SCSS#8, 19 April 2022: Russia, China and Ukraine?

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 19 April 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. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Introduction:

On April 18 2022 Russia’s war in Ukraine moved to a new phase, with President Volodymyr Zelensky stating that: “Russian troops have begun the battle for Donbas”.  Russia now focuses on a single front and seeks to establish full control over the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  That same day China’s Executive Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng gave assurances to Moscow that “China will, as always, strengthen strategic coordination with Russia no matter how the international situation evolves” while Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to the US, defended Beijing’s ties with Moscow, noting that such ties were “non-aligned, non-confrontational, and not targeted at third parties”. On 19 April Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the Ukraine conflict has wider ramifications, impacting as it does Russia-China ties and so affecting US-China relations.

The war, its nature and length stress tests the Sino-Russian “no limits” axis, in which both parties seek to maximize the benefits of the relationship while minimizing the costs of their “strategic partnership”.  The war highlights the ideological and geopolitical alignments between Russia and China.  The axis needs both to function as a strategic counterweight to US and promote an alternative non-liberal international order.  The war also brings into focus the importance of structural geo-economic realities, differing national priorities and the personal ties between Putin and Xi.  It stress tests inherent tensions in the relationship, based on increasing asymmetries and dependencies and the need for China to balance different considerations, not least to ensure internal stability in China itself.  For China, although the circumstances and contexts between Taiwan and Ukraine differ greatly (e.g. amphibious vs land warfare), there are some lessons in Russian and Ukrainian conduct that China identifies and likely seeks to learn. 

Alignments:

  • Bilateral Security Arrangements: Russia and China stand back-to-back and secure each other’s strategic rear.  This has enabled Russia to strip the Eastern Military District of troops to fight in Ukraine.  The notion that the axis is not always together but never opposed proves apposite, for now. Though both view each other as useful strategic partners they are both are determined to uphold their own strategic autonomy in decision-making and military operations. 
  • Diplomatic Support: China’s abstentions in UN General Assembly votes on 2 and 24 March 2022 formally upheld China’s professed “neutrality” with regards to the war.  However, China will likely seek to support Russia by influencing other states to abstain in future votes. Russia views its diplomatic relationship with China since the start of the war through the prism of continuity with interactions before the war rather than change. Russia’s “peace negotiations” provide Chinese diplomatic cover for support.
  • Narrative Support: Before the war China echoed Russian narratives around “color revolutions” and western destabilization.  Chinese state media now supports and amplifies Russia’s discursive power, particularly on Chinese social media at state and local level: the Bucha massacres are “fake”; Biden is criticized for labelling Russia’s actions in Ukraine a “genocide”;  NATO could launch missile attacks from Kharkiv to Moscow in 7-8 minutes; NATO “expansion” to Sweden and Finland would be “destabilizing”; Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva missile cruiser sunk in stormy seas following an earlier “detonation of munitions” on board and the West’s “economic blitzkrieg” of sanctions on Russia had failed.
  • International Order: China’s interests with Russia are more aligned than with either Ukraine or the ‘political West’.  Russia can act as a self-destructive and aggressive battering ram against the rules-based international order.  China increasingly joins Russia in challenging the Western dominated liberal international order, calling for a reformed new order to replace the current and an end to US hegemony.  To that end both China and Russia reach out to states in the Global South to garner support for a new global order and avoid the perception of their isolation. China has committed itself to being a global power by 2049. China encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization, contrasting this to Western endeavors. However, unlike China, Russia lacks its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm.

