EURASIA REVIEW - Russia uses soft power and information warfare to win control over former Soviet states. Russia has much more than a simple territorial plan. In fact, in recent decades Moscow has actively pursued Putin’s long-term vision of reestablishing Russian power and influence in the former states of the Soviet Union and not shied away from redrawing borders and launching military campaigns.
FEBRUARY 3, 2017
Russia uses soft power and information warfare to win control over former Soviet states.
Russia has much more than a simple territorial plan. In fact, in recent decades Moscow has actively pursued Putin’s long-term vision of reestablishing Russian power and influence in the former states of the Soviet Union and not shied away from redrawing borders and launching military campaigns.
Since the 2000 Russia has shown increasing tendency towards “reimperialization” of the post-Soviet space, especially in regards to the territories inhabited by ethnic Russians. Moscow counts some 35 million Russians and Russian speakers abroad as compatriots concentrated in states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia and has repeatedly demonstrated commitment to engage and protect these populations. In other words, broad reimperialization is the end-goal of Moscow’s policies, and Russian compatriots are among the means for Moscow achieving that end.
The concept of reimperialization should not be solely understood in the narrowest sense of the term. An empire does not simply result from acquisition of territories. Rather, reimperialization should be understood as a process allowing a dominant country to have indirect control over the sovereignty of other states.
To achieve this end, namely dominance of the post-Soviet region, Russia uses a consistent seven-stage trajectory of policies to reimperialize the former Soviet republics. This trajectory begins with soft power and cycles through humanitarian policies and compatriot policies, which create institutions, laws and policies to co-opt the Russian diaspora. This proceeds to information warfare; “passportization,” which hands out Russian citizenship and passports to compatriots abroad; calls for compatriot protection, which can eventually result in annexation of territories. Although various stages can occur simultaneously or in different order, the general trajectory involves cooptation of the Russian diaspora to achieve territorial expansion under the guise of compatriot or minority protection. All of this occurs under the veil of a blitz of information warfare.
Russia has already achieved various degrees of success with these policies across former Soviet republics, but possibly the most effective application is in Ukraine. Russia’s use of soft power instruments in Ukraine traces back to the early 1990s and gained considerable momentum after Ukraine’s attempts to turn westward with the Orange Revolution of 2004. For example, in October 2008, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, called on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor the rights of Russians in Ukraine. He claimed that Ukraine used “restrictive measures without taking into account the interests of the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine.” However, no international human rights organizations had received personal complaints from ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. The timing of Moscow’s policies was related to Ukraine’s ambitions of moving closer to institutions like the EU and potentially NATO, which from Russia’s point of view could have been perceived as a security threat. If Kiev had succeeded, it would have not only removed Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, standing between Russia and the West, but would have also reduced Moscow’s sphere of influence in the region.
Alongside humanitarian efforts, Russia simultaneously ramped up compatriot policies. Russian citizens created illegal and semi-legal organizations in eastern Ukraine and provided members with paramilitary training. According to media reports and information from social networks, in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a pro-Russian separatist organization, “Donetskaya Respublica,” was registered in 2006 and started receiving military training no later than 2009.
In the late 2000s, Russia increased the scope of its passportization strategy in Ukraine.In 2008, the Ukrainian media reported that the Russian consulate as well as individuals such as a librarian in a Sevastopol library began systemically handing out Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Soon after, estimates suggested that the number of Crimeans with Russian citizenship ranged from 8,000 to 40,000.During this time Russian officials continued to deny the policy of passport distribution in Crimea. Once sizable populations in neighboring foreign states became Russian citizens, Moscow then could call for their protection both rhetorically and militarily, starting the process of annexation or de facto control of these territories.
Russia’s information warfare accelerated in wake of the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-2014. In autumn 2013, Russian television – including Perviy Kanal, Rossya 24, Life News, the Russian edition of Euronews and Russia Today – began a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to shape the perceptions of Russian compatriots. First, they discredited European integration of Ukraine and the Maidan protests. Second, the Russian media turned to a favorite tactic – smearing opponents as “fascists.” The media tried to propagate a narrative among eastern and southern Ukrainians and Russian speakers that “fascism is returning to life” in Kiev and western Ukraine, and that their rights would be severely undermined.
Following President Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from both government and Ukraine on February 21st, Moscow’s instruments of soft power suddenly shifted to what can be best described as a hybrid warfare campaign under the pretext of protecting the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. The night of February 27, 2014, Russian special-mission troops captured the local legislature of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea. At the same time, Russian troops, previously stationed in Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, attacked Ukrainian troops, governmental buildings and infrastructure in the same region.
In the meanwhile, pro-Russia hackers embarked on a cyber-espionage campaign against the Ukrainian government. Using a technique called spear-phishing, the hackers sent emails to targets that appeared to come from legitimate sources and included attachments that, when opened, enabled access to their computers.
On March 16th, Russian authorities and pro-Russian separatists conducted an illegal referendum for Crimea and Sevastopol to join Russia with the reported but unlikely outcome of 96.7 percent supporting annexation.
However, annexation of Crimea was not the only objective.
Despite sporadic violence that broke out in eastern Ukraine in early March, the real fighting began after April 11th when a special Russian military detachment, commanded by Russian Colonel Igor Girkin, who had participated in the capture of Crimea, crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border and captured the city of Slavyansk in the region of Donetsk. In later months, pro-Russian militias continued advancing on other towns and cities in eastern Ukraine. Despite the Ukrainian Army’s efforts to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, subsequent offensives in 2014 and 2015 enabled militants to maintain control over some territories in the area. This led to a frozen conflict in the eastern part of the country, which not only severely hampered Kiev’s bid of joining the EU, but also complicated its chances of joining NATO.
