‘The Panjshir Valley 1980-86’

I’ve just had my advance copies of my latest Osprey book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, The Panjshir Valley 1980-86, in their Campaign series – it’s out on 28 October and available for pre-order.

Here’s the blurb:

When the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, they believed if they took the cities, the country would follow. They were wrong. The Red Army found itself in a bloody stalemate in the Afghan mountains, in the strategically vital Panjshir Valley, where they faced the most able and charismatic of the rebel commanders: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir’. Time and again the Soviets and their Afghan counterparts sought to take control of the Panjshir, and time and again the rebels either rebuffed their clumsy attempts or ambushed and evaded them, only to retake the valley as soon as Moscow’s attention was elsewhere. Over time, the rebels acquired new weapons and developed their own tactics – as did the Soviets. The Panjshir was not just a pivotal battlefield, it also shaped the subsequent Afghan civil wars that followed Soviet withdrawal, and the military thinking that is still informing the new Russian military. Featuring striking colour artwork battlescenes and detailed maps of the fighting, this is a compelling study of one of the hardest fought struggles of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

Here are some more pictures, giving a sense of the mix of text, 3d figures, maps and illustrations.

Of course, the Panjshir also turned out to be the last serious focus of resistance to the Taliban this year (under Massoud’s son) – and may well again become a region Kabul – whoever controls it – cannot truly conquer.

RHSS#8 Workshop, September 13, 2021: Russia’s Risk-Opportunity Calculus Evolution and Policy Response Implications

This is a summary of the discussion at the concluding workshop of the current series of online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 13 September 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian risk-opportunity calculus is evolving.  Russia preferences stability over renovation, but strategic surprises through 2020-2021 (Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Afghanistan) force risk-opportunity recalculation and generate a Patrushev-fostered impression that threats to Russian core national interests are increasing.
  • Institutional responsibilities also shape calculus, with Crimea an FSB bastion, Syria a MoD issue and approaches to the Arctic increasingly shaped by the MFA.  The MoD which is on the ground in conflict zones and addressing reality is more pragmatic and less ideological, less inclined to see the US “producers hand” as the cause of every source of insecurity.  The MFA’s approach to the Arctic appears pragmatic but in all other issues more ideological.
  • The competitive goals of all key Security Council stakeholders are served more through policies of confrontation with the West than de-escalation and cooperation.  The next generation will share the values of the current elite but not necessarily the priorities.

Patrushev, the Secretariat of the Security Council and Risk Calculus

Security Council Secretary Patrushev provides an example of how in Russia power and influence are not synonymous, and how political influence may be more effective than bureaucratic power.  Patrushev is an influential hawk, trusted by Putin.  He is a de facto National Security Advisor who shares, shapes and interprets Putin’s world view.  Like Putin, Patrushev privileges stability over renovation, supports the contention that all policy is security policy and Russia encircled by a destabilizing West/US (“ravaging the whole world to advance its hegemony”) intent on regime change.

  • The Security Council is a large body with an inner core of permanent members (akin to the Soviet Politburo) who are the key stakeholders in the system.  It is a deliberative rather than decision-making body.  Its Secretariat drafts the NSS, brokers inter-agency disputes, directly provides all threat assessment documents and acts as information gatekeeper – though FSB, SVR and GRU have direct inputs.
  • Patrushev is now 70, although physically fit and mentally alert. A bill passing through the Duma enables Putin to extend those who reach the 70 year hard cap (“Patrushev Amendment”).  His influence increased as Putin was subject to a bio-security bubble due to COVID.  There are no signs of SC Secretary succession planning.
  • The NSS (“paranoid’s charter”) recognizes and codifies the priorities and values of the Kremlin and is focused more on identifying constraints and challenges than opportunities and collaboration.  With Patrushev‘s continued presence and influence we can expect pragmatic confrontation continuity rather than productive relations.  Patrushev has an ally in Bortnikov, head of the FSB.
  • Putin always retains agency.  Though his natural pragmatism is distorted by his restricted access to very carefully doctored data, Putin can sack Patrushev if needs be.  However, Putin demonstrates a diminishing desire to go beyond the confines of current sources of information and believes Patrushev’s policy counsel provides best options for his own security, historical legacy and status of Russia.
  • SVR head Naryshkin is considered a good soldier and technocrat not policy setter, performing a function in which his personal capacity matters least. He implements broad policy objectives and advocates for funds.  It is likely Naryshkin retires to the Senate where he may remain influential voice depending on committee assignments.