Inherent Tensions:

  • Structural economic realities are evident given Sino-Russian bilateral trade amounts to $147 billion in 2021, with a 28% ($38.2 billion) increase through the first quarter of 2022, but China’s trade with the EU and US amounts to $1.6 trillion.
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) privileges its own survival and internal stability over foreign policy concerns, particularly on the eve of its 20th Party Congress (November 2022), where Xi is likely to be reelected for an unprecedented third term.  The CCP identifies the primary contradiction (in accordance with the logic of dialectical materialism) in China as inequality, imbalances and uneven development. Would greater Chinese support for Russia result in lower prices for Russian natural resources, better enabling China to address and manage this contradiction?  Or might such support come at too high a price: secondary sanctioning and the loss of US and EU markets means that China’s economy becomes less modernized (China does not itself produce semi-conductors) and China is less able to both counterbalance the US and address its primary contradiction?
  • Currently China has suspended some operations and new investments in Russia, concerned with the effects of secondary sanctions.  From a Russian perspective, a slowdown in China’s economy would reduce Russia’s oil and gas exports to China, as well as potential Chinese investments in Russia.  As it is, even under ideal circumstances, China is unable to replace Russia’s lost EU energy markets.  By 2023 if the EU stops Russian oil and gas purchases Russia must find new markets.  
  • Far from winning the war in Ukraine, Russia’s military tactical, operational and strategic incompetence are on full display. China had viewed Russia as a major conventional military power, which went some way to balancing out other asymmetries in the relationship. Russia’s military conduct gives pause for Chinese reassessments. An economically weaker Russia becomes a more dependent partner – but also a potential liability for China. 
  • Red-lines:  Although the communique released after the Xi-Putin 4th February 2022 Summit referenced the “no limits” nature of the Russian-Chinese relationship, limits do exist.  Xi will reduce support for Putin if the costs for China are too high – but this would only happen in the case of a significant escalation that makes supporting Russia too costly.
    • China’s response to “vertical escalation” in Ukraine may be ambivalent: China could find a way to overlook Russia’s use of chemical or biological weapons, but the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be too difficult to deny and result in both China and India distancing themselves from Russia. 
    • The prolongation of the war and its escalation of the war from Russia-Ukraine to Russia and NATO would be a major concern for China.  These circumstances would likely unify the West further.
    • The collapse of Putin’s regime would be a very negative outcome for China: China’s fear would be twofold: first, a post-Putin regime may democratize or more likely an economically weak, China-dependent and difficult to manage “second DPRK” emerges – nuclear, nationalist and unpredictable; second, a united West may now look to address Chinese malign strategic behavior.
    • From a Russian perspective, if China purchases less energy from Russia or does not help economically, then this would be viewed as breaking the spirit of the partnership.

Conclusions: Ukraine and Taiwan – Lessons Identified?

  • Diplomatic: Russia argues that it does not fight Ukraine but rather the US and its allies in Ukraine.  China will likely also adopt this narrative: China will fight US and its allies in the region in Taiwan. The need to control messaging and have countries echo and amplify it or at least remain neutral is paramount.  China will seek to secure regional allies in East Asia, oppose the QUAD and plans to jointly develop nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles under the AUKUS alliance as part of their perceived effort to create an “Asia-Pacific NATO” to serve US interests.  
  • Intelligence: China’s need for accurate intelligence gathering, especially regarding Taiwan’s willingness to fight and resist “liberation” is evident, given Russia’s failures in this regard.  China also adopts a new core operational concept – intelligentized warfare – which involves the use of AI to intimidate/control the enemy’s decision-makers cognition and manipulate public opinion. This requires sifting through large amounts of data to identify influential individuals.
  • Military: China needs Taiwan intact as its eastern coast allow for strategic (nuclear) submarine launches – the first island chain marks the end of continental shelf and deep water.  This suggests China may adopt an approach based on covert, cyber, and information war and an awareness of the dangers of overconfidence in technological superiority, in Command, Control and Communications (C3), and combat management systems.
  • Economic: While Russia and China may be politically aligned they are both more economically dependent on the West than with each other.  China will appreciate the need to mitigate its vulnerabilities and enhance resilience through sanctions-proofing the Chinese economy and currency. China will seek to prevent Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen adopting a political, digitally resilient and cognitive warfare strategy akin to President Zelensky and prevent the “Sea Fortress” from receiving support from abroad.

GCMC, 20 April 2022.

