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.


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.


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.


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.


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>

New Gerasimov article on nature of warfare

Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, has published a new article on the nature of modern warfare. Given how much attention has been paid to his 2013 article on this topic, it seems worthwhile to quickly review what’s changed in the last four years.

The most important observation, though, is how much hasn’t changed. Gerasimov still focuses on the American origin of hybrid warfare, both attributing the origin of the term to American theoretical writings and discussing its implementation in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria.

Gerasimov’s discussion of the origins of the conflict in Syria is worth citing at length. He notes that in the first stage, internal Syrian tensions were transformed into armed actions by the opposition. The opposition was supported by foreign trainers and an active information war from abroad. Subsequently, terrorist groups supplied and organized from abroad then entered the conflict against Syrian government forces. The conclusion that Gerasimov draws is that hybrid warfare is actively practiced by the United States and other NATO members, in large part because this type of action does not fall under the definition of aggression.

Nevertheless, Gerasimov isn’t eager to assume that the hybrid warfare concept is here to stay or to introduce it into official Russian discourse. Instead he focuses (as in the 2013 article) on the continuing erasure of the boundary between conditions of war and peace. He highlights that it is more and more common for a country’s sovereignty and national security to be threatened in peacetime. The spectrum of reasons for use of military force is continually expanding, with force being more often used to secure a state’s economic interests or to enforce democratic values in another country.

Much of this is a repeat of the 2013 argument, with the focus on Western states using a wide spectrum of measures (political, economic, diplomatic, informational) combined with the “protest potential of the population,” to ensure that their interests are observed. Cyber warfare is added to this list, with an example of cyber attacks on Iranian energy infrastructure.

What seems interesting to me is the second half of the article, where Gerasimov discusses how Russia is responding to this heightened risk of “new generation” warfare. Here, Gerasimov drops all the discussion of hybrid and information warfare. Instead, his focus is very much old school: a discussion of strategic deterrence with nuclear weapons and long range aviation. To this is added the development of long range cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions, next generation fighter aircraft, modern ships, etc. There is also a discussion of advances in automation and electronic warfare. In other words, Russia is preparing to respond to this threat environment by strengthening its conventional and nuclear military capability. There is virtually no discussion of Russian efforts to engage in information warfare or hybrid warfare of any kind. “Little green men” play no role in this vision of Russian military power. Instead, we are given to understand that Russia will respond to any aggression with overwhelming force.

Slides from MCIS 2016 panel on Color Revolutions

Two more sets of slides today, both from the panel on Color Revolutions and Regional Security. The first set goes with the speech by Major General Sergei Afanasyev, Deputy Chief of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff. While the text of the speech is not available, there is a video with English translation (starts at approximately 3 minute mark).

(Scroll down for slides provided by President Putin’s internet advisor.)


The second set of slides goes with the speech by German Klimenko, the advisor to President Putin on the internet. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a video or text of his speech online. If anyone has a link, please email it to me or point to it in the comments.IMG_2368IMG_2369IMG_2370IMG_2371IMG_2372IMG_2373IMG_2374

Gerasimov slides from MCIS 2016

A number of people have asked me to post the slides from the MCIS conference. I have a number of sets. First up is Valery Gerasimov’s presentation. These slides can be usefully combined with the Russian text of his speech or the translated English language video of his remarks.


Moscow International Security Conference 2016 edition

Last week, I was once again in attendance at the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). This was the fifth such conference and the third that I’ve attended. In the past, I’ve summarized all the key speeches by Russian participants. That seems less necessary this year as video from the entire conference has been posted online, both in Russian and in English.  I do have the slides from most of the speeches, which have not been posted online by the organizers, and will post them over the next few days. Other than that, it seems more valuable to write up my general impressions, rather than focusing on the specifics of what was said.

The overall tone was less hostile toward the United States than last year. Last year, the speakers were quite open in declaring that the United States was creating threats to international security by undermining governments of states that refused to go along with U.S. “diktat.” This year, the formulations were much more indirect, along the lines of “some [unnamed] states are continuing to have a negative impact on international security by promoting exclusive military blocs, establishing military bases around the world, and dictating their will through the use of their military superiority.” While the target of such formulations is of course entirely transparent, the mere fact that the United States is not being mentioned by name is a sign that the Russian government is at least making an effort to shift its rhetoric to a less hostile stance.

