RSS#4, 8 March 2022: “Putin Invades Ukraine: Regional Fallout?”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on March 38, 2022 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.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a devastating impact on humanitarian conditions within Ukraine itself.  Critical national infrastructure in Ukraine is under attack.  Ukraine’s transport system, hospitals and communication networks are being degraded. The UNHCR reports that over 2 million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have become refugees in neighboring countries, particularly Poland.  At the same time, Russian military advances in Ukraine appear to have stalled in most operational theatres.  Explanations for this unexpected outcome include logistical difficulties, poor planning, long and vulnerable supply lines, and an inability to execute combined arms warfare effectively.  In places where Russia has taken territory, a hostile civil population protests in the rear, even in Russian-speaking regions such as Kherson.  Can captured territory be held? 

However, the picture is fluid and Russia is not yet fully committed. While Russia will seek to bombard the pivots and hubs used to supply military materiel through Poland and Romania, its usable precision guided weapon stockpile for this “special military operation” is fast depleting, though reserves are available for operations against NATO.  Ukraine is able to create reserve battalions around Lviv and receive air defense and anti-tank capabilities.  Poland has offered to hand over its entire inventory of 23 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to the US at Rammstein Air Base in Germany for potential transfer to Ukraine pending a NATO decision. These combat aircraft can be flown by Ukrainian pilots. Romania, Slovakia and Hungary also have MiG-29s in their inventories and some or all of these could also be provided to Ukraine. Russia does not have the troop to task ratio to occupy an unwilling Ukraine.  And Ukrainian resistance is growing, with the calculation in Kyiv that any deal made today will not be as good as the one made a week from now.  

This deadlock is dangerous as Putin needs a “special military operation” victory to support his “everything going according to plan” narrative. Thus, if “victory is not possible and defeat is not an option” – if the choice is between bloody debilitating occupation or withdrawal – then Putin may seek to escalate by opening new fronts to present the Russian public with distracting mini-breakthroughs and victories in the wider region.  Short-term risks in the Black Sea region appears highest. Longer-term risks include disruptions to energy and food exports from Russia and Ukraine, and conflicts around Exclusive Economic Zones in the Black Sea, for example, as borders are redrawn but not recognized.  This summary identifies short and longer term spillover risks in both regions.

Black Sea Region

Had the “special military operation” actually gone to plan, Kyiv would have fallen within 2-4 days, and in a “best case” scenario from a Russian perspective, resistance would implode and Ukraine suffer sullen occupation. At this point the risks of spillover to Moldova and Georgia would have been much higher. The ideological narrative constructed by Putin around “Slavic unity” and regathering “ancient Russian lands” may have included Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If not, then this would have suggested EU membership was off the cards for both states and imposed neutrality (“demilitarization”) would have been attempted by Russia.

However, without first capturing Odesa (still possible through a combined air assault and amphibious landing operation) and finding troops to occupy Ukraine in the context of a hostile and debilitating insurgency, military operations into Moldova do not appear viable.  Transnistrian forces themselves have no offensive capability and rail links to Odesa region from Tiraspol are cut. Thus, while in Moldova pro-Russian parties and opposition groups in the breakaway Dniester region and the pro-Russian Gagauzia oppose EU accession, Russia aggression in Ukraine propels the majority of the society to support this westward economic and normative reorientation, as is the case in Georgia.      

However, the seizure of Georgian territory is possible.  Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been remarkably passive and inactive and still has the reserves and capacity to act.  The seizure of Poti region in Georgia is a possibility, supported by Chechen forces formally subordinated to Russia’s Rosgvardia (National Guard) but actually under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov. If Putin’s power weakens, Kadyrov may also plan to act more autonomously into the Pankisi Gorge, even if in the name of Putinism and justified with reference to Russian national goals.  In such circumstances, Azerbaijan might look to complete “unfinished business” towards Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In Georgia itself, the Russian invasion of Ukraine further polarizes society. There is pressure on Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and ‘Georgia Dream’ party who have adopted a “neutral” policy towards Russia.  Neutrality translates into a policy of not supporting international sanctions and keeping Georgia’s air space open to Russian aircraft. Since 24 February opposition rallies in Tbilisi have protested daily against the Russian invasion outside the Georgian Parliament, demanding: 1. A visa regime with Russia; 2. Banning Russian media/propaganda outlets in Georgia; and 3. Closing Georgia’s airspace to Russia.    

The role of Turkey is pivotal.  Turkey attempts to avoid alienating Russia by keeping its air space open to Russian commercial flights and not applying sanctions. As a result, Turkey, like Georgia, is not included on the Russian list of hostile states.  However, Turkey does send effective military aid (drones) to Ukraine.  Turkey, citing Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, has closed the entrance to the Black Sea to the navies of the parties to the conflict.  With its “sea bridge” unable to function, Russia is forced to resupply Syria using a more expensive and more limited air bridge.  This in turn weakens Russia’s presence in Syria relative to Turkey’s.  At the same time, the US and NATO face a difficult choice regarding the sending of combat ships into the Black Sea in support of Bulgaria and Romania.  Turkey attempts to dissuade allies from requesting access, but the need to protect two exposed allies is growing.

Baltic Sea Region

The risk of spillovers into the Baltic-Nordic region are less than the Black Sea region, at least in the short-term and while the “active phase” of Russian aggression in Ukraine is ongoing.  Risks associated with Kaliningrad proves to be the exception to this general rule.  If the closure of air space is joined by cutting rail links to Kaliningrad, then this could generate a Russian kinetic response.  In addition, reports of resignations and refusal of Belarusian officers and soldiers to follow orders and deploy to Ukraine suggest that Lukashenka’s regime may be less stable than supposed.  Does Russia have the spare capacity to bolster Belarus, when Rosgvardia is needed at home as a praetorian safeguard to quell protest potential in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia? 

The Estonian Center Party has severed ties to the United Russia Party. On 5 March, 103 members of its extended board, with no abstentions, voted to rescind the cooperation protocol signed in 2004.  In Latvia, though, the polarization of society is a danger, with pro-Russian supporters using provocative rhetoric to radicalise their potential voters ahead of parliamentary elections.  Two potential conflict dates loom – the commemoration of Latvian Legionnaires on 16 March and the Soviet Victory Day on 9 May. Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis has stated that Vilnius has no red lines regarding possible sanctions against Russia – including oil and gas. 

Non-aligned Finland and Sweden seek even closer defense cooperation with each other and with NATO.  Indeed, the potential for NATO membership has increased and this will lead to heightened tension in medium to long-term. Defense spending is set to increase in all Baltic States.  Lithuania adds an extra $0.5bn and its parliament agrees to increase defense spending to 2.5% of GDP.  Spending will likely be on deterrent gaps in capabilities necessary to counter Russia’s way of war, such as air defense and drones.

