FY23 SCSS#2, 15 November 2022: “Militaries, Mercenaries, Militias and Morale and the Ukraine War”

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 15 November 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.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  To this end, SCSS#2 identified and explored the impact of multiple militaries on Russia’s war fighting effort in Ukraine. Has Russia achieved ‘unity of command’ with the appointment of Gen Surovikin to overall commander of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine? How does theory of unified command differ from practice? What are the operational effectiveness implications of discrepancies between the two?

Russia’s Formal Chain of Command

The integrity of Russia’s military command is a constant issue.  Russia’s multi-axis military invasion of Ukraine, initiated at 0400 CET on 24 February 2022, was led by multiple commanders.  In October 2022 Gen Surovikin was appointed top Russian commander. However, unity of command has not appreciably strengthened.  On paper Russia adopts a formal chain of unified command of the Russia Group of Forces for Special Military Operation in Ukraine.  Gen Surovikin is the unified commander and as such is ultimately responsible for any resultant loss of operational effectiveness. Figure 1 outlines how in theory Russia’s formal chain of command should operate in Ukraine.  

We can see that a wide variety of military actors are subordinated within this unified chain of command. It is difficult to verify with certainty thee current numbers of these actors as figures regarding ‘attrition rates’ and reconstitution with mobilized troops are not readily available.  Approximations can be made and, given this, we should focus less on the exact figures and more on the relative balance between different units.

  • Regular Military: c. 80,000 (?)
  • Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republic (LDNR) Forces: c. 20,000 – these forces, the so-called 1st and 2nd Corps are very depleted and have been formally annexed into Russia’s regular military
  • Opolcheniye (Militia): 3,000-13,000 (low/mid-range i.e. 5-6k likely)
  • Wagner PMC: 1,000-8,000 (higher end likely) – heavy casualties but are also being reconstituted through a recruitment drive, including of Russian prisoners
  • Rosgvardiya (National Guard): c. 17,000 (?) – includes elite OMON and other interior troops
  • Chechens: 4-6 ‘battalions’ – 2,000-12,000 (lower end likely) – are formally supported to Rosgvardiya

The real chain of command

The Russian chain of command that appears to operate in practice in Ukraine is more chaotic and fragmentary than the theory suggests. This introduces needless friction into cooperation between different units and branches, limiting combined arms efforts, mutual logistical support and so operational effectiveness. Figure 2 highlights how in practice Russia’s informal chain of command does operate in Ukraine. 

What are the notable differences between theory and practice?

  • Wagner PMC is directly subordinated to Prigozhin and his military coordination cell.  Gen Surovikin and the General Staff (the unified command) can request of Wagner troops but Prigozhin’s approval is needed as subordination to unified command would lead to the integration of Wagner into the regular military (institutionalization or ‘empire building’) leading to a loss of autonomy and control over his PMC for at least the duration of an open-ended conflict.
  • Chechen forces in theory are subordinated to Rosgvardiya which in turn reports to the unified command. In practice, as with Wagner and Prigozhin, Kadyrov has direct control over his Kadyrovsky and counter-confirmation is needed if these units are ordered to change location.This de facto veto power addstime and friction to the decision-making and implementation process and so increases dysfunction on battlefield.
  • Rosgvardiya units should be directly subordinated under the unified command.  However, Zolotov has to counter-confirm major engagement and relocation orders, if only because Rosgvardiya commanders in Ukraine seek permission to avoid exposure.  As with the other caveats, added time and friction hampers the operational effectiveness of Russian forces.  – bitter competition over fuel and other necessary supplies and logistics
  • LNR and DNR militias are in theory integrated into the regular Russian military and this in fact largely reflects practice. 

Implications for Russian military operations

Russia’s ‘Unified Command’ is not unified and does not therefore command as it should.  This lack of unity only exacerbates friction between the regular military, Rosgvardiya, Wagner, Kadyrovsky and militias. While it is difficult to assess the potential in combat effect if Russia would be able to realign its fragmented command structure, we can note shortcomings that arise from the current state of affairs.

  • Outright conflict: there is suspicion that Wagner’s months long grinding assault on Bakhmut, strategic value, represents a means of the regular Russian military to control Wagner. However, given Wagner fights alongside the Marine Brigade of the Pacific Fleet (itself supplemented by newly mobilized middle-aged men), ‘disciplining’ and subordinating Wagner cannot be the whole story.
  • Fragmented morale: it is harder to make broader assumptions about Russian morale as morale is not always fixed but can change.  Factors such as logistics support, C3, battlefield losses and withdrawals, winter temperatures, and the falling quality of Russian officers all play a role.  Officers are a key factor in whether troops stand and fight – unlikely if their officers are the first to run.  Morale plummets if officers do not engender trust in the chain of command, issue incomprehensible orders, and are drunk.  Fragmented morale may mitigate the possibility of a cascading collapse of morale, a culmination point.
  • Poor coordination and logistical support: weak communication hampers the provision of logistical support (for example, artillery ammunition and fuel for close air support operations), which is critical to enabling not just Russian combined arms offensive operations, but also defending territory.  Lack of logistical support also further drains morale.  Ukrainian coordination appears by contrast fluid, allow for vertical and horizontal exchanges, integration and adaptation.    

From Symptoms to Causes and Future Trends:

The current fragmented command structure reflects the political fundamentals of the Russian state. To put it another way, where power lies on the battlefield is where power in Moscow. President Putin creates checks and balances through non-institutionalized fragmentation so that groups compete against each other and he can exercise arbitration power and uphold a necessary function in the system.  Added to this, the divergent competitive goals (desire to optimise revenues, recruit best personnel, define mission and narrative) of these sub-institutional actors promotes clashes.  Putin’s ‘power vertical’ is a fiction. 

In addition, the more entrepreneurial Russian elements formally subordinated in the chain of command all have other functions in the Putinite system which legitimises their autonomy. Kadyrov’s independent standing is seen as necessary to avoid a third Chechen war, even as Kadyrov seeks to instrumentalise involvement in the war to secure heavy weaponry for his light infantry forces, and prepare for life after Putin (his patron).  Zolotov’s Rosgvardiya is all that stands between a ‘color revolution’ and the Kremlin, at least in the paranoid mindsets of Russia’s national security elite. Prigozhin’s utility stems from being a fixer – Wagner offers the possibility of quick fix solutions. Like Kadyrov, Prigozhin is a ‘conflict entrepreneur’, seeking to monetize conflict (governors outsource the training of her militias to Wagner) and privatize the profits from ‘patriotic public service’.  

Prigozhin is an oligarch of the third order and lacks unlimited funds. The opaqueness regarding the military men around him and his own command structure leads to a questioning of his standing: is he a front and mouthpiece? If so, for whom?  Is it the GRU?  Some have speculated that it is the GRU, basing this understanding on Wagner’s genesis in 2014-15 in Donbas and Syria.  However, the GRU is tasked to operate spetsnaz behind enemy lines (not in evidence in Ukraine), not police Wagner.  Moreover, Prigozhin publicly denigrates the competence of Russia’s General Staff (GRU is subordinated to the GenStaff), the performance of individual Russian Generals (Lapin) and professionalism of Defense Minister Shoigu. Such verbal tirades are hardly indicative of GRU ‘control’ over Wagner.  The SVR focuses on gathering political (assessing political will) and technical intelligence where it can in West and so is not a contender.  The FSB’s military counter-intelligence directorate monitors the Russian military, and therefore Prigozhin and Wagner will formally at least fall under their oversight.

Russia seeks to avoid losing the war and this means dragging the conflict out to allow for reconstitution.  Time therefore may institutionalize the actual current operating chain of command and improve its functioning.  Russia’s reliance on a wide variety of military actors appears dysfunctional but is this offset by the benefits of greater force generation?  Although mobilization should have strengthened manpower of regular army, it is not clear if this is the case.  Certainly though, the regular military increases in size relative to militias, which are subsumed within it, not to say cannibalized. It is a mistake to underestimate Russian capacity to cope with dysfunctionality.  It is also possible that Russia slowly learns from the Syrian example and experience of coalitional warfare: “Managing the Chechens is like getting Hezbollah to follow the plan”.

Looking to the future, current attrition rates coupled with sanctions and technology controls, suggest it will take at least 10 years to reconstitute the Russian military. How Russia reconstitutes will all depend on who is Russia’s political leader and the mission they set the military, particularly with regards Europe and Eurasia. Politics will have primacy.  The reconstitution slogan may well be “build back better” but the reality will be “build back basics”, first and foremost regarding a force structure fit for purpose and a functioning chain of command. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Pavel Baev, and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.  GCMC, 19 October 2022.

Chain of command figures © Mark Galeotti 2022

FY23 SCSS#1, 18 October 2022 – Roundtable: “Alternative Ukrainian Future Trajectories: Implications for Russia and the West”

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 18 October 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.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities will focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  This Roundtable examines three aspects of the puzzle: Russia’s vertical escalation potential; prospects of Russian regime change; and Ukrainian intelligence covert action.

Russian Nuclear Escalation Potential

Russia has undertaken mobilization, annexation, created a new ‘joint force’ in Belarus (all aspects of ‘horizontal escalation”) and attacked Ukrainian critical national infrastructure.  Putin states that 220,00 ‘mobiks’ have so far been mobilized, with 16,000 already deployed to the occupied territories in combat units. Kremlin predictive thinking is that these measures will enable Russia to stabilize its front lines over Winter. This then creates the conditions for the insertion of even more mobilized and trained troops into Ukraine in the Spring, allowing Russia to launch counter-offensives and be victorious.  The need for vertical escalation is negated by this winning strategy, though its threat is designed to intimidate the West into pressuring Ukraine to negotiate a settlement on Russia’s terms.

This predictive thinking can be questioned.  Russia commits a dual blunder: it annexes territory it does not fully control and mobilizes troops its military cannot absorb/process. In this sense, Russian “forced mobilization” does not immediately boost Russia’s conventional capability. In the short term, rather than consolidation, the cohesion of Russian combat units may decrease.  Inter-ethnic tensions (Belgorod shooting) within the Russian military are exposed. The joint grouping in Belarus is not meant for warfighting (it lacks offensive capability) but is designed to increase the length of the front that Ukraine must worry about.  Attacks on Ukrainian CNI will have an impact in winter but do not materially change the military situation. 

