MOSCOW FEARS NATO
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
Moscow has manufactured a thick mist of disinformation about NATO in order to disguise its expansionist policies in Europe’s east. Nonetheless, lurking behind this propaganda offensive is a genuine fear in the Kremlin that the North Atlantic Alliance will thwart Kremlin ambitions and weaken the Vladimir Putin regime.
Russia’s NATO myth making can be debunked by examining the evidence. According to Moscow’s deceptions, Russia tried to join Western institutions during the 1990s but was rebuffed and ostracized. In reality, the Russian Federation has failed to meet the basic standards for either EU or NATO membership, whether in the rule of law, democratic governance, or military reform, and its aggressive aspirations toward neighboring states counters the core principles of both multinational organizations.
Russia’s officials also contend that NATO captured the post-communist countries and threatened Russia’s borders. In reality, NATO enlargement over the past twenty years has been a voluntary process initiated by each aspirant state. It has not created a hostile alliance along Russia’s western frontiers but improved relations between new NATO members and diminished their fear of Kremlin attacks. Moreover, no neighboring country has voiced claims to Russia’s territory or its resources. Above all, NATO, in its doctrine, exercises, military posture, and force dispositions is neither a threat to Russia’s statehood nor a danger to its territorial integrity.
Despite these facts, the Kremlin has a troika of fears about NATO. These do not revolve around Russia’s national security but are based on profound anxieties about the future of the Putin administration.
In the first place, the Kremlin President has anchored his domestic legitimacy on restoring Russia’s great power status and reigning in neighbors that have veered away from Moscow. Such ambitions are blocked when aspirants enter NATO and benefit from its core principle of mutual defense. And although Russian security is not challenged by any country’s accession to NATO, Moscow’s ability to control their security dimensions and foreign policy orientations is largely thwarted. In this sense, NATO is an effective threat against Russia’s threat.
The second fear for the Putinists is that NATO is a source of attraction for other post-Soviet states, including Russia’s allies. Unlike NATO and the EU, Moscow’s alliances are not voluntary but consist of countries trapped in a dependency relationship based on blackmail, bribery, and threat. In seeking genuine national independence several capitals have turned to Western institutions for help and protection. When they do, Moscow inverts reality by claiming that it is being surrounded by enemies and needs to pursue an aggressive posture to combat them
In the most glaring recent example of truth inversion, in justifying its attack on Ukraine Moscow charged that Washington organized the overthrow of the government in Kyiv in February 2014 primarily to create an excuse for reinvigorating NATO and deploying American forces closer to Russia’s borders. In reality, the Ukrainian revolution was indigenous and is thereby a potential precedent for Russia itself. NATO simply responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its escalating threats against the Alliance’s eastern flank by increasing its defensive presence in the region.
Third, and most importantly, Moscow fears NATO as the security core of Europe’s development that challenges the credibility of Russia’s ruling dictatorship. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s main fear over Ukraine was the prospect that its large neighbor would be transformed into a democratic, unified, and prosperous state that achieves EU accession and NATO membership. Such a model of development can become increasingly attractive for Russia’s citizens.
For Kremlin officials an independent, democratic, economically stable, and internationally integrated Ukraine symbolizes everything that threatens their hold on power. A successful Ukrainian model of development would expose the Russian model as a failure and inspire dozens of impoverished federal regions to seek greater control over their own destiny by opposing the current hyper-centralized regime in Moscow.
From the outset, relations between NATO and Russia have been based on false premises. Putin’s Moscow does not see NATO as a potential partner but as its primary rival, territorial competitor, and existential political threat. The Kremlin’s methodology has involved drawing the Alliance into ephemeral joint initiatives in combating terrorism and curbing nuclear proliferation. In reality, this lulls NATO leaders into a false sense of confidence while Moscow prepares new assaults against its neighbors and subverts NATO states from within.
The NATO-Russia Council, established in May 2002, was aborted after August 2008 in the wake of Moscow’s attack on Georgia. After lulling the West into another false dawn, amid growing calls for restoring the Council, in April 2014 NATO again suspended practical co-operation in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To prevent a third failure, NATO must develop a new realism toward Moscow, one that is not based on grand bargains, power balances, or global cooperation but on upholding the principles on which NATO was founded – the defense of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic and effective opposition to any power that seeks to dominate Europe.
US SHOULD INTERFERE IN RUSSIA ELECTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
With the CIA reporting that Moscow is preparing to interfere in America’s mid term Congressional elections in November, it is time for America to launch a cyber offensive against Russia. Instead of simply monitoring and warning about Russian state-sponsored hacking and manipulation of American public opinion, the best form of defense would be a targeted cyber onslaught that undermines the stability of the Vladimir Putin regime.
CIA chief Mike Pompeo issued a warning about Russian interference in the US political system at the same time that he met secretly in Washington with the heads of Russia’s three main intelligence agencies. Speculations about the meetings have persisted, whether to explore cooperation in countering international terrorism or nuclear proliferation. Another explanation is that the three spy chiefs may have been offered a freeze in sanctions policy in return for desisting from manipulating the US elections.
And indeed, despite a Congressional deadline for the end of January, the Trump administration did not impose new sanctions on Putin’s corrupt cronies who finance international subversion but simply published a broad list of officials and oligarchs. If Moscow fails to stem its election interference and evidence mounts that hacking and disinformation have intensified, then the pressure for new sanctions is likely to escalate in Washington.
However, sanctions are rarely an effective tool and often take years to have any significant impact. To demonstrate that Washington is serious in countering Moscow’s attack a covert cyber onslaught needs to be launched on Russia’s own political process. Indeed, the first principle of any war, whether material or cyber, is not only to defend against attack, but above all to counterattack and stymie the aggressor.
According to Pompeo, Moscow is targeting the Congressional elections in order to influence the result or to generate confusion and chaos. Kremlin-aligned hacking group Fancy Bear—notorious for stealing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential elections—is evidently making preparations to penetrate and leak US Senate e-mails.
What Pompeo did not point out is that Russia itself faces presidential “elections” on 18 March and the country is equally vulnerable to attack from cyber hackers. The most logical US strategy would be to undermine Russia’s political networks whose objective is to damage Western democracies. A key component of such a covert assault would be to hack and disseminate official Russian communications and documents, with a focus on the Kremlin, government ministries, parliament, and all subservient political parties, as well as private communications between Russian officials.
Although the regime controls the major media outlets, the most incendiary leaks can be circulated through the internet and the social media – a favorite instrument of Kremlin disinformation in the West. They could even be camouflaged as emanating from within Russia, including from inside the ruling circles. The purpose would be to uncover and publicly disclose the most provocative scandals of Russia’s high officials and the extent of their corrupt governance, opulent lifestyles, public lies, personal hypocrisies, and contempt for ordinary citizens. Especially valuable would be messages that reveal a willingness to betray the country for personal gain. And Western intelligence services possess more information about Putin’s theft of the Russian budget than Alexei Navalny, the main anti-Kremlin activist barred from the elections.
The US offensive can be extended beyond the March elections, as part of a broader psychological influence operation. This offensive needs to be geared toward two core objectives: alienating the public from the regime and promoting power struggles inside the ruling stratum. Detailed revelations about official treason and financial abuse while living standards for the masses dramatically collapse can fuel social, ethnic, regional, and religious unrest. Any attempts at regime change would then become the task of the exploited and manipulated Russian people.
Simultaneously, disclosures about conflicts within the ruling elite will generate uncertainty and anxiety in government circles and indicate the regime’s vulnerabilities. The promotion of regime power struggles may not precipitate Putin’s downfall, but it can distract the authorities from their unchallenged cyber war against America. It will spread suspicion and distrust between officials, raise fears about political purges and repressions, and may lead some fractions to take preemptive actions that would escalate the disputes and potentially endanger Putin’s rule.
Although the result of the March elections is already decided, an avalanche of revelations can discourage voters and diminish the turnout. Although the turnout percentage has no legal bearing on the validity of the results, a vote of under fifty percent will be viewed as a sharp decline in Putin’s popularity and government legitimacy.
Voices of appeasement will of course be heard in Washington, deriding any US cyber and informational offensive against Moscow as being too provocative. Such a position is not only short-sighted, it is also dangerous. Weakness and hesitation simply whet the Kremlin’s appetite. The attacks on US democracy continue to this day precisely because of our lack of resolve and action. Moreover, as Moscow will in any case accuse America of interfering in its elections, Washington might as well make such intervention consequential. It is time for America’s democracy to destabilize Russia’s dictatorship.
MOSCOW’S STRATEGY INSIDE AMERICA
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
A year into the Trump presidency, Moscow appears to have concluded that when it comes to his Russia policy, the President is a “lame duck.” The Kremlin assumed that after taking office, Trump would lift financial sanctions, recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and allow Putin to dominate the former Soviet states. In reality, Trump is unable to deliver what the Kremlin expected; he is immersed in a growing FBI investigation and Congress is resolutely opposed to any concessions to Russia.
According to US officials, President Putin is satisfied with the Kremlin’s “active measures” campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election, in particular in helping to thwart the victory of Hilary Clinton. However, disappointment with Trump is mounting and Kremlin officials are developing an alternative strategy that could prove beneficial for their geopolitical ambitions. The primary objective will be to exploit the political battles in Washington in order to undermine American democracy regardless of the fate of the Trump presidency.
Putin has praised Trump in order to appeal to the president’s vanity. In reality, he was seen in Moscow as the ultimate “useful idiot” who would not challenge its expansionist enterprise. He would also make deals with Russia that could benefit some US businesses even while damaging Washington’s international influence. However, because the Kremlin believes that Trump has been blocked by “the establishment,” the time has come for Russia to use Trump to help undermine the American establishment.
The dispute over the legitimacy of the Trump presidency will begin to boil over in the coming months, as the FBI investigation reaches into the White House and may indict senior figures from the Trump campaign. It seems unlikely that Trump will simply resign as President Richard Nixon did in 1974 in order to avoid impeachment. Trump has indicated that he will fight any charges of corruption or collusion with Russia. He will try and discredit the FBI investigation and may even be willing to precipitate a constitutional crisis in order to stay in power.
The conflict over Trump’s fate between the White House and the judicial branch, between congressional Republicans and Democrats, and between Trump supporters and opponents will provide fertile ground for the Kremlin in its new offensive. For Putin, the next best thing to America’s external appeasement is an internal American crisis that will weaken the political system and disable a coherent and effective foreign policy.
Moscow can pursue a number of options in order to exacerbate tensions in the US. There are three areas in particular where Russian agencies can be most effective: kompromat, disinformation, and incitement.
Russian security services gather compromising material on all major US politicians and businessmen, which can be used either to bribe or blackmail them at opportune moments. The FSB (Federal Security Service) would be negligent if it did not possess voluminous amounts of kompromat on Trump, whether concerning his financial dealings or his personal life. Some of this material could be injected into the media sphere either to warn Trump from pursuing specific anti-Kremlin policies or to feed the investigation against him. At the same time, compromising material can be released on Trump’s opponents in order to deepen the rifts in American politics.
Kompromat is intertwined with disinformation, as Russian agents can also inject false stories about targeted politicians that gain traction in the media. During the US election, Kremlin officials discovered how easily they could manipulate social media networks to spread disinformation. In the case of a potential Trump impeachment the propaganda offensive will focus on how American elites are trying to eliminate a popularly elected President and that ordinary people should resist by all possible means. The purpose will be to inflame emotions and exacerbate divisions that could paralyze America’s political system.
Disinformation blends into outright incitement where fabricated information is targeted at particular audiences to react in specific ways. The US has already witnessed Moscow instigating demonstrations through the internet. Such tactics can be developed to generate race conflicts, riots, or clashes between leftist and rightist radicals in American cities. A deeply divided electorate is susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories and negative propaganda against the opposing party.
There is a high probability that the Kremlin has established a special unit in the presidential administration that develops the strategy and tactics of subverting and manipulating American politics. At the same time, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies may not be sufficiently prepared to counter an intensified campaign designed to destabilize the country.
Trump’s dismissal of Russia’s election interference as a “hoax” may be intended to assert the legitimacy of his election victory, but the consequences of neglect at the highest administrative levels can be damaging. The White House has failed to establish an inter-agency task force to examine Russia’s election meddling or to formulate responses to counter future assaults on American democracy. This leaves the country even more vulnerable to a sustained offensive.
MOSCOW’S DIVIDE AND RULE
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
A profitable strategy pursued by Moscow to subvert its neighbors is the classic imperial policy of divide and rule. Although Russia may not rule the countries it subverts, by pitting neighbors against each other the Kremlin can weaken their defenses, prevent the emergence of a common multi-national front, and inject itself in the foreign policy decisions of nearby governments.
Moscow’s “divide and conquer” strategy around its borders is so pervasive that it would take a long report to chronicle all the cases and methods. At least four current bilateral relations within Europe are pinpointed by the Kremlin to weaken its adversaries and to control its allies: Poland-Ukraine, Belarus-Ukraine, Hungary-Ukraine, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda has focused on undermining relations between Ukraine and all of its Western neighbors in order to isolate and destabilize the country. Poland and Hungary have been the two main targets of Moscow’s offensive. In the case of Poland, Moscow-generated media, policy statements, and social networks have focused on lingering historical disputes between Warsaw and Kyiv in order to weaken Poland’s support for Ukraine’s independence and its self-defense against Russia’s aggression.
For the Poles, Moscow underscores the Wolyn massacres during World War Two, in which some Ukrainian nationalists murdered Polish civilians. For the Ukrainians, Moscow focuses on the forced relocation of Ukrainian civilians from Poland’s eastern territories after World War Two. The objective is to raise nationalist sentiments in both states and demonstrate that Poles are incurably anti-Ukrainian and Ukrainians are genetically anti-Polish. Russian TV has even staged incidents of Polish nationalists allegedly burning Ukrainian flags during Poland’s independence day celebrations in order to whip up Ukrainian hostility.
In another example of fostering neighborhood disputes, the Kremlin encourages Budapest to campaign for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region. It amplifies the contention that Kyiv is pursuing discriminatory policies and highlights the stance of some members of the local Ruthenian community in Transcarpathia for autonomy or independence.
In seeking to depict Ukraine as a failing state, Moscow claims that it is facing increasingly serious ethnic problems in regions such as Transcarpathia. The Kremlin’s strategy serves to exert pressure on Kyiv, depicts the Magyars in Ukraine as potentially disloyal to the state, and undermines a common front among Central Europe’s Visegrad Group in opposing Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has also endeavored to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow’s propaganda has persistently claimed that Ukrainian militants are infiltrating Belarus to stage a EuroMajdan-type revolt in Minsk. It has also conducted direct provocations, as in the recent arrest of a Ukrainian journalist in Minsk reportedly engineered by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The reporter was accused of espionage after being handed forged documents by staff from the Russian television company NTV disclosing that Minsk would permit Belarusian territory to be used by Russian forces in its war against Ukraine.
The South Caucasus provides an example of the longest-standing “divide and rule” operation by Russian agencies – the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since the early 1990s, Moscow has prevented the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and disputes over other territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces. Moscow’s objective is to prevent either country from moving westward geopolitically and ensuring they remain within Russia’s orbit. It supplies both sides with weapons and uses the conflict to keep both Yerevan and Baku in check.
In aiding Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin threatens Azerbaijan with partition if the government moves closer to the West. At the same time, it rewards Armenia for its client relationship with Moscow and indicates that such support can be withdrawn if Yerevan were to push for closer ties with the EU and NATO.
The Kremlin can manipulate a number of other lingering disputes to stifle international opposition to its policies. Latent tensions between Serbia and Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Romania and Moldova, or Romania and Hungary can be recharged by both propaganda and provocations. And minority questions in numerous states in Central and South Eastern Europe can be inflamed to precipitate new rounds of dispute.
To counter the “divide and rule” strategy and avoid falling into Moscow’s traps, each targeted government can pursue three policies. First, they need to heighten public awareness of political and informational vulnerabilities to Kremlin-inspired assaults. Second, it would be valuable to establish bilateral working groups between neighboring states composed of scholars and specialists to monitor and expose the various sources of divisive propaganda.
And third, Moscow’s meddling can be constructively used as an opportunity to develop bilateral and regional relations particularly in the informational sphere including media cooperation, cultural exchanges, IT roundtables, and student visits. Although long-standing disputes between several countries will not disappear overnight, at the very least each society should become aware when a predatory third party aims to exploit them to its advantage.
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
In Russia, history is not an objective record of events but an instrument to strengthen the regime. A century ago an armed group of Bolsheviks staged a coup d’état in Russia’s capital Petrograd and proceeded to seize all state institutions and eradicate political rivals. This power grab by a small communist faction was depicted in Soviet propaganda as the “Great October Proletarian Revolution.” In reality, the coup was not a revolution, the Russian proletariat did not lead it, and according to the widely used Gregorian calendar it did not even happen in October.
Since the Bolshevik seizure of power, the manipulation and distortion of Russia’s history has served three main purposes: legitimizing the regime, denigrating its rivals, and mobilizing the masses. In contemporary Russia, historical narratives justify the policies of the Vladimir Putin administration, which claims to be following a glorious historical tradition in defending Mother Russia against a multitude of foreign enemies.
Even as Russia’s citizens hover on the material level of a poor developing country, with shrinking living standards, shortened life spans, rampant alcoholism, growing crime, collapsing health care, and crumbling infrastructure, the Russian state-empire is depicted as a unique civilization. This alleged bastion of Christianity is an enlightened civilization with a deep Russian “soul” than no Westerner can understand. Such arguments are intended to disguise reality and make Russians feel important despite the growing repression and destitution.
