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.

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.”

Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think

Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has just published a new book on the military aspects of the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a preview of my book review, published today at War on the Rocks.

Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).

Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

To read the rest, please click here.

Reassuring the Baltic States

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have had a direct impact on the security perceptions of the Baltic States. Baltic leaders see Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as a potentially serious precedent for future Russian actions against the Baltic States. Russia’s statements declaring that it will protect ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation are of particular concern, given the large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. Russian naval maneuvers in the Baltic Sea that took place at the time of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea were seen by regional leaders as an attempt to put pressure on the Baltic States. Furthermore, Lithuanian officials have accused Russian naval ships of harassing Lithuanian civilian vessels in Lithuanian territorial waters in conjunction with a Russian naval exercise held in May 2014. A Lithuanian fishing vessel was seized by Russian border guard vessels in international waters near Kaliningrad in September 2014.

Public sentiment in the Baltic States is strongly anti-Russian in normal times, and has been exacerbated by Russian actions in Ukraine. The public and most commentators are convinced that Russian leaders would like to restore the territory lost in 1991 and that they still consider the Baltic States to be part of Russia’s sphere of interest. Repeated Russian efforts, both overt and covert, to become involved in Baltic domestic politics have further encouraged anti-Russian and nationalist attitudes.

In response, Baltic leaders have asked for and received assurances of an increased NATO presence in their region. Notably, to this end, President Obama has recently (3 September 2014) pledged in Estonia absolute non-discrimination in NATO collective defense (Article 5) guarantees. The NATO nations have pledged additional presence in the form of rapid rotation of troops from NATO states (including the United States) through Poland and the Baltic States, where they will participate in regular training and exercises but also provide “persistent” presence as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. Maritime plans include the deployment of a standing mine countermeasures group, increased Baltic state participation in regular naval exercises, and planning for new naval exercises in the Baltic Sea.

While Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed, the likeliest form of threat is increased interference in Baltic internal political affairs or covert actions, rather than direct military action. Russia has a track record of promoting domestic instability in the Baltic, including encouraging violence during incidents such as the Bronze Soldier protests in Tallinn in 2007 and the annual protests on Latvian Legion Day. Russian intelligence personnel are suspected of involvement in pro-Russian political parties and movements in all three states. Russia may seek to use its influence and agents in the Baltic States to destabilize domestic politics. These scenarios could morph into an armed conflict over time.

Baltic defense planners describe the range of potential Russian actions in their region to include issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in the region, backing referendums on the status of the Russian language in the Baltic States, and attempting to influence Russians living in the region to support a scenario similar to the one taking place in eastern Ukraine. Ethnic-based conflict is a possibility, given the lagging integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in the region. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase their resentment and make them more susceptible to the Russian government’s influence.

Covert actions, such as the recent kidnapping of an Estonian security officer at a border post, are also seen as likely to continue. Latvia and Estonia, with their large ethnic Russian populations, are seen as more vulnerable than Lithuania in this regard.

Baltic defense planners fear that these kinds of actions could lead to Russian sponsorship of an insurgency in Latvia or Estonia that will be judged by NATO leaders to fall short of a direct military attack, and thus leave the Baltic States to their own devices in dealing with a Russian-sponsored insurgency. While statements made by President Obama during his visit to Tallinn and by NATO leaders at the recent summit in Wales have made clear that NATO will defend the Baltic States from direct attacks, they have not indicated how the alliance would respond to domestic instability or covert actions.

Baltic planners believe that a direct Russian military intervention is highly unlikely, both because of the NATO security guarantee and because Russian military planning documents de-emphasize the importance of the region for the Russian military. This is especially the case in the maritime realm, where the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets remain the primary focus of Russian naval development. Official Russian military journals and publications argue that the primary purpose of the Baltic Fleet is to serve as a location for new ships and submarines to be tested after launch and as a training area for new sailors and officers.

Despite President Obama’s recent statements, Baltic leaders remain sensitive to the possibility of abandonment by the NATO Nations given the lack of clarity on triggering conditions for Article 5, and the extent of such a response should it occur. Statements in the regional press suggest, while the symbolic significance of the president’s visit is well received, there is interest in more tangible expressions of solidarity, e.g., the deployment of military forces to bolster local defenses.

The Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed. The European Reassurance Initiative provides an important set of signals that the United States and NATO are serious about ensuring Baltic security and will defend these countries from direct Russian aggression.

These steps need to be combined with reassurance from political leaders at the highest levels that NATO will also provide support in the event that a Russian-sponsored insurgency is organized on part of the Baltic States’ territory. Since Baltic State leaders and security officials consider Russian efforts to destabilize these countries from within far more likely than a direct military intervention, such reassurance will do much more for assuaging Baltic security fears than the augmentation of military forces in the region.