Points of escalation might be driven by the possible use of thermobaric bombs in Kyiv, and/or the slaughter of Ukrainian refugee convoys struggling to reach the Polish border from Lviv. Such horrific violence would stress-test to destruction the ability of NATO member states to achieve all three of its objectives: 1) apply sanctions to Russia and provide humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine; 2) uphold national interests, democratic values and principles; and 3) avoid miscalculation, spillover and escalation.  As RHSS#3 summary noted: “In the context of mass civilian casualties, how does the West calibrate and balance moral principles that reflect its values with pragmatic approaches in line with interests? At what point does “responsibility to protect” trump other considerations?”  Almost certainly risk calculus in NATO would change, with a much greater emphasis on alleviating immediate suffering and the “responsibility to protect”.  


  • The invasion has also shaken the Putin regime in Russia.  The Putinist system, born in the violence of the Second Chechen campaign, has grown organically over the last 23 years.  It weathered the ‘Moscow Maidan’ protests of 2011-12 and was boosted by the Crimea annexation of 2014.  Putin and the players in the system understood the rules of the game, how these rules could be enforced and the necessity of a balance between the normative state, parastatal entities and oligarchs. In 2022, the pressure of sanctions disrupts and destabilizes oligarchs, the business models of parastatal entities and the normative state moves to a war footing, its lead representatives complicit in the war and war crimes. 

  • In this context, escalation does not have just to be horizontal – a spillover into the wider region – but it can be vertical. The possibility of an accidental radioactive discharge due to Russian attack on nuclear power plant is high.  If nuclear signaling is needed, Russia could withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and then promptly stage a nuclear test to intimidate and deter. A low likelihood event involves a Russian “false flag” operation around CBRNE might be considered.  A “dirty bomb” fits Russian media narratives that a US-controlled “neo-Nazi” regime would practice genocidal “nuclear terrorism”.  The function of this narrative could be to provide a retroactive justification for invasion – prevention of nuclear terrorism – and to place the blame for any nuclear radiation leakage on Kyiv. Such leakages would massively impact on refugee flows westwards. For Putin such flows would be understood in terms of an asymmetric responses by Russia to western pressure. 

  • Might Putin be tempted to declare martial law or a state of emergency in Russia?  Putin may calculate that full mobilization is a necessary means to offset 1) battlefield losses through conscription; 2) economic isolation and rent redistributions to shore up elite support; and 3) evidence the idea that this is an existential fight for Russia, that Ukraine is merely the territory upon which Russia battles the real enemy – NATO.  Such reasoning concludes that once battle is joined all measures are justified by Russia if this leads to the defeat of NATO. 

  • If such reasoning prevails, martial law and mobilization in Russia could prove to be the second and last strategic blunder by Putin.  Russian military reforms introduced by Defense Minister Serdyukov 2009-2012 means mass mobilization is not possible – the Russian military does not have the capacity or infrastructure to train such large numbers.  Moreover, such a move might precipitate a societal revolt, one in which the Russian security services would struggle to maintain order. Alternatively, it could encourage a military coup, with a charismatic and politically acceptable Defense Minister Shoigu at its head. Given “everything is forever until it is no more”, the entourage and inner-circle around Putin may well calculate that the president himself is the problem and his removal the solution. 

  • Fear of failure in Ukraine and fear of revolt and removal in Russia likely increases Putin’s isolation and paranoia. He may then adopt a differentiated understanding of risk.  At home he is risk averse.  Martial law or declaring a state of emergency is avoided.  Putin likely compensates by accepting greater risk abroad.  This suggests a Black Sea Fleet “special military operation” against Poti could come into focus, or Russia looks to conducts a dirty bomb “false flag” operation in Ukraine.  In Putin’s mind, both options would create disruptive situations to generate options and new opportunities for leverage and exploitation.

GCMC, March 8, 2022.   

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

RHSS#3, March 3 2022: “Putin’s Regime: Alternative Futures?” 

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on March 3, 2022 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.


Russia’s war on Ukraine has placed a spotlight on President Putin, notions of Putinism and how power is actually exercised in Russia.  Putin’s televised addresses to Russia on 22 February and 24 February highlighted the role of ideology and Putin’s own particular understanding of Russia’s history and its relevance to Russian foreign and security policy. The extraordinary hostility, anger and sheer venom on display in Putin’s speeches spoke to paranoia, isolation and unpredictability.

There are many imponderables, not least the impact of “economic warfare” on Russia as sanctions have never been used at this scale and on an economy that is as integrated into global supply chains and banking system.  Over time, the state is likely to press further on civil society, and public opinion on elite behavior may change.  In other conflicts (Afghanistan, Chechnya), for example the power of the ‘Committee of Soldiers and Mothers’ had a legitimacy that could not be ignored – it would be a definite signal if this time the Kremlin chose to crack down on it. 

But, along with imponderables, there are also some certainties.  First, Russian propaganda and soft power instruments are wholly delegitimized outside of Russia, particularly in the ‘political West’.  Second, for Putin and his inner circle (“gerontocracy”) Ukraine represents and all-or-nothing proposition: only “victory” over Kyiv and Ukraine satisfies their self-image and prevents regime change in Moscow and system change in Russia. 

What might alternative Russian futures and governing paradigms look like?  How might the crucible of invasion of Ukraine generate alternative futures? This summary identified both Russia as “Brezhnev 2.0” and “Russian DPRK”. Both scenarios do not characterize the very present in Russia but aspects of them can be empirically evidenced today.  If we extrapolate such evidence forward, what are the likely characteristics of such models, the assumptions that underpin them, and the indicators or drivers that suggest this is the trend line?

“Brezhnev 2.0”

This scenario is predicated on the impossibility of a “forgive and forget” political settlement in Ukraine.  Russia remains in political and cultural isolation with economic trade (mainly gas and oil) only occurring where absolutely necessary.  A regime tilting even more to the “security bloc’’ is consolidated in Russia. The military and siloviki are funded and the regime is secure.  Soft neo-Stalinist societal repression incubates a passive and apathetic public – there is no political relaxation or “thaw” this side of the horizon.  Russia may have a rhetorically confrontational foreign policy but domestic public opinion and a weak economy limit aggressive action.  The current pattern of foreign adventures is less easily enabled (physical access) and less affordable.  The leadership, which may or may not include Putin, may be more stable, predictable, and pragmatic, but is likely to continue to regard the West as hostile and thus continue political operations it hopes will divide and distract it.  In this context, Russia might be able to gradually reduce the costs of the occupation of Ukraine and address the worst aspects of crisis and confrontation with the West – or it may continue to justify the perception that it is now a “rogue state.”

If Putin is removed, then this would assume that the stakeholders, his inner circle, the chiefs-inside-the-system can meet, negotiate and bargain and find a consensus over successor team or ‘transition alliance’.  This in turn assumes that factional interests can be evenly balanced and the current regime is self-sustaining and resilient without Putin, or with Putin as a symbolic head (President of the State Union). 

However, these assumptions can be challenged.  In an increasingly personalistic regime, Putin is the glue that binds the elite together.  Consensus is not possible. For the siloviki, if Putin could agree to step aside or could be persuaded, what follows could raise the fear of perestroika II leading to system collapse. Furthermore, and unlike the Brezhnev period, there are no real formal mechanisms to appoint a successor, no Party to provide a cohering elite matrix.