The European Theatre: Russian Risk and Cost Calculus

Risk is another word for “probability”. In IR risk is related to the probability of major military conflict or war. Costs can be political (loss of status, prestige and influence) economic and financial, or invole loss of territory.

  • The Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 practically posed no risk of American and NATO military responses (that is, military support for Georgia) and carried very little cost: Relations with Russia very quickly reverted to “business as usual”.
  • Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine also posed no risk that the U.S or NATO would intervene militarily in support of the Ukrainian armed forces. But Russia’s military intervention this time entailed substantial political and economic costs.
  • The Zapad (West) strategic maneuvers are conducted every four years by Russia and Belarus, with a (more or less symbolic) sprinkling of units from other countries. They cover the area from the borders with Norway and the Kaliningrad oblast’ to the Crimea and the Black Sea.
    • Concerning Zapad-2021, actual figures of how many Russian soldiers are participating vary considerably. The Russian defense ministry provided a figure of 200 000, which is almost certainly an exaggeration. Rosgvardia is participating with its own forces to exercise the suppression of so-called “diversionary” activities. That may explain part of the inflated MoD figure.
    • According to Belarusian official sources, the scenario is predicated on a deterioration of the military and political situation in Europe.  The West, having failed to destabilize Belarus through non-military means, a hostile coalition decides to use force to achieve its political aims comprising Nyaris (Lithuania?), Pomoria (Poland?), and the Polar Republic (Norway?) along with so-called terrorist organizations. 
    • The task for the joint Russian-Belarusian forces is to compel this Western group to terminate hostilities and withdraw its forces. The exercise is conducted in two stages. In the first stage, Russian forces simulate the military intervention and the joint Russian and Belarusian response, which include engaging in sustained counterattacks, seeking to disorganize and degrade the opponent’s offensive operation through conventional strikes and electronic warfare. The second phase involves a comprehensive combined-arms “counteroffensive”.
    • Putin is known to make unexpected moves, not a self-destructive megalomaniac. A frontal attack by regular Russian troops on a neighboring NATO country would pose disproportionate risks and, therefore, is not to be expected. More to the point, Viktor Gulevich, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Belarus, has stated that the maneuver was a signal to the West that it cannot speak to Minsk and Moscow from a position of strength.  In addition, Zapad-21 encourages close cooperation and integration, as do the joint Union Shield and Slavic Brotherhood exercises and the purchase of Russian weapons (Belarus plans to buy $1 billion worth of Russian weapons by 2025). Both states are dismantling and militarizing their civil society, use violence to suppress any criticism and opposition and increase the power and influence of the law enforcement agencies. It is also likely that Zapad-21 is used to intimidate neutral and “anti-Russian platform states” in Russia’s neighborhood.
    • Western responses rely on three deterrence pillars: 1) national armed forces; 2) NATO‘s rotating enhanced forward presence with its symbolic “trip wire” function and 3) reinforcement during war-time.  Reinforcement, however, is unlikely to succeed because Russia has constructed a wide-ranging anti-access / area denial network of ballistic missiles, combat aircraft and air defense systems, a kind of “defense dome” over the Baltic Sea region, which the NATO air forces would find difficult to penetrate.
    • The Arctic is the only theater that Russia feels strong in comparison to NATO.  Russia wants to make its chairmanship of the Arctic Council a success and does not want tensions in relations with China.  As a result, Russia emphasizes cooperation, engagement and joint projects.  A third test of the Burevesik nuclear cruise missile or not – essentially the risky crash landing of a nuclear reactor – is a good indicator of whether cooperation or confrontational impulses dominate Russia’s Arctic policy.
    • Constituencies in Moscow advocate three different approaches to Ukraine: 1) “Russia’s own security necessitates absolute control of Ukraine through Donbas” – that appears to be the dominant view at present; 2)  “Ukraine is a side-show; the current status quo is the best state of affairs” – a choice exemplified by Kozak as kurator (fixer and manager) of Donbas as his approach appears to minimize risks, costs and secure control; 3) “withdraw from Ukraine as the US did from Afghanistan” – the option that dare not speak its name.  The next generation in Russia may view Ukraine much more as a foreign county than the current elite.  

