Valdai 2017: Reactions from a newbie

I promised a readout of my impressions of the Valdai Club meeting. This was the first time I had been invited to attend this event and I was curious to get a sense of both the content of the discussions and the atmosphere. The four day conference was held at a Gazprom-owned mountain resort an hour outside of Sochi, though after the first day we had virtually no opportunities to go outside, much less leave the compound. When I decided to take a walk in the hills during the lunch break on the last day of the conference, I was very nicely told by the guard at the gate in the fence that the gate was closed for the day (almost certainly because that was the day that Vladimir Putin was supposed to appear). That was very indicative of the setup. Having a conference in a beautiful mountain resort is very nice, but it’s also a good way to keep the participants from wandering off or seeing anything the organizers might not want them to see.

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1) I had not realized just how little of the conference would be on Russia. The theme was “Creative Destruction: Will a New World Order Emerge from the Current Conflicts?” The individual panels within that theme were all on grand topics such as man vs. nature or rich vs. poor. There was one panel on “the conflict between differing geopolitical worldviews,” where most of the panelists ended up either spouting self-serving formulations of the “China just wants to share its prosperity with the world” variety or seemed bizarrely naïve, such as one European speaker arguing that Britain would not leave the European Union and Europe would be just fine. A Russian scholar talked about how the US and Russia were engaged in a new Cold War that was even worse than the old one and of course this was America’s fault. The one exception was a prominent American IR scholar, who tried to bring some sense to the proceedings, but with limited success.

The surreal nature of the choice of panel topics was highlighted by the special panel on US domestic politics. First, its presence on the program highlighted the absence of a panel on Russian domestic politics. Second, the speakers included a senior Russian diplomat and two highly respected American experts on Russian politics. Absent were any experts on US politics, which lent the proceedings a slightly odd air, even as the participants did their best to explain the Trump presidency to the audience.

The best panel was another special panel – on the Russian revolution in honor of its 100th anniversary, with five top historians giving their interpretations of the meaning and impact of the revolution on Russia and the world. Overall, though, it seemed odd to gather a large number of experts on Russia just to have them discuss big conceptual issues such as climate change and poverty on which they were experts. As a result, the most interesting discussions I had were in the corridors and in the bar, where there were plenty of opportunities to interact with and learn from both Western and Russian colleagues.

2) The meetings with Russian officials are usually the highlight of the event, yet they seemed to be somewhat disengaged. The senior officials who came to speak with us included Sergei Lavrov, Sergey Kislyak, Igor Shuvalov, Vyacheslav Volodin, German Gref and, of course, Vladimir Putin himself. The dominant theme of all the meetings was that the United States had betrayed Russia’s trust in the 1990s. As Putin said when asked about any mistakes Russia had made in its relations with the United States, our greatest mistake was that we trusted you too much and your greatest mistake was that you took our trust as weakness. The video and transcript of the Putin speech are widely available, so I won’t go over the content in detail. Putin’s attitude was perhaps more interesting than the content of his speech and answers to questions. He seemed disinterested and disengaged. The answers he gave were rote. Some attendees who had been present at Valdai last year indicated that some of the answers were virtually verbatim repeats of things he had said the year before. Given that Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov had promised a “major announcement” from Putin at Valdai, the audience members were left wondering if they had missed something.

Putin clearly wanted to really hammer home the double standards argument that he has been making vis-à-vis the West (and particularly the United States) for years now. He spent an inordinate amount of time on a minute relitigation of the ICJ court case affirming Kosovo’s declaration of independence, pulling out a folder with printouts of the decision and of the reactions to it of various Western governments, which he spent a good 10 minutes reading out loud. He went on a little tirade about Ukrainian nationalism, though he seemed to conflate Petliura and Bandera in the process.

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The most interesting thing about his speech was perhaps the conclusion. In response to moderator Fyodor Lukyanov’s tongue in cheek closing comment about how Valdai would miss Putin if he stopped attending because he was no longer president, he asked “will you not invite me if I’m not president?” and followed up with a joke about an oligarch who discovers that he has lost all his money and tells his wife that they will have to sell the fancy cars and houses and move back to the old apartment in Moscow. When the oligarch asks her if she will still love him, she says “yes and I will miss you very much.” The implication was that Putin very much recognizes that his status derives from his position and that leaving the position is fraught with the threat of great personal losses for him. The joke was perhaps the only time when Putin allowed a glimpse of his actual views on the world or his role in it, going beyond the by now stale script of how Russia didn’t want to be opposed to the West but had been forced into the position after being repeatedly betrayed by the United States.