“Russian DPRK”

This scenario shares some similar characteristics with “Brezhnev 2.0” but differs in degree, scope, scale and most of all in tenor. As with the “Brezhnev 2.0” scenario, a securitocracy retains primacy.  Russia’s national-security emergency regime becomes a pariah and Russia considered a rogue state. Russian-style DPRK nuclear blackmail is consecrated by mystical, apocalyptical “nuclear Orthodoxy”. The nationalization of oligarchs takes place under the rubric of ‘liquidation of property’.  Autarky is declared as a national goal and necessary defiant response to sanctions.  State-organized crime symbiotic relations are strengthened as organized crime groups break sanctions for the state, merging patriotic impulses and profit principles.  State control of the media is absolute, and campaigns to “clean up” fifth and sixth columnists are justified through claims that these “internal Nazi agents” have ruined the Russian economy.   In foreign policy we see the emergence of a Russian imperium consisting of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in the name of “restored Slavic unity”.  “Territories” that fall outside “ancient Russian lands” and the “triune state” are not forcibly incorporated into the imperial core.  “Forced neutrality” and buffer zone status is imposed on Georgia and Moldova. 

This scenario is based on two assumptions: elite and societal challenges to Putin are not forthcoming and Putin’s “all-or-nothing” mindset means that he is determined to remain in power. What beliefs do these assumptions rest on?  First,thatPutin’s control of the FSB and National Guard are absolute, and because of this he can discount elite or societal opposition.  Second, predictive thinking within the elites (the defense industrial complex, the siloviki, and the military) calculate that having irrevocably burnt bridges with the West, Russia’s strategic choices are stark: subordination to China and stability or to maintain strategic autonomy at terrible domestic cost.  If the choice falls between being “greater Kazakhstan with nuclear weapons” or a “DPRK’s nuclear attention-getting unpredictability but poverty”, then this current Russian elite will choose the latter.  Better unstable and unpredictable but strategically relevant, the thinking goes, than a stable nuclear armed Chinese proxy. Third, it assumes that that those willing to remove Putin are unable and that those able are unwilling. 

We can look to two powerful drivers and the immediate trigger of this “Russian DPRK” scenario, which moves Russia beyond the “Brezhnev 2.0” alternative.  First, extreme rhetoric propagated by the Russian state-controlled media continues to radicalize itself. Narrative triggers that dehumanize Ukrainians as “Nazi”, fascists, reflecting official policy of “denazification” call now for “total war”.  Russia’s media posits Putin’s unprovoked aggression as an existential struggle between “us” and “them”, demanding “cleansing” and “liquidation” as the only viable responses. Second, it appears likely that martial law will be declared in Russia, creating a permissive “total war” context.  This will involve national mobilization, conscription, a war time economy and the closing of state borders.  The trigger that marks this descent into darkness will be the ‘Battle of Kyiv’.  This coming catastrophe brings into juxtaposition the dissonance at the heart of Putin’s narrative: in which universe is it necessary to storm “the mother of all Russian cities” to “restore Slavic unity”? Elites and society are forced to double-down along with Putin or revolt.  Martial law is designed to preempt revolt, allowing the Russian military and security services to preventively occupy the streets of Moscow.


  • Open questions remain.  How far does the ideological narrative constructed by Putin around “Slavic unity” and the necessary means of the Great Patriotic War place policy constraints on Putin and Russian foreign and security policy?  For Ukraine, if ideology is driving Russian policy, might this mean that “Novorossiya” becomes the intermediate goal, leading to a demilitarized rump Ukraine and “denazification” in “Russian Ukraine”?  Do “ancient Russian lands” include Transnistria, northern Kazakhstan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  Or does pragmatism prevail?  That the ideological factor clearly weighs more heavily in Russian risk/reward calculus than most analysts realized is now a given. But where is the recalibrated balance between Putin’s outbursts (passionarity) and military aggression to purge the past of historical grievances and the rational and pragmatic application of realpolitik principles in support of Russia’s legitimate state interests in the present?  Does Russian policy become hostage to Putin’s own narrative?  This narrative, baptized as it is in the blood of Ukrainians, is too militant, militarized, Slavic, Orthodox, imperial, revisionist, revanchist and chauvinistic to have any traction outside of Russia’s borders, or even within the non-ethnic Russian parts of the Russian Federation. 
  • What of the Russia-China axis?  China may expedite negotiations, having stated that it “understands Russia’s security concerns” but it will continue to hedge.  It is too early for China to draw conclusive lessons about the effectiveness of the Russian military, the scale and scope of sanctions following military intervention or the likely evolution of the nature of its functional axis with Russia.  Pragmatism in China’s relations with Russia will prevail.
  • The declaration of martial law in Russia and the fall of Kyiv could constitute inflection points, with the first the harbinger of and necessary precursor for the second.  Both events force the Russian public and elites to confront the reality of their likely future.  Neutrality is no longer an option.  Recalibration of interests may still lead to dramatic breaks from the two “continuity-but-more-so” scenarios above. Might a military coup become the only mechanism of power transition, given Putin’s control over the FSB and National Guard?  If so, what follows?
  • Putin’s war of conquest over Ukraine has created a “geopolitical Europe”, one that is determined “to ensure a free Ukraine, and then to re-establish peace and security across our continent”, in the words of Joseph Borrell.  To that end, calibrated responses and coordinated policy approaches are needed to ensure sanctions are smart and targeted and humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine is timely, Western national interests are protected and its values are upheld and miscalculation leading to escalation is avoided. However, the desire to achieve all three goals poses a difficult and testing trilemma.  Given the unfolding scale of the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine and the real and visible suffering of Ukrainians on a mass scale, might the West be able to achieve only two of its three objectives?  If so, which two?
    • 1) apply sanctions and provide humanitarian and military aid;
    • 2) uphold national interests, democratic values and principles; and
    • 3) avoid miscalculation and escalation.
  • In the context of mass civilian casualties, how does the West calibrate and balance moral principles that reflect its values with pragmatic approaches in line with interests? At what point does “responsibility to protect” trump other considerations?  How the US, “geopolitical Europe”, friends and allies together manage this trilemma will shape the destiny of Ukraine and determine the contours of our New Cold War paradigm.

GCMC, March 3, 2022.

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

RHSS#2, February 24, 2022: “Russia Invades Ukraine: Putin’s Mindset and End Game”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on February 24, 2022 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.