Russia’s official history also undermines the identity and cohesion of neighbors who are earmarked for domination, assimilation or eradication. One key stratagem is manufacturing a fraudulent self-identity, in which the history of neighbors is systematically appropriated and their distinctiveness diminished. The most egregious example of historical theft is perpetrated against the Ukrainian nation, which many Russians disparagingly dismiss as a “younger brother.”
Russia’s rulers claim much of Ukrainian history as their own, including Kyivan Rus (the first eastern Slavic federation between the 9th and 13th centuries), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the Cossack tradition. Simultaneously, Russian officials deny or downplay Moscow’s repression and mass murder of Ukrainians, whether in eviscerating the independent Cossack tradition, perpetrating the holodomor genocide in the 1930s to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry, or exterminating Ukraine’s armed resistance to the imposition of Soviet rule in the 1940s and 1950s.
By denying Ukraine a distinct and independent historical narrative, the Muscovite elite seeks to wipe out the very idea of a separate Ukrainian nation. In this logic, if Ukraine has no distinct identity then it cannot possess a truly independent state and it cannot freely choose its government or determine its international alliances.
Official Russian history is not only the propaganda of the word. It is also the propaganda of the deed, to mobilize the masses in the service of the state. With state organs monopolizing information and education, they also control the past and convince the public that Russia is restoring its superpower status. This allows the Kremlin to pinpoint internal scapegoats and external enemies and divert attention from its own failures. The Crimean annexation was a perfect example of how the public can be hoodwinked even while the regime is incapable of delivering economic development.
A new generation of Russians is now subject to intense imperialist and nationalist propaganda that intertwines seemingly contradictory historical figures. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, and Stalin are all depicted as Russian heroes, regardless of ideology or policy because each contributed to building a Greater Russia. Putinism blends every tradition and historical epoch that can reinforce the narrative of invincible state power.
The disinformation offensive is expanding Russia’s historical revisionism toward neighbors. The Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe is depicted as a progressive era of Russian benevolence rather than a dark period of retardation through the imposition of a failed ideology and an obsolete economic system. The aim is to whitewash Soviet crimes and weaken the national independence of neighbors.
One central component of historical fabrication is the official narrative about the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany (1941-1945). Kremlin war myths are designed to generate pride in Russia’s achievements. They stress the country’s sacrifices and victories against the Third Reich but ignore inconvenient facts, such as Moscow’s active collaboration with Hitler in launching World War Two and the mass murders and ethnic expulsions in territories occupied by the Red Army throughout Europe’s east. A focus on the “Great Patriotic War” also invokes a continuing conflict with the West, which is avowedly threatening Russia’s survival. History becomes an ideology that reinforces the siege mentality.
Russia’s “Ministries of Truth” have many more tools at their disposal than during Soviet times, including cable news networks, the social media, and an array of duped or corrupted Westerners. We can expect more distortions of both the past and the present, as Moscow seek to undermine the West while creating the illusion that Russia remains a great power. The Kremlin ultimately aspires to realize George Orwell’s insight about dictatorships, in that ”Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
CARVING UP EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
Moscow’s strategy toward Europe is reminiscent of carving a hunted game. It exploits and exacerbates the vulnerabilities of targeted state and widens any lingering disputes between them. At least four portions of the continent are targeted by the Kremlin: Anglo-Saxon, West European, Central European, and Orthodox Balkan, with the remainder of Europe’s east to be directly devoured by Russia.
A primary focus of subversion dating back to Soviet times is to drive a permanent wedge between the continental European states and the “Anglo-Saxon” countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The former are viewed in Moscow as more malleable, corruptible, and exploitable, while the latter are more likely to challenge Russia’s revisionism.
After a brief interlude following the election of Donald Trump, the Kremlin has refocused its sights on promoting trans-Atlantic rifts. Its propaganda depicts the US as a hegemon that limits the sovereignty of all European states and pushes them into conflicts along Russia’s borders, including Ukraine. In this schema, the UK is depicted as an American puppet that has now been untethered from the continent following its Brexit decision.
The second carving strategy is to expand fissures between West Europeans and Central Europeans and to foster various bilateral disputes. Former Soviet satellites, particularly Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are depicted as nationalistic and incurably Russophobic, thus preventing rapprochement between Brussels and Moscow and blocking business opportunities in Russia for West European companies.
In addition, EU-skepticism is encouraged in all targeted countries, based on nationalism, populism, and conservatism. Kremlin propaganda outlets castigate the degenerate nature of European liberalism, the lack of national sovereignty, recurring financial crises in the Eurozone, failed multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration, and an inability to combat jihadist terrorism. In contrast, Russia is depicted as a Christian bastion against Muslim extremism. All these themes help Moscow to influence a “fifth column” of movements and parties inside the EU that include radicals of diverse political persuasions.
A third Kremlin carving maneuver encourages a neutral bloc to emerge across Central Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia lie at the epicenter of Russia’s campaign to subvert NATO states from within, with Poland increasingly in Russia’s crosshairs. Having failed to keep these countries outside the Alliance, Putin’s officials calculate that politicians and governments can be bought or blackmailed to serve Kremlin designs, transforming Central Europe into a zone increasingly alienated from Washington.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico are depicted as sympathetic leaders who can be enticed to distance themselves from NATO. Ministers in several countries, including Poland, are also probed for their susceptibility to Russian financial overtures. Following the October 21 elections, Andrej Babiš, a Moscow-friendly businessmen and leader of the ANO party, could become the next Czech Prime Minister and draw the country closer into a Kremlin orbit. Moscow also endeavors to pull Slovenia and Croatia away from Western institutions through energy contracts and opaque investments, thus completing a long wedge of influence between Ukraine and the Adriatic that could disable NATO operations in the event of war.
Moscow also favors links between the Central European wedge and traditionally neutral Austria. It views the “Slavkov Triangle” association between the Czech Republic, Austria, and Slovakia as a useful tool to undermine the Visegrad Group and help lift sanctions against Moscow. This strategy also contributes to isolating Poland from other Central European states. Bilateral disputes are also exploited throughout the region to undermine state integrity, including the position of the Polish minority in Lithuania, whose leader reportedly maintains close relations with officials in Moscow and has campaigned for territorial autonomy.
A fourth carving opportunity for the Kremlin is in the Balkans where the goal is to create an Orthodox bloc and shield the region from American influence. Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria are earmarked as the core of this portion of Europe. Greek governments have a long tradition of pro-Moscow sentiments. Bulgaria is perpetually prone to Russian influence through numerous political and economic entanglements. And Serbia values Russia as a counterpoint to EU and US pressure in rejecting the independence of Kosova. Moscow miscalculated by failing to overthrow Montenegro’s government and reinforced the latter’s determination to join NATO. Nonetheless, it continues to target both Macedonia and Montenegro through its broad arsenal of subversion.
Moscow is now fixated on keeping Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosova outside of NATO so it can deepen its political, economic, and informational inroads. The Central European and Balkan wedges will also contribute to isolating Romania, which, much like Poland and the three Baltic countries, is resolutely anti-Kremlin and pro-Washington.
The last portion of the European carcass are the former republics of the Soviet Union that Moscow either intends to absorb into its economic and security structures or to transform into permanently neutral satrapies. These include Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. With Europe preoccupied with its internal divisions and its unsettled relations with the United States, the Kremlin calculates that it can achieve most of its objectives without resorting to any significant military actions.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Contrary to the assertions of American populists, the US and Russia are not part of one “Christian civilization” with common cultural values and congruent national interests. They are incompatible global powers whose relations will remain adversarial and conflictive as long as Russia remains an autocratic empire seeking to dominate its neighbors and undermine America’s alliances.
Every US administration has assumed office with the high hope that Russia can be a partner in resolving regional crises, but that hope soon confronts reality. Instead of performing this pointless diplomatic ritual that invariably ends in disappointment, the White House needs to focus on three key principles that lie at the root of the America-Russia rivalry: contrasting identities, incompatible systems, and antithetical interests.
American identity is a multi-ethnic form of citizenship, in which civic identity transcends all others, whether ethnic, religious, national, or class. It is successful in integrating all nationalities because it is not constructed around a single ethnic category.
In stark contrast, Russian identity is grounded in the predominance of the Russian ethnos, constructed through Tsarist and Soviet imperial conquests, and maintained through colonization, russification, and the subjugation of neighbors. This process breeds resentment among diverse ethnicities, particularly during times of economic distress and political repression. The revival of distinct non-Russian identities ultimately undermines the stability of the state.
While the Communists failed to create a durable non-ethnic Soviet identity, Putin’s regime is also unable to establish a non-ethnic civic identity because this is widely viewed as camouflage for assimilation into the dominant Russian ethnos. The lesson for Washington is that a country that coercively constructs a national identity is not only autocratic but also inherently unstable and a danger to its neighbors, including US allies and partners.
In the political domain, American and Russian systems and the ideologies and policies that sustain them are also incompatible. The US is a genuine federation with significant autonomy and self-determination among all fifty states. In addition, central government power is separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in which each state and its electorate have a voice.
Russia is federal in name only. In practice, it is a centralized state in which local governors of the 85 federal units are appointed and supervised by the Kremlin, including the two occupied territories of Crimea and Sevastopol. In this increasingly obsolete empire dozens of nationalities and regions resent being tethered to Moscow. Given America’s support for the independence of all states that emerged from the Soviet Union, the potential fracture of Russia itself will present serious new challenges for Washington.
The key reason that Russia remains an adversary for the US is its antithetical interests on global and regional levels. While both states have their “spheres of influence” the distinctions are pronounced. American administrations honor the right of each country to choose its alliances, while Russia’s officials seek to impose security arrangements on each neighbor. Countries enter the US sphere or the NATO alliance voluntarily because it helps to protect their security. States enter the Russian sphere as a result of inducement, threat, pressure, or political corruption from Moscow.
Concurrently, while the US promotes cordial relations between its own allies and Russia, Moscow foments division and conflict. Washington supports closer bilateral relations between Poland or other Central European countries and Russia because it believes this generates regional stability and lessens the need for delivering US security guarantees. The Kremlin does not support closer relations between Ukraine or other post-Soviet republics and the US or NATO, calculating that this deprives Moscow of its political leverage and privileged interests and could be the harbinger of a political and military alliance.
Russia also promotes regional conflicts for the US or seeks to capitalize on disputes between Washington and third parties, as this can weaken American influence in Moscow’s neighborhood. For instance, the Kremlin works against any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, as this would marginalize Russia’s position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. It does not seek a permanent resolution of the North Korean dispute, as this would further sideline Russia’s role. It prefers to see the US bogged down indefinitely in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as this serves to distract Washington’s attention from Russia’s aggressive moves along its borders.
US policy toward Russia should not be based on a form of “realism” that resembles neutrality, in which American interests and those of our allies are sacrificed to appease Moscow. It needs to be firmly rooted in reality, in which Russia’s actions that impact negatively on America’s foreign and domestic interests are challenged and neutralized.
If an ally or partner is attacked by Moscow then it is in America’s interest to uphold its defense commitments. If US alliances are subverted by Moscow, then it is Washington’s duty to resist and strengthen those alliances to protect trans-Atlantic security. And if America’s democracy is assaulted by Moscow, then it is the obligation of the White House to implement policies that would diminish the impact of any future offensives.
MOSCOW’S TRUMP MISCALCULATIONS
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Moscow’s involvement in the American presidential elections has misfired and could lead to a much more assertive US policy toward Russia. As congressional probes and law enforcement investigators increasingly expose Kremlin goals and methods, it becomes less likely that the Donald Trump administration will make any major concessions to Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s original plan was to undermine Hillary Clinton’s race for the White House and foster disputes over the election process. When candidate Trump surprisingly won the ballot in November, Moscow believed that the ties it had cultivated with the Republican campaign and Trump’s family business could bring significant benefits.
However, as investigations continue to unfold over Russia’s election interference, it is becoming clear that Putin seriously miscalculated about the resilience of American democracy and the system of checks and balances that prevent dependence on one person in the White House.
The Soviet-era KGB would probably be outraged by the incompetence of Putin’s successor organizations that devised a strategy of collaboration with Trump’s election campaign that is now being exposed. This was evident in the now infamous meeting in June 2016 in New York between Trump campaign managers and Russian intermediaries. It was arranged on the understanding that Moscow possessed negative material about Clinton that they wanted to share with Trump’s representatives.
The normal rule of such “fishing” expeditions designed to entrap a potential collaborator is not to dispatch individuals who can be easily traced back to the source. Instead, it has transpired that the Russian lawyer who met Donald Trump Junior after his father won the Republican nomination for President had represented Russia’s intelligence services for several years. In addition, another person at the secret meeting in New York was a US national of Russian descent involved in money laundering schemes with Putin’s oligarchs.
The apparent amateurishness of the “ensnare Trump” operation was matched by the gullibility of Trump’s campaign leaders. They did not inform the FBI that they had been approached by representatives of an adversarial foreign power. They assumed that the meeting itself could be kept secret indefinitely. And they reportedly continued to maintain contacts with Russian officials despite the political damage that could result.
Whatever the precise deals made between the Kremlin and Trump Tower the entire affair is now rebounding against Moscow. Russia is broadly perceived as trying to undermine America’s democratic system and seeking to install a surrogate in the White House. Because of such perceptions combined with congressional pressure, media exposure, and high levels of public disapproval, Trump cannot be seen as surrendering ground to Russia. In fact, he may need to be tougher than his predecessor Obama.
Contrary to Putin’s calculations after Trump assumed office, not only will existing financial sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not be lifted, but Congress is pressing for even tougher measures. The Republican-led Congress has approved a bill to expand sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs while curtailing Trump’s ability to relax any punishment for the invasion of Ukraine, the subversion of US elections, and Moscow’s global disinformation campaigns.
New sanctions will be targeted at entities involved in cyber-attacks as well as elements of Moscow’s military intelligence, defense, financial, shipping, railways, metallurgy, and energy sectors. Trump is unlikely to veto such legislation because his objections could be overruled by Congress.
Beyond the maintenance and expansion of sanctions, Trump’s national security decisions have not served Moscow’s interests. Indeed, the President’s national security team consists of fervent Atlanticists who favor a more robust NATO presence along Russia’s borders and are committed to strengthening America’s military. Trump himself has boasted that his plans for increasing the military budget are not viewed favorably in the Kremlin.
Russia could also suffer significantly in the struggle over energy supplies to Europe. The Trump administration is involved in a diplomatic offensive against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic region, lobbying to curtail a project that is designed to increase Moscow’s political leverage in Europe. The new congressional legislation would grant Trump the power to impose sanctions on any company participating in the development or operation of energy export pipelines from Russia to Europe.
At the same time, Washington is boosting efforts to deliver shale gas through LNG terminals across Europe. Greater diversity and competition will not only reduce prices, but it can also undercut Russia’s position in Europe’s gas markets. This will result in further revenue shortfalls in the Russian budget and glaringly expose the economic failures of the Putin regime.
Kremlin officials were hoping that a Trump presidency would give a green light to expanding Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe and make it easier to subvert and pressure various European states to fall in line. Instead, they are witnessing the resilience of the American system to foreign manipulation. And things could get even worse for Putin if it transpires that there was outright collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia’s intelligence services. The backlash in Washington against Russia could then reach an even higher level of intensity.
THE POLITICS OF DISINFORMATION
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
In the era of fake news, the most insidious disinformation has specific political and geostrategic objectives. Such strategic information attacks need to be distinguished from other forms of fabricated news in order to understand the objectives and to locate the sources.
In the age of mass information and multi-media proliferation, citizens are swamped with data and opinion. The widespread use of social media contributes to the information chaos, where rumors pose as facts and spread like wildfire. In uncontrolled social networks, rarely are sources checked and even lazy or sensation-seeking journalists can give conspiracy theories credibility by publishing or broadcasting them in the mainstream media.
This phenomenon can be defined as globalized village gossip without particular political objectives. Nonetheless, it can also inflict significant damage, whether against individuals or institutions. Hoax stories can discredit officials and organizations in the eyes of readers and listeners, and even recourse to retraction or trial may prove insufficient to clear someone’s name. It is difficult to wash away the stigma of disinformation.
At a deeper level, fabricated news can become more organized, systematic, and politically motivated. Here, it is useful to distinguish between state-sponsored disinformation and non-official or insurgent disinformation by non-state actors. Such a distinction has implications for goals and means, although there may also be connections between the two sources.
“Guerrilla disinformation” is pursued by an assortment of individuals and groups for a variety of purposes. Politically motivated radicals may seek to provoke domestic conflict to promote their cause or to delegitimize a particular politician or party. Hackers and false news planters may simply seek to sow social chaos through cyber hooliganism. And criminal groups may endeavor to benefit from attacks on specific businesses or organizations. All such assaults tend to have a limited purpose and are not geostrategic.
By contrast, state-sponsored disinformation is invariably designed to undermine governments, to split societies, and to weaken national security. Such offensives are not a new invention. Soviet sources regularly engaged in disinformation wars against the West, but with limited success. For instance, fake news that the CIA manufactured the AIDS virus or that NATO was preparing to attack the USSR primarily fooled those who wanted to be fooled.
The contemporary disinformation offensive, especially the Russian variant, has more numerous goals, transmits a broader diversity of messages, and employs a wider assortment of methods. The overriding objective is similar to Soviet times – to weaken and fracture the West. However, it has several supplementary goals: to confuse and frighten citizens, to delegitimize Western democracies, to corrupt and corrode state institutions, and to strengthen nationalists and populists. Simultaneously, although Moscow no longer claims it is an alternative utopia, it does promote Russia as a strong patriotic state with conservative values that can appeal to sectors of the Western public.
