Russia’s Strategic Calculus: Threat Perceptions and Military Doctrine

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russia’s Strategic Calculus from our September policy conference in Washington. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.

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Russian foreign policy is driven by the political elites’ search for a new basis for national self-esteem after the collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted old Soviet identities. The collapse did not discredit the Soviet Union’s status as a great power, which has thus remained a core aspiration for Russian political elites. As a result of their perception of Russia’s appropriate status in the world and in their region, they have also sought to maintain Russia’s role as a guiding force among the newly independent states that formerly made up the Soviet Union. This combination of Russia as a global great power and regional hegemon is seen as providing the ruling elite with a source of legitimacy with their domestic constituency.

Most of Russia’s immediate foreign policy goals are focused on its immediate neighborhood. These include maintaining friendly or at least compliant governments in neighboring states and, failing that, keeping unfriendly neighboring governments weak and off balance. All of this is placed in a global context because in addition to securing its periphery, these goals also serve to prevent encroachment by Western states in Russia’s desired geographic sphere of influence.

Beyond these overarching goals, Russian leaders are focused on ensuring Russia’s domestic stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. These are primarily defensive goals that seek to ensure the survival of the state and its ruling elite in their current form, rather than aggressive goals that seek to expand Russia’s territory or its sphere of influence. Most of Russia’s military and security policies are designed to secure the state and its current territory against potential attacks and to counter the threats that Russian leaders see facing their country. Moreover, Russian leaders do not really have a well-developed strategy on how to achieve this in their immediate neighborhood. Instead, they have a toolkit of political and military tactics and are open to opportunities to use this toolkit.

Russia’s Threat Perception

The main threats to Russian security, as identified by Russia’s political and military leadership, are spelled out in the most recent edition of the country’s military doctrine announced in December 2014 (see the English translation of the doctrine). According to these guidelines, the most serious military risk that Russia faces is the expansion of NATO. The potential of NATO enlargement to include former Soviet republics has been seen as a threat by Russian leaders for many years, with concern about Ukraine and Georgia resulting in Russian involvement in conflicts in both of those countries.

While this concern remains uppermost in Russian leaders’ minds, in recent years they have also come to focus on the expansion of NATO military infrastructure in existing member states near Russia’s borders. The doctrine accordingly identifies military risks associated with “bringing the military infrastructure of NATO member countries near the borders of the Russian Federation” and with the “deployment (build-up) of military contingents of foreign states (groups of states) on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation and its allies, as well as in adjacent waters, including for exerting political and military pressure on the Russian Federation” (Russian Military Doctrine, 12a and 12c).

The 2014 military doctrine was the first official document to highlight the military threat posed to Russia by externally organized regime change. In recent years, this has been repeatedly mentioned as the most serious threat facing the Russian government, but it had not previously been portrayed as a military threat. By mentioning the “destabilization of the situation in individual states and regions and undermining of global and regional stability” and the “establishment of regimes whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation in states contiguous with the Russian Federation, including by overthrowing legitimate state administration bodies” as external military risks, Russian leaders highlighted their perception that regime change originates in secret plans organized abroad, primarily by the United States and its allies (Doctrine, 12b and 12m).

These plans, Russian leaders argue, include a number of aspects. The establishment of hostile regimes in neighboring states through the destabilization of legitimate governments is seen as being part of a campaign to eliminate Russian influence over neighbors that are of vital importance to Russia’s security. In addition, Russia’s adversaries are willing to sow chaos in foreign states in order to create excuses to intervene and establish pro-Western governments there. Finally, even though these efforts mostly take place outside Russia itself, their ultimate goal is to weaken the Russian government in order to create an opportunity to replace the Putin regime with one more amenable to Western dictates. In addition to military and political means to achieve these goals, Russian leaders are concerned about the use of information warfare to weaken Russian sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity (Doctrine, 12l). This is part of an overall emphasis on internal threats and the role of state policy in countering Western interference in Russian domestic affairs.

A third set of security risks faced by Russia concern threats to its nuclear deterrence capability. Missile defense remains at the top of this list, as Russian leaders do not believethat the United States can make a credible commitment to refrain from using such defenses against Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability. They are convinced that if the United States were able to develop an effective and financially viable form of defense against ballistic missiles, domestic political pressure would result in it being expanded to counter Russian missiles, regardless of any promises that the leaders of the United States might make in the interim that missile defense is aimed only against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.

