Russian Foreign Policy Narratives

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian foreign policy narratives. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.

Most of the data collection for this policy brief was done by Katherine Baughman and Umida Hashimova. Thanks to Kasey Stricklin for putting together the trends graphic.


Executive Summary

  • This Marshall Center Security Insight provides a summary of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions by analyzing statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The analysis found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use.
  • The narratives described in this brief include Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization, Russia as a bastion of traditional values, Russophobia, whataboutism, fraternalism with Russia’s near abroad, ties with Soviet-era allies, outside intervention in sovereign affairs, Russia as a proponent of stability in the world, Russia as a proponent of multipolarity in the world, and the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role.
  • The most frequently used narratives included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia.
  • Although the foreign policy narratives of Russian officials are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core.

Introduction

This policy brief provides a summary of results of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions using statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The research team monitored Russian and Western media over a ten-month period, from September 2018 to June 2019, collecting both Russian- and English-language statements. We found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use. We conclude with some preliminary frequency analysis and trends of use over time during the study period.

Eurasia Versus Europe

This narrative tends to portray Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization with its own sovereign path that is separate from the rest of Europe. According to this argument, Russia is separate and different from the rest of Europe and should not be expected to integrate with it on purely European terms. This argument reflects a long tradition of Eurasianist discourse among Russian intellectuals that goes back to the early twentieth century and also hearkens back to an even older debate about Russian identity between Slavophiles and Westernizers that goes back to the tsarist era.

Officials focusing on this narrative discussed the need to form a greater Eurasia to safeguard the region’s distinct path, often in contrast to decadent European values. For example, in April 2019, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov stated, “We believe that there is the need to aspire for Greater Eurasia, which includes the European Union, our Eurasian Union and various Chinese initiatives.” This statement highlights the significance placed by Russian officials on deepening Russia’s relationship with China and especially highlights Russia’s role as a conduit for Chinese trade with Europe.

Russia as a Bastion of Traditional Values

According to this narrative, Russia possesses a distinct civilization that embodies and promotes “traditional” religious, societal, and other values in contrast with the more liberal, “decadent” West. This has been a common trope for Vladimir Putin. For example, in November 2018, he stated, “There is one thing I do not doubt: the voice of Russia will be dignified and confident in the future world, which is predetermined by our tradition, domestic spiritual culture, self-awareness, and, finally, the very history of our country as a distinctive civilization that is unique but does not make self-confident and loutish claims of exclusiveness.”

This narrative has been particularly favored by senior leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church, such as Patriarch Kirill, who said the following in November 2018: “The narrow paradigm of the New Time speaks of globalization as an inevitable process. Hidden underneath the word “inevitability” is the western principle of global development which features liberal secularism and modern forms of colonialism. . . . This mistake is a departure from tradition, the system of passing values from generation to generation which forms the civilizational code of peoples with its cultural, spiritual, and religious paradigms, relying on God-given and thus invariable moral values which have accompanied the humankind throughout history. Experience shows that the trampling of these values has led to tragedies and cataclysms in personal, societal and international relations.”

Russian leaders have focused on traditional values, particularly in their domestic messaging, as a way of contrasting Russia with the supposedly immoral member states of the European Union. This narrative helps Russian leaders justify their caution about developing close ties with Western Europe and their policies aimed at curtailing Western influence in Russia.

Russophobia

Russophobia refers to the narrative that the policies and actions of Russia’s opponents are motivated by an unjustified prejudice against Russia, rather than legitimate disagreement over policy or differences in geopolitical interests. Russian officials frequently highlight the role of Russophobia in accusations by U.S. politicians and media commentators of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

For example, in April 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented on the publication of the Mueller Report, “Unfortunately, there is no sign that US political circles, particularly those who seek to score political points in the Congress from Russophobia, are ready for dialogue. The document is most likely to have no effect from the standpoint of improving relations.” He added that Washington “continues to bombard the public with anti-Russian allegations. Russian officials often argue that Russophobia makes it easy for Western politicians to blame Russia for all of their problems, rather than dealing with the actual causes.

Whataboutism

Whataboutism is the narrative that other powers are engaging in the same activities that they accuse Russia of engaging in. During the study period, Russian officials resorted to whataboutism frequently, including when criticizing the United States and its allies for interfering in Russian elections. In May 2019, the Federation Council released a statement noting, “Washington, its allies, and its partners are using available instruments, including information, political, administrative, diplomatic, organizational, technical, and financial ones, for illegally intervening in Russia’s sovereign affairs, including in the period of preparation for and holding of electoral campaigns of various levels in Russia.” This statement was clearly designed to highlight the equivalence between U.S. activities in 2019 and accusations of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Russian officials also highlighted violations of freedom of the press in Western Europe and compared Russian police actions against protesters with French police actions against Yellow Vest protesters to show that Russian actions are no different than those of the countries that regularly accuse Russia of violating human rights and international norms. For example, Vladimir Putin highlighted restrictions placed on RT broadcasting in France by noting, “We hear from our Western colleagues that the free dissemination of information . . . is one of the most important principles of democracy. . . . States should not hinder information spread through administrative routes, but rather put forward their perspective and let the people decide for themselves where the truth is and where its falsification is.” Commenting on European government actions against domestic protesters, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said, “Unlike France and Germany, Russia never uses water cannons, tear gas or rubber pellets to disperse protesters.”

