Russian Naval Shipbuilding: Is It Possible to Fulfill the Kremlin’s Grand Expectations?

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russian naval shipbuilding from our September policy conference. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.


Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent reinforcement of the region’s military forces have been combined with a general increase in naval activity—including aggressive activity vis-à-vis NATO countries’ maritime interests beyond the Black Sea. All this has led to increased international interest in Russian naval modernization plans. Although this modernization effort is going slowly, the Russian Navy’s ability to place effective long-range cruise missiles on relatively small ships means that Russia remains a serious regional maritime power with the capability to threaten not only its neighbors but much of Europe in the event of a conflict.

Russian Naval Construction Plans

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy in the coming decades. For this reason, the construction of Russian nuclear submarines has received priority financing and has been largely insulated from budget cuts.

The main new submarine projects include the following:

  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which will replace the remaining Delta III and Delta IV submarines over the next 15 years. Three are commissioned, 3 are under construction, and 2 more are contracted.
  • Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which are large and expensive. One is currently commissioned and a total of 8 are planned. Only 2 are likely to be completed by 2020 due to financial constraints on construction.
  • New, smaller, and cheaper nuclear submarines. Two versions:  one designed for protecting naval strike groups against attack submarines and the other to be armed with cruise missiles. Construction on these submarines will start in 1-2 years, with a production goal of 16-18 of them in service by 2040.
  • Kalina-class diesel submarine with air independent propulsion (AIP). This will serve as the successor to the Lada-class submarine. Although the head of the Navy has said that an AIP design will be complete by the end of 2016, it is unclear how much progress has actually been made.

As for surface ships, the Navy is primarily building small ones at present, while finalizing designs for larger ships for the future. The main projects include:

  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates (FFG). Construction of these ships has been unusually slow even by the glacial pace of recent Russian shipbuilding. Eight are currently under construction, with the first scheduled to be commissioned this year. At the current rate of construction, the Navy can expect to have 5 ships of this class by 2025, and 9 by 2030.
  • Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates (FFG) (updated Soviet design). Six have been ordered to fill the gap left by the slow construction of the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Construction of the last three ships has been suspended due to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine, which produced the gas turbines for these ships.
  • Steregushchiy-class corvette (FFC). Four ships are in active service, 7 are under construction, and 9 more are under contract. Eighteen were originally planned to be built by 2020, although delays associated with Western sanctions are likely to reduce this number to 12-14.
  • Admiral Bykov-class corvette (FFC). Two are under construction, with 4 more under contract and a total of 12 expected to be built over the next 10-15 years. These ships are expected to have greater range and more self-sufficiency than their predecessors.
  • Buyan-M-class missile ships (PFG). These small ships are designed to be used primarily in the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet. Three are in service, 2 are in sea trials, and 4 are under construction.
  • Lider-class 15,000-ton nuclear destroyers (DDG). Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018-2019, with a goal of 12 in the fleet by 2035. Some analysts argue that financial limitations mean only 3-4 of these ships will be built.
  • New large amphibious ships (LHD). These would have at least 14,000-ton displacement and be capable of conducting expeditionary missions. Construction of these ships is likely to start before 2020.

The Feasibility of Russian Shipbuilding Plans

Official statements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance that the Russian Navy is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many of these projects have faced lengthy delays and cost overruns. As a result, some of the most prominent naval procurement projects have been scaled back while others have been postponed for years at a time.

The main reasons for these delays and cost overruns involve a) long-term decline in naval research and development; b) an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry, which is considered to be particularly outdated and poorly structured as compared to other sectors of the Russian defense industry (and has suffered more than other sectors due to Western sanctions); and c) pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn.

Russia’s current shipbuilding industry was primarily formed in the 1960-70s, and its ship design capabilities have changed little since the early 1980s. As a result, Russian naval research and development (R&D) has fallen several decades behind Western and Asian capabilities. Russian leaders recognized this problem in the late 2000s and sought to absorb Western knowledge through joint projects, such as the Russian version of the French Mistral amphibious assault ship. In addition, they organized joint projects with foreign designers such as Saipem, Wartsila, and STX in civilian shipbuilding. However, the freezing of military cooperation with NATO states in 2014 as a result of the Ukraine conflict has largely foreclosed the possibility of catching up by borrowing Western know-how. Russian naval R&D is therefore likely to remain significantly behind when compared to the Western state-of-the-art.

Western sanctions have also resulted in major problems with the production of ship components, particularly in navigation and communication equipment. Most of these components are not produced domestically in Russia, and the industry has long been dependent on imports from Europe for high quality components. Efforts to start domestic production are underway, but prices for domestic variants are relatively high while quality is relatively low.

Although it has improved somewhat in recent years, shipbuilding is one of the more poorly performing sectors of Russia’s defense industry. Russian analysts argue that Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation is the least effective of all state corporations in Russia’s defense sector. This results from its excessive size, bloated management structures, and misguided efforts to combine military and civilian shipbuilding under a single corporate roof.

Financial Constraints

The State Armament Program (SAP) for 2011-2020 assigned five trillion rubles—a quarter of its total expenditures—to military shipbuilding. This amount was almost double the amount allocated to the ground forces and airborne forces combined. According to Russian analysts, currently announced naval procurement plans would require the amount of spending on military shipbuilding to increase to six to seven trillion rubles for the next SAP.

That said, funding the existing SAP through 2020 was beyond the means of the Russian government even prior to the budget crisis that began in 2014. While the percentage of Russian GDP devoted to military spending increased from 1.5 percent in 2010 to 3.4 percent in 2014, this higher level of spending was sustainable for the Russian economy at the time. However, 70 percent of the program’s expenditures were scheduled for the second half of the ten-year program. Since Russia’s economic growth was already slowing, fulfilling these plans would have required Russian military spending to increase to unsustainable levels of 6-8 percent of GDP even without the cuts in Russia’s government budget required by the collapse of world oil prices.