Over the longer term the presence of mobilized troops boosts Russia’s defensive capability and so slows Ukrainian advances, increasing the time Ukraine takes to retake territory, and blunts break-through potential. By March 2023 troops being trained now will have a greater utility and numbers count.  However, in the context of autumn 2022 rather than spring 2023, a sudden large and damaging Ukrainian breakthrough on the ‘Kherson front’, where retreat is not possible, increases the possibility of a Russian military rout.  Ukrainian troops “at the gates of Sevastopol” is a less likely scenario over the next month.  Nonetheless, in either case panic in the Russian military leads to large scale desertion, surrender and mutiny in the Russian military.  Panic in the Kremlin may lead to Russian vertical escalation.  Already one component of the Russian nuclear triad – strategic bombers – are in use in the war in Ukraine and in principle conventional munitions can be exchanged for nuclear.

Several factors mitigate against nuclear use.  Since 1991 Russia lacks practical experience of handling nuclear weapons. This raises the possibilities of human error, mishandling at the delivery, arming or firing stages.  Will the munitions explode?  Will orders be obeyed?  Russia has not brought non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons out of its 12 storage sites, nor has it carried out preparatory nuclear testing (for example, a land or air-based test above Novaya Zemlya) or “nuclearized” its conventional forces. For these reasons, Russian vertical escalation probability is tied to the speed and scale of Ukrainian advances and the effects of the shock of Russian predictive thinking shattering.

Prospects of Regime Change in Russia

Russia cannot win against Ukraine if the West continues current levels of support and Putin cannot admit defeat, regardless of Ukraine taking back occupied territory.  When victory is not possible and defeat not an option, we can expect a prolonged conflict.   Russia will pressure the West to pressure Ukraine and at the same time make the war felt throughout Ukraine though drone and missile attacks. Under such conditions, how likely is regime change in Russia?

“Not very” is the short answer: organized opposition in Russia is destroyed or imprisoned, the regime increases repression and letting those who do not want to fight leave acts a safety valve, allowing Russia to maintain internal pressure at acceptable levels.  Elite splits within Russia are highly unlikely even if losses continue –public divisions that have occurred so far are focused on avoiding blame for setbacks rather than questioning the whole rationale for war or moving to depose Putin.  For the elite and their own costs/benefits calculus, the risks of regime defection are still much greater than maintaining the status quo.  Lenin noted that societal revolt only possible when elites are dissatisfied and divided. According to this logic, stable contemporary Russian elites and limited protest potential means stable society. If elites and society are stable, then the logic of Western discussions about how Putin must entertain vertical escalate to avoid defeat because defeat leads inexorably to regime change, need to be reassessed.   No need therefore for vertical escalation. 

Though a sudden coup/collapse of the regime is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out. The elites are prepared to be in the “party of a long war” but not the “party of defeat”.  A Kherson breakthrough might change the calculus.  If societal attitudes change from apathy to opposition to the war, the security state is less able to respond, given forces like Rosgvardiya are partially deployed to Ukraine, and those remaining are locally recruited and perhaps reluctant to turn on their home towns. Leaderships can bubble forth grievances or resentments do not have to be political and directly war focused.  Economic hardship in Russian mono-industrial towns could be a source of grievance, resentment and protest. The dynamic of pre-emptive purging by the elite in the context of no opposition and the need to assign blame after military setbacks may become a factor. 

Although unlikely, if Putin is removed or dies, this is likely to be a “good thing”.  Western commentators fear of what comes after Putin is misguided.  There is a lot of uncertainty to be sure, but we know that Putin in power is destabilizing. The most likely scenario if Putin goes is internal jockeying for position in new collective leadership order, which in turn assumes a managed intra-elite power transition, as occurred after the death of Stalin in 1953 or after Khrushchev was deposed in 1964. Collective leadership entails coalition building, a move from the extremes to the center and consensus.  Internal consolidation is likely to distract Russia from external fight.

Ukrainian Intelligence Covert Action

Since the summer, the focus has been on the Ukrainian counteroffensive and changes on the battlefield. But there is also a growing parallel war fought by Ukrainian Special Forces and intelligence agencies behind Russian lines in the occupied territories and within the Russian Federation.  These attacks are characterized by a willingness to take greater risk than Western supporters may be comfortable with and expand horizontally the geography of the conflict.  The Crimean bridge attack, for example, while boosting Ukrainian morale, also challenged Ukraine’s western partners’ appetite for risking escalation.

The performance of Ukraine’s domestic Security Service (SBU) has exceeded expectations, given its reputation prior to the war for under performance and Russian penetration.  But it is Ukrainian Military Intelligence, the GUR, that has grabbed most of the headlines in recent months. Gen Kyrylo Budanov, its 36-year-old chief, oversees Ukrainian intelligence covert activities. Though it is difficult to assign exploits to specific intelligence agencies (not least as Russia denies in some cases that a covert action occurred or refuses to attribute them to Ukraine), the GUR appears responsible for high-risk, high-profile operations e.g. retaking Snake Island and resupplying Azovstal by heliocopter under siege. 

In the occupied territories subversion is designed to destabilize Russian control while reasserting Ukraine’s and to set the agenda.  Attacks in Crimea, including the Black Sea Fleet Naval HQ in Sevastopol on Russia’s Navy Day (26 July) and on Saki airfield and other air bases and ammunition dumps, as well as the Crimea bridge itself, has the effect of softening Russia’s red lines and reaffirming the political importance of Crimea as part of Ukraine.  The spread of the war to the Russian Federation, particularly Kursk and Belgorod regions through attacks on transport and energy infrastructure suggests how the war may develop over the winter behind the lines, even if stalemated on the front lines.  The car bomb attack against Darya Dugina on 20 August has been attributed to Ukraine by US officials (although denied by Kyiv). It highlighted that Ukraine was willing and able to attack individuals inside Russia – including potentially Russian officials – and accept escalation risks in doing so.

While these attacks have served Ukraine’s political and military agendas, some high-risk operations have caused concern in western capitals. They are a reminder that Ukraine is willing to push its own sovereign agenda to determine the geography of the battlefield, work outside its borders and effectively disrupt the assumptions of Russia.  But it is likely that risk assessments in Kyiv and Washington DC differ, with Ukraine willing to take greater risk than its western partners, raising questions about future escalation management.  The role of the intelligence services will impact on the role of the ‘security-intelligence bloc’ within Ukraine. Effective covert action is aligned with a “Big Israel” potential alternative future trajectory for Ukraine. 


Assessments offered suggest vertical escalation unlikely, but so too is Russian regime change.  A prolonged war of attrition appears to be the default pathway, with conventional battles along the frontline, Ukrainian covert action in the occupied territories and Russia itself, and the threat of offensive action from Belarus.  Russian nuclear rhetoric attempts to persuade the West to pressure Ukraine to accept Russian terms.  A reconstituted Russian military comes out fighting in the spring of 2023.

We may see one more big push this month before weather conditions worsen. In Kherson, Luhansk or both rather than Zaporizhiia, as it is easier to try to break through in areas where Russian forces are less dug in than where lines have been stable for months. The rainy season gives reason for a temporary 1-2 month pause for maneuver warfare, which can begin again once the ground freezes, especially if it seems that Russian forces have supply problems with cold weather gear.  If Ukrainians feel they are more comfortable fighting in cold than Russian forces, could take advantage.

‘Attrition by drone and missile attack’ appears not to be breaking Ukraine’s will to resist, but rather uniting a nation in anger, bridging internal differences and forging a more consolidated society. Brutal and indiscriminate Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilian population centers undercuts potential western ‘war fatigue’, and maintains western financial and military support for Ukraine.  Russia’s remaining military capability and its ability to reconstitute itself is not a given. Belarus’ role remains unresolved and uncertain.  A sudden Ukrainian battlefield breakthrough could still constitute a game changer, pushing Russian society to oppose the war. Time is not neutral.  Russia looks to surge again in the spring of 2023 but this is one year from an inflection point – Russia’s 2024 presidential election.  Does Russia’s inability to secure a ‘victory’ become a defeat for Putin?  And then what?

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Dmitry Gorenburg, Mark Galeotti, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.  GCMC, 19 October 2022.

Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) Workshop II Aide Memoire

This is a summary of discussions from the second workshop of the George C Marshall Centre’s Strategic Competition Seminar Series, held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on 20-21 September 2022.

Session 1: Roundtable: Russia-China Nexus: Dynamics, Trajectories?