The aggressive policies Moscow pursued in Ukraine in the name of Russian compatriots recall Russia’s war in Georgia and efforts to strike discord among ethnic minorities in the Baltic States, in Kazakhstan and beyond. By establishing frozen conflicts in such places as Luhansk and Donetsk, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia gained considerable leverage over Kiev and Tbilisi’s politics and foreign policy for years to come, without having direct territorial control.
The world waits for how the Trump administration will manage Russia’s ambitions in the former Soviet republics, though tension is anticipated between efforts to improve relations with Putin and the Kremlin’s strategic plans of preventing neighboring countries from slipping away from its sphere of influence.
2. Illusions vs Reality: Twenty-Five Years of U.S. Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (the carnegie endowment for international peace)
February 09, 2017
The U.S.-Russian relationship is broken, and it cannot be repaired quickly or easily. Improved personal ties between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin may be useful, but they are not enough. The Trump administration needs to temper expectations about breakthroughs or grand bargains with Moscow. Instead, the focus should be on managing a volatile relationship with an increasingly emboldened and unpredictable Russian leadership. The real test for any sustainable approach will be whether it advances U.S. interests and values, especially in the wake of Moscow’s reckless meddling in the November presidential election.
Four principles should guide U.S. policy toward Russia and its neighbors:
The following problem areas should be addressed without delay:
Turbulent events over the past year have compounded the already difficult problem of fashioning a sustainable long-term U.S. policy toward Russia, Eurasia, and Ukraine. The unprecedented presidential campaign in the United States, the British vote to leave the European Union (EU), and the rise of nationalist, populist, and antiglobalization forces elsewhere in Europe have formed a very different strategic landscape from the one that then U.S. president Barack Obama inherited eight years ago. The new U.S. administration will confront an exceedingly complex set of challenges. These include a global rebalancing of economic, political, and military power; a vast region in turmoil from North Africa to China’s western border; and uncertainty about the most important U.S. relationships with allies and partners in Europe and Asia. More fundamentally, the liberal international order that the United States and its European allies have upheld since the end of World War II is in danger of unraveling, and there is mounting concern that the United States may abandon its commitment to preserving this order.
Russia looms especially large on this landscape, and the task of formulating a sustainable policy toward Russia has risen to the top of the national security agenda for the new U.S. administration. But the attention devoted to Russia by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should not obscure the fact that Russia is not the principal challenge facing the United States and its allies. Any long-term U.S. policy framework must assess how the U.S. relationship with Russia represents only a subset of the broader global challenges posed by forces of national fragmentation and division; the rise of other centers of power and nonstate actors; the problems emanating from a broken, an angry, and a dysfunctional Middle East; the growing political appeal of populism and nativism; and sweeping technological changes.
The West’s relationship with Russia is and for the foreseeable future likely to remain largely competitive and oftentimes adversarial. But Russia is not the cause of the turmoil in the Islamic world, of the tensions between the United States and China, or of the crisis in the European Union. It may seek to capitalize on these developments or aggravate them, but Russia is not their driver or root cause. Solving the West’s Russia problem will not solve the numerous strategic challenges it needs to confront. At the same time, Russia can be part of the solution, and a more constructive U.S.-Russian relationship could help to produce better outcomes. But it cannot be the solution or an end in itself.
With that caveat in mind, it is hard to challenge the proposition that the rise of a more assertive Russia and the collapse of the post–Cold War security order in Europe in the wake of the Ukraine crisis have far-reaching implications for U.S. national security interests and those of its allies and partners around the world.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin mounted the first land grab since World War II and launched a bloody, covert war that shows no signs of ending any time soon. Russian military intervention in Syria has prevented the collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime and seriously constrained the options of the United States and its partners to influence the future direction of the conflict. The Kremlin’s unprecedented meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election via a multifaceted cyber and information operations campaign highlights the difficulty of establishing new norms for cyberspace. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s reliance on anti-Americanism and unrelenting crushing of internal dissent continues.
As disturbing as these developments have been to Western audiences, U.S. policymakers cannot lose sight of America’s strengths and advantages. Without downplaying the dangers inherent in the Kremlin’s risk-taking brand of foreign policy, there can be no mistaking the long-term weakness of the hand that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is playing. In the coming decades, Moscow will face political, economic, demographic, security, and geopolitical problems that can hardly be wished away or swept under the rug.
It is essential to take a cold, hard look at the near-term challenges that an emboldened Russian regime represents for U.S. interests as well as the potential areas that still exist for cooperation. Any appraisal will reveal that Russia, far from being just a regional power. Even if Russia were a declining power, history teaches us that such states can be extremely disruptive and do considerable damage as they descend. And if there is one thing known about Putin, he is a remarkable opportunist, capable of forcing the outside world to reckon with him—usually on his terms.
Notwithstanding the remarkable change in tone by the new administration, there is a need for abundant caution in dealing with Moscow, given the downside risks of stumbling into a possible direct confrontation. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to escalate disputes with the West in dangerous and irresponsible ways in order to throw his adversaries off-balance. The risk of a collision or military incident involving Russia has reached unacceptably high levels in recent months. By the same token, Russia’s resilience in the face of domestic challenges, economic sanctions, and international pressure over the past three years has confounded U.S. and EU policymakers.
These realities point to the necessity of carefully managing differences with the Russian regime—and standing firmly when U.S. vital interests are threatened. Steadiness and deliberation, therefore, must be at a premium, given that abrupt shifts in U.S. policy toward Russia and the broader Eurasia region could have a lasting negative impact on the fragile transatlantic relationship, contribute to the chaos in the Middle East, and erode the global preeminence of the United States and the durability of the international order that greatly benefits American security and economic prosperity.