Potential Russian Navy Order of Battle, 2020-2030

The following tables are based on the Russian Navy’s announced construction plans, modified by an analysis of the financial and industrial constraints the Navy faces. These show that the Navy will substantially renew its submarines and small ships over the next fifteen years while it will just be starting on construction of a new generation of large surface combat ships.

Table 1. Submarines in the Russian Navy

Class 2020 2025 2030
Delta III 0 0 0
Delta IV 6 5-6 0-2
Borei 6 8-10 10-12
Sierra I & II, Victor III 0 0 0
Oscar 6 6 4-6
Akula 6 6 4-6
Yasen 2-3 6-8 6-8
New class SSGN 0 4-6 6-10
Kilo (project 877) 10-15 5-10 0
Improved Kilo (project 636.3) 6 6 6
Lada (project 677) 3 3 3
Kalina 0 4-6 6-10

The Russian Navy plans to have 12 SSBNs in active service by 2020. The three remaining Delta III SSBNs will be retired by this point, with six Borei-class SSBNs taking their place in the fleet. All six Delta IV SSBNs will most likely be retired in 2025-30. The Navy is planning to overhaul six Oscar-class guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) and six Akula-class SSNs, which will extend their lifespan by 12-15 years. Older classes, such as the Sierra and Victor III, will be retired before 2020. Yasen-class construction will proceed slowly, with no new orders expected after the current set of 6-8 are completed. Instead, the Navy will focus on the new class of nuclear submarines currently being designed. Older Kilo-class diesel submarines will be gradually retired as the Kalina-class begins to enter service in the early 2020s. The recently built improved Kilo-class and Lada-class submarines will serve as a bridge until a sufficient number of the Kalina-class are constructed.

Table 2. Large Combat Ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Kuznetsov CV 1 1 1
Kirov CGN 1 2-3 2-3
Slava CG 2 3 3
Sovremennyi DDG 0 0 0
Udaloy DDG 8 7 4-5
Lider DDG 0 0-1 4-6
Krivak I & II FFG 0-2 0 0
Neustrashimyi FFG 2 2 1-2
Admiral Grigorovich FFG 3-5 3-6 3-6
Admiral Gorshkov FFG 2-4 4-6 8-10

The Navy is currently refurbishing its cruisers. The program should be complete by 2025, although it is not yet clear whether the Admiral Lazarev Kirov-class cruiser will be modernized or decommissioned. All Sovremennyi-class destroyers will be decommissioned before 2020, while six Udaloy-class destroyers will be modernized to extend their lifespan through the early 2030s. The total number of Admiral Grigorovich frigates to be constructed will depend on the state of defense cooperation with Ukraine. If no agreement can be reached on purchasing gas turbines for these ships, only three will be commissioned.

Table 3. Small combat ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Grisha  FFC 18-20 8-10 0
Parchim FFC 7 5-7 0-3
Steregushchii FFC 12-14 20-24 20-24
Admiral Bykov FFC 4-6 6-12 12-15
Gepard FFL 2 2 2
Tarantul PFG 13-15 8-10 0-3
Nanuchka PFG 8-10 0-4 0
Bora PFG 2 2 2
Buyan PG 3 3 3
Buyan-M/Sarsar PFG 12-14 20-24 30-32

The overall number of small combat ships is expected to remain fairly steady over the next fifteen years. The older classes of corvettes and missile ships will be gradually retired as new corvettes and missile ships are commissioned. The new Sarsar-class of missile ships that has been announced recently will be a further modification of the Buyan-M-class and will be built in the 2020s.

Table 4. Amphibious ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Ropucha LST 12-15 8-10 0
Alligator LST 2-4 0 0
Ivan Gren LST 2 2 2
New class LST 0-1 2-3 6-8
New class LHD 0 0 2-3

The overall number of amphibious ships is likely to decrease over the next fifteen years due to the retirement of Ropucha-class tank landing ships (LST). The overall amphibious capability of the Navy will nonetheless increase as the replacement LSTs will be larger and more capable than the ships they are replacing, while the helicopter landing ships (LHD) will add a capability that the Navy has not previously possessed.


Regardless of what long-term development path the  Russian Navy chooses to pursue, in the near to medium term it will remain almost exclusively a coastal defense and deterrence force. For the foreseeable future, the strength of the Navy will be in its submarines. Under any development scenario, Russian SSBNs will retain an adequate strategic deterrence capability. Meanwhile, Russian SSGNs will be sufficient to protect the SSBNs and deter enemy naval forces from attacks on Russian territory. These forces will be supported by a new generation of small- and medium-sized combat ships, most of which will be equipped with anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. These naval forces will be fully sufficient to ensure Russian dominance in neighboring waters.

They will not, however, provide Russia with the forces to make it even a near-peer competitor to the U.S. Navy. Even under the most optimistic projections, the  Russian Navy will not have a serious expeditionary capability for at least 15 years. Planning for large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers is still very much in the early stages.  Whether the Navy should build either type of ship is still highly disputed among both the expert community and military planners. If they are built in the numbers currently being discussed and in the most likely timelines, then the United States may have to be prepared to deal with expeditionary Russian forces in the mid-to-late 2030s. It is far more likely, however, that financial and industrial limitations will lead to the cancellation or significant reduction of plans to develop a naval expeditionary capability.

Furthermore, out-of-area deployment capability is likely to deteriorate in the medium term as legacy Soviet-era large combat ships age and become less reliable. This trajectory will depend to some extent on the ability of the Russian Navy to successfully modernize its existing cruisers and Udaloy-class destroyers. If these programs are all carried out as currently planned, then the Navy will be able to continue to deploy large combat ships in numbers and frequency comparable to present-day rates until the next generation of destroyers are ready in the late 2020s. If these programs are fulfilled only partially or not at all, however, by 2025 the Navy will have few if any large combat ships capable of deploying regularly outside the immediate vicinity of their bases.

