MCIS 2017: Cooperation lost in translation

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


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

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

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

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President Trump and U.S.-Russian relations

Michael Kofman and I wrote a short piece for the Monkey Cage on the potential impact of the election on U.S.-Russian relations. Go read the whole thing, which also includes contributions from a number of other scholars.

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Donald Trump’s victory has the potential to fundamentally reshape U.S.-Russian relations, but whether such a realignment will actually take place will depend on how Trump chooses to learn and appreciate the past failures of several U.S. attempts to engage Russia. It remains to be seen whether he will be willing to follow the advice of professionals, or if he will strike off on his own. U.S.-Russian relations are founded on a complex history, with structural differences among national elites that will prove difficult to bridge through personal rapport among the national leaders. Trump’s first problem will be that other than a small number of close advisers who share his instincts to engage Putin, most of the policy establishment is likely to hold hardened views of Putin’s Russia, ranging from distrustful to confrontational. Rapid change is unlikely to come quickly, despite the personal attention of the president-elect, because the bureaucracy will initially take an obstructionist position.

Having said that, we can make a few predictions regarding policy initiatives that are likely to be undertaken by President Trump. First of all, he is likely to restore the full range of government contacts, including between the two countries’ military establishments. Second, he will pursue more extensive cooperation with Russia in Syria, against ISIS but also against other anti-Assad groups that could conceivably be described as Islamist. Most likely there will be a complete abandonment of the existing policy formulation that there is a moderate Syrian opposition and viable alternatives to Assad, which will closely bridge the U.S. position with that of Moscow’s. And finally, the active sanctions policy against Russia is likely to end, though existing sanctions will not be lifted without a quid pro quo.

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US-Russian Cooperation in the Caspian: An Opportunity Worth Pursuing

For the United States, the strategic importance of the Caspian region has increased dramatically in recent years. The Caspian littoral states have come to provide an important set of opportunities for the U.S. in a strategically significant region. Now, however, they face a range of significant security threats in the region, which have resulted from a combination of changes in the region’s geopolitical environment resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union and conflicts over the division of marine and seabed resources in the Caspian Sea. Specific threats include smuggling of narcotics and other contraband, proliferation of WMD or related materials, and the limited reach of government authority in remote land and maritime areas. Further, Caspian energy security is particularly vulnerable to a number of regional actors. There is also the potential for armed conflict that can spill into the wider region; in particular, Azerbaijan and Armenia may come to blows over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, terrorism presents a threat—both directly to several of the littoral states, and indirectly to the entire region, which serves as a transit corridor for terrorist group members traveling between the northern Caucasus and Afghanistan. An important consideration is that the effects of these threats can and do proliferate beyond the region. It is in the interests of the U.S. government  to help its Caspian regional partners achieve or enhance the ability to deter, detect, and respond to these threats themselves before the problems spread. Continue reading