On February 24 2022 at 0300 GMT President Putin in a nationwide address announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine.  He argued that the West – an “Empire of lies” – sought to destroy Russia’s “traditional values”.  Red lines had been crossed: “in the last few days the NATO leadership has been speaking about the need to accelerate the advance of the alliance’s infrastructure towards Russia’s borders”. An aggressive “anti-Russia” was being created at Russia’s borders: “For us it is a matter of life and death, the matter of our historic future as a nation [Rus: narod]. This is the very red line I have spoken about many times. And they have crossed it.”  Putin stated the goals of this “special military operation”: “we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine … Our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories. We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force …”.  In the same breath he then warned against “interference”: “Whoever tries to interfere with us, let alone create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” 

Russia’s Goals:

Almost immediately Russia began to invade Ukraine, from Belarus, the Black Sea, Crimea, and Russian-controlled Donbas. President Putin’s recognition of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) following the emergency session of the Russian Security Council on 21 February 2022, was to engage directly with the Ukraine military. The subsequent and further multi-axis invasion of Ukraine had, according to Putin, two main goals – ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’:

  • ‘Demilitarization’: this translates into the military defeat of the Ukrainian armed forces and militia’s in the field.  To that end Russia attacked Ukrainian military infrastructure, command and control, and launched information operations and cyber-attacks seeking to degrade the Ukraine’s ability and will to fight.  Going hard and fast and everywhere from the outset was designed to cause military collapse, allowing large cities to be surrounded and then surrenders/liberation to be negotiated.
  • ‘Denazification’: this entail forced regime change through killing or capturing and imprisoning the current government under the charge that they are neo-Nazis leading a fascist junta that has undertaken genocide against Russian speakers.  The question of how deep the ‘denazification’ process is supposed to run is unclear: does it include civil society activists, anti-corruption bodies, civil disobedience and become the label used to justify mass repressions?
  • Putin’s 5-step theory of victory: we can infer a series of logical steps in line with Putin’s stated aim of denying Ukraine statehood: 1) the process of demilitarization leaves the state unprotected; 2) regime decapitation under the guise of ‘denazification’ creates a leadership vacuum and breaks the will of society to resist; 3) Russia fills the leadership vacuum with pro-Russian stooges then are recognized by Moscow, the Ukrainian constitution is changed, and state stabilized; 4) the new leadership sign a “Minsk 3” agreement recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and the two Donbass territories as independent states and conclude as security pact with Russia; 5) Over the longer term full-scale costly and reputation-sapping military occupation is not necessary to exert sufficient control over a ‘Russian Ukraine’.  Russia exercises power at much lower cost through elite proxies, soft power tools (media control) and the cooption of some regional elites and representatives. As we noted in RHSS#1 summary: “Putin seeks to extinguish Ukraine as a politically pluralist democratic polity with a vibrant civil society on Russia’s doorstep, removing a legitimation challenge to a dictatorial and quasi-monarchial Russia.”  In the process Russia destroys the notion of Ukraine as an independent entity, the very idea of Ukrainian statehood.
  • Putin’s 1956/1968 Instrumental Beliefs: There are two Soviet intervention models that provide loose comparisons and analogies for understanding Putin’s strategic behavior.  First, in late 2020 Putin threatened the Belarusian opposition that Russia would intervene with a “law enforcement reserve force”.  This was akin to Soviet military mobilization on the border with Poland in 1981.  Second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 compares to Soviet interventions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, with Prague and Budapest substituting then for Kyiv today.  Invasion or ‘intervention’ was then and is now justified by the restoration of ‘order’.
  • Putin’s 1941-45 Philosophical Beliefs: While Russia conducts a “war of aggression against a sovereign state”, in the words of Germany’s foreign minister, and a democratic Ukraine fights for survival against a dictatorial Russia, Putin is caught in his own time warp.  He appears to be fighting the Great Patriotic War in miniature. In his ‘special military operation’ speech of 0300 GMT 24 February, Putin notes that in 1941 the USSR made a mistake in “pleasing a potential aggressor. We won’t make such a mistake for the second time, we do not have the right to.”  Putin understands Russia to be refighting “neo-Nazis”, a “fascist junta” in Kyiv, one that practices genocide, and is in need of denazification. Putin wages war in the present to purge the past and rid Russia of grievances, resentments, and humiliations. Thus while post-war Soviet intervention practice may provide models that shape ‘Putin’s the tactician’s’ instrumental beliefs, the Great Patriotic War very much shapes ‘Putin the ideologue’s’ picture of the world, the philosophical beliefs in his operational code. 

Putin’s Risk Calculus and Reality Check/Miscalculation?

  • Putin’s Inner Circle and Decision–Making:  There is evidence to suggest that as of late spring 2021 a decision had been made to invade, with planning far advanced by October 2021, but this was not preordained and precise timing and choreography had yet to be settled.  The televised Russian Security Council meeting of 22 February was an attempt to broaden the circle of responsibility by publicly associating all Security Council members with the decision to recognize the rebel DNR and LNR as independent states.  In reality, the Security Council is not a decision-making forum. It may offer assessments and advice.  Putin’s inner decision-making circle shrinks to three or four individuals: Alexander Bortnikov (Head of FSB), Sergei Patrushev (Secretary of Security Council), Sergei Naryshkin (Head of SVR) and Sergei Shoigu (Defense Minister).  The first three, at least, appear more hard-line than Putin himself regarding opposition to the West and a desire to reassert Russian great power status, prestige and honor.  They have most to lose from Putin stepping down in 2024 and are most invested in ‘victory’ over Ukraine.  Putin clearly conflates “Russia’s destiny” with his continued rule. 
  • Russian Public Support/Opinion:  There was no real attempt to mobilize public support in Russia prior to the invasion.  This suggests that either passive or apathetic support is sufficient.  It may reflect Putin’s thinking public support for something is not important, it only becomes so when it is against him. The justification for invasion – that the Ukrainian leadership are Nazi’s – is one that superficially will have broadest appeal in Russia, but on closer appeal creates cognitive dissonance: President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish as well as Russian-speaking and where is the evidence of genocide committed against the Russian speakers in Ukraine? Public protests in Russia are sporadic and small-scale but nevertheless are occurring. Russian state controlled media fully support the “special operation to protect the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics”, but near-silence on actions along other vectors of attack from Belarus or operations near Kharkiv will be hard to sustain.  How is carnage in Kyiv to be explained?
  • Insurgency”: The ability of the less well-equipped Ukrainian military to retard Russian advances under Russian air superiority points to morale and motivation differences as an important factor in warfare. The longer the conventional military conflict, the more radicalized the Ukrainian population and more determined to undertake passive resistance, civil disobedience and insurgency, the less legitimate pro-Russian elements in Ukraine will be. If Russia should try and adopt ‘Syria tactics’ in quelling resistance in the cities of a brother nation – attack schools, hospitals and bakeries to create refugees – it will suffer a massive reputational loss. The first casualties will be Ukrainian civilians, the second Russian narratives associated with ‘liberation from a junta’ and ‘Slavic brotherhood’.  Liberators do not fight their way into “the mother of all Russian cities”.
  • Western unity: Sanctions are designed to impose costs, to deter further escalation in the short-term and curtail Russia’s ability to do more harm in the longer-term, as well as to demonstrate unity, and provide Ukraine with time.  Current sanctions appear designed to impose systemic costs to the Russian economy and curtail the consumption habits and mobility of Russia’s elite. The triggering of SWIFT cut-off and personal sanctions on Putin are held back for now as an escalatory reserve and conditional on how Kyiv is taken.
  • Belarus: President Alyaksandr Lukashenka loses in most scenarios bar one: prolonged Ukrainian resistance and need for mediation.  In other respects he is even more dependent on Putin.  Arguments advanced by Putin regarding Ukraine’s lack of statehood and “ancient Russian lands” can also be made to work against an independent Belarus. The limits of Lukashenka’s autonomy is likely to be the extent to which he can keep the Belarusian military on Belarus soil.  Lukashenka has stated: “our troops do not take any part in this operation.”

