Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

I’ve avoided writing anything on the situation in Ukraine, because there’s so much material being written already and I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian military. But I do want to make just a couple of quick points.

1) Russian military experts seem to have been caught up in their government’s propaganda. This is especially disappointing when it comes from usually top-notch analysts such as Ruslan Pukhov and Igor Korotchenko. In an article that was picked up and translated by Russia Beyond the Headlines, they display a frightening amount of self-delusion in arguing that Ukrainian troops are not combat-capable simply because they stayed in their barracks while Yanukovych was being deposed. To assume, as Korotchenko does, that a military that stays on the sidelines during an internal conflict will not be able to act in the event of a Russian invasion betrays a willful lack of understanding of the difference in motivation between intervening in an internal conflict and defending your country when it’s under attack. Pukhov argues that because the army is made up of contract soldiers, local Crimean boys will not fight the Russians. This is a much more serious possibility and may well turn out to be the case, but so far there are at least a number of units that are refusing to submit to the “polite people” without insignia that are surrounding their bases. For the moment (and thankfully), they have not received any orders to fight, so the jury is still out on this question.

Now from what I know, the Ukrainian military is not in particularly good condition and would undoubtedly lose to the Russian military in any serious conflict. But that doesn’t mean that it would not be able to inflict some serious pain on its opponents in the process. And I would venture that should the conflict spread to “mainland” Ukraine, the soldiers would be highly motivated to defend their homeland.

2) Some Western analysts have argued in recent days that Putin is scoring a massive victory by taking Crimea with pretty much no resistance. But it seems to me that this action was taken not as a triumphant victory but as an effort to avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in the aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovych. This seems quite short-sighted to me, as without the Russian intervention the Maidan forces were likely to fall to squabbling and would have most likely come to a relatively quick accommodation with Moscow. Now, it appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state (or new province to subsidize) while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership. I would count this as a net strategic loss for Putin. 

The second likeliest scenario is a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, leading to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict with Russian troops involved. Even though Russia would be likely to win such a war, the result would be long term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time. And Russia would have to bear the full cost of supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future. This would be an even bigger strategic loss for Putin.

Putin has also already lost all of the international goodwill generated by his investment in the Sochi Olympics. He is gambling that EU states will fail to impose any serious penalties on Russia for its actions. Given past history this may seem to be a reasonable bet, but sending Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be seen as a game-changer in the most important European capitals, including Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw. While sanctions are by no means guaranteed (especially if Russian intervention remains limited to Crimea), they are more likely than one might expect given Europe’s general unwillingness to act.

For more on this, I would suggest that readers take a look at Mark Galeotti’s assessment, which parallels mine in many ways.

 

Foreign military assistance to Central Asia, part 2

Here is the conclusions and recommendations section of my policy brief on foreign military assistance to Central Asia. This is the second part of the brief. The first part was posted last week and the full text (including references) can be accessed on the SIPRI website. You can also read the entire working paper on which this policy brief is based.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall, external military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. With the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, the region’s decade-long position of prominence on the international arena is likely to fade. In its place, the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat that they face.

While external military assistance to Central Asia is likely to decline in the near future, it will not disappear. In this context, it is important to ensure that the assistance that is provided is not wasted and helps to improve the security situation in the region. In particular, steps will have to be taken to ensure that any such assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. The following recommendations are targeted at changing the nature of security assistance in order to focus on improving human security in Central Asia.

Emphasize training

Training needs to be emphasized over the provision of military equipment. This is a lesson that the US Government has already learned to some extent, as it has in recent years shifted away from equipment donations and towards providing training in areas ranging from language instruction to combat operations. Shifting towards training will also help to avoid situations where equipment provided through foreign assistance is used against unarmed civilians, resulting in embarrassment or worse for the country providing the assistance.

Shifting to training will not entirely solve the issue of complicity in repressive activities, since forces trained through foreign assistance programmes have already been implicated in human rights violations in Central Asia. Human security in the region could be improved by shifting the focus of security training programmes from special forces units to policing work, and especially teaching internal security forces how to handle large groups of protesters without resorting to excessive violence.

As part of an effort to reduce smuggling of people, narcotics and weapons, both US and European security assistance programmes have emphasized border security initiatives. While these efforts are laudable, they have often focused on technical assistance, such as the donation of scanners and other detection equipment. Such equipment may not be useful when the bulk of cross-border smuggling in the region is sanctioned by local intermediaries with government ties or by government officials themselves. Training may help to ameliorate this problem to some extent, but it will not be solved without breaking the link between smuggling and high-level corruption. Assistance providers must recognize that, given local incentive structures, corruption-reduction initiatives will not eliminate corruption. However, the nature of local smuggling networks means that providing technical assistance for border security is a waste of money.