Whataboutism is also used to reject criticism regarding Russian military and political influence activities abroad. In April 2019, referring to Russian support for the Venezuelan government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “What do they mean by insolent remarks that the countries [outside] the Western Hemisphere are not allowed to have any interests there? But what is the United States doing? Take a look at the map of the US military bases: the entire world is dotted with red spots and each of them poses rather serious risks.” Overall, the whataboutism narrative is used to suggest that Russia is no different from the Western states that regularly condemn Russian behavior both domestically and on the world stage.

Fraternalism with Russia’s Near Abroad

The Near Abroad is Russia’s preferred term for the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the arguable exception of the Baltic States. The term is associated with fraternalist narratives concerning brotherly links, paternalistic relationships, and special historical and cultural commonalities with these countries.

Officials using this narrative during the study period made references to the continuing fraternal relationship with Belarus during a period of intense discussion of potential closer integration of the two states. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov highlighted the special fraternal relationship, noting, “I don’t think anyone in Moscow or Minsk would dispute the existence of de facto and de jure special and allied relations between the two countries.” Officials also lamented the destruction of brotherly ties with Ukraine by fascists and nationalists bent on tearing Ukraine away from Russia. For example, in reference to Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said, “As for the long term, no matter what happens, no matter who is in power in Kyiv today, the Russian and Ukrainian peoples have always been and will forever be fraternal and very close . . . . This political scum will go away, recede.” Similarly, Peskov stated in May 2019 that “[Putin] has always stated that the relations between the countries’ leadership should not in any way be projected to the long-standing close and brotherly relations of the peoples of the two countries.” These statements highlight Russian leaders’ tendency to continue to consider former Soviet states, especially Ukraine and Belarus, as “naturally” belonging to Russia’s cultural and political sphere of influence.

Relations with Soviet-Era Allies

This category refers to the set of Russian narratives that relate to “traditional relations” with partners that have maintained close ties with Russia since the Soviet Era, such as Vietnam and Syria. When discussing new initiatives with foreign states that fit this category, Russian leaders commonly refer to the history of bilateral ties in the Soviet period. During the study period, Vladimir Putin mentioned such ties during official meetings with leaders of Vietnam and Serbia, and Sergey Lavrov highlighted the history of close relations between Russia and Latin American countries. This emphasis is especially common in situations in which the two sides are discussing military assistance. For example, in April 2019, Russian Presidential Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov noted “Sudan’s willingness and readiness to develop cooperation with Russia on the basis of traditionally friendly relations spanning since 1950s.” Although this is not a frequent narrative, it does play an important role when Russian officials seek to further links with states with which Russia had ties during the Cold War.

Outside Intervention in Sovereign Affairs

This category describes the narrative that certain domestic policies and developments in a given country are the result of meddling from outside powers, most often the United States, rather than the outcome of internal factors. Russian leaders frequently express vehement opposition to such activities, although many countries accuse Russia of employing similar tactics abroad. During the study period, Russian officials made strong statements against U.S. intervention in Venezuela, citing the principle of noninterference in sovereign affairs. For example, in May 2019, Sergey Lavrov stated, “Mike Pompeo called me, urged [Russia] not to support [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, and urged us and Cuba not to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. This whole story sounds quite surrealistic. I answered him, based on our principled position, that we never interfere in somebody else’s affairs and call on others to act the same way.”

Russian officials have made similar statements about how U.S. military operations in Syria and support for specific political groups in Ukraine were instances of interference in sovereign affairs. In the context of the Syria operation, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin condemned the “United States of America, which continues using terrorists and extremists as a tool of pressure and direct inference in the affairs of sovereign states.” Regarding Ukraine, Russian officials accused the United States of getting involved in the conflict over the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and condemned its influence on Ukrainian elections. Sergey Lavrov’s assessment was that, “The current leadership in Kyiv is guided not so much by the interests of their country but by the ambitions and ‘recommendations’ and often direct orders from other capitals.” When asked about similar Russian activities, Russian leaders argue that unlike the United States Russia only acts when invited by a country’s official government.

Russia as a Proponent of Stability in the World

Russian leaders frequently argue that Russia’s activities at home and abroad are justified by the need to maintain stability, while portraying opponents’ actions as attempts to destabilize a given situation. For example, in April 2019, Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov criticized Western humanitarian operations around the world in the following terms: “Frequently, the so-called humanitarian interference is done under the pretext of promoting democracy, thus provoking intra-state instability. For Western countries, unilateral actions towards other states carried out with disregard for the opinion of their legitimate governments and not authorized by the UN [United Nations] have already become the norm.”

Around the same time, General Alexander Levin, one of the commanders of the Russian military base in Tajikistan, highlighted the beneficial nature of the humanitarian operation there, saying, “The joint actions by the Russian base, units of the Defense Ministry and other security structures of Tajikistan are becoming a guarantor of peace and stability in the region.” This pair of statements highlights the Russian trope that Russian interventions promote stability in the world, while interventions by Western countries, especially by the United States, sow chaos.

