Midrats Springtime for Russia

 

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

Episode 385: Springtime for Russia?

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

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

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

MCIS 2017: Cooperation lost in translation

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


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

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

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

Click here to read the full article.

MCIS 2017 Missile Defense slides

One more installment. Two sets of slides on missile defense. A Russian language video recording of the entire panel is available, with some of the slides visible in conjunction with the presentation. First, the Russian view, presented by Lt General Viktor Poznikhir, the Vice Chief of the Main Operations Directorate. 20170426_17141320170426_17155420170426_17160220170426_17170520170426_17182920170426_17192120170426_17200420170426_17210020170426_17221120170426_17254420170426_17260120170426_17262920170426_17265320170426_17273920170426_17292320170426_17303520170426_173208

Second, the presentation by the Chinese representative, deputy head of the Chief Operations Directorate of the Joint Staff Department, Central Military Commission, Major General Cai Jun, which as near as I could tell was pretty much the entirety of his presentation translated into English. (Thanks to Rachel Douglas for providing the correct spelling and title for the general.)

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MCIS 2017 Gerasimov slides

As I mentioned in my last post, I was once again at the Moscow Conference on International Security last week. I will post my overall impressions in the next few days, but first the traditional posting of the slides from key speakers. First up, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov. The conference organizers have posted the Russian transcript of his speech as well as Russian and English language videos. Apologies for the poor quality of a few of the images.

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The US airstrike in Syria and Russia

Yesterday’s US airstrikes on the Al Shayrat airfield near Homs seems to have been calculated to allow the Trump administration to appear to be acting decisively without necessarily getting bogged down in a conflict or creating a serious confrontation with Russia. To this end, the Pentagon warned Russian authorities about the strikes ahead of time and Russia did not take any steps to activate its air defenses in Syria. At the same time, by warning Russia, the U.S. government ensured that the strike would have very little effect on Syrian military capabilities. Damage reports indicate that the aircraft that were destroyed at the air base were under repair. Most likely, Russian officials warned the Syrian government that the attacks were coming and any valuable aircraft at the base had time to depart prior to the strikes.

As Vladimir Frolov highlighted just yesterday, the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces has placed Russia in a difficult position. Russian efforts to deny Syrian government culpability in the attacks have strained credulity. At the same time, Russian leaders clearly felt that they could not hang Assad out to dry. Assad’s goal may well have been to scuttle any chances for peace negotiations to proceed, in order to force his somewhat reluctant Russian ally to agree to an offensive that would culminate in the elimination of rebel forces from their area of control around Idlib. Russia is thus put in a bind, as it can neither give up on Assad nor fully control him.

In this situation, the U.S. airstrikes may help Moscow out of its difficult situation. Russian leaders can now turn the focus away from the chemical weapons attack itself and toward the U.S. airstrikes as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, Assad has been put on notice that the U.S. is not going to stand idly by if he persists in using chemical weapons, which may make him more reluctant to take that risk again, eliminating that method of putting pressure on Russia from his toolkit.

All in all, Russia is unlikely to take steps in response to the airstrikes beyond the usual Foreign Ministry protestations, as long as the strikes are a one time demonstrative act, rather than the start of a more sustained U.S. campaign against the Assad regime in Syria. If the United States continues to attack Syrian government forces, on the other hand, that will place Russia in a difficult position, where it has to choose between abandoning its ally and risking a serious military confrontation with the United States. How Vladimir Putin would choose to act in this circumstance is very much unclear. The consequences of forcing Russia into this choice could be very risky.