The desire to reestablish a relationship with the United States was made clear when the topic turned to the threat of terrorism, the primary theme of this year’s conference. Here, the Russian officials made sure to argue that the ability of the United States and Russia to cooperate in Syria shows that the two countries can work together and stated that they hoped that such cooperation could be expanded to a broader range of issues. This line was prominent in all the speeches, and particularly in those of Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov.

Of course, the unspoken subtext underlying this call for cooperation was predicated on the notion that Russia and the United States could solve all the world’s security problems if only the United States followed Russia’s prescriptions on how to act. This was most openly stated by Sergei Lavrov, who said that what the West needs to do is to drop its anti-Russian policies.

While Russia’s relationship with the West was still one of the primary topics for discussion, it was certainly less central than at any of the past conferences. The majority of the non-Russian plenary speakers were from Asian states, and one of the two initial substantive plenary sessions was on military cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. After the usual opening lineup of Russian government heavy-hitters (Patrushev, Shoigu, Lavrov, Bortnikov), the first plenary on the threat of terrorism included the defense ministers of China, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as Hamid Karzai. The Asia-Pacific panel included more Asian defense ministers, this time from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Laos. The most striking thing about this panel was the lack of any participation by Russian officials. Unlike the first panel, where Valery Gerasimov presented the Russian government’s view on the threat posed by international terrorism, the Russian government chose not to present its view on Asian security issues. The only Russian on the dais for this session was conference host and panel moderator Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, who said little of substance on the topic at hand.

It seems to me that the Russian government’s lack of participation in the Asia-Pacific discussion was quite deliberate. Russia is in a bit of a bind in the region. One the one hand, it is dependent on its “strategic partnership” with China, especially since the deterioration of relations with the West. On the other hand, it is looking to develop security and especially economic ties with a number of Southeast Asian states — most particularly Vietnam and Indonesia — and to deepen its existing relationship with South Korea. The disputes between China and its Asian neighbors, particularly the maritime border dispute in the South China Sea, places Russia in a difficult position. I would not be surprised if the absence of a Russian speaker on the Asia-Pacific panel was a deliberate decision taken so as to avoid having to make the hard choices about how to thread the needle on the sensitive issue of China’s security relations with its neighbors.

Finally, a few words about the general atmosphere. The conference was much better organized than last year, when panels repeatedly ran over time and the agenda had to be modified on the fly. Shoigu was not visibly unhappy, as he was last year. The conference was also much larger than in the past. The plenary sessions took place in the large Congress Hall, rather than in the meeting rooms of the Radisson Ukraina hotel as in the past. The increase in size was also notable in the addition of breakout sessions and the expansion to a second day of panels.

While in the previous two years, one had a sense of being at a conference that was an opportunity for a wide range of representatives of rogue (and quasi-rogue) states to get together, this was largely absent this year. Sure, the Iranian Defense Minister took the opportunity to go on about “Zionist terrorism,” but this was the exception, rather than the rule. The 2016 list of speakers notably excluded senior officials from countries such as North Korea and Cuba, who had prominently featured in past years. They were replaced by representatives of countries such as Argentina, the Phillippines, and Chile. In addition, the presence of senior officials from South Africa and most major Asian and Middle Eastern states highlights the global nature of the event. The absence of Western officials, which looks set to continue as long as military cooperation between Russia and NATO remains frozen, prevents MCIS from becoming a truly global conference. But even absent the West, the high level of representation from a wide range of countries from around the world is a clear indication that the MCIS has become a regular stop on the global international security conference circuit.


Impact of the economic crisis on Russian military modernization

The Cipher Brief asked me to write a short piece on the impact of Russia’s economic downturn on prospects for the Russian military, as part of a series on Russian military modernization.


The drop in Russian state revenues has affected Russian military modernization to some extent, though the Russian government has made an effort to insulate the military from budget cuts. Although the 2015 military budget was cut by five percent mid-year, the total allocation was still 25 percent higher than the previous year’s budget. This allowed the military to continue its modernization process, conduct operations in Syria, and fulfill its training and exercise programs.

With oil prices remaining low, the military is facing a more difficult financial picture in 2016. In November, the Finance Ministry announced that the total 2016 defense budget would be largely the same as in 2015. However, last month, an additional five percent cut was announced, which will result in the first annual net decline in Russian defense spending since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000.

As a result of the deteriorating financial outlook, the fulfillment of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program is now in question.

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