GPCSS#3, November 30, 2021: Russia and China Trade and Technology Dependence? 

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Great Power Competition Seminar Series (GPCSS) webinars held on November 30, 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.


How might we understand the term ‘economic dependence’ when applied to trade flows and technical cooperation between two states? Economic and technological links turn into dependencies when the link becomes difficult to replace and too powerful to lose, given resultant political tensions and pressure. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches can highlight the existence of dependencies. Quantitative factors include the size of trade and investment, labor migration and tourism. Dependencies can be analyzed and understood using statistical data and economic models. Dependency mitigation strategies can include the use of central bank reserves to replace export revenues if needs be e.g. if a downturn in exports of gas to the Chinese market. Qualitative approaches, by contrast, are less transparent and dependencies in technologies, key resources and critical infrastructure much harder to fully understand using statistical and trade data. Instead, academics, analysts and governments use anecdotal evidence, scenarios and foresight to uncover how deep the dependencies go. Mitigation strategies center on import substitution, but this can be difficult. Trade and technology cooperation is an important indicator of the nature, scope, and future trajectory of overall Sino–Russian relations. 

Bilateral Trade: 

Russian trade with China increased in mid-2000. Bilateral trade was shaped predominantly by economic factors, contracting after the global financial crisis of 2009 and a drop in oil prices in 2014 that coincided with the annexation of Crimea and sanctions on Russia. 2021 represented a record year, as by the third quarter trade reached the levels of 2019, the pre-pandemic high. China’s share in Russia’s foreign trade stood at 2-3% of total trade in 1996, moving to 20-25% by 2021. However, from China’s perspective Russia’s share of China’s total trade has remained static, indicating while trade is deepening, it is one sided. 

Moreover, quantitative data demonstrates the nature of trade flows between the US, EU 28, China and Russia. The slide above illustrates the relative size of GDPs (represented by size of circles) and trade flows (indicated by size of arrows). It is very clear that Russia is the economic outlier when compared to the three other blocs, with an economy the size of Spain or Italy. For both China and Russia, their economic relations with the West are much greater than bilateral flows between each other. As a result, China, for example, broadly respects Western sanctions in its trade relations with Russia. When we do focus on qualitative nature of the Sino-Russian trade, it is clear that Russia continues its commodity export model, indicating stagnation, while China moves to export higher value added goods, reflecting economic advancement. The expansion of overall bilateral trade and economic cooperative relations is primarily shaped by the profit principle, complementariness and mutual commercial gains. 


Technological cooperation between Russia and China increased in the mid-2010s, but can be characterized as sporadic and focused on a small number of projects in arms technology, nuclear power and space exploration until 2018 when the US sanctioned China (Huawei). Sino–Russian emerging technology cooperation increases in more sensitive regarding collaboration in more strategic technologies, such as AI, information and communication technology (ICT), cyberspace and aerospace engineering, along with advanced military-technical cooperation. Already in the 1990s, there was cooperation around space exploration, but efforts to build a wide-body aircraft (CR-929) and an Advanced Heavy Lift Helicopter came only in the 2010s. 

China focuses on common science and university research projects with Russia. Sino-Russian research teams published 1500 papers in 2015, 3000 by 2019. However, collaborative technological links with the West are much stronger: Russia-German research teams, for example, published 5000 research papers in 2019. Technological research and development is one area where Russia still has certain advantages over China (particularly in aerospace engineering, arms and nuclear sectors) and Russian official strategy seeks to safeguard this advancement, shaping the nature of its collaboration with China. One Russian cause of concern is Chinese firms hiring Russian IT specialists at higher wages to work in Russia, so depriving Russian companies of home-grown talent, representing ‘a brain-drain with Chinese characteristics’. From a Russian perspective potential Chinese FDI in the technology sector raised the greatest hope but least results, though FDI admittedly hard to measure if it is delivered through conduit countries or firms (e.g. Cyprus). 

Intensified strategic competition with the United States, its friends and allies promotes bilateral cooperation to counter-balance Western pressure and policies. Advanced arms trade and military-technical cooperation suggests future ambitions to promote collaboration in such areas as hypersonic technology, the construction of nuclear submarines, and strategic missile defense. If both Russia and China integrate their air and early warning missile attack systems and jointly share data and information about third-party launches. Russia would warn the Chinese about incoming missiles strikes, especially ICBMs, from stations in Russia’s north; and China would similarly warn the Russians via Chinese stations in China’s south and southeast. Another a key incentive for “authoritarian collaboration” is provided by the need to strengthen regime security, reflected in facial recognition technologies and a focus on Internet governance and control. In this respect, considerations that shape technological cooperation are less profit driven and more ‘political’. 