  • The US understands that the alignment between Russia and China has three key features.  Both Russia and China: 1) question the rules-based world order (not representative, advance US interests); 2) develop disruptive technologies (AI, nano, hypersonic); 3) offer economic and normative models that deny individual liberty, democratic rights and the rule of law (the values upon which the Russo-Chinese alignment is founded). Russia-Chinese partnership is supported by military cooperation, Russian resources/energy and Chinese consumer goods exports and a privileging of their respective “core interests” above all else, even wider compatible geopolitical interests.  China does not, for example, offer Russia material assistance to prosecute its war in Ukraine, and does express support for the principle of non-interference. 
  • In Germany Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a shock for an SPD-Green-Liberal coalition government.  The coalition treaty of December 2021 was predicated on a continuation of Germany’s export market growth model, which in turn presupposed cheap Russian gas and stable and predictable global markets. The war became the “external necessity” to decouple the German economy from Russia’s. This process is underway and irreversible. It also raised the specter of an “autocratic alliance” as an anti-Western coalition which threatens open markets and the German business model. Assessments and reappraisals note that strategic decoupling from China could be a potential policy response, though the structural constraints (Germany’s investments in and so exposure to China’s economy) are much greater.  There is no current political consensus amongst coalitional partners and no “external necessity” (such as the invasion of Taiwan) to trigger a policy change.
  • Russia’s leadership’s approach is not monolithic and reflects a mix of ideological and pragmatic concession-seeking considerations.  Three perspectives can be highlighted:
    • 1) Liberal view (Russian opposition): Russia’s economic dependence and junior partner status undercuts Russia’s strategic autonomy and diplomatic influence and leads to political isolation.  As Russia cannot balance economic asymmetry with military relations, it must make concessions in the Arctic, on military technology transfers and place limits on its hedging behavior with India and Vietnam;
    • 2) Bipolar world (Valdai Club/Karaganov): Russia should align with a stronger China against a weaker West to ensure Russia not an adjunct to the West, Russia helps generate a new world order, even if Russia serves as a “battering ram” for China against the West;
    • 3) “Transactional Middle”: the relationship is driven from below by non-ideological pragmatic corporate interests.  Russian coal magnates, for example, have vested interests in railroad and port infrastructure developments and trade expected to reach $190-200bn in 2022 while independent Chinese oil refineries seek cheap oil.   
  • China’s perspective is dominated by three considerations.  First, China wants the relationship to be viewed by other states as close and important (superior and special), a desire underscored by 40 Xi-Putin meetings since 2014, with the latest on 4 February and 15 September 2022, and language used in read-outs (“new model”, “no limits”) that stress the nexus’ effectiveness and utility in generating benefits.  Second, that the relationship rejects “US hegemony” and promotes a “new type of responsible leadership” within a multipolar world. China’s rhetoric is that it is the US response to Ukraine that causes the conflict, just as US behavior in the Indo-Pacific region has the same effect.  Third, China’s core interests and priorities are paramount and Chinese pragmatism understands that Russia is a junior partner, with greater political rather than economic utility for China. 
  • Alliance? Both Russia and China preference their strategic autonomy, flexibility and policy independence over the possibility of a formal by treaty military alliance, which is not needed for security guarantees or extended deterrence and would only bind and constrain each ally from exerting strategic autonomy, preventing each from freely dominating their respective spheres, managing their shared neighborhood.  The peak in the nexus was possibility the eve of the COVID pandemic in January 2020 rather than prior to invasion of Ukraine in January 2022.  China ultimately seeks to make the world safe for China and will not expend political capital on Ukraine, which is not a core interest. The CPP’s 20th Party Congress (November 2022) will likely consolidate Xi’s power and mark continuity in China’s approach to Russia. Both Russia and China project different global orders: Beijing seeks revisionist, stable sphere of influence system in which China exercises global leadership via control of Asia, but a G-Zero world order of uncertainty and crisis best suits Russian interests. 

Session 2:        Russia-China in Asia?

  • Sino-Russian defense cooperation: the PLA is an instrument of the CPP, upholding its power and protecting the territorial integrity of China.  Both militaries have exercised at least 79 times since 2003.  China’s arms industry, formally reliant on Russia’s Defense Industrial Complex is increasingly independent and China views the US as its strategic benchmark, not Russia.  The PLA seeks mechanization by 2020 (COVID delays), modernization by 2027, “intelligent integration” massive use of (AI, Quantum Computing, etc. in conflicts, “integrated joint operations” and “system confrontation” as new concepts of conflict) by 2035, and a world class military (US peer status) by 2050. For China, Ukraine does offer some lessons, validating styles of war fighting (targeting of infrastructure and military leadership, “attack the mind”) and highlighting Western unity and determination to uphold sanctions regimes, including exclusion from SWIFT.  In Asia Russia’s military utility for China is weak, though rhetorical support for “one China” is appreciated in Beijing.  Russian arms sales and presence does allow Vietnam hedging possibilities and opportunities or others that wish for a third option between China and the US.
  • Economic dimension: prior to the invasion of Ukraine Russia exported 200bcm of gas pa with Europe (which seeks to become independent of Russian gas by 2027) and 33bcm of gas to Asia.  The Power of Siberia II pipeline has a maximum capacity of 50bcm pa.  The most optimistic scenarios suggest that Russia may be able to export 120bcm of gas to Asia by 2030.  China paused the Yamal LNG projects for fear of secondary sanctions and has other gas import options asides from Russia.  For Russia South Korea, Japan and Taiwan constitute alternative markets but these states all sanction Russia over Ukraine.  China seeks to be carbon neutral by 2060 and focuses on self-reliance.  For these reasons, Russia’s medium- and long-term gas export prospects are bleak. China can some extent to fill the vacuum left as Western companies leave the Russian market dominating some sectors (70% of mobile phone market) but joint ventures are hampered by Russia’s reluctance to share its technologies and the inability to establish supply chains for advanced technologies which do not need Western suppliers.
  • Structural realities: Do we see a rising China and stagnating Russia or a globally present and relevant China which nevertheless is stagnating and a weak and wounded Russia? The “peaking power syndrome” suggests China may seek to “reunify” Taiwan through military invasion by 2027, as the internal driver of the need for self-reliance, nationalism and national security become key modes of legitimation for Xi, offsetting China’s demographic profile, it’s estrangement from global technology hubs and restrictions placed on its access to European markets (protectionism) and stagnating economic growth. Russia aligns its positions with India, Japan, and SE Asia to counterbalance China’s geopolitical influence and become a “third pole” with a role in triangular US-Russia-China politics.

Session 3:         Strategic Triangle: Russia, China, India?

  • India’s Hedging Behavior: India has demonstrated a historical aversion to military alliances, reflected in its leadership role within the non-aligned movement. In the Cold War non-alignment could be understood as de facto neutrality and US support for Pakistan was balanced by Soviet support for India.  Non-alignment is now understood in terms of strategic autonomy, with India multi-aligned in a multi-polar context.  India buys 70% of its armaments from Russia and cannot operate militarily against China without Russian materiel. India purchases S-400 air defense system, abstains on UNGA Russia sanctions over Ukraine and partakes in the Vostok 2022 military exercise.
  • India-China: China’s external policy towards India in South Asia in general is creating domestic public opinion pressure to recalibrate India’s policy to China. This pressure was exacerbated by the death of 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020 on the Chinese border (highlighting China’s superior border infrastructure) and China’s shielding of Pakistan-supported terrorists. Xi-Modi summits in 2018 and 2019 did not normalize relations: China does not acknowledge India’s status as a rising global power. India embraces multi-polarity to oppose Sino-centric hegemony.  Decoupling India’s economy from China’s is not possible and India cannot fight China without alliances. 
  • India-US: China’s promotion of the BRI is a point of concern for India and India’s cooperation with the US a concern for China.  India has strengthened defense cooperation with the US, which supports a democratic India’s aspirations to be a UNSC P5 member.  India’s closer relations with the US is in part a response to closer Russia-China alignment and also its own alignment with US interests in Afghanistan. India has changed its rhetoric which suggested that the Russia’s war in Ukraine was a Russia-NATO issue.  In Samarkand on 15 September 2022 Prime Minister Modi directly told President Putin that “democracy, diplomacy and dialogue” were needed, not war, reflecting frustration in India’s strategic community and military establishment over Russia’s missteps and miscalculation in Ukraine.  If Russia became China’s junior partner in 2014, did it become India’s in 2022?
  • Triangle: India’s criticism of Russia – if followed by any limitations in bilateral cooperation – has the potential to bring Russia closer to China, India’s key strategic rival. Too close a Russo-Chinese alignment due to power asymmetries between the two becomes a redline for India, suggesting India maintain its arms procurement from Russia to lessen Russia’s dependence on China.  Russia Both Russia and China seek to keep India in the non-Western if not anti-Western camp. India’s tilt to the West is slow but steady, marked by India’s diversification of arms procurement away from Russia and towards the UK, France, Israel and the US.  States increasingly seek to align with India to counterbalance China. This trend will accelerate if Russia is defeated in Ukraine. For the West it is important to realize that an “if you are not with us, you are against us” rhetoric is not helpful. Respect for the strategic considerations of non-aligned states such as India is of paramount importance for not “losing” them in the context of strategic competition with authoritarian regimes.

Session 4:            New Russo-Chinese Arctic/Nordic Dynamics?

  • Russia: The Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation is regarded as “vital” for the country’s military, economic, political, environmental security, and even its sense of cultural and historical identity. This has been confirmed by Russia’s latest Maritime Doctrine (31 July 2022) where it warns against “efforts by a number of states to weaken Russian Federation control over the Northern Sea Route, a build-up of foreign naval presence in the Arctic, and an increase in conflict potential in this region”. Russia’s doctrine stresses its willingness to exert economic and military control of the region and to further develop the Northern Sea Route without external interference. NATO’s 2022 Security Concept notes that “In the High North, [Russia’s] capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance.”  However, Russia lacks the financial resources and technical expertise for such an expansive Arctic policy and the capabilities to enact its 2022 maritime doctrine without other nations (i.e. China) providing capital, capabilities and technology.  
  • China does perceive the Western sanctions regime against Russia as an opportunity to increase its own influence in the High North through the promotion of its “Polar Silk Road” project (linking China to Europe), its observer status in the Arctic Council, its self-declared “near-Arctic state” status, strengthening the PLA Navy and its icebreaker capabilities. China invests tens of billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure and research projects in the region. China also suggests that the Arctic is a “global commons”, though 90% of estimated resources fall within the sovereign territory or EEZ of circumpolar states.  To offset such pressure, Russia welcomes interest from India, Singapore, UAE, South Korea and Japan as this provides alternative opportunities and lessens dependency on the West or China. Notably, Chinese shipping giant COSCO has not sent a single ship through the NSR this year, reflecting the wider international trend in a year that witnessed zero internationally flagged transit vessels traversing the NSR. Only internationally flagged LNG carriers sailed the NSR, transporting LNG from Yamal. This reflects a lack trust Russian transit mechanisms and perceived risk, as well as an inability to attain vessel insurance from the Western dominated market.  It is likely that China will continue to look past its relationship with Russia and lay the ground work for exploitation of unlimited draft trans-polar routes by 2050 and beyond.
  • Ukraine War: Sweden and Finland’s decision to join NATO changed Russia’s risk calculus in the Arctic and High North and Baltic Sea.  Formerly non-aligned Finland and Sweden become a “NATO land-​and air- bridge” linking the Baltic Sea to the North Atlantic and the Arctic, turning the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake in the process. What was ​once perceived as separate theatres will be a single strategic space for both Russia and NATO. Both will have to adapt to this new reality. In the short term, escalation potential ​could increase (“High North, High Tension” syndrome) as Russia needs to compensate for the overall diminution of its conventional military power due to attrition/degradation following its invasion of Ukraine (Russia has redeployed its Arctic brigades to Ukraine). The enlargement will likely heighten Russia’s insecurities towards the protection of its strategic bastions in the High North, given that seven of the eight Arctic nations would be NATO allies. NATO needs to develop its strategic thinking on the Arctic, continue and increase High-North military training and capability development and, alongside the EU, ensure that avenues of dialogue with Russia function.  In the long term, a stronger NATO in the High North and the Arctic is likely to diminish the risk of escalation and mitigate the security dilemma, as offense will have less advantage for Russia. This could pave the way for a renaissance for collaboration with Russia.  The suspended Arctic Council remains the best mechanism for discussion of mutually beneficial Arctic cooperation, yet it prohibits discussion of military security matters. Dialogue on military security will remain severely limited, creating a risk of inadvertent escalation due to misunderstandings or misperceptions.