Russia as a Proponent of Multipolarity in the World

Russian officials often describe the current world order as being unfairly dominated by a single power—specifically, the United States. In response, they promote the idea that the international community should welcome multiple arbiters, including and especially Russia and China. In the meantime, they highlight how most of the world’s problems are caused by the United States trying to resist the natural development of a polycentric world order. In late May 2019, Lavrov noted, “As we can see, security problems have been piling up in the Asia Pacific region and the world at large because Western countries are trying to stall or even reverse the objective formation of a polycentric world order.” Also that month, Vladimir Putin called for the establishment of an efficient security system that would be equal for all states, arguing that only through a collective response can radical extremist ideas be defeated.

Russian officials generally argue that the U.S. effort to maintain its unilateral dominance is a fruitless battle, and one that the United States will eventually lose. For example, in April 2019, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu argued that “[o]ur Western colleagues cannot accept the fact that the era of the unipolar world order is nearing an inevitable end so they are trying to protract this natural process.” These statements highlight the key idea of this narrative: that multipolarity is inevitable, and that efforts by Western states to resist it are both futile and counterproductive.

Promotion of International Structures in Which Russia Plays a Leading Role

This narrative refers to Russian leaders’ tendency to promote the involvement in international negotiations of organizational entities in which Russia has a dominant or equal voice as compared with Western powers. Such organizations include, most prominently, the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Security Council. Conversely, Russian leaders frequently criticize structures in which their country is less empowered, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Council of Europe.

During the study period, Russian officials frequently argued that international crises could only be solved through the UN. This was particularly noticeable during the peak of the effort by the Venezuelan opposition to replace Nicolás Maduro with Juan Guaidó. Sergey Lavrov stated, “We with our Venezuelan partners share the opinion that any use of force in circumvention of the [UN] Security Council is fraught with disastrous consequences for modern international security as a whole.” Similarly, Vyacheslav Volodin argued that the Kosovo conflict can only be solved under the auspices of the UN: “A solution to the Kosovo problem can definitely only be sought via dialogue based on decisions made in the UN. Primarily, UN Security Council Resolution 1244.”

Russian officials also sought to use other international organizations, especially the OSCE. The OSCE was used to promote Russian interests in Ukraine, as highlighted in the following statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry: “Regardless of this fact, Russia will utilize its right to monitor the elections within an international mission in another OSCE member state, in this case in Ukraine. Our steps are based on the mutual obligations of all OSCE members to provide reciprocal, and unimpeded access by observers to one another’s elections. This measure needs to ensure that electoral processes are transparent and democratic.” These statements show that Russian officials prefer to promote their country’s interests through international organizations in which Russia plays a prominent role, while avoiding or denigrating organizations from which Russia is excluded (such as NATO).

Frequency Analysis

As shown in Table 1, the frequency with which these narratives were used by Russian officials during the period of analysis can be divided into three groups. The most frequently used included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia. A second set of narratives was used somewhat less frequently, including references to Russia’s near abroad, Russia’s focus on multipolarity versus Western unilateralism, and Russia’s role as a promoter of stability as compared with the Western tendency toward destabilizing interventions. The least frequently used narratives included references to Soviet-era allies, the importance of Russia’s Eurasian identity, and Russia’s role as a bastion of traditional values.

table 1. frequency of narratives used by russian officials

Table 1. “Frequency of Narratives Used by Russian Officials”

In terms of trends over time, most of the narratives were relatively evenly spread out over the entire ten-month period of observation. In particular, Russophobia, whataboutism, and references to the near abroad occurred at a fairly constant rate throughout the period. Figure 1 shows that some narratives have noticeable peaks and valleys over time, especially sovereign affairs and the promotion of international structures. The February peak in the sovereign affairs narrative is related to the peak of the crisis in Venezuela and concurrent Russian fears of a U.S. military intervention there. However, the smaller April peak in that narrative and the February peak in the promotion of international structures both include mentions of a wide variety of topics. For the former, these include discussion of Western intervention in Libya and Venezuela and discussion related to Brexit and cyberattacks. For the latter, Russian officials refer to a wide variety of crises that they say should all be dealt with either in the UN Security Council or the OSCE, including Ukraine, Syria, Macedonia, Kosovo, and the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

figure 1 trends in key narratives

Figure 1. “Trends in Key Narratives”

Conclusion

Although Russian official foreign policy narratives are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core. These narratives all connect with prevalent perceptions of the world and of the role of Russia and the United States in it. By starting with a core element of truth, Russian officials are able to create narratives that resonate with the dominant frames through which their audiences view the world.

Thus, they tend to highlight Russophobia and traditional values to domestic audiences. They also highlight the tendency of the United States to intervene in other countries and connect this tendency to increased instability in regions such as the Middle East in order to create the narrative of the United States as a destabilizing actor in world affairs. Whataboutism is used with both domestic and international audiences to highlight instances in which Western actors fall short of their stated principles, making the argument that Western leaders have no standing to criticize Russian actions. The end result is a relatively coherent picture of the world as a chaotic place and of Russia as a stabilizing agent within it.


A Note on Sources: Materials were collected through a variety of sources, including Opensource.gov, the Eastview database of Russian newspapers, and direct access to the TASS news agency and the websites of major Russian and Western newspapers. The bulk of the materials came from newswire reports, such as TASS in Russian and Interfax in English. Russian-language sources also included all major central newspapers. English-language sources also included Western English-language newspapers and media sites of record, such as the New York Times and the BBC. All materials were hand-coded by one of the two team members. Our analysis assumes that statements in Russian-language sources are aimed primarily at a domestic audience, while statements in English-language sources are aimed primarily at an international audience. Links are provided to sources that are available on the internet. Citations to all sources may be found on the Marshall Center’s version of this article.