The Trump administration has inherited a relationship at its lowest nadir in many decades. Although it will have to tackle some new and extremely complicated issues arising from recent events—Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential campaign and the impasse over Syria—the underlying challenges to better relations between the United States and Russia will not change. The Trump administration’s approach to issues of democratic governance, relations between Russia and its neighbors and U.S. ties to those neighbors, and the United States’ unilateral use of force will be pivotal to the quality and direction of U.S.-Russian relations.
The easiest definition of modern-day Russia is that it is a society and political system in transition. It left its communist, totalitarian system behind in the twentieth century. However, it is not clear what it is transitioning to—a more open and democratic political system, an autocracy with a market economy, or some hybrid form yet to be defined. The direction and speed of this transition is uncertain, and just as with the breakup of the Soviet Union, it could result in a sudden and unforeseen change, or it could remain frozen for years or even decades.
Amid this uncertainty, there is little dispute that power in Russia resides in the executive branch, overwhelmingly at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary. These are not equal branches of the Russian government. The presidency is the dominant institution. The president has the authority, given to him by the constitution, to rule by decree, bypassing the legislature. The prime minister and the cabinet have no standing independent of the president and take their guidance from him. The head of state is also effectively the head of government.
Putin’s decidedly less tolerant attitude toward the opposition eventually transformed the Duma into a docile institution ready to rubber stamp the Kremlin’s legislative initiatives with few, if any, checks and balances.
There is still genuine political opposition to the Putin government in Russia, but it has been marginalized and denied a voice in the domestic arena.
There is still genuine political opposition to the Putin government in Russia, but it has been marginalized and denied a voice in the domestic arena. The series of legislative measures adopted by the Russian government in the aftermath of the mass protests in Moscow in 2011–2012 have severely restricted the ability of the opposition to mobilize its potential electorate, to stage protests, and to reach out to the Russian people through the mass media.
When its own plans called for it, the government has mobilized and financed such groups. This was the case with the undeclared war in Ukraine, which was launched and conducted with critical participation by Russian nationalists and members of military veteran and radical organizations. The Kremlin has a long record of using right-wing, nationalist movements when it suits its purposes.
The weakened state of the domestic political opposition and the Kremlin’s monopoly on political power in the country, ironically, leave it facing an uncertain political future. Its dominant political position, demonstrated forcefully in the results of the September 2016 Duma election, has left it with few, if any, transmission belts to society at large.
As Russian domestic politics increasingly become an intra-elite affair, the elite’s ability to anticipate, let alone respond to challenges to its power and authority from below, is likely to suffer.
One of the biggest challenges facing the ruling Russian elite is the lack of an ideological foundation on which it can rely for domestic political mobilization. The break with the West, culminating in the Ukraine crisis, was not only a foreign policy matter. The Kremlin’s declaration at the time that “Russia is not Europe,” and the October 2014 assertion by its chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin that “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia,” marked the final rejection of Western liberal ideology.
The Kremlin has since struggled, however, to come up with a substitute ideology. The most obvious candidate is Russian nationalism, which has already been used by Putin on a number of occasions. However, the Kremlin has never been fully comfortable with Russian nationalism in the past: Russia remains a multinational state, and the Kremlin’s unconditional embrace of Russian nationalism as its ruling ideology would carry with it the danger of a backlash from the country’s many ethnic minorities.
Notwithstanding several weak points in the Kremlin’s domestic political circumstances—notably the lack of a guiding ideology and the disconnect between grassroots and elite politics—its position appears to be quite strong. The Kremlin faces no organized political opposition. It has a vast and reportedly well funded, well equipped, and loyal security apparatus. It has the support of an elite that is beholden to the Kremlin and dependent on it for economic benefits—and this loyalty is reinforced by a particularly close relationship between political power and property in Russia, where proximity to the Kremlin has long been essential to the country’s oligarchs’ ability to hold property and to operate.
A quarter century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia is ruled by a well-established authoritarian regime that is proving quite resilient. Its longevity cannot be predicted with confidence, as Russia’s trajectory over the past several decades has defied all prognostications. However, the regime faces no visible opposition either from the population at large or from the elite. In the absence of an organized grassroots opposition movement, the elite, rather than the population at large, appears more likely to be the source of any challenge to Putin’s continued rule.
The impetus for such a challenge is hard to pinpoint. The elite discourse over the past few years has been dominated by concerns about the country’s lackluster economy and the prospect of indefinite economic stagnation. The Putin era has also given rise to a series of clans within the security services whose leaders frequently compete for state budgetary resources and control over legal and illegal revenue streams. Putin’s establishment of a National Guard overseen by longtime personal bodyguard Nikolai Zolotov appears to be aimed at keeping close tabs on the security services and ensuring the loyalty of security forces that are crucial for the survival of the regime.
Of course, a challenge to Putin personally from within the elite is unlikely to lead to an opening of the political system to broader popular participation. Instead, it is more likely to foster competition and rivalry among various vested interests at the expense of any authoritarian successor to Putin who might emerge (whose outlook could very well be more conservative and nationalistic than Putin’s) or, alternatively, usher in a period of political instability and high-level political jostling. In theory, such scenarios could result in—relatively speaking—a more competitive domestic political environment, but they are still a far cry from a participatory, law-governed political system. A meaningful shift toward democracy in Russia appears to be a long way away.