Session 5:       Roundtable: Ukraine: Alternative Outcomes?

  • United Ukraine (UA) integrating with the EU and NATO, gradually restores its territorial integrity with a combination of military and diplomatic means.
    • This alternative is conditioned on: domestic unity in Ukraine; UA continues successful counter-offensive (after an operational pause) into 2023; Western unity and support (US key role, plus EU and G7), the gradual expansion of anti-Russian coalition; the Ramstein coalition sustaining deliveries around a campaign plan rather than a chaotic supply of what is available in stock is matched by a financial equivalent able to coordinate and provide feedback loops; the EU opens accession negotiations and advances practical integration projects such as a common market; maintaining connection and re-settlement of 8 million IDPs (with 3 million refugee status in the EU); China maintains non-allied status and abides by sanctions; and Russian decision making elites understand the failure of the Putin doctrine and act accordingly.
    • The indicators of such an outcome include: collaborative resilient decentralized governance, trust in and legitimacy of the top leaders and wider Ukrainian institutions, such as the armed forces, emergency services and police, high morale reflected in hope in Ukraine’s future, if only for the next generation, and continued support for mobilization in defense of Ukrainian statehood, western financial support and emergency assistance to sustain macro-economic stability and the functioning of the state ($38 bn pa needed for Ukraine to function); special tribunal and prosecutions for war crimes to ensure justice and disincentivize Russian malign behavior, and Russian domestic developments.
    • Implications for Russia: geopolitical damage, loss of prestige and destruction of the eternal Russia myth, greater repression, delegitimization of Putin and his doctrine, leading to change and a period of reform and the curtailment of Russian imperial ambition.
  • Stalled Progress Ukraine (muddling through) is more self-reliant but exhausted, inhabiting a grey-zone protracted conflict, a new line of conflict contacts and inconclusive outcomes in which neither side prevails.
    • This is predicated on Putin limiting his efforts to Donbas, the stalling of Ukrainian counter-attacks and both Russian and Ukrainian operational exhaustion, the rise of a “give peace a chance” camp in the EU, limiting western aid, eroding sanctions and impeding Ukraine’s EU integration.
    • This implies Russia can present this alternative as a victory and is able to regroup and reconstitute its military, lobby for sanctions relief, and then over time launch a new war.
  • Failed state Ukraine – Russia does not necessarily occupy new land but inflicts damage that leads to an unstable and chaotic state.
    • Russia announces general mobilization, Ukraine suffers hyperinflation and losses on the battlefield, an “incident: occurs at a nuclear civilian site, a deal imposed on President Zelenskyy is rejected by society and a new wave of refugees enters the EU as host county support, exacerbated by Russian information operations, fractures.
    • For Russia the implications are clear: use coercive measure to further fragment Ukraine and annex new territory with the aim of federalizing (or “Finlandizing”) what is left; address the Ukrainian insurgency on the occupied territories and inside Russia but balance a heavy policing operation in Ukraine with risks to upheaval in Russia itself, while trying to install a “neutral” puppet regime in Kyiv.
  • Russian imperial identity: Is there a foreseeable post-war period or is the new normal a permanent war to 2024 (Ukrainian C-in-C Gen Zaluzhnyy) and beyond?  Will Ukraine survive as a unitary state?  Whose and which war is this?  Is it a war of imperial breakdown and the stakes are the survival of Russian its current imperial state and so the eradication of Ukrainian culture and identity? Or a war of Ukrainian decolonization and statehood and a return for Russia to Muscovy of the 16th century?  In this sense the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 can be understood as a continuation of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and tsarist empire in 1917. It proves a reality test that demonstrates the Potemkin nature of Putin’s regime.  The return to past glory – Tsar Alexander I in Paris in 1814, Stalin in Berlin in 1945 – highlights Russia’s failure to develop a modernization paradigm for this century.  Given Russia’s society is atomized and lacks subjectivity and subject to state media propaganda, public attitudes and fluid and malleable and can react to changing circumstances.
  • Geopolitical outcomes: Does the Kremlin seek to dominate and dissolve Ukraine and/or does it imagine it fights World War III against the US/NATO and collective West and for a “new global order”?  Does it just seek to remake order in Europe or also global order? Russian failure implies the dissolution of the Putin imperial doctrine, the sense of status it projects and leads to the reformation of Putin’s regime and Russia’s political system.  Ukrainian success implies Ukrainian identity consolidates around an EU agenda, which not only geo-strategically anchors Ukraine but provides a means of holding elected officials accountable.  The Ukrainian diaspora’s presence in the EU promotes “shadow integration”. Ukraine’s military becomes one of the most capable (battle hardened) in Europe, more interoperable with NATO and better able to be integrated.  In this sense, Ukraine’s “shadow integration” into NATO is an ongoing process.

Session 6:       Russia’s “Strategic South”

  • Turkey views its neighbourhood (Libya, Syria, Black Sea, South Caucasus and Central Asia) as a series of interconnected and interlinked spaces in which it vies for influence with Russia. While Turkey’s strategic thinkers aim to gradually counterbalance Russia through soft power influence (trade, infrastructure development and educational/cultural tools), there are interest groups that are aligned with Moscow commercially and by shared anti-Western sentiments.  Political and security links deepened following Russia’s entry in to Syria in 2015 and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Russia has been able to co-opt segments of Ankara, particularly using propaganda that played on anti-western sentiments and economic enticements, to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed the Black Sea naval balance and the plight of Crimean Tartars. While Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022 places pressure on Turkey’s balancing the West with Russia, it also elevated Turkey’s strategic importance for both Russia and the West. The war provided President Erdogan with an alibi for Turkish economic performance and raised the prospect of Turkey as a potential mediator. However, neither Turkey’s ideological leanings (nationalism or political Islam) nor its interest are aligned with Russia’s, and there are concerns held by a range of state institutions about Russia’s influence in Turkey, as well as Russia’s role in conflicts which encircle Turkey.
  • Central Asia: Turkey’s increased activism in Central Asia, not least its upgrading of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) which cuts across and potentially could challenge Russia’s EEU and CSTO and increased bilateral meetings, provides a new type of threat to Russian interests.  If in the 1990s pan-Turkic sentiment in the region was buttressed by business cultural and educational links and networks (in these ideational terms Turkey represents a threat that China does not), in the 2020s Turkish political and military engagement (arms sales in general and effective demonstrative support for Azerbaijan) challenges Russia’s monopoly of these agendas. Turkey does not project as political model (“Islamist democracy”) in Central Asia, but rather provides a model of how a personalist regime, with an open society and connections to global markets can manage geopolitical relations. Turkey is a hub for regional trade and supports the “middle corridor” from China through Central Asia and across the Caspian to the South Caucasus (an alternative to Russia’s trans-Siberian supply routes) and upgrades transport infrastructure to that end.  In Russia Turkey is viewed by nationalists as a historical existential competitor (Turkey also as a NATO proxy/agent), by ideologues as a potential Eurasian ally (Turkic-Slavic Union) and by pragmatic transactionalists as a difficult partner, but one Russia can do business with.
  • Middle East: as the US has stepped back from a more direct leadership and mediation role in this region, new types of direct partnerships and self-help linkages between states have emerged, as evidenced by the Abraham Accords. At the same time, drivers of political violence are increasing, even as dynastic and autocratic regimes in the region uphold the status quo.  Because of its historic support for many states in the Middle East, Russia still exerts influence politically and militarily, through direct intervention (Syria and Libya), or through its arms sales. his has resulted in the hedging behavior of most Arab states when it comes to condemning Russia for the Ukraine invasion or complying with Western demands to balance the oil market.  Because of a complex landscape with cross-cutting loyalties and dependencies between autocratic rulers, states, and proxies, Russia can still leverage the region’s vulnerabilities to exert influence (Idlib refuges for Turkey, for example). However, Russia’s clout in the region is diminishing and its tactical strength weakening as Russia withdraws military material to focus on Ukraine, which could create a dangerous vacuum that regional rivals (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) and other global actors, like China, can exploit. It may also lead to more positive developments and collaboration within the new security framework of a combined Abraham Accords-CENTCOM structure.

Session 7: Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons and Russian Deterrence in Practice?