Strategic Russian Strategic Decision-Making in a Nordic Crisis

Here’s the second in a series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian strategic goals in a Nordic crisis. With permission from the Marshall Center, I am posting the full text here, though please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version. The first of these briefs, focusing on the Baltics, was posted last April.


Executive Summary

  • This policy brief examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decision-making in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, political defeats at home.
  • Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. Russia is also working to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia in the event of a conflict.
  • We can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Nordic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Russian leaders will tend to pursue their goals through nonmilitary means and will be careful to avoid unintended escalation. The one exception to their preference for nonescalation would occur in the event of an attack on Russian territory, which would create a loss situation for Russia and therefore allow for a robust defense and/or counterattack.

Introduction

 This policy brief, the second in a series that addresses how Russian strategic culture can explain Russian foreign policy behavior, examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. The Nordic region is presented as a case study to generate conclusions with regard to the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

Overview of Russian Strategic Decision-Making

This analysis is based on a model of crisis decision-making developed by the Russian analysis team at CNA. As an abbreviated version of this model has already been presented in a previous article in this series, what follows is a brief summary. The model presents Russia as a prospect theory player on the international scene that takes greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than it does to pursue potential opportunities.

Russian strategic objectives are rooted in and derived from the following three principal Russian foreign policy motivations:

  • Maximizing security, which results in the pursuit of extended defense and has been the main driver for Russian aggression in its near abroad and Russia’s military modernization at home.
  • Russia’s desire for a privileged sphere of influence as an effort to achieve regional hegemony based on the goal of maximizing its overall power.
  • Maintaining great power status in the international system by ending U.S. primacy and thereby upending the unipolar nature of power distribution in the international system in favor of a multipolar one. However, this motivation does not necessarily mean that Russia wants to challenge the United States directly, given the power disparity.

Russian leaders prefer to achieve their political goals through coercion and threats of violence, rather than actual violence. Russian strategy in a conflict seeks to establish escalation dominance over potential adversaries by convincing them that Russia is able and willing to use force in pursuit of its objectives. When pressed to use force, Russia tends to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve its objectives in order to minimize losses and costs. This approach also allows Russia to maintain the threat of bringing in additional force if the adversary does not accept Russian objectives. Russia is happy to use force multipliers, such as local militias and mercenaries, to absorb the bulk of combat losses. Ambiguity is used to maintain plausible deniability and thereby slow adversary decision-making. Finally, Russia seeks to deter external actors from interfering in a conflict in order to prevent escalation.

Russia’s Strategic Assessment of the Nordic Region

Russia’s strategic calculus suggests that in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region, Russia will focus on the geographic and political environment in the region in determining its strategic objectives and minimum and maximum goals for the situation.

The geography of the Baltic Sea would play a particularly important role in Russia’s assessment of a potential maritime conflict scenario. The geography of the Baltic Sea in many ways mirrors that of the Black Sea, except that the geography favors NATO and its partners, rather than Russia. Like the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea is enclosed, with passage restricted by the Danish Straits. Although the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt are considered international straits, as governed by the Copenhagen Convention of 1857, they could easily be closed by NATO forces in the event of a conflict, effectively preventing Russia from bringing naval reinforcements to the Baltic Sea from the Northern Fleet or the Mediterranean. In addition, a series of islands can provide effective control over the sea itself. Bornholm (controlled by Denmark), Gotland (Sweden) and the Aland Islands (Finland), can be used to control the sea lanes in the Baltic Sea as well as the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. These islands thus can play the same role in the Baltic as Crimea does in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Estonia and Finland effectively control entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore to St. Petersburg.

Although Western analysts often paint Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave as a militarized territory that threatens the security of the NATO member states in the region, Russian planners view the region as a vulnerable outpost surrounded by potentially well-armed NATO states. As a result of these factors, Russia feels that the region’s geography is relatively negatively set up for Russian forces to act in the event of a conflict with NATO and its partners.

Russia’s political assessment also emphasizes the potential challenges of a military conflict in the region. Although Sweden and Finland are ostensibly neutral, Russian leaders fully expect them to be involved on the side of NATO in any conflict between NATO and Russia. They point to statements that the two countries have made, such as the European Union (EU) solidarity clause and the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort joined by Sweden and Finland in 2017, that strongly imply such a scenario. They also note that the two countries have been strengthening their military forces in recent years and have increasingly integrated these forces with NATO. Both Sweden and Finland have increased their frequency of participation in NATO exercises. These developments are seen in Russia as clear signals that neither country will stay out of the fight in the event of a conflict.

On the other side, Swedish planners fear that Russia might preemptively attack Gotland in a conflict in order to take control of the middle section of the Baltic Sea. They have responded by placing troops on the island for the first time in over a decade. Although the force is only the size of a regiment, it is meant as a symbol of Swedish intent in combination with the reintroduction of military conscription. Russia has decried this move as a step toward the further militarization of the region.