No country of Russia’s size is as dependent as it is on the extraction of natural resources, particularly hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbon revenues have amounted to around 50 percent of total government revenues for many of the years between 2006 and 2016. Russia’s exports are dominated by natural resources to an even greater extent; all finished manufactured goods were less than 10 percent of the total. Among G20 countries, only Saudi Arabia—a country with one-fifth the population and a gross domestic product (GDP) half the size of Russia’s—is more resource-dependent than Russia.
The challenge Russia faces is that it has largely exhausted its opportunities for low-cost oil production growth. Further production growth was predicated on exploring and developing new, highly challenging regions, such as the Eastern Siberian permafrost region and offshore in the Arctic and Far East. Even without energy sanctions, those regions would be extremely costly to develop and hence economically viable only if oil prices remained high. U.S. and EU sanctions have blocked Russian access to technologies critical for the development of those regions, technologies that Russia will not be able to procure from other sources. Hence unless oil prices again resume their double-digit annual increases for a number of years, a prospect that appears highly improbable, it is likely that Russian oil production will not rise much above its current level of 10.6 million barrels per day, certainly not by enough to drive a broader economic expansion.
Russia’s economy will continue to confront a number of profound structural challenges that will limit the pace and the extent of that trend.
First, Russia’s cost advantage is likely to erode over time, especially after international sanctions are eventually rolled back. Investors are unlikely to invest in industries reliant on low labor costs in Russia in the foreseeable future, given the potential for exchange-rate movements and inflation to eliminate that competitive advantage very rapidly.
Second, Russia’s food sanctions, along with its local-content requirements in the automobile sector and other protectionist measures, also do not provide a basis for long-term investment in domestic production in Russia, since it is unclear how long they will be in place. The food sanctions are unlikely to outlast the Western financial sanctions on Russia. Many other measures will need to be phased out in the coming years under the terms of Russia’s 2012 protocol of accession to the World Trade Organization.
Third, despite the marginal recent improvements, Russia remains a challenging place to enforce contracts, protect intellectual property, defend one’s property against corporate raiders, and deal with its rent-seeking bureaucracy. Moreover, its storied education system is now delivering results that put the country disappointingly far below the average for members in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of educational achievement.
Russian policymakers have always viewed the states of the former Soviet Union as the essential security belt along Russia’s periphery that needed to be defended fiercely at every available opportunity. Western presence there—political, economic, or military (with or without boots on the ground)—was not seen by Moscow as either stabilizing or friendly. As soon as Russia was ready, it would engage in a geopolitical tug of war with Washington and its European allies.
Russian opposition to NATO and EU expansion was not missed or ignored in the West. But throughout most of the past quarter century, Russia was seen as either too weak or too interested in good relations with the West to do anything about it. Russian interest in trade, investment, technological and economic modernization, and participation in key Western clubs—the G8 meetings, EU-Russia summits, special Moscow-Washington-Berlin relationships, and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council plus Germany)—were thought to outweigh the Kremlin’s raw geopolitical ambition. The hope underlying the policy of twin enlargements was that the internal dynamics inside Russia and progress on domestic reforms would ultimately make it realize that the expansion of the West right up to its borders served Russia’s interests.
But as Russia’s domestic trajectory veered away from democratic and market reforms, and its foreign policy moved toward challenging the West, the key irritants in the relationship came more sharply into focus. These included the West’s criticism of Russia’s own democracy deficit and Russian suspicions that Western efforts to promote democracy in and around Russia were intended to destabilize, encircle, and weaken Russia and marginalize it geopolitically. U.S.-led NATO military operations in the Balkans in the 1990s raised the specter of humanitarian intervention inside Russia itself, which the West had accused of gross violations of human rights in Chechnya. Russia’s national security establishment saw the war in Iraq as further evidence of U.S. unilateralism and lack of restraint. And the democratic, color revolutions on the periphery of Russia in the 2000s were seen as Western handiwork intended to conceal the real goal: Western geopolitical expansion at Russia’s expense.
The notion that NATO might expand to include Ukraine and Georgia violated both Russian ideas about the right geopolitical balance in Europe, which included a cordon sanitaire on Russia’s periphery, and the Kremlin’s vision of how European security should be managed as a concert of major powers. With Georgia or Ukraine in NATO, not only would the alliance position itself on Russia’s doorstep but Kyiv and Tbilisi would also be seated at the table of Europe’s only remaining military alliance without Russia. Neither of those two outcomes was acceptable to the Kremlin, a state of affairs that ultimately prompted the Kremlin to intervene militarily in both countries.
Opposition to NATO enlargement appears deeply entrenched in Russian domestic politics. It has persisted throughout the entire twenty-five years of post-Soviet Russia and across a wide range of political parties and movements. Mistrust of NATO, no matter how well intentioned it appears in its declaratory policy, is unlikely to fade among Russian elites, even if a sudden radical change occurs in Russian domestic politics and a new team more friendly to the West takes the helm in the Kremlin.
Russian Grand Strategy
The grand strategy of Russia that has emerged from this worldview has been consistent and—from the Kremlin’s perspective—successful. It has prioritized preserving domestic stability and the current political regime in Russia, projecting and protecting its great power image abroad, and driving wedges and fostering disruptions within the Western camp. The strategy has effectively matched Russia’s means to these goals.
Inside Russia, the Kremlin has implemented an extensive campaign to minimize the prospects of the country’s internal political opposition ever gaining a foothold in Russian domestic politics. It has sought to limit and wherever possible eliminate the influence of foreign actors in Russian political life, the media, and the nongovernmental sector. It has also carried out a massive propaganda campaign intended to brand remaining opposition voices and groups as unpatriotic and agents of foreign influence and to mobilize support from the electorate for the Putin regime.