The other officials all spoke off the record, but the impression they gave was not a particularly positive one. Lavrov was smart and cynical as usual. Shuvalov seemed to have dropped the “I am a good pro-Western liberal” act and was just acting like a post-Soviet bureaucrat defending his government’s policies. Volodin was, if anything, worse. As my colleague Rawi Abdelal put it, if Shuvalov looked like he had come from 1994, Volodin seemed to have arrived directly from 1974. He lost his cool on a couple of occasions, including in responding to a question about Navalny, and his scowl was really a sight to behold (see below). Gref seemed to have taken over the role of good Western liberal from Shuvalov, giving a slick presentation about various disruptive 21st century technologies and their potential impacts on Russia in general and on Sberbank in particular. The audience members’ level of interest in the presentation was inversely proportional to their familiarity with the technologies being discussed. Gref came off as a neophyte who had just discovered these new scientific developments that he mostly but not completely understood but thought were really really important and couldn’t wait to share them with everyone.

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3) Finally, it’s worth briefly addressing the optics of the event. The parts of the event that involved Russian officials were clearly highly choreographed. The first few questions to Putin gave all signs of being pre-arranged softballs asked by known members of the “Russia understanders” camp. It was quite noticeable that the moderator of the Putin Q&A avoided calling on Americans until the very end, when he did call on Toby Gati. The Lavrov and Putin meetings were slightly odd in another way, as rather than taking the stage alone to address the audience and answer their questions, they were instead on panels with other speakers (colloquially called “side dishes”), who gave short presentations and then sat more or less uncomfortably as the audience addressed their questions to the Russian officials while ignoring them. The Putin panel included Hamid Karzai and Jack Ma (Alibaba CEO), as well as a representative of the Nobel Research Institute. I imagine these are not people who are used to being ignored for long periods of time. Also, there was a gala awards dinner the first evening, emceed by Sofiko Shevardnadze. It all seemed a bit too forced and too loud, like amateurs trying to put on the Oscars and ending up with something more like a small town’s annual good citizen award ceremony. It would probably be best to drop this event, or at least tone it down, as I overheard a lot of participants making uncomplimentary remarks about it afterwards.

There’s always a lively debate in the United States about whether one should attend Valdai. This was the first year I was invited, but I have always thought that for those of us who study Russian politics, it is our job to take any and all opportunities to gain a better understanding of the country and of its leadership. Activists may take a different position, eschewing any signs of “collaboration” in what is clearly a staged and choreographed event. While I wish there were more panels focusing more directly on Russian politics and foreign policy, seeing Putin, Lavrov, et al in action was worthwhile in and of itself. I’ll certainly go back if invited again, since it would be useful to compare the messaging pre- and post-2018 elections.

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Zapad-2017: A brief explainer

I wrote the following article for The National Interest.

The Zapad-2017 military exercise that will take place in September in Russia and Belarus has already begun to draw attention in the Western press. In recent days, media outlets have published somewhat panicked accounts about the unprecedented numbers of Russian troops conducting drills on the borders of vulnerable eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania. Others are arguing that once Russian troops enter Belarus to participate in the exercise, they are likely to stay behind “in order to give Moscow a more-advanced forward base in Europe” or, in the less carefully chosen words of some Ukrainian officials, to occupy Belarus possibly as a prelude to an invasion of Ukraine from the north. Given this level of excitement about a military exercise still six weeks away, it may be useful to analyze what we actually know about the upcoming exercise and its predecessors.

The Zapad exercise is a regularly scheduled event that has been held quadrennially since 1999. What’s more, it is part of an annual rotating series of large scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. Similar major strategic operational exercises were held in the fall throughout the Soviet period as well. In other words, everyone has known that this exercise would be held in the early fall of 2017 since at least four years ago. The only uncertainty was regarding the scope and exact parameters of the exercise.

These aspects remain uncertain at the present time. Official Russian sources have indicated that the total number of troops involved in the exercise will not exceed 13,000, while Western officials and analysts have been quoted as sayingthat as many as 100,000 Russian personnel may be involved. Previous Zapad exercises have been on the larger side, with Zapad-2013 involving approximately 75,000 troops and personnel. Part of the discrepancy in numbers may stem from a disagreement over who should be counted. The highest Western numbers usually include not just members of the Russian armed forces, but also personnel from security agencies and civilian officials who may be involved in parts of the exercise. Furthermore, the Russian military may choose to conduct other related exercises that are not technically part of Zapad-2017 and would therefore not be included in the official declaration on the number of troops involved.