GCMC, February 25, 2022.

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

GPCSS#6, February 15, 2022: Countering Chinese and Russian Narratives

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 February 15, 2022 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.


“Narrative” is a neutral term.  A political and strategic narrative is “a means by which political actors attempt to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors”.[1]  A narrative consist of a sequence of causally related events and their structural features include characters/actors, scene/setting, obstacle/puzzle to overcome, tools to achieve this end and desired or feared end-states. Three types of interwoven narratives can be identified:

  • Identity narratives are narratives about an actor, the factors that constrain and define their actions, character and ideas, how the actors will behave in the future and who is considered friend, enemy, small power, great power, etc.
  • Policy narratives advance normative or interest-based agendas.
  • System narratives focus on the economic or political systems actors inhabit, such as liberal world order, bi-polar order, polycentric order, etc.

Narratives evoke emotions, shared identity, and are tailored to specific audiences.  Successful narratives are supported by coherent actions, strategic communication, and control of the narrative, multipliers, and interpretive predominance. Narrative can both foster cooperation or confrontation depending on the willingness of the actors to align in constructing shared meaning or not.  An example of the former would be: “climate change as challenge for mankind that can only be overcome collectively”.

Russia’s Global Order Narrative: 

“Russia’s” world view and strategic outlook places itself in relation to other states in a new global order.  This has implications for resilient democratic counter narratives.  In a narrow sense, “narrative” refers to what the Kremlin says, but says nothing about what the people in the Kremlin think.  A sharp distinction needs to be drawn between genuine cognitive and instrumental perceptions, that is, between what decision-makers really think (deeds as “revealed preference”), and what they claim, what they profess to think, so as to influence domestic and foreign audiences (which can constitute “rhetorical camouflage”). 

            A second clarification concerns the question as to what it is that is meant when we say: “Russia thinks”, or when we try to fathom “Russia’s strategic interests”.  Essentially, we are talking about what “Putin” thinks. This is increasingly analytically correct, indeed, the system he has built has aptly been called the “Putin System.” It is autocratic, authoritarian and increasingly centralized, that is, it is based on the “vertical of power” (vertikal’ vlasti). Decisions of any significance in domestic or foreign policy cannot be made without participation and consent of the Kremlin’s chief. That applies even more so to the formulation of basic foreign policy directions.

If we want to broaden the notion of “Putin”, when we are talking about the “Russia’s world view” and “Russia’s strategic interests”, we are essentially talking about those of the Russian power elite that at present is dominated by the siloviki. Just as the new political thinking of the Gorbachev era was shaped by the institutchiki, the return to traditional Great Power and Geopolitical Concepts in the Putin era is shaped by the siloviki. Putin and the Moscow power elite have restored many of of the elements of the Soviet leadership’s ideas about international affairs. These include the notions that:

  • Power, prestige, status, and influence of any given country in world affairs depend on the size of its population, geographical expanse, endowment with natural resources, volume of industrial and agricultural output, and access to or control over human and material resources abroad.
  • The most important factor determining the influence of a country in international affairs, the main driver of many things, is military power. Military power is not only an instrument of deterrence but also of “compellence”, that is, weaker countries can be forced to comply with Russian demands.
  • The greater the discrepancy between one’s own military capabilities and that of the opponent(s), the more effective the threat. As Sergei Karaganov notes: “Starting from the middle of the 2000s, Russia began strengthening its military-political potential, inexpensively but very effectively … [It[ rebuilt its military machine, a first-class resource in a world of growing chaos and fierce competition.” “With the latest generation of weapons, we have shown that we can lead wherever necessary, and at small cost.”  Russian “[military power] cut the ground from under the foundation of the centuries-old dominance held by Europe and the West.”  “[And] by [having] rebalanced economic ties towards the East [notably towards China] and reduced [our] overwhelming economic dependence on the West [we have gained] more room for manoeuvre.”[2]
  • Russia is not just a European power but is also a power in Asia.  As a Eurasian power and should be the “leading forcer” in this geopolitical space. Eurasia, the Kremlin asserts, is Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence, an area of legitimate “special” or “privileged” interests. To quote Putin at the annual gathering of Russian ambassadors in 2004: “If Russia were to abstain from an active policy [in that space] or even embark on an unwarranted pause in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], this would inevitably lead to other, more active, states resolutely filling this geopolitical space.”
  • Ukraine is of special importance, as Putin made clear in his July 11, 2021 article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. He claims that the current Ukrainian government pursues a policy of “forced assimilation” of ethnic Russians and is bent on establishing an ethnically pure Ukrainian state that is aggressive towards Russia, comparing the consequences of this approach to “the use of weapons of mass destruction” against Russia. “The West is complicit in this endeavour. It intends to transform Ukraine into a barrier between Russia and Europe, into an anti-Russian “springboard”. “It cultivates the image of an internal and external enemy and pursues the militarisation of Ukraine (including the expansion of NATO’s infrastructure on its territory).”  “Moscow will never allow its “historical territories” and the people living there to be used against Russia. Those who undertake such an attempt will destroy their own country.” 
  • A further driver and important part of the Russian narrative is that the West is fundamentally and irreconcilably ill disposed towards Russia. Its aim is to “contain” Russia, maximally to weaken and constrain it; to limit its global and regional influence; and even, if it saw corresponding opportunities, to dismember it.  Following the Beslan terrorist attack in September 2004, Putin on national TV stated: “Generally speaking, one has to admit that we failed to understand the complexities and dangers of processes under way in the world. At any rate, we failed to respond appropriately to them. We showed weakness. And the weak get beaten.”  Evidently specifically in relation to the North Caucasus, he said that“Some would like to tear off a ‘juicy piece’ from us. Others help them. They help, because they believe that Russia as one of the major nuclear powers is still a threat to them. A threat that should be removed. And terrorism is, of course, a mere instrument to achieve such aims”.
  • Finally, objectively systemic competition exists between democracy and authoritarianism in the word order. The Kremlin holds in this respect that the Western governments’ clamor for the universal dissemination of human and civil rights, pluralism, democracy and the “free flow of information” with the help of so-called “non-governmental organizations” is part and parcel of hybrid warfare against Russia and designed to subvert its global and regional influence. One of the major techniques used by them are so-called “color revolutions,” that is, the overthrow of legitimate governments.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Narrative: 

The CCP has long history in constructing its (and a Chinese) narrative. The CCP’s narrative depicts a cooperative approach to adapting/transforming the world order; the West could use this narrative to reduce tensions.  The CCP exercises control over its narrative using open and covert means.