By employing a diverse array of messages, Russian disinformation can question basic facts and inject alternative narratives about a range of issues. For instance, US democracy promotion is depicted as a cover for toppling governments, or the EU is claimed to be spreading homosexuality among new members. Russian sources claim that they are simply pursuing “balance” in disseminating and interpreting information. But “balance” does not always mean objectivity and the truth does not always lie in the middle between two opposing positions. For instance, what is the balanced position between a flat earth and a round earth?
Modern disinformation has a much wider and faster assortment of channels for distribution than during communist times. Fabricated stories can be disseminated through all social media networks, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and potentially reach millions of consumers. As with village gossip, most people do not check the source before further spreading sensational items. There are also electronic methods for increasing the reach of hoax news and even infecting the more credible media with bogus items.
State sponsors may purposively employ or exploit the social media, amateur media outlets, and guerrilla disinformation to generate messages for subverting democratic systems. They can simultaneously use hacking outfits such as Wikileaks to spread stolen or falsified documents.
Ominously, the terminology of fake news has also crept into mainstream Western politics either to discredit rivals or to deflect criticism. President Donald Trump often uses this tactic by attacking the media for allegedly spreading bogus stories about him. Trump is seeking to delegitimize any evidence that his election team had connections with Moscow or that his businesses received funding from Russian banks or oligarchs.
Unfortunately, such high level attacks on the free media and on journalists who diligently check their sources of information have a corrosive impact on American democracy. In the eyes of many citizens few outlets can be trusted if the media is attacked by the President for lying. This also enables saboteurs and foreign powers to inject more forged news into the confusing swirl of disinformation and counter-information. Ultimately, Trump’s charges may backfire, if there is undeniable evidence of his collusion with Moscow during the election campaign. The President himself would then be widely perceived as a primary culprit of disinformation.
RUSSIA’S NEW MACEDONIA OFFENSIVE
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
Moscow has opened a new front in the Balkans with a concerted effort to inflame Macedonia’s political crisis. The goal is not only to diminish prospects for Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU, but even more menacingly to turn the Balkans into a conflict zone that illustrates Western weakness and intensifies Russia’s influence.
When Yugoslavia began its violent breakup during 1991, the main danger to regional stability was a potential conflict over Macedonia that would pull in several neighboring states outside Yugoslavia. Twenty-six years later the prospect of a wider conflict generated from Macedonia is again looming across the region.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov precipitated the most recent domestic crisis when he blocked the formation of a Social Democratic (SDSM) government. Following tight elections in December, SDSM managed to assemble a viable coalition with an Albanian partner – the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI). If Ivanov’s decision is not unblocked by parliament the crisis will deepen and take on ethnic dimensions.
Ivanov objected to the Albanian Platform – an agreement signed between three Albanian parties containing specific conditions for entering the government. Its main elements are recognition of Albanian as a second official state language and more equal distribution of resources to the country’s regions, including western districts of Macedonia where Albanians predominate.
The Albanian DUI decided to enter a coalition with the opposition SDSM for two main reasons: dissatisfaction with the governing VMRO party in implementing Albanian demands and VMRO’s involvement in a major wiretapping scandal and other abuses that further estranged Macedonia from NATO and EU membership. VMRO does not want to lose control of the government as its leaders could face criminal indictments. But without an Albanian partner, VMRO does not have the required majority of seats to form a new administration.
There are two main risks for conflict escalation: political divisions between Slavic Macedonians and ethnic polarization between Macedonians and Albanians. In the most hazardous scenario, Albanian leaders may abandon the planned coalition and turn to other political solutions such as territorial federalization if the political standoff continues indefinitely.
VMRO has tried to distract attention from investigations into its abuse of power by claiming that the Albanian Platform would shatter national unity and destroy the state. It also claims that Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the signing of the Platform in Tirana, is interfering in Macedonia’s internal affairs and pursuing a greater Albanian program. And this is where Moscow enters the stage.
For the Kremlin, Macedonia provides another valuable inroad for widening national rifts in the Balkans and spawning anti-Western sentiments. Its revved up propaganda offensive contains two major messages, which may be contradictory but are designed to appeal to different audiences. For their own citizens and foreign partners such as Serbia and Greece, Russian officials dismiss Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova as American “projects” designed to serve American and NATO interests. All three states are depicted as artificial and temporary constructs and must be blocked from entering both NATO and the EU.
Simultaneously, to appeal to the Macedonian public, Moscow claims that an anti-national coup is being conducted in Skopje under US direction. Even more menacingly, according to Russian disinformation that penetrates the region’s media and social networks, Washington supports carving up Macedonia and Serbia and creating a greater Albania. The Kremlin thereby presents itself as a defender of the Macedonian state in combating Albanian irredentism and alleged Muslim terrorism.
The more desperate VMRO becomes in its exclusion from government, the more it is likely to buy into Kremlin accusations against Albanians. Such an approach could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Albanian parties are excluded from government while the two major Macedonian parties continue to battle, leaving the country adrift from Western institutions and exposed to Russian intrigues.
VMRO has organized anti-SDSM protests in most major cities and formed “patriotic associations” that fulminate against purported Albanian domination of the country and condemn subversive foreign influences. Such movements are ripe for Moscow’s covert manipulation, including through funding and media exposure.
A conflict within Macedonia may rapidly escalate to embroil both Albania and Kosova in protecting their ethnic kindred, revive the Serbian government’s regional anti-Albanian campaign, and potentially draw NATO members Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey into the fray on the side of different protagonists. Any territorial demands by one party will precipitate revisionist demands by others with the potential for outright violence.
To defuse the Macedonian crisis and prevent any destabilizing spillovers, Washington needs to become more active and visible. The Balkan region is fast developing into a test for the Trump administration in wielding both carrots and sticks to defend Western interests and European security.
Strong diplomacy can be combined with a pledge to finally bring Macedonia into NATO regardless under which provisional name. This will necessitate the unblocking of two obstacles to Macedonia’s progress: the obstruction of a new bi-ethnic coalition government that remains committed to state integrity and Greece’s veto of Macedonian membership in NATO. Such moves would dissuade both pan-Albanian and pan-Serbian temptations. And most importantly for the US, it will curtail Russian meddling and provocations in a still volatile peninsula.
RUSSIA CLOSER TO REVOLUTION
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
Exactly one hundred years after the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 Russia may be facing another revolution. The Putin era has lasted for nearly 17 years but no dictatorship is more vulnerable than when it cannot deliver its side of an unofficial social contract. Why should the population remain politically passive if the government can no longer deliver economic wellbeing?
A combination of low oil prices, international financial sanctions, massive official corruption, and government incompetence has devastated the Russian economy. Living standards and incomes have been in decline for four straight years while citizens have no legitimate or effective means to express their frustration in a politically repressive environment.
Putin has stifled, exiled, or murdered the opposition, gagged the media, banned organized expressions of dissent, and saturated the country with false news about economic recovery. Official opinion polls create an illusion that over 80% of the public support Putin, even though most people do not answer pollsters in case of police repercussions.
But despite the climate of fear engendered by Russia’s police state, protests are mounting. Mass street demonstrations took place in almost one hundred Russian cities on 26 April involving tens of thousands of citizens. They were the biggest anti-government rallies since the 2011 demonstrations against fraudulent elections.
At the forefront of mobilizing protestors is the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Alexey Navalny, a Russian oppositionist who has announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential elections. There is rising anger over official corruption, which itself is a euphemism for government failure.
While the 2011 election protests were confined to Moscow and quickly faded, the recent demonstrations have three new features that can prove dangerous for the regime: they are nationwide, they involve an increasing number of young people, and they can spread to the working class.
The wave of protests took place in almost every major city from Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. While Western reports focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg, the fact that tens of thousands of citizens across the country risked arrest and police violence indicates that public anger is overcoming fear. It also shows that new activists are entering the fray and challenging officialdom at both local and central levels.
Russian analysts conclude that Russia now finds itself in a critical situation because the government can longer localize and isolate protests that are springing up all over the country. Indeed, economic decline has proved to be even worse in the regions than in the capital and any public optimism about the future has dissipated.
A second element that must trouble the Kremlin is the surprisingly large number of youth protestors, not only from universities but also from high schools. Some of these youths were born during the Putin era and despite their indoctrination by state education and the mass media many are actively demanding change.
The younger generation of protesters is fed up with rampant nepotism, the lack of officials accountability, the widening gap between rich and poor, the impunity of officials and their families, and shrinking opportunities for employment and advancement. Some have compared them to young and educated protestors during the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Youth mobilization is partly the consequence of the internet where, unlike television, state propaganda can be challenged. For instance, Navalny publishes his numerous investigations into official corruption on the social media as he is barred from traditional media outlets. Despite the susceptibility of social media to hoax news, ultimately it may outcompete the fake news generated by Russia’s official media.
A third element of growing pressure on the authorities is the awakening working class. In the past year dozens of strikes have reportedly taken place against unpaid salaries and falling living standards. A current strike by truck drivers against an onerous road tax has spread to fifty regions of the country, with the number of strikers being especially high in the North Caucasus. Strike organizers are claiming that at least 10,000 truckers will eventually take part in the stoppages, as their livelihoods are at stake. Such strikes can also spread to other sectors of the economy.
No one can be sure of the Kremlin response to the rising tide of protests. Putin may decide to further tighten the screws and increase police suppression, but this may not be enough to dissuade desperate citizens. He could also sacrifice Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who is a particular target of anti-corruption campaigners for his ill-acquired wealth.
However, Putin will not want to be seen as responding under public pressure, as this would indicate weakness, stimulate further public demands, and alienate sectors of the elite who are worried that the Kremlin could also scapegoat them. Putin could also reach for a traditional ploy of Russia’s rulers when faced with domestic unrest – by launching new military adventures abroad in which demonstrators can then be depicted as unpatriotic and “anti-Russian.” There are several targets along Russia’s borders where the Kremlin may decide to strike.
EUROPE’S NEXT CRISIS
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Escalating political instability in Belarus could presage a direct Russian intervention that would prove much more destabilizing for Europe than Moscow’s proxy war in Ukraine. An attack on Belarus would challenge the security and integrity of several nearby states and potentially precipitate a direct Russia-NATO confrontation.
Political conditions in Belarus are fast deteriorating. Public protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenka that began in mid-February are spreading outside the capital Minsk. They were initiated by citizens outraged against the government imposed “vagrants tax” on people employed for less than half a year, but have since mushroomed into demands for systemic political change, even including Lukashenka’s ouster.
Belarus’s relatively weak opposition did not initiate the protests and the mass demonstrations in several cities appear to lack central leadership. Nonetheless, the longer the protests continue the more likely that a more focused and determined leadership will steer them either in a pro-Western or a pro-Russian direction.
Unlike previous protests, Lukashenka has thus far desisted from a hard police crackdown, evidently weary of alienating Western countries. During the past year, Minsk has cultivated closer ties with the EU and US in order to obtain much needed investments. Moscow’s subsidies are drying up because of the deteriorating Russian economy and Belarus’s economy is also sinking. The Eurasian Economic Union, of which Belarus is a member and which was heralded by President Vladimir Putin as a viable counterpart to the EU, is proving an abject failure.
Despite the Union treaty between Russia and Belarus, Lukashenka has resisted Kremlin pressure to establish an air base in western Belarus that would be a more direct threat to NATO. He also moved diplomatically closer to the EU and US lifted visa requirement for Western citizens. The removal of EU sanctions against Belarusian officials has recently been followed by the visit to Minsk of a high level EU delegation.
While the West would welcome a compromise solution between Minsk and the demonstrators as a harbinger of political reforms, Moscow views a soft approach against protestors by Lukashenka as abject weakness. It fears that this could provoke another Ukrainian-style “EuroMaidan” that will remove Belarus from Russia’s orbit. To disorient public opinion, the Moscow media claims that another “color revolution” or “fascist coup“ is being engineered along Russia’s border by Western intelligence services.
Belarus is a key component in the Kremlin’s projection of power in Central Europe and the Baltic region, especially as it borders three NATO states. The Kremlin will not allow the country a free choice to move westward with or without Lukashenka at the helm. Russia’s officials blame Lukashenka’s moves toward the West for the current crisis and their propaganda tools are once again depicting Belarus as a “failing state” similar to Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in February 2014.
One ominous scenario of instability would be for Russian services to overthrow Lukashenka behind a smokescreen of pubic protests and under the pretext of preventing violent revolution, civil war, or NATO intervention. Moscow would then claim that it is simply implementing the “will of the people” by replacing the “last dictator in Europe” – an unfortunate phrase used by the Bush and Obama administrations that could rebound against the West.
Russian services have deeply penetrated Belarus’s military, police, bureaucracy, and intelligence networks and could enthrone a pro-Moscow replacement for Lukashenka. Such a move is likely to be accompanied by “brotherly” military intervention with the Kremlin seeking full control over Belarus’s western border with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. This could set the stage for an even more dangerous regional standoff.
Less than 150 miles separate Belarus from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. With one short military thrust through Lithuanian territory the Kremlin could accomplish two strategic objectives. First, it would directly link the Russian mainland with its military outpost that hosts its Baltic fleet, and second it would cut off the three Baltic states from potential NATO supplies of troops and equipment in the event of a future Russian assault on Estonia or Latvia.
In justifying its Baltic thrust, Moscow could heat up the grievances of Russian and Polish minorities in southern and eastern Lithuania, which have been prime targets of Russian propaganda and whose leaders are courted by the Kremlin. Moscow would then possess two pretexts for intervention in Lithuania designed to connect Russia with Kaliningrad – alleged protection of “Russian speakers” and preventing the isolation of fellow citizens in Kaliningrad.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, Belarus provides both a danger and an opportunity not only to test the West but even more to score a strategic victory. It comes at a time when the EU is gripped by a crisis of identity and America’s inexperienced Trump administration is preoccupied with domestic political battles. Moscow has traditionally exploited moments of weakness and indecision in the West to pursue its imperial goals and the crisis in Belarus can easily trigger such a scenario.
MAKING DEALS WITH MOSCOW
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
The future of economic sanctions against Russia for its ongoing attack on Ukraine has become a litmus test for the foreign policy effectiveness of President Donald Trump. Lifting sanctions without any tangible benefits to US and Allied security would make it more likely that Washington becomes embroiled in a future confrontation with Moscow Putin is bound to interpret such a move as weakness and may miscalculate the US stance in his next foreign adventure.
The new US administration has yet to be tested internationally. Cancelling free trade agreements and talking tough with foreign leaders is the relatively easy part. Responding to armed conflict, including a potential Russian attack on an independent neighboring state, will demonstrate the intentions and capabilities of the White House.
The easing of any component of US sanctions, whether over the attack on Ukraine or in response to Moscow’s interference in America’s elections, would be viewed as a victory in the Kremlin. Moreover, linking sanctions with any potential cooperation in combating ISIS is a self-defeating strategy. It assumes that Moscow’s seeks to combat anti-Western jihadism, whereas in reality the Kremlin fans Islamist terrorism to distract the White House from its own international ambitions.
The condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, underscored that sanctions imposed for the annexation of Crimea will remain in place until Moscow withdraws from the peninsula. Less clear is whether additional sanctions enforced for the proxy war in the Donbas could be eased or whether the White House views these as part of the same package.
In addition, the decision by the US Treasury Department to ease some sanctions applied by the Obama administration in retaliation for Kremlin interference in the US elections could prove counterproductive. By allowing US companies to conduct transactions with the FSB, the spy agency will calculate that it has a freer hand for further subversive operations. Putin may well be tempted to further test the Trump team to see how much advantage he can gain without any consequential US resistance.
If indeed the lifting of economic sanctions is intended to help US business then Washington needs to include strict conditions to protect its long-term interests. Such linkage provides an opportunity for President Trump to stamp his authority and demonstrate his potency in any deal making with Russia. Without clear markers for the Kremlin, the White House will again find itself floundering when Putin decides to escalate his international offensives.
If sanctions are softened the US should demand corresponding concessions by the Kremlin to test Putin’s sincerity in honoring bilateral deals. For instance, removing Russian companies from the sectoral sanctions list, which were added after the attack on Donbas, can be linked with Ukraine regaining full control of its eastern border with Russia. Such commitments must be closely monitored and verified. A number of similar deals could be made in restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and promoting a lasting ceasefire with Russia.
At the same time, in order to underscore America’s firmness, the arms embargo on Ukraine needs to be lifted. Kyiv should be allowed to gain lethal defensive weapons, thus overturning the mistaken Obama approach that weakened Ukraine’s self-defenses and encouraged Russia’s incursions. A key part of any emerging Trump doctrine should guarantee every US ally and partner the right to defend itself from outside aggression, thus lessening the need for future American military involvement.
The targeted financial sanctions imposed on Moscow have contributed to the downturn in the Russian economy and damaged the performance of some major state companies. If sanctions were to be eased the Kremlin-controlled oil and gas industry would find it easier to access foreign financing. Although lifting sanctions will not reverse Russia’s economic deterioration, precipitated by low energy prices, lack of diversification, absence of the rule of law, and pervasive official corruption, they will give Putin a short-term propaganda victory.
To guard against Kremlin attempts to manipulate the new US administration, a bipartisan group of Senators have introduced new legislation that would impose further sanctions on Russia. At a time when Moscow is escalating its offensive in the Donbas, withdrawing sanctions would be interpreted as a green light to further aggression, while an additional embargo would signal that the Trump presidency is serious in punishing warmongers.
The proposed congressional sanctions are directed at Russia’s energy sector and its civil nuclear projects. They also aim to terminate trade in Russia’s sovereign debt and remove US investment in the privatization of state-owned assets. Although passage of this legislation seems unlikely at this point, the fact that Congress may consider such a bill conveys a clear warning to Moscow against further meddling in the affairs of its neighbors or in US politics.