Overall, in the next 10-15 years the Russian Navy will most likely be good enough to defend the Russian coastline and ports. It will also be capable of posing a threat to its smaller neighbors and potentially to European NATO member states. The main source of the threat will be Russian ships’ ability to launch land attack cruise missiles from a distance of up to 2500 kilometers away from the target. The launch of cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria from small ships in the Caspian Sea in October 2015 was a demonstration of this capability that was not lost on NATO planners or neighboring states. Ships capable of carrying out similar strikes could be based in the Black or Baltic Sea, where they would be well protected by ship-based and coastal air defenses. The construction of a fairly sizeable fleet of small missile ships and corvettes equipped with land attack cruise missiles, combined with a strong layered coastal air defense capability, obviates to a large extent the need to build a sizeable fleet of large combat ships. Russian missile ships will be able to target most of its smaller neighbors and a large part of Europe without leaving the relative safety of enclosed seas where Russian forces are dominant.

In summary, although the Russian Navy will continue to have problems with its platforms, its offensive capabilities will increasingly not be dependent on the size and range of its ships. The new generation of ships will allow the Navy to mount new generations of long-range cruise missiles in a modular fashion on a variety of platforms. While the Navy will not be able to project power globally or reach the levels of the U.S. Navy, it will be able to target U.S. allies in Europe and states it wants to influence on its borders. Since these countries are likely to be its primary targets in any case, Russia’s naval capabilities will be good enough to achieve Russia’s main maritime military goals in the short to medium term.

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

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


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

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

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

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

Russia’s Counter-Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Russian Strategy in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact on U.S. Policy and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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


Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.


Central Asian Military and Security Forces: Assessing the Impact of Foreign Assistance

The next PONARS Eurasia policy conference is happening next Monday and Tuesday. Here is my policy memo for that conference, based on my forthcoming report on this topic for SIPRI and OSI. For more information about the conference, including the full program, visit the PONARS Eurasia website.


As the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan has accelerated in preparation for the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014, media attention has come to focus on the extent to which equipment being withdrawn from the region will be left behind for Central Asian states to use. At the same time, recent extensions of Russian military base agreements in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have underlined Russia’s own provision of military equipment and other forms of security assistance to the region. Central Asia has been receiving external military assistance since the mid-1990s, and the amount of such assistance has grown substantially in the last decade due to a combination of U.S. interest in using the region to provide access to Afghanistan and the Russian desire to ensure its continued predominance in regional security affairs.

Local leaders sense that the heightened interest in the region by foreign powers may fade once the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan is complete. They are therefore using the current situation to highlight the potential threats to the region and how these might affect the rest of the world. The goal is to ensure that outside powers provide the maximum possible amount of assistance in the short term, before their focus shifts to other parts of the world. This memo examines the extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and analyzes the possible effects of such support on the security situation in the region. Since the vast majority of military assistance to the region comes from Russia and the United States, I focus on these countries in this memo. Other sources include Turkey, Israel, and several West European states. China, on the other hand, provides very little military assistance to the region.


Russia has been the primary source for military equipment and training for Central Asian states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Because the Central Asian states in large part retain Soviet legacy forces, which are stocked with Soviet equipment and still largely follow Soviet doctrine, military personnel are familiar with Russian equipment and with Russian training methods. However, Russia does not have a real strategy in its military assistance policy toward the region beyond seeking to keep the Central Asian states in its orbit while making sure that U.S. and NATO forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. As one Russian interlocutor put it recently, “If the price of stability in Central Asia is [continued] U.S. presence, that price is too high for Russia.” To ensure that the situation does not deteriorate to the point where that choice has to be made, Russia has been shoring up Central Asian regimes as best it can, through efforts to modernize their military forces and security services to improve their capabilities both to take on externally-based insurgents and to suppress potential domestic revolts. By providing assistance, Moscow has also sought to ensure that the region’s governments remain relatively pliable. The entire policy was described by one Moscow observer as “playing preemptive defense.”

Russian military assistance to the weaker Central Asian states can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence to Russian foreign policy priorities in the region. Kyrgyzstan provides the clearest case of this type of arrangement, with the institutionalization of a major Russian military presence in the country coming in conjunction with Russian expressions of support for the government of President Almazbek Atambaev. Tajikistan’s reluctance to give final approval to its recent military base agreement with Russia may be related to Russia’s refusal to provide guarantees of continued support for President Emomali Rahmon’s rule. Moscow has been highlighting the potential danger of instability spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia as a means of ensuring that local states feel the need to maintain close ties with Russian security forces. At the same time, Central Asian leaders use Russian foreign policy priorities to meet their own goals, including the development of more capable military and security forces.

There is less to Russian military assistance than meets the eye, however. Both Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have made numerous promises of assistance and expanded cooperation to Central Asian states. Only some of these promises have been met. In part, Russian military assistance is constrained by the limited capacity of the Russian defense industry. Exports to Central Asia remain the lowest priority for Russian defense corporations, behind both domestic military procurement requirements and exports to countries that pay full price for weapons and equipment. Most Central Asian states pay the lower prices charged on the Russian domestic market for equipment, while repercussions to the Russian defense industry for delays in the fulfillment of export contracts are not as serious as when dealing with the Russian Ministry of Defense. As a result, most military equipment provided to Central Asia consists of older used systems, primarily armored vehicles and helicopters, that are being replaced by more modern weapons and are therefore no longer needed by the Russian military.