  • The CCP’s leadership has strongly controlled its narrative for decades. Even before gaining total control over mainland China, Mao was convincingly promoting his narrative of the peoples struggle for liberation, the present and future to Western journalists and Soviet officials.
  • The active work on CCP´s and China’s history was institutionalized with the first so-called “Resolution on History” by Mao in 1945 (7th plenary session of the 6th Central Committee), followed by Deng[3] in 1981 (6th plenary session of 11th Central Committee) and most recently by Xi in November 2021 (6th plenary session of 19th Central Committee). The CCP uses this narrative to demonstrate and cement its legitimacy to rule. As such, the narrative is preface to the Chinese Constitution and every report to the CCP Congresses.
  • Every resolution represents a new era in Chinese history (standing up, getting rich, and getting strong). The three iconic figures Mao, Deng, and Xi have “liberated” political space for the future development of China by establishing rule/dictatorship of the Chinese people (i.e. communist revolution), opening China and hence enabling economic growth, eradicating societal differences in wealth and opportunity and leading China on its path to its natural status as a Great Power.
  • The role of the CCP is emphasized in this narrative, its central mission to bring happiness to the Chinese people and rejuvenation to the Chinese nation. In November 2012 with the “China or Chinese Dream” Xi’s narrative has widened its focus from the Chinese people to the world (“Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era”, October 2017). This identity narrative is complemented by stronger policy and system narratives.  The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now described in an international setting in which modernization (Westernization) is an aberration leading to severe challenges to the whole mankind. Chinese wisdom can help to solve global problems.
  • One strand in this CCP narrative currently is that the CCP has confidence in its path, its theoretical salience, Chinese institutions and Chinese culture. It encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization (contrasting this to Western endeavors, and comparing it with new international communist movement). China’s system “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers China’s wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind”.
  • An example of Chinese wisdom is the “All under Heaven-theory” (Tianxia), rooted in China’s history (Zhou-Dynasty, ca 1100 -256 B.C.), when a small state governed a number of large states. The aim is not to return to the historic (tribute) system but to use the experience to create a new world order/governance in which mankind can prosper.  China contrasts two different concepts – Roman imperialism and Chinese Tianxia. Both have “worldness” perspectives. Imperialism wants to create a universal world by domination (maximize self-interest), while Tianxia seeks to create a sharable world (co-existence and compatibility, co-existence as prerequisite for existence, maximize shared interest).
  • Tianxia comprises three elements: a) a geographical real or physical world, b) socio-psychological world (network of relations), and c) legitimate world system/institution. Currently, according to the CCP, while the geographical world is real, there are no shared interests or legitimate world institutions (“non-world”); the world is in stage of anarchy and mankind is in danger of losing the world.
  • To realize Tianxia and achieve shared world interests and cooperation, four concepts need to be put in place: 1) internalization of the world (non-exclusiveness, overcome the division between friends and enemies); 2) relational rationality (overcome individual rationality which seeks to maximize self-interests, in order to minimize mutual hostility); 3) Confucian Improvement (system is legitimate if it improves situation of every actor); and, 4) compatible universalism.[4]
  • The BRI, new type of Great Power relations are posited as counter-narrative to the “Thucydides Trap” (hot war) or “Churchill Trap” (cold war), and as a means of criticizing the US for forging a bipolar narrative (Strategic Competition). Currently we find ourselves in a war of narratives which has the potential to lead to a new “Cold War”.  China blames the US for waging a “public opinion war on China”.  It claims that the West has an ideological bias against China. 
  • China actively spreads its narrative and shapes the discourse by using different means.  It totally controls domestic discourse through censorship and pressure on journalists.  It actively influences the Chinese diaspora and key-persons in academia, economy, and politics abroad and influences foreign media outlets.
  • This results in a multifaceted, adaptive, and complex set of tactics that are deployed across varied environments. They combine widely accepted forms of public diplomacy with more covert, corrupt, and coercive activities that undermine democratic norms, reduce national sovereignty, weaken the financial sustainability of independent media, and violate the laws of some countries.[5]
  • Trends since 2017:
    • Russian-style social media disinformation campaigns and efforts to manipulate search results on global online platforms have been attributed to China-based perpetrators.
    • Tactics that were once used primarily to co-opt Chinese diaspora media and suppress critical coverage in overseas Chinese-language publications are now being applied—with some effect—to local mainstream media in various countries.
    • Beijing is gaining influence over crucial parts of some countries’ information infrastructure, as Chinese technology firms with close ties to the CCP build or acquire content-dissemination platforms used by tens of millions of foreign news consumers.
    • There is evidence that Chinese-owned social media platforms and digital television providers in multiple regions have engaged in politicized content manipulation to favor pro-Beijing narratives.
    • Chinese officials are making a more explicit effort to present China as a model for other countries, and they are taking concrete steps to encourage emulation through trainings for foreign personnel and technology transfers to foreign state-owned media outlets.
  • Additionally active Information Operations from the Chinese side are initiated both by persons and bots. One notable example is the 20 Million strong Communist Youth League spreading CCP propaganda on social media.  China realizes that it will not persuade the US and other Western countries so the “prize” in strategic competition are developing countries that seek their own development path (see above).  China is quite successful in this competition: the Afobarometer 2019/20 “Best model for development” placed the USA at 32%, China at 23% and countries rated their own model at 7%. China was rated 63% as a positive external influence, with the US at 60%.

Conclusions: China and Russia’s Respective Roles in the New Order?

Ideologies consist of clusters of ideas that link problems, to blame and point to solutions.  Both Russia and China advance identity, policy and systems narratives.  In terms of apportioning “blame”, Russia and China are aligned – the US and its allies are to blame.  However, both China and Russia identify different problems and posit different solutions.  Thus, there are points of convergence as well as competition between Russian and Chinese narratives. 

China works with the current international order where it appears to serve its interests, and circumvents it where it believes that it does not. Despite the means China uses to propagate its narrative, the narrative itself is cooperative in its nature.  Russia’s narrative stresses the need for confrontation with the “totalitarian West”. Russia actively strives to destroy the Western, rule-based system. It now rejects the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe as an essentially anti-Russian project.  Currently China views the uneven distribution of wealth within China as the primary contradiction to be overcome (in accordance with the logic of dialectical materialism), Russia views the uneven distribution of power in the international system as the core problem, and either a new Cold War or Global Concert of Great Powers as the solution.  In contrast to the Soviet era, however, Russia does not have a missionary purpose and it does not advance a counter or alternative system.  Unlike China, Russia lacks its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm.

Russia stresses friendship and cooperation with China, but a Russian critique of the Chinese system of governance appears taboo.  China, though, views the collapse of the Soviet Union that saw the emergence of the Russia Federation as an object lesson in what not to do.  Understanding the linkages between Russian and Chinese narratives helps develop resilient democratic counter narratives.  It also can identify potential fracture points between Chinese and Russian narratives – whether that be over a Ukraine invasion by Russia or Taiwan by China, competing interests in the Arctic or contestation of the Eurasian shared neighbourhood.