Trump himself should not view the proposed legislation as a challenge to his foreign policy goals but a valuable tool that he can keep in reserve if any deals with Putin are violated. While the new US President portrays himself as an artful deal-maker, he must remember that the Kremlin is notorious as a serial deal-breaker.
MOSCOW’S BIGGEST DECEPTION
Janusz Bugajski, December 2016
The Putin administration thrives in the world of social media and mass disinformation. In this “information war,” lies and deception are credible means to achieve strategic ends. In stark reality, however, Russia is a declining power that disguises its slow collapse with a strategic offensive against its archrival, the West.
Russia’s newly issued national security and military doctrines create the illusion of “the rebirth of a superpower.” According to these documents, Moscow’s policy must focus primarily on the “the consolidation of the position of Russia as one of the influential centers of the contemporary world.”
In reality, Russia’s global level is rapidly decreasing. Through a combination of low fossil fuel prices, failed economic diversification, industrial ossification, infrastructural decay, official corruption, and Western sanctions, state revenues are declining, living standards falling, regional disquiet mounting, and social conflicts intensifying.
The size of Russia’s economy is comparable to that of Italy but contracting, while the US and China continue to grow. Its population is less than Nigeria’s or Bangladesh’s and its GDP per capita ranks 66th in the world. Low oil prices and international sanctions have contributed to crippling Russia’s economy and its Reserve Fund is projected to run out in 2017. The World Bank has warned that the poverty rate is rising sharply and increasing number of Russians face destitution.
Russia’s longer-term prospects look even bleaker. Demographic problems include a shrinking population with high mortality, low fertility, and high emigration of the best educated. Russia’s population has dipped from 148 million after the breakup of the Soviet Union to 140 million today. The UN estimates that the total will fall to around 130 million by 2025. Life expectancy among Russian males stands at about 60 years, or 15 years less than in industrialized states and lower than in many African countries.
Even in the military, an arena where Russia traditionally prides itself, conditions are unsettling. A massive program to modernize the military has brought mixed results. The overhaul has included building new bases, conducting extensive military exercises, and updating equipment. However, because of the revenue squeeze the expansion has stopped and the defense budget is being cut. Corruption is rampant and many troops are demoralized and unpaid. Increased defense spending has also come at the expense of education, health care, and infrastructure.
Two-thirds of the promised military procurement of $700 billion by 2020, including 1,500 new aircraft and 2,300 new tanks, has not materialized. The poor performance of many shipyards and other production facilities amidst several high profile corruption scandals, means that most new equipment for Russian forces has taken years longer than expected if it is delivered at all.
Due to the economic crisis and international financial sanctions, Moscow’s military spending levels simply cannot be sustained. The defense budget will continue to shrink and the modernization program is likely to grind to a halt. Even the lifting of Western sanctions, in retaliation for Russia’s attack on Ukraine, will have little visible impact on state revenues. Over the coming decade, Russia’s military will steadily fall even further behind that of the US and China.
Even as Russia sinks economically and demographically, its ambitions expand. When the Kremlin cannot provide bread to its citizens it offers circuses. Moscow’s response to the country’s decay is to engage in disguise and deflect it outwards. Such camouflage is pursued through a sustained campaign of global disinformation, creating an illusion of limitless military strength with Russia posing as an indispensable power in various crisis points such as the Middle East.
Despite Russia’s decline, President-elect Donald Trump has painted the country as a major power on a level with the US and a potential partner. Similar sentiments were expressed by every US administration since the end of the Cold War when it first assumed office and each President was quickly disillusioned.
In reality, Moscow is seeking to weaken and divide the West and sees Trump as a businessman who will overlook Russia’s aggression in the wider Europe as long as this does not impinge directly on US economic interests. Putin has no interest in helping the West defeat international terrorism, as persistent jihadism weakens Western resolve and distracts Washington’s attention from Moscow’s attacks on its neighbors. The Kremlin will help Trump only as far as it can benefit from the propaganda of cooperation.
It is time to start thinking and planning for the next stage of struggle between the West and Russia rather than simply dealing with yesterday’s conflicts or deluding ourselves about a golden new era of collaboration. Russia is in serious decline and a new time of turmoil is fast approaching.
If Putin breaks any deals struck with the White House, Trump’s disappointment could rapidly turn to resentment and overreaction. To avoid sudden shocks and possible military confrontations, the new US administration would prove more effective by planning to manage Russia’s decline rather than helping to prop up a failing state and an obsolete empire.
RUSSIA AND NATO BUILDUP
Janusz Bugajski, November 2016
Russia is threatening war with the West. In response, NATO is launching the most extensive military build-up since the Cold War along Europe’s eastern flank. President Vladimir Putin intends to keep the West guessing about his true intentions while using the prospect of war to garner public support at home at a time of serious economic decline. But his time may be running out.
In recent weeks, Moscow has adopted a war footing, by intensifying its program of militarization, preparing the public for a major conflict with the US, and ratcheting up its anti-Western propaganda. According to the government media, the West is preparing to attack Russia by encroaching on its historical possessions in Europe’s east.
The rhetoric of all-out war with America is intended to demonstrate that Russia is again a major power equal with the US. The threat of war also distracts pubic attention from the economic recession in which Putin’s approval ratings are dropping and regional unrest is growing inside the Russian Federation.
Four days of nuclear war survival drills were recently conducted across Russia. Shelters have been upgraded and gas masks tested by the public, as the Kremlin updates its civil-defense preparations. An inventory was taken in Moscow of the city’s underground spaces, in order to allow for sheltering the city’s population.
To demonstrate its nuclear capabilities and stir anxiety in the West, the Kremlin has unveiled a new “Satan 2” nuclear missile and suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the US. It has also emplaced nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic coast that can hit targets across Poland and the three Baltic states.
On the conventional front, the government is investing heavily in military infrastructure and stages regular offensive exercises along NATO’s borders despite Russia’s contracting budget. The Kremlin is enhancing its military deployments in several adjacent regions, including the Baltic and Black Seas, along Ukraine’s border, and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow is reinforcing its Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad and its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol with warships armed with long-range cruise missiles.
US presidential candidate Donald Trump fell into the Kremlin trap by claiming that a Hillary Clinton victory would precipitate World War III, in imitation of warnings by Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Although Trump was simply electioneering, such statements feed into the paranoia deliberately generated by the Kremlin in order to undermine support for NATO deterrents.
In response to Russia’s build-up and persistent military threats, NATO has decided to fulfill pledges made at the July summit in Warsaw to more effectively deter Moscow’s aggression. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the Alliance was increasing deployments of troops to countries most exposed to Russian offensives.
Several NATO states have agreed to contribute to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics states and Central Europe in reaction to what military intelligence calculates are over 330,000 Russian troops stationed along NATO’s eastern borders. The Alliance will dispatch four multinational battalions to several countries adjacent to Russia.
All the new forces consist of multinational troops led by a battalion headquarters from a single state. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that a “battle-ready battalion task force” of 900 soldiers would be sent to eastern Poland: the largest force dispatched to the region. In addition, a German-led battalion will reinforce Lithuania, a Canadian-led battalion is reporting in Latvia, and a British-led battalion is deploying in Estonia. Most of the forces are due to arrive at their destinations during 2017.
Washington has pledged $3.4 billion to upgrade the defense of Europe in 2017 and a portion of this amount is earmarked for military equipment to the most vulnerable NATO countries. The US has pledged to supply tanks and artillery to Poland. London is sending Typhoon fighter aircraft to Romania to patrol around the Black Sea, partly in support of Turkey. The British government has asserted that although the UK is leaving the EU, it is determined to intensify its support of NATO’s eastern and southern flanks.
The goal of the multinational force is to deter a conventional Russian assault by acting as a tripwire that, if breached, would trigger the deployment of a 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force. However, this force has yet to be established and there are fears that Western Europe’s reduced military budgets will make it difficult to assemble and deploy such a sizeable army. However, aggressive actions by Moscow may actually speed up NATO mobilization.
The clock is also ticking on Moscow. The longer it simply threatens without striking the more NATO is likely to rearm and prepare. Although Russian officials have announced that defense spending will be boosted over the next three years, in reality the country cannot afford a new arms race. If it starts one with the West then the Russian Federation may suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, which could not keep up with America’s Star Wars program.
PUTIN’S WAR OPPORTUNITY
Janusz Bugajski, August 2016
Russia usually strikes against its neighbors when the world is distracted. August is historically the optimum month for Moscow’s military aggression and this year a confluence of factors may precipitate a renewed war over Ukraine. Moreover, President Vladimir Putin will be banking on a confused, divided, and ultimately weak Western response.
Similarly to a criminal investigation, observers need to assess four factors that could drive a new Russian assault: record, motive, opportunity, and objective. Historically, Moscow has taken numerous aggressive initiatives in August: the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was staged in 1968, and in August 2008, Russia invaded and partitioned Georgia in the middle of the Beijing Olympics.
With regard to motives, Putin has grown increasingly frustrated with the Ukrainian government, which has refused to make concessions in the Minsk “peace process.” Moscow has pushed Kyiv to recognize the proxy insurgents in the eastern region of Donbas as a legitimate government, but without success. Instead, Ukraine has steadily built up a more formidable fighting force and initiated a series of reforms to move the country closer to the West. A direct military strike may therefore be intended to take pressure off Russia’s proxies and to further destabilize Ukraine.
Putin’s war motives are also domestic. During the past two years, Russia’s economy has sunk into recession and state revenues have drastically declined. Traditionally, Moscow hits out at neighbors to remove attention from deteriorating internal conditions: a small local war enables the Kremlin to mobilize the disoriented public against an alleged external enemy.
The month of August also provides a clearer window of military opportunity for Russia simply because many Western decision-makers are either on holiday or involved in upcoming elections. The Barack Obama administration is on its last legs and the heated US presidential election campaign has focused attention on pressing domestic problems and the threat of international terrorism.
There are some obvious parallels with the short August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. President George W. Bush was a lame duck in the midst of the presidential elections. Moscow was also engaged a large-scale military exercise styled as Caucasus 2008 in the Northern Caucasus republics and blamed Georgia for an attack on one of its separatist regions – in South Ossetia.
During the past week, Moscow has blamed Ukraine for alleged “terrorist attacks” in the annexed Crimean peninsula. It claimed that two members of its security forces were killed, while the FSB (the former KGB) had averted terrorist attacks organized by Ukraine’s special forces against critical infrastructure in Crimea. According to Russia’s state-controlled media, several Ukrainian and Russian citizens were arrested carrying homemade bombs purportedly aimed at assassinating Russia’s Crimean leaders. This is reminiscent of the Georgian scenario as a staged pretext for intervention.
Moscow also accuses Kyiv of orchestrating an assassination attempt on the puppet leader of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky. The insurgent commander was seriously injured in a bomb attack. Contradicting Kremlin accusations, Ukrainian intelligence blamed internal power struggles in Luhansk where economic conditions are rapidly deteriorating.
Simultaneously, Russia is engaged in a military buildup and has initiated large-scale exercises. There are reports about the movement of hundreds of tanks and heavy artillery in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern borders. These are part of a large Russian military exercise named Caucasus 2016. In response, President Petro Poroshenko has placed Ukraine’s military on high alert. Putin responded that “Ukraine is choosing terror” and was intent on provoking conflict with Moscow.
In terms of objectives, Moscow may be prepared to seize the strategically significant land bridge from the port of Mariupol to Crimea after failing to build an actual bridge over the Kerch Strait with mainland Russia because of financial costs and technical difficulties. This could entail a sizeable and intense military operation, as Ukraine has emplaced its elite troops in this sensitive region.
Some observers calculate that Moscow is unlikely to launch a major war but instead intends to use the threat of such a conflict to force Kyiv into agreeing to a Bosnian-type solution. If the Donetsk-Luhansk separatist regions are given equal federal status with the rest of Ukraine this will effectively block the country’s development and its progress in qualifying for membership of international institutions. In effect, a pro-Kremlin enclave would obstruct a pro-western majority from developing into a fully European state.
There is an additional interpretation of Putin’s threats against Ukraine. The specter of another impending war could help ensure a more sizeable victory for Putin’s United Russia party in parliamentary elections that have been moved forward to September 18. By focusing on foreign threats and the dangers of war, Putin and his party will be seen as the defenders of an endangered Russia regardless of the poor state of the economy. And behind the “Ukrainian terrorists” lurks the inevitable hand of the CIA, thus fueling anti-Americanism among Russia’s gullible electorate.
STRIPPING RUSSIA OF 2018 WORLD CUP
Janusz Bugajski, May 2016
On the eve of the Euro championships, international football bodies need to send a strong message to future aspirants for hosting World Cups and other major sporting competitions. Corruption, doping, and racism should not be tolerated and as an example Russia should be stripped of the 2018 World Cup.
Moscow is implicated in the worst corruption scandal in sports history – the extensive bribe taking uncovered within FIFA, football’s world body, particularly in awarding World Cup competitions. President Vladimir Putin has accused the US of being behind attempts to oust Russia from the World Cup, because FBI investigations finally unearthed what many people had suspected for years about the criminal nature of the FIFA management.
As with the 2014 Winter Olympics, the choice of Russia as host of the 2018 World Cup has been challenged. Although both Russia (2018) and Qatar (2012) were cleared by FIFA’s internal investigation of bribing officials in the bidding process, this was widely dismissed as whitewashing. According to the Swiss attorney general, Michael Lauber, who leads the criminal inquiry into the 2018 and 2022 awards, Russia and Qatar could still be stripped of the next two World Cups.
High-level corruption has been unearthed in the bidding process, which formed the basis for Lauber’s inquiry, in which millions of dollars was paid into the bank accounts of FIFA officials to buy the World Cup. In a revealing interview with the Russian media, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter confessed that the World Cup host nation selections for 2018 and 2022 were decided before the official voting process took place in December 2010.
The English Football Association, which competed against Russia to host the 2018 tournament, was outraged by incompetent internal FIFA investigations. Former FA Chairman David Bernstein called on all UEFA countries to boycott the 2018 tournament. Reinhard Raubell, the President of the German Football League, even called on UEFA to secede from FIFA unless the corruption investigations were effective.
Russia is also implicated in an expanding doping scandal involving dozens of athletes and Olympic medal winners. Some Western athletes believe that Russian athletes should be banned from the Olympics in Brazil because of their government’s close involvement in the scandal.
Soviet and Russian athletes regularly used performance enhancing drugs for several decades. Initial investigations led to the suspension on the All-Russia Athletics Federation from international competitions. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations is expected to lift the ban before the summer Olympics.
Pressure on Olympic governing bodies to bar Russia from the games intensified after it was revealed that state officials obstructed the work of the UK Anti-Doping Agency’s mission in Russia. Many of the doping tests could not be carried out due to the alleged unavailability of athletes. Of those that were successfully completed, over 20% of the total tested positive.
The Anti-Doping Agency revealed that when doping control officers were in the midst of the testing, members of the FSB, Russia’s security service, showed up and threatened them with expulsion from the country. The former head of Russian Anti-Doping Grigory Rodchenkov admitted supplying drugs to dozens of medal-winning athletes and swapping dirty samples for clean ones during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Some believe that Russian footballers also participate in doping to enhance their performance.
In addition to bribery and doping, Moscow has failed to tackle the prevalence of racism in Russian football. Rafał Pankowski, head of UEFA’s Monitoring Centre, accused the Russian Football Union of downplaying racist chants in numerous stadiums. After being racially abused by fans of the Russian club CSKA Moscow, Ivorian footballer Yaya Toure stated that black players might boycott the 2018 World Cup unless Russia tackles racism in football.
In addition to state-organized doping of athletes and the racism of many Russian soccer fans, there is another reason for stripping Russia of the right to host the 2018 World Cup. Kremlin policy is forcing several regions to cut spending on infrastructure and health care in order to finance new stadiums for the World Cup.
In Nizhny Novgorod, the local government has been forced to cut back spending not only on kindergartens, schools, roads, and bridges but also to delay plans to build a cancer treatment center — even though cancer is the number one killer in the region. Despite mounting economic problems, Moscow is spending at least ten billion US dollars on the World Cup. Moreover, the Kremlin is forcing various regions where the competition is scheduled to be held to bear most of the cost, making them choose between public health and football.
For President Putin, Olympics and World Cups are prestige projects that raise Russia’s stature. They also help pacify the public in an increasingly repressive state facing prolonged economic decline. Although politics cannot be fully separated from international sport, a strong warning can be delivered to uphold the core principles of sportsmanship. Cheating through bribery and doping must not be tolerated and its practitioners should forfeit the right to host international competitions.
BALTIC SEA BOILING
Janusz Bugajski, May 2016
In recent weeks, tensions between the US and Russia have escalated in the Baltic Sea. On at least two occasions, Russian warplanes have flown perilously close to an American warship, igniting protests and warnings from US commanders. Moscow may be gearing up for an escalation of military action in the Baltic to test NATO resolve.
The Baltic Sea occupies a pivotal position in Moscow’s plans to consolidate the western flank of its expansionist Eurasian project. It provides a vital trade route to Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, hosts the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline to Germany, and is the location of the Baltic fleet headquartered in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. But above all, in the event that Moscow decides to attack Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania it will seek full military maneuverability in the Baltic and to restrict NATO’s response.
Over the past two decades the Baltic Sea has become a largely NATO lake, with six member states now having coastlines: the traditional members, Denmark and Germany, and new members Poland and the three Baltic countries. And since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the remaining two neutral states, Sweden and Finland, are moving closer to NATO to better protect their security in an increasingly unpredictable region.
In flexing its military muscles through large-scale maneuvers, the construction of new bases, and frequent violations of the air space and coastal waters of littoral states, Moscow seeks two objectives. First, the military buildup is supposed to demonstrate that Russia is again a great power and is testing NATO’s political and military responses. And second, in the case of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, military pressures are part of a broader offensive to weaken their governments, stir social and ethnic conflicts, and demonstrate that NATO will be unable to defend them in the event of outright war.
