MCIS Soft power panel

Today’s MCIS slides installment comes from Lt. General Sergey Kuralenko, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Peacekeeping Operations of the Russian Ground Forces. This comes from the breakout session on soft power as a tool to pursue military-political objectives.

Sadly, it seems that the Russian MOD has not posted video or speech texts from the breakout sessions, so I’ll provide a brief summary here, in addition to the slides. Kuralenko’s speech can be summarized in three points:

  1. Russia is in Syria to help Syrians.
  2. The U.S. is in Syria to pursue its geopolitical ambitions and does not care about collateral damage.
  3. People in the military, regardless of country of origin, understand the consequences of conflict and seek to avoid it. More mil-mil contact would help to avert the worst consequences of war.

Kuralenko was followed by Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the Minister of Defense of Venezuela, who made the argument that many countries use soft power as a tool for political domination of weaker countries without having to resort to military force. He contrasted positive soft power, a tool for cooperation as practiced by Hugo Chavez when he led Venezuela, with negative soft power, as practiced by the United States for subjugation and regime change. He also helpfully pointed out that the United States was using the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela to destabilize the country and also noted that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela…

The sole American speaker, Ariel Cohen, highlighted the transition of the concept of soft power from a national branding tool to a weapon. Starting from Joe Nye’s original conceptualization of soft power, he focused on soft power as a tool for expanding national influence through persuasion and attraction, rather than through military or economic pressure. Soft power is the idea that any product of human activity can be weaponized to achieve geopolitical goals.

He was followed by the Russian journalist and television personality Vladimir Soloviev, who gave a typically inflammatory speech. Soloviev opened by saying that he didn’t believe in soft power, since it can only be useful in addition to hard power rather than in and of itself. He argued that the West had rejected all of the norms of international law and had aggressively rejected diplomacy as well. He likened the West (and the United States specifically) to a casino owner telling the players what the rules should be. He accused Boris Johnson of lying about the Skripal case. His larger point was that the West was using soft power together with its technological advantages to solve its military and political issues, with the dollar being the most effective soft power tool. He argued that a new iron curtain was descending over Europe, but this time from the Western side.

Soloviev made the argument that Russia needs  to become more active in defending itself against soft power attacks. Russia, for him, has not been pushing an ideology. Furthermore, since it does not own or operate the platforms, it will always be behind.  It therefore needs to leave the casino altogether and stop playing the game.

Soloviev’s arguments were seconded by Yakov Kedmi, an Israeli expert who has developed a reputation for his pro-Russian positions. In discussing  soft power, he highlighted that power is the key word in that phrase, with the soft modifier being secondary. Soft power is used to pressure opponents or support allies in circumstances when military power can’t be used. He then argued that soft power is as illegitimate as any other use of force and should therefore be prohibited through international law and countered with military power, as that is the most effective tool against it.

After a completely unmemorable presentation by the first deputy defense minister of Argentina, the final (and best) presentation was given by Dan Smith, director of SIPRI. He countered Kedmi’s perspective quite effectively, noting that power is not the same thing as coercion or the use of force. The most effective kind of soft power is silent, intangible and irresistable. It comes from culture, economic strength, and reputation  and offers influence and helps diplomacy. At its most effective, it stops conflicts before they start. It can change the nature of the game. Soft power in the world has declined in general as trust of other countries has declined. No state has as much power today as it used to and none are viewed as models for others.

Here are Kuralenko’s slides… I’ll have one final post on MCIS later this week with overall impressions and takeaways.

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MCIS slides on regional security in the Middle East and North Africa

Today’s installment of MCIS slides comes courtesy of Sam Charap, who attended the breakout session on regional security in the MENA region. The panel was led off by Lt. General Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, the Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff. Unfortunately, the Russian MOD has not made available speech texts or video of the breakout sessions. (I’ll have a report on Monday on the other breakout session on soft power, which I attended.)

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MCIS presentation on Asia-Pacific security problems

One more set of slides today, this one from a speech by Vice Admiral Igor Kostyukov, the first deputy chief of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff, on the topic of security in the Asia-Pacific region. MCIS has put on its website the text of his speech in Russian and video in Russian only.

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Quick thoughts on Syria strike

I wrote this up quickly on Saturday for friends, and it seemed to get a positive reaction, so I decided to expand a bit and send it out to the wider world…

The United States (and the Trump administration) came out well. The would saw a measured response that showed US willingness to follow up words with actions, while also showing that Trump’s rash tweets do not equal rash actions (at least vis-a-vis Russia). Jim Mattis in particular showed that he is the chief voice of reason and restraining figure in the administration.