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

How Russia conceives and prepares for war… and how Ukraine doesn’t fit

cc 4.0, mvs.gov.ua

Many months ago, I agreed to speak to the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre about Russian thinking – not just within the military but also the spook/civilian national security establishment – about war and conflict. Then came the invasion, and the growing realisation that what the Russians were actually doing was rather different from what, according to their own strictures, they ought to have been doing. So, my presentation ended up being a rather more impromptu attempt to explore not just the latter but also the former, and to try and understand the mismatch.

They have now posted an audio recording (so-so sound quality at times, I’m afraid), here:

https://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/past-events/2022/3/22/russian-perceptions-of-conflict-with-discussion-of-war-in-ukraine

That was in the especially confused first couple of weeks of the war. Since then we have a little greater clarity as to what is happening, even if still largely conjecture as to why. My belief about the late standing up of a Combat Management Unit (GBU) within the National Defence Management Centre (which is a crucial hub for coordinating everything from logistics to endstate goals – I talk a bit more about it in this episode of my podcast) seems to have been confirmed. We still do not seem to have a single field commander, but instead separate (and thus inherently competing) operational commanders to north, east and south. The generals are trying to reassert their control over the situation, but clearly (too?) late, and with, for the Russians, devastating consequences.

RSS#5, 21 March 2022: “Russia and Ukraine: Negotiated Settlement and End State?” 

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Russia Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on 21 March 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. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Context

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears stalled, giving space for political negotiations. However, there are two wars that need to be addressed: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s war with the West.  In the first war, the issues include: 1) “neutrality”; 2) “security guarantees”; 3) de-militarization; 4) “de-nazification”; and 5) the nature of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  Russia’s combat operations have stalled.  Forceful breakthrough in several directions are unsuccessful.  The siege of Kyiv incomplete, as the visit by three European prime ministers demonstrated.  On 21 March President Zelensky stated that Ukraine will not bow to ultimatums from Russia and that Ukrainian cities under attack will not accept occupation. At the same time he urged direct talks with President Putin, saying:Without this meeting it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war.”  As a Ukrainian Jew whose relatives died in the Holocaust, his address to the Israeli Knesset compared Russian actions with that of the Nazi’s. Russian propaganda asserting the opposite fails to gain traction outside of Russia.

Russia’s ultimata to the US and NATO in December 2021 in the guise of diplomacy prefigured a recasting of the war in Ukraine as one between the “collective West” (‘Empire of lies’) and Russia (‘Truth and Justice’).  In this telling, articulated by Putin at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 18 March 2022, the West carries out “total war” against Russia using a “fifth column” consisting of “national traitors” with “slave consciousness”, as well as information warfare and economic sanctions. According to this understanding, Ukraine is a puppet, under “external control on the part of the West”. For President Putin, Russia is in an existential struggle for its sovereignty, its right to be itself, and so fights a necessary and heroic war of defense. Such military-patriotic mobilization through “total war” propaganda makes up for lost time: Putin had continuously asserted that Russia did not seek war and Russian society was not therefore mobilized to support war prior to the invasion. 

Ukraine-Russia Political Settlement

Russia insists that Ukraine adopts a neutral military status, with Russia’s lead negotiator Vladimir Medinsky stating that Russia desires a: “peaceful, free, independent Ukraine that is neutral and not a member of a military bloc, not a member of NATO.” President Zelensky accepts non-NATO membership as a reality: NATO is “not ready to accept Ukraine for at least 15 more years”. The question then is which neutrality model does Ukraine adopt – the Swiss model of armed neutrality and territorial defence – or the non-aligned Finnish and Swedish models, that include EU membership, with its increasingly meaningful Common Foreign and Security Policy. Although the EU as a regulatory and normative geo-economic superpower united in sanctions against Russia poses the greatest danger for rent-based patronal ‘Putinism’, Putin himself may not understand this reality. 