At the same time, Russia’s propaganda offensive claims that Western forces are acting aggressively throughout the Baltic region and threatening Kaliningrad. In reality, the Alliance has been criticized for not providing sufficient military deterrence to countries that fear Moscow’s subversion or outright attack. The three Baltic states have requested a permanent NATO military presence, consisting of a battalion of ground forces.
In a climate of escalating conflict, the Kremlin wants to keep Sweden and Finland as neutrals and preclude them from assisting any NATO operations to defend Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. A variety of pressures have been applied, including military threats, violations of territorial waters, diplomatic offensives, propaganda attacks, and disinformation campaigns. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned of a direct military response if they join NATO.
However, Kremlin actions may have the reverse effect in both Sweden and Finland, as public and political opinion is shifting. In its Policy Position statement, Finland’s center-right coalition has included the option of applying for NATO membership. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s administration has also drafted a new foreign and security policy calculating the monetary costs and implications of Finland’s NATO accession.
Disarmed neutrality is no longer seen as feasible even in Sweden, which has no experience of defensive war in the modern era. The numbers supporting NATO accession is growing and includes over a third of the population, while opposition to NATO entry is diminishing. Regardless of attitudes toward NATO accession, all major parties support raising defense spending.
Over the past twenty years, Stockholm has dramatically scaled back its defensive capabilities. It has finally decided to raise its military expenditures, although its program of rearmament will not happen overnight and the country remains vulnerable to further Russian provocations. These include the potential capture of Sweden’s island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic to deny NATO a valuable platform for anti-aircraft defense and to disrupt supply routes.
Although many in Sweden believe that NATO would defend their territory, no one can be certain whether it would risk a war with Russia over a non-NATO member. Even the NATO Host Nation Status obtained by Sweden and Finland at the Wales Summit in September 2014, which allows for the deployment of NATO rapid reaction forces on their territory, does not guarantee their defense if attacked by a third party.
In the case of Finland, there is more immediate Russian concern that Finns would come to the aid of nearby Estonia. For instance, it could offer NATO its land, air, and sea facilities to defend an Alliance member, and supply weapons and other equipment to Tallinn. Unlike Sweden, Finland has maintained a respectable defense sector with a sizable conscript based army. Helsinki also has direct experience of Russia’s aggression, following two attempts by Moscow to occupy the country during and after World War Two.
Finland and Sweden are expanding their military cooperation and strengthening security ties with NATO members Norway and Denmark. The five Nordic capitals have signed a joint defense pact designed to boost defense sector cooperation, intelligence sharing, and joint military exercises. The initiative was attacked by Moscow as a “confrontational approach” to regional security. Russia’s new maneuvers in the Baltic indicate that the danger of armed conflict continues to escalate.
RUSSIA’S TERRORIST COALITIONS
Janusz Bugajski, November 2015
Russia is not a reliable a partner for the West against international terrorism. On the contrary, Moscow encourages violent jihadism as a means for undermining the West and expanding its influences.
Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane demonstrated that Moscow’s air strikes are not directed against the Islamic State (IS) but are intended to annihilate the moderate opposition forces supported by the West. Putin’s primary objective has been to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to guarantee Russia’s ongoing military and intelligence presence in the region.
Following the Paris terrorist attacks, proposals have been voiced in some Western capitals for a “grand bargain” with Russia. In return for allowing Moscow to assert its ambitions throughout the former Soviet Union, the Kremlin would provide support in combating the IS. In practice, such a plan would surrender Ukraine, Georgia, and other states to Kremlin control without any tangible benefits for the West.
In reality, Russia itself acts as a terrorist state for two reasons: the regime has engaged in terrorist attacks against its own population and it has played a key role in developing terrorist networks outside its borders.
The Putinists have engaged in domestic terrorism to manipulate the public. According to Western specialists, the most notorious outrage occurred in 1999 shortly after Putin was appointed President. The FSB, formerly the KGB, reportedly bombed several housing complexes inside Russia, killing over 300 citizens, while blaming it on “Chechen terrorists” in order to justify a new war against Chechnya’s independence.
Moscow has also engaged in assassinations of critics and defectors. In the most publicized case, Aleksander Litvinenko, a fugitive officer of the FSB, was murdered by radionuclide polonium-210 in London in 2006. In July 2006, Russia introduced legislation enabling “Russian special units to kill extremists outside Russia.” Moscow’s definition of extremism includes all critics of the Putin regime.
According to former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhensky, Russia persistently employs terrorism both internally and abroad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, was an FSB agent trained in Russia in the 1990s before joining Osama bin Laden. Mohamed Atta, the terrorist who piloted a hijacked plane into New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11, had links with Iraq’s intelligence officers who were clients of Russia’s intelligence services.
In fact, connections between the Kremlin and international terrorism extend back for decades. The KGB helped to develop modern terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. It provided weapons to several terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, first devised aircraft hijackings during the 1960s, and promoted the concept of suicide bombings against both military and civilian targets.
The FSB continues the tradition of sponsoring terrorism. During its proxy attack on Ukraine, Moscow supplied the missile system to separatists who shot down a Malaysian Airline plane and killed nearly 300 civilians. The Western world is reluctant to officially declare the self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk inside Ukraine as terrorist organizations despite their persistent attacks on civilians. This is a political decision in order to protect Russia from automatic recognition as a terrorism sponsor.
In Syria, the largest number of IS militants are being recruited inside Russia, especially as the FSB has encouraged local Islamists to travel to Syria and Iraq on the assumption that this would reduce insurgencies in the North Caucasus and increase pressure on the West. Nonetheless, this policy is likely to haunt Moscow when the militants return to Russia with more experience, weaponry, and networks.
It is unclear how much influence the Kremlin has with ISIS itself, but it appears to have infiltrated its agents into the upper reaches of the organization. There is even speculation that the destruction of the Russian passenger aircraft over the Sinai may have been arranged by FSB operatives to gain public support for military action in Syria. After all, Russia’s security services have never been averse to murdering Russian citizens for political gain.
Putin may not stand behind the Paris bombings but it is clearly to his advantage to witness large-scale terrorist attacks on Western targets so that Russia appears to be a reliable partner in the international anti-terrorist coalition and gains benefits in its neighborhood to construct a new anti-Western bloc.
Western countries may form a tactical alliance with Russia against IS, but such agreements have limited value because Putin’s main objective in the Middle East is to keep Assad in power as Moscow’s most reliable ally. An alternative goal if Assad faced capitulation would be to spread chaos and conflict and boost the price of oil, whose dramatic decline is dragging down the Russian economy.
It is time not only to conduct a thorough investigation of Moscow’s terrorist connections and activities, but also to take steps to define the Putinist regime both as a sponsor and perpetrator of domestic and international terrorism. This will deepen the ostracism and isolation of a regime that relies on deception and mass murder to achieve its goals regardless of its current ideology.
Janusz Bugajski, November 2015
Western observers criticized Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections on 1 November for falling short of democratic standards. A crackdown on journalists and human rights activists and a boycott of the elections by several opposition parties indicates that the country is faltering in the democratization process. However, logic indicates that the most effective way to positively influence the country’s development is not by isolating the government and enabling even more intrusive Russian influence, but by intensifying cooperation where common ground can be found, particularly in the security arena.
In the struggle against Russia’s expansionism, Europe and the US need allies and partners that are strategically located and possess the energy resources to undercut Moscow’s monopolistic ambitions. On both counts, Azerbaijan is the most significant player in the Caucasus and has demonstrated its Western direction by assisting Washington in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against international terrorism.
The country has now reached a crossroads in its evolution. As President Vladimir Putin expands his Eurasian offensive, Baku will either move closer to the West and strengthen Europe’s south eastern flank or it will be sucked into the Russian orbit and contribute to severing Western connections with the broader Caspian Basin.
Baku’s growing role in energy and transportation networks between Central Asia and Europe shows that Azerbaijan has become a significant player on the security front by contributing to diversifying Europe’s energy supplies and lessening dependence on Russia. The Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) is planned as a network of pipelines that will connect gas fields in Azerbaijan with southern Italy via Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania. It will consist of three sections: the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), the Trans-Anatolia Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The SCP is already online and pipes Azerbaijani gas from the Caspian coast to the Georgian-Turkish border; TAP will pump gas directly into Italy; and TANAP will link the SCP with TAP. TANAP is expected to be concluded by 2019 and TAP by 2020. The further development of the SGC could involve a broad energy infrastructure linking Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, to the exclusion of Russia.
However, Putin’s offensives to curtail Western influence in Russia’s neighborhood may obstruct the construction of energy pipelines between the Caspian Basin and Europe or place these under Moscow’s control. This would handicap EU attempts to pursue energy diversity and curtail Western connections with Central Asia. The Kremlin may offer Baku specific economic benefits if it joins the Eurasian Economic Union.
Moscow maintains pressure throughout the South Caucasus to undercut the region’s Western connections. The governments in Azerbaijan and Georgia were dismayed by the weak Western response to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory and what this could portend for their own integrity. One underlying reason why Baku has suppressed independent activists is a growing fear of destabilization that could be manipulated by Russia to replace the current leadership with a more Moscow-friendly and anti-Western regime. Indeed, the Kremlin has promoted its own version of a “colored revolution” in Moldova and may apply a similar scenario in Azerbaijan.
Moscow could also reanimate an armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, currently controlled by Armenian forces. It can also sever Georgia by forcibly creating a military corridor between Russia and Armenia. Such measures would revive an assortment of ethnic disputes inside both Azerbaijan and Georgia and push both governments into the Russian orbit for protection.
Moscow manipulates the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to its advantage by blackmailing both protagonists. It either claims to support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity to keep Armenia in line or threatens to recognize Karabakh’s separation to increase its pressure on Azerbaijan. The Kremlin may even seek to emplace its peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh to create a permanent rift between the two Caucasian states and increase the Russian troop presence in the region.
Closer US diplomatic ties with Azerbaijan are vital both to deter growing Muscovite influences and to prevent the outbreak of a renewed war. Baku’s frustration with international players in failing to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff for over twenty years or reclaiming seven other districts seized by Armenia could even trigger a regional conflagration and pull Turkey, a NATO member, into the fray.
Viewing Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, or other post-Soviet states simply through the prism of democratic stages is a short sighted and self-defeating policy. If such an approach were consistently applied, the West would have little basis for cooperation with several key regional powers to help deter or defuse conflicts, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, China, or even Iran in the future.
By pushing small but strategically positioned countries such as Azerbaijan into Moscow’s arms because of their institutional shortcomings, Washington will not only lose a regional partner but also preclude any future democratic developments. In effect, it would be offering Putinism as a political model for states that will find it difficult to escape a tight Kremlin embrace without more intensive Western engagement.
Azerbaijan could either develop into a pro-Western outpost in the Caucasus and Caspian Basin or another Moscow-dominated backwater where Western influence shrinks, the Russian-Iranian alliance increasingly dominates, and Turkey becomes exposed and isolated. The onus is on Washington to pursue a strategy that serves Western interests and does not surrender more ground to Putin’s Russia.
Janusz Bugajski, November 2015
Warsaw’s perennial rivalry with Moscow periodically provokes a more assertive Polish foreign policy. The victory of the rightist Law and Justice (PiS) party in parliamentary elections on October 25, 2015 may inject a stronger nationalist element in dealing with a regime in the Kremlin that is intent on reasserting Russia’s regional power by undermining the security of its many neighbors.
The strategic rivalry between Poland and Russia revolves around two core questions: Poland’s international alliances and the position of intermediate countries that have been a part of either Russia or Poland in various historic periods.
Poland has no imperial ambitions. Instead, it views NATO and EU membership and a strategic partnership with the US as cornerstones for the defense of its independence. In order to deepen this protective cover, each Polish government has endeavored to build a strategic buffer along its eastern borders by helping its immediate neighbors move closer toward the EU and NATO, or at the very least to curtail Moscow’s dominant position on these territories.
The Putin Kremlin has tried to restrict the impact of Poland’s NATO membership by periodically threatening the country with military attack and challenging NATO’s defense guarantees. It has also sought to undermine Poland’s influence among countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and which Moscow seeks to assimilate in a new Russo-centered dominion, especially Ukraine and Belarus.
In the wake of a popular revolution in February 2014, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean peninsula, and manufactured a separatist conflict in the Donbas region. Moscow was intent on destabilizing Ukraine to prevent its Western integration. In reaction, Poland intensified its role as the primary campaigner within the EU and NATO for Ukraine’s national interests and territorial integrity. Poland faced the destabilizing prospect of the collapse of the Ukrainian state. Even though Berlin and Paris subsequently sidelined Warsaw in negotiations with Russia over the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, Warsaw continued to play a supportive role for Kyiv in international institutions.
The PiS victory has potential positives and negatives for Warsaw’s foreign policy and international stature in dealing with Moscow. On the positive side, the new administration can pursue a more activist role in support of Ukraine and other states threatened by Russia’s subversion. In the case of Kyiv, this can include more visible diplomatic activity, increased funding and involvement in strengthening Ukraine’s institutions, and closer military and security cooperation.
In the case of Minsk, Poland needs to focus on supporting Belarusian sovereignty and in pulling its neighbor closer to the EU. In the case of Vilnius, Warsaw should condemn and help replace the pro-Kremlin leadership of the major Polish minority organization in Lithuania and deny Moscow a tool for subverting Lithuania’s independence.
On the negative side, however, a more forceful Polish policy toward Russia that is not coordinated with the larger EU states could prove beneficial for the Kremlin in its attempts to preclude a common Union strategy toward its “eastern partners.” Moreover, a more ultra-conservative Euroskeptic stance by the PiS government could contribute to isolating Poland and undermining its international credibility.
An upsurge of nationalist passions in Warsaw would likely create rifts with Germany, as the latter painstakingly avoids being drawn into open conflicts with Russia. PIS could also contribute to Kremlin attempts to expand fissures in Central Europe if it more vehemently campaigns for the collective rights of Polish minorities in Lithuania, Ukraine, or Belarus. Warsaw would then be imitating the Viktor Orban government in Budapest, which assisted Russia’s imperial intervention in Ukraine by focusing on the aspirations of the small Magyar minority instead of defending its neighbor’s integrity.
The PiS government faces an important strategic choice, whether to promote regional solidarity and common defense against an expansionist Russia or allow Moscow to divide and dominate the neighborhood.
Janusz Bugajski, September 2015
Obama is the first US President to cross the Arctic Circle. His recent three-day trip to Alaska was intended to highlight the strategic importance of the vast Arctic region, or High North, and the danger of future wars over its resources and shipping routes.
Three issues revolve around the Arctic and will preoccupy all northern hemisphere governments over the coming decade: climate change, resource extraction, and shipping passages. Each could precipitate competition and conflict between the four Western Arctic states (US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway) and Russia.
Urgent action is needed to stymie potentially destructive climate change. Scientific reports indicate that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe and the melting of polar ice is accelerating. Obama’s trip was not only designed to alert the US public to the dangers but also to raise his credibility before the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of November.
The goal of the conference is to obtain a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, whereby world leaders will commit themselves to limiting global warming by two degrees Celsius, measured as a change in temperature since the industrial revolution. This is considered to be the threshold for dangerous and potentially unmanageable climate change that would precipitate a host of calamities from rising sea levels to floods and droughts in different parts of the globe.
Scientists contend that the two degree target will not be met if Arctic oil reserves are exploited, although both the US and Russia seem determined to drill. While Moscow may have the most to gain economically from the Arctic, it will also suffer the greatest damage from climate change, including rising sea levels, permafrost thaw, coastal erosion, and ocean acidification.
The climate debate involves a clash between economics and ecology, and ultimately between short-term benefits and long-term perils. While supporting limitations on greenhouse emissions, Obama is simultaneously favoring new oil and gas extraction in the Arctic to benefit American consumers. Environmental groups are outraged by the administration for expanding drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast. Officials counter that the transition to cleaner, renewable fuels is a long-term process and economic factors cannot be ignored.
The U.S. Geological Survey asserts that the Arctic contains an estimated 13 percent of the Earth’s oil and 30 percent of its natural gas. The search for these resources and for new trade routes is intensifying disputes over the division of Arctic territory.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows each country to submit a claim that their continental shelf extends north and have rights well beyond their borders. In 2007, Moscow planted a titanium flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean and has submitted a formal petition to the UN claiming 463,000 square miles of the Ocean shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from Russia’s shore. The other Arctic states oppose this claim and have submitted their own territorial applications.
As the High North has grown in importance for resource extraction and shipping, Russia has declared the region as its largest sphere of economic investment. It is vying for control of the Arctic’s fossil fuels and rare metals with other polar nations, thus making the region a potential flashpoint.
Moscow is constructing new military bases in the Arctic and intends to restore the region’s Soviet defense infrastructure. Russia’s Federal Agency for Special Construction is installing air defense bases and combat aviation guidance posts along the Arctic Ocean coastline. The stage is set for confrontation, as the West does not recognize a large portion of the Arctic shelf as Russian, while Moscow asserts that NATO seeks to advance its interests with military force.
The Kremlin is developing a unified command structure to coordinate military operations in the Arctic and established a new government entity to execute Russia’s policy in the region. However, during 2014 and 2015, further exploration in the Arctic became problematic for Moscow because US and EU sanctions curbed the sale of equipment for oil and gas drilling. As a result, Moscow has threatened to scale down its cooperation with the eight-member Arctic Council, claiming that the Nordic countries were acting provocatively toward Russia.
