Russia: More of the same in 2019

| December 29, 2018 | 0 Comments
In Slovakia, Russian biker groups such as the Night Wolves, pictured here with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been called a threat to security. (Photo: Aleksei Druzhinin Kremlin)

In Slovakia, Russian biker groups such as the Night Wolves, pictured here with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been called a threat to security. (Photo: Aleksei Druzhinin Kremlin)

Based on its current behaviour and existing trends, what can we expect from Russia in 2019? Unfortunately, we should expect more of the same. This conclusion about the continuation of this state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of Russia’s regime. Without a marked change in the regime’s self-perception and orientation, not to mention its policies, this state will continue. Some analysts, such as this one in the Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy, even argue that Russian activities in the “information domain,” which are only part of the overall ensemble of its national security policies, “would indicate that Russia already considers itself to be in a state of war” with the West.
It seems Russia’s leaders feel Russia has been in a state of war or siege with the West since the first failed effort to subvert Ukraine in 2004. Recently, Moscow attacked and seized three Ukrainian ships and their sailors, allegedly for entering the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov that Moscow claims to own, merely on the basis of force. Clearly, severing Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and annexing it to Russia remain Russia’s operational and strategic goals vis-à-vis Ukraine. Other actors’ violations of international law and practice, such as the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reveal the affinities between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as shown when they high-fived at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires. They also co-operate in establishing an energy cartel to rescue their economies.

Russia will continue to assert itself on the world stage, writes Stephen Blank. Pictured here are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow. (Photo:

Russia will continue to assert itself on the world stage, writes Stephen Blank. Pictured here are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow. (Photo:

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, concedes that, “Since February 2014, the Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode, and President Vladimir Putin has been acting as a wartime leader.” He further writes that the Kremlin will not step back and reconcile with the West. However, this is not a battlefield combat. Rather it is an example of political warfare as described by George Kennan: “Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures… and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”

Russia President Vladimir Putin, shown here with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, has been expanding Russia's economic ties to Iran, among other "outlaw" states.  (Photo:

Russia President Vladimir Putin, shown here with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, has been expanding Russia’s economic ties to Iran, among other “outlaw” states. (Photo:

Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multi-dimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union and a great power whose free hand in the former Soviet sphere must be recognized and whose domestic arrangements must not be questioned.
Furthermore, Russia is justified in waging this war on the West because the West is supposedly doing the same to Russia, thereby threatening the survival of the Russian state. Russia must see itself and be seen abroad as a great power. It must be free to have a sphere of unchecked influence on its frontiers, unlimited state authority at home and to subvert other countries in order to expand its “empire.” Otherwise the state — or Putin’s system — will collapse.
As Catherine the Great stated, “I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.” As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power — and it can be no other kind in their view — it will cease to exist and be nothing in world politics. Consequently, its strategy must employ all instruments of state power to prove that it is a great global superpower — one of “multi-domain coercion.” And there is no end in sight as current headlines plainly tell us.
Flexing military muscles
DIPLOMAT_2018-12-29_0058If we merely examine recent reports, we find that Moscow utilizes diverse instruments of power to subvert the West’s political institutions, alliances, morale and cohesion. Military power and threats are still displayed prominently in Ukraine and Syria, but Putin also endlessly brandishes old and new nuclear weapons that can target military and civilian targets alike, all across the West.
Simultaneously, Moscow is building 22 nuclear-weapon projects today for all manner of contingencies, from local war to intercontinental nuclear war, while also building a large conventional high-tech weapon capability with which it threatens Europe, specifically countries such as Sweden, Norway, Romania, the Baltic states and Britain, on a daily basis through overflights and submarine probes. Likewise, Russian exercises clearly reveal the co-mingling of nuclear and conventional warfighting in potential battlefield scenarios and demonstrate Moscow’s resolve to threaten to use, if not actually use, nuclear weapons first, whatever the contingency, to make its interests heard. We saw this in Putin’s March 2018 address to the Duma when he presented supposedly new nuclear weapons that are invulnerable to any defences, one of which — the R-36M2 Voevoda, dubbed the SS-18 Satan by NATO — and more recently its updated version — the RS-28 Sarmat rocket — is “capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France,” according to Russian state news outlet Sputnik. Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borsiov said the Sarmat warhead had the capability to destroy targets by flying across both North and South Poles. Its range is reportedly more than 11,000 kilometres with a 10-tonne payload.
The recent Novichok chemical warfare attacks in England, or support for Syria’s use of chemical weapons such as Sarin, and the revival of the Russian biological warfare capability add to the argument that Russia is breaking almost every arms-control treaty on the books, potentially including the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Indeed, exercises going back several years confirm that Moscow expects its troops to have to fight through chemical and nuclear-warfare strikes. And that means it is preparing to launch them, as well.
Neither does international law mean anything to Russia. Despite treaties with all its post-Soviet and post-Warsaw Pact neighbours, Moscow neither accepts nor respects their sovereignty or territorial integrity. Instead, it sees those states and the treaties ratifying their sovereignty and territorial integrity as merely contingent affairs that can and should be revised when expedient to do so. Indeed, it constantly attempts to undermine those states by any and all means at its disposal, as Ukraine shows us. And there is abundant evidence of its unceasing violation of United Nations (UN) resolutions that it has signed to impose sanctions on North Korea, particularly with regard to shipping oil and hiring North Korean construction workers in Russia. Indeed, it has been expanding economic ties to North Korea for several years now. And the same may be said of its economic ties to such “outlaw states” as Iran and Venezuela which, despite their own failing economies, are trying to spread violence to their neighbours. Venezuela ran guns from Russia, with what is almost certainly Russian knowledge, to Colombia under Hugo Chavez. And Iran is sponsoring terrorist groups such as