A second focus in the discussions is on security guarantees “for all participants in this process”.  Thus a neutral Ukraine would seek guarantees for the “complete security for Ukraine for the time that NATO is not ready to accept us”. Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator, notes that this: “suggests that there will be no bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine, but rather a multilateral agreement, a package agreement that a number of countries will take part in — their number is still being discussed. [But it will be] five to seven countries.”States mentioned as guarantors include nuclear power states – UK, France and US – as well as Turkey, Poland, and Israel.  However, how these guarantors punish potential future violators have yet to be defined, and given the failure of the generic Budapest guarantees, identifying specific responses for specific violations may help make the process more credible and reconcile Kyiv to it. Russia itself would need “security guarantees” – but guarantees of what and by whom?  This factor does underscore that two peace processes are interlinked.

Russia seeks “demilitarisation” of Ukraine so that “no threats to the Russian Federation ever come from its territory”.  The size and capability of Ukraine’s military is a topic for discussion.  If Ukraine adopts armed neutrality with security guarantees, this suggests that Ukraine would be armed to the extent that it could defend itself from and so deter future aggressors. This in turn implies a range of air-land-battle capabilities and integrated air-defense systems in place.  Limited and symbolic third party border monitoring missions might also ensure demilitarization and act as a security guarantee.  All Russian military forces would withdraw from the territory of Ukraine, raising questions regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and borders.  Ukraine’s post-settlement model may well be Israel.  That is, heavily militarized, with a sense of self based on military vulnerability, but with strong external guarantees.

President Putin continues to speak of “denazification” which supports his framing in terms of the Great Patriotic War, while Foreign Minister Lavrov referenced the “termination of nazification policy” in Ukraine.  “Denazification” suggests regime change, with ‘regime’ understood in terms of current political and military leadership in Ukraine as well as policies.  The “termination of nazification policy” may be understood in terms of alegal regime and refer to “discriminatory legislation” and restrictions on Russian language, education, culture, and mass media in Ukraine. Russia’s narrative around a “special military operation” to “protect the Russian-speaking population” against a Ukrainian Nazi regime encompasses both interpretations. 

Territorial issues may be subject to de facto and de jure recognition compromises with regards to Donbas and Crimea but not ‘the South’.  For Donbas, Russia has rrecognized both Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states according to their de jure 2014 administrative borders.  Ukraine will likely insist on the de facto borders of 22 February 2022.  Will it settle for the de facto borders by time of settlement?  With Crimea, Russia would likely insist on the official recognition of Crimea a permanent part of Russia either immediately or through another referendum, this time with international recognition?  President Zelensky has referenced a “Crimea compromise” which suggests that de jure the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (the ARK) is still legally part of Ukraine but de facto Ukraine would work with the current reality.  However, in ‘the South’ Russia will seek to maintain the seized North Crimea canal (water security for Crimea) and the land corridor to Donbas, making the Sea of Azov a Russian lake. Russia has begun moves on creating a Kherson Peoples Republic and Mariupol Peoples Republic.  For Ukraine trading Mariupol for a wider peace may be a bridge too far. 