GCMC, February 16, 2022.

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

[1] Miskimmon, A, O’Loughlin, B., & Roselle, L., Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order, (London: Routledge, 2013), 2.

[2] Sergei Karaganov, “On a Third Cold War”, Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July/September 2021: (accessed 16 February 2022).

[3] Deng’s 4 cardinal principles (March 1979): The principle of upholding the socialist path; The principle of upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship; The principle of upholding the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); The principle of upholding Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism–Leninism.

[4] That is, to bind universalism to relations not to individuals and accept the diversity of cultures; the basic principle being: “any value that can be defined by symmetrical relations can prove to be universal and inevitable, and can gain general consent. Any value that cannot be defined by symmetrical relations only represents personal preferences or specific values of a particular group”. Zhao, T. Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (Singapore: Palgrave, 2019), 60. In other words, a mono-theological ideology that believes its values are universal and that others should adopt as the only value system generates conflict among civilizations.

[5] Cook, Sarah. (2020); (accessed 15 February, 2022).

GPCSS#5, January 18, 2022: ‘The Sino-Russian Military Nexus in Outer Space: Strategic Implications?’

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 January 18, 2022 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.


In the Cold War the Soviet Union and the US were leading space powers, largely competing but also in the 1970s cooperating.  This cooperation continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US subsidizing the Russian space program in order to prevent the spread of military-relevant technologies.  The construction of the International Space Station (ISS) in the 1990s and 2000s and US reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets after the closure of its Space Shuttle program in 2011 (until 2020 when the US regains the capability through SpaceX Dragon-2) are examples of such continued cooperation. 

In recent years we have witnessed a marked Russian reorientation away from Russo-US space cooperation and its withdrawal from participation in many international projects, such as the joint lunar project and ISS (by 2025), towards Russian-Chinese space cooperation.  In 2019 Roscosmos and China National Space Administration agree coordination between the lunar exploration missions Luna-Resurs-1 and Chang’e 7 (嫦娥七号).  China and Russia, as second and third placed space powers respectively, cooperate together, building on the legacy of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in the 1950s.  As before, both look to counter-balance the US in space and challenge its primacy in international politics.  What are the implications of this Sino-Russian space nexus for strategic competition?


The drivers of Russian cooperation with China are numerous: 1) Russia’s technology is increasingly obsolete; 2) budgetary cuts and corruption diminish solo-efforts; 3) the need to maintain Great Power status and the idea of breaking encirclement; 4) China agreeing to an intellectual property accord in 2016, signed in 2017, outlining space cooperation, special materials development, remote sensing, heavy rocket engine technological transfers and cooperation.  Russia sacrifices international cooperation and civil use of space and instead prioritizes military use, where it can still compete with the US.  As a result, Russia’s focus is on building military capabilities that allow it to remain strategically relevant.  The core of Russian “counter space weapons” include:

  • The S-400 system, capable of interception in the lower reaches of the low orbit (185km), was transferred to China following an agreement in 2014.  First deliveries occurred in 2018, with a suspension in 2020 until exports to India coordinated. 
  • Nudol anti-satellite (ASAT) missile system.  This system was initiated in 2009, testing began in 2013 and most recently a “combat” test took place on 15 November 2021 against a Russian Kosmos 1408 satellite, demonstrating Russia’s ability to destroy one of its defunct Cold War-era satellites in low Earth orbit. This system allows Russia the capability to destroy satellites above its territory. It may acquire the official designation as the S-550 air defence missile system and be fully deployed in 2022. 
  • Russia also focusses on Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO), with the ability to undertake co-orbital manoeuvres (change orbit, follow and destroy its opponents’ satellites). 
  • Jamming satellite signals, work on space lasers and other directed energy weapons.
  • Kinetic MiG-31BM air-launched missiles with the potential for anti-satellite capability (Burevestnik program).


China has the ambition to be the leading global space power by the mid-2040s.  Assessing China’s configuration of capability in space is hard to clarify and complicated by numerous factors, not least: 1) civil and military dual use launches and satellites; 2) the 2016 policy of civil-military fusion under President Xi, which focuses on AI, semi-conductors and other leading technologies as well as space; 3) gauging the impact of commercial developments on military usage and understanding how military capability developments can and may be cloaked by commercial progress; 4) new constellations of smaller vs older more vulnerable satellites; 5) overlapping anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite technologies; 6) the secretive nature of Chinese-Russian decision-making and technological cooperation.  In the military sphere China develops:

  • ASAT weapons capable of disrupting/destroying satellites in geo-stationary orbit.
  • SC-19 anti-satellite testing in 2007; DN-3 2018 ex-atmospheric missile interception; 2021 testing of a hypersonic missile with a potential nuclear warhead.
  • Cyber-attacks, jamming, GPS-spoofing (manipulating false data with attendant difficulties in attribution), and demonstration of RPO capabilities.
  • Space plane tested in late 2021.
  • An offensive fractional orbital bombardment system that can attack the US from the south.

Characteristics of Sino-Russian Space Cooperation:

  • Asymmetries:
    • In 2020 Russia undertook 25 launches (17% global share) while China 55.  China’s space budget in 2020 was $8.9bn and second to US’s, while Russia’s was $2.7bn. 
    • Russia focus two thirds of its smaller budget on military capability that itself is reliant on Soviet era projects from the 1970s (e.g. Angara A5M engines), whereas China also exploits commercial opportunities and undertakes innovation.
    • Russia can offer China operational combat experience (use of S-400s in Syria, jamming of drone attacks) which China lacks, having not itself undertaken combat operations since the 1980s.
  • Synergies:
    • GNSS – Beidou and Glonass complement each other and by combining 35 Beidu and 24 Glonass satellites, together Russia and China have a system capable of competing with the 31 satellite that constitute GPS.
    • Russian stations in China and Chinese stations in Russia can offer each strategic early warning against the US and so enhance the deterrence capabilities of both.
    • The creation of a Sino-Russian space-based cooperative ecosystem creates soft power and legitimacy advantages for both.  This generates the ability to attract the support of third parties, which in turn can be translated into diplomatic influence and UN votes.
    • Both use space in symbolic and instrumental ways.  For China space leadership signals the “century of humiliation” is over, and represents a shift in strategic thinking, placing Xi-era exquisite technology and innovation over Mao-era quantity (“more soldiers than the enemy has bullets”; “more is better”).  For Russia, the Soviet space legacy can be leveraged symbolically to promote current Great Power status, as evidenced by the launch of Sputnik-V and Russian COVID-diplomacy, or the construction of AI robots that are named “Leontov” and “Gagarin”.  Russia instrumentalises space through demonstrating ASAT weapons capabilities ahead of any potential international prohibitions.  This also ensures Russia a “seat at the table” in any future negotiations on restricting ASAT testing and use.