On the global stage, Russian foreign policy has pursued a series of partnerships—most notably with China—that help Russia counterbalance perceived U.S. hegemony and constrain its ability to act unilaterally. Russia’s permament membership in the UN Security Council has proved indispensable in challenging the United States and asserting itself as America’s near-peer competitor. The ability to act in concert with China to block U.S.-led attempts to put pressure on Syria’s Assad regime has enhanced Russia’s image as a major power capable of stopping the United States in its tracks.
In yet another application of this strategy in Syria, Russia has built on its partnership with the Assad regime and Iran to position itself as an indispensable actor whose military deployment—limited in scope and against a far inferior adversary—has changed the course of the conflict. The military move has demonstrated Russia’s new capabilities to project power beyond its immediate periphery, but was undertaken without undue risks, since the United States had effectively signaled its reluctance to become heavily involved militarily in the Syrian civil war. Thus the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States was minimized. The added benefit of this deployment was to cement Russia’s leading role in any political process on Syria and to enhance its image throughout the Middle East as a major power that, unlike the United States, comes to the rescue of its clients.
Around its immediate periphery, Russia has flexed its muscles with considerable economic, political, information, and, when necessary, military resources that are no match for its weaker neighbors. The supply of gas and electricity, the imposition of tariffs, and access to the Russian market are all sources of strategically important leverage for Moscow. The dominant role of Russian-language media in the information space of the former Soviet states serves the same purpose.
And when those nonmilitary assets are not enough, military means, both overt and covert, are deployed, as was the case with Georgia in 2008 and since 2014 in Ukraine. Both are important to Russia as buffer states that must be kept outside of NATO. And both have been targets of active U.S. and European policies intended to bring them into the Western sphere. Thus, keeping both out of that sphere is also symbolically important as an indicator of Russia’s ability to thwart U.S. and European foreign policy designs.
Elsewhere, in the West, including the Baltic states, where an outright conflict against a superior adversary is fraught with risk and its economic leverage is limited, Russia has pursued its strategy with nonmilitary means that have proved quite effective. It has engaged in information, disinformation, and cyber operations; supported populist political parties and movements to undermine the cohesion and resolve of Western governments; and used intimidation, including nuclear threats, to influence public opinion in the West.
The Kremlin intervened in the U.S. election to tilt the outcome in favor of President Trump, to undermine the credibility of the electoral system in the eyes of the American public, and to damage U.S. credibility as a supporter of democratic values abroad. All of these efforts have been relatively low-cost and low-risk activities. They are inherently difficult to defend or retaliate against and thus carry a low probability of confrontation. Yet, they have been extremely effective in projecting Russia’s image as a major power on the world stage and—just as important—deflating the image of the United States and its allies.
In Asia, Putin’s grand strategy is imbued with the same sense of calculating realism as in Europe and Eurasia. Throughout his presidency, and especially since the break with the West in his third term, the Russian president has pursued a close partnership with China. Putin’s embrace of China is both a matter of necessity and a deliberate choice borne out of Russia’s domestic circumstances and standing in the international arena. Good relations with China are also based on a shared aversion to Washington’s fondness for democracy promotion and unilateral military intervention. Moreover, Beijing’s lack of enthusiasm for challenging Washington directly and its willingness to take a back seat to Russia in the Syrian crisis have enhanced Russia’s leadership claim on the global stage.
However, Chinese officials maintain privately and sometimes publicly that, from their point of view, ties with Russia do not represent either a partnership or an alliance. Rather, this is largely a transactional and mutually convenient relationship. To Putin’s chagrin, overblown Russian expectations of a Chinese-sponsored financial and commercial windfall that would lessen the impact of U.S.-EU sanctions have not been realized. None of this is lost on Russian officials, but they appear content to carve out a role as Beijing’s junior partner and to accept the unequal nature of this relationship since it apparently suits both countries’ interests.
Since the break with the West over the annexation of Crimea and the undeclared war in Ukraine, Russia has drawn even closer to China. Beijing has not endorsed Russian actions in Ukraine, but it has withheld its criticism, too. It has not joined the U.S.-led sanctions regime to punish Russia even though Chinese financial institutions are careful not to run afoul of Western regulators. And it has not criticized Putin for Russia’s democracy deficit. These Chinese positions, coupled with Russian aspirations for expanding economic relations with China as a substitute for trade with the West, have fueled Russian enthusiasm for a deeper relationship with China. Although expanding those ties has proved challenging, the strategic rationale for partnership with China has not diminished. In fact, all signs—domestic and foreign—point to Russia’s continuing rapprochement with China.
The Russian Military
Although the transformation of Russia’s armed forces continues to be hampered by technological, manpower, and training problems, Russian military capabilities have seen steady if not spectacular improvement since 2008, when Moscow embarked upon a comprehensive military reform and modernization program underwritten by significant increases in defense spending. As a result of these efforts and a more assertive foreign policy, Russia poses a major challenge to European security and to countries of the former Soviet Union. However, Russia remains outclassed militarily by the United States and its allies, both globally and in the three most critical regions of Eurasia: the European theater, northeast Asia, and the Middle East. This balance is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. As seen in figure 2 below, the United States and its European and Asia-Pacific allies outspend Russia on defense by a margin of 10:1 ($1 trillion to $100 billion), and their combined GDP is over $37 trillion compared to Russia’s $1.3 trillion.29 America and its allies, moreover, enjoy technological superiority over the Russians, the Russians have no militarily powerful allies, and the United States maintains access to a global network of military bases and facilities.