United States

For much of the last decade, assuring 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 democracy promotion, have been pursued but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 United States. Several Central Asian states have developed so-called wish lists of military equipment that they would like to receive from the United States and its NATO allies through the donation of equipment left behind as NATO forces leave Afghanistan. The countries that are most interested in such equipment include Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are less interested in donations of used armaments.

To date, the U.S. government has not agreed to transfer any excess defense equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian states. Most equipment is currently being returned to the United States or scrapped onsite in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it seems likely that at least some EDA equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states at some point in the future. The extent of the transfers will depend on whether the United States signs a bilateral status of forces agreement with Afghanistan. The terms of this agreement will determine the force posture in the region, which will in turn affect how much equipment will need to be removed from Afghanistan and how quickly. In any case, the equipment is not likely to include major weapons systems or even small arms. More likely, it will be limited to items such as night-vision goggles, trucks, mine detection equipment, or reconnaissance UAVs to be used for border surveillance.

The timing of these donations reduces the likelihood that they will be provided as a quid pro quo for Central Asian states’ permission to allow the reverse transit of personnel and equipment leaving Afghanistan. At this point, agreements on transit have all been signed and the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan is well under way. Since no public announcements of equipment donations have been made so far, it appears that the two processes have been working in parallel, with limited linkage. It is of course possible that promises of assistance have been made secretly and will be announced at a later date. However, even if such announcements are made in the coming months, the security consequences of such donations will be limited.

Much of the discussion about the extent of such assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. Legally, the U.S. military is obligated to declare equipment to be “excess” before it can be donated to other states. Excess Defense Articles (EDA) then cannot be replaced with similar but new equipment back in the United States. This means that the EDA process cannot be used to avoid the expense of shipping equipment out of Afghanistan if the unit might still need such equipment in the future. Furthermore, states receiving EDA equipment would be responsible for its shipment from Afghanistan to their territory. Most Central Asian states would not be able to afford the cost of transferring and maintaining major weapons systems, even should the United States agree to such a transfer.

Impact on Regional Security

As currently constituted, the military forces of Central Asian states are fairly limited in their capabilities. Local leaders have devoted more effort and resources to developing their internal security forces, since they see these forces as far more necessary for the survival of their regimes. Despite years of largely half-hearted reform efforts, Central Asian states’ armed forces remain primarily based on Soviet-era equipment and doctrine. Efforts at modernization have progressed to some extent but have been limited in most states by a lack of financing (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) or a limited understanding of modern military strategy (Turkmenistan). Only Kazakhstan has begun to make some progress in transforming its military into a more modern force, and even there changes have been limited by continued adherence to Soviet legacy ideas.

Despite the extensive publicity generated by the deals for Russian military assistance in exchange for basing rights in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the possibility that the United States may be willing to donate excess military equipment as it departs from Afghanistan, the reality is that this assistance will at best have a modest impact on these states’ military capabilities. Both Russia and the United States are likely to provide primarily non-lethal equipment. Given the limitations of the Russian defense industry, Russian assistance will consist primarily of older armaments and equipment that are being retired from the Russian armed forces. The United States will also donate used equipment that may have a limited lifespan. Furthermore, local military personnel are less familiar with Western military equipment, limiting its usefulness unless the receiving countries contract for training in its use.

External military assistance is unlikely to have much of an impact on regional security and stability, simply because none of the states in the region are receiving or are planning to receive in the future enough external support to shift regional power dynamics appreciably. The greater danger is in small arms and basic military equipment being provided to internal security agencies, either directly by donor states or through transfers from the relevant military forces. As seen in past events in Andijan, Osh, and Zhanaozen, relatively basic equipment can be used with great effect against domestic opponents, who are at most lightly armed and usually completely unarmed. The use of foreign equipment against unarmed domestic opponents has the potential to be highly embarrassing for the donor states, as shown by the extensive attention paid to the provenance of tear gas canisters used against protesters in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Defense have highlighted that they do not provide lethal military equipment to internal security forces. They have also noted that any transfers of equipment provided by the United States from local armed forces to internal security services would be a violation of various agreements that could lead to a suspension of future assistance. The extent to which such safeguards would prove effective in a situation where local leaders feel that regime survival is at stake remains unclear.

U.S. officials argue that U.S. training has had a positive impact on the behavior of units in internal conflict situations. They say that units that had received such training are less likely to use violent means to disperse unarmed protesters. According to Defense Department sources, during the 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan, U.S.-trained units returned to their barracks rather than participate in the violence. Similarly, during the May 2013 unrest in Kumtor, Kyrgyzstani special forces units fell out of communications, possibly in order to avoid shooting their own civilians. While it is impossible to independently confirm the extent to which such training has had a positive impact on the behavior of special forces, Central Asian armed forces do receive training in non-violent crowd control and are taught international human rights standards by U.S. military trainers.

At the same time, there is little doubt that local authorities would be able to find units from the military or security forces that would be willing to use violence against regime opponents should the future of the regime be at stake. The success of the two uprisings in Kyrgyzstan had more to do with the unwillingness of key officials in the regime to order the use of force on a large scale than with the refusal of units to follow such orders. Furthermore, Russia is unlikely to have problems with transferring equipment to security services or to put conditions on the transfer of such equipment to security services from the armed forces.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is thus 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. Instead the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat. External military assistance will be limited and will do little to strengthen local armed forces.

The Southern Kuril Islands Dispute

The annual PONARS Eurasia conference is coming up this Friday in DC. I will be giving a presentation on the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. Here’s the text of my memo, which can also be found in pdf on the conference website.


The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands represents one of the longest standing territorial disputes in East Asia. The dispute concerns possession of the four southernmost islands in the chain, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai.[1] This dispute has recently returned to the headlines in the aftermath of a visit to one of the islands by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a move that drew condemnation from leading Japanese officials.