Russia, Afghanistan and the Middle East

  • Russia’s risk calculus with regards to Afghanistan has evolved: 1) From 2001-2014 risk avoidance was the core policy objective, with Russia as a relatively marginal player, critical of but not fully opposed to the NATO mission; in 2014-15 Russia shifted policy towards risk mitigation, engaging the Taliban and opening up relations with Pakistan; from 2018 to 2021 Russia looked to capitalize on opportunities through intra-Afghan politics involvement and regional diplomatic efforts; by August 2021 Russia was one of three priority countries for the Taliban.
  • Russia was involved in risk taking – Taliban bounties, providing a public platform for the Taliban in Moscow and straining relations with India – but these moves are best understood as tactics in a wider risk mitigation strategy aimed at opening up new channels of influence with the Taliban and other militant actors and improving ties with Pakistan. Russian diplomacy through the Moscow Format and other talks is inclusive in that it engages states on the basis of shared interests, not shared values. 
  • Russia emerges as a reasonably influential power, with traction on the ground in Afghanistan and with its CSTO allies in Central Asia more resilient than in the 1990s, with greater capacity while the attraction of radical ideologies are less and China, Russia and the West prepared to offer more support.  However, with the formation of a 33 person Sunni clerics and Pashtun non-inclusive government, Russia hedges, with Patrushev in India seeking to strengthen ties. Russia is also aware that its CSTO allies are hardly united: Tajikistan rejects the Taliban outright; Uzbekistan is lukewarm and Turkmenistan (“positive neutrality”) is quietly seeking to do deals with the new regime.  Russian-led snap CSTO military exercises are designed to reassure allies and signal resolve to the Taliban.
  • The worst case scenario for Russia would be an all-out conflict in Afghanistan, one that gives space to groups such as Islamic State – Khorasan to thrive, and risks a regional divide with  Pakistan and China supporting the Taliban, while Russia, Iran and India sponsor a “Northern Alliance 2.0”. Russian policy will be directed towards avoiding this outcome as well as the proliferation of refugees, opium and radical jihadi ideology through Central Asia and into Russia.  At the same time, Russia will work to maintain its position as the key security provider in Central Asia and as a key diplomatic player on Afghanistan, proving not only to the West that Russia is back, but also demonstrating to Beijing that it is an indispensable partner.
  • In the Middle East, Russia becomes more cautious and risk averse, due to set-backs that highlight the limits of its influence.  An all-out attack on Idlib in 2020 was vetoed by Turkey.   Russia’s support for Haftar in Libya was also opposed by Turkey, with Haftar’s forces pushed from the suburbs of Tripoli; the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was a strategic surprise, but with risk came opportunity in the shape of a new military base and PKO in Azerbaijan.  The status quo in Syria – the bridgehead of Russia’s Middle East presence – could be upended suddenly, with a Lebanon scenario occurring.  U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates a Patrushev-led “first Kabul then Kyiv” narrative premised on the notion that the U.S. is an unreliable security partner.  However, it also poses the question: what is Russian national interest in Syria?

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Hannes Adomeit, Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

An Afghan Miscellany

Given that it is understandably dominating the news cycle, I just wanted to out together a quick summary of some of my recent writing and broadcasting on the situation in Afghanistan – and the Soviet ten-year war there, which has its own resonances with the current conflict.

Back in July, I commented for the Spectator on ‘The Soviet spectre haunting Afghanistan,’ as the impending Allied pullout threatened chaos that would inevitably affect Russia, raising the risk that some day it might be forced to intervene again, although no Kremlin leader would do this at all likely. The sheer scale of the debacle that followed the mishandled US withdrawal has only compounded this, and as I later wrote in the Moscow Times, ‘Moscow Watches Kabul’s Fall With Some Satisfaction, Much Concern.’ Insta-pundits who talk of Russian gloating or even some kind of Kremlin ‘bet on the Taliban’ really need to do their homework – the Russians are worried, and this is something I explored in more depth in the latest episode of the In Moscow’s Shadows podcast, ‘In Moscow’s Shadows 42: Moscow’s Afghan Worries, and the Trouble with Predictions.’