Finland’s history of relations with Russia makes its leaders cautious about exacerbating tensions with Moscow. They point to their losses in previous wars with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which resulted in the policy of “Finlandization” that effectively meant that Finland did not have full control over its foreign policy orientation until the end of the Cold War, a period of over 40 years. As a result, Finnish leaders have generally avoided hostile rhetoric against Russia while retaining more contacts with Moscow than other countries in the region. Furthermore, most of the Finnish population remains opposed to their country joining NATO. Although Finland has supported EU sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, it has retained significant trade relations and has a sizable expatriate Russian population in Helsinki. Russia has proved adept at using trade links and expatriate Russian populations in other European countries to undermine anti-Russian policies. Similar tactics could be used in the Nordic region.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. To this end, Russia has undertaken a propaganda effort to show the citizens of these countries that Russia does not threaten them. Russia has pursued political influence operations to prevent the growth of negative political attitudes toward Russia. To this end, there are concerns that it has used the Russian expatriate population and other pro-Russian activists in the region, especially in Finland, as a supportive element. It has also provided support to political parties and societal organizations critical of the EU and especially of NATO as a way of limiting the trend toward closer cooperation between NATO and the two nonmember Nordic states. Russia has also sought to maintain and enhance economic linkages with Nordic states, most notably through the strategic use of its role as an energy supplier to Finland. It is estimated that forty percent of Finland’s energy comes from Russia, and Russia has taken steps in recent years to make the import of electricity cheaper for Finland in order to maintain that connection.

In regard to military issues, Russia has worked to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. To this end, it has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. Russian media has highlighted popular opposition to NATO membership within these countries, noting the likelihood of negative political consequences for any government that chooses to pursue NATO membership. Russian officials have threatened political, economic, and military consequences for Sweden and Finland should they choose to formally join NATO. The implicit threat is that not only would cheap energy supplies end and trade be negatively affected, but Russia could use tactics it has pursued elsewhere, such as cyberattacks and funding of antigovernment groups, to undermine political stability in these countries. Russian media have also suggested the possibility that Russia might offer inducements to Sweden and Finland for remaining neutral or at least not joining NATO formally.

In the event of a regional crisis, Russian leaders would seek to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia. They would seek to preempt the threat by neutralizing Nordic militaries through a Russian military buildup in the region combined with the threat that Russia would target these countries’ territories should fighting break out. Russia’s minimum goal in a Nordic crisis is thus to maintain and exacerbate existing divisions in the Nordic states that prevent them from seeking to join NATO and to inhibit further integration of their military forces with NATO forces short of membership. Russia’s maximum goal is to reverse the existing close integration of the military forces of the Nordic states with those of the United States and NATO and ideally to have these states recommit to neutrality in deed as well as in word.

Russia’s Vulnerabilities

Russia’s vulnerabilities in a Nordic crisis are to a large extent the same as its vulnerabilities in other regions, though there are some aspects particular to this region. The Russian military has relatively few forces in northwestern Russia because its main focus in recent years has been on securing the Caucasus, reinforcing its border with Ukraine, and building up forces in the Arctic and the Far North. Russian forces in northwestern Russia are not equipped for a short-notice conventional conflict, with relatively few mechanized units and a command structure not set up to fight a war in this region. As noted above, the geography of the region makes a maritime conflict relatively complicated for Russia, though that disadvantage may be mitigated in a broader engagement due to the Nordic region’s proximity to Russia and the relatively long border with Finland.

Russia is hampered by its lack of allies in the European theater. Although Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a Russian military partner, it would be unlikely to actively participate in a Russian military campaign. It might, however, reluctantly allow Russia to use its territory as a staging area in a conflict with NATO. Recent political tensions about the extent to which Belarus can be expected to integrate with Russia have highlighted the limits of the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Other allies are even less likely to get involved. Neither Russia’s other CSTO allies nor China will want to get involved in a fight with NATO and (with the exception of China) would not be able to contribute significantly to the effort.

As with any conflict with a powerful but distant adversary, Russian leaders would be concerned that the overall force balance between Russia and NATO would become highly unfavorable in a longer-term conflict. For this reason, they would want to keep the conflict short and ensure that any conflict in the region would not result in horizontal escalation, which could expose Russian territory to defeat by the much larger and stronger U.S. military in a regional or even global conflict. They would be particularly concerned about the possibility that the conflict could spread to other theaters, especially the Mediterranean, which would cause Russia’s forces to be stretched thin in a fight on multiple fronts.

Finally, Russian leaders may be concerned about the impact of any kind of extended or costly intervention on Russian domestic politics. They will want to make sure that they avoid costly and long-lasting entanglements that might result in the Russian public turning against the intervention. Such a situation would be especially likely if Western states pursued strong economic countermeasures that had a direct negative effect on the Russian economy or on Russians’ ability to travel to Europe. In particular, this scenario would be a problem in a conflict that the Russian public might see as a war of choice rather than of necessity, especially one that becomes costly in either financial or human terms. For this reason, Russian leaders will seek to avoid both defeat and long-term entanglement in a Nordic conflict, as these circumstances would increase the likelihood of a strong negative effect at the domestic level.