Post-Crimea 2014 Western sanctions do not provide a compelling explanation of Russia’s pivot to China given Russia pivoted after the global financial crisis in 2009 (when Russia’s GDP contracted by 8%) to avoid overdependence on the West and to catch China’s economic wind in Russia’s sails, to use Putin’s phrase. Western sanctions caused Chinese businesses, such as banks, to severe links with Russia, reflecting the reality that Western markets are more important to China than Russia’s. Potential future Western sanctions of Russia could focus on Russian government bonds and state companies, with RUSAL’s experience an object lesson, causing pain for Western economies, but much more for Russia’s, and likely to scare off China, as before. 

Were a hard decoupling of international supply chains to occur between the West and China, to what extent might China use Russian markets to mitigate its effects, given that Russia is politically aligned with China, but economically with the West? As Russian-Chinese bilateral relations best develop in a stable international environment the potential disruption of hard decoupling would not benefit the Russian economy nor compensate China for the disruption to Western exports: discretionary spending is low in Russia following ten years of falling living standards and the Russian market is small and already saturated with Chinese goods. Russian oil infrastructure (pipelines) is a lesser concern for economic dependency, as the oil market is much more flexible and return on investment much quicker in oil rather than gas pipelines, for example. In addition, China can increase gas supplies from Turkmenistan and LNG deliveries to compensate for Russian potential supply shortfall. 

The read ahead for GPCSS#3: Christopher Weidacher Hsiung, “China’s Technology Cooperation with Russia: Geopolitics, Economics, and Regime Security”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2021, 447–479. 

GCMC, December 1, 2021. 

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

GPCSS#2, November 16, 2021: ‘Russia and China and the Maritime Dimension: Red Lines and Risk Calculus?’Context of Sino-Russian maritime Cooperation

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Great Power Competition Seminar Series (GPCSS) webinars held on November 16, 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.

Context of Sino-Russian maritime Cooperation

Since 2012 Russia and China have undertaken increasingly frequent and more complex exercises (e.g. combined air defense, anti-submarine, amphibious operations, passing through key straits) within an expanded geographical range (2015 Mediterranean, 2017 Baltic Sea, 2021 Sea of Japan) designed to counter and limit US maritime dominanceThis is part of an overall expansion in military cooperation between the two.  China has the world’s largest navy (battle force of 355 ships and submarines) but Russia enjoys an operational and technological lead in several areas, such as submarines, mine warfare and use of long range bombers at sea.

Russian Maritime Approaches

Russia adopts the concept of an integrated military strategy.  Rather than a separate naval strategy we should talk of operational art in the naval domain and naval policy which supports the military strategy. ‘State Policy on Naval Activity’ highlights the duties of the Russian navy to prevent the U.S. (the Russian navy’s benchmark) and allies from achieving naval superiority in the world ocean, limiting Russian access and territorial claims and mitigating missile threats from the sea to Russian land targets 

Core missions:

  1. Defend nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN) patrol areas and maritime approaches to ensure strategic deterrence (calibrated second strike nuclear retaliation and escalation management) and prevent strikes against critical targets in the homeland.
  2. Conduct conventional and nuclear strikes to degrade critically important military and economic adversary targets.
  3. Naval diplomacy – defend Russian interests, maintain presence intimidate and negotiate from strength, project status of great power. Soviet legacy large ships better suited for this role than they are warfighting.

Russian Naval Perspective – four zones: Russia is able to conduct ops in all four zones and distribute ships according to rank depending on fleet’s mission and threat environment