Culmination Points

  • Progress in the war has an effect on the respective strengths and confidence of both sides.  We can look to the culmination of Russian military and diplomatic tracks regarding its aggression in Ukraine and the knock-on effects for Russia’s economy and popular and “inner circle” support for Putin.  Does Russia meet an impasse or stalemate where continuation forward is no longer possible?  Does this then allow for an operational pause and regroup and provide time to mobilize support for a wider war?
  • If Russia suffered the isolation and destruction of several battalion tactical groups due to over extended supply lines, encirclement and annihilation, might this tactical defeat resonate on other Russian fronts, leading to collapse, compounded by steady military losses, exhaustion and low morale (as evidenced in the Kostroma 331st Guards Airborne Regiment and 138th motorized rifle brigade)? Alternatively, might Russia escalate to negotiate from a position of greater strength, seeking the formal capitulation of Mariupol or capture of Kharkiv, Sumy, or Mykolaiv as bargaining chips in the negotiations?  Might an unexpected Russian break through lead to the belief that “just one more push” leads to victory? This mindset that brought ruin to the Russian army in World War I.
  • In Ukraine, 2020-2021 sociological surveys demonstrated public opinion leaning towards integration with the EU and NATO. War has increased Ukrainian support for pro-Western policies and the Ukrainian language, identity, self-belief.  On 18 March 2022 Rating sociology group carried out a survey via Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews with 1,000 respondents above the age of 18 in all regions of Ukraine except those currently occupied: 96% believe that Ukraine will repel Russia’s attack.  On 21 March President Zelensky stated that the final format for compromises on “security guarantees” and the temporarily occupied territories in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia may be put to an all-Ukrainian referendum.  This mechanism may also facilitate implied changes to Ukraine’s constitution.    
  • Might vertical escalation through the use of a non-strategic nuclear weapon(s) be used to break the impasse and improve Putin/Russia’s negotiation position?  Russia appears unlikely to escalate in this manner for a number of reasons: 1) the impossibility for NATO allies not to have a direct military response and actively consider regime change; 2) the technical difficulties involved in the delivery; 3) a pragmatic Putin fearing his orders might not be carried out chooses not to; 4) the loss of external support – China being critical – as Russia moves from pariah to isolated rogue state status; 5) a staged nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya after withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would have the same escalatory signally effect without the risks associated with Ukraine. 
  • The spring 2021 conscription draft represents a tipping point.  As Russia dragoons a new wave of conscripts, draft dodging may prove an indirect indicator of popular support for the war, or lack of it.  In addition, once conscripts complete their one year service they are released into society as live witnesses of the realities in Ukraine.  Might Russia be tempted to extend conscription and undertake “national mobilization of personnel and industry”?  Would this emergency move cause societal backlash and unrest, as well as damage the narrative of a “special military operation” going “according to plan”? Does the deployment of Rosgvardiya for controlling the occupied territories leave too little capacity for managing anti-war movements in Russia itself?
  • Deficiencies in Russia’s way of war are evident. The Russian military was unprepared for a multi-axis attack against determined resistance.  The centrality of Putin to Putin’s war is highlighted by his portrayal as a popular war leader, though this popularity may be Potemkin-like. Putin is selling “victory” to the Russian public and his “inner circle”, but are they buying?  If so, at what price?  Putin sought to restore Slavic unity.  He breaks it, loses Ukraine and returns Russia to a 1970s “Brezhnev 2.0” construct, with differences: Russia is in open confrontation with the West not competition, is more ideological, weaker and less stable.  Coups in Russia – Khrushchev in 1964 or Gorbachev in August 1991 – occur when there is a confluence of opinion in Russian military, KGB and political elites.  Has Putin ensured through elite surveillance and a lack of collective institutions that this terminal culmination point is not reached? For now elite opposition manifests itself as passivity and lack of support rather than the active determination to be first mover in the removal of a paranoid and isolated but not yet a fully Potemkin-Putin: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. (King Richard IV, Part 2, Act 3, Scene 1).

GCMC, March 22, 2022.

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

SCSS#7, 15 March 2022: “Russia-China Axis: Polar Power-Plays?”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (RSS) webinars held on March 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. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Context:

Russia is an Arctic superpower by virtue of the length of its Arctic frontier (over 50% of the Arctic Ocean is Russian coastline), size and scope of military, civil population and economic presence. With its icebreaker and capability gap and North Pole floating station, it is not just second to none, but more than the others combined. China’s Arctic Strategy (2018) defines itself as having Arctic stakeholder status, in contravention of its 2013 Arctic Council observer commitments.  China is a strategic power in the Antarctic. 

When we look to both poles, to what extent do we see convergence in terms of goals of Russia and China?  Where are points of alignment, convergent interests and divergence?  In particular, how might the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact on Russia’s military buildup, modernization and securitization agenda in the Arctic, trade along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which is enabled by conflict free, stable and predictable operating environment and its willingness to uphold the international legal architecture of the Arctic, as agreed by stakeholders? Are the rules of the Sino-Russian relationship now to be written in Chinese characters and not Cyrillic?

