Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 1: The plenary speeches

Last week, I was once again in attendance at the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). As I did last year, over the next couple of weeks I’ll write up some of the key speeches and then conclude with some takeaway thoughts on the event.

The Russian speakers at the plenary session included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev delivered greetings from Vladimir Putin. So pretty much the same lineup as last year, with the addition of Patrushev. The links above go to video of the speeches, with Russian language audio. Texts of the speeches have also been posted: Shoigu, Lavrov, Gerasimov, Patrushev.

For those who don’t understand Russian, here are some highlights of the speeches:

First up, the greeting from Vladimir Putin, as read by Nikolay Patrushev. The greeting highlighted the significance of holding the conference just before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, noting that it is a reminder that history cannot be forgotten and of the threats presented by the glorification of Nazism, the encouragement of xenophobia and extremism, and pretensions of any country to world domination. The speech also noted that the current system of international security was developed collectively in the aftermath of the second World War on the basis of mutual interests and partnership. Any distancing from these rules leads to one-sided and non-workable efforts to resolve global threats. Furthermore, crude interference in any country’s internal affairs through scenarios such as “color revolutions” just increases the space where violence and chaos are rampant. The rise of the Islamic State highlights the rapid growth and global spread of extremism and terrorism that no single country or grouping of states can defeat. Coordinated action by the entire global community, based on international law, is the only way to address this threat.

Sergei Shoigu gave the first substantive speech, expanding on the themes in Putin’s greeting. He highlighting the leading role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism, while noting the contributions of all countries that participating in the fight. He then transitioned to the need for the world to unite to fight the rebirth of fascism, xenophobia, racism and militarism and to tie Russia’s perceptions of the current international situation to the fight against Nazism. Specifically, he focused on the threat posed by “countries that consider themselves winners of the Cold War and want to force their will on others” to the stability of the international system that was created after World War II. He warned against unilateralism in international affairs and against efforts by any one country to develop absolute military superiority.

He then returned to the previous year’s theme of the threat posed to the world by color revolutions, noting events over the last year in Hong Kong and Venezuela as continuing the effort by the United States and its allies to sow chaos in states that oppose US policies. He then turned to Ukraine, calling it the greatest tragedy caused by the color revolutions policy. He said that in its efforts to make Ukraine into its satellite, the US had crossed all conceivable lines in promoting an anti-constitutional overthrow of the legal government that resulted in a civil war and forced Russia to react. With the war having already resulted in 6,000 deaths, “how many more victims will be needed to force Ukrainians in the southeastern part of the country to feel themselves European?”

Shoigu also highlighted the Kosovo precedent: While Western countries blame Russia for unilaterally changing European borders for the first time since World War II, they ignore the planned dismemberment of Yugoslavia that “served as a laboratory for Western efforts to develop techniques to destroy a sovereign state” and culminated in the removal of Kosovo from Serbia without any respect for international law. Shoigu also blames the West for sowing chaos around the world through its ill-conceived military interventions, particularly in Iraq and Libya, which have resulted in the long-term destabilization of entire regions of the world. As a result, he denies that critics of Russia’s actions in Crimea have any moral right to blame Russia for violating international law.

Instead of adopting Russian ideas for building a common system for European security, Western states have enacted sanctions and launched an information war against Russia. They have renewed talk about containment and how to use NATO to deal with a growing Russian threat. The main goal is to break countries that have long cultural and historical ties with Russia free of its influence. Previous talk of NATO-Russia partnership has ended. Instead non-nuclear NATO states are being involved in exercises on how to use American tactical nuclear weapons that have been placed in a number of European states. The world should remember that the United States is the only country in history to have actually used nuclear weapons. “What consequences might have such eagerness to use nuclear weapons have had for Europe, had the US Army developed such weapons a little earlier.”

Shoigu also noted that Russian fears of the threat to global stability caused by American missile defense systems are also coming to pass. He said that It is becoming clear that the US has been bluffing about potential missile threats emanating from Iran, since no moves have been made to reconsider US missile defense plans now that a nuclear deal with Iran has been completed. Instead, the US is making moves to expand missile defense systems in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu then turned to the threat to international security posed by terrorism. As with the rest of the speech, he went out of his way to highlight the role played by the United States and other countries in encouraging the development of terrorist organizations around the world. Pointing to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State, he noted that such organizations have commonly gotten out of the control of their patrons and become a problem for international security.

In the final part of his speech, Shoigu turned to the importance of working together to solve international security. He argued that the liquidation of chemical weapons in Syria and the recently achieved nuclear agreement with Iran show what can be done with diplomacy when the international community comes together. He noted that similar breakthroughs could be achieved in the development of non-strategic missile defense in Europe and the establishment of a new multilateral security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu was followed by Sergei Lavrov, who highlighted that peace can only be achieved through a collective international effort. NATO’s euphoria about winning the Cold War resulted in a belief that the West would be on top of the world forever. Meanwhile, international processes were actually heading in the direction of multi-lateralism. As a result, the world now stands at a crossroads where it must choose between cooperation and deadly conflicts. Lavrov highlighted the need to create a global security infrastructure to deal with the arc of instability stretching from northern Africa to Afghanistan.