Russia and Japan have traded possession of the Kuril Islands and SakhalinIsland since they first established diplomatic relations in 1855. In that year, the Treaty of Shimoda assigned possession of the northern Kuril Islands to Russia, while Japan received the four southernmost islands. Sakhalin itself was administered as a joint condominium until the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg assigned the entire island to Russian possession in exchange for Japan receiving the entire Kuril Islands chain up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Russo-Japanese border shifted again after Russia’s defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war. The Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war gave the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan.

These borders remained stable until the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the entire Kuril Islands chain and southern Sakhalin Island in late August 1945. Soviet possession of these territories was decided during the Yalta summit in 1945, at which time Joseph Stalin promised to attack Japanese forces three months after the conclusion of the war with Germany. The entire population of the four southern Kuril Islands was expelled in 1947 and resettled in northern Japan.

The Japanese Position

Japan first began to raise its claim to the four islands in the 1950s. Initially, only the smaller Shikotan and Habomai were claimed. As late as 1956, Japanese negotiators reached an agreement with their Soviet counterparts to settle the dispute by transferring Shikotan and Habomai to Japanese control while simultaneously renouncing all claims to the much larger Kunashiri and Etorofu.[2] This deal was scuttled as a result of pressure by the United States, which threatened to keep control of Okinawa if Japan accepted this compromise.[3] In the end, the two sides signed a joint declaration that ended the state of war that had existed between the Soviet Union and Japan since 1945 but postponed the resolution of the territorial dispute until the conclusion of a formal peace treaty between the two states. Since the early 1960s, however, the Japanese government has unwaveringly claimed all four islands to be Japanese territory.

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has sought to expand its cooperation with Russia, in part because it hoped that better overall relations would result in a favorable settlement of the territorial dispute. During the difficult years immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Japan began to provide humanitarian assistance to Russian residents living on the disputed islands. Since 1991, residents of the disputed territories have been allowed visa-free travel to Japan in exchange for similar privileges granted to former Japanese residents of the islands and their families.

At the same time, Japan has in recent years taken a number of actions that have shown unwillingness to compromise on its official position. In July 2009, the Japanese parliament adopted a law stating that the southern Kuril Islands are Japanese territory that has been unlawfully occupied by Russia. After President Medvedev visited Kunashiri in November 2010, Japan filed a protest with the Russian government and temporarily recalled its ambassador from Moscow. The government also protested subsequent visits to the islands by senior Russian officials. While protests on Northern Territories Day (February 11) are an annual occurrence, in 2011 protesters desecrated the Russian flag in front of the Russian embassy in Tokyo while the Japanese Prime Minister declared President Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri an “unpardonable rudeness.”

However, Japanese leaders have increasingly come to understand that they need to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia on a broad range of issues separate from the Northern Territories dispute. Japan badly needs to diversify its energy supply sources and increasingly sees Russia as a necessary ally that could help to prevent Chinese domination of East Asia. Japan has sought to gain access to Russian gas and oil exports from fields in Siberia and Sakhalin, amid concern that pipelines may be built that send the energy resources to China instead. Both countries see China as a rising power that potentially needs to be balanced and have sought to deepen their security relationship to address the changing security dynamics in East Asia. In 2011, Japanese leaders announced they would be willing to consider participating in joint economic activities in the southern Kurils, provided that such activities did not negatively affect Japan’s claims to the disputed territories. Japan’s leaders have thus recognized that the chances for solving the territorial dispute are quite low and have resolved to bracket the dispute while developing other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

The Russian Position

When he first came to power, Vladimir Putin sought to solve the dispute with Japan by negotiating on the basis of the 1956 declaration. This was the first official recognition by the Russian side since that year that they might be willing to return some of the islands as part of a negotiated solution. However, the Japanese government rejected this overture, insisting that it was only willing to negotiate the timing of the transfer of all four islands to Japanese control and therefore could not base the negotiations on a declaration that called for the transfer of two of the four islands to Japan while allowing Russia to retain the other two. At the same time, Russia became much stronger politically and economically and was much less in need of the assistance that Japan had always held out as a carrot in exchange for the return of its Northern Territories. As a result, Russian leaders became far more reluctant to endorse even the compromise two-island solution that they had promoted during Putin’s first term.

Beginning in 2005, Russian officials have generally argued that the islands belong to Russia and that Japan has to accept Russian sovereignty over all four islands before any discussions can begin. Russia has said it is open to a negotiated “solution“ to the island dispute while declaring that the legality of its own claim to the islands is not open to question. In other words, Japan would first have to recognize Russia’s right to the islands and then try to acquire some or all of them through negotiations.

During Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term, the Russian government began to undertake a number of concerted measures to strengthen Russia’s hold on the islands. The first step was the adoption of a special federal program for the economic development of the islands. The program earmarked 18 billion rubles for various infrastructure development projects on the islands to be completed between 2007 and 2015. To ensure its security in the region, the Russian government has recently taken steps to strengthen the islands’ defenses. To this end, it is planning to modernize the equipment used by the 18th artillery division, which is based primarily on Kunashiri. Analysts do not expect the dispute to result in armed conflict but do believe that the strengthening of the disputed territories’ defenses will show Russia’s resolve to keep possession of the islands and may convince Japan to focus on other aspects of the bilateral relationship.[4]

The primary reason that Russian leaders insist on keeping possession of the islands has to do with conceptions of national honor and the sense that a handover would be seen by both the international community and by the Russian population as an admission of weakness. However, there are also a number of more practical considerations that have pushed the Russian government into a more uncompromising position. The islands and their territorial waters possess a great deal of economic value for their mineral resources, which include offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, and titanium. Etorofu is also the only source in Russia of the rare metal rhenium, which has important uses in electronics. The islands are also able to supply enough geothermal energy to meet its entire annual heating needs. The waters off the southern Kurils are the location of an upwelling that makes the area an exceptionally rich source for fish and seafood production, worth an estimated 4 billion dollars a year. Russian leaders also believe they could turn the region into a profitable tourism center, though this seems somewhat dubious given its remoteness and lack of appropriate infrastructure.[5]