Multilateral initiatives

In order to improve human security in Central Asia, coordination among assistance-providing states is necessary. The effectiveness of security assistance to Central Asia is undermined by the perception among outside powers that other powers are providing this assistance as part of an effort to increase their influence in the region. The zero-sum nature of this competition is encouraged by local leaders, who play off outside powers against each other in an effort to preserve their own freedom of manoeuvre. While coordination will be difficult to achieve because of long-standing suspicions among assistance providers about each other’s intent, it is not an impossible goal. The key is to start with areas of mutual interest.

Such cooperation has the greatest chance of success in counternarcotics. All of the governments in the region are worried by the rapid increase in drug addiction in their countries. They also face relatively similar issues in their efforts to reduce drug smuggling and the corruption that it breeds. Existing regional information-sharing institutions provide a starting point for cooperation on the issue. As interaction leads to greater trust, more involved regional cooperation, such as multinational training events with Russian and US participation, may become acceptable to governments that now studiously avoid multilateral engagement. Eventually, these states may become willing to organize multinational counternarcotics exercises and operations.

If cooperation on counternarcotics is successful, planners can work to encourage Central Asian states to cooperate on critical energy infrastructure protection. Given existing sensitivities about sharing information with neighbours on potential security weaknesses, this effort should begin slowly. A good start would involve regional seminars on best practices in countries that have extensive experience with energy production in potentially vulnerable environments such as the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia or the USA. If this type of interaction leads to greater trust, regional collaboration could expand to include information-sharing about best practices and eventually joint projects to protect shared infrastructure such as pipelines, tankers transiting the Caspian Sea and offshore platforms located near borders. However, given the existing political relationships in the region, such efforts should be seen as a long-term target at best.

These recommendations are deliberately limited in their scope. Security assistance efforts by outside powers are unlikely to lead to significant improvements in regional security, given perceptions within and outside the region that these powers are engaged in a geopolitical competition for influence rather than a sincere effort to improve local conditions. Furthermore, the likely decline in attention paid to the region by outside powers after the completion of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will reduce the extent to which outside powers remain interested in the region. Other priorities will inevitably make it more difficult to change assistance policies toward the region. Recognizing these limitations, the relatively small steps described above would help to improve the impact of outside military assistance on human security in the region.

Foreign military assistance to Central Asia

My SIPRI-OSF working paper and policy brief on external support for Central Asian military and security forces are finally out. They seem to have been somewhat buried on the SIPRI website, so it seems worthwhile to highlight some of the key findings here. I am putting up the first half of the policy brief here today and will post the conclusions and recommendations section next week.

I encourage those interested in the topic to read the full report.

Summary

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states.

Over the past decade, Russia and the United States have been the main sources of military assistance to Central Asian states, while other countries have played much smaller roles. The USA is in the process of reducing its assistance to the region as it completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia is likely to remain the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. Internal instability is the most serious threat that these states are likely to face. Steps will have to be taken to ensure that future assistance does not enhance the ability of internal security forces to harm civilians. This can be accomplished by focusing on training programmes over the provision of military equipment.

Introduction

As the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has accelerated in the run-up to their withdrawal by the end of 2014, attention has come to focus on the extent to which military equipment will be left behind for the use of the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, recent agreements to extend Russian military basing agreements in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have highlighted the extent to which Russia is providing military equipment and other forms of security assistance to states in the region. This raises questions about the actual extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and the potential impact that augmentation of these forces could have on regional security. This issue has become especially salient as all of these states have recently increased spending on their military and security forces to varying extents, which has in turn led to a gradual increase in capabilities.

Assistance from Russia

Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states. Its primary goal in the region is to keep the Central Asian states in the Russian sphere of influence while making sure that United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. Russian military assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the weaker Central Asian states, can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for the ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence with Russian foreign policy priorities in the region.

Although Russian military and security assistance to Central Asian states is relatively limited in scale, the low starting capabilities of the Central Asian military and security forces mean that even relatively limited assistance can have a sizeable impact on security and stability in the region. This impact is likely to be mixed in the future. On the one hand, efforts to create a unified air defence system and to improve counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities are likely to help local armed forces protect their countries from the threat of infiltration by radical Islamist groups. On the other hand, the extent of this danger to Central Asian security has been repeatedly overstated, by both local leaders and their Russian partners, in order to justify assistance requests and subsequent security cooperation.

Most local leaders face a greater threat from internal instability and regime collapse than from outside infiltration. Especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the 2011–12 electoral protests in Russia, Russian and Central Asian leaders see regime stability as their highest security priority. To the extent that Russia provides equipment and training to security services without regard for how such assistance may be used, it may prove to be useful for helping local leaders protect themselves from popular protests by repressing internal opposition movements.