  • Declaratory Doctrine: Russia has a number of non-strategic weapons and dual use systems (estimated at 1900/2000), designed to balance the US/NATO’s conventional advantage.  Russia is prepared to inflict unacceptable damage and cost in defense of “Russia and allies” by forceful nuclear demonstration for deterrence and intimidation purposes in a conventional conflict as part of escalation control (what some call ‘escalate to de-escalate) and potentially use “non-strategic nuclear weapons”. Russia’s nuclear doctrine states that Russia can use nuclear weapons if under nuclear attack or if a conventional threat poses an existential threat against the Russian state.  Known unknowns abound around when local conflict is deemed to have moved to regional, the necessary level of conventional combat ineffectiveness, and potential signaling and miscalculation, before nuclear first use is triggered.   Russia’s nuclear doctrine is not a straight-jacket and the doctrine itself recognizes that Russia’s political and military leadership have flexibility and can act pragmatically in any given context.
  • Deeds in Practice: Given the scale of the conflict in Ukraine, non-strategic nuclear weapons, which are currently in over a dozen storage sites in Russia (including Belgorod), are not suitable for counter-force or counter-value targeting. Russia has not exercised naval, air and ballistic missile delivery systems or options and its arsenal of high precision munitions is exhausted. Since 1991, Russia lacks practical experience of handling nuclear weapons. It has not carried out preparatory nuclear testing or “nuclearized” its conventional forces.  This rises the possibilities of human error, mishandling at the delivery, arming or firing stages.  Will the munitions explode?  Will orders be obeyed?  How to prevent a single strike becoming a series of strikes?  Russia’s response to Ukraine’s last breakthrough appears to be further mobilization, and this mitigates the risk of vertical escalation.  But what will be its response to the next Ukrainian break through?
  • Implications and Potential Responses: To prevent “vertical escalation”, deterrence by punishment consequences would have to be conveyed clearly to President Putin.  Prime Minister Modi or President Xi may be effective interlocutors, but Xi is unlikely to accept that role unless China’s core national interest was at stake.  Given its history Japan could communicate the consequences, or nuclear weapons states, given the morality implications. A punishing western (US-led) response could be conventional not nuclear and military strikes that would target Russian conventional assets (for example, air, sea and land blockade of Kaliningrad, the elimination of all Russian naval assets wherever they may be) and that the consequences will be very personal. (this would all lead to escalation but not as directly as direct attacks on Russian forces in Russia would).  Sanctions would be part of a deterrence by punishment response and emergency aid to Ukraine would feature.  Self-deterrence (Russia assuming pariah status) would not be factor in Russian thinking. Russian nuclear threats and even more nuclear use, as well as another NATO-hostile US President, would induce the Europeans to engage in sovereignty-sensitive strategic-level discussions about an independent European nuclear deterrent. Such initiatives could include expanding France or the UK’s nuclear umbrella, European nuclear sharing, a missile shield, but no EU command if the EU is not a state (fear of a collapse of the NPT). The need for a European bomb could gain traction, while arms control talk lose momentum, given Russia is unwilling to negotiate sub-strategic weapons.

Session 8:         Roundtable: Russian Regime Stability – Alternative Outcomes and Implications?  

  • Misunderstandings: If there is a general tendency in the West to overestimate Russia and underestimate Ukraine, in Russia it is to over-interpret the role of the West, and misunderstands or discounts the thinking, identity and the right to agency of elites and society in Ukraine, as well as other neighbors.  For China, Xi’s “Russia complex” is challenged.  Xi understands that he is powerful because China is powerful, but hitherto saw Putin as intelligent, decisive, manipulative, and powerful, even as Russia was weak. This selective bias in Xi’s judgement about Russia’s national power has led China to overestimate Russia’s strengths and reliability, while underestimating its weaknesses and the risks its behavior poses to China.If on 4 February 2022 it appeared that the world was bipolar, split between Russia-China and the US and allies, by September 2022 Russia appears over stretched and in imperial retreat
  • Prior Assumptions: Some assumptions highlighted in prior SCSS virtual seminars are validated.  The greatest risks Putin takes do appear to be those that address threats to his personal reputation, legacy and imagined “destiny” as a strong leader. Putin equates existential threat to his regime to Russia itself (“No Putin, no Russia” doctrine). Putin is willing to take greater risk to preserve what he imagines he has (Ukraine). The irreducible core of Russian “victory” – holding onto Crimea, incorporating Donetsk and Luhansk to 23 February 2022 line of contact into Russia (restoration of the territorial status quo ante plus annexation) – has yet to be breached. 
  • New Behavior: Rather than using one conflict to leverage presence into another and military escalation to generate new opportunities to negotiate from a position of strength, and reach an outcome that can be spun as a victory – the Ukraine war appears have the opposite effect.  The one Ukraine conflict reduces Russia’s presence elsewhere (“horizontal de-escalation”?).  Rather than creating new opportunities, it backs Putin into a corner.  To avoid defeat or vertical escalation, Putin banks on: 1) the effective and timely mobilization of 300,000 men into the Russian military; 2) a severe winter in the West turning western public opinion; and 3) an exhausted Ukrainian military incapable of mounting further advances. The gap between propaganda (“victory” through restoration of imperial territory and heritage) and reality (Ukraine posed for further advances) widens.  Momentum is lost, timelines are dashed and options become existential: defeat or nuclear escalation. Putin is driven by events over which he has little control: changing Chinese perceptions of his power and credibility, the Alla Pugacheva “blast from the past” sentiments which resonates with his Soviet nostalgia support base within the electorate, a more vocal, kleptocratic and opportunistic “party of war” within Russia (Kadyrov, Malofeev, Prigozhin) and a military and Rosgvardiya which feels betrayed.  As a result, Putin’s irritation and frustration gives way to fear.  
  • Plausible implausibilities: The current situation is very fluid and difficult to forecast, hinging on the physical state of one person – Putin.  Our thoughts regarding what might constitute the plausibly implausible or at least unpredictable future tipping and turning points included:
    • Sudden death of Putin or coup against, followed by chaotic regime change, a Russian civil war and Belarus’ implosion;
    • Breakdown of US bipartisan pro-Ukraine support and consensus (November 2022 Congressional elections and/or November 2024 presidential);China invades Taiwan – simultaneity of crises forces prioritization;Fracturing of European EU/NATO member state support and unity;
    • Crisis of Ukrainian cohesion, resilience and morale leading to a chaotic failed state;
    • Catastrophic Ukrainian success – Crimea as a bridge too far or carry on successful counter-offensive into Russia?

Graeme P. Herd, GCMC, 22 September 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary is a synthesis by Graeme P. Herd of the presentations and extensive discussions at the SCSS Garmisch-Partenkirchen Workshop on 20-21 September 2022 and is not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, any other governments, or any other organization.

SCSS#10, 19 July 2022: Russia and China in Central Asia

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 July 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.


Between 2001 and 2013 multivectorism in Central Asia was incubated by a competitive external context. After 9/11 the US expanded security partnerships, bases, security assistance and logistics agreements with the Central Asian states. At the same time, the global financial crisis facilitated China’s economic rise and Russia’s retrenchment; Russia promoted a “unite and influence” strategy that aimed to induct Central Asian states into its regional organizations and initiatives.  In 2014 a strategic reassessment took place, the trend was away from multivectorism towards a Russia-China condominium arrangement: the US gradually drew down its military presence in Afghanistan and the region; the Crimea “ripple effect” took hold; and, China advanced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and “Community of Friendly Neighbors” narrative.

The glue that holds the Russia-China condominium together in Central Asia is the need to demonstrate public solidarity against the U.S.-led liberal world order.  This translates regionally into efforts to jointly exclude the US from Central Asian affairs. Both Russia and China seek to confront the EU and NATO from a position of geopolitical and geo-economic strength.  Russia accepts China’s asymmetric economic power and relates to BRI as if it is in Russia’s interests. Both states also support post-Western global governance through coordinating contacts among new regional bodies such as Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), BRI, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as alternative non-Western, if not wholly yet anti-Western, architecture which seeks to promote a changing international order and oppose Western values, media, education and civil society support and engagement.  Allied to anti-Westernism is the real shared fear in Moscow and Beijing of political instability or “chaos”, civil unrest or regime changes.

Can we assume that a stable condominium is a given, that Russia can act as the sheriff and China as the banker to the region?  Or do growing power disparities between the two suggest that as China’s reach increases, Russia’s diminishes?  Will Moscow in fact resist the designated “junior partner” role and seek to hedge against it?  Or does Russia’s growing anxiety and insecurity push it towards China and Chinese positions, leading to a softening of its own red lines, even as China defers to Russian talking points in public?  How might Russia start to view the region in its evolving geopolitical imagination?  What is Central Asia’s role in the ‘Russian World’? What are the views from the Central Asian states themselves and how might they maneuver in this new reality?

Multivector Shocks

Commentators such as Bobo Lo who have viewed the Russia-China partnership as an “axis of convenience” or as a pragmatic coalition have still predicted that Central Asia is an area of the world where rifts between Moscow and Beijing could be exposed.  But every time the region faces some sort of crisis or shock, Russia and China seem to support and accommodate each other’s unilateral and even destabilizing actions. Nonetheless, the belief that a Russia and China clash in Central Asia is inevitable refuses to die.

We can illustrate this contention that crises in Central Asia promote condominium consolidation rather than culmination by looking back at three regional shocks from the last year.  First, joint reactions to US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the denial of residual basing rights to the US to facilitate this withdrawal.  If we compare Chinese and Russian priorities we see some are shared, and, perhaps more importantly, none are incompatible. China’s priorities include: pushing for other countries to lift their sanctions against the interim Taliban government and engage; pressure the Taliban to cooperate on its own border security priorities, making in the process Wakhan “Iron Wall” relocation and possible deportation of Afghanistan’s 2000+ Uyghurs; offer humanitarian aid (food and vaccines) and promises of infrastructure investment and BRI expansion to align with Beijing’s priorities (most recently post-earthquake); and, demand that the US unblocks Afghan assets. Russian priorities include: continued calls for preparedness and collective security between the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), evidenced by border drills and the provision of weaponry; Russia and CSTO member states have reaffirmed their position to not accept Afghan refugees on their territory or in transit; advocating for pragmatism with the Taliban (including the creation of as de facto Taliban embassy in Moscow) and a Russian role in regional solutions, while excluding the US.  In the absence of the US, Central Asian governments, (except Tajikistan) have adopted a pragmatic approach to the Taliban.  They have backed Russian and Chinese regional security and economic initiatives, adopted Russia and CSTO member state position to not accept Afghan refugees on their territory or in transit and denied US basing access during withdrawal. 