Russian leaders also see possession of the southern Kurils as playing an important role in defense planning. The islands control access to the Sea of Okhotsk and thereby allow the Russian Pacific Fleet free access to the Pacific Ocean. The deep channels between the southern Kuril Islands allow Russian submarines to transit to the open ocean underwater. Russian military planners have argued that the loss of these channels would reduce the effectiveness of the Russian Pacific Fleet and thereby reduce Russian security in the region.[6]

Russia’s current position on the dispute has much in common with that of Japan. Russia is not particularly interested in making serious concessions on the territorial dispute, but it would like to further develop the bilateral relationship in other spheres, particularly trade and joint development of Russian energy resources. Russia is also concerned about the rapid increase in Chinese economic and political power and would like to work with Japan to constrain Chinese influence.

Potential Solutions

A number of potential solutions to the conflict have been proposed over time. Most of these proposals have come from scholars, although until recently the Russian government was also willing to compromise. Traditional solutions have focused on the number of islands or amount of territory that would be transferred as part of a compromise agreement. The Russian government has periodically offered to transfer the two southernmost islands, while offering to include Japan in efforts to jointly develop the other two islands. From the Japanese point of view, this offer does not seem very equitable, since the two islands that would remain in Russian possession comprise 93 percent of the disputed territory’s total land area. The Japanese scholar Akihiro Iwashita notes, however, that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) commanded by Habomai and Shikotan is quite large and rich in marine resources. Depending on how the boundary is demarcated, the total territory handed over (including maritime territory) could reach half the size of the total EEZ of the four disputed islands (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The Northern Territories’ EEZ

Source: Brad Williams, “Dissent on Japan’s Northern Periphery: Nemuro, the Northern Territories and the Limits of Change in a ‘Bureaucrat’s Movement,’” Japanese Journal of Political Science 11(2), p. 232. Adapted from Akihiro Iwashita, Hoppo Ryodo Mondai: 4 demo 0 demo, 2 demonaku (Chuko Shinsho, 2005), p. 165.

Japanese scholars and a few politicians have recently sought to promote various proposals that include the transfer of Kunashiri and in some cases part of Etorofu to Japanese control. These proposals have collectively been labeled “the 50/50 plan.” These proposals have received the support of a sizeable number of former Japanese residents of the disputed islands and their descendants. Surveys show that both former islanders and other Japanese strongly oppose any solution that would compel Japan to renounce its claims to Etorofu and Kunashiri, but they are willing to accept solutions that are far more flexible than the Japanese government’s current all-or-nothing negotiating position.

At the moment, most Japanese and Russians prefer the continuation of the status quo to territorial compromise. As long as this situation persists, the possibility of a successful negotiated solution is very low. Given the situation on the ground, the ball is entirely in Japan’s court, as Russia holds the territory and therefore has an advantage. Russian leaders have repeatedly made clear that the transfer of all four islands to Japan will never happen. The only way for any progress to be made is for Japan to take the quite radical step (by internal political standards) of dropping its insistence on an all or nothing solution and offering to negotiate the exact parameters of territorial compromise. This would move the ball to Russia’s court as the Russian government would face pressure to confirm its willingness to actually give up territory. Given that Russia has previously on several occasions declared its willingness to give up two islands, it may be difficult for Russian leaders to stick to their recent statements that the southern Kuril Islands are indisputably Russian territory and not subject to negotiation. If they feel confident enough to reiterate their willingness to give up two islands, that would create an opportunity to enter into negotiations over the exact parameters of the territorial compromise, whether this ends up being two islands, three islands, or some version of the 50/50 plan.

However, such a compromise is actually extremely unlikely. The initial move would require a strong Japanese leader to break with decades of precedent and be willing to take on the concerted criticism that is sure to come from Japanese nationalists. Given the long-term weakness and instability exhibited by the Japanese political system over the last two decades, there is a very low probability that such a leader might emerge any time in the foreseeable future. If such a leader did emerge, he would have to expend a great deal of political capital to shift the preferences of the Japanese people and political elites.

There is also the possibility of a non-traditional solution, such as joint sovereignty by both countries over all or some of the four disputed islands. Such a solution would allow the two countries to focus on joint economic development projects in the region, rather than arguing about territorial delimitation. However, such a solution would require Russian willingness to withdraw its military from the four islands. This move would have to be combined with guarantees of major Japanese investment in Russian energy development or other economic incentives.

Such a compromise is as unlikely to be reached as the more traditional solutions based on a formal division of the disputed territory between the two sides. The strength of nationalist attitudes on both sides makes it very difficult for political leaders to stand down from the maximalist positions they have adopted for years. Nationalists in Japan have fiercely attacked both academics and politicians who have broached the merest hint of compromise on the government’s long-standing all or nothing position. While Russian nationalists are not as powerful an interest group as their Japanese counterparts, they have previously protested against Russian territorial concessions to China made in 2004. While at that time, Vladimir Putin had broad popularity among the Russian public and could dismiss such protests as irrelevant, the Putin regime now faces a great deal of popular discontent and may find itself less willing to alienate one of its core remaining constituencies.