It’s not just about Afghanistan’s capacity to destabilise the region, and its continuing role as a source of the opiates that are such a scourge for Russia (though as I wrote back in 2001, it’s still ‘Business as usual for Afghan drugs‘). Rather, it is obviously the impact of that vicious and miserable Soviet war, one which brought so much misery back home, as well as being a brutal experience for the Afghans themselves. I discuss this in the recent episode of the excellent Angry Planet podcast, ‘When the Soviets Fled Afghanistan‘, although let’s be honest: their ‘flight’ was actually a much more careful, staged and well-planned withdrawal than the US departure. I mention in that my veteran book-of-the-PhD, Afghanistan: the Soviet Union’s last war (Routledge, 1995) but also two much more recent and affordable books from Osprey: Storm-333, which came out in March, that looks in detail at the Soviet commando raid that began the war, taking out the brutal dictator Hafizullah Amin, and The Panjshir Valley 1980–86, out in October, that looks at what was the crucial battlefield of that conflict – and may be again today.

‘Will RT acknowledge it was wrong?’

OK, fat chance, one might say – but let me explain. Under the headline ‘‘Will Die Welt acknowledge it was wrong?’, Russian state TV channel RT has been making hay with the news that a German court found that a critical piece in Die Welt (here, if you’re interested) made untrue statements about RT. Now, let’s be clear – the article is indeed pretty shoddy, and something of a case study in the kind of cheap reporting that represents a very real problem – Russian disinformation – as an issue much more dangerous than it really is.

However, what inevitably caught my eye is the following line in the RT piece:

The column, bylined by Die Welt writer Ulrich Clauss, sought to expose a purported Russian disinformation campaign in Germany and targeted RT DE as one of its elements. The alleged operation, the article said, was being conducted under the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine’. It’s a non-existent Russian military policy that even Mark Galeotti, the person who coined the term, acknowledged was a product of translation error.

Now, I have time and again tried to lay the ghost of the mythical doctrine, both on this blog and in sundry articles, including the Foreign Policy piece linked there. I have always been absolutely clear that the issue is that, even while acknowledging in the original blog post from 2014 that Russian Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov probably didn’t write the original 2013 piece that started the whole business ‘and it certainly isn’t a doctrine‘, I used a placeholder title, and people obsessed on that, not the actual analysis. I stand by the actual content of the blog – my ‘guilt’ is is having created a snappy term.

I’ve never said that it was a problem with the translation (which was by Robert Coulson of RFE/RL), but RT has long been claiming this, albeit without even saying quite what the translation error is meant to be. I think the original allegation came from long-time RT stalwart Bryan MacDonald, but it has been used by other RT writers since. (Although these days it seems RT pieces – like the one in question – are often unbylined, so it’s hard to know who is writing for them.)

So, as I have repeatedly said,

  1. I do not believe there was any such translation error
  2. The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ does not exist – but nor did I ever claim it did
  3. The problem came from people seemingly too eager to see some nefarious Russian scheme, and for whom a neat term like this was too good or useful to question.

I’ve been hammering on about this from the first, long before the 2018 article in Foreign Policy. I’ve even explored quite why the ‘doctrine’ acquired such traction for the journal Critical Studies on Security. Assuming the people at RT do even the least homework, or even just read replies to past tweets of theirs, they know all this.

Yet still the false claim that this was a translation error (which presumable is meant to delegitimise the source?) persists – and also that I ‘acknowledge’ this.

I would also add that to the best of my knowledge, they have never reached out to me to fact check or otherwise support their claim, something that I thought ought to be basic journalistic good practice.

There’s an irony that in what is a story actually about RT being vindicated – and as I have said in the past, as well as the RT-as-Kremlin-propaganda there is also RT-as-clickbait-journalism and RT-as-decent-broadcaster – that they cannot just accept a bit of positive affirmation, but have to push it further, and roll untruths and hints of sinister conspiracy (‘was it a mistake or a deliberate provocation, what do you think?‘) into it.