Antarctic

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty and related agreements designates the Antarctic as the area south of 60 degrees latitude.  The treaty itself has 14 articles and is in force indefinitely. The continent is declared a politically neutral territory, with the sovereignty claims of seven claimant states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) set aside.  All 12 signatories of the Antarctic Treaty and the 29 consultative parties (those with substantive research programs in the continent who can vote at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting) agreed that the Antarctic can be only be used for scientific and peaceful purposes.  Military bases and activities are expressly forbidden and no party can enhance their own or diminish the territorial claims of others.  The US and Russia have not made a territorial claim but reserve the right to do so. The Antarctic Treatyallows for a review conference if a majority of signatories agree to open it and consensus of all parties to create a new regulatory framework.  Both Russia and China continue to plant the seed that the treaty is not “future proof” and should be discarded and rewritten.

China is a major player on the continent.  It has four Antarctic research stations: Great Wall, Zhongshan, Taishan and Kunlun (4,093 meters’ elevation above sea level, second-southernmost research base in Antarctica), with a fifth station being built on the Ross Sea Ice Shelf, to be completed in 2022.  Kunlun has never been inspected.  China pushes the notion of a “specially managed area” around its research stations over which foreigners should fly over or enter, particularly near Kunlun in an area called Dome A (Dome Argus).  Other parties resist this normative change, as well as criticize Chinese non-compliance with rules, for example, pertaining to the submission of environmental and planning documents. China utilizes two icebreakers, the first built (MV Xue Long – ‘Snow Dragon’) was built by Ukraine and has been in service since 1994, the second (MV Xue Long 2) in China.    

Russia has been present in the Antarctic longer than China and has ten research bases or stations.  Five of these are seasonal bases (Molodezhnaya, Bunger Oasis, Russkaya, Leningradskaya and Druzhnaya-4), and five are operational year-round: Mirniy (founded 1956), Vostok (1957, currently being upgraded to accommodate 35 people during the season and 15 people during the winter period, with a two-year supply of fuel/food), Progress, Novolazarevskaya and Bellingshausen.  The Admiral Vladimirsky and Yantar oceanographic research ships, operated by the Russian Navy and help service its bases on the continent.  Russia operates six nuclear-powered and 40 diesel icebreakers but these are used in the Arctic.

The Antarctic is mined for its resources. Chinese fishing flotillas currently harvests about 30,000 tons of Antarctic krill annually, the building block of the earth’s food chain.  The Soviet Union and then Russia were the main krill harvester, accounting for over 95% of the global volume of krill fishing, but its industry now stagnates and its fishing fleet is in a deteriorated state.  The continent is rich in coal deposits and the Southern Ocean rich in gas and the Antarctic ice-cap holds 90% of the earth’s fresh water.  At annual meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which comprises 25 nations and the European Union, both Russia and China in the name of “resource security” cooperate to block proposals to create the world’s largest sanctuary in Antarctica, protecting penguins, reefs, seabirds and ecosystems, as well as initiatives aimed at tackling climate change in Antarctica. However, differences are apparent: while China seeks to exploit the continents resources in 15-20 years, Russia’s goal is to lock them up and avoid alternative supplies of energy entering the market. 

Both Russia and China share an interest in projecting Polar Great Power identities in the Antarctic. On the 27 January 1820 the first confirmed sighting of the mainland Antarctic was by a Russian expedition, led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.  They were commissioned by Tsar Aleksandr I to explore the southern seas in search of the Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”).  In 2020 to be the “Year of Antarctica” and in Russia a stress is placed on Russia’s historical links with Antarctica, with President Putin in 2018 seeking to “restore historical justice” by putting original Russian names of many locations in Antarctica back on the map: “With the most active participation of the Russian Geographical Society, it is proposed to prepare a new Russian Atlas of the World, in which all such cases [of renaming toponyms that bore Russian names] will be correctly interpreted.” 

 Logistically China tends to be more self-sufficient, though it does rely on Russian facilities in Antarctica, most notably aerodromes, though China seeks to build its own.  Russia has two aerodromes, one with India and another temporary one and works with South Africa for resupply. The Chinese company CEIEC (China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation) cooperated with Brazil to build its new Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station between 2016 and 2020.