In Latin America, Moscow, under Putin, shown above, employs military advisers to penetrate the armed forces and support anti-Western causes. (Photo: © Igor Dolgov |

In Latin America, Moscow, under Putin, shown above, employs military advisers to penetrate the armed forces and support anti-Western causes. (Photo: © Igor Dolgov |

Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen and has all but converted Lebanon into its staging ground against Israel, arming Hezbollah with hundreds of thousands of missiles. It is also a major supporter of Hamas. And in some cases, such as the Central African Republic, Russian forces may actually be working with both sides in an insurgency.
But beyond these overt and dangerous military threats, Russia is currently waging an uninterrupted multi-dimensional domain war against the West on a global level.

Political warfare à la Russe
Moscow’s wide-ranging methods for conducting political warfare are most fully on view in the U.S. Multiple investigations into the penetration of American presidential elections in 2016 and warnings that there would be a repeat in 2018 not only abound, but also bring forth fresh revelations on a daily basis. Thus we know that Russian agents have established links with U.S. think-tanks and lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association.
But Russia’s war is not confined to the U.S. Rather, it is global in scope and befitting Moscow’s aspirations to be seen as a global actor. And, in keeping with the multi-domain aspect of the strategy, Russia utilizes many different factors that reveal Moscow’s impressive creativity in generating new methods by which to unhinge a society. In Slovakia, we have seen the use of Russian biker groups, the Night Wolves, that have now been called a threat to security.
Evidently in Italy, it is not enough that Moscow is reportedly financing Lega Nord (the Northern League, one of the members of the new ruling coalition.) It has also sought to recruit similar biker groups, skinheads and Russian mercenaries to foster destabilization by financing meetings of Russian and local groups or by recruiting Russian and other mercenaries whom we have seen in the Balkans, Syria, the Central African Republic and Ukraine.
In Greece and Macedonia, Moscow apparently employed its own diplomats and spies to spread discontent and unrest in both societies to break up their recent accord that would rename Macedonia and allow it to enter NATO. But beyond that, Moscow, here too, used another of its newly created methods, namely “outsourcing” the organization of this mass unrest, leading to an attempted coup by a Greek businessman, Ivan Savvidis, who is tied to Russia. Savvidis apparently paid several hundreds of thousands of dollars to Macedonians to commit violent acts in advance of the recent Macedonian referendum. But those sums are only part of a much larger amount of money that was distributed to Macedonian politicians, nationalist organizations and soccer hooligans to derail the vote — which, among other Russia-inspired efforts, was accomplished.
Moscow has used this phenomenon of private contractors before and the practice now enjoys a discernible prominence in its policies. The invasions of Crimea and Donbass were, to some degree, financed and planned by oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Malofeev apparently also organized and subcontracted the planned coup in Montenegro in late 2016 to assassinate Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to stop its entry into NATO. Allegedly, he contracted Serbian mercenaries and biker groups as well as extremists to facilitate this coup. The supposedly private military company, Wagner, which has close ties to the GRU (military intelligence), functions in Syria and in the Central African Republic as numerous press reports have shown. Moreover, the Russian government has also launched a major campaign to upgrade Russian influence across Africa, an area that is of “growing importance” to the Russian foreign ministry and state.
Arms sales and energy deals
We see the confluence of arms sales and energy deals, including nuclear energy reactors and hydrocarbons throughout the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Russia’s national nuclear industry is currently involved in new reactor projects in Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Hungary, India, Iran and Turkey, and, to varying degrees, as a potential investor in Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan.
And in Latin America, as well as other developing areas, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, Moscow employs military advisers to penetrate the armed forces and support anti-Western causes. For instance, Russian military and advisers operate in Nicaragua and Venezuela where Rosneft, one of Russia’s national energy companies, led by Igor Sechin, one of the most powerful members of the government, is on the verge of becoming the owner of Venezuela’s national oil company when that country defaults. And Moscow’s economic ties to Venezuela reveal the extent of Russian support for that country’s truly calamitous regime. In the Middle East, we see this in Sudan and now Egypt and in sub-Saharan Africa, we see Russian military sales in Angola and South Africa.
But energy is also a political weapon throughout Europe and has been for more than a decade, as numerous examples, such as the abortive South Stream pipeline, the impending Nordstream 2 to Germany and Central Europe and Turkstream pipelines to Turkey and the Balkans, have amply demonstrated. Moscow has also long since deployed energy sales as a weapon to the Baltic states, driving them to set up their own gas terminals. Even now, Russia’s projected natural gas Nord Stream 2, along with the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline, represent efforts to bypass Ukraine and the Baltic states as transit states and force them into direct dependence on Moscow. Similarly, the projected Turkstream pipeline through Turkey represents an effort to evade EU regulations in the provision of natural gas to Europe.
This “tour d’horizon” does not even include the use of organized crime syndicates in Spain, which has become a major issue there, or the subsidization of authoritarian anti-European and anti-immigrant as well as pro-Russian parties on the left and right in virtually every European country. For instance, Moscow may well have been involved in financing the Brexit referendum in 2016 by directing funds to the anti-EU party that prevailed there. Moscow has subsidized or is subsidizing the Front National in France, parties in the ruling coalitions of Italy and Austria and the presidential election of Czech President Milos Zeman and it is attempting to make deals with European energy companies that go beyond providing gas to also controlling downstream distribution rights in most of Eastern Europe. Energy connections and funds also allow Moscow to buy enormous influence in European media and governing institutions in countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary, for example. Serbia is another example where Russia dominates the energy scene.