At the same time, Baltic leaders need to know that the integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in their countries must continue. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase resentment and make these populations more susceptible to Russian government influence. EU and OSCE officials need to make sure that integration programs continue and that local Russians are treated as full and equal citizens throughout the Baltic States.

Countering Color Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy and its Implications for U.S. Policy

The next PONARS Eurasia policy conference is happening next Monday and Tuesday. Here is my policy memo for that conference. For more information about the conference, including the full program, visit the PONARS Eurasia website.

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The May 2014 Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense, was focused on the role of popular protest, and specifically color revolutions, in international security. The speakers, which included top Russian military and diplomatic officials such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, argued that color revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones controlled by the West. They argued that this was part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept U.S. hegemony and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

While the West considers color revolutions to be peaceful expressions of popular will opposing repressive authoritarian regimes, Russian officials argue that military force is an integral part of all aspects of color revolutions. Western governments start by using non-military tactics to change opposing governments through color revolutions that utilize the protest potential of the population to engineer peaceful regime change. But military force is concealed behind this effort. If the protest potential turns out to be insufficient, military force is then used openly to ensure regime change. This includes the use of external pressure on the regime in question to prevent the use of force to restore order, followed by the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces. If these measures are not sufficient, Western states organize a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Russian officials at the MCIS conference described color revolutions as a new technique of aggression pioneered by the United States and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique, compared to military intervention, is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.

Shoigu argued that this scheme has been used in a wide range of cases, including Serbia, Libya, and Syria—all cases where political interference by the West transitioned into military action. In 2014, the same scheme was followed in Ukraine, where anti-regime protests over several months transformed into a civil war, and in Venezuela, where the so-called democratic opposition is supposedly organized by the United States. While Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view, they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were close to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011, are harder to explain, such inconsistencies do not appear to trouble the Russian government.

Furthermore, while Russian discussion of the destabilizing role of color revolutions usually portrays U.S. actions as taking place around the world, there is a clear perception that Russia is one of the main targets. This drives fear that unrest in the post-Soviet region may be a wedge for the United States to force regime change in Russia itself.

Russia’s Counter-Strategy

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although the Russian government has not produced any kind of document summarizing this new strategy, the key aspects can be gleaned from an analysis of Russian leaders’ statements and Russian actions in recent months. The counter-strategy combines political and military actions.

On the political side, Russia has stepped up its efforts to make alliances with other authoritarian regimes that are similarly concerned about the possibility of a popular uprising that could lead to their loss of power. This strategy has been used by Russia to some extent throughout Vladimir Putin’s presidency, with efforts to develop ties with former Soviet allies in the Middle East and Asia. The MCIS conference highlighted a renewed emphasis in this direction. The presence of the Iranian defense minister, the Egyptian deputy defense minister, the chief of defense from Myanmar, and deputy chiefs of defense from Vietnam, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a large delegation from China, all indicate the primary focus of attention for Russian military engagement this year. The absence of official representatives from NATO member states particularly highlighted the shift in emphasis of Russian military cooperation. By comparison, the 2013 MCIS had no representatives from Middle Eastern or Asian countries outside of post-Soviet Eurasia, while senior officials from most NATO member states were in attendance.

The second part of Russia’s political strategy is to damage the unity of the Western alliance. This effort has been pursued for several years through the development of political alliances with right-wing parties throughout Europe and in the United States. As described by Marlene Laruelle and Mitchell Orenstein, among others, Russia has supported European nationalists’ anti-EU and anti-immigrant positions. The core of Russia’s alliance with the European far right has been a shared opposition to increased ties between the EU and its eastern neighbors. The European right has also been sympathetic to Russia’s positions on issues such as the role of religion in society, same-sex marriage, and gay rights generally. These positions have also gained Russia some unlikely supporters among the Christian right in the United States, where Russian support for anti-abortion and anti-gay rights views has, in turn, been reciprocated by what would be otherwise surprising sympathy for Russian foreign policy positions on issues such as human rights and democracy promotion.

On the military side, Russia has determined that the best way to counter the perceived U.S. strategy is through a combination of strong support for existing authoritarian regimes around the world. This support has included military and economic assistance, as well as public support for actions taken against protesters, who are often conflated in Russian rhetoric with terrorists or supporters of radical ideologies such as radical Islam or fascism.

In circumstances where this proves insufficient and the situation is in an area deemed crucial to Russian national interests, Russia has shown that it is willing to go further by providing direct support to forces opposed to those supported by the West. This support may include the simulation of popular uprisings, support for local insurgents, and the threat of direct military force to protect co-ethnics.