What we do know is that the total number of Russian troops on Belarusian territory is not expected to exceed 3,000 personnel. … <To read the rest of the article, click here>

Russia’s New and Unrealistic Naval Doctrine

I have a new article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview.

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The Russian Navy is keen on showy demonstrations of strength. Just in the last week, it has begun an exercise with the Chinese navy in the Baltic Sea and sent its largest warship, the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser, and the world’s largest submarine, the Dmitry Donskoi, from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic to participate in the Navy Day parade on July 30. In another act primarily significant for its symbolism, Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian naval doctrine last week. Taken at face value, the doctrine appears to promote a vision of a revived Russian Navy that can maintain its superiority over up and comers like China’s navy, and even pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy in certain environments. The reality is, as with most such documents, the gap between aspiration and feasible plans remains quite large. Since no English translation of the document is currently available, it may be useful to briefly summarize some key portions of the 22-page text, put the doctrine’s aims into context, and show where the gaps between dream and reality can be found.

What Does It Say?
The doctrine highlights many of the usual threats and dangers to Russia. First on the list of dangers is the “ambition of a range of states, and foremost the United States of America and its allies, to dominate the high seas, including in the Arctic, and to press for overwhelming superiority of their naval forces.” Other threats include territorial claims on maritime and coastal zones, efforts to limit Russian access to maritime resources, and attempts to weaken Russian control over the Northern Sea Route. Only three potential specific threats to Russia are listed in the document. The first is a sudden decline in the political-military situation leading to the use of military force in maritime areas holding strategic interest for Russia. The second is the deployment of strategic non-nuclear precision weapons and ballistic missile defenses in territories and maritime zones adjacent to Russia. And the third is the use of military force by other states in ways that threaten Russian national interests. In addition to the Arctic, the doctrine highlights the importance of protecting access to energy resources in the Middle East and Caspian Sea, and expresses concern about the negative impact of regional conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa on international security. It also notes the danger posed by the growth of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet and Russian forces in Crimea, as well as the maintenance of a constant naval presence in the Mediterranean, are singled out as the most critical geographic priorities for the Russian Navy’s future development.

<The rest of the article may be found here>

What we learned from the Russian naval salon (МВМС-2017)

Every two years, St. Petersburg hosts a major naval salon, where Russian and foreign shipbuilders come to show off their latest products. Representatives of the Russian Navy also attend, and often take the opportunity to discuss their procurement plans (and dreams). The 2017 salon was held from June 28 to July 2. Mike Kofman has laid out the outline of the surface ship construction plans, highlighting the sheer number of different classes of corvettes being planned. The key takeaway is that the Russian Navy is looking to increase the size of its smaller ships in order to increase their armament and endurance. This is the main reason for the development of the 3,400 ton Project 20386 corvette, which is significantly larger than the 2,500 ton Project 20385 variant and is considered by the Russian Navy to be a blue water ship. Larger ship projects are being scaled down, with the 8000 ton Super Gorshkov likely to be the largest ship built for the Russian Navy in the next 10 years, despite regular claims by various design bureaus that their giant projects are ready for construction.

In fact, these types of salons are usually a prime opportunity for design bureaus to promote various completely unrealistic projects that they hope to have funded by the Ministry of Defense. At the 2017 salon, the Krylov design bureau cemented its position as the leader in such self-promotion. In announcing the Briz corvette class, it has completed a full set of unlikely to be built surface ship projects. Here’s the complete list, from smallest to largest. First, there’s the Briz, a 2000 ton corvette that has enough armaments to fill a 3000 or even 4000 ton vessel. Next, the Lider destroyer, a 14,000 ton nuclear powered monstrosity that was once supposed to be under construction beginning in 2019. I have grave doubts that we will see construction start this decade, and there’s a decent chance that these ships won’t be built at all, given their high cost and the reduced priority the Navy will receive in the new State Armament Program that is expected to be approved later this year. Then there’s the Priboi, a 23,000 ton amphibious assault ship that is meant to be Russia’s answer to the French Mistral. Again, cost makes construction of these ships unlikely. And finally, and least likely of all, is the Shtorm aircraft carrier design. While Russian shipbuilding companies and navy admirals make regular statements about plans to build an aircraft carrier in the next decade, the reality is that Russia has neither the need nor the resources to devote to such a project.

What we will see in the near future, other than the various corvettes and missile ships, is an extension of the Project 11356 (Admiral Grigorovich class) frigates, with three new ones expected to be built for the Russian Navy with Russian-made propulsion systems while the two hulls whose construction was frozen in 2015 will be sold to India and equipped with Ukrainian turbines. The Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov) line of frigates is also expected to be completed, with significant progress being made in the development of Russian turbines. However, the first ship of the class is still in sea trials, pending the completion of the long-delayed Poliment Redut naval air defense system.