Russia’s strategic and to a somewhat lesser extent nonstrategic nuclear weapons are the crown jewels in the Russian armed forces. They will for the foreseeable future threaten the United States and its NATO allies on the alliance’s eastern flank, as well as preserve Russia’s status as an equal nuclear power to the United States. The paramount role assigned to Russia’s nuclear forces is reflected in its official nuclear, defense, security, and foreign policy doctrines. Together, these statements maintain that a large and modern nuclear arsenal is essential to preserving strategic deterrence with the United States, global strategic stability, and Russia’s great power status. Moscow also places heavy reliance on its nuclear forces to compensate for what it perceives as Russian inferiority in conventional forces vis-à-vis the United States/NATO and the threat that NATO’s conventional, missile defense, nuclear, and prompt strike capabilities pose to Russia’s nuclear deterrent. In short, this arsenal is essential to Russia’s grand strategy.
The importance of nuclear weapons in Russian grand strategy is also reflected in an ambitious nuclear force modernization program launched nearly a decade ago. Under this program, every leg of Russia’s nuclear triad will be modernized with new delivery vehicles and several categories of improved weapons, resulting in a much more capable ballistic missile submarine force and a larger number of mobile ICBMs equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.30 Although the size of Russia’s stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear warheads will shrink, the remaining missiles will have longer ranges, carry more warheads, and possess greater accuracy. The pace of the program may slow down as a result of stagnant economic growth and cuts in defense spending, and trade-offs may need to be made between spending on conventional and nuclear forces. But the overall trajectory of Russia’s strategic forces’ development and the doctrine governing their use will not be altered within the next several years—a doctrine that, based on Russia’s exercises, operations, and force planning, suggests that Moscow may be lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in NATO contingencies.
Russia’s conventional capabilities are also improving in a slow and steady manner, albeit from a very low base following the hollowing out of these forces in the 1990s. Under the 2020 State Armament Program, more sophisticated training, a higher quality of new equipment, more realistic exercises, changes in personnel policies, reforms in military organization, and the experience gained from Russian military operations over the past decade have all created greater combat capability. Russia’s forces are now far more professional, ready, and mobile and they are under better command and control than they were when its defense modernization and reform program was launched eight years ago.
Russia’s conventional force improvements have not, however, created the capability to project and sustain military power around the world, and the country is a long way off from attaining military “peer competitor” status with the United States on a global scale. Nor are Russian conventional forces without their shortcomings. While Russia maintains a small force of well-led, highly ready, and well-trained and -equipped units, most of the 260,000 ground troops operate less modern and capable weapons and are at a lower state of readiness. Moreover, although some sectors of Russia’s defense industry are modern, efficient, and productive, the industry has many facilities that are antiquated, inefficient, and unproductive. As a result, Russia’s conventional forces will continue to lag behind the United States and even some NATO allies in important technologies that are critical to the success of modern warfare, including state-of-the-art command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance abilities and conventional precision strike weapons. In addition, a declining population base and other problems with recruitment and retention will make it difficult for Russia to meet its target of 1 million members in its armed forces comprised mainly of nonconscripted and contract personnel. These problems are reflected in continued reports of low morale, high desertion rates, and lack of discipline.31
Russia’s forces are now far more professional, ready, and mobile and they are under better command and control than they were when its defense modernization and reform program was launched eight years ago.
Over the last several years and in the face of slow economic growth and budget cuts, Moscow has maintained defense spending at 3.5 to 4.0 percent of GNP.32 To date, there has been strong political and public support for these expenditures, but stubborn economic and demographic realities will likely put the brakes on defense spending within the next few years. In fact, the Kremlin recently announced a 30 percent cut in defense spending in 201733; low oil prices, a continuation of Western sanctions, the loss of defense industrial capacity in eastern Ukraine, and a precipitous drop in foreign direct investment also raise doubts about Moscow’s ability to sustain high levels of defense spending over the next several years as well as the capacity of Russian defense industries to provide weapons and equipment comparable to what is in U.S. and Western inventories.
Russia has also improved its capabilities at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict. Indeed, as demonstrated by its military and information and cyber operations over the past few years in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, various EU countries, and the United States, it has an impressive arsenal of hybrid capabilities.34 Russia’s development and use of hybrid means of warfare is not necessarily new, innovative, or revolutionary. It may be of some utility in understanding Russia’s conceptual framework for the nature of modern conflict and future Russian military operations.35 However, it also appears that reliance on hybrid warfare is, from Moscow’s perspective, a response to its concerns that U.S. and Western efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Russia and post-Soviet states are a form of hybrid warfare directed at Russia. None of this should obscure the reality that Russian use of hybrid warfare techniques poses a unique challenge for the West. Moscow is likely to use those tools to advance its interests whenever it sees low-risk and low-cost opportunities.
Since the earliest post-Soviet days, Ukraine has struggled to find its footing as a unified, prosperous society and modern European state. The country’s size and remarkable diversity have made it difficult to consolidate its identity as part of the European mainstream and fostered patterns of dysfunctional governance and state capture by elite groups. The presidency of Viktor Yanukovych (2010–2014) was marred by unprecedented predatory crony capitalism and increasing coziness with Moscow.
The anger of Ukrainian civil society in response to Yanukovych’s betrayal of its European aspirations proved the critical factor that led to the downfall of his government in early 2014 and has played a critical role in Ukrainian politics since then.