The continent is strategically important and both Russia and China have a shared interest in leveraging their presence to compete with Washington. China undertakes dual use “scientific research” which mask military-security ends and erode a rules-based order.  From the Antarctic submarines can be launched into three of the world’s oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.  The EU, US, Russia and China can use Antarctic bases for GPS satellites. China launched its first polar-observing satellite in September 2019 – the ‘Ice Pathfinder’ (Code: BNU-1) – which carriers out “satellite-drone-ground” synchronous scientific experiments in the Antarctic. Russia’s ZALA Aero company (part of the Kalashnikov group within the Rostec state corporation) tests light drones in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, operating the drones at minus 52 degrees Celsius.  China has yet to table an Antarctic policy, Russia’s was published in 2001 (before its Arctic) and this was revised in 2021.

Arctic

The Arctic Council’s 2021 Strategic Plan was celebrated for its forward-thinking ambitions. Members envisioned an Arctic in 2030 to be a “region of peace, stability and constructive cooperation”. The permanent member states of the Arctic Council consists of Canada, Finland, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the United States and Russia, which holds the rotating Chair between June 2021 and May 2023.  However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russia’s “partners” suspended Russia from the Northern Dimension (the European Union, Iceland and Norway) on 8 March and on 9 March the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) members (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden) and the EU followed suit.  Seven of the eight permanent member states of the Arctic Council voted to ‘pausing’ Arctic Council engagement. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused its partners, who Russia had designated “hostile states” of being “Blinded by the anti-Russia hysteria”.

This ‘pause’ in effect places addressing any issue inside the Arctic on hold. The Arctic Council no longer represents a robust, operational mechanism for Russia-West dialogue and cooperation. It is hard to envisage the resumption of ties in the near term. The Arctic Council could seek to function without Russia in order to address environmental and other issues that cannot wait for the end of hostilities in Ukraine.  Russia’s acceptance of greater risk regarding civil aircraft maintenance standards, spills over into oil and gas production in the Arctic, where sophisticated technology needed for offshore Arctic exploration can easily break down, inviting environmental disasters.  For these offshore fields to be profitable global demand needs to price oil at $160 pb over a sustained period.

The economic impact of sanctions, unexpected in scale and scope, is profound. Beijing’s share in the Yamal LNG venture is 29.9%, Russia’s Novatek holds 50.1% and France’s Total holds 20%. Arctic-2 LNG project, China holds 20%, Novatek holds 60%, Total accounts for 10% and the remaining 10% is held by a Japanese consortium.  Sanctions mean that external investment should cease.  Russia’s ability to limits new Chinese investments in for example Russian ports, will be harder to maintain.  

However, Russia may seek to turn the crisis into an opportunity to bring ‘new’ non-Arctic stakeholders partners into the theater: China, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Vietnam, and Bangladesh – the future power houses.  The UAE apart, these countries abstained in United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In addition, while Shell may pull out, BP has a 19.7% stake and it remains to be seen if France’s Total walks away from Russia’s trans-shipment hubs.  What is clear is that Russia’s Arctic stakeholders will all be impacted by the Ukraine invasion.  These include corporations such as Rosatom, Novatek, and Rosneft; defense and security heavy-hitters, such as Defense Minister Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Patrushev; and, the General Staff (in particular its nuclear lobby) and the Defense Industrial Complex (VPK). 

Prior to the invasion the Russian media had reported heavily on Russia’s Northern Fleet exercise in the Barents Sea involving 20 warships, submarines and support vessels including the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky and the frigate Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov, as well as around ten aircraft and helicopters from the fleet’s Air Force and Air Defence Army. This exercise foreshadowed NATO’s “Cold Response 2022” exercise, seeking to reassure and deter, the largest in the High North since the Cold War. 

Russia’s military agenda in the Arctic is reshaped by the Ukraine invasion.  The Russian General Staff now fear NATO escalation in the Arctic. In three weeks of fighting in Ukraine Russia has consumed three years of military hardware production, with money and capabilities designated for the Arctic being expended in Ukraine.  Moreover, the Northern Fleet deployed some of its assets, including the Marshal Ustinov cruiser and two amphibious ships to the Eastern Mediterranean in February 2022, so its combat order is rather reduced, while the “Cold Response 2022” is the largest ever. Remarkably, Russia’s state-controlled media in lock-step over the necessity of “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, does not make any reference to this NATO exercise, which involves two air-craft carriers, 35 countries and 35,000 troops. 