In turning to the conflict in Ukraine, Lavrov argued that there is no military solution and that efforts to punish Russia for “its independent foreign policy, for standing up for truth and justice, for defending its compatriots” are absurd. He noted that many European leaders agree that the effort of some countries to break Russia is a huge and unforgivable risk to international security. Instead, the only solution is to carry out all parts of the second Minsk agreement, including not just the ceasefire, but also the end of Kiev’s economic blockade of the Donbas and the start of a real political process that leads to constitutional reform that takes into account all of Ukraine’s regions. In keeping with the theme of mentioning the anniversary of the end of World War II at every opportunity, Lavrov made sure to point out that the West must force the Kiev government to stop “glorifying Nazism and persecuting those who saved Europe from fascism.”

While Washington keeps talking about Russia coming to the gates of Europe, the reality is that NATO has brought its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders while US naval vessels are now regularly appearing in the Black Sea and US missile defense sites are being built in Romania and Poland. Russia sees US missile defense as part of a global project to reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic deterrence forces. Like Shoigu, Lavrov highlighted that the continuation of missile defense plans in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement shows that missile defense has always been aimed primarily against Russia.

Meanwhile, Lavrov noted that real threats to international security, including terrorism and the rise of extremist forces in the Middle East and North Africa, require international partnership to resolve. The exacerbation of Sunni/Shi’a divisions require a serious effort to create a compromise based on principles of international law. Instead, Western states have been using it as a pretext for interference in internal affairs in the region. Lavrov asks how the US can support the coalition operation in Yemen to restore by force a president who fled the country while in Ukraine it pursued the exact opposite policy. The double standards of US policy are in plain view in comparing the two situations.

Lavrov concludes by reinforcing the point made by Shoigu that unilateralism and forcing one country’s values on another leads to escalation of conflicts and an ever-growing region of chaos. Positive results can only come from combining forces, such as took place with the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran can now be included in the discussion on regional security in the Middle East and in the amelioration of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, as well as in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similar partnerships can be developed in other regions and conflict zones, including in Afghanistan and in East Asia. International organizations such as the Arab League, OIC, UN, and SCO can all be used to promote international security.

Valery Gerasimov spoke next, but his speech deserves a separate post, while I will endeavor to have up in the next few days.

The rest of the first session included presentations by Amb. Michael Moeller, the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva and by Amb. Marcel Pesco, the Director of the Office of the OSCE Secretary General. These speakers highlighted the role of their respective international organizations in promoting peace and resolving conflicts. Moeller focused on the threat posed by transnational violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram. He called for the international community to come together, to prevent the international system from being undermined. He argued that having power does not give states the power to take unilateral action. Instead, the international community should focus on rebuilding trust among leading actors, working on preventing conflicts, and improving early warning systems.

Marcel Pesco argued for the need for the members of the international community to commit to developing a common security infrastructure. He noted that the crisis in Ukraine has called into question some of the fundamental premises of the international system of cooperative security. He argued that the international community needs to build on the Minsk agreement to try to settle the conflict.

As a result of the Ukraine conflict, confrontation now exceeds cooperation in Europe, preventing forward momentum on other issues such as arms control. Pesco noted that the OSCE remains a platform for dialog in Europe but needs to become the basis for regional security.

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Interview on last month’s Russian military exercises

A couple of weeks ago, I gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on the significance of the Russian military exercises that were conducting in conjunction with the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The newspaper has kindly granted permission to publish an English-language version of the interview.

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Author: Ingrid Burke
Publication: L’Indro
Date: March 25, 2015

On 18 March, one year after Russian and Crimean leaders gathered in the Kremlin to formalize Moscow’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, festivities erupted across Russia.

Tens of thousands of enthusiastic Muscovites mobbed Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the annexation. Some of Russia’s most iconic pop and rock stars took the stage that day to entertain the patriotic revelers. But it was a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin that stole the show.

“What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support,” he told the cheering crowd, addressing Moscow’s rationale for taking Crimea into its federal fold. “We understood how important this is to us and that this was not simply about land, of which we have no shortage as it is.”

Festivities aside, the week of celebrations saw its fair share of brash statements and actions flaunting Russia’s military might.

On Sunday 15 March, state-run TV channel Rossiya-1 aired “Crimea: the Path to the Motherland,” a documentary on the annexation that featured a never-before-seen interview with Putin. The documentary elucidated a great deal about the annexation.

But one revelation in particular generated a wealth of nervous media buzz. When asked if the Kremlin was ready amid the Crimea crisis to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, Putin answered: “We were ready to do that.”

A day after the interview aired, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Putin had ordered large-scale military drills across the nation. A Defense Ministry statement cited Shoigu as saying 38,000 servicemen, 3,360 vehicles, 41 combat ships, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft and helicopters would be involved in the drills.

Reporting on the development at the time, Reuters touted the drills as the Kremlin’s biggest show of military force since Russia’s ties with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows in the aftermath of the Crimea crisis.

The following Thursday, 19 March, the Defense Ministry announced that the military drill numbers had doubled. An official statement said the number of servicemen involved had surged to 80,000, and the number of aircraft to 220.