Second, China accommodating itself and then publicly supporting the Russian-led CSTO intervention during protests in Kazakhstan in January 2021.  This demonstrates that bothRussia and China view regional security as the defense of autocratic regimes.  The SCO supported CSTO actions taken to stabilize the situation. Indeed, President Xi Jinping on the 30th Anniversary of Relations “Joining Hands for a Shared Future” on 25 January 2022 clearly stated: “We firmly oppose attempts by external forces to foment color revolutions in Central Asia, firmly oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights, and firmly oppose any force that tries to disrupt the tranquil life of the people in this region.”

Third, China’s public support for Russia’s “international ordering” claims and grievances as they have been used to justify its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This is despite a disruptive sanctions regime (which Chinese companies with a global orientation appear to be complying with) and the disruption of the land belt transportation routes that have been a key feature of China’s BRI in Eurasia. There is deep concern among post-Soviet states about both Russia’s war and subsequent western sanctions, particularly regarding compliance risk and secondary sanctions. None of the post-Soviet EAEU states have joined the sanctions, though members of the EAEU face the shock of integration disruptions.  All Central Asian states face declining remittances (20-40% of GDP) from migrant workers in Russia. Energy exporters face difficulties in accessing markets (reduction of Kazakhstani oil in Caspian Pipeline Consortium) and a halt in Trans-Eurasian Integration: over 1 million containers are diverted from Eurasian Rail (BRI land belt) to Maritime Cargo.

Russia and Central Asia: Rhetoric and Structural Realities?

Much of the current discussion of Russia-China in Central Asia suggests that (i) Russia will rapidly lose influence to China and other powers in the aftermath of Ukraine; and (ii) that as China increases its influence in Central Asia, wedges will emerge in the Russia-China relationship, testing the alignment between Beijing and Moscow. Both these conclusions are misleading. Current circumstances provide the opportunity for central Asian states to reassert their authority and by either necessity or choice engage with a range of extra-regional middle powers, including Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, South Korea, Japan and India. The US perceives India as a potentially useful counterweight to China in South and Central Asia, but India is hampered by a lack of leverage, ongoing competition with Pakistan and a hedging policy that demands cooperative relations with Russia.  How can we challenge the notion that Russia faces overstretch and in Central Asia is in retreat, ceding influence to China?

First, talk of Russia’s imminent ‘decolonisation’ and ‘roll-back’ of Russia’s sphere of influence from Central Asia is much exaggerated. Russian influence may be reduced – but it is far from finished. The biggest hit is in Russian economic influence. Sanctions are already taking a toll on Russian investments and financial ties in Central Asia. The World Bank estimates that remittances sent home by Tajik migrant laborers from Russia might drop by around 40%.  Trade has shifted from Russia’s Trans-Siberian rail route to the ‘Middle Corridor’ through Central Asia and the Caspian (volumes are six times as big as last year). And a smaller Russian economy (at least 8% smaller by year-end) means a smaller market for Central Asian exports.

But structural realities mean that Russia will still play a key role: the axiom ‘geography is destiny’ holds true in Central Asia.  Geography dictates that traders and migrants have few choices. Migrants are used to financial and political fluctuations and have well-established coping mechanisms and will adjust to the ‘new normal’. While sanctions will create headaches for Central Asian companies and traders, they also offer opportunities. Although governments insist that they will comply with US and Western sanctions on Russia, in the grey-zone that is Central Asia, the region is still likely to play a role in sanctions evasion, providing a platform for Russia’s continued economic, financial and technological engagement with the Global South. For example, on 28 June the US Treasury designation of Uzbekistan’s Promkomplektlogistic company. The US claimed the company was actively supporting sanctioned Russian company Radioavtomatika to evade US sanctions on sourcing high-tech foreign components). One hundred thousand Russian IT specialists as individuals and as employees in companies can relocate to Tbilisi, Yerevan, Almaty and Tashkent, emergent technology hubs in post-Soviet space, stretching the meaning of sanctions evasion by utilizing hitherto dormant EUAU enabling legal legislation.

Beyond economics, Russia’s security offer for the region remains more or less intact. It is true that China’s security presence in “Greater Central Asia” has increased, particularly in Tajikistan.  China takes part in the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), established in 2016 as a four-way Anti-Terror Coordinating Structure (with Russia and the US excluded).  According to the 2016 Summit declaration, its purpose is: “to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter-terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training.” China’s influence is also boosted by the role of private security companies (PSC’s) as BRI-related companies contract with Chinese PSCs to provide security. “Security” includes both physical dimensions (personal) but also surveillance and new technologies.

If we extrapolate forward, might one implication be a growing power asymmetry with the condominium and Russia being relegated to “junior partner” status?  It is true that Russia’s military prestige has been undermined by the failures in its war in Ukraine. However, the kind of limited intervention that Russia offers to Central Asia – 2,500 troops intervened in Kazakhstan in January 2022 for example, or 7,000 men at its base in Tajikistan – remain important for Central Asian states. There is no sign that Russia is planning to draw down troops from Tajikistan or elsewhere in the region. Moreover, China’s militarization of Xinjiang spillover negatively with publics in Central Asia, if not formally with state elites. Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states are placed by China on a 26 “sensitive countries” list: China targets those spending time overseas and divided families.  The so-called reeducation camps mobilize civil society and promote transnational campaigns, social media protests, and international press scrutiny, making it increasingly difficult for the Kazakh government to balance Beijing’s demands with public opinion. China’s ‘clamp down’ in Xinjiang adds to collective fears about Chinese power and intentions.

Neither China nor any other regional power has the interest or capacity to fulfil Russia’s security role. Central Asian states have growing security ties with China, but still buy 80% of their weapons from Russia. That kind of dependence will not shift rapidly – although in a sign of where things might be heading, the Kyrgyz are buying Turkish drones, and the Tajiks Iranian ones. But on security, there is no serious competition. China supported Russia’s stabilization mission in Kazakhstan in January 2022 and Russia shows little concern about China’s security presence on the Tajik-Kazakh border. Both states have similar views on conflicts in the region. Both, for example, support crackdowns on the kind of unrest seen in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region in May or in Karakalpakstan (Nukus) in Uzbekistan in early July 2022.

Russia’s information dominance and traction in society also remains significant. Polls show Central Asian societies polarized on the war – although sympathy for Russia remains strong. In Kazakhstan, one poll showed 39% supported Russia and 10% supported Ukraine, while 46% professed neutrality. Though support for Ukraine was much higher among Kazakh-speakers, residual support for Russia is still present across the region.  In a 2021 poll by the Central Asia Barometer Group only 4.9 % of respondents in Kazakhstan cited China as the country most able to help address ‘economic and other problems’. Even fewer in Uzbekistan (2.6%) thought China would help.  Even lower numbers pointed to the US – although the EU did get some support (5.7% in Uzbekistan and 11.1% in Kazakhstan). Russia, on the other hand, was the country perceived as most likely to provide assistance for 54.3% of respondents in Kazakhstan and 53.9% in Uzbekistan.

There is no sign that Russia is giving up on its regional dominance – although it may be willing to share with China. Geography and history dictate that Russia is unlikely to retreat willingly from Central Asia. Russia is incapable of defending its 5,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. It is – as so often in its imperial history – forced into forward positions to defend its security – and still views the Tajik-Afghan border as essential to its security. Ceding security dominance of the region to an external power – even a friendly power such as China – is not compatible with current Russian thinking on its security. This perceived threat becomes even more acute if Russian influence is replaced not by China but by Turkey and Western powers. Indeed, for Russia the major perceived security threat in the region is probably not from China, but from Turkey. In this sense, China is more of an ally for Russia, than an opponent, hence the alignments.

In reality, without Central Asia, Russia is no longer a Great Power – so it is not surprising that Putin’s first international visit after the start of the war was to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Russia’s spatial vision of the ‘Russian World’ attracts headlines because it appears to drive much of the thinking on Ukraine. But in geopolitical terms, it is Eurasia that has been the most productive spatial imaginary for Russia. It serves as the platform for Russia’s claim to be a global power – a pole in a multipolar world. A vision of Russia at the center of Greater Eurasia allows Moscow to dream of an important geopolitical role in a swathe of geography from Northern Europe to South Asia (“from Murmansk to Mumbai”). Without a leading role in Central Asia, this idea of a Greater Eurasia – and Moscow’s role in the world – looks even more fantastical.

The biggest challenge for Russia is not economic or military but ideological. President Toqaev’s apparent on-stage trolling of President Putin at the St Petersburg Economic Forum (SPIEF) in June 2022 was widely publicized as a rift. But in reality Central Asian leaders agree with Putin on plenty. Like Putin, they run authoritarian political systems, are unforgiving towards opposition or liberal values, and see the West as a threat to stability. But they will find it very difficult to manage a Russia in which the ideology is not authoritarian modernization but imperial nationalism. Despite the fact that Putin’s regime legitimizes itself through continuous reference to the Soviet Victory in the Great Patriotic War, Putin, who was in fact a real “red” Soviet colonel in the late Soviet period, behaves as an imaginary “white” tsarist general in the Russian Civil War. His actions in Ukraine (asserting that Ukraine is not a state and Ukrainians are not a people) are not so much post-Soviet as anti-Soviet. Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric is too Slavic, too Orthodox, too Russian imperial, belligerent to gain traction. Indeed, Russian exterminationist rhetoric repels.

Russian nationalists have reacted badly to decisions by Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan not to hold 9 May victory parades and bans on the symbols ‘Z’ and ‘V’. In April the Russian newspaper MK claimed that Kyrgyz-Russian relations were threatened by US official visits to Bishkek and claimed that Moscow was preparing ‘severe’ measures against any potential ‘stab in the back’. There is no sign – yet – that such ideological paranoia is driving Kremlin thinking on Central Asia. But a further Russian turn to violent neo-imperialist thinking might also start to imperil the peaceful coexistence of Russia and China in Central Asia.  