Russian leaders’ concerns about threats to Russian nuclear deterrence capabilities have in recent years moved beyond missile defense to include a variety of new technologies, such as the Prompt Global Strike concept for the development of conventional strategic precision-guided munitions and weapons fired from space. The 2014 military doctrine adds these weapons to the list of military risks faced by Russia (Doctrine, 12d). As with missile defense, the concern is that the United States might use such weapons to eliminate Russian nuclear deterrent capability, rendering it defenseless against a NATO or U.S. attack.

Finally, Russian leaders express a genuine concern about the threat posed to Russia by radical Islamist organizations. This concern is usually articulated through the discussion of global terrorism and extremism. The Russian military doctrine highlights the links between radical international armed groupings and inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tensions in the context of a lack of effective international anti-terrorist cooperation (Doctrine, 12j and 12k). The significance of this concern for Russian leaders is highlighted by its choice as the main theme of the 2016 Moscow Conference on International Security. Given Russia’s recent history with Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus and terrorist acts committed throughout Russia by extremists over the last 20 years, Russian leaders recognize the potential for a renewed wave of attacks to destabilize the Russian state.

As is usually the case, the Russian military doctrine does not mention any threats posed by China. Ostensibly, this is because Russia considers China a strategic partner rather than a potential threat. Nevertheless, Russian experts regularly discuss the potential long-term risk of Chinese designs on Russian territory in the Far East and regularly contemplate the short-term danger of Russia becoming excessively dependent on China and being reduced to a Chinese junior partner and energy supplier. Furthermore, the Russian military regularly conducts exercises that are designed to counter a land invasion by a major power in the Far East and Siberia. Although no country is mentioned as the target of these exercises, China is the only country that could threaten Russia with a land invasion from the east.

Overall, in recent years, Russian leaders have become more concerned about the threats they feel are emanating from NATO and the United States. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and especially after the electoral protests that took place in Russia in 2011-12, they started to emphasize the danger to Russia posed by externally fomented domestic protests and regime change. These combined changes in Russian threat perceptions contributed to a serious deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West even before the Ukraine conflict erupted in 2014.

Western planners need to keep in mind that Russian leaders see Russia as weaker than its adversaries and very much on the defensive. This does not preclude a concurrent belief that Russia needs to be proactive and to initiate conflict when critical state interests are threatened and opportunities to seize the initiative present themselves. As a result, Western observers often see Russia as having an aggressive and revanchist mindset, even as Russian leaders perceive their actions as aimed entirely at shoring up their vulnerable security position.

Regional Priorities

Russian foreign policy remains focused on Europe and the United States. Since the international system remains centered on Euro-Atlantic institutions, Russia’s drive for respect in the international system and the geographic proximity of its main population centers to Europe means that Europe remains the primary geographic region of focus for Russian foreign policy. Russian interests in Europe are both economic and political. Economic interests are related primarily to energy sales, while politically Russia seeks to weaken European institutions in order to work bilaterally with individual states.

Russia’s second area of concern is its vulnerable southern border. Russian policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus has in recent years been shaped by three divergent perspectives: 1) great power competition in the region, which leads Russian politicians to view the region’s problems through a geopolitical and military lens; 2) energy, with a focus on securing exclusive rights for gas and oil transit from the region to Europe; and 3) concern about transnational security threats, such as radical Islamism, terrorism, and drug smuggling.

The internal tension among these perspectives has been the main source of inconsistency in Russian policies in the region. Depending on which perspective is in ascendance, Russian officials alternate between a) focusing on soft security threats, which are best dealt with through the development of cooperative mechanisms with states both in and outside the region, and b) taking steps to limit the influence of outside states in the region as part of an effort to retain a monopoly on energy transit and to come out on top in its rivalry with the United States. In recent years, with the fading of U.S. involvement in Central Asia and the decline in energy prices, Russia has become more focused on ensuring that the region is ruled by friendly regimes and supporting their efforts to prevent internal uprisings and infiltration by Islamist extremists.

In recent years, the Middle East has become more important for Russian foreign policy. Russia’s key goals in the region are to reduce instability while increasing its own influence and reducing that of the United States. Russian leaders see U.S. policies that promote democratization as being the main cause of chaos and instability throughout the region. At the same time, Moscow’s interests in the Middle East have clearly benefited from overreach by the United States. Russia has worked to use local dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Iraq war and U.S. support for popular protests against local autocrats to restore some of the influence it lost in the Middle East after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian operation in Syria has done even more to this end, showing that Russia has the interest and resources to be a serious player in the region. The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria over the last year has further increased Russian influence in the Middle East, to the extent that some analysts argue that Russia now has a commanding position in Syria and perhaps in the region as a whole.

Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is fraught with risks as well. The de facto Shia alliance with Iran, Iraq, and Syria has led to tension with Gulf states and (in the recent past) with Turkey and also brings Russia into direct confrontation with ISIS, potentially exposing it to a higher risk of terrorist attacks against Russian interests and/or on Russian territory.

Finally, Russia’s turn toward Asia has so far been expressed more in rhetoric than in actual policy. Russian elites are starting to realize that Asia matters in its own right, not just as an adjunct or counterbalance to the West. But so far they have been more adept at recognizing the importance of Asia than in developing effective strategies for engaging with it. In part, this is because old stereotypes of Asia as inferior still dominate. But mostly it is because it is hard to reconcile the pursuit of Russian security and economic interests in Asia with the Russian political elite’s Western-centric worldview.

Even in Asia, U.S. behavior in large part determines how Russia responds, since containing and balancing the United States is one of the key missions of Russian foreign policy around the world. This stems in large part from Russian leaders’ belief that Russia can be a global power only by limiting the influence of the United States. In Asia, it has tried to do so (with limited success) by building an anti-hegemonic consensus with China and India. At the same time, despite the currently positive relations with China, Russian leaders remain concerned about China’s increase in power and long-term intentions, particularly given China’s efforts to develop the Silk Road project. They worry that China could replace Russia as the dominant “other” in U.S. foreign affairs, leaving Russia marginalized. For this reason, despite ongoing tension with the United States, Russian leaders are not averse to having the United States work to constrain Chinese ambitions in Asia and around the world. On the whole, Russian objectives in Asia are preventative in nature: containing the United States and China, maintaining Russian influence in the region, and eroding US-led alliances without destabilizing the region, all while staying out of local conflicts.

Conclusion

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is unlikely to change Russia’s strategic calculus. Russia will continue to seek to maximize its status in the world, possibly by proposing a deal where the United States recognizes its sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood in exchange for a more cooperative relationship globally. Such a trade would legitimize Russia as a global great power while avoiding the need to expend scarce resources on a global fight for influence with the United States.

The impact of the currency crash on Russian foreign policy

The Russian currency crash on Monday and Tuesday is likely to reduce the chances for Russian leaders to initiate new foreign adventures and may well result in efforts to make a deal on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and his allies realize that in an economic downturn, they won’t have the financial resources to undertake efforts to destabilize other neighboring states. Instead, we should be looking for Russia to undertake some retrenchment, with Putin to try to calm things down a bit in the hope that he can persuade EU states to allow the sanctions they have in place against Russia to expire. This would allow for market sentiment to improve somewhat, which Russian leaders hope would allow the ruble to strengthen even if continuing U.S. sectoral sanctions mean that a corporate liquidity crisis is inevitable.

Russian leaders recognize that for European sanctions to end, the conflict in eastern Ukraine needs to be resolved. It is no coincidence that the situation in the Donbas has been calmer in recent days than at any time since last spring. While I imagine that neither the Russian nor European sides at this point know exactly what it would take to call off the sanctions regime, Russian leaders may be hoping that even a partial stabilization of the conflict may be enough to prevent EU member states from reaching consensus on renewing the sectoral and financial sanctions that are particularly economically painful to both sides and that are due to expire in July and August 2015.

Given this analysis, one might be surprised that Putin didn’t express more of an intent to compromise in his press conference today. But anyone expecting a soft line in this forum doesn’t understand how Putin operates. The press conference is first and foremost a PR opportunity for a domestic audience. In such a forum, he has to maintain his position in order to reassure his base that he’s not changing course. Even if he wanted to compromise, he wouldn’t announce it at the press conference. In fact, I doubt that he’d announce it publicly at all.

Instead, we should watch Russian actions in coming weeks/months. They will provide a better indication of Putin’s next move(s). But at the same time, I don’t expect much more in the next few months than an effort to avoid further escalation. I think that for now the leadership thinks it can still wait this out, that oil prices will rise sometime in 2015, that the EU will fail to agree to renew sanctions next summer. This is not 1998. Russia has the reserves to wait out the hard times, if they only last a year or two.

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Parts of this post appeared originally in The Monkey Cage.

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.

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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.

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Personalization and Patriotism

The following article originally appeared at the Carnegie Forum on Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations, where it is one of a number of contributions by eminent experts such as Henry Hale, Mark Kramer, Thomas Graham, Steven Pifer, and many others. 