  1. Coastal – defended by coastal vessels, small landing craft and patrol boats with the objective of sea control(i.e. can use sea for own purposes).  Borei and Yasen class nuclear subs of Pacific and Northern Fleets can deploy and enter patrol areas in the Far Sea and World Ocean.
  2. Near Sea (up to 1000 km from the Russian coast)deployments includecorvettes, guided missile boats and minesweepers, for example, in the Black Sea, Baltic, Barents.  Here Russia seeks sea control. 
  3. Far Sea (up to 2000 km from the Russian coast)deployments includenuclear powered and diesel electric submarines, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, large/medium landing ships, large/light frigates, and heavy corvettes.  From Iceland to Norway and the North Sea, the Aegean and East Mediterranean, the Russian navy seeks sea denial(i.e. spoil the use of the sea for NATO) and reduce the military and economic and command and control potential of the adversary.  As an example, a joint Russian-Chinese three-day naval exercise ‘Naval Cooperation’ (held since 2012) formed a flotilla with five Chinese ships in the Sea of Japan, October 14-17, 2021.
  4. World Oceans (all sea beyond 2000 km from Russia’s coasts) is protected by nuclear powered submarines, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, large landing ships and larger frigates.  In this zone the objective is to demonstrate Russia’s great power status by ‘showing the flag’ and power projection. Physical presence can have strategic effect. Demonstration of credibility a fundamental part of deterrence. As examples, ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet take part in Aman 2021, Arabian Monsoon 2021 drills, counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden. Pakistan’s Zulfiquar participated in the Main Naval Parade in St Petersburg July 2021.  Pakistani vessels were also present in joint China-Iran-Russia naval exercises.  

Naval Policy and Prioritization:

  1. Atlantic and Arctic – strengthen military potential and presence, ensure survivability of nuclear deterrence and inter-theatre mobility.
  2. Pacific – balance of power and good relations with China.  Fleet upgrade as regional arms race.
  3. Indian Ocean – maintain periodic naval presence.

Sensitivity and Risk

  • Operational advantages in Barents and Baltic Sea, can prevail in small military clash, close to borders, with well-prepared Russian forces that are quickly mobilized, involve hybrid threats and coup-like attacks with limited objectives.Black Sea and Arctic more unstable than Baltic and Barents.
  • Marketing: Ability to launch land attack cruise missiles from ships (e.g. Caspian flotilla to Syria) illustrates the navy’s contribution to an integrated military strategy and helps sell the function of the navy to a land-warfare centric General Staff and ensures funding.
  • Limited expeditionary range (Syria) capability but not World Ocean passed Suez and South America. Russia disadvantaged in a prolonged non-nuclear conflict with NATO.

Chinese Maritime Approaches:

