A Tale of Two Cities and their security conferences

 This has been definitely the week of Central European security, with both the Warsaw Security Forum and the Riga Conference. I was delighted and honored to be invited to attend and speak at both, a chance to do the usual networking, hear a variety of interesting perspectives, pontificate, and also to see Warsaw for (to my shame) the first time and renew my acquaintanceship with Riga (always a pleasure). At the WSF, I participated in the opening panel on ‘The Rise of the West in a post-Western World’ alongside two former presidents (Saakashvili of Georgia and Landsbergis of Lithuania) and a former foreign minister (Jeremič of Serbia) ably chaired by Katarzyna Pisarska.  Am not sure whether or not the session will be made available on line (I’ll update this blog with a link, if so), but the event also provided an opportunity for Brian Whitnore of RFE/RL and me to record an episode of The Power Vertical podcast face to face, for a change.
In Riga, I was speaking at the panel on ‘Quo Vadis 21st Century Russia?’ and again in exalted company: President Toomas Ilves of Estonia, Celeste Wallander (Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the US National Security Council) and Prof. Anton Malgin (Vice-Rector, MGIMO). The session is available at the LATO YouTube channel – my opening (and overlong) remarks start at around 24 minutes in. I also gave TV interviews for Latvian TV and also Ukraine’s Hromadske internet channel (update: this is available on the Hromadske YouTube channel here; my segment starts at around minute 45). This ended up in many ways divided between a focus on the here and now and Russia’s activities abroad and the longer term and Russia’s development at home. Prof. Malgin, who unfortunately but inevitably ended up being the proxy target for the room’s concerns with and angers towards Russia, tried to present Moscow’s role as positive and constructive, but overall — and given that this was in a Baltic state bordering on Russia, this is hardly surprising — the mood was critical and even alarmed.

There were differences between the two events. The WSF was closer to an official summit: more of the participants were current or former senior officials, and so the discussion from the podium tended to be at once more authoritative and more formal. RC, held in the splendid National Library of Latvia, was more informal and as a result the discussion felt more free and inclined to iconoclasm.

However, what was striking were rather the common ground between the events. There was a clear fear of Russia — not just a concern, or an irritation, but a fear, born presumably of the fact that both countries border Russia and have recent and painful memory of Soviet invasion and occupation. The prospect of direct Russian military action, while not seen as likely, was nonetheless considered to be sufficiently possible to merit serious discussion.

Given that the threat is not just military, though, there was also much discussion about societal security, about how to reduce the scope for Russian manipulation, part of what I have called “hybrid defense” and something that is much more advanced (again, for obvious reasons) in Scandinavia and the Baltic region than elsewhere. I’d still rather see more emphasis yet on the risks from organized crime and dirty money (Latvia, I’m looking especially at you here), but nonetheless very encouraging.

Overall, though,  perception of Russia seemed very starkly negative, again which shouldn’t surprise (although the region has some excellent scholars of the country) but which I found a bit less uplifting. I felt my pretty limited attempts to introduce some nuance and scale — for example, suggesting we should see Russia not simply as a rapacious kleptocracy, and driven as much by weakness and insecurity as some kind of imperialist agenda — fell in some cases on quite stony ground.

I was delighted to attend both events. Excellent discussions, a chance to meet old friends and make new ones, and how many conferences have their own ‘branded’ apples (Warsaw) or give copper sundials as gifts (Riga)? In particular, as next year I spend more time exploring not just Russian perspectives of the current crisis and their hybrid/full-spectrum/nonlinear/whatever-we-end-up-calling-it war approach, especially as relates to non-military means, from crooks and spooks to banks and think tanks, I plan also to tap the first-rate and practical expertise so evident in Central Europe, the Baltic and Nordic states.

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  1. And the countries that you mention are EU member states with relatively strong institutions, not Moldova or Ukraine, which admittedly have more to fear. On that note, an aspect that I would like to see discussed more at these events is how the corruption in and institutional weakness of Central and Eastern European countries, rather than the military buildup of Russia has become a security threat.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  November 13, 2015

      I agree; in fairness, it certainly did come up, but when pressed — and I did, several times — people would ultimately put primacy on the kinetic over the governance. Me, I’d gladly see a few new fighter jets swapped out for some better anti-corruption and financial regulation mechanisms.

  1. Long Essay: Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a lesson from medieval Indian history - Bombs and Dollars

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