  • Almost uniquely among Great Powers, Russia and China define Central Asia as a “common adjacent region” one in which they can coordinate and cooperate to manage disputes ultimately through Xi-Putin dialogue.  Crises in Central Asia promote the consolidation of the condominium rather than its culmination.
  • Despite Western predictions of drift, Moscow and Beijing are aligned on Central Asian crisis situations: Afghanistan; Kazakhstan’s protests; Ukraine and Western sanctions. Such alignment is more than an axis (non-aggression pact) but less than an alliance.  This alignment acknowledges that Russia remains the region’s core security provider.  
  • Central Asian states retain a strong preference for multivectorism.  While their proximity to Russia and China creates challenges, current circumstances provide them with the opportunity to reassert their authority and engage with a range of extra-regional middle powers, including Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, South Korea, Japan and India.
  • The political West needs to articulate not only what it seeks to prevent, but what it is for in dealing with Central Asian partners.  The West should avoid forcing governments to “pick sides”.  It should acknowledge its “hidden power” which is based on human capital – education, training, professional standards, and technocratic networks and a more attractive modernization paradigm when set against Russia’s return to imperial history or the “Chinese Dream”. 

GCMC, 20 July 2022.

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

Let’s call it a temporary hiatus…

As some – many? – of you may know, yesterday the Russian government banned me from future entry. I’m sad about this, both because of how I feel about Russia – the country and people as a whole, not the current regime – and also because actually talking to people, nosing around in shops, eavesdropping on conversations in the metro, and sniffing the air in general, is an invaluable adjunct to all the other open sources. Still, it is what it is. I am determined to return some day, but I suspect only once someone else is in charge…

At a time when Russia is often being caricatured as nothing but a source of violence and evil, a veritable ‘Mordor,’ (I grouse about that here), I think it it is important to be able to experience and talk about the country as it really is, a complex and often contradictory place. This is something I’ve always tried to do, and others can judge my success, which may perhaps help explain why I was the only academic who regularly travels there who was banned. After all, in many ways it suits Putin to allow this kind of stark division between Russia and the West, this lack of nuance: it allows him to turn to the Russian people and argue that they have no choice but to back him, because the West hates them all. This ‘North Koreanisation’ of Russia is a terrible thing.

The official notification, by the way, is here. I can’t help but notice that they seem a little confused how to describe me. I am in the category of ‘journalists’ – and I certainly am not one of them, as there is a world of difference between writing the odd article or column and actually covering the news, but then again nor am I a ‘persons associated with the defence complex,’ which essentially means some MPs and defence industrialists. So I’m in the journalist camp, but described as a politolog, a political analyst/expert. Fair enough.

Still, I’ll be back.

SCSS Berlin Workshop, 24 May 2022 Summary

This is a summary of the discussion at a workshop emerging from the Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars, that was held in Berlin on 24 May 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 summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Session 1:     Beijing-Moscow-Kyiv: Strategic Lessons Learned and Denied?

  • Russian blunders in Ukraine are rooted in pre-existing and deep-seated strategic, military and political cultures.  These blunders result in a contradictory “fluid stalemate”, as well as exhausted and degraded Russian forces. Official “everything going according to plan” propagandist narratives do not allow for, let alone incentivize, innovative results-orientated approaches: Russia cannot learn from defeats that it does not recognize. In a “battle of resilience”, Ukraine is winning.  If the war continues for 3 more months, there is no need for US troops to reinforce Europe.
  • Russia’s leadership cannot learn any potential “lessons” identified in Donbas operations between 2014 and 2022 as engagements here were officially denied.  In Syria Russian Aerospace Forces operated in parallel with Syrian and Iranian, not Russian, ground forces and so there are no combined arms “lessons” to be learned and applied. Instead, Russia falls back on existing tactics and strategy which stress positional mass artillery barrages though Ukraine adopts a more dynamic fire and move approach. Greater Russian firepower cannot compensate for less Russian manpower.  Kinzhal is not decisive as the arsenal too limited and targeting is uncertain; Russia lacks the essential ability to integrate different strike capabilities.
  • The orderly retreat from Kyiv – days ahead of what would have been a route – highlight some adaptive ability.  Putin’s decision not to declare “special operation” as “war” on 9 May and order full mobilization also demonstrates an ability still to surprise, as does Russia’s “mellow” response to Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.
  • From a Russian perspective, China’s footprint in its “special operation” is apparent in three respects: 1) poor equipment supplies which speak more to corruption than cooperation; 2) a degree of political trust that allows Russia to accept the risk of deploying ground troops from the Far Eastern Military District to Ukraine; and, 3) as Russia’s war in Ukraine is in part designed to causes the final collapse of the Western liberal international rules-based order so highlighting Russia’s great power – China’s withdrawal of support or the continued existence of that order challenges this foundational legitimizing Russian narrative. 
  • The 4 February 2022 “no limits friendship” joint declaration noted that the “fate of states are interconnected”. This fits into the Chinese view that there is no existence without coexistence.  It reiterated respect for statehood and non-interference in domestic affairs and stated that the liberal international order needed to be transformed, though within the UN framework and International Law.  For China the end state is a “common destiny of mankind” which places US and China as peers, affording each other mutual respect and enjoying peaceful coexistence.
  • In reality, the CCP understands Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in terms of: 1) legitimate Russian security interests; 2) Russia’s need to suppress a “Nazi” Ukrainian regime – even if Putin wrongly assessed the Ukrainians themselves would perceive this as “liberation”; and, 3) as a proxy war which validates Chinese assumptions around a confrontational US and NATO wedded to Cold War thinking. China reinforces Russia’s social media framing of the invasion as a Western neo-colonial struggle which Russia resists, and while such traction is limited in the Middle East it has purchase more generally in the Global South.
  • China believes Ukraine is in no way analogous to Taiwan – in political terms Taiwan is considered internal to China and in practical reality an amphibious operations against a sea fortress harder than ground forces crossing contiguous borders.  US increased security cooperation with Taiwan and its leverage of the AUKUS format will give rise to an arms race.  More broadly, China sees western predominance eroding and its promotion of “follow your own path” to development garners support in the Global South.  Volatility, rising energy and agricultural product prices, infrastructure connectivity and supply chain disruption are clear Chinese concerns.
  • Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the catalyst for a fundamental shift in today’s Sino-Russian axis in which the Xi–Putin relationship is central?  Xi does not want to contemplate a post-Putin Russia. China’s current narrative is that two major powers – Russia and China – seek to change the Western dominated rules-based order.  A war of attrition which weakens Russia irrevocably is not in China’s interest as it deprives China of a functioning axis that can act as strategic counter-weight to US hegemony.  China has no interest in influencing Putin, nor is it clear if it has the means to do so should the interest arise.  China will exhibit greater caution in relations with Russia, avoiding too great a dependence on the axis. However, it is not clear which other major power replace Russia.  India’s behavior is a critical factor.

Session 2:      After Ukraine: Russia, China and Regional Order?

  • We can identify three strands of thinking in Moscow concerning regional order in the context of the special operation in Ukraine – these in part represent ideas for action but also ad hoc rationalizations of possible pathways forward:
    • Liberal Commentators – “Russia in retreat”: Russia is in the process of losing the war and as it weakens it’s FDI and technological dependence on China is strengthened.  Russia fails as a legitimate leader in post-Soviet space – it does not constitute an attractive socio-economic model. Sanctions cause a radical reshaping of Russian trade with China, but also its ability to invest in Central Asia, cutting economic growth across the region to 2.6% or less in 2022. Economic weakness and war in Ukraine diminishes Russia’s ability to be the security provider and guarantor of security in Central Asia (with spillover dangers from Afghanistan and actual instability in eastern Tajikistan) and undercuts Russian regional integrationist projects (EEU/CSTO). China becomes the dominant actor in Central Asia, Turkey in the Caucasus and the EU in the West – Russia is in retreat in post-Soviet space.
    • Pragmatists – “Russia muddles through”: Russia avoids isolation by engaging the Global South, western disunity returns, trade with China increases in some sectors (e.g. coal x2 in 2022).  Russia still has a role to play in Central Asia: China supports the existing division of labor, with China focused on the economic and developmental sectors and Russia political-security matters. Even if Russia is a weaker player after the war, China is unlikely to want to fill the role of security provider. For example, if there is destabilization on the Afghan border, China is unlikely to want to manage a crisis alone: its preference would be for Russia to be in the lead.  Central Asia can emerge as a “grey zone” for sanctions breaking and organized crime and other illicit transactions.
    • Ideological – “Ethno-nationalist revisionist Russia”: This strain of thought is revisionist, understanding Russia’s existential confrontation with Ukraine and the West a way of breaking the current international order and reshaping global order. Such “old political thinking” is based on balance of power, pluralism and a belief on the utility of military force. In that worldview, an alignment with China against the West is seen as vital. But this could be upset by the ideological strand of Russian ethno-nationalism that could be destabilizing (e.g. in relation to northern Kazakhstan).  Central Asian states are not ideological but pragmatic, preferring multi-vector balancing to choosing sides in a bipolar confrontation. 
  • China’s as “black box”: as access and contacts are cut, it becomes ever harder to distinguish rumor from conspiracy from opinion.  It is though clear that China’s approach to Central Asia is different from Russia’s, both in terms of means and ends. Its formation demonstrates how China views its global role. 
    • The SCO was the first of the China + X mechanism and the only regional organization China has created.  China’s structuring and ordering of this region indicates its understanding of its role in world regions and so its vison of its role in global order.  China’s primary focus has been on regional order and stable “neighborly relations”. An underlying Chinese assumption is apparent – Central Asia lacks internal agency, order is created on Chinese terms.
    • While the West had had a linear view of how relations with China unfold, multi-dimensional spatialization is a feature of Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping. China has a connective concept of “docking” or “linking”, including Central Asian transportation hubs linking China geographically with Europe as “end destination” but also Central Asia as the “in between space” with transnational digital payments systems, satellites and other layers of Sino-centric technology. Xi’s recent emphasis on global security, highlighting particularly the safety of global supply chains, underscores this approach – it is global, maritime and continental and digital. Currently more than 1000 container ships stand-off China’s east coast ports awaiting unloading, a zero-COVID policy and the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion, indicate that in 6-8 weeks the unpredictable knock-on impact will be felt globally.
  • Is China trapped by Russian geopolitical adventurism?  CCP leadership took two weeks to issue a statement after 24 February invasion (which was not a “lame” MFA statement but CCCP leadership).  As China reads across from Ukraine to Taiwan, an ideal outcome for China would be Russia claims victory, Ukraine remains as a neutral state, Russia controls Donbas. China reaps the strategic advantage of Russian energy at cheap prices. (Russia faces the challenge of explaining to itself Chinese control over its energy sector – investors, contractors, development).
  • Where are China-Russia red lines? What is the conflict potential between the two?  The functional axis is interest based and once those interests no longer exist then “friendship” can fast fade.  However, short of energy and unrestricted NSR access, China does not need much else from Russia.
    • China and Russia have different interests in the Northern Sea Route – the maritime dimension of BRI through Central Asia.  With regards to such sea lanes, China and the US adopt a similar understanding, one which Canada and Russia oppose.
    • Russia tries to diversify links in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Vietnam and India – both strategic opponents of China.
    • China’s attitudes to sovereignty and territorial integrity in Central Asian SCO states may be much less flexible than in Ukraine or Belarus.  Russian incursions into Kazakhstan may elicit different responses. 