The change in the Putin regime’s circumstances in the last few years points to a second reason that makes compromise unlikely. The political elites in both countries are relatively weak and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Numerous large protests opposing Vladimir Putin’s stage-managed return to the presidency revealed a widespread sense of discontent with the Russian president, reducing his ability both to make unpopular political decisions and to shift the public discourse in favor of new initiatives. The Japanese government has been weakened by two decades of slow economic growth and popular discontent with widespread corruption among political and business elites. The result has been a revolving-door cabinet, with no prime minister serving for longer than fifteen months since 2006 and only one serving a full term since 1989. Last year’s tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima further reduced confidence in the government among the Japanese public. The consequence of this lack of trust and government weakness is that Japanese leaders are not likely to take a significant risk on an unpopular foreign policy initiative such as compromising on claims to the Northern Territories.

With neither the Russian nor Japanese leadership in a position to take the political risks that would be necessary to resolve the dispute, the status quo is virtually certain to continue for the foreseeable future. However, this will not prevent the two states from continuing to strengthen their relationship in other spheres, as both sides seek to protect themselves from the economic and political consequences of China’s rapid emergence as the preeminent East Asian power. As trade in energy expands and bilateral security cooperation deepens in the coming years, the territorial dispute left over from World War II will become increasingly irrelevant to both the governments and the public. This development could in turn allow for a compromise solution to emerge ten to twenty years down the road.

[1]  The Russian names for the first two islands are Iturup and Kunashir. I use the Japanese names for the sake of consistency.

[2]  Gregory Clark, “Northern Territories dispute highlights flawed diplomacy,” The Japan Times Online, March 24, 2005,

[3]  James E. Goodby, Vladimir I. Ivanov, Nobuo Shimotomai, “’Northern territories’ and beyond: Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives,” Praeger Publishers, 1995.

[4]  See, for example, Andrei Kisliakov, “Iuzhnym Kurilam Obeshchanna Usilennaia Oborona,” Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrennie, April 22, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurilskii Pretsedent,” VPK: Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, March 2, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurily: Prognoz Politicheskoi Nepogody,” Golos Rossii, February 21, 2011.

[5]  A. Koshkin, “Rossiia i Iaponiia: Vozmozhen li Kompromis o Kurilakh,” Aziia i Afrika Segodnia, November 2008, p. 32.

[6]  Kisliakov; Koshkin, p. 32.

Why Russia Supports Repressive Regimes in Syria and the Middle East

The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.


In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.

Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.

I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading

An Interactive Planning Approach to Shaping U.S.-Russian Relations

The annual PONARS policy conference in Washington DC took place Friday. I usually post my memos for it a week or two in advance, but I was hiking in the wilds of Utah in late August and away from the internets, returning just in time for the conference. So here it is after the fact. Other memos, including several related to the Russian military and arms control, may be found here.

U.S. policy toward Russia, as toward the rest of the world, tends to be highly reactive. Analysts and policy-makers usually spend their time discussing what the Russian government might do in the future and how the United States will (or should) react. This is not actually a useful model for foreign policy planning. Over thirty years ago, Russell Ackoff, one of the pioneers in operational planning research, described reactive planning as walking into the future while facing the past. In his words, a reactive planner “has a good view of where the organization has been and is, but no view of where it is going.”[1] In this memo, I will describe the three forms of planning outlined by Ackoff and make the case for the advantage of developing a Russia policy based on the principles of interactive planning.


Three Types of Planning

In his article, Ackoff describes most planning as a form of “ritual rain dance performed at the end of the dry season to which any rain that follows is attributed.” Rather than having some effect on subsequent outcomes, it makes the planners feel better about any future successes that come their way, while allowing any failures to be attributed to externalities or unforeseen circumstances. The main reason for this lack of impact is that while most planning is designed to address existing or expected problems, problems as such do not exist in the real world. Rather than face finite and well-defined problems, decisionmakers confront what Ackoff calls messes—systems of problems in which all the problems interact with each other. With such systems, solving each problem only creates new ones and may only make the situation as a whole worse.

The most common type of planning is of the reactive or retrospective variety. Policymakers who use this form of planning are focused primarily with “identifying and fixing up bad situations.” The goal of reactive planners is to try to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Government action officers generally spend the vast majority of their time in this mode, dealing with crises that in one way or another imperil the functioning of the programs for which they are responsible. In large part because of limits on time and resources, they are preoccupied with tactical questions and ignore strategic issues.

Prospective planning is the second type of planning commonly used by policymakers. This approach consists of attempting to predict what the world will be like at some point in the future and then preparing to deal with that future. In Ackoff’s words, “it doesn’t try to buck the tide, but rides on its leading edge, so as to get where the tide is going before anyone else does.” The key tools of prospective planners include forecasting and scenario-building. While reactive planners focus on short-term issues, prospective planners focus on long-range programs that attempt to optimize a particular set of policies given a set of assumptions about the external environment at some future point. While this approach is less commonly used in government, it does feature in departments that focus on long-range planning. An improvement over reactive planning, this approach suffers from two critical problems. First of all, the scenarios used by prospective planners are generally based on some combination of past experience and current trends. However, as any stock market analyst can tell you, past results are no guarantee of future performance. The only time that the future can be forecast accurately is when it is completely determined by the past. As Ackoff points out, that is also the condition under which no amount of planning can change the situation. Second, it makes no effort to affect the external environment, assuming that this is not something that can be influenced by policymakers.

This willingness to change the external environment is what sets apart the interactive planner. He or she “believes that the future is largely under an organization’s control” and depends largely on actions and events that occur going forward than on the events of the past. Therefore, the goal of planning is to design a desirable future and invent ways to bring that future about. Ackoff calls this type of planning “the art of the impossible.” He argues that the goal of planning should be “to convert what is initially considered to be impossible into what is subsequently accepted as possible.” The most effective way of accomplishing this is to change the environment in a direction that makes the preferred future end-state more likely to come about. Unfortunately, this approach to planning is hardly ever used by the policymaking community because they feel they will be able to deal with the future simply by doing a better job of predicting it and preparing for it.