At the same time, the strikes accomplished little in practical terms. Syria’s ability to make and use chemical weapons was largely unaffected, because what they are using now is chlorine gas, rather than the sarin that was made in its chemical weapons program prior to 2013. Chlorine gas is much easier to make and is almost certainly made at sites other than the ones that were targeted (and even if it was being made there, it can relatively easily be made elsewhere).

For this reason, Syria (and Assad) also came out well. For the price of a few destroyed buildings they got to take over Douma and wipe out the last rebel controlled zone near Damascus. The main question is the extent to which the strikes will deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. My guess is that there will be some short-term deterrent effect (because of worries that the next strike will be more damaging), but little long-term effect — because of beliefs that US memories fade and because of cost-benefit calculations that show that use of chemical weapons in certain situations is highly effective in demoralizing enemies and causing them to surrender (see Douma) while also forcing somewhat reluctant allies such as Russia to publicly support Assad.

Russia is a (minor) loser for this round — Russian officials made big loud statements early on, but then clearly got scared of being painted into a corner and started backing off a few days ago. In the end, the situation showed that Russia cannot deter the United States from hitting an ally, but it can limit the extent of the strike and the choice of targets. Also, Syria’s (older) Russian-made air defenses were completely ineffective, while potentially more effective modern air defenses under Russian control were not activated. In other words, the US strikes clearly showed both the extent and the limits of Russian influence in the region. Russian leaders clearly care about this image problem, thus the somewhat ridiculous statements about Syrian air defenses successfully intercepting US missiles supposedly aimed at airfields that the US and its allies did not target.

The military balance in the region is clearly revealed. In a few days, the US and its allies were able to gather a set of forces that are much stronger than what Russia could bring to bear in the region. This is not the early 1970s, when much of the world believed that the Soviet Union could more or less match the maximum US presence in the Eastern Med (even if present-day Russian analysts are skeptical about the actual strength of Russian military forces in the region at the time). The Russian military (in terms of conventional forces) is stronger than it was a few years ago and is more than a match for any of its other adversaries, but it’s still far weaker than the US military.

Finally, the impact of the strike on US domestic politics is pretty certainly going to be short-term and very limited. Some of Trump’s isolationist allies on the far right were appalled and highly critical, but they will come back to the fold soon enough since they have no alternative to supporting Trump. What’s more, Democratic politicians’ critiques that the attack should not have been done without Congressional authorization are not likely to last long, because actually having that debate in Congress is not in their interest politically (which way to vote — to authorize Trump to use force or to allow other countries to carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity?). Better to just carp from the sidelines on this issue and go back to the various scandals after a couple of days.

So, to sum up, the world avoided a big international crisis through a combination of US restraint, Russian desire to avoid escalation in a situation where it did not have escalation dominance, and good use of US-Russian deconfliction channels. The strike itself was not particularly effective at achieving its stated goals vis-a-vis Syria, but was good at signaling US intent and capabilities for the future (including the limits of that intent). The major problem that remains is that given what I described above, Assad is unlikely to have been deterred from future use of chemical weapons and therefore we may well be back in the same place again a few months or a year from now.

MCIS 2018 Belarusian Defense Minister slides

Today’s installment of slides comes from the speech of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov. While last year, Ravkov’s speech immediately followed and was largely complementary to Valery Gerasimov’s speech, which focused on European Security, this year he got to headline the panel on European Security himself. This was convenient for his staff, as they didn’t have to change the title slide at all, and really only made superficial modifications to a number of other slides. Compare the slides below to last year’s slides. I guess as far as Belarus is concerned, European security hasn’t changed much over the last year. The Ravkov speech is available on video in Russian and English.

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MCIS 2018 Sergei Rudskoi slides

Well, it’s time once again for the annual slide show of presentations from the Moscow Conference on International Security. This was my fifth time attending. I’ll write up some overall impressions later in the week. Sadly, Valery Gerasimov was absent this year, supposedly because he was accompanying Vladimir Putin during his state visit to Turkey.  His spot on the program was filled by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, speaking about Russia’s operation in Syria. His speech is, as usual available on YouTube in both English and Russian versions. MCIS has also posted a Russian transcript. The slides are below, though some can also be viewed (including animations) in the linked videos.