Session 3:    RSS#6 – China-Russia Nexus: Transatlantic Threat Assessment(s)?”

  • Hybrid threats activities as used by Russia and China are designed to 1) undermine democracies and democratic processes, 2) impact on their decision making algorithm and 3) saturate the capacity of the target and the create cascading effects.  Such activity seeks to test and exploit vulnerabilities, can be short and long-term, are tailored to different regional contexts and very often leverage and weaponize history.

In Finland and Sweden the situational awareness of the potential hybrid threats activity from China and Russia in the context of NATO accession is high. One of the reasons for this is that with NATO accession the attitude towards the accession is clear. It is always harder to determine the actual threats to specific national interests.   NATO accession and hybrid threats can be understood in terms of three phases: 

  • 1) Pre-application: given decision making in Stockholm and Helsinki was so quick and the decision to apply so sudden, hybrid threats did  not materialize in opposition to this process – Russia and China were rendered reactive; 
  • 2) Grey zone:  the period between application and actual membership provides the greatest opportunity to challenge and discredit membership.  
    • In Finland, There are multiple ways this could be done and some things have been already detected; cyber and disinformation attacks, attempts to harness those that support the Russia agenda, threats by Russia to withdraw from bilateral projects (waterway); questioning of the Aland Island status as a demilitarized zone and the status of Finnish companies in Russia (this however is connected also to a larger context of the sanctions), and threats of unspecified military consequences on accession.  Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova states that “the Russian military will decide” what those consequences may be. China has reacted negatively but so far hybrid threat activity has not been visible. Previously China has used cyber tools to spy on the Finnish Parliament (trend that seem to have occurred elsewhere as well) and usage of United People’s Front especially it networks related to universities. 
    • In Sweden the situation is a bit similar; more hybrid threat activity before then this spring; disinformation campaigns have been constant and there is also an example of infiltration into the Swedish Parliament and intelligence services by Russia.  Chinese hybrid threat activities in Sweden have been vigorous. It is a larger and more active hybrid threat actor than Russia in Sweden, practicing “wolf warrior” diplomacy, threatening journalists, parliamentarians and experts and raising questions over Chinese investments in Swedish critical national infrastructure
  • 3) Post-accession: probable normalization of hybrid threat activity akin to other NATO member states. Here Finland and Sweden will need to restart relations with Russia from scratch.
    • As long as Russia is waging a war in Ukraine its ability to do hybrid threat activity is lower. In the case of Ukraine, early conclusions can be made that Russia’s conventional military attacks from 24 February point to the lack of success of its aim to achieve strategic goals. There is also the question of whether the hybrid threat activity slowed democratization processes but strengthened Ukrainian sense of nationhood. 
    • Both autocracies and democracies have the same practice of exerting influence over adversaries, however democracies are constrained by democratic practices like rule of law and inability of the state to compel independent media to undertake information operations or private companies to work for the state or individuals to be used to inform. The democratic states have different strategic culture to design influence operations and there is often openly declared aims. Therefore, the hybrid threat activity is what autocracies do against democratic states.
  • Russian foreign policy from perhaps as early as 1993, certainly 1995, has sought to attain 3 goals: 1) Russian Great Power status; 2) maintain a sphere of influence in neighboring states; 3) protecting Russia from encroachments from the West.  These goals remain the same but Russia’s power has weakened and changed both relative to neighbors and the West.  In terms of Russian threat assessment of the West, 3 elements can be identified:
    • 1) NATO enlargement: the military dimension involved the proliferation of NATO military infrastructure; the geopolitical threat was encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence;
    • 2) Regime change: this was first perceived as a political threat following the Rose and Orange revolutions of 2003 and 2004, but by 2014 Russian military doctrine identified color revolutions as military threats, highlighting a perception in Moscow that legitimate regimes could be changed via secret plans, external western organization and the export of destabilization/chaos designed to promote anti-Russian hostile states to limit Russian influence and ultimately weaken Russia.
    • 3) Negation of Russia’s nuclear deterrent: western missile defense and prompt global strike are designed to eliminate Russia’s nuclear deterrent and Russia discounts US promises these systems are not targeting Russia.
  • Role of China in Russian threat perception: Though historically the “China threat” is a feature of Russian strategic culture, this threat perception has dissipated as Russian Far East Military District ground troop deployment in Ukraine attests, though China’s economic threat potential to Russia has increased. Implicitly, while neither threatens the other, there is no expectation of direct mutual military support. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the assumption held that Russia could still, where interests aligned, cooperate with the West or even together build a new international order. This assumption is no longer valid. Russian efforts with China to weaken Western liberal international order and economic dominance are much harder.

Session 4:     Ukraine, Strategic Competition and Policy Implications Roundtable?

  • Catastrophic success? In an ideal Western end-state, Ukraine and Russia emerge as democratic and the global economy prospers.  However, might Ukraine and the West win the war but lose the peace?  Russian strategic military-political defeat in Ukraine may lead to regime implosion. If crisis is opportunity:
    • Ukraine may emerge, in the words of President Zelensky, as “Big Israel”, a state whose identity is defined by existential threat, whose institutions are securitized and which is thriving, democratic and resilient.
    • More generally, Russian neighbours may express their agency: Moldova advances towards EU integration; Georgia contemplates competing impulses – reintegrate South Ossetia or trade with Russia on Georgian terms; Lukashenka attempts to instrumentalise a protracted war in Ukraine to re-establish Belarus’ multi-vector credentials and so regime continuity.
    • Russia elects to fight on two fronts: 1) a 20th C war in Ukraine that it is losing; 2) a 21st C confrontation and conflict with the ‘political West’ that it currently loses.  Ukraine and the political West are in synch – but could over time diverge.
  • Putin’s Ukraine victory as a post-Putin regime change mechanism:
    • Did Putin plan on winning the war to secure an exit from formal politics: winning enables Putin to leaving presidential power as “untouchable”?  If so, then a protracted conflict locks Putin further into the increasingly uncertain political realities of Russia, demanding he now, captive in the Kremlin, build an actual “power vertical” to survive.
    • Putinism exists but are there actual Putinists?  Supporters of Putin are ruthless, opportunistic and self-interested pragmatists, loyal to the extent their interests are enabled by Putin in power. Tensions in Russia’s security services exist – Zolotov, Bortnikov, Shoigu are publicly absent. Rosgvardia members express disillusionment on vKontakte social media channels, resenting their perceived use as cannon-fodder in the “special operation”. Elite discussions acknowledge that “we are stuck”, the worrying (for Putin) step before, “unless…”.  The momentum of elite defections in 1989 and 1991 a real factor: the more fragmented the elite the greater the potential for defections. 
    • Radical nationalist Strelkov-type narratives around exterminationst actions necessary for victory are not yet expressed by Putin but this is the direction of travel. On the basis of Ukraine, the notion that what comes after Putin is much worse is unproven.
  • Sanctions and market realities: the economic damage inflicted by sanctions on Russia remains unclear: Russian GDP is expected to fall between 5-30% of GDP; trade between sanctioning states and Russia fall between 50-70%. Economic markets are spaces not actors and within these spaces companies are the actors.  The economies of both Russia and China rely on the decentralized management of economic decision-making.  Russia does not have the institutional capacity to control Russian companies and their private interests. The global economy is one common dollar denominated space that shares values and institutions.  China is integrated into this space.  It is an either/or proposition.  If Russia is not integrated it moves further from China.   Chinese – Russian trade was in decline before the war broke out and it is now the question how much trade will bounce back in light of Russia’s declining trade with the West. As a minimum, it would make it difficult for China to cooperate with Moscow when Russia is less than ever integrated in the world economy.
    • Sanctions float like a toxic cloud over Russia’s economy – acting as a clear incentive to disengage unless in sectors such as energy where the risk can be controlled. China will not take over the place of EU Europe in the Russian economy but will serve as partial replacement. Decentralized economies deal well with scarcity but are fragile in the face of uncertainty.
    • China can be opportunistic and find the appropriate risk-reward equilibrium in key sectors, but can only partially replace the West. China has a clear interest in trade and export but not in including Russia in its supply chains.  Foreign (Chinese/Western) capital will not return to Russia as the trust upon which investments are bases are burnt.

GCMC, 27 May 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary is a synthesis by Graeme P. Herd of the presentations (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti, Nadine Godehardt, Dmitry Gorenburg, David Lewis, Janis Kluge, Hanna Smith and Falk Tettweiler) and extensive discussions at the SCSS Berlin Workshop on 24 May 2022 and is not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments or organization. 

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