In order to make the impossible possible, Ackoff advocates starting by developing an idealized vision of the future as the planners would like to see it, “if they were free to replace the current system with whatever they wanted most.” The only constraints on this “idealized redesign” are technological feasibility and operational viability. The idea is to stop planning away from a current state and start planning toward a desired state. Ackoff is careful to note that he is not advocating trying to design a future utopia. In his words, an idealized design “is built on the realization that our concept of the ideal is subject to continuous change…” Therefore, the planners have to include a capability for the system to be able to adapt to shifts both in the environment and in the policymakers’ preferences.

Once an interactive planner has developed a vision of a desired future, she or he can work backwards to find potential critical juncture points that can help change the current environment in a direction that would bring it closer to the ideal state. Some of these efforts will succeed, while others will fail. As a result, the conception of the ideal state is likely to change over time and the planning process has to be sufficiently flexible to take such changes into account. But the end result is that planners stop focusing on how to modify the existing world at the margins and start thinking creatively about how to bring about their ideal future.


Building toward an Idealized Redesign of U.S.-Russian Relations

The agenda in relations between Russia and the United States appears to be permanently stuck in reactive mode on both sides. Residual fear of the other side’s intentions, seemingly left over from Cold War days that ended 20 years ago, continues to exert an influence on policy planning in both countries. Many American policy planners continue to worry about the possibility that Russian leaders harbor aggressive intentions toward the other countries that became independent when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Russian planners, in turn, still seem to genuinely fear the possibility of a NATO invasion of Russian territory, at least if one were to take at face value documents such as the 2010 Russian military strategy.

As a result, policy planning on U.S.-Russian relations usually revolves around an agenda based on the past. The dominant issues—NATO-Russia relations, nuclear arms control and proliferation, even missile defense—would be completely familiar to policymakers working in the 1960s and 70s. The few truly new areas of cooperation, such as transit of supplies to Afghanistan via Russian territory and intelligence sharing in counter-terrorism, are often treated with suspicion by analysts and politicians on both sides.

There have been some efforts to engage in prospective planning in the relationship. This has primarily taken the form of efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities. In some cases, these efforts have had some positive impact, such as the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council as a step to prevent the creation of new dividing lines in European security. Similarly, arms control efforts over the last twenty years have led to fairly significant cuts in the two countries’ nuclear weapons arsenals. And planners on both sides continue to look for ways to reduce distrust and increase cooperation in the bilateral relationship, including through the well-publicized attempt to “reset” the relationship after the 2008 elections in both countries. The various bilateral commissions set up by President Obama and President Medvedev are relatively successful aspects of this effort.

But these efforts, while laudable, suffer from the faults common to all prospective planning. They take the current environment as the starting point and attempt to build the relationship from there. They also focus cooperative initiatives on dealing with the threats that exist today or that seem likely to exist in the future based on current trends. In doing so, they are inevitably doomed to do little more than modify the existing relationship at the margins. What is needed instead is a new paradigm for the bilateral relationship, akin to the ideas that in the aftermath of World War II envisioned a full partnership between the Allied states and Germany and led to German participation in NATO just ten years after its defeat in the war.

What might such a new paradigm look like? The rest of this memo is obviously speculative, and presents a personal point of view of what an ideal Russian-American relationship might look like twenty or thirty years in the future.[2]

  1. Russia and the United States would be partners in a new European (or perhaps even worldwide) security architecture. They would cooperate with other states in ensuring stability and strengthening governance in potentially unstable parts of the world.[3]
  2. The nuclear relationship between the two countries would be similar to that of the United States and Great Britain. In this environment, bilateral nuclear arms control would no longer be relevant. Instead, Russia and the United States would focus on counter-proliferation and multilateral nuclear arms reductions that include all states that possess nuclear weapons.
  3. Both countries would be working together to adjust the international security system to deal with China’s rising power. The ideal would be to incorporate China seamlessly into existing international security structures or to establish new structures in which China is a full partner.
  4. Russia and the United States would be partners in developing technologies to intercept long-range ballistic missiles that could threaten international security. This partnership would be extended to other potential partners, including the European Union and perhaps China and India.
  5. Both countries will work together to stem the potential danger from transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling. They will also cooperate in dealing with the potential security effects of global climate change.

Given this set of aspects of an ideal security relationship between the United States and Russia, policymakers could work backward to develop a set of policies that could shift the world in a direction that would make some or all of them more likely to occur. For example, it may turn out that thinking along these lines leads to the realization that maintaining NATO in its current form is actually damaging to European security in the long run, leading to efforts to replace it with another organization that includes a broader range of states and does not carry the burden of NATO’s Cold War legacy. On the other hand, Russian planners may realize that their country does not face any threat from the West and can therefore transfer their military forces away from European borders and toward more likely security threats on its southern borders. Both of these scenarios seem to be completely unrealistic given today’s security environment, but interactive planners may find that they provide the best way to maximize their countries’ security in the long run.

Again, in this brief memo I have simply sought to provide some illustrative examples of this approach. The main point is not to focus on the specifics of the particular ideal state of the relationship but to make the case that an interactive planning perspective will be more likely to lead to improvements in security for both the United States and Russia than approaches based on a combination of continued mistrust due to Cold War legacies and piecemeal efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities.

[1] All quotations in this memo are from Russell L. Ackoff, “The Corporate Rain Dance,” The Wharton Magazine, winter 1977. My thinking about this topic was greatly stimulated by Peter Perla, “Beyond alternative futures: Thinking about designing the future Navy,” CNA Quick Response Study CQR D0024818.A1, March 2011.

[2] Due to space constraints, I focus here only on security issues. A full analysis would also look at economic relations between the two states.

[3] Based on current trends, such areas might include Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, but of course the zones of instability might be in completely different areas by that point in time.