  • Unprecedented emphasis is placed on the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the Xi era, as its integrity is linked to the future of the state: “Historical experience tells us that countries that embrace the sea thrive, while states that spurn the sea decline.” (Xi Jinping, July 30, 2013); “We must strive to build the People’s Navy into a world-class navy.” (Xi Jinping, April 12, 2018). 
  • China seeks a leadership role on the global stage and to that end naval power is critical. Xi Jinping seeks to “build the PLA into a world-class military…a powerful military on par with that of a world power…in order to provide strategic support for China as it moves towards the center of the world’s stage.” (National Defense University Strategic Research Department). 
  • Aspirations of global leadership are reflected in a shift in China’s ‘rights-stability’ calculus – protecting what it understands to be its maritime rights as set against the maintenance of stable relations with neighbors: “China must weigh the two big picture issues of stability maintenance and rights protection.” (Xi Jinping, July 2013). In the past stability was privileged, now both are in “dynamic equilibrium”.  As Zhang Haiwen, State Oceanic Administration, noted: “In the past, China’s big aim was a stable periphery. Everything else yielded to stability. In my view, for 10–20 years stability maintenance held the dominant position. But in recent years, China has balanced this out, meaning that stability maintenance and rights protection are now in a dynamic equilibrium.”
  • China adopts a grey zone approach to protecting ‘maritime rights’, using the PLAN as a back-stop and deploying its Coast Guard and militias on the front line, able to undertake non-lethal measures such as bumping, water cannons, cutting cables, seizing equipment.  The Coast Guard reported to the People’s Armed Police which in turn was subordinated under the Central Military Commission (CMC), highlighting a militarization of China’s law enforcement agencies under Xi.
  • PLAN is aware of its own weaknesses and limitations.  President Xi has stated: “Internationally we are basically undefended and without any effective options. If we encounter some great risk, we can evacuate our nationals, but our ability to secure our citizens and legal persons is very limited. You talk about weaknesses—this is a very big weakness. We must…gradually increase overseas security support capabilities, protect the  security of our citizens and legal persons located overseas, and protect our financial, oil,  mining, shipping, and other overseas commercial interests.” (Xi Jinping, December 2015).  In an article titled “Eliminate the Harms Caused by a Long Period of Peace, Make Solid Efforts to Prepare for War” a Chinese academic analyst noted: “Not fighting a battle in many years has caused some officers and soldiers to suffer from different degrees of ‘peace disease.’”
  • The role of PLAN is to protect China’s “overseas Interests” and these include: 1. Energy and resources; 2. Strategic sea lines of Communication; 3. Institutions, personnel, and assets abroad. To that end we see anti-piracy operations and evacuation of citizens from war zones, but what else might we expect?  As a general trend, these overseas interests are expanding in terms of importance, number and geo-strategic range: “Today, our country’s interests are continuously expanding and requirements for the Navy are continuously expanding. Our capabilities must therefore continuously improve…China is export-oriented, so our military strategy cannot just focus on protecting our homeland.”  And: “Wherever our merchant ships sail, Chinese warships should be present. Wherever our overseas interests extend, the People’s Navy should be there too.” (People’s Daily, 2018). 
  • China’s maritime interests expand.  According to an article titled “Scientific Compass for Achieving the Chinese Nation’s Dream of Becoming a Maritime Power”: “China’s global maritime interests are continuously expanding. China not only possesses sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdictional rights over 3.0 million km2 of maritime space. It also has broad maritime rights/interests in the polar regions, deep sea, and other ocean areas.”  China’s naval strategy is also updated: “Today, the Navy is accelerating its transformation towards ‘near seas defense, far seas protection, oceanic presence, and polar expansion.’”(People’s Navy, July 13,2018)
  • Looking to the future, the PLAN plans to do more: “When our major overseas interests are threatened, the Navy must be able to quickly cross the ocean barrier. Operating from the sea, it must be able to conduct military operations against key enemy targets in the littorals or on land. It must be able to deter, contain, and smash enemy operations, ensuring the security of China’s important overseas interests.” (“On the Navy’s Strategic Positioning in the New Era”, National Defense, May 2018). 
  • One indicator of Chinese intent will be the role of marine amphibious expeditionary forces: “Safeguarding the security of China’s overseas development interests urgently requires that China build the PLAN Marines into a force that can conduct amphibious operations overseas…and possesses rapid-response and independent operational capabilities to deal with crises. When necessary, it must be able to maintain long-term deployments in waters crucially related to China’s overseas interests and it must ensure that it can respond rapidly and take decisive action once there is a problem.” (People’s Navy, January 2017).

Sino-Russian Maritime Cooperation: Current and potential future?

  • Current: Arctic understandings.  PLAN patrols the Aleutian Islands (2021) and Sea of Japan which is en route to the Arctic.  It actively seeks to develop knowledge of the Arctic and caries out acoustic experiments using hydrophones for sound propagation which would enable potential future military operations in the Arctic.  While China is revisionist in the Indo-Pacific it is status quo in the European theatre – Russia is the opposite.  Thus Putin calls for “peaceful negotiation” with regards to Taiwan, China does not recognize the annexation of Crimea and its presence in the Arctic mitigates Russian militarization.
  • Future: Indicators in the maritime domain of a potential future shift from functional axis to deeper partnership could include, for example: 1) Chinese warships pay port visits and dock in Sevastopol during a period of heightened Black Sea tension; 2) Russia and China conduct a maritime exercise off the coast of Taiwan. 

GCMC, November 17, 2021.

Acknowledgements: This summary gratefully acknowledges insights shared by Mike Kofman of CNA at an RSI seminar held on 10 November 2021 (“Russian Naval Strategy”), not least his superb understanding of the role of Russian naval operational art and policy in support of Russia’s military strategy and the functions of and force structures dedicated to the four maritime zones: Coastal, Near Sea, Far Sea and World Ocean. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Dmitry Gorenburg, Graeme P. Herd and Ryan D. Martinson) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

GPCSS#1, October 19, 2021: ‘Russian and Chinese Approaches to Stabilizing Afghanistan: Cooperation, Hedging or Competition?’

This is a summary of the discussion at the first workshop of the current series of online Great Power Competition Seminar Series (GPCSS) webinars held on October 19, 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.

