on the subject, so I won’t repeat it here.

Alexander Sharavin’s presentation covered how the military reform affects Russia’s international connections. He argued that one major impact has been the enormous change in tone at the MOD on willingness to engage in cooperation with foreign states. Eleven years ago, the head of the international cooperation department at the MOD was Leonid Ivashov, now it’s Sergei Koshelev, who is a professional diplomat. It’s a very different attitude. The difference in tone is notable because for the first time, civilians control the MOD. In the Soviet period, there were defense ministers who were civilians (even though they wore uniforms and were called marshals when they took the position), but they were controlled by the generals. This is the first time that civilians work in the MOD on an equal footing with members of the military. In the old days, they never would have taken foreign visitors to a location such as the Don radar station.

Of course, there are still many problems, though these are not all in the MOD. After all, the state is still in flux. All the power ministries face a similar set of problems. We’re not sure whether the goal is reform or construction of a new army. For now, we’re reforming the remains of the Soviet army. After all, as we saw this morning (during our meeting with General Tretyak — DPG), all the paintings at the MOD are of Soviet victories, not of Russian ones.

Sharavin noted that the Georgia war was a real test of the US-Russian relationship. But even in those difficult times, we continued to cooperate in Afghanistan, to work together in controlling airspace. He pointed out that we can’t pay too much attention to professional anti-Westerners on the Russian side, but similarly our partners can’t pay too much attention to professional anti-Russians on their side.

In the second part of his presentation, Sharavin focused on the importance of alliances for Russia and on their potential role in countering the emerging Chinese threat to Russia. He noted that the CSTO is the most important alliance structure for Russia. While it may not have been the ideal structure, since it exists it should be made real and active. He sees the SCO, on the other hand, as a bad idea; it just duplicates the CSTO while also bringing in China, which has its own interests in the region. The implication was that Chinese interests are not necessarily compatible with Russian interests. Sharavin believes that it’s a mistake for the US and NATO to not recognize the CSTO, since this is an organization that could play a role in helping deal with future instability in the region.

Sharavin warned against making the mistake of assuming that some Central Asian dictators are friendly to Russia, because dictators are always fickle allies since they don’t need to consult with others in determining their foreign policy course. He argued that China is threatening to Russia not because it’s big, but because it’s a totalitarian state that could change its policy 180 degrees overnight and become a threat to Russia. But most Russians don’t recognize this. He pointed out that if NATO had an exercise in Poland, the Russian press would universally condemn it. But no one in the Russian press paid any attention to recent Chinese exercises on Russia’s border, which was a big mistake. Sharavin concluded by arguing that while Russia and the West have some disagreements, they share common interests in containing China. If we don’t work together, we will each be separately defeated by China.

This view of China was disputed by most of the discussion participants. One person argued that while the United States would like to have Russia as an ally against China, it’s a bad idea for Russia to pick fights with China because it is not doing anything to threaten Russia. He argued that fear of China is a theology for some in Russia. A second participant argued that rather than focusing on the Chinese threat, one should focus on the opportunity for Russia to serve as a bridge between the US and China.

He argued that since it will be difficult to solve the world’s problems without China, this could be a way to overcome Russia’s isolation from the international system.  This comment was in reference to Boyer’s remark regarding Russian isolation, which led to an extended discussion of the topic. One participant argued that in order to get out of the state of isolation, Russia has to become more attractive. He asked what Russia could do to become more attractive to the rest of the world. Another participant responded that Russia is fated to lack soft power. It doesn’t have Hollywood or French cuisine to spread its influence around the world. The extent of Russophobia in neighboring states is higher than in Western Europe, but this will dissipate over time. A third participant noted that Russians have to take actions on their own in order to become less isolated.

All in all, the discussion reinforced Sharavin’s initial point that there are opportunities out there for Russia to cooperate with the West. At the same time, Sharavin’s position that China presents a threat to Russia seemed very much a minority view. Most participants, as well as all of our official interlocutors during conference, thought that Russia could have a cooperative relationship with China as well.

Overall assessment of the Valdai Club military section conference

Since this is my last post on this conference, I thought it might be worthwhile to present a brief overall assessment, especially in light of the dispute in the comments  on the Tretyak meeting post. What I tried to do in these reports was to present as full an account as I could of what went on at the meetings, given the rules of engagement we were given. The goal was to get the information out there, for readers to interpret as they see fit. And obviously there’s a wide range of possible interpretations.

It seems to me that perceptions of the event must have a lot to do with expectations coming in. As with all Valdai Club events, this conference was in part an effort to bridge intellectual divides, in part an attempt to inform foreign visitors about the state of the Russian military, and in part a public relations exercise to present Russia in general and its military in particular in the best possible light.

Given this background, and given the fact that cameras and microphones were present at all times (except at the dinners), I did not expect Russian military officials to be completely frank and honest about all of the problems and challenges facing the Russian military. It’s only natural for any organization to want to present the best possible image of itself to the public. So I was not particularly surprised that General Tretyak (for example) did not talk in great detail about the MODs inability to resolve its manpower issue. Or that we were taken to the base of a “model” brigade, rather than one with more typical facilities.

Within these (to me expected) limitations, I thought this was a very useful exchange. It seemed to me that on average, the Russian military officials with whom we met were more open to discussion with foreign visitors than they were under previous Defense Ministers. I know that some of the other participants had a different reaction to the proceedings. Be that as it may, I see the existence of this forum as a positive sign for the potential for greater openness in the future. Frank discussion of these kinds of topics requires a certain level of trust, which comes with repeated interactions.  I am hopeful that we will see more progress on this score in future meetings of the group.

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