So, I find myself wondering, ‘Will RT acknowledge it was wrong?’ As Dinara Toktosunova, head of RT in Germany, apparently opined, ‘I hope our colleagues will have the dignity to acknowledge their mistake.’

Biden-Putin Geneva Summit, June 16, 2021

This is a summary of the discussion at the most recent of the online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 15 June 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The speakers were Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence/UCL/RUSI and Pavel Baev of PRIO, and the discussion was moderated by Graeme Herd of the GCMC. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

RHSS#6, June 15, 2021

‘Biden-Putin Geneva Summit, June 16, 2021’

Central Proposition: Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. is now the norm; relations with the EU have deteriorated to a record low and will continue to remain there; and offensive cyber operations as well as active measures against the political West are ongoing and likely unremitting.  The strategic interests of Russia and the West are incompatible and irreconcilable. 

Context: Characterizing U.S. Policy to Russia:

  • There is a transatlantic consensus for a targeted “pushback” against the Kremlin’s malign activity and influence and to build resilience in defense of shared core democratic values and practices. This approach suggests targeted ‘Containment 2.0’, in that it seeks to contain (or constrain) Russian aggressive and malign strategic behavior within “stable and predictable” lines.   
  • The U.S. and Europe can coordinate approaches to “impose real costs” to reduce Russian military and diplomatic efficacy through disruption. Disruption can cause friction, overextend and unbalance Russia and thereby control Russian escalation and deter further malign activity. The tools at the disposal of the U.S. and its friends and allies that facilitate the imposition of costs are varied and context specific. These tools can be diplomatic, economic and cyber. 
    • Diplomatic tools include “attribution diplomacy” (“name and shame”), diplomatic expulsions, and closing diplomatic properties.
    • Economic tools are also varied.  Tariffs, full embargoes and restrictions on technology sales necessary for hydrocarbon exploration and production, could shape Russia’s malign strategic behavior.
    • Cyber tools can be used to reveal or freeze Russian leaders’ foreign assets and expose corruption and a policy of “defend forward” or “hack back” can be used.   
    • In public diplomacy terms, the West can restructure the narrative from Putin’s preferred image of Russia as a besieged fortress encircled by an aggressive, dysfunctional, and failed West to one about a Russian kleptocracy and oligarchy (“Kremlin blacklist”) versus Russian civil society. As well as countering Russia directly, the West needs to invest in narratives that point to the advantages that liberal and democratic practices can offer, and the connections between rule of law, transparency and accountability with development, progress, peace and stability, as well as help countries build their capacity and strengthen their statehood (sovereignty and territorial integrity).
  • A ‘theory of change’ underpins sanctions against the Russian oligarchic business elite close to Putin. Sanctions are designed not to crash the Russian economy or force regime change, but rather to impose a cost on those sanctioned, and thereby change Russian strategic behavior from destabilizer to constructive international relations actor. 

Context: Characterizing Russian Policy towards the U.S.