The US is a latecomer in the struggle for the Arctic. While Russia has 27 ocean-going icebreakers some of which are nuclear-powered, Washington has no equivalent vessels capable of operating in the region. During his trip to Alaska, Obama declared that the US needs new icebreakers. Although US Navy fast-attack and ballistic missile submarines can operate under the ice, commercial ships can only maneuver in one to two feet of ice; for anything more than three feet they need an icebreaker. Currently, the Coast Guard has two icebreakers, but only one is in service.
Resource access and transportation routes will be the two major arenas of conflict with Russia, especially if Moscow claims certain shipping lanes as its exclusive domain. New routes between Europe and Asia are being opened up. For instance, the Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects estimates that a single trip from Norway to Japan across the Arctic would save ten days and $1 million in comparison to using the Suez Canal.
Russia may seek to dominate the new trade routes and even impose tariffs to profit from the shipping lanes. It views itself as the sole Arctic superpower and given the cold climate between Putin and the West, it may seek to demonstrate its strength by denying access and resources to other Arctic nations. This could indeed precipitate an Arctic war.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2015
Vladimir Putin’s administration has declared a domestic war against the West. In an imitation of the mass campaigns engineered by Stalin against alleged “enemies of the people,” the Kremlin is parading Western scapegoats to rally the public as the economic crisis deepens in the country.
The Russian economy is sinking into a prolonged and painful recession. With oil prices under $45 a barrel state revenues are rapidly shrinking. To balance its budget, Moscow needs oil prices at $80 a barrel. Moreover, Western financial sanctions against Kremlin-connected companies preclude new investments, while capital flight out of Russia will exceed $130 billion by the end of the year. With state coffers rapidly depleting, Putin has precious little to offer his public except jingoism and paranoia about the West.
State propaganda depicts Russia as a victim of Western subterfuge. The country is allegedly surrounded by enemies and needs to act aggressively to combat them. Victimization provides justification for the maintenance of a strong state and an authoritarian leadership that will allegedly restore Russia’s military and global power.
To save Mother Russia, Western values and products must be prevented from entering the country and destroyed when they subvert its borders. US and EU-funded NGOs are now defined as “foreign agents” conducting “irregular warfare” to destabilize Russia through a “colored revolution.” Washington is purportedly planning to eliminate the current government and divide Russian territory. For the Kremlin, Western democracy-promotion is equivalent to Russophobia and must be resolutely combated.
Western goods and services are equally threatening to Russia’s stability and the populace is exhorted to avoid them. Putin imposed economic sanctions on EU food products in the summer of 2014 and recently extended them for another year while tightening the borders against illicit imports. He wrongly calculated that farmers in the West would lobby governments to lift sanctions against Moscow, but any backtracking now would look like a political surrender.
While millions of Russians sink into poverty and many are undernourished, the government has burned hundreds of tons of EU food that evaded border controls. The bonfires were widely televised to demonstrate the power of the state. Officials claim that by destroying the contraband Russia’s agricultural production will boom. The forbidden goods are presented as dangerous products designed to poison the Russian people.
Cossack vigilantes have been mobilized in some cities to enforce the embargo by raiding stores and exposing any sanctions busters. Meanwhile, government regulators have earmarked additional products for destruction, including imported clothes. Foreign-made underwear and linen is already being removed from store shelves. Although the stated intention is to enhance the country’s textile industry, for ordinary Russians it will simply mean paying more or wearing less.
Other manifestations of Western influence have also been targeted. In one example of how religious Orthodoxy is becoming increasingly influential, officials in the central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk have banned yoga as an “evil cult.” Yoga classes are depicted as anti-Christian rituals with an “occult character” that could spread throughout the country and infect ordinary believers. In addition, various proselytizing denominations have been prohibited, including Mormon’s and Jehova’s Witnesses.
Information is an even bigger source of danger for the Kremlin and attempts are being made to censor the internet, as in China. In recent weeks, Wikipeda was forced to change some of its contents after the authorities threatened to block access to the entire Russian-language portal. This opens the door to threats against numerous websites to either censor information that the Kremlin disapproves or face outright prohibition.
Legislation will go into force in September to assert Russia’s “digital sovereignty” just as it has asserted its “national sovereignty” from attempted US dominance. It specifies various punitive measures that the state can take against web sites and providers. Some journalists are reporting that officials have begun opening criminal cases against those who repost or even “like” anti-Kremlin articles on the social media.
In another indication of escalating paranoia, some parliamentarians are calling for a ban on the Window’s 10 operating system, condemning it as a spy tool deliberately designed against Russia. Because many officials, including those with access to classified information, use Windows and because Windows 10 stores information about their computer use, this is viewed as a plot by Washington to spy on them.
Russia’s National Security Council secretary Nikolay Patrushev went one step beyond by declaring that Russian officials who use Google or Yahoo are threatening national security. The Duma may also adopt a law this fall that would prohibit bureaucrats and state employees from using social networks at work.
Banning Western influences demonstrates a growing fear in the Kremlin that the regime’s days may be numbered. Some Russian analysts believe that the regime is facing internal revolt against the country’s growing isolation and its failed economic policies. Fissures may appear between oligarchs reliant on international trade and investment and those who will gain from “import substitution” and Western sanctions.
Putin is not Stalin: he does not possess the power, ruthlessness, or cunning of the Soviet dictator. His authoritarian system is growing brittle, as corrupt loyalists have no personal or ideological commitments to the President. His ability to retain their loyalty rests above all on the Kremlin’s control of substantial financial resources.
With the economy contracting the entire system could collapse because budgetary cuts will need to be undertaken that will alienate members of Putin’s inner circle. This could lead to an intense struggle for power and even a coup d’état by members of the elite who perceive a growing threat to their own security and wealth.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2015
Russia is consolidating a new “frozen conflict” in Europe with Western assistance. Washington, Berlin, and Brussels have evidently approved the consolidation of rebel control over parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This will have serious consequences for stability in Europe’s east and for Moscow’s territorial ambitions.
The Kremlin fears that Ukraine will completely slip out of its grasp and integrate with the EU and NATO. This would seriously damage Russia’s agenda for assembling a Eurasian Union. Moscow is also anxious about democratic contagion and a reformist model from Ukraine that could challenge Putin’s authoritarian regime or unseat allies in other post-Soviet states. To counter Ukraine’s independence, democratization, and Western integration, the Kremlin is sponsoring an administrative structure that would paralyze the central government.
During the past eighteen months, Moscow has partitioned and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and instigated proxy separatism in the Donbas to test the prospects for further division. It dispatched its special forces and intelligence operatives and recruited assorted mercenaries to engineer conflict and establish secessionist governments.
The separatist offensive to sever the bulk of southeastern Ukraine only registered limited success in a handful of districts in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Attempts to capture other areas, such as Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, failed to spark any rebellions. In the absence of sufficient public enthusiasm and given Ukraine’s counter-offensive to reclaim occupied territories in the summer of 2014, Moscow intervened more directly with regular troops at the end of August 2014 to shore up rebel gains.
But it avoided a large-scale invasion and potentially costly occupation. Since then it has sought to legitimize the separatist leaders by ensuring that they participated in peace talks with Kyiv and international mediators styled as the Minsk process. This format involves Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, and representatives from the two rebel held regions, thus giving the latter credibility as quasi-state leaders.
Russia’s strategy is to deprive Kyiv of territory, threaten partition, and then convince the West to make political deals to avoid further warfare. It promotes a model of federalization that divides neighboring states, paralyzes major government decision-making, blocks their international ambitions, and prevents them from making progress toward EU association. In effect, Russia’s regime is creating a new “frozen conflict” by gaining international legitimacy for separatist enclaves that it sponsors. This strategy has been evident in several previous secessionist conflicts, particularly in Moldova and Georgia, but without direct Western support.
Moscow indefinitely maintains these unsettled conflicts and holds in reserve the prospect of unfreezing them. Hence, it threatens unpredictable instability through a renewed insurgency and potential direct Russian military intervention. Such a posture serves to convince Western governments to make compromises that favor Moscow. Having decided not to annex the Donbas, as this would prove costly for a faltering Russian economy that is already supporting a bankrupt Crimea, the Kremlin is pushing for a split state in Ukraine. Its model resembles that of Moldova or Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which autonomous regions not controlled by the central government either disqualify the country from meeting the criteria for EU or NATO entry or they actively block central government policies.
Instead of a military occupation of Ukraine, Russia is banking on concessions by the West that will bring the same results without need for war. Ukraine’s government rejected Moscow’s demands for federalization. Instead, Kyiv has implemented constitutional amendments to expand decentralization. Nonetheless, under Western pressure parliament included a provision in the constitution stating that it will formulate a new law governing local administrations in certain portions of Donetsk and Luhansk. This leaves the door open to providing special status for the occupied territories.
Washington, Berlin, and Paris are also pushing Kyiv to include the rebel-held areas in the October 25, 2015 local elections, even though the government does not control these territories and the elections will be far from democratic. Such a move will help validate Moscow’s drive to federalize Ukraine with Western support.
The fate of the separatist controlled regions has hung in the balance over the past year, with Kyiv applying economic pressure by cutting state subsidies for the unrepresentative rebel authorities. The local elections would evidently oblige Kyiv to renew its subsidies and support the very structures that are pulling Ukraine apart.
Moscow’s sponsorship of territorial fracture could also spread to other parts of Ukraine. Two more groups recently declared themselves: the “Bessarabian Autonomy” in southwestern Ukraine and the “Odesa Peoples Republic.” Although these moves are primarily propaganda initiatives, they need to be carefully monitored by Kyiv following its underestimation of the Donbas scenario.
A new frozen conflict in Europe will have repercussions for a much broader region. It can encourage ethno-territorial secessions elsewhere in former Soviet territories, undermine Western security guarantees, and challenge Europe’s existing borders. It will also generate disputes within NATO and the EU on how to handle split states and quasi-independent entities from which Moscow will seek to profit.
The government in Kyiv is trapped in the middle, trying to balance the need for close relations with the West, on whom it is dependent for economic and diplomatic support, with its core national interest of maintaining independence and integrity, and preventing a frozen conflict on its territory. It would be a tragic irony if Kyiv’s efforts to transform the country into a productive European democracy fail because the West itself legitimized a frozen conflict and a dysfunctional state because it feared the Kremlin.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2015
Moscow has become intensively active in countries that have no immediate prospect of Western institutional integration. Such “frozen states” enable the Kremlin to pursue inroads in the Western Balkans and to delay or derail plans for EU and NATO expansion. For several years, Russia has focused on Bosnia-Herzegovina and keenly supported the leaders of the Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska (RS), to block Bosnia’s progress.
Russian officials meet regularly with RS President Milorad Dodik and have encouraged him to resist strengthening the authority of Bosnia’s central government and streamlining the state. Moscow claims that it will oppose any “imposed solutions” by the U.S. and EU and encourages Banja Luka to pursue more extensive autonomy.
In recognition of President Putin’s support, Dodik opposed Western sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine and visited Moscow on the eve of Bosnia’s general elections in October 2014 to reportedly receive donations for his election campaign. Prior to that, in March 2014, he received an award from the International Fund for the Unity of Orthodox Nations, presented in Moscow by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
On April 25, 2015, the congress of the ruling party in RS, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (AISD), adopted a resolution that underscored a free and independent RS as the ultimate goal. Dodik asserted that a referendum on the entity’s secession would be held in 2018 unless the powers taken away from the RS by international institutions were returned to the entity by 2017. After the referendum, the RS will supposedly offer the other Bosnian entity, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation, a proposal for peaceful separation and mutual recognition.
Dodik’s critics in the RS, led by Mladen Ivanic, a leader of the Party of Democratic Progress, charge that the AISD manipulates citizens with promises of a referendum as a means for maintaining power. Growing discontent with economic conditions encourages the entity government to turn to nationalism and potential statehood to shift attention away from escalating social and economic problems.
In a crucial step designed to weaken the authority of the central government in Sarajevo, on July 15, 2015 the RS National Assembly adopted a decision to hold a referendum on the authority of the state level judiciary and the Prosecutor’s Office. The move was condemned by Western governments as threatening Bosnian statehood but was defended by the Russian embassy, which claimed that international agencies should not interfere in Bosnia’s internal disputes.
Moscow has also engaged in various diplomatic moves to block Bosnia’s links with the EU and NATO. For instance, at a UN Security Council session in November 2014, it opposed the extension of the EUFOR peacekeeping force, claiming that Bosnia was being pushed in the direction of the EU against people’s will. Although it eventually abstained from vetoing the UN decision, the incident served as a warning that Russia could block future extensions of EUFOR mandates.
Russian authorities contribute to prolonging disputes and uncertainties in Bosnia. Their calculation is that Western shortcomings in inter-ethnic reconciliation and state building will slow down or terminate EU and NATO assimilation. Moscow prefers a weak and divided Bosnia to a country that successfully integrates westwards.
In its ploy to impede inter-ethnic reconciliation, Moscow has consistently supported the RS in preventing the passage of a UN Security Council resolution on the genocide perpetrated by Bosnian Serb troops against unarmed Bosniak civilians in Srebrenica in July 1995. Indeed, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has downplayed the role of Bosnian Serb forces in murdering and expelling Bosniak civilians throughout the 1992-1995 war and attempts to rewrite history by equalizing responsibility for the massacres.
On the economic front, RS leaders view Russia as a source of financial assistance and investment and have applied for loans to prevent a liquidity crisis. The prolonged political stalemate and lack of legislative work in Bosnia during 2015 halted foreign investments and blocked financial support from the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU. Moscow may be willing to provide a loan of up to $794 million but with collateral guarantees, most probably in the form of control over the RS power company. Some local officials express concern that the loan would in effect enable the Kremlin to control the RS government.
High-level Russian delegations periodically visit the RS, including finance and economy ministers interested in purchasing energy and other assets slated for privatization. Moscow exploited the possibility of building a branch of the South Stream natural gas pipeline to RS, a project that would have led to conflicts with EU energy regulations, thus endangering Sarajevo’s bid for EU candidacy. However, in December 2014, Moscow scrapped South Stream and asserted it would build a gas hub via the Black Sea through Turkey and into the Balkans instead.
Despite the financial unfeasibility of “Turkish Stream,” Dodik claimed he had received promises in Moscow that the RS would be connected to the new gas pipeline. According to Dusko Perovic, head of the RS representative office in Moscow, the interconnector will be completed by 2018 to cover the entity’s gas needs. In the context of Kremlin pledges, Dodik declared that a law on natural gas imports at Bosnia’s state level was unacceptable because it implied a transfer of powers to Sarajevo. Energy deals with Russia thereby contribute to undermining Bosnia’s integrity.
Having recognized the independence of two separatist regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backed the secessionist Transnistrian quasi-state in Moldova, supported Armenia’s de facto occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts in Azerbaijan, swallowed Crimea from Ukraine, and sponsored secessionist movements in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia retains the option of recognizing Bosnia’s RS as an independent state. This would bring Moscow’s divide and conquer policy closer to the heart of Europe.
Janusz Bugajski, June 2015
For the Putinists, an independent and democratic Ukraine symbolizes everything that threatens their hold on power and challenges plans to restore a Greater Russia. At the core of this deep hostility is the convenient conviction that Kyiv experienced a coup d’état camouflaged as a “color revolution” engineered by the West and ultimately designed to destroy Russia.
The various “color revolutions,” whether Rose in Georgia or Orange in Ukraine, are viewed in the West as indigenous attempts to prevent authoritarian backsliding, electoral manipulation, and popular disenfranchisement in the post-Soviet world. U.S. and West European organizations may have played supportive roles in these popular rebellions, but it was local activists who mobilized the public against the abusive elites.
The ultimate outcome of such revolutions may be corroded or even reversed over time but they provide hope that broader sectors of society can have a voice in the political process. Ukraine has experienced two such popular revolutions. While the Orange variety fizzled out over the following decade, the Majdan uprising in early 2014, which ousted an increasingly corrupt and abusive President Yanukovych and ushered in open presidential and parliamentary elections, appears to be more promising in delivering the rule of law, institutional checks and balances, and the other components of a democratic system.
For Russian officials and pro-Kremlin analysts, “color revolutions” are negative phenomenon imposed from outside with unpredictable consequences. And if the results threaten to culminate in democratic reforms and Western integration then the revolution must be countered so that Moscow’s propaganda offensive is reaffirmed. Hence, the covert attack on Ukraine and the imposed chaos in the Donbas are intended to prove that Ukraine is a failing state precisely because of Kyiv’s Majdan revolution. For Putin, a successful Ukraine threatens his hold and power and undermines his claims of resurrecting Russia’s glory.
Moscow’s skewered interpretations and justifications extend well beyond Ukraine. Indeed, any government that is friendly to Moscow but is challenged by popular opposition at home is automatically depicted as the victim of a “color revolution.” The next step in this informational offensive will be to link the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc with subversive “color revolutions.”
Russia’s official scribes frequently rewrite the country’s history as well as that of their neighbors to suit the policies and ideologies of current rulers. Putin’s spokesmen are not unique in this respect, except that the history they are revising is more recent and deeply imprinted in the memories of all countries that dumped communism and Soviet dominance. The intensifying revisionist offensive is evident in a recent Russian TV documentary depicting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 as a defensive action to prevent a fascist takeover – the line that Brezhnev and company peddled at the time to explain their visceral fear of the Prague Spring reform movement.
The next logical step would be to demonize Poland’s Solidarnosc, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, and other movements that helped to peacefully overthrow communism as fascist conspiracies and CIA-directed “color revolutions.” Moscow needs enemies to justify its aggressive policies toward neighbors. It also needs to manufacture past grievances to befuddle the public and create an imaginary Russian history. In this perverted portrayal, Moscow rescued and rebuilt the Central and East European (CEE) states after World War Two but the ungrateful satellites conspired with Washington to overthrow the pro-Kremlin governments.