  • What? In a strategic shock, the Taliban in Afghanistan entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, following a cascading compounded crisis triggered by Western military withdrawal, the Ghani government and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) appearing unwilling or unable to fight and the Taliban’s will to power.
  • So What? Afghanistan will only stabilize if regional powers – Iran, China, Russia, the five Central Asian states, India and Pakistan – engage positively and constructively with an Afghan government that has greatest internal legitimacy.  Afghanistan stress-tests the Russia-China functional axis (that is, the entente between the two powers).
  • What Now? Shared threats created a cooperative imperative in theory but in practice the Taliban create a dilemma for external actors. However, there are no dual, bilateral or joint instances of Russia-China cooperation and the SCO has not proved to be a cooperative forum in this respect.  Joint approaches are contingent on deciding who leads and have reputational and credibility risks in cases of failure.
  • The Taliban’s Trilemma: The Taliban have three policy goals that appear incompatible and pose a trilemma. The Taliban need to: first, uphold their core beliefs which are central to their identity and internal legitimacy while avoiding a civil war in Afghanistan; second, gain external recognition and development assistance but avoid conditionality that might dilute their beliefs/practices; and third, allow foreign fighters and militants who have pledged allegiance to be based in the Islamic Emirate, but not wage global jihad (i.e. have militant groups privilege Taliban beliefs above their own).   
    • Core Beliefs and Internal Legitimacy: The Taliban seeks recognition of the Islamic Emirate’s statehood to bestow legitimacy and unblock frozen financial support.  In March 2021, the World Bank reported that 75% of public spending on basic services financed by external donor grants. In Geneva in November 2020 donors agree one year extension of aid but conditioned on efforts to reduce corruption and poverty. The Taliban has publicised conciliatory messages regarding commitments to human rights and held numerous meetings with foreign and humanitarian delegates and sought to project a sense of normality and security under their rule.  The Taliban also suggest that recognition, aid, development and humanitarian assistance are prerequisites for the Taliban to address human rights concerns, and implicitly, not to export opium and small arms, refugees and jihad. However, external assistance may be accompanied by foreign ideological and geopolitical agendas and expectations of progress and prosperity, posing challenges to the implementation of Taliban core beliefs.
    • Global Jihad vs Islamic Emirate: TheTaliban seeks to “deglobalize jihad” and, unlike al-Qaeda and IS-K, do not support “offensive jihad”.  The Taliban support an Emirate, not a Caliphate.  The challenge: how can the Taliban convince the majority of reluctant foreign jihadist militant groups (the CIA identify 13) to step back from global jihad in return for the Taliban allowing their basing in Afghanistan?  Some groups may be persuadable, others may need to be physically eliminated. Taliban relations with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban is critical in this respect. This process will create tensions among Taliban commanders and could risk destabilizing. 
  • Russia and China Approaches: 
    • Before the Taliban takeover Moscow and Beijing were unified in opposition to US/NATO presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia (CA). 
    • During the chaotic exit, both were: “happy to see the Americans humiliated because it undermines Washington’s status, thus strengthening their standing internationally.”
    • After the takeover, both oppose: Western influence in Afghanistan/CA bases; Afghanistan state collapse and the spillover of refugees, opium/small arms and jihad (cyber radicalization) into CA, Xinjiang and the Caucasus up to the Volga region (the extent of “Khorasan”). Both Russia and China argue for “unfreezing” of financial assets and resumption of UN aid to Afghanistan, while refusing to contribute to the new international efforts (G20 summit organized by Italy).
    • Do approaches and interests now gradually diverge?
      • Russia has a smaller economic footprint, a geographical buffer between it and Afghanistan, and other higher priorities (e.g. Ukraine, Belarus, the Arctic, and Syria), as well as a military-security role via CSTO and the 201 Military Base in Tajikistan.  For these reasons, does Russia need to operate through proxies and does it prefer a Taliban strong enough to impose control, but weak enough to respond to Russian influence.   
      • China has a larger economic presence, and a core national interests (Xingjian) and for this reason prefers a stable and united Taliban in control of all territory.  Both do not want to see themselves on the wrong side of each other in Afghanistan, with a “Taliban 2.0” (China, Pakistan … Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?) against a “Northern Alliance 2.0” (India, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan … and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?).  Both Russia and China avoid having to choose by avoiding a civil war in Afghanistan, which suggests both look to consolidate Taliban government.
  • Reality is more complex.