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American media narratives generally tend to excessively personalize politics and international affairs, and recent coverage of Russia is no exception to this overall trend. During the entire Ukraine crisis, and especially in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as an evil leader bent on some combination of restoring the Soviet empire and destroying the international order. His motivation has frequently been framed as a sense of pique for the exclusion of Russian leaders from key decisions, such as on the Iraq war, on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and on NATO enlargement.

While Russian leaders certainly do have a sense of grievance over perceived slights by the West, and particularly by the United States, against Russia that have accumulated over the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these grievances are not sufficient to explain Russian foreign policy. Instead, Russian foreign policy is driven by a combination of a desire to restore Russia’s great power status, the perception that Russian security can only be guaranteed if Russia is surrounded by friendly states, and the fear that the United States is taking active measures to overthrow the current Russian government.

Furthermore, the personalization of Russian foreign policy hurts U.S. policymaking toward Russia by creating a perception that Russian actions, as guided by Putin, are irrational and therefore cannot be dealt with through strategies other than containment. Furthermore, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) undercurrent that the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations will inevitably continue unless and until Vladimir Putin is removed from his position as Russia’s leader.

While Vladimir Putin has unquestionably installed a repressive domestic regime in Russia and pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to establish a set of dependent buffer states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy does derive from a rational set of beliefs, goals, and interests. The inability of many Western commentators and some policymakers to see the world from the Russian point of view damages the ability of the U.S. government to adopt a Russia policy that allows for a reasonable response to Russian actions without defaulting to the outdated image of Russia as a direct descendant of the Soviet “evil empire.” In addition, Western analysts neglect the likelihood that if Vladimir Putin is forced out of office, his replacement is unlikely to be a pro-Western politician. Instead, any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent.

Throughout the current crisis, Russia has been acting from weakness, rather than from strength. While various commentators have described Putin as playing a chess game against the West, I would argue that he has actually been primarily reacting tactically to what he saw as a major defeat. After all, in late February, Ukraine went in just a few days from having chosen alliance with Russia over Europe to a victory by anti-Russian forces and the prospect of a close alliance with the West, and the potential loss of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.

Russian leaders see the protests in Ukraine as part of a Western plot. For them, colored revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They have argued that this is part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept American hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although 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 tied more closely to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

If this is the dominant perspective, then Russia’s opposition to the United States and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. In that case, it is not worth spending time to try 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.

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

The U.S. response to such a position would have to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime with the 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 would prefer 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 government.

Ukraine: Putin is trying to rectify a historic wrong

I was interviewed by Erika Korner of Euractiv on the Ukraine crisis. Here’s the beginning of it.

In April US President Obama spoke of applying an “updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” in light of Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine crisis. Is an association with the Cold War useful? And is containment an appropriate remedy for the conflict?

To some extent, the association is useful but I would not overplay it. In the Cold War, the key feature was an ideological difference between the two sides that is almost absent now. There is no big ideological fight, where Russia is trying to convince the rest of the world to follow a completely different system of economics and government compared to the US. What is left, is much more of a general foreign policy difference in terms of perceptions of interest and so forth. Having said that, clearly it is not in the US interest to let Russia have a sphere of influence. This is what Russia seems to want in its immediate neighbourhood.

So from that point of view, I would not use the word containment because of all the ideological baggage from the Cold War. Instead, it would be a situation where the US tries to give the countries around Russia more options in terms of their foreign policy course. But this is something the US has been doing for the last 20 years or so.

What are some similarities and differences between the current state of Russia’s relations with the West and those during the Cold War?

I mentioned ideology. Another important difference is that the Soviet Union really strove for autarchy during the Cold War, for self-reliance among the Soviet Union and its allies and as few interconnections as possible with the rest of the international system. It never really achieved this completely, at least not after the 1930s or so, but the goal existed.

Whereas now we are dealing with an environment where there are a lot more connections both in terms of economic ties but also freedom to travel, for example, allowing Russians to go abroad.

That creates a lot more interdependence between Russia, Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. This has a moderating influence on relations.

That is the general difference, but we can talk about more specifics within that, like energy ties. While the Soviet Union certainly exported energy to Europe, starting in the 1970s, at that time it was much less central than it is to the relationship now. Energy is playing a more central role now in policy.

How much of the current conflict in Ukraine can be traced back to Western or Russian antagonism, and how much can be perceived as an organic movement from the Ukrainian population?

At the first stage of the crisis, before it became internationalised with the intervention, it was primarily a domestic crisis. Then, at least for a while after Yanukovych left, it shifted to becoming primarily an international crisis over Crimea.