The purpose of such historical maneuvers is twofold. First, it supposedly demonstrates that throughout its history Russia has been a constructive and benevolent power that helped its neighbors and even sacrificed its citizens to ensure their liberty. Conveniently forgotten are Moscow’s active collaboration with Hitler in launching World War Two, the mass murders and mass expulsions perpetrated by Putin’s Chekist predecessors in all territories occupied by Moscow, and Russia’s retardation of CEE’s political and economic development through the imposition of a failed ideology, a one-party dictatorship and an incompetent economic system.
Second, the purpose of historical revisionism is to depict Russia as a victim, whether at the hands of German fascists, American imperialists, or Ukrainian nationalists. Victimhood begets grievances, and grievances beget justifications for counter-measures to allegedly defend Russia’s interests in neighboring states. And those interests boil down to the denial of national sovereignty and persistent meddling in the political, economic, informational, and security structures of countries bordering Russia. It can also mean the right to partition neighbors and incite armed rebellion against elected governments.
In a classic policy of projecting and deflecting blame for its expansionist actions, Moscow is reanimating the Western geopolitical scapegoat. Russia’s leaders depict the West as dangerous, whereby the U.S. uses “irregular warfare” such as NGOs and multinational institutions, including the IMF, to conduct “color revolutions” and destabilize Russia’s dominions. Allegedly, the next stage planned by Washington is to foster conflicts within the Russian Federation by exploiting civil society, the liberal opposition, the mass media and human rights groups and supporting Islamic insurgencies.
Washington purportedly organized the Ukrainian crisis simply to have an excuse for reinvigorating NATO and deploying American forces closer to Russia’s borders. In reality, NATO is increasing its defensive presence in the region to deter Moscow’s threats against Alliance members. Russia’s new military doctrine signed by President Putin in December 2014 portrays an increasingly threatening international environment that will exacerbate the country’s domestic problems if foreign enemies are not combated. The Kremlin’s gravest fear is either that a pro-democratic revolt unseats the Putin clique or that public unrest weakens its stranglehold over the country. As the far-flung federation enters a period of economic decline and potential social turbulence, the Russian counter-revolution is gathering steam.
Janusz Bugajski, May 2015
The Baltic Sea occupies a pivotal position in Moscow’s plans to consolidate the western flank of its expansionist Eurasian project. It provides a vital trade route to Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, hosts the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline to Germany, and is the location of the Baltic fleet headquartered in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. But above all, in the event that Moscow decides to attack Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania it will seek full military maneuverability in the Baltic and to restrict NATO’s presence.
Despite Kremlin opposition, over the past two decades the Baltic Sea has become a largely NATO lake, with six member states now having coastlines: the traditional members, Denmark and Germany, and new members Poland and the three Baltic countries. And since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the remaining two neutral states, Sweden and Finland, are moving closer to NATO to better protect their security in an increasingly unpredictable region.
In flexing its military muscles through large-scale maneuvers, the construction of new bases, and frequent violations of the air space and coastal waters of littoral states, Moscow seeks several objectives. First, the military buildup is supposed to demonstrate that Russia is again a great power and can create an environment of uncertainty. Second, Moscow is testing NATO’s political and military responses and adjusting its own tactics and operations in the event of outright conflict.
And third, in the case of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Kremlin’s military pressures are part of a broader multi-pronged offensive to weaken their governments, stir social and ethnic conflicts, and demonstrate that NATO will not be able to defend them in the event of war. No German or French soldier, or even an American will purportedly be willing to die for Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius.
At the same time, Russia’s propaganda offensive claims that Western forces are acting aggressively. Throughout the Baltic region, NATO’s rapid reaction units are allegedly expanding, military infrastructure is developing, and the U.S. military presence is growing. In reality, the Alliance has been criticized for not providing sufficient military assistance to countries that fear Moscow’s subversion or outright attack.
The Kremlin wants to keep both Sweden and Finland as neutrals and preclude them from assisting any NATO operations to defend the Baltic states. A variety of pressure points are exploited: military threats, territorial violations, diplomatic pressures, propaganda attacks, and disinformation campaigns to cower Finnish and Swedish societies. Further measures are threatened if Helsinki or Stockholm move toward NATO accession, including the confiscation of investments, banning flights across Russia, and enabling illegal immigrants to cross the long Russian-Finnish border.
However, Kremlin actions may have the reverse effect to the ones intended and could push the two neutrals into the Alliance. Public opinion is beginning to change. Disarmed neutrality is no longer seen as feasible even in Sweden, which has no experience of war in the modern era. The numbers supporting NATO accession is growing and includes over a third of the population, while opposition to NATO entry is not as extensive as before. Regardless of attitudes toward NATO entry, all major parties support raising defense spending. Sweden’s Social Democratic-Green Party government has been shocked out of its post-modernist stupor by Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its violation of international legal norms that Swedes hold so dear.
Over the past twenty years, Stockholm has dramatically scaled back its defensive capabilities. It has finally decided to raise its military expenditures, although its program of rearmament will not happen overnight and the country remains vulnerable to further Russian provocations. These include the potential capture of Sweden’s island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic to deny NATO a valuable platform for anti-aircraft defense and to disrupt supply routes.
Although many in Sweden believe that NATO would defend their territory, no one can be certain whether it would risk a war with Russia over a non-NATO member. Even the NATO Host Nation Status obtained by Sweden and Finland at the Wales Summit in September 2014, which allows for the deployment of NATO rapid reaction forces on their territory, does not guarantee their defense if attacked by a third party.
In the case of Finland, there is more immediate Russian concern that Finns would come to the aid of nearby Estonia. For instance, it could offer NATO its land, air, and sea facilities to defend an Alliance member, and supply weapons and other equipment to assist Tallinn. Unlike Sweden, Finland has maintained a respectable defense sector with a sizable conscript base army. Helsinki also has direct experience of Russia’s aggression, having stymied two attempts by Moscow to occupy the country during and after World War Two. An attack on Estonia would be too close to home for Finns to simply sit on the sidelines.
To protect themselves against possible attack or becoming sucked into a wider war, both Finland and Sweden are expanding their military cooperation. They are also strengthening security ties with NATO members Norway and Denmark through consultations and exercises. In April, the five Nordic capitals signed a joint defense pact designed to boost defense sector cooperation, intelligence sharing, and joint military exercises. The initiative was attacked by Moscow as a “confrontational approach” to regional security.
Nonetheless, all such measures will not be enough to shield either Finland or Sweden from Russian pressure or to prevent their embroilment in a future Baltic-wide war if Putin decides to strike. Washington itself should not push for NATO enlargement in two countries that still treasure their non-alignment. Instead, it should allow Moscow’s provocations to convince Helsinki and Stockholm that their security is best assured inside the North Atlantic Alliance.
Janusz Bugajski, April 2015
A key weapon in Moscow’s arsenal to weaken its neighbors is the promotion of ethnic conflicts. By encouraging numerous forms of territorial autonomy and ethnic separatism in Europe’s east, Russia’s zone of influence can be extended. If vulnerable governments are to counter such campaigns, they must closely monitor the extensive array of potential disputes and the methods Moscow employs to exploit them.
The first and most obvious secessionist targets are Russian ethnics in neighboring states, together with Sovietized and russified populations that use Russian as their first language and can be linked with President Vladimir Putin’s “Russian World.”
Over 25 million Russian ethnics and Russian-speakers reside in nearby states, with Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhtstan as the primary hosts. The Kremlin whips up an atmosphere of threat against these communities to provide justifications for its own involvement. It applies pressure on nearby governments to grant Russians enhanced political status, language rights, and dual citizenship. It thereby calculates that a loyal political corpus will be crafted to support its policies.
Kremlin-funded agencies reportedly conduct surveys of Russian-speaking populations to ascertain the extent of support for autonomy and separatism. Secessionist sentiments can then be fanned and fabricated in various border regions, such as Ukraine’s Donbas.
The threat of separatism is in turn designed to confederalize the targeted state, whereby rebel regions gain legitimacy and are empowered to block the decisions of central governments, especially in their foreign and security policies. In some cases, Moscow also presses for territorial revisions by claiming regions such as Crimea considered traditionally Russian and whose inclusion in a neighboring republic during Soviet times is denounced as unlawful.
Moscow thrusts itself forward as the arbiter in separatist conflicts that it promotes. In reality, Kremlin involvement radicalizes minority leaders and makes conflict resolution more problematic. Even if clear majorities in targeted states do not support secession, local discontented individuals can always be found and funded by Moscow as new ethno-national leaders.
The Kremlin relies on the passivity and fear of the silent majority, while rebels are provided with weapons, recruits, and media exposure. Russian operatives are infiltrated to provide leadership, weaponry, and organization, while crippling the capacity of national governments to protect the population.
A second pliable grouping consists of disaffected non-Russian minorities and regions in neighboring countries that can be coaxed to openly oppose governments viewed as unfriendly toward Moscow. Among numerous examples are the regions of Gagauzia (Moldova), Transcarpathia and Bukovyna (Ukraine), Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia), as well as Armenians in Georgia, Lezgins and Avars in Azerbaijan, and Poles in Lithuania. The objective is to squeeze designated governments through threats of partition. Media outlets and Kremlin spokesmen publicize a host of disputes in order to depict Russia as a defender of minority rights and self-determination. Their calculation is that discontented groups will welcome Moscow’s engagement, while the targeted capital will seek compromises to avoid an escalation of conflict.
A third focus for secessionism are the ethnic kindred of states friendly toward Russia and whose governments can be enticed to support collective rights across borders to undermine the integrity of particular countries.
Russia has aided Armenia-backed separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh both to partition Azerbaijan, whose government is perceived as excessively pro-Western, and to reward Armenia for its close alliance with Moscow. In another conspicuous example, the Kremlin encourages Budapest to campaign for Hungarian minorities in nearby states. This can pressurize Ukraine in its western region of Transcarpathia and will potentially affect Romania in parts of Transylvania. Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Montenegro, and Kosova are also supported by various Russian agencies to create constituencies for resistance against integration into NATO and the EU.
Moscow benefits from Europe’s inter-state disputes. By promoting national frictions, Russia’s officials can claim that many of the post-World War Two borders are illegitimate, including Moscow’s demands toward selected neighbors. Nationalists and separatists on both sides of an ethnic divide can be covertly supported in order to intensify cross-border conflicts and give Moscow a greater role in mediation.
Russia’s state propaganda conjures up convoluted schemes to foster inter-state disputes. For instance, it claims that Kyiv is preparing to forcibly merge Moldova and the separatist enclave of Transnistria and will assist Romania in absorbing Moldova. Simultaneously, it charges that Bucharest seeks to annex pockets of territory in Ukraine, particularly northern Bukovina and southern Bessarabia. Hence, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine are all portrayed as threatening each other’s integrity and statehood.
By asserting that Kyiv and Bucharest menace Transnistria’s autonomy, Putin can also justify a land link between Transnistria and a future Novorossiya forcibly carved out of southern Ukraine. Moscow may also threaten both Romania and Ukraine with territorial partition by claiming a broad swath of territory for an enlarged Moldova. Alternatively, it may back splitting both Ukraine and Moldova through the creation of a separate Budjak Republic to include Gagauzia, Taraclia (with a sizeable Bulgarian community), and parts of the Odessa region in Ukraine. Romania can then be offered the rest of Moldova and slithers of Ukraine in exchange for Bucharest’s recognition of Novorossiya.
The Kremlin has numerous ethnic and regional permutations at its disposal to entrap both its friends and opponents. Targeted capitals become especially vulnerable if they are unprepared for subversion, if they fail to cooperate against Moscow’s intrigues, or if they are seduced into supporting secessionism in neighboring countries on the grounds of defending their ethnic kindred.
Janusz Bugajski, March 2015
Russia has completed an unprecedented five-day military exercise simulating the deployment of nuclear weapons. The multi-regional maneuvers in mid-March looked ominously like preparations for full-scale war with the West. And although World War Three is not necessarily imminent, the extensive drills were part of a broader offensive to spread fear and uncertainty and to reinvigorate President Vladimir Putin’s alpha dog image after his reappearance from a mysterious ten-day absence.
Previous Russian exercises have focused on particular military districts and involved restricted targets. Conducting a single exercise that cuts across Europe from Norway to the Black Sea was clearly aimed at rattling NATO and its Central-East European members.
The maneuvers reportedly involved over 80,000 soldiers, 3,000 vehicles, 40 surface vessels, 15 submarines, and 220 aircraft, and covered the Arctic, Baltic, and Black Sea regions. They simulated an extensive confrontation with NATO through the forward deployment of nuclear-armed submarines, theater ballistic missiles, and strategic bomber aircraft. Strategic weapon systems were positioned in locations near NATO’s borders. By also threatening to permanently station Tupolev nuclear-capable bomber jets in Crimea, Russia has ratcheted up the threat of nuclear confrontation.
Moscow has four paramount goals in its current war maneuvers. First, they serve as a warning to targeted states that they are not only vulnerable to subversion but also to direct attack if they challenge Russia’s national ambitions. According to its military doctrine, Russia reserves the right to conduct a preemptive strike if it perceives a distinct and inevitable military threat or feels threatened by reduced access to regions where it possesses crucial economic or financial interests. Moscow can also use its military if there is an avowed threat to Russian citizens or ethnic Russians.
Second, the war exercises are intended to demonstrate that NATO will not provide sufficient protection against either conventional or nuclear strikes. Unlike the West, Russia does not shy away from displaying the nuclear option. Under Putin’s watch, Kremlin officials regularly engage in nuclear blackmail by warning that they will suspend various nuclear arms control agreements while maintaining tactical nuclear missiles along Russia’s western borders. Direct threats have also included preparations for the nuclear annihilation of neighboring capitals.
In its annual Zapad drills Moscow practiced dropping a nuclear bomb on Warsaw and invading a Baltic country. Russia’s military doctrine also provides for the first use of nuclear weapons under threatening circumstances. Such a posture contributes to dividing the Alliance, as Europe unlike the U.S. would be directly affected by the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons and is likely to make political concessions to avoid such scenarios. No one can be certain about Russia’s current nuclear threshold, and that ambiguity is itself a potent weapon.
Third, Moscow engineers close encounters with numerous Western states to raise levels of threat and tension and test the military and political responses of its adversaries. The European Leadership Network, a London-based institute, recently produced a detailed study of assertive Russian activities during 2014. It chronicled 40 specific incidents including violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, harassment of reconnaissance planes, close over-flights over warships, mock bombing raid missions, and “other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area.” The targets have included several NATO members as well as neutrals such as Sweden and Finland.
And fourth, by staging mass drills and incorporating the nuclear option, the Kremlin is displaying its determination to regain its former territories. The message is directly linked with possible military support from the West to Ukraine as well as with NATO’s plans to bolster its presence in the Baltic states and Central Europe. Moscow seeks superiority over NATO in the Arctic, Baltic, and Black Sea regions. It conducts unscheduled combat alerts to test the reaction speed of nearby capitals and has built up its military capabilities so it can stage rapid assaults by regular forces, block air traffic, especially the arrival of support units from NATO, and hit land targets to deter the Alliance from intervening.
The Kremlin is pursuing its “propaganda of the deed” through military brinkmanship with the West, intended to generate public anxiety, create rifts in the Alliance, and disarm effective resistance to its expansionist policies. A graver danger is that the Putin clique, which faces severe economic problems and potential domestic instability, may calculate that it can resort to the war option to prolong its power.
Janusz Bugajski, March 2015
The fundamental objective of “psychological operations” is to weaken and defeat the adversary. In psychops offensives, conducted through a multitude of outlets, facts are mixed with disinformation to produce emotional responses and political decisions that are advantageous for the aggressor. This is more than just a “propaganda war” between rival governments and media sources, but a method of defeating the enemy from within.
Russia’s special operations specialists have inherited decades of practical psychops experience from the former Soviet services. During the attack on Ukraine and Moscow’s broader neo-imperial aggression, they have targeted a number of societies and political elites in the West. The case of neighboring Central-Eastern European (CEE) countries is particularly instructive in how this mode of warfare is conducted.
For the past year, Russian services, information outlets, and state officials have been in overdrive to spread confusion, fear, insecurity, and paranoia among CEE audiences. The goal is to deflate public morale, foster defeatism, and reduce trust in national governments and international institutions.
Psychops can create uncertainty and ambiguity, thereby preventing any immediate response to Russia’s assertiveness. They can also inculcate cynicism among the audience, convincing them that no government is truthful and that the Russian and Western positions deserve equal treatment.
Psychops also spread and manipulate resentment and grievances inside Russian society against alleged Western interference and purported Russophobia. But the ultimate goal is to influence political decisions in other countries and to undermine the will to resist Moscow’s policies.
Pertinent examples of Russia’s operations have been evident in two CEE states that are members of NATO. Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev recently stated that a Russian propaganda center operates in Bulgaria attempting to create tension in the local and international communities over alleged war preparations by NATO leaders. Moscow’s purpose is to spread confusion and panic among the Bulgarian public and to imply that NATO was planning to engage in a military offensive against Russia.
Nenchev issued his charges after the Bulgarian-language website of the Voice of Russia ran a report citing the TV station of the ultra-nationalist and pro-Kremlin Ataka party, according to which scores of Bulgarian men received call-up orders for the military. The government flatly denied the rumor. According to Ataka and the Voice of Russia: ”The threats to Bulgaria from its involvement in a dangerous adventure as a satellite of NATO in Eastern Europe, not too far from the borders of Ukraine and Russia, are very realistic.”
In reality, NATO plans to position a command and control center in Bulgaria and establish similar facilities in five other CEE countries – Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These centers will focus on planning and coordinating joint training and exercises, some of which will be held on Bulgarian territory, in line with commitments under the Readiness Action Plan adopted at NATO’s Wales Summit in September 2014. They will also coordinate the dispatch of military reinforcements from other NATO states in case of an emergency.