As a result, grey zone or hybrid scenarios involving Svalbard (Spitsbergen) and Bear Island are now much less likely.  In the past Russia has accepted risk as a competitive strategic advantage and for example, conducted live-fire missile launches in NATO exercise areas and undertaken GPS jamming.  Such spoiler and disruptive conduct is no longer in evidence. Most of Russian’s land forces are fully deployed in Ukraine and an exit strategy short of “declare victory” and leave is not in evidence.  The Bering Strait remains the world’s most overlooked emerging global transport choke point. Russia is unable to protect its strategic nuclear submarines on the Kamchatka Peninsula, as it cannot organize a “naval bastion” or uses an A2AD “bubble” in the Sea of Okhotsk. Limited U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to the west of the Bering Strait might reinforce the common benefit that flows from denying Russia the exclusive control over this maritime route.  While conventional escalation or provocation scenarios are put on hold, Russia might still look to carry out nuclear testing on Novaya Zemlya, undertaking vertical escalation to demonstrate its nuclear might. Undertaking chemical, biological or radiological attacks in Ukraine itself, risks literal blow-back into Crimea or the Russian cities of Belgorod or Rostov-na-Donu.

Conclusions:

  • In the Arctic, Russia and China have a converging interest in the NSR. However, here the situation is very fluid.  Climate change creates new borders and brings into question the continental shelf, with overlapping claims from Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Canada.  Might a decision be made that rejects Russian claims? Ukraine demonstrates that Russia is prepared to suffer reputational damage to achieve its ends.  Might Russia apply the same logic to the Arctic and seek to nationalize the NSR and thereby control access to transport lines and Arctic resources?  Alternatively, might the US Senate ratify UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), allowing for consensus and adding strength to the Arctic Council and UN stances?  Is the Arctic considered a global commons? UNCLOS is not very precise and leaves too much room for interpretation, as evidenced by the behavior of both China and Russia. 
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stress-tests the China-Russia axis. Does China decide that it cannot let Russia fail too badly, as this sets a poor precedent and strengths NATO/the ‘political West’ and leaves China exposed as a “near peer” competitor?  Thus, the invasion of Ukraine deepens the functional axis and widens it: China supplies Russia with military materiel; Russia becomes more dependent on Chinesetechnology, finance and trade; the relationship becomes more asymmetric and in China’s favor.  Indeed, the invasion of Ukraine is understood as a global inflection point, one that marks the death of the rules-based order, with Russia, China, India and ASEAN states breaking with the past.
  • Or, alternatively, does China decide that Russia now constitutes a serious liability, one that could threaten China’s own strategic autonomy and longer term goals? The challenge to the rules-based order posed by Russia is considered too disruptive: it impacts on China’s own conception of world order; China’s role within it in too detrimental a manner; and constrains Xi Jinping’s ability to address destabilizing inequalities in China itself. China therefore decides to highlight its global leadership role and pressure Russia into a political settlement.  In either case, how might we see this contract manifest itself in the Arctic and Antarctic?
  • Russia’s inability to unilaterally impose its regulatory scheme on the NSR, requiring permission to enter it, not providing an exception for sovereign immune vessels, and insisting China abides by Russian transit laws (vessels must be piloted by Russian pilots, tolls are charged, and Russia must be pre-warned about trips) would be a clear indicator of change.
  • But ultimately, the answer to the question may lie in Moscow and the shelf-life of the Putin regime.  For Russia an inability to secure a victory in Ukraine is a defeat. If this is the case, is the parallel 1905 (Russo-Japanese War) or 1917: in other words, does it involve regime/leadership change and reform, or regime and political system change and chaos?

GCMC, March 16, 2022.   

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

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.

Context:

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”.  

Conclusions:

  • 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.

Context:

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.

Conclusions:

  • 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.

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