  • Anti-Americanism is not a temporary phenomenon: “Putin and his anti-Western rhetoric remain popular in Russia precisely because he expresses a view widely held domestically (and reinforced by ceaseless anti-Western propaganda).” Putin, himself subject to emotional neuralgias, has proved a master at exploiting the dominant phobias, expectations, myths and emotions of Homo sovieticus, mainly because he himself shared them and so could ride “the wave of the public disorientation, frustration, resentment, and diffused aggression.”
  • Confrontation with the West are not based on misperceptions: Confrontation is hard-wired into Russia’s foreign policy and current strategic behavior is unlikely to change.  As Pavel Baev observes: “Every step in bolstering solidarity among Western democracies and in upholding democratic values constitutes a threat to the existence of this corrupt autocracy, and no détente or a “reset” can possibly mitigate that threat in the Kremlin’s eyes.” In reality, Russia is too weak for the U.S. to recognize as an equal, too strong to be willing and able to accept unequal tactical allay status.
  • Russia explains its failure to gain recognition as a product of the U.S.’s determination to oppose it through “containment”. 
    • In February 2021, President Putin noted the United States’ “so-called containment policy towards Russia.” He stated: “This is not competition as a natural part of international relations, but a consistent and highly aggressive policy aimed at disrupting our development, at slowing it down and creating problems along our external perimeter and contour, provoking internal instability, undermining the values that unite Russian society, and ultimately, at weakening Russia and forcing it to accept external management, just as this is happening in some post-Soviet states…”.  
    • In May 2021, at an online meeting of the UNSC Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow views as unacceptable attempts by the U.S. and the EU to impose “totalitarianism”. Lavrov argued that Western countries instrumentalize the notion of a “rules-based order” and sanctions as a substitute of the norms of international law to prevent the process of the formation of a polycentric world.  Later that month, at a Russian-German Potsdam Meeting forum, he accused Germany of stepping up its containment policy toward Moscow: “We have to admit that Berlin has only intensified its policy of systemic containment of Russia.”
  • Russia leverages unintended consequences of U.S. pushback:
    • Putin can profit from sanctions by redistributing resource rents to strengthen the existing system and elite cohesion. Sanctions provide an alibi for economic downturn and encourage de-dollarization of SWF by end of June, use of a digital rouble and other alternatives to SWIFT.  The “theory of change” that animates Western policy appears unproven.
    • Attribution diplomacy can be ineffective when siloviki in Russia have de facto immunity from prosecution.Adverse publicity can intimidate opponents, instruct, and educate society into submission, be worn as a badge of loyalty and have a rally round the flag effect.  Information secrecy in Russia is justified as is greater KGB-SVR cooperation “to counter Western destabilization”.

Geneva Summit, 16 June 2021

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev met in Geneva for preparatory talks. Sergei Lavrov characterised the talks as “frank” and showing a potential to “remove certain irritants” in bilateral relations and “covered the entire spectrum of our relations, similar to our discussion with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken a week earlier in Iceland”. 
  • Engagement with Putin’s Russia poses dilemmas and difficult choices.  While this coercion-plus-dialogue statecraft approach to Russia may better manage conflicts and disputes at lower risk and is supported by allies (Charap, 2021), a trade-off exists between widening negotiations to create leverage between issues areas, and increasing the legitimacy of the Putin regime through high level dialogues and summits. (Petrov, 2021) 
  • What does Putin want?
    • A legitimizing spectacle that raises his profile, underscores Russia’s Great Power status and suggests Russian power plays win external recognition and acknowledgement.  “Biden’s initiative on granting Putin the privilege of a personal meeting, which incentivized Russia to reduce military tensions with Ukraine—but also paved the way for Gazprom to complete the construction of the geopolitically divisive Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline.” (Baev)
    • President Biden’s conditional offer of “stable and predictable” relations should Russia refrain from malign activity is problematic for Russia, as to be both stable and predictable is to be strategically irrelevant.  In most policy areas, excepting perhaps the Arctic, Russia seeks to be stable but unpredictable to maintain its strategic relevance.  For Russia, Belarus is very unstable but Russian support very predictable.  Ukraine is stable and unpredictable and the Middle East neither stable or predictable. 
    • Likely agreement to start discussions on strategic stability re strategic offensive and defensive weapons, non-strategic nuclear weapons and even space. Given that the larger the agenda, the lengthier and more complex the talks will be, the greater the ability of Russia to shape the agenda, and define the parameters. The talks become an end in and of themselves: political theatre and stagecraft trumps statecraft.
    • Emotional neuralgias of a mature autocracy are central to the Summit: grievance and resentment that the “empire was taken from us” animate Putin’s inner circle. (Galeotti, 2021)  The Summit presents an opportunity to push back and a chance to lay down red lines.  Discussion of Russian domestic affairs (the escalation of repression) is considered off-limits, as are granting Ukraine NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, or attempts to deny Russia its “rightful role.” Putin is not an anarchist: he only opposes the notion of a rules based order when he feels Russia does not have a say in their formulation and implementation.  These feelings make it harder to convince Putin that current frameworks work to Russia’s advantage. 
    • It is in Russia’s interest not to highlight its partnership with China as this detracts from Russia’s standing and draws attention from the uniqueness of a forum where China not strategically relevant.  
    • The inclusion of Dmitry Kozak (Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine) and Alexander Lavrentyev (Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Syria) in the Russian team may indicate that Ukraine and Syria are on the agenda.  President Zelensky is nervous that the U.S. may not be a reliable partner, while the slow implosion of Belarus and its increasing dependence on Russia relieves some of the pressure Russia imposes on Ukraine. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

The Grand Old Sergei Shoigu, He Had 10(0),000 Men…

Oh, the grand old Duke of York

He had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again

There’s a fair amount of bemusement about the news that Russia is scaling down its troop build up around Ukraine. As ever, this provides an opportunity for everyone to spin their favoured line. For some, it’s that Putin “won” by getting Biden to offer a summit. For others, that Putin was deterred by US sanctions. The former has some merit, the latter much less so. I think it’s a little more complex.