In the midst of a parallel Russian psychops offensive in Lithuania, the country’s army chief General Jonas Vytautas Zukas had to publicly deny reports implanted by Russian media and agents of influence that Lithuanian conscripts in the planned Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade will be sent to fight in Ukraine. The psychops goal in this case is to discredit the restoration of military conscription in Lithuania and the creation of any international military units involving Kyiv. Acts of self-defense are thereby distorted to look like preparations for an offensive war with Russia.
Where psychops are combined with other offensives, whether in cyberspace or on-ground subversion, the heady brew can deflate public morale and cast doubts on whether the country possesses adequate defenses or will be protected by NATO. As the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to foster national passivity and neutrality in the entire CEE region, one can expect a psychops onslaught as the Alliance develops its “forward presence.”
Janusz Bugajski, March 2015
The assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov propels Russia into a dangerous new phase of state terrorism. In effect, President Vladimir Putin’s regime has declared war on political dissidents, on Russia’s civil society, and on any foreign influences that seek to democratize the country.
The killing of critical journalists such as Anna Politovskaya could be depicted by Moscow as the actions of uncontrolled mobsters. The imprisonment of freewheeling oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky could be wrapped in legal trappings. But the brazen public murder of a charismatic political opponent points the finger directly at the Kremlin. It demonstrates that President Putin is consolidating his dictatorship to enhance Russia’s imperial reconstruction and confrontation with the West.
There seems little doubt Nemtsov’s murder was a planned “wet” operation organized by Russia’s internal security services, as several opposition leaders have concluded. Nemtsov was under intensive round the clock police surveillance. Meanwhile, the state media have incited hatred against the democratic opposition and urged their elimination as a “fifth column” of “national traitors.” And major figures do not get assassinated within smelling distance of the Kremlin without orders from above.
Nemtsov was shot dead in the back, a traditional KGB method of execution. The area next to the Kremlin is one of the most secure spots in the country but the police have failed to find the suspect, the murder weapon, or even the getaway car. Just as with the shooting down of the Malaysian passenger plane by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in July 2014, Moscow will cover up the facts, manufacture various conspiracy theories, and prevent a proper investigation.
In declarations of classic naivety, some Western leaders have called on Moscow to conduct a full and transparent investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. This is tantamount to asking the killers to investigate and imprison themselves. Putin quickly announced that he would personally take charge of the investigations: in other words the main suspect would supervise the criminal investigation.
Russia’s security services and criminal organizations are closely intertwined, and whether the actual shooting was conducted by an FSB (the current KGB) operative or a contracted killer is less significant than the source of decision-making in the Kremlin.
Several motives and objectives can lurk behind such a brazen political assassination and they reveal much about Russia’s political direction. First, the murder was an act of revenge for Nemtsov’s revelations about massive state corruption in organizing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Nemtsov described the Olympics as the biggest swindle in Russian history. Moreover, he was not afraid to publicly and persistently denounce Putin as a corrupt dictator and condemn his domestic and foreign policies. Evidently, he could only be silenced through death.
Second, the killing serves as a warning to the opposition and spreads fear regarding the possible next target. State propaganda claimed that Nemtsov was preparing a Ukrainian-type Majdan revolution in Moscow, hence the killing was justifiable to purportedly prevent a coup d’état in Russia. The murder can thereby be used as a springboard to intensify the crackdown against any independent organized actions in Russian society, including mass political protests.
Third, Nemtsov’s eradication is also intended to silence the truth about Moscow’s attack on Ukraine. The murdered democrat was working on a report about direct Russian military involvement in Ukraine entitled “Putin and the War.” It details the Kremlin’s war crimes and cover up operations. Moscow’s police swarmed through Nemtsov’s apartment shortly after his murder to remove all documents and computer hard drives.
Nemtsov was also killed just two days before a planned anti-war demonstration in Moscow and the shooting may discourage less courageous activists to speak out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The government has not only disguised its involvement in Ukraine but hidden the number of Russian casualties, many of them conscripts. It fears a groundswell of opposition to the war and the evasion of service by frightened young men. It is certainly worth remembering that the Soviet loss and withdrawal from Afghanistan in the early 1990s was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fourth, political murders typically shock and confuse Western policy makers. They can be used to demonstrate that the regime is tough and determined and will eliminate alleged Western lackeys, including Russia’s liberal opposition. Paradoxically, the Kremlin has also sought to implicate Western intelligence services in Nemtsov’s murder in line with its accusations that Washington is intent on destabilizing Russia to bring down the Putin administration.
And fifth, Moscow may be preparing the public for even tougher times ahead, as the economy rapidly sinks and living standards begin to deteriorate following the collapse of global oil prices. Nemtsov’s eradication could be the harbinger of a broader purge to prevent public protests and growing unrest among Russia’s numerous restive and impoverished cities and regions.
But despite Putin’s intentions, the assassination of Nemtsov ultimately projects regime weakness rather than strength. The Kremlin leader has spent the last fifteen years constructing a quasi-fascist system characterized by a strong leadership cult, a hierarchical political structure, a loyal party machine, a compliant parliament, a propagandized mass media, and state-supervised capitalism.
However, the Putinist system is built on brittle foundations and is highly dependent on providing substantial financial benefits to loyal oligarchs, state security officers, and government bureaucrats. As the economic pie continues to shrink the political structure and state edifice become more fragile. Indeed, the violent radicalization of authoritarian regimes invariably reveals a fear of power struggles, public unrest, and potential revolution.
Janusz Bugajski, January 2015
Russia is not a reliable a partner for the West against violent jihadism. On the contrary, Moscow remains closely linked with international terrorism as a means of undermining the West and expanding Russia’s influence.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite has described Russia as a terrorist state for two reasons: the regime has engaged in terrorist attacks against its own civilian population and it has played a key role in developing terrorist groups outside its borders.
Connections between the Kremlin and international terrorism extend back for decades and have been chronicled in a new report by the Lithuania-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre. The FSB’s predecessor, the KGB, helped to develop modern terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. It provided weapons to a number of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, and first devised aircraft hijackings during the 1960s.
The KGB deployed terrorism to spread communist regimes around the world before Islamist terrorism became a global threat. The FSB continues the tradition of sponsoring terrorism. During its proxy attack on Ukraine, Moscow supplied the missile system to separatists who shot down a Malaysian Airline plane and killed nearly 300 civilians. Amnesty International confirms that all evidence indicates that Russia is fueling the war both by direct intervention and by supporting the separatists.
The Western world is reluctant to officially declare the self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk inside Ukraine as terrorist organizations despite their persistent attacks on civilians. This is a political decision in order to protect Russia from automatic recognition as a terrorism sponsor.
Among its arsenal of recent terrorist acts, Russia has engaged in assassinations of critics and defectors. In the most publicized case, Aleksander Litvinenko, a fugitive officer of the FSB security service, was murdered by radionuclide polonium-210 in London in 2006. In July 2006, Russia introduced a statutory right enabling “Russian special units to kill extremists outside Russia.” Moscow’s definition of extremism includes all critics of the Putin regime.
According to former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhensky, Russia persistently employs terrorism both internally and abroad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, was an FSB agent trained in Russia in the 1990s before joining Osama bin Laden. Mohamed Atta, the terrorist who piloted a hijacked plane into New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11, had links with Iraq’s intelligence officers who were clients of Russia’s intelligence services.
The Putinists have also engaged in domestic terrorism to manipulate the public. In the most notorious example described by Western specialists, in 1999 shortly after Putin was appointed President the FSB bombed several housing complexes inside Russia, killing over 300 citizens, to justify a new war against Chechen independence.
It is time not only to conduct a thorough investigation of Moscow’s terrorist activities but also to finally declare the Russian regime both as a sponsor and perpetrator of domestic and international terrorism. This will deepen the ostracism and isolation of a system that relies on deception and mass murder to achieve its goals regardless of its current ideology.
Janusz Bugajski, January 2015
The terrorist attacks in France demonstrate that jihadism inspired by the Islamic State (IS) is coming to Europe with a vengeance, and other countries are at risk of further atrocities. Indeed, the IS reversals in Iraq and Syria will encourage its leaders to hit back at European states that support the counter-insurgency campaign.
Over 18,000 Islamist recruits have flocked to the IS rebellion during the past year, with approximately 3,000 from Europe. This global movement increasingly resembles its Leninist-Maoist counterpart during the 1960s and 1970s, as jihadism and Bolshevism have a great deal in common, in terms of ideology, structure, and objectives.
Young people joining the jihad are not necessarily poor and uneducated but often middle class and idealistic much like the Marxist radicals in earlier decades. Jihadism is similar to millenarian communism in which young middle class rebels jumped on the revolutionary Leninist bandwagon in the West believing the false prophecies of Marx and Engels. And some were recruited to fight in foreign “anti-imperialist” wars.
Marxism-Leninism was not as secular as its advocates claimed, but was based on unproven dogmas that demanded revolutionary actions. It had its sacred scriptures, its own cosmology with the supreme deity of Karl Marx and his prophet on earth, Lenin, its apostles Stalin and Mao, its vanguard priesthood in the communist party, and its elaborate rituals and feast days.
Jihadism and Bolshevism possess simplistic ideologies. “Unbelievers and apostates” now take the place of “capitalists and imperialists.” Both espouse an egalitarian and universalistic ethos that crosses ethnic boundaries: whether the dictatorship of the proletariat or Sharia law imposed by a self-appointed vanguard.
The anti-Western puritan Islamist ideologist Sayyid Qutub similarly to his Leninist predecessors has emphasized the vitally important role of the Islamist vanguard in organizing, mobilizing, and educating Muslims on the correct path to paradise.
Jihadist ideology has wide appeal because of its disregard for social hierarchies. It criticizes the poorly informed Muslim leadership and fills an ideological, social, and political vacuum. It convinces converts that they are following the original tenets of Islam and the teachings of the Koran and not to recognize any of the Islamic schools that interpret Prophet Mohammad’s words.
Religious righteousness, much like class struggle, provides a unifying bond across ethnic boundaries and enables insurgents to recruit outside their communities and campaign for the creation of a broad regional structure styled as a future Muslim Caliphate. It also offers a sense of solidarity and community, a means for achieving sacred goals, and a recipe for creating an allegedly just social order to replace failed state institutions.
However, just like communism, militant jihadism has a darker side that focuses on eliminating infidels or “enemies of the people.” Everyone is under suspicion of betraying the religious revolution and abandoning the sacred ideology. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, much like IS and the Taliban, murdered tens of thousands of real or potential opponents and imposed a reign of terror. Both ideologies involve radical social engineering in captured countries to create alleged utopias that in reality are totalitarian police states.
Janusz Bugajski, December 2014
The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia cannot be repeated, but the struggle for influence around the globe has been revived by the Putin administration. Although Moscow does not possess the capabilities to openly challenge Washington, it acts as a spoiler and inciter of hostility toward America.
During the past decade, the Kremlin has been promoting an international anti-American alliance, while encouraging numerous states to oppose U.S. policies. It operates on the premise that America is a declining power and Russia can inject itself in various regions from where the Soviets withdrew after the Cold War.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) format is supposed to challenge America’s economic predominance. The SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is intended to counter U.S. political influences throughout Asia. And the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) is designed as a military counterpart to NATO.
Despite its expansive appetite, Moscow’s international efforts are a parody of Soviet-era capabilities and it only registers some success where America withdraws or weakens. Latin America is a useful example where the two former superpowers are facing increasing competition.
Under Putin’s tenure, Russia has been constructing alliances with left-leaning governments in Latin America and encouraging anti-Americanism. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador are also the leading targets for business contracts and weapons sales. However, Cuba remains the key hub for undermining Washington in the hemisphere.
Cuba has major symbolic value and was at the core of Soviet global projections. When Moscow threatened to position nuclear weapons on the island in 1962 it nearly provoked a nuclear war with the U.S. Russia withdrew its military and intelligence assets from Cuba at the end of the Cold War, but in recent months Putin has built up a menacing presence at America’s doorstep.
In July, Moscow reopened the Lourdes military base, a Soviet-era signals intelligence and military facility that was the USSR’s largest foreign base. Russia used the base for 40 years to intercept American radio and telephone communications.
Putin visited Cuba in August, forgave 90% of Cuba’s Soviet-era debts, and signed industrial, energy, and trade deals with Havana. He also initialed several military agreements to place Russian global positioning stations in Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil.
Russia’s Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov visited Cuba’s military and intelligence sites, the Russian guided-missile warship Moskva toured Cuban and other Latin American ports, and other Russian warships have docked on the island. Such moves have raised concerns in the Pentagon, as they could bring thousands of Russian soldiers to Cuba in the event of escalating disputes with Washington.
The Obama administration claims there is no zero-sum competition with Russia anywhere in the world and still believes it can cooperate with Moscow in such areas as nuclear proliferation. But the Kremlin’s view is radically different, as it is fixated on undermining America’s global power. Moscow’s aggressive moves may help to explain why Obama is finally seeking a rapprochement with Havana despite intensive domestic criticism.
Janusz Bugajski, December 2014
Policy makers often miss the full significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago. This monumental event not only symbolized the collapse of communism but also heralded the national liberation of the Central and East European (CEE) states from Moscow’s control and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. But while communism is a fading nightmare, the struggle to maintain state independence continues, especially among countries that remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling influences.
The foreign imposition of communist systems stifled economic progress and spawned negative political, institutional, economic, and social legacies with which many countries are still struggling. But unlike Germany’s response to its destructive war-time occupation, Russia has never apologized or paid compensation to the victim nations who were forcibly separated from the process of European development. Instead, officials in Moscow are purposively rewriting the period of Soviet occupation as a progressive era.
Russia’s spokesmen also claim that the Cold War ended in a stalemate, rather than admitting that the failed Soviet system disintegrated from within. They contend that NATO and the EU captured the CEE states when Russia was weakest, instead of conceding that these countries were determined to join both institutions as protection against future empire building by the Kremlin.
Moscow’s distorted historical notions are now offered to justify the Kremlin’s political and territorial revisionism. Europeans and Americans must therefore remain vigilant in defending the real historical meaning of 1989-1990, especially the independence and integrity of states that now find themselves under sustained assault from Moscow.
Russia’s revisionism targets specific neighbors for direct territorial acquisition or enforced federalization in the attempted construction of a “Russian World.” Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are subject to violence, partition, economic warfare, and disinformation campaigns because they have decided to follow the European path of development and not the inferior “Eurasian” version.
Belarus and Armenia are Moscow’s only close European allies, primarily because of their economic and military dependence. However, both governments remain suspicious about Putin’s objectives and the consequences of his international adventures. Energy rich but geopolitically isolated Azerbaijan is especially concerned about its future given that Armenia occupies a fifth of its territory with Moscow’s backing and the Kremlin may decide to sever Baku’s energy links with Europe to further undermine Azerbaijan’s independence.
In order to preclude broad regional opposition, Russia is also attempting to construct a contiguous belt of neutral or supportive states across Central and Eastern Europe that were once Soviet satellites or part of ex-Yugoslavia. These endeavors have borne some fruit by encouraging nationalist politicians while provoking and expanding rifts among the “Visegrad Four” and among several Balkan countries.
The Visegrad initiative, in pursuit of a cohesive CEE foreign policy, is now moribund given the reluctance of three members (Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) to apply more rigorous sanctions against Russia in response to its attack on Ukraine. Russian business investment and energy dependence corrodes state institutions and corrupts national politicians. Meanwhile, the progress of several Balkan states into the EU and NATO is sabotaged by Moscow to prevent further Western institutional enlargement. The Kremlin has focused on Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular by playing on ethnonationalist and revisionist sentiments.
Moscow’s Ukrainian escapade has hastened the emergence of two categories of states in Europe’s East, in terms of their relations with Russia – the resistors and the supplicants. The most stalwart opponents of Putin’s expansionism have been Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Understandably, the three Baltic states are guarding their territory and sovereignty from persistent irredentist pressures from Moscow. Poland is also building up its defenses against regular threats from Russia and the consequences of the Ukrainian war. And Romania is preparing for a potential spillover of conflict from Moldova if that country is further destabilized by Moscow’s subversion.
In the western Balkans, Albania and Kosova are bastions of pro-Americanism and resistance to Russia’s inroads. Montenegro has suffered the economic consequences of predatory Russian state investment and has become a staunch NATO contender despite warnings from the Kremlin. Croatia and Macedonia are now contested states: in the former Moscow seeks inroads through energy and business deals and in the latter through nationalism and ethnic division.
In contrast to the resistors, several supplicant states have become increasingly dependent on Russia, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. However, the political scene is not uniform, as divisions between governments and presidents on their approach to Moscow have been evident in Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, while the new center-right Bulgarian government views Putin’s regime with much greater suspicion than its Socialist predecessor.
By suddenly abandoning the South Stream natural gas pipeline project, the Kremlin may damage political ties with several partners. Hungary and Serbia expanded substantial political capital by supporting the pipeline’s construction despite its violations of EU anti-monopoly regulations. Nonetheless, the Kremlin will maintain other levers of political and financial influence while capitalizing on ethnic disputes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia to thwart EU and NATO enlargement.
Moscow’s backing for nationalism, ultra-conservatism, and Euroskepticism throughout the continent is a profitable method to undermine the EU from within. A fifth of EU parliamentarians oppose further EU expansion and vote against resolutions critical of Moscow. Among these are assorted nationalists from CEE who view Putin as a defender of traditional values. Paradoxically, these deputies are ultimately undermining the independence of their own countries by supporting a regime that views the sovereignty of neighbors as an exploitable and transient phenomenon.