Ukraine’s record since the revolution has also demonstrated that achieving those goals will be difficult, time-consuming, and frequently maddening. Besides the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine, the country faces many other obstacles—a powerful and entrenched oligarchy; disruptive, dysfunctional factional politics in the legislature; widespread corruption; weak rule of law and stalled judicial reform; a Russian economic blockade; an underperforming, unreformed economy; and the ever-present threat of Ukraine fatigue among key Western partners and international donors, to name just a few.
The IMF currently forecasts that Ukrainian GDP will grow by 1.5 percent in 2016 and 2.5 percent in 2017.42 In 2015, when the economy shrank by a whopping 10 percent, inflation soared, and foreign reserves dwindled, the withholding of IMF loans could have led the entire country to unravel.
Throughout this tumultuous period, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has steadily consolidated power. Western demands for dramatic anticorruption moves, political decentralization, and modest reform of the energy and state-owned sectors often run into fierce opposition from vested interests and Poroshenko’s closest associates. To break the logjam, the West has turned to increasingly stringent forms of conditionality.
Leaving aside the evident difficulties of the transition, most members of the ruling elite and Ukrainian society as a whole have no interest in trading their hard-won gains to become part of a Russia-centric political and economic order. Moscow’s gamble that military intervention, economic pressure, and covert forms of subversion would force Ukraine back into its sphere of influence has backfired in the most dramatic fashion. For an entire generation of Ukrainians and likely their descendants, Russia is no longer a friend. Rather, it is the biggest threat to their country’s survival, sovereignty, and independence. The rupture between Ukraine and Russia will be long-lasting and broad-ranging.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has taken on the characteristics of a long-term stalemate. Moscow via its proxy forces and military and security personnel is able to manipulate the level of violence up or down depending on near-term objectives. Moscow is insisting that Kyiv reintegrate the separatist-controlled enclaves with special autonomous status that would provide an effective veto over Ukraine’s geopolitical and security orientation, as well as domestic politics and policy choices.
High-level diplomacy led jointly by Germany and France has stopped large-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine, but full implementation of the Minsk accords is unlikely, given Moscow’s reluctance to implement a lasting ceasefire or withdraw heavy weapons along the line of contact. For its part, Kyiv may be considering the option of writing off separatist-controlled Donbas and sticking Putin with the bill for its inhabitants. Implementing the political aspects of the Minsk agreements would be tantamount to political suicide for the Poroshenko government. However, Kyiv wants to avoid the blame for the failure of Minsk and seeks to use Russian failure to comply with the accords’ security provisions as the basis for the indefinite extension of U.S.-EU economic sanctions.
THE RUSSIAN PROBLEM IN THE NEXT FOUR YEARS
Russia’s aggressive posture on the world stage will remain a challenge for the United States and its allies for the foreseeable future. Putin’s domestic popularity and legitimacy depend to some degree on his image of standing up to the West and his appeal to Russian nationalism and patriotism. He also equates Russian muscle flexing with achieving his goal of restoring the country’s great power status. Moreover, Moscow’s perception that the United States and the West pose a threat to Russian national security impels it to act aggressively and to see its competition with the United States and the West largely in zero-sum terms. All these factors portend a more dangerous relationship with the West and an escalating risk of a direct confrontation; they should also temper the West’s expectations that Putin is a man it can do business with while protecting core Western interests, values, and principles.
In the last eight years, the Russian armed forces have mounted a comeback, and the next four years will likely witness a continuation of this trend, even if it slows down due to domestic economic constraints. Equally important, Russia has asserted its interests more aggressively over the past decade and has demonstrated the will and a growing capacity to use force to defend those interests in Russia’s immediate neighborhood and beyond.
Barring some unforeseen development inside Russia, Putin will be in command for the next eight years, and while he has demonstrated a rational and calculating streak, he has also been less risk-averse and more unpredictable than previous Russian leaders. He is, moreover, determined to achieve great power status, to challenge U.S. leadership of the liberal international order, and to restore Russian control of what it considers its sphere of special influence in the post-Soviet space. When openly challenged by the United States and the West on matters that he considers vital to Russian national security and his political survival, Putin will not back down.And because Russia lacks the economic and financial clout and soft power of the West, it will in these circumstances push back with military means and especially its tools for hybrid warfare.
Nonetheless, the Russian conventional military threat over the next four years will be limited in scope. Putin is unlikely to hesitate in using force to prevent post-Soviet states from joining Western security institutions, engaging in large-scale mistreatment of Russian ethnic minorities, or retaking territory that is now in Russian hands (Crimea and the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia). He will also use whatever military force is required to prevent a collapse of the Assad regime, to put down threats to the existing order and other important Russian interests in Central Asia, and to defend the Russian homeland against Islamic jihadists. Sustained power projection on a global scale, however, will continue to be difficult and, given the risks and likely consequences, it is unlikely though not inconceivable that Russia will launch direct conventional attacks against any member of NATO.
But the threat of possible Russian aggression and meddling will continue to focus minds and stir worries along its vast periphery, including among the Baltic states, NATO members in Central Europe, and the Nordic countries. Russia is unlikely to engage in large-scale military operations in the greater Middle East outside Syria, reflecting the lack of appetite in Moscow for supplanting the Pax Americana in the Middle East with its own security guarantees. But it will seek opportunities to expand its influence beyond Syria.
Over the next four years, Russia’s use of hybrid warfare will pose the most serious military challenge to the United States and its allies and partners. As Eugene Rumer has observed elsewhere, “Surrounded by weaker neighbors, Russia can intimidate them, violate their sovereignty, and meddle in their internal affairs in ways that are well short of a full-fledged military crisis. . . . This challenge calls for a different kind of defense and deterrence than mutually assured destruction . . . which was at the heart of U.S. and Soviet strategy during much of the Cold War.” The difficulty the Obama administration had in formulating a doctrine and strategic concepts for deterring and responding to recent Russian cyberattacks in the United States illustrates this challenge. NATO, too, is wrestling with similar questions surrounding its response to a range of Russian nonkinetic operations directed against the Baltic states.