Defence Minister Shoigu himself announced the spin-down: “I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved.” Given that “the troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country” then “I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews.”

Of course, the exercises and snap inspections to which he is referring where actually retroactive justifications for the concentration of forces, so we ought not to give this too much credit.

However, there was never a great likelihood of a major offensive by the Russians. (Lest this sound like I am being wise after the event, here’s something I wrote for BNE Intellinews at the start of the month.)

First of all, there were questions about the adequacy of the logistics present – there was a lot of front-line hardware, very ostentatiously assembled, but armies march on their stomachs, fuel bowsers, ammunition depots and field kitchens, too. Secondly, with the Ukrainian military now numbering some 250,000 men and woman, and having gone through quite an effective reform process, while no one could doubt the Russians’ capacity to make local or even major advances, there would be serious casualties. With a distinct lack of enthusiasm at home, and elections looking, why would Putin risk the backlash from a bloody and unpopular conflict? Those who talked about Putin trying to provoke a crisis to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect thoroughly misunderstand Russia’s mood, I think.

But most fundamental of all, what would the political aim of any major escalation be? Wars are fought for a reason. The perennial talk of driving a land bridge to Crimea, or seizing the North Crimea Canal, or degrading the Ukrainian military, none of them were credible, especially when offset against the inevitable and massive costs of sanctions, let alone military reversals. Even Berlin, that has so resolutely fought to keep the 95%-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline unconnected from the political scene, would have been hard-pressed to maintain this stance if Russian tanks were driving into Ukraine, and Russian aircraft in Ukrainian skies.

So what was this about? I felt this was about a concatenation of three factors

  1. Late April is when the campaign season always starts, as thaw muds dry, and each year we get the “OMG, Russia’s going to invade” chorus, especially from certain quarters in DC. Sure, this concentration of forces was unusual, but some escalation is normal.
  2. Zelensky’s new shift towards attacking “pro-Moscow” forces at home, not least to shore up his flank from the nationalists, was perceived as a hostile move in the Kremlin, and one that demanded punishment
  3. The Kremlin is unhappy with the Donbas status quo, and has been for a while, and the operation was an attempt to push Kyiv towards renewed negotiations on Moscow’s terms. We probably would have seen this kind of move last year, had COVID not disrupted everything.

As is, there has been no such renewal of negotiations – to be blunt, that was never on the cards, but Moscow is both optimistic and often misreads Kyiv. However, the Russians tend to be flexible in their iterative assessments of costs and benefits. By now

  1. Kyiv is clearly not going to shift
  2. Biden has offered Putin a summit, which speaks to a primal need to be treated as the US’s equal or at least a necessary interlocutor. The Kremlin probably feels it forced this on him, just as the 2015 Syrian intervention pushed Obama into meeting Putin at the UN.
  3. Russia has made the point that it can quickly assemble massive forces in-theatre, and at a time when Ukraine’s requests to join NATO are likely to be met with the most polite of rain checks, it emphasises to Kyiv that what didn’t happen this time, could easily happen next time
  4. The hawks are left off-balance, and next time they start predicting Russian aggression, whether in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia or wherever, Moscow can point to the 2021 Ukraine Offensive That Never Happened, whether to defang them, or to keep people guessing in case there is a real attack planned that time

As is, Moscow likely feels it got enough out of the operation compared with the costs of either extending the build up or moving onto the offensive, that it can be satisfied with the result. And the 58th Army of the Southern Military District, the 41st Army of the Central Military District, and the 7th and 76th Airborne Assault and 98th Airborne Divisions all got a good workout.

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