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The Russian Federation’ strategic equation in Syria

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How are the Russian-Syrian operations and the operations of the United States and its coalition in Syria going and, more importantly, what can we expect from them? According to Western sources, Isis/Daesh has recently reduced its size by 40% overall and by 20% in Syria, while it had lost only 14% of its territory throughout 2015 when the Caliphate’s Daesh expanded – without recovering the same amount of territory – in Eastern Syria.

Another area where the Caliph Al Baghdadi has lost much of his territorial control is the area along the border with Turkey – while the Caliph has arrived up to the areas along the border with Jordan, the traditional area of smuggling and transit of its militants. Areas towards the Lebanese border and in the Palmira region are reported to be under Isis/Daesh control.

Hence, so far, both the US Coalition’s and the Russian-Syrian pressures do not seem to be sufficient to definitively destabilize Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate, despite its current territorial losses.

Therefore Isis/Daesh is likely to restructure itself in the form of a first-phase Al Qaeda, as indeed it already appears to do.

This means that Isis/ Daesh could create – or has already done so – a small and centralized organizational structure, with informal peripheral networks in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, with a view to organizing mass terrorist actions and blocking the Western resistance against the jihad, as well as finally disrupting the European security forces.

Nevertheless why the Russian-Syrian actions and the other US-led action do not work fully?

Firstly, we must analyze the Caliphate’s weapons: it has acquired most of the stocks abandoned by the Iraqi and Syrian armies, including sufficiently advanced weapons to counter the Russian and the Coalition’s weapon systems.

Absolute technological superiority is not needed.

The will to fight and the higher mobility of the Caliphate’s armies are more than enough.

In essence, Isis/Daesh can avoid attacking the best equipped areas of both coalitions, while it can predict and avoid the West’s points of attack thanks to a joint and unified command/control centre located far from the lines.

Said centre employs the same technologies as the anti-jihadist forces, as well as similar logics of action. Mimicking the enemy is an effective way of fighting it.

Furthermore mobility replaces technological superiority and currently nobody – except for the Russian Federation – wants to fight “for Gdansk”, which today means fighting for Damascus.

A Caliphate’s conventional strategy “from the weak to the strong” – just to use the same terminology as the philosophers of war, Beaufre and Ailleret – where the Western weakness is twofold: both on the ground – where Isis/Daesh is much more mobile and causes politically unacceptable damage to the West (with the exception of Russia and the Kurdish and Yazidi militias) and within the Western public, slackened off by the fairy tale of “good” immigration which blocks the European governments’ reactions on the necessary presence of Western troops on the ground.

Not to mention the fact that Isis/Daesh has taken possession, on its own territory, of the Hamas line in Gaza: a very thick and dense network of underground tunnels, which protects from air attacks and allows the economic activities needed to support the organization.

Another primary goal of the Caliph Al Baghdadi is to saturate Western police forces and making them actually unusable since they are already scarce in number and weapons, while Europe dies in “multiculturalism”.

This is a primary goal of Isis/Daesh which, in the future, will certainly attack – probably also territorially – some areas in European countries “from the weak to the strong”.

The bell tolls for us, too – just to make reference to John Donne’s verse, which became famous as the title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish Civil War, which in fact paved the way for World War II.

Hence, we will soon have a core of militant jihadists not necessarily trained in Syria, but connected via the Internet, and a vast network of “fellow travelers” who can serve as cover, logistical support, recruitment area, political and media manipulation for the more gullible or fearful Westerners.

This will be – and, indeed, it already is – the structure of Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate in Europe.

The “branches” of Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate are equally efficient: in the Barka province in Libya – and now in the Sirte district with the agreement between the Isis/Daesh and Gaddafi’s tribes – as well as Jund-al-Kilafah in Algeria, Al Shaabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, Jundallah in Pakistan and Abu Sayyaf in Malaysia.

The void of Western inanity is immediately filled by ISIS, which does not know international law, but only a miserably manipulated Koran.

Hence a mechanism similar to communicating vessels is in place: the more the Isis/Daesh crisis deepens on its territory of origin, the more threatening and powerful the peripheral groups become.

While, at the same time, in Europe we are witnessing some mass radicalization manoeuvres which rely on Al Qaeda’s old techniques: at first, the more or less crazy “Manchurian candidates”, who played havoc in small areas.

Later – as today – mass actions, like that in front of the Cathedral and train station in Cologne, which will certainly bring good results to the Caliph in the future; then again real, visible and very effective terrorist attacks.

Not to mention similar mass actions in Hamburg and Zurich.

Finally, when and how it will be logistically possible, we will witness the creation of small “Caliphates” in Europe, in the areas which the enormous long-term stupidity of EU leaders has left fully in the hands of Islamic mass immigration that has seized neighborhoods and cities.

The war against the Caliphate is and will be a very long war and the West – probably with the only exception of the Russian Federation – has in no way the political and psychological ability, nor the power to fight it with a view to winning it.

The West will die of soft power, as well as of a lot of talk with Islamists who do not want to hear it – all convinced of their alleged cultural, religious and military superiority.

Years of peacekeeping, “stabilization” and peace-enforcing have turned the European Armed Forces – already largely undersized at that time – into traffic guards and organizers of elections – always rigged – just to be as quick as possible and go away without disturbing the sleep of European peoples.

The very size of the European Armed Forces, considered individually or in a ramshackle coalition “against terror”, is not even comparable with those of the United States or Russia, after decades of equally unreasonable reduction of investment in the military and in the public safety sectors, even after the first Al Qaeda attacks.

Quos Deus perdere vult, dementat – Those whom God wills to destroy he first deprives of their senses.

On the contrary, Russia has implemented a thorough reform of its Armed Forces in 2008, after the war with Georgia, and it has worked much more on the “human factor” than on technology which, however, has not been neglected.

So far the Russian forces in Syria have deployed artillery groups and other ground forces while, according to reports coming from Russian sources, Russia is deploying batteries of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles again on Syrian territory, over and above providing “Buk” anti-aircraft missile systems to the Arab Syrian Army.

The S-400 missile – also known as “Growler”, according to the NATO designation – is an anti-aircraft missile which intercepts aircrafts flying up to 17,000 kilometers per hour, while “Buk” (also known as SAM 17) is a surface-to air missile system (also known as “Gainful” according to the NATO designation) with radars for the acquisition of targets, which are the enemy cruise missiles and strike aircrafts.

Nevertheless, why does Russia deploy such an advanced anti-aircraft structure if Isis/Daesh has no planes?

The simple answer to this question is because Russia wants to reduce and eventually eliminate Western raids, often objectively inconclusive or scarcely effective, also due to the lack of a network for target acquisition.

Conversely, Russia wishes to take Syria as a whole, after destroying or minimizing Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.

President Putin needs a victory in Syria – firstly because the defeat of Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate avoids the jihadist radicalization of the over twenty million Muslim residents and citizens of Russia.

If the Russian and Central Asian Islam takes fire, Russia can no longer control – militarily or economically – the energy networks towards Europe and the Mediterranean region, which is the central axis of its geoeconomy.

Moreover, Vladimir Putin wants to become the only player of the Syrian crisis because, for Russia, ousting the West from a NATO neighboring country, which is pivotal for control over the Mediterranean region, means to become – in the future – one of the two players or even the first player in the Mare Nostrum, with strategic consequences which are unimaginable today.

Finally the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems are needed to wipe out the aircrafts of the powers not