Red Lines and (De-)Escalation Drivers

As in the Baltics, Russian leaders would view a crisis in the Nordic region primarily as a potential opportunity to realize strategic gains rather than as a threat to Russia’s vital interests. As a result, they would consider the stakes to be relatively low in most situations. This assessment would lead to a strategy of managing the crisis carefully in order to keep costs low and avoid triggering a vigorous response by NATO. Although it is important for Russia to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO, Russia would not be likely to mount a military response if the two Nordic states take steps toward that goal. Concerns about the vulnerabilities described above, especially the danger of horizontal escalation to other theaters and the risk of loss of popularity at home due to high casualties or serious financial impact from a conflict, would encourage Russian leaders to de-escalate hostilities in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region.

The one exception to this calculus would occur in the event of a NATO attack on Russian territory. Such an attack would lead to escalation as it would pose a direct threat to the homeland and regime survival while uniting the Russian population in defense of their homeland. The Russian people have shown repeatedly that they are far more likely to accept sacrifices to defend the country than to engage in a war of choice, so Russia should be expected to escalate any conflict where control of its own territory is at stake.

Conclusion

Russia’s main peacetime goals in the Nordic region involve preventing further military integration of the Nordic states with NATO. The primary means to carry out these goals are political and cyber in nature, rather than military. In a conflict, Russia’s main goals would be similar: to keep the Nordic states out of any conflict with NATO or to keep NATO out of any conflict with a Nordic state. Escalation poses serious risks to Russia, so Russian leaders would be unlikely to initiate a conflict in the region. Russia would be much more willing to defend itself if threatened or attacked but otherwise would limit itself to using indirect means to weaken the Nordic states and to undermine their unity with their NATO partners.

Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis

As part of a collaborative project on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative, I have published a policy brief on Russian strategic goals in a Baltic crisis. Here is  the executive summary and some highlights. The full brief is available through the Marshall Center website.

Executive Summary

  • This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decisionmaking in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.
  • Given this strategic calculus, we can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Baltic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Based on Russia’s limited stakes in the region, Russian leaders are likely to be highly reluctant to risk a major military confrontation with NATO through any overuse of Russian military forces. They will be careful to limit both the level of risk and the level of effort they would take on in this scenario.
  • Russia’s approach to managing a Baltic crisis scenario is based on the recognition that the balance of stakes and capabilities in such a situation ultimately would favor the West. If Baltic governments and their NATO allies both hesitate in their response, Russian leaders may seek to use the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. However, if Russian leaders see a forceful response in the early stages of a crisis, they would be likely to de-escalate in order to avert major losses.

Introduction

How relevant are the concepts of strategic culture and operational code in explaining Russian foreign policy behavior? This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region (that is, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The goal is to use the Baltic case study to generate conclusions about the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

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Applying Strategic Calculus to the Baltic Region

Given the strategic calculus described above, Russia would be expected to act far more cautiously in the Baltics than it did in Ukraine in 2014. Unlike that crisis, Russia is not facing a loss situation in the Baltic region. In Ukraine, Russia was facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic loss of power and influence if Ukraine joined the Western alliance system against Russian wishes. The Baltic states, on the other hand, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) and are therefore outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. Any effort on Russia’s part to attack or politically destabilize the region would thus be an effort to make gains, not avert losses. In effect, the Baltics have already been lost to Russia, and the geopolitical impact of that loss has been fully absorbed into Russian strategic thinking.

That said, Russia could benefit politically and militarily by achieving greater control over the Baltic region, which would allow Russia to strengthen its position as the dominant regional power while simultaneously enhancing its security. But these gains would be fairly small and hardly worth the enormous risk of attacking a NATO member state. Moreover, these gains can easily be overstated. The Baltics are too small to provide much of a security buffer for Russia, and they cannot host a large Western military force. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act already limits the number of Western forces that can be permanently deployed in the region. All of these factors reduce the significance of the threat to Russia from the Baltic states, even though they are firmly allied with the United States and are part of NATO.

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Russian Strategic Objectives in a Baltic Crisis

In a Baltic crisis scenario, Russia would have two primary strategic objectives. First, it would seek to use the crisis to achieve geopolitical gains at the local, regional, and global levels. At the local level, it would first and foremost seek to defend the ethnic Russian populace to vindicate its compatriot policy and increase its influence in Baltic domestic politics. At the regional and global levels, Russia would seek to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in Eastern Europe and inflict a political defeat on NATO.


The policy brief may be read in its entirety here.

Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Asia

Paul Schwartz and I have published a new policy memo through PONARS Eurasia. Here’s a preview. Full memo may be found here, and the complete report that it summarizes was also published last week by IFRI.

To great fanfare, in May 2016, Russia hosted the third ASEAN-Russia Summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Russia’s acceptance as an ASEAN dialog partner, this summit was intended to give new impetus to longstanding efforts by Russia and Southeast Asia to forge closer economic and security ties. Defying efforts by the West to isolate Russia, leaders from all ten ASEAN member states attended the summit.[1]Despite having recently skipped several high-level ASEAN summits, this time President Putin led the Russian delegation himself. He also met separately with the leaders of all ten ASEAN states. After the summit, Putin proclaimed that the two sides had reached agreement “on building a strategic partnership over the long term.” Demonstrating that this was not just mere rhetoric, the two sides also announced a raft of new measures during the summit, on topics ranging from security relations to closer political and economic ties. However, Russia’s ongoing Sino-centric focus, ASEAN’s limited ability to act collectively, and Moscow’s preference for bilateral relations will continue to predominate in its overall relations with the region.

A Pivot Toward Eastern Relationships?