Reductions in Equipment Transfers from the United States

For much of the past decade, ensuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan has been the highest priority for the United States in Central Asia. Other goals—including counterterrorism, counternarcotics and promotion of democracy—have been pursued, but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. The US track record in providing military equipment to Central Asian states is relatively poor. Many previous donations of equipment were wasted because of inadequate maintenance or a lack of training in their use.

In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably result in a decreased emphasis on all forms of assistance to Central Asia. The region will once again become a relatively low priority for the US Department of Defense. Security assistance budgets for states in the region have already been cut in recent years and are likely to be cut further in years to come.

Central Asian leaders sense that the withdrawal period presents a final opportunity to receive significant amounts of military assistance from the USA. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are most interested in such equipment. In contrast, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are not very interested in donations of used armaments.

Much of the discussion about the extent of US assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. To date, the US Government has not agreed to transfer any excess defence equipment from the Afghanistan operation to Central Asian states. While it is likely that at some point in the future at least some equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states under the US Excess Defense Articles (EDA) programme, it is not likely to include major weapon systems or even small arms. The security consequences of such donations will be limited.

The greater threat to regional security is posed not by the potential provision of excess military equipment from NATO forces leaving Afghanistan, but by long-standing US training programmes for the region’s special forces, as part of an effort to increase counterterrorism preparedness. In recent years, special forces troops trained by the US military have engaged in combat against local insurgents and have fired on unarmed protesters and other civilians in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and possibly Kazakhstan. Training programmes such as these are much less costly to the donor than equipment donations and are more likely to be maintained as part of general US military assistance programming after NATO leaves the region.

The Role of European Union Member States and Other Actors

While Russia and the USA are the primary providers of military and security assistance to Central Asian states, other countries also play a role in the region. The European Union (EU) and its member states have been particularly active in efforts to improve local capacity in counternarcotics and border control. The European defence industry has also become the preferred alternative for Central Asian states seeking to diversify their sources of military equipment.8 Turkey has sought to use its cultural ties with the region to establish a role as a senior partner, albeit with mixed success. India has made an effort to hedge against China and Pakistan, its traditional rivals, by seeking to establish a military presence in Tajikistan, although this effort has met with little success to date. China’s role, while limited, has been most significant from a strategic point of view. While China has quickly come to dominate regional economic life, it has limited its role in Central Asian military and security affairs in order to avoid alienating both Russia and local populations.

How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy

I have a post on Russia’s Arctic strategy up on the Monkey Cage. Washington Post rules don’t allow the entire text to be published here, but here’s a teaser: 

During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. In the last decade, however, thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices, it has become a key zone of strategic competition among a range of regional actors and outside powers. Russia has become heavily involved in these fledgling efforts to develop the Arctic. Russian leaders now primarily see the Arctic as a potential source of economic growth for the country, both as a strategic resource base for the future and a potential maritime trade route.

Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is undoubtedly economic development of Russia’s Arctic region…. [To read the rest, click here]

Turkmenistan’s security challenges for 2014

A journalist recently asked me to comment on some questions regarding Turkmenistan’s security situation in the coming year. The resulting comment has now been posted, though without the questions for some reason. I’ll reproduce it here for ease of access, though please click through to the original to see several other analysts’ perspectives on Turkmenistan’s security.

Q: What will be the main security challenges for Turkmenistan in 2014?

A: I think drug (narcotics) trafficking will remain the greatest security challenge for Turkmenistan in the next year. The US departure from Afghanistan may lead to greater instability in the region, though most discussion of its impact on Central Asia exaggerates the likely impact, so I would list this as a second challenge.

Q: US [appears to be] really retreat[ing] from Central Asia, being more and more focused on South East Asia. What could be in 2014 the signs that this retreat is in process? What would be the consequences for Turkmenistan?

A: If the US pulls out all, or even most, of its troops, from Afghanistan, this will prove that the focus on the region is at an end. The financial allocations for security assistance to Central Asian states are another good signal. If this assistance is cut significantly, that will be proof that the withdrawal from Afghanistan also signals the end of US paying much attention to Central Asia. Since Turkmenistan is fairly isolated in security and alliance terms, I don’t think the consequences will be very significant. Even if the Taliban does take over in Afghanistan and uses the country as a base to spread insurgency to Central Asia, this takeover would take a long time to complete, so there would not be much of an effect in 2014.

 

Q: Which other great powers, geopolitical actors (China, Russia, Europe…), could take the responsibility of Central Asia, and Turkmenistan, in the coming future? Are there any signs that indeed China or Russia, or others, are starting to take geopolitical and security responsibilities in the area around Turkmenistan?