Russia claims to reserve the right to protect Russians living abroad. Given the large numbers of Russians living throughout post-Soviet Eurasia, this claim has the potential to provide Russia with an excuse for intervention anywhere in the region. Furthermore, it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which governments of other post-Soviet states come to distrust their ethnic Russian populations, leading to discrimination that creates the conditions for a potential Russian intervention.

The Russian Strategy in Ukraine

The actions that Russia has been undertaking in Ukraine in recent months are based on this strategy and closely parallel Russian officials’ perceptions of how the U.S. color revolutions strategy works. Russian officials provided the Yanukovych government with advice on how to deal with anti-government protesters. This advice appears to have involved encouragement to use repressive measures, though the government appeared to lack either the capacity or willpower to carry it out to the end. Officials from Russian security services met regularly with Ukrainian government officials, with FSB Colonel General Sergei Beseda present in Kyiv on Feb 20-21 as the Yanukovych government collapsed.

At the same time, the Russian government provided economic assistance to Ukraine, including a $15 billion aid package and an agreement to lower the price Ukraine paid for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas from $400 to $268. This assistance was canceled after the change of government in Ukraine.

When Russian assistance proved inadequate to maintain the Yanukovych government in power, Russia took immediate steps to weaken the new anti-Russian government that was being formed in Kyiv. It seems highly likely that Russian agents were involved in organizing counter-protests in eastern Ukraine and Crimea after Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from Ukraine.

From the start of the conflict, Russia repeatedly used the threat of force to try to influence the actions of the new Ukrainian government, both by making statements reserving the right to intervene in the conflict and by staging several military exercises on the Ukrainian border. The statements initially focused on the right of the Russian government to protect its co-ethnics abroad, though as the conflict accelerated over the summer they have shifted to the need to protect civilians in general from a humanitarian disaster. This parallels past Western statements that use the doctrine of the international responsibility to protect civilians to justify interventions in internal conflicts.

Finally, Russia has engaged in covert military action in Crimea and, at a minimum, provided military and financial assistance to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The quick Russian intervention in Crimea was made possible by the presence of a relatively large contingent of Russian troops (approximately 14,000) who were already based in Crimea and the strong antipathy of the local population to the new Ukrainian government. The Russian naval infantry based in Sevastopol were augmented by special forces troops from Russian military intelligence, who occupied key locations on the peninsula, including government buildings and the isthmus connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine, and surrounded Ukrainian military bases in the region. Many of these actions paralleled Russian military exercises that had taken place a year earlier in the Black Sea region.

Russian actions in eastern Ukraine have escalated more gradually, as the conflict has dragged on in recent months. Initially, Russian support consisted of a mass media propaganda campaign in opposition to the “fascist junta” that had taken power in Kyiv and in support of the actions being taken by protesters in the Donbas. As the conflict became more violent in April and May 2014, volunteers from Russia joined in the fighting. Many of these volunteers were recruited (unofficially) through military recruitment offices in Russia. While no conclusive evidence has surfaced, there is a strong likelihood that agents from Russian security services were involved in coordinating protests in eastern and southern Ukraine from their earliest stages.

Russia’s role in the conflict has increased over time, especially after the separatist forces began to lose territory in late June 2014. Early on, local protest leaders were sidelined by Russian citizens, some of whom had a background working for Russian security services. Beginning in June, Russia began to provide heavy weaponry to the separatist forces, including multiple rocket launchers and air defense weapons. Beginning in July, Russian forces have shelled Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent Ukraine from sealing off the border and ending the provision of military assistance to separatist forces. In August, the Russian government responded to continued Ukrainian victories by sending in a limited contingent of Russian troops and opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol in southern Donetsk region. This escalation in Russian military assistance caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout the Donbas and losing control of approximately half the territory they had gained over the summer.

Russian actions in Ukraine appear to mirror the actions Russian leaders believe the United States has been taking in its efforts to eliminate unfriendly governments around the world. While the increase in military support for separatist forces during the summer of 2014 appeared to have been largely improvised, the earlier actions to destabilize Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv seem to have been based on existing contingency plans. It is possible that Russian leaders believe that the United States actively seeks to destabilize opposing regimes because such activities are a standard part of their own policy toolkit.

Impact on U.S. Policy and Recommendations

There has been a continuing debate on whether domestic or international factors are primary in Russia’s current foreign policy. In reality, it appears that both are working together. Russian foreign policy appears to be based on a combination of fears of popular protest and opposition to U.S. world hegemony, both of which are seen as threatening the Putin regime.

Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukraine’s economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even its potential NATO membership. Similarly, the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal has been to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism is the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal explains the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

In this environment, it is not worth spending time trying to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the United States does not get such an opportunity.

The U.S. response to such a position needs to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime and a restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it prefers to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular regime.

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Russian reactions to the NATO summit

Here’s a preview of my new post at War on the Rocks: The NATO summit in Wales was treated in Russia with a great deal of equanimity. The official reaction was quite predictable, with the Foreign Ministry putting out a statement that claimed that interfering in the affairs of foreign states was part of NATO’s “genetic code” and flowed directly from the organization’s desperate search for a role in the global security system after the end of the Cold War. The ministry went on to claim that NATO policy is dictated by hawks in Europe and the United States who have been “striving for military domination in Europe.” Moreover, the statement claimed, these hawks have shown themselves willing to prevent the emergence of a common Euro-Atlantic security system and sacrifice international efforts to counter real threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and WMD proliferation in order to achieve this end.

The Foreign Ministry argued that the build-up of NATO presence near Russia’s borders is part of a long-nurtured plan to strengthen the alliance’s forces in the east to counter Russia, with the Ukraine crisis serving as an excuse to begin its implementation. The statement continued, insisting that these plans, together with announced plans for joint exercises with Ukrainian forces, will escalate tensions in the region and forestall progress toward a peaceful settlement in Ukraine. The head of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, stated that the buildup of NATO rapid reaction forces in Poland and the Baltic States is a hostile act towards Russia.

Read the rest of the post at War on the Rocks.

Russia’s Stealth Invasion of Ukraine

It appears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I have feared since March has now begun in earnest, with the opening of a new front in the vicinity of Mariupol on the shores of the Azov Sea and a major counterattack in Luhansk Oblast leading to the retreat of Ukrainian forces from positions they have occupied (in some cases) since before the June ceasefire. This separatist counter-offensive has generated a lot of discussion among analysts and commentators about whether the forces attacking Novoazovsk and Mariupol belong to regular Russian units or irregular forces, as part of an effort to determine whether or not these new developments amount to a Russian invasion or just a new escalation by separatist forces.

I would argue that the specific provenance of the fighters involved doesn’t actually matter very much in this context. There is no doubt that the forces attacking in the south, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol came directly from Russia, not from territory already controlled by the separatists farther north. To do so, they had to be allowed through the border by Russian border guards. Furthermore, there is also no doubt that they are using weapons and equipment supplied by the Russian government, since they are no longer even trying to claim that the equipment they are using was captured from defeated Ukrainian forces.

In these circumstances, why does it matter which specific people are sitting in the tanks? 

And if it did matter, there is now more and more evidence being uncovered in Russian social media and in independent reporting that active duty Russian personnel ARE fighting in Ukraine. This includes the 10 Russian soldiers that the Ukrainian government has claimed to have captured on Ukrainian territory, as well as the various Russian soldiers from units such as the 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov who have been reported to have died recently in unexplained circumstances. 

One can invade a country through a direct frontal assault. Or one can do it in secret, a little bit at a time. The Russian government has chosen the second path. It doesn’t make it any less of an invasion.

It also means that the Minsk talks are almost certainly a diversion, meant to distract Western leaders from the reality of what is happening on the ground. The idea is that as long as world leaders think there is a chance at successful peace talks, they will refrain from strong words or actions condemning what Russia is doing in Ukraine. This seems to be working out for Russia so far, but it should not distract us from events on the ground. 

I should be clear that I don’t think Russia is currently planning a full takeover of any part of eastern Ukraine. The goal remains what it has been for months now: to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable and weak. For now, in order to accomplish this goal, Russia needs to make sure the separatists are not defeated and remain a viable force. Both the escalation in assistance and the opening of the new front are a response to the losses that the separatists had suffered in recent weeks.

In the long run, the only acceptable end to the conflict for Russia is one that would either freeze the current situation in place with separatists in control of significant territory in eastern Ukraine (the Transnistria variant) or the removal of the pro-Western Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian one. Participants in peace talks have to understand that this is essentially a red line for Moscow. Putin will not allow the restoration of control over eastern Ukraine by the current Ukrainian government by peaceful means and is clearly willing to directly involve Russian forces in military action to ensure that it doesn’t happen through a Ukrainian military victory. 

Given Russia’s superior military capabilities this is a war that Ukraine cannot win, at least not by military means. The alternatives are to make a deal with whatever terms are possible or to continue the struggle for a long time, hoping that inflicting a high cost on Russian forces will eventually turn Russians against their government’s adventure. The former will lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government. The latter will take a very long time at best and result in huge numbers of civilian casualties.