(All in all, if ability to make use of advanced features of PowerPoint is a proxy for Russian military modernization, the West should be concerned, because the Russian General Staff has made giant strides in this regard in the last five years. I would estimate the gap between the best Russian and American powerpoint rangers at no more than 10 years now.)

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Russian Military Intervention in Kazakhstan

I’ve written a short report for an American Enterprise Institute project on possible Russian interventions in neighboring states. I was asked to discuss possible reasons for and trajectories of a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. You can access the full report through AEI, but here’s an excerpt.


Key Points

  • Kazakhstan’s size and Russia’s lack of significant military presence in the region make outright invasion unlikely.
  • Nevertheless, the death or deposition of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev could generate regional instability, which may prompt Russia to intervene in support of a new regime or to undermine a newly empowered Kazakh nationalist one.
  • The likeliest cause of intervention would be to put down an Islamist insurgency, either with or without a request from Astana.

Introduction

Although a Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan is fairly unlikely, there are scenarios under which it could occur. This report first describes several possible scenarios that might result in such an intervention, considering potential Russian responses that range from providing assistance at the request of Kazakhstan’s government to an outright invasion. It then briefly examines the forces Russia could bring to bear in a conflict in Central Asia, looking in slightly more depth at the likeliest scenario—a Russian intervention to suppress an Islamist incursion or uprising.

Possible Scenarios for Intervention in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s size would make Russia reluctant to undertake a full-scale military intervention. Still, there are circumstances under which the Russian leadership would feel pressure to use force to intervene in Kazakhstan.

The greatest potential threat to political stability in Kazakhstan would come from the death or incapacity of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Such a situation could be followed by a succession crisis, with multiple groups jockeying for position.

If prolonged government weakness or conflict ensues, radical Islamist groups connected to the Taliban or the Islamic State could seize the oppor-tunity to launch an armed insurgency, potentially combined with an incursion from the south. A weak or divided Kazakhstan government might prove incapable of resisting a well-organized insurgency, especially if the anti-government forces are able to draw on the support of local inhabitants in the more religious (Islamic) southern parts of the country. In such a situation, Kazakhstani leaders might request assistance from Russia. Russia might also intervene on its own without a request for help, but only if Kazakhstan were largely engulfed by instability and Russia wanted to protect its borders or ethnic Russians living in areas near Russia that were under threat.

Although the threat from religious extremist groups is real, it requires some degree of state weakness or division to develop. While scholars have long argued that a crisis precipitated by the death of an aging leader could provide such an opportunity in any of the Central Asia states, the two cases so far of leaders dying in office in Central Asia (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have both resulted in fairly smooth leadership transitions.

A second, though relatively unlikely, possibility is that Nazarbayev’s death coincides with a difficult period in Russian domestic politics for the Vladimir Putin regime. Whether because of economic problems or political weakness vis-à-vis younger politicians, Putin and his circle might choose to reenact the Crimea scenario in Kazakhstan. The goal would be to boost the regime’s popularity through another injection of militarized patriotism by annexing a territory with a predominantly Russian population. Such territories are located in the north and northeast of the country, directly adjacent to Russian territory. Counting on support from at least some of the local ethnic Russians, Moscow could seek to annex the territories around Petropavlovsk and Kustanay in the north or the territory around Ust-Kamenogorsk in the northeast.

Somewhat paradoxically, a third scenario for Russian intervention could follow a smooth transition of power. In this case, Nazarbayev could be succeeded by a leader who begins to implement a Kazakh nationalist agenda, acting aggressively to remove Russian language from the public sphere and ethnic Russians from positions of authority inside the country. Government policies under such a leader might also shift financial resources away from the northern and eastern parts of the country where ethnic Russian inhabitants predominate.

The leadership might undertake policies to reduce Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia, perhaps going so far as to suspend membership in the Eurasian Union. In doing so, the leadership would bank on expanding already close economic ties with China into the political and security spheres. Such a development would worry Russian leaders, who are comfortable with a division of influence with China in Central Asia as long as Russia continues its primacy in the security sphere—they would be concerned about a Kazakhstani government bent on severing political and security ties to Moscow.

Finally, Russian intervention might also be triggered by mass protests leading to a color revolution, similar to Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2004–05 and 2013–14. The population might be outraged by corruption and repression during tough economic times. As in the first scenario, Kazakhstan’s leadership would need to precipitate the intervention by requesting assistance from either Russia directly or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian leaders would then act in support of this request.


Read the full report here