The main legal document – The Outer Space Treaty, formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (27 January 1967) – is obsolete and space-faring powers do not want to negotiate towards a new legally binding regulatory system.  The US backed a UK sponsored resolution for responsible behavior in space and an “Open-Ended Working Group” (OEWG) to begin discussion on responsible behaviour.  In addition, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin laid out five “Tenets of Responsible Behavior” that the DoD would follow (7 July 2021), highlighting best practice and setting normative standards.  Russia and China back a “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (PPTW). This proposal bans the placement of weapons in space but not the deployment of ground-based direct-ascent weapons or their testing.

The strategic importance of Russian-Chinese space cooperation is growing rapidly and creates sensitive policy challenges for the US. In 2002 Everett Dolman conceptualized space-based competition in terms of zero-sum neo-classical geopolitics – astropolitik – suggesting that: “Who controls low-earth orbit controls near-Earth space. Who controls near-Earth space dominates Terra. Who dominates Terra determines the destiny of humankind.”  By 2022, China and Russia cooperate to militarize space as an asymmetric response and challenge to US technological superiority and its current primacy built on a space-enabled modernity paradigm.  Rather than underscoring a need to occupy the commanding heights of lower earth orbit, this seminar demonstrates that space power is found in fusion (civil-military in China’s case, public-private in the case of the US), constellations and connected systems and responsible and capable allies (NATO, Five-Eyes).  Connectivity, cooperation and functional innovation provides the underlying dynamics that drives the logic and evolution of current strategic competition in space.

GCMC, January 19, 2022.

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

GPCSS#4, December 14, 2021: ‘Russia and China’s Intelligence and Information Operations Nexus: Implications for Global Strategic Competition?’

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 December 14, 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.


It is difficult to make coherent distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare.  The reality in late 2021 is complex.  Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies are best characterized not in terms of friends and enemies (‘Frenemies’) but friends and rivals (‘Frivals’).  The intelligence nexus between the two is compartmentalized and the balance is changing, with the FSB becoming more wary and the GRU more cooperative. Whereas a self-identified beleaguered Russia focuses on a defensive push-back against the West and the glories of its Great Power past (‘imperial nationalism’), China looks inward at modernization and the promises of restored future global hegemony.  Although China currently carries out intelligence operations in Russia, Russian or any other states’ intelligence operations in China are inherently extremely difficult, with risk often outweighing gain, though Russian intelligence operations against Chinese diplomats or citizens outside of China are possible. (Instead, Russia relies heavily on ‘hands-off’ intelligence gathering by satellite, ELINT and cyber, as well as open source.)

Russian Approaches: Russian intelligence services (GRU, SVR, FSB) are competitive, effective but show the impact of the intense tempo of operations, ready to deploy A, B and C teams and willing to accept a number of failures.  In this sense, for example, the SVR’s analogue is not the CIA but rather than OSS or SOE, given it is placed on war footing.  Intelligence is perceived not simply as an adjunct of policy but an instrument to change the world.  Career-wise, intelligence culture promotes ‘doers’ and risk takers. 

  • The SVR has a formal relationship with China’s military intelligence but not the Ministry of State Security. Nonetheless, it does have bilateral and SCO-mediated contacts, ready to pragmatically share/trade specific intelligence and tradecraft, especially in operations against the West.  The SVR is committed to a wider range of partners than just China, and relations with third parties such as India, can limit cooperation with China. 
  • By contrast, though the GRU has been historically more cautious of collaboration with China, particularly given the nature of Sino-Russian geopolitical competition in Central Asia and elsewhere, recently a shift is discernable. At the Moscow International Conference of 2021 the head of the GRU echoed Defense Minister Shoigu’s language around the value of cooperation with China and the threat of the US in the Pacific.  Military-technical espionage and information operations are areas in which Russia has a lead, with GRU unit 54777 or the 72nd Special Service Center sharing techniques and tradecraft with the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. 
  • The FSB cooperates with China’s Ministry of State Security, especially in efforts to counter jihadism (leaning heavily on Central Asia intelligence servicers to do so) and on sharing intelligence against domestic threats.  China does carry out intelligence operations in Russia and recently the FSB has become more vocal in its public statements, for example the FSB and Rostelecom blamed Chinese cyber mercenaries for hacks against Russian government targets, suggesting they were state-backed, thereby alerting political masters that there is a problem.  President Putin is on record as having identified Chinese presence in Russia as a potential 5th column.

Chinese Approaches: China under Xi Jinping seeks to restore the ‘Middle Kingdom’s’ centrality to and primacy in global affairs. To that end China focuses on three pillars of effort, all of which have an intelligence/espionage component: the Belt and Road Initiative; ‘Made in China 2025’; Civil-Military Integration or fusion (CMI), which translates into military modernization. 

  • BRI: China has codified and put into practice a national security intelligence system overseas which is led by the Ministry of Public Security.  This intelligence collection system uses Private Security Companies (PSC’s) for tactical and force protection of Chinese investments in over 60 BRI states, reporting through Chinese diplomatic missions.  China leverages information gathered by China’s space Information Corridor to sell/trade with BRI states, as well as the BRI’s Digital Silk Road.  
  • ‘Made in China 2025’: China identifies 10 key technologies that must be indigenously produced by 2025 if China is to gain global primacy.  Of 700 open source cases of Chinese espionage (intellectual property theft) that can be identified, 500 relate to these 10 sectors.
  • Military Modernization and CMI: China integrates the manufacture of commercial components and innovation in, for example, advanced robotics, aircraft engines, marine systems, space infrastructure etc., into China’s national military modernization. China takes a Whole of Society approach, to achieve this end, combining the efforts of the Ministry of State Security, the PLA, PSC’s, state enterprises and entrepreneurs.   

 Conclusions: GPCSS#4 offers four key takeaways:

  • First, the Sino-Russian intelligence nexus is strongest when the foci of intelligence agencies in both states is anti-Western.  This reflects a shared paranoia in both states against the specter of ‘color revolution’ inspired regime change.  However, in China at least liaison officers are considered by their counter-intelligence services as the weakest link, inhibiting deeper cooperation. 
  • Second, the role of the governing party in both states – United Russia and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – is totally different, as is the role of security services in the state.  Russia can credibly be characterized as a counter-intelligence state ruled by a Chekistocracy; even ifChina devolves into a digital Leninist and algorithmic authoritarian state, the CCP not China’s siloviki have primacy. 
  • Third, if third parties in Russia’s orbit, such as Belarus or Kazakhstan, may instrumentalize links with Chinese intelligence to pushback against Russia and maintain their own strategic autonomy, then it is likely the opposite occurs in China’s orbit.
  • Fourth, when it comes to the Sino-Russian axis (non-aggression pact), or coordinated alignment and then full alliance schema – the focus of the GPCSS – intelligence relations proves to be an outlier, transcending such categories. Human intelligence is by definition an intensely personal and emotional endeavor and every intelligence agency competes against every other.  Intelligence cannot be artificially shoe-horned into wider the IR state-based categories of axis, alignment and alliance.

GCMC, December 15, 2021.

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

Poster credit: Z Sherman

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