    • In Moscow understanding has shifted with the realization that the Taliban are not united and in control but rather a civil war is still possible, that the U.S. has left “controlled chaos” and that Russia and other neighbors have limited means to influence the Taliban.  Security services and siloviki identify an increased threat to Russia and Russian military planners are keen to avoid overstretch: investment in Afghanistan demands prioritization and disinvestment elsewhere. Russia recognizes that it has the role of security-provider but lacks the capacity to deliver. The Moscow Format conference (October 19-20) does not include United States, but on October 18 a meeting of Troika+ was scheduled, and this format included Russia, China, the U.S. plus Pakistan.  The non-participation of the US has undercut the meeting. The attendance of the Iranian Chief of the General Staff Bagheri at the conference may be a sign of growing military-to-military contacts between the two. Russia realizes that no amount of Chinese economic investments can stabilize Afghanistan as the chaos is too deeply engrained, and that China seeks to avoid a hard security role. China’s military footprint in the shape of Tajik-based listening posts and counter-terrorism training can be characterized as very cautious and experimental.
    • Chinese decision making is opaque, regional interactions are very fluid and intra-Taliban politics very complex. Chinese policy will remain flexible and avoid over-committing it any one position.  The apparent opportunities for China in Afghanistan (“vacuum of power”) are balanced by challenges and threats (“graveyard of empire”).  These challenges include (i) Security. China faces not only Uighur groups in Afghanistan, which are easily contained, but enhanced vulnerability of the CPEC infrastructure in Pakistan to TTP and other groups. Working through unreliable militant proxies (not least the Haqqani network) is an experiment for China with some risks. (ii) Economy. Economic prospects not as attractive for China as sometimes advertised. China will not replace the U.S. as funder of an Afghan government. So far humanitarian aid amounts to only $31m. Insecurity will limit investment. There are better and safer returns on investment in other states – DRC has $21 trillion in resources, Afghanistan only $2-3 trillion. China focuses protecting its security interests and has so far demonstrated no inclination to take economic risks. (iii) Geopolitics. Opportunities include “Wolf Warrior” narratives that highlight the unreliability of the U.S. as an ally and security provider, though the realities of instability and geographical proximity with its attendant responsibilities suggest that this narrative will have a limited shelf-life.  There is also a realization that a ruthlessly pragmatic U.S. withdrawal allows it to drop a peripheral national interest (Afghanistan) and reposition and posture itself to address a core interest – namely, China in the Asia-Pacific. And forging a regional consensus on Afghanistan that will ensure Chinese interests will be difficult.
    • In Central Asia, states are more resilient than in the 1990s.  A mutually exclusive type of continuity dominates the policy of Tajikistan (confrontation with the Taliban and leverage of the 201 Base to increase Russian support) and Turkmenistan (zero problem with the Taliban) whereas change dominates in Kazakhstan (now a food provider) and Uzbekistan (60% of Afghanistan’s electricity provision). In Kazakhstan discontinuity in policy can be attributed to stronger economic interests and in Uzbekistan to the post-2016 regime change, as well as economic interests. Both have probably also sought to align with Russian and Chinese positions.
    • “Defensive Hedging”: Russia and China lack a strategic blueprint for stabilization and adopt defensive postures, based on contingency planning, reinforcing resiliency efforts in Central Asia, reducing vulnerabilities and practicing extended influence.  A more anti-Taliban stance from Iran (triggered by support of the Hazara and other factors) could stress the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership, TTP actions in Pakistan could complicate the “all-weather” China-Pakistan strategic relationship and internal Taliban splits (Durrani/Greater Kandahar vs Ghilzai/Greater Paktia) – over which China and Russia have very little leverage – will stress-test this cautious, pragmatic wait-and-see approach
  • Implications for “Friends and Allies”:
    • There is a realization that strategic failure is shared but that Russian and Chinese strategic messaging around the unreliability of the U.S. as a security partner is misplaced.  In Ukraine, for example, the U.S. is understood to be a pragmatic realpolitik actor, determined to see returns on investment.  Lessons identified in Afghanistan by Allies include the need to be more resilient and take a self-help approach by developing military capacity and fighting corruption. 
    • In Europe, it is understood that U.S. interests can change, and the choice is between closer alignments with U.S. strategic interests or spending 4% of GDP to achieve strategic autonomy – or reinterpret strategic autonomy to mean opting out of future deployments.   
    • With regards to Turkey, Russia does not want to find itself balancing its interests with Turkey in Afghanistan, given difficulties of coordinating competing interests elsewhere in “joint” crisis management efforts e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Libya.

GCMC, October 20, 2021

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Graeme P. Herd and David Lewis) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments, nor the views of this blog.

‘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.

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