A: Russia will retain the lead role for security assistance to Central Asia as a whole, though Turkmenistan itself is much more closely tied to China in economic terms. Russian efforts to strengthen the CSTO are a sign that it is taking Central Asian security quite seriously. It may at some point in the future increase pressure on Turkmenistan to participate in CSTO activities or even to become a member, though such pressure will not come for some time. China will continue to free-ride on Russian security assistance and will continue to focus on dominating economic developments in Central Asia as a whole and Turkmenistan in particular. Europe’s role will be minimal at best. India and Turkey have made some efforts to increase security ties to Central Asian states, but have not achieved that much.

 

New POPC Sochi Olympics issue available for free

ME Sharpe has made the entire Problems of Post-Communism Sochi Olympics special issue available for free online through February 28, 2014.

The issue includes an introduction by guest editors Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall and features articles by Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung on the Russian government’s management of security for the games; Bo Petersson on Putin’s high-stakes Great Power play in Sochi; and Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev on the Olympics and the discourse of sovereign power in Putin’s Russia. There is also an article on rural inequality in Russia by Stephen Wegren.

You can access the individual articles below or view the entire issue.

Problems of Post-Communism

Vol. 61, No. 1 | January-February 2014

Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall

Munich Syndrome

Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung

Still Embodying the Myth?

Bo Petersson

The 2014 Sochi Olympics and “Sovereign Power”

Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev

Rural Inequality in Post-Soviet Russia

Stephen K. Wegren

Problems of Post-Communism January 2014 Table of Contents: Sochi Olympics issue

Volume 61 Number 1 / January-February 2014 of Problems of Post-Communism is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This is a special issue focusing on various aspects of the Sochi Olympics. The introduction, by Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall, is freely available to all readers.

The other articles are written by some of the foremost experts on Russian politics from Russia, the United States, and Europe and address in greater detail some of the issues outlined in the introduction. Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung examine how Russia has orchestrated its security preparations prior to the beginning of the Games. Their insightful article recalls the 1972 Olympics, in which Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage. They address security preparations at the federal level and the decision in 2010 to carve off the North Caucasus federal district from the Southern federal district. Realizing the impossibility of pacifying the entire region before the Olympics, Moscow assigned the most dangerous areas to the North Caucasus federal district and Krasnodar and Sochi to the Southern federal district. This move created its own set of problems, however, as nationalists in Stavropol krai tried to have their region redistricted out of the North Caucasus.

Bo Petersson explores how the Olympic Games provide Russia with an opportunity to “live out” its “great-power myth.” Positioning Sochi 2014 in the context of earlier Olympic Games, some of which were used for political purposes (for example, those in Munich in 1936), Petersson argues that President Putin has used the Olympics as a way to present himself as both the embodiment and the ideal guarantor of Russia’s great-power heritage. This presentation has become increasingly shaky since antigovernment protests began in Russia in the winter of 2011–2012. Precisely because of its location in the North Caucasus, Petersson argues, Sochi provides the perfect site for Russia to restore its “great-power”’ status.

Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev approach the 2014 Sochi Games by analyzing reports in the Russian-language press, both print and electronic. Because almost all journalistic media in Russia are either state-owned or closely aligned with the Kremlin, Gronskaya and Makarychev argue that their analysis provides insights into official narratives of and attitudes toward the Games. Basing their analysis on the concept of “sovereign power,” the authors explore the multitude of (sometimes conflicting) meanings attached to sovereignty in the context of Sochi 2014. Ultimately, they find that the Kremlin has used the Games to portray Russia as “normalized,” meaning that they represent Russia’s return to great-power status. However, gross corruption and widespread mismanagement have somewhat undercut Russia’s avowed used of the Games to boost national patriotism.

In addition to the articles on the Olympics, the issue also includes an article by Stephen Wegren examining rural inequality in Russia. Wegren shows that rural inequality has increased significantly in the post-Soviet period, thereby mirroring trends in society at large. The article analyzes four dimensions of rural inequality. Urban-rural income differences are shown to have widened. Income inequality and stratification is documented between agricultural workers, across agricultural professions, and within agricultural professions. Underlying the increase in income inequality is a change in sources of income. The post-Soviet period has witnessed significant change in households’ mixed income strategy for upper income households, less so for lower income households. Finally, wealth inequality is examined. Upper income households have more present-day wealth and also have engaged in behavior that will most likely lead to greater wealth in the future.

Lord of the (Five) Rings: Issues at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games: Guest Editors’ Introduction pp. 3 – 12
Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall
Munich Syndrome: Russian Security in the 2014 Sochi Olympics pp. 13 – 29
Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung
Still Embodying the Myth?: Russia’s Recognition as a Great Power and the Sochi Winter Games pp. 30 – 40
Bo Petersson
The 2014 Sochi Olympics and “Sovereign Power”: A Political Linguistic Perspective pp. 41 – 51
Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev
Rural Inequality in Post-Soviet Russia pp. 52 – 64
Stephen K. Wegren