War on the press
Finally, Russia conducts a well-known, never-ending war against the media in the U.S. and Europe through countless trolls and influence-peddling schemes to eliminate any sense of objective truth about its activities and to subvert, corrupt and derange governing institutions from the Baltic to Washington. And it has been doing so for at least 10 years, starting with attacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.
In Estonia in 2007, Moscow orchestrated a comprehensive attack on the entire edifice of socio-economic-political cyber networks to bring the country down as punishment for relocating the statue of the Bronze Soviet Soldier from Central Tallinn. In Georgia, a comprehensive information warfare attack, conducted in tandem with elements of Russian organized crime, immediately preceded and continued during hostilities throughout the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Since then, the Baltic states have been in the forefront of NATO defence against Russian cyber and information warfare.
In Estonia, these attacks aimed to cripple the entire socio-economic and governmental network of the country, but failed due to Estonia’s redoubtable cyber-defence capabilities. Since then, Estonia has taken the lead in NATO cyber-defence; it even hosts NATO’s centre of excellence. Nevertheless it, and the other Baltic states, are under constant cyber-pressure and are targets of continuing espionage and political attacks on their policies towards Russian speakers as well as being the primary targets of Russia’s Western Military District.
In Georgia, the 2008 war was preceded by massive cyber-attacks that failed. Their intention was to suppress the Georgian state’s means of communication and discredit it abroad. Despite those failures, Russia continues to intervene in other countries, including efforts to intervene in the recent U.S. midterm elections. So those attacks were a portent of what we can continue to expect.
As the scope of American and European revelations about the extent of Russia’s ceaseless and widespread attacks on the international order and the West show, this war continues without letup and along many fronts and there’s no sign of it ending. If anything, Moscow believes it has won the information war so it has no reason to stop now. Indeed, as Putin has steadily narrowed down the sources of his information to the intelligence community and his “court,” all of whom tell him about Western perfidy and how Russia is supposedly winning over the decadent but jealous West, we should not expect any serious change anytime soon.
Accordingly, given the utter absence of any chance to reform the Russian government or alter its fundamental world view by domestic reform, the West needs to redouble its efforts and create from its superior resources an equally multi-domain strategy to prevail over Russia lest the drift to a revival of the kind of world our predecessors experienced in the 1930s gathers even more strength. The French saying “à la guerre, comme à la guerre” applies to this new kind of largely political war. But theatres of operation, such as Syria and Ukraine, also highlight the need for continued conventional as well as nuclear deterrence against Moscow, along with the strategy to counter Russian active measures that include financial, energy, criminal, intelligence and media activities aiming to derange or subvert targeted states, and cyber-war. Indeed, the facts produced here are hardly difficult to track down. What is and has been found wanting is the will to see this war for what it is and to act accordingly. Until that happens, 2019 will very much resemble 2018. Action to prevent Russian pressure has taken place through NATO’s conventional buildup and the intensification of U.S. and NATO counter-cyber activities. Those activities have nowhere been discussed publicly for obvious reasons, but mention of them in general terms has appeared recently in the press. Conventional deterrence, actions to counter Russian cyber-penetrations of Western society, and much more stringent regulation of illicitly obtained Russian money flowing through Western banks and businesses are among the critical means to prevent a replay of those past encroachments. But what has been done to date still does not suffice. Therefore, we cannot let down our guard and must continue to defend our societies resolutely and through co-ordinated allied action.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington

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Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington

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