Transatlantic Unity and European Cohesion
Events on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that in the next few years, NATO and the EU will be tested like no other time in the history of their existence. This is a product of both internal trends within alliance and EU member states and external challenges they confront. While not the only threat to NATO and the EU, Russia and the alliance’s response to the challenge it poses now and for the foreseeable future will almost certainly prove to be the critical factor that will determine not only these member states’ future course, but also probably their very survival. Maintaining transatlantic unity and successfully withstanding the Russia challenge will mean that the alliance will emerge from this crisis strengthened and more capable of projecting its influence beyond its borders; the alternative will likely mean the end of its ability to function as an effective political and military organization.
To be sure, Russia is not the biggest challenge to NATO or the EU. The alliance and the EU are far superior to their current adversary in every respect—militarily, economically, and technologically, and they are in the possession of soft power and political and diplomatic influence. The existence of a waiting list to join the alliance and the EU speaks to their strength and standing on the global stage, as does the flow of millions of migrants trying to reach their shores. By contrast, there is no waiting list to join Russia’s military security organization—the Collective Security Treaty Organization—or its economic-political construct—the Eurasian Economic Union.
Russia has had to coerce its neighbors to join its economic, political, and security structures, and went to war with Ukraine and Georgia in the hope of keeping them in its orbit. No great power likes to walk alone, in the words of one prominent Russian foreign policy scholar, but Russia’s ability to attract a following has hinged on it being able to arm twist its smaller, weaker neighbors. Its much-heralded entente with China is an unequal relationship, in which Russia is universally recognized as the junior partner in what China sees as a relationship of convenience.
The challenges facing both the EU and NATO are indigenous to both organizations and their member states rather than products of Russian interference and maneuvering. They are well known—for example, the Trump administration’s well-advertised reluctance to foot most of the bill for European security, the tension between the nationalist and the integrationist tendencies within the EU and its member states, and the policy constraints and challenges imposed by the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) on a diverse set of economies.
It is far too early to judge whether the Trump administration will cast aside the alliance system that has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Europe following the end of World War II. Likewise, it is hard to predict how the EU will weather the current series of existential challenges let alone the impact of uneven development, geographic and cultural diversity, occasional overreach of its Brussels-based bureaucracy, and the natural desire for sovereign control by its member states.
However, these internal problems present Russia with plentiful and important opportunities to sow discord and confusion within and among EU member states and to capitalize on them. Support for populist political parties and movements, information and disinformation operations, and intimidation campaigns are tools that Russia has and will continue to use to undermine EU and NATO cohesion and render their foreign, security, and military policies ineffective.The European Union’s cohesion regarding sanctions against Russia and engagement with Ukraine is clearly fraying. Over the medium term, Moscow is betting that the EU’s influence beyond Europe’s borders and the durability of transatlantic ties will decline sharply.
At the same time, Russia’s aggressive behavior has had a sobering and galvanizing effect on both NATO and some members of the European Union. NATO has been energized to develop and implement new measures to defend against and deter Russian provocations and military threats to alliance members on the border with Russia. Combined with renewed emphasis on more equitable burden sharing within the alliance during the U.S. presidential election campaign, the Russian threat has prompted NATO’s European members to focus on their own long-neglected defense spending and capabilities. The hybrid nature of the threat posed by Russia also underscores the importance of closer NATO-EU cooperation to defend against it. The pledge to enhance this cooperation made at NATO’s Warsaw summit in 2016 is another encouraging and unintended consequence of Russia’s aggressive behavior.
The Kremlin’s narrative of Western encroachment on its interests and the West’s narrative of Russia as an aggressive revisionist power both promise to make for a long standoff between the transatlantic community and Russia. The asymmetry of the tools they have at their disposal underscores the uniquely important role of transatlantic cohesion and the diminishing ability of the allies to sustain it. Fear of terrorism and a backlash against immigration from Africa and the Middle East, combined with the growing popularity of conservative, populist, and nationalist forces in Europe, will pose a severe test for the transatlantic alliance’s ability to maintain a united front on sanctions and to prevent a return to business as usual. For countries like France and Italy, threats from the south and the Middle East tend to take precedence over the Russian threat and militate against continued confrontation with Putin. These countries may be emboldened to support a shift in transatlantic relations with Russia if the United States tilts in this direction and the United States and Russia begin working together more closely to fight groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
WHERE THE UNITED STATES NEEDS RUSSIA
It is difficult to make progress on nonproliferation problems without continued U.S.-Russian cooperation. However, while there are numerous opportunities for cooperation, Moscow is unlikely to be a reliable and consistent partner on nonproliferation. The Kremlin’s recent decision to suspend implementation of an agreement it signed in 2000, to dispose of excess plutonium, in response to growing tensions over Syria and Ukraine underscores Moscow’s willingness to use nonproliferation cooperation for political grandstanding. It may also foreshadow further Russian moves to walk back from cooperation with the United States on nonproliferation or to use this agenda as leverage on other issues.
Russia and the United States have common interests in preventing other countries from joining the nuclear club and in preventing terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia has a strong stake in preserving and strengthening the norms and institutions of the existing nuclear nonproliferation regime. That said, Russia simply does not attach the same priority to nonproliferation issues as the United States. Its approach to nonproliferation is often, like its approach to foreign policy in general, highly transactional. For the United States, preventing nuclear proliferation<