In the aftermath of renewed conflict with the West over Ukraine, Russia sought to accelerate its much-discussed “turn to the East” in a bid to avoid isolation and to circumvent Western sanctions. This initiative, which was first launched after the 2008 financial crisis, was intended to allow Russia to reduce its dependence on the West, while harnessing the dynamic growth of the Asia-Pacific region as a means for modernizing the Russian Far East and ultimately Russia itself. The first concrete action to this effect was Russia hosting the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok in 2012, followed by an acceleration in efforts to increase economic cooperation. While Russia has consistently placed the highest priority on increasing its ties with China, it also sought to diversify its relations with other Asia Pacific countries in order to avoid becoming overly dependent on Beijing. Southeast Asia figured prominently in this effort, as Russia sought to build upon its existing relations with countries in the region, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, to maintain its strategic independence. In a move reminiscent of its recent policy in the Middle East, it also sought to expand relations with countries long considered U.S. allies such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The pivot to Asia came to include three components:

  • a civilizational alliance against Western “universal values”;
  • a geopolitical effort to provide a regional alternative to the U.S.-centered alliance system; and
  • a geo-economic push to integrate Russia into Asia’s dynamic economy.

Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo

 

The Kerch Strait skirmish: a Law of the Sea perspective

The following article was published as a Strategic Analysis piece by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It’s an expansion of some of the themes mentioned in a piece I co-authored with Michael Kofman for the Monkey Cage in the immediate aftermath of the Kerch Strait skirmish.

The November 25 naval skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Kerch Strait was significant first and foremost as an open military confrontation between the two countries’ armed forces. But it also highlighted the fraught legal status of the strait and the Azov Sea, a status that Russia has been exploiting in recent months to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine.

A slow march to confrontation

The confrontation began months before the recent events that brought the conflict to worldwide attention. In March 2018, Ukrainian border guard vessels detained a Russian fishing vessel in the Azov Sea for violating exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”, namely from Crimea. The crew of that vessel remained in detention for several months, until they were exchanged in October for Ukrainian sailors. The captain of the Russian ship remains in Ukraine and is facing prosecution for illegal fishing and “violation of the procedure for entry and exit from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”. Since that incident, Russia has retaliated by detaining several Ukrainian fishing vessels.

In May, Russia also began to regularly hold Ukrainian commercial ships for inspection before allowing them to pass through the Kerch Strait. The initiation of this inspection regime largely coincided with the opening of a road and rail bridge across the strait. Russia claimed that the inspections were required to ensure the safety and security of the bridge at a time when some Ukrainians had publicly threatened to attack the bridge. The delays caused by the inspection regime, together with ship height restrictions caused by the bridge, have led to a 30 percent reduction in revenues at Ukraine’s commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, raising fears that Russia is trying to strangle the economy of eastern Ukraine.

In the same period, Russia also began to build up its naval presence in the Azov Sea, with at least three missile ships based there since summer 2018. Reports indicate that Russia plans to set up a full-fledged flotilla in the Azov in the near future. Ukraine has also strengthened its naval presence in the region, placing several armoured boats in Berdyansk and seeking to expand the base there.

The transfer of ships from Odesa to Berdyansk that caused the skirmish was part of this effort. Ukraine had moved naval ships through the Kerch Strait as recently as September 2018, but these ships were not armed. In that case, the ships were allowed to pass through without incident, although they were closely followed by Russian border guard vessels. The passage of two armoured boats through the strait in late November was thus the first attempt by the Ukrainian Navy to bring armed ships through the Kerch Strait since tensions began to mount and the bridge was completed in spring 2018.

The legal background

The status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is regulated by a bilateral treaty that was signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2003. According to the terms of the treaty, the sea is considered to be internal waters for both countries, and both Ukrainian and Russian commercial and military ships have the right of free passage through the strait. Furthermore, the treaty does not specify any particular advance notice procedures for passage through the strait. Foreign commercial ships are allowed to pass through the strait and enter the sea if they are heading to or from a Ukrainian or Russian port. Military ships belonging to other countries may be allowed passage if they are invited by one of the signatories to the treaty, but only with the agreement of the other signatory. In 2015, Russia unilaterally adopted a set of rules requiring ships passing through the strait to give advance notification to the Russian authorities, ostensibly to assure safety of navigation. These rules have not been accepted by Ukraine.


 

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Circumstances Have Changed Since 1991, but Russia’s Core Foreign Policy Goals Have Not

I have a new policy memo out with PONARS Eurasia. Here’s the first half.


Since the Ukraine crisis, the dominant Western perspective on Russian foreign policy has come to emphasize its increasingly confrontational, even revanchist, nature. Experts have focused on discontinuities in Russian foreign policy either between the ostensibly more pro-Western Yeltsin presidency and the anti-Western Putin presidency or between the more cooperatively inclined early Putin period (2000-2008) and the more confrontational late Putin period (2012-present). In this memo, I argue that Russian foreign policy preferences and activities have been largely continuous since the early 1990s. These preferences have focused on the quest to restore Russia’s great power status and maintain a zone of influence in states around its borders as a buffer against potential security threats. Throughout this time, Russian foreign policy has been neither revanchist nor expansionist in nature. Instead, it has been focused on first stopping and then reversing the decline of Russian power in the late 1980s and the 1990s and on ensuring that Russia was protected against encroachment by the Western alliance led by the United States. However, perceptions of Russian foreign policy during the post-Soviet period among other powers and outside observers have changed markedly as a consequence of a gradual increase in the extent of Russian relative power vis-à-vis its neighbors and especially vis-à-vis Western powers.