Agence France-Presse described the amped up drills as some of Russia’s largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, noting that the maneuvers had caused jitters across Eastern Europe.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a Senior Research Scientist specializing in Russian military reform at U.S.-based think tank CNA Corporation, spoke with L’Indro on Friday about the drills, their significance, and whether leaders in Eastern Europe and beyond have reason to fear a sinister motive.

“They [the drills] are clearly intended to be sending a message, so in that sense they are significant,” Gorenburg said, adding that the intended message is not unique. “It’s not any different from the messages that Russia’s been sending for the last year really, which is that they’re back, their military is serious, it’s powerful, it’s prepared, it’s ready to counter any NATO aggression as they see it.”

The annexation of Crimea came against the backdrop of the ouster of the Kremlin-loyal administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. With Yanukovych out, and a new Western leaning regime beginning to take form, fears ran rife in Moscow that Kiev might soon be joining NATO.

The signal Moscow was aiming to send with the drills was one of defense capability, rather than the threat of an offensive, Gorenburg said. “From the Russian point of view — or at least the point of view that Russia is trying to convey — this is all defensive, including Ukraine,” he said. “So they see — and they’ve said this repeatedly — that they are countering an effort to encircle Russia by NATO and the US and hostile forces, and that they have no intention of aggression beyond what they consider their sphere of influence.”

Gorenburg noted, however, that one man’s defense can to another man have all the bearings of an offensive maneuver. “This is the tricky thing. From the point of view [of the West], this [Russia’s actions in Ukraine, such as the Crimea annexation] is seen as aggressive because it’s outside of [Russia’s] borders. But as far as Russia’s concerned, a lot of the military types never fully reconciled to Ukraine being independent… A lot of the people [in Russia] honestly believe that the country is threatened by Ukraine potentially joining NATO. And they have to stop that from happening.”

Putin gave voice to the sentiment of Russia and Ukraine being inextricably bound during his speech at the Crimea jubilee on Red Square on Wednesday. “The issue at stake [with the Crimea annexation] was the sources of our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people and single united nation,” he said, the domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral gleaming overhead. “Friends, we in Russia always saw the Russians and Ukrainians as a single people. I still think this way now. Radical nationalism is always harmful and dangerous of course. I am sure that the Ukrainian people will yet come to an objective and worthy appraisal of those who brought their country to the state in which it is in today.”

When asked whether he thought the timing of the drills was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the annexation, Gorenburg responded, “I very much doubt it’s a coincidence. It was a symbolic act, I think.”

But he was less sure about the timing of the release of Putin’s comments about nuclear preparedness in the Crimea context. “I’m not sure why it was said now, because the overall message that I think Russia’s trying to send is to try to deter,” he said. Relevant to this point is that the Rossiya-1 interview was pre-recorded. It is unclear when the interview itself took place.

And in fact, deterrence seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. “[The West is] trying to deter [Russia] from expanding the conflict in Ukraine. [Russia’s] trying to deter [the West] from interfering. And I think that every time Russia mentions nuclear weapons… that’s sort of the final trump card in preventing any serious attack on Russian forces,” Gorenburg said. “And they want to highlight that in order to make Western publics and therefore decision makers more reluctant to take on Russian forces.”

As Gorenburg saw it, signaling a willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear arsenal could serve to rally members of the Western public against action that could be interpreted by Moscow as threatening.

For months now, leaders in the Baltic states have expressed unease with the implications of the Crimea annexation, concerned about the prospect of a Russian military threat to their own post-Soviet territories.

On this point, Gorenburg felt confident that these countries face no immediate threat. “As far as what happens in the Baltics, I really think the chance of any kind of military offensive in the Baltics is very, very low.”

But he also emphasized the imperative of thinking in both the short and long term with respect to Russian strategy in the region. “That doesn’t mean that the Baltics are safe, because I think there is a possibility in the future — not in the short term, but say five years down the line, or at some point when the situation warrants — of some sort of internal destabilization, not using military forces, but either training some local Russians, or using political means. There are certainly parties in each of the countries, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, that are more sympathetic to Russian positions. And you get those politicians that have more influence, more power, to change the foreign policy of those countries.”

In his view, a scenario such as this — involving long-term strategy and covert actions as opposed to overt military force — would be far more likely than a flagrant offensive due largely to Russia’s interest in not triggering Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Article 5 is the provision dictating that an armed attack against one or more NATO parties in Europe or North America shall be viewed as an attack against all of NATO’s members. Such an event would compel the member nations to assist in “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” according to the treaty’s text.

“[Russia’s] conventional forces are no match for NATO,” Gorenburg said.

But in the end, Gorenburg asserted that while both sides are concerned about the aims and strategies of the other, neither wants the situation to escalate. “Both sides think that the other side is more aggressive than that side thinks of itself. So the US thinks — we just want peace, and the Russians are being aggressive. The Russians think — the US is trying to surround us, and overthrow our government, and we just want to defend ourselves. So in that kind of environment, you can see both sides being fairly cautious, hopefully, because neither side actually wants to fight a big war.”