(Please read the rest of the interview at the Euractiv website.)

Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

While in Moscow a few weeks ago, I was part of a group of U.S. scholars that met with Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and BRICS sherpa, who has particular expertise in arms control and European cooperation. The meeting with Ryabkov was in many ways the complete antithesis of the Russian speeches at MCIS, which took place the next day. He said that Russia did not want to remove anything from the bilateral relationship with the United States, expressed concern that the push for sanctions in the U.S. had taken on its own dynamics while perceptions of the other on both sides were only consolidating, and declared Russia’s intention to maintain all possible channels of dialog.

He mentioned three possible areas for bilateral cooperation, including Syria’s chemical disarmament, limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and management of climate change. In particular, he highlighted the danger of nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East,  depending on how the Iranian negotiations turn out. U.S. and Russian interests on this issue are very close, so prospects for cooperation are good. However, given the current state of relations, Russia will not seek to develop a new agenda for cooperation with the U.S. until after the dust settles on the current crisis — 12-18 months. Until then, Russian leaders will simply try to manage the situation to limit the damage to the relationship. At the same time, there is no plan to revise Russia’s fundamental foreign policy approach toward the U.S.

He said that there is no need for Moscow to backpedal on its Ukraine policy. Russian leaders truly believe in their explanation for why the crisis in Ukraine occurred and subsequent developments in the crisis will depend on further events in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure that we got the message that Russia has no ambition to further deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. He noted that Ukrainian plans for dialog were a step in the right direction. Russia would like to ensure that there is a new division of powers in Ukraine and to secure the status of the Russian language. He stated that a quest for establishing Novorossiya, either as an independent state or as part of Russia was out of the question and was not being considered by the Russian leadership in any way. He said that there was no risk of further deterioration in Ukraine and that therefore there was no basis for sectoral Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, Ryabkov ruled out the possibility of any kind of negotiation with Ukraine over Crimea, since Russia considers the issue closed. Though he did not exclude the possibility of compensation of individuals or businesses for lost property, he said there would be no settlement on a government level.

The public tends to perceive the current state of relations with the U.S. as a natural outcome of past events and therefore unavoidable. Many people don’t care about or about how American political elites think of Russia. There’s no obvious vision on how build a different kind of relationship. As for the annexation of Crimea, most people see it through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and believe that one part of that historical injustice has now been remedied. References to Kosovo among some Russian commentators are to some extent artificial. The trope of “if others can do it, why can’t we?” only emerged after several cases of Western intervention. But at the same time, each case is unique, one can’t draw parallels even with the intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

Given this divergence in views between Russians and Americans, it would be better to focus on less politically loaded issues. Russia needs to try to communicate in a more focused way with those who work Russia issues in Washington. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been speaking almost daily on the crisis. This has helped a more reasonable direction to emerge, including the involvement of the OSCE and international observers, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops in late May. He believed that the situation in late May was much better in a political sense than it had been 2-3 weeks earlier.

I asked a question about the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Arctic once the current crisis is less acute. Ryabkov noted that contacts are still being maintained on practical questions, including monitoring fisheries limitation agreements and channels on environmental issues such as oil spill cleanup and protection of polar bears. Work in the Arctic Council is continuing, with a gradual consolidation of approaches by the Arctic littoral states. While competing claims to sectors on the continental shelf may produce some difficult motives, all sides have been trying to keep the dialog open and to keep it low key.

Another question was asked about other areas of cooperation. Ryabkov highlighted the importance of maintaining cooperative programs in peaceful nuclear energy. Although the U.S. canceled its participation in a June meeting in Russia on how to use spent fuel in energy production, the meeting was simply shifted to France. He mentioned cooperation with GE in this field and said that it was unfortunate that the U.S. government was influencing U.S. businesses against engaging with Russian economic actors.

 

Ukraine discussion on Foreign Entanglements

I was on the Foreign Entanglements video blog yesterday with Robert Farley, talking about Ukraine. Here is the show description with links to the various segments, or you can just watch the whole thing.

On Foreign Entanglements, Rob and Dmitry discuss the recent Russian incursion into Crimea. Dmitry summarizes Russian interests in the region. Have the US and Europe handled the situation correctly so far? Dmitry suggests that, in the long run, Putin will pay substantial costs for the incursion. Is the new Ukrainian government stable enough to fight back? Rob and Dmitry compare the strengths of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. Finally, Dmitry thinks through some options for the Western response.