The Discontinuity Argument

The argument that Russia’s foreign policy has changed markedly over time comes in two versions. The first version of the discontinuity argument paints a sharp contrast between the pro-Western foreign policy followed by Russia in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin with the anti-Western foreign policy preferred by Vladimir Putin after he took over the presidency. In this reading, Russia under Yeltsin was in the process of transitioning to democracy and generally supportive of Western foreign policy initiatives despite some occasional disagreements. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has been committed to countering U.S. interests in the world, especially when it comes to the spread of democracy.

This narrative overstates the continuity of Russian foreign policy under Putin while understating continuities between the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, Russian support for the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which included putting pressure on Central Asian states to accept U.S. bases on their soil and a 2009 agreement to allow for the transit of military goods and personnel to and from Afghanistan through Russia, is downplayed in favor of a focus on Russian opposition to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Serious disagreements during the Yeltsin period, particularly regarding Western interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, are seen as aberrations in agenerally pro-Western Russian foreign policy, while Russian involvement in the early 1990s in internal conflicts in neighboring states such as Moldova and Georgia is ignored altogether.

The second version of the discontinuity argument runs counter to the “good Yeltsin, evil Putin” narrative. It focuses on the very aspects of Putin’s first two terms as president that the first narrative elides. This narrative highlights differences between Russian foreign policy in 2000-2012 and the period after Putin’s return to the presidency. Here, Russia is described as a status quo power until the Ukraine crisis and a revisionist power thereafter. The episodes of cooperation in the 2000s are contrasted with Russia’s confrontational statements and actions after 2012. Meanwhile, the confrontational aspects of Russian foreign policy during Putin’s first two terms in office, such as efforts to divide the Euro-Atlantic alliance over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, to force the United States military out of Central Asia after 2005, and to highlight the consequences of Western recognition of Kosovo independence in 2008, are downplayed. The result is a picture of Russian foreign policy under Putin that gradually slides from cooperation with the United States and Western institutions early in his presidency to all-out confrontation in recent years. While this trajectory is largely accurate in terms of the overall relationship, I argue that it is less the result of changes in Russian foreign policy goals and more a consequence of changes in Russia’s relative power in the international system.

The Argument for Consistency in Russian Foreign Policy Goals

While the two readings of post-Soviet Russian foreign policy presented above are at odds with each other, they both overstate the extent of discontinuity. In reality, with the possible exception of the very beginning of the Yeltsin period, Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent throughout the post-Soviet period. The main driver of Russian foreign policy both under Yeltsin and under Putin has been the effort to restore respect for Russia as a major power in world affairs. From the Russian point of view, this respect was lost as a result of Russia’s political and economic weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evidence for this lack of respect in the 1990s included disregard for Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement to Central Europe and NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. When NATO chose to admit Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1997, Russian politicians condemned the move as a betrayal of Russian trust and a sign that Western leaders and military planners still perceived Russia as a potential military threat. Russian leaders also felt betrayed and humiliated by the lack of consultation by NATO and Western state officials during the process leading up to the decision to bomb Serbia to stop its ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. They argued that NATO enlargement and the Kosovo War showed that Russia had become so weak that its opinion no longer mattered in determining world reaction to regional crises. Further confirmation of this point of view came in the early 2000s, when Russian opinion was ignored in the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The response, both in the 1990s and under Putin, was to seek to restore Russia’s great power status while maintaining a zone of influence in states on Russia’s border as a buffer against potential security threats. As early as 1993, Russia’s Security Council promulgated a foreign policy concept that included “ensuring Russia an active role as a great power” as a key foreign policy goal and asserted a special role for Russia in the former Soviet republics.


Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo.

The Kerch Strait naval battle — Here’s what you need to know

Michael Kofman and I published a short analysis of the naval battle in the Kerch Strait on the Monkey Cage. Here’s a sampler.


The Nov. 25 skirmish between Russian Border Guard and Ukrainian navy ships in the Kerch Strait has escalated tensions not just between the two countries, but also between Russia and NATO.

Two Ukrainian navy small-armored boats and a tugboat attempted to cross into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. A Russian Border Guard ship rammed the tug. Russian forces eventually captured all three boats, holding them in the Crimean port of Kerch. 

This crisis kicked off months ago 

In March 2018 Ukraine seized a Russian-flagged fishing vessel, claiming that it had violated exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine.” Although the Russian crew was released, the boat remains detained in a Ukrainian port. Subsequently, Russia began to seize Ukrainian vessels for inspection, starting in May when a fishing vessel was detained for illegally fishing in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

A new Russian-built bridge linking Crimea to southern Russia is at the center of Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Kerch Strait. The bridge opened in May, and its low clearance height cut off many commercial ships and reduced revenue at the Mariupol port by 30 percent. Russia has imposed an informal blockade on the remaining maritime traffic, with ships often waiting more than 50 hours to cross, and Russian authorities insisting upon inspecting the cargo. This has substantially raised transit costs — and has been slowly strangling the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.


To read the rest, please click here.