Though Redut is still not ready, another prominent defensive weapons system did have its debut at the salon. The Pantsir-M integrated CIWS has a range of 20km, compared to its predecessor’s 8-10km, and can simultaneously target 4 objects. It will be placed on most new Russian ships, including the Project 22800 Karakurt patrol ships, two of which are being built in Zelenodolsk. There is also talk that Pantsir-M systems will replace existing Kortik systems on existing Russian combat ships, though no specifics have been announced in that regard.

The Navy also announced a full-scale renewal of its minesweeper fleet, with Admiral Bursuk stating that 40 Project 12700 (Alexandrit class) fiberglass minesweepers will be procured, with two a year being build in St. Petersburg starting in 2018 and additional ships at plants in the Far East. One ship of the class is already active in the Baltic Fleet and three others currently under construction. According to Admiral Bursuk, the Ivan Khurs, the second of the Project 18280 (Yuri Ivanov class) intelligence ships, is expected to be commissioned by the end of the current year, as is the long-delayed Project 11711 Ivan Gren amphibious ship. The second ship of that class is officially still on track to be commissioned next year, though given the track record of delays on this class, dates for both ships could certainly slip again.

There was relatively little news regarding submarines at the salon. Admiral Bursuk did announce that two more Project 677 (Lada class) diesel submarines would be built after the current series of three is completed, though there was no information on progress on air-independent propulsion systems and nothing on the status of the Kalina submarine project that is supposed to be equipped with AIP. Bursuk also announced that construction of the first two of the six Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo class) diesel submarines for the Pacific Fleet would start in July, with all six scheduled to be completed by 2021. Finally, the sixth Yasen-M nuclear submarine is to be laid down in July, with construction expected to take at least six years. Five Yasen-M class submarines are already in various stages of construction, with the Severdvinsk Yasen class in active service.

To conclude, there was another sign of the gradual reactivation of Russian shipbuilding in the Far East, with the announcement that starting next year, Russia will hold a Far East version of its naval salon, to be held biannually in even numbered years.

Midrats Springtime for Russia

 

In what seems to have become an annual tradition, I was on the Blog Talk Radio show Midrats this week, talking about the Russian military, Russian political developments, Russian relations with the United States and China, and the like. The recording is now available on the show’s website. The show description is as follows:

Episode 385: Springtime for Russia?

To say that the profile of Russia since the American elections last fall has increased in the minds of Americans would be an understatement.

Outside the 24-hr news cycle, there have been significant developments in Russia internally and externally. From the Baltics, to nuclear weapons, to her growing influence in the Middle East following her involvement in the Syrian conflict.

What should people be focused on with regards to Russia on the global stage this year?

MCIS 2017: Cooperation lost in translation

Mike Kofman and I wrote up our joint impressions of the 2017 MCIS conference for The National Interest. Here’s a taste of the key points…


This year the conference attempted to balance a confrontational tone with offerings of cooperation, in particular on counterterrorism, which was the overall theme for the event. But judging from much of the discussion, the real topic should have been information warfare, which not only made its debut at this conference, but permeated many of the talking points. “Fake news,” “post-truth world” and numerous other terms in the modern discourse on information warfare were sprinkled throughout speeches, with a separate panel dedicated to the topic. “Information war” had clearly arrived in a big way, and not just because nobody could stop looking at their smartphone during the conference.

MCIS 2017 proved another interesting foray into the minds of Russia’s national-security aristocracy, with a veritable lineup of who’s who in terms of leadership, including Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, Sergey Lavrov, Alexander Bortnikov, Sergei Naryshkin and, of course, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. However, from the very opening it was clear that Russian leadership was somewhat out of practice when it came to speaking about a cooperative agenda, and while their rancor over long-standing problems with the West came through, the willingness to work together was much less apparent. In general, they had trouble holding back sincerely held sentiments on NATO’s activities in Europe, missile defense and the United States’ foreign policy writ large, which got in the way of the desire to extend an olive branch to the West.

Despite the fire and brimstone, the Russian leadership did signal a desire to reengage with the United States, while compartmentalizing other issues in the relationship, but it was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Moscow did not come off as desperate to cooperate, but if anything as more firm. Fighting ISIS together was the focal point of Russian commentary on prospective cooperation with the United States, but these points came with reproaches on violating countries’ sovereignty, and the recent cruise missile strike in Syria, which was termed a crude violation of international law. It seemed that Russian officials were trying to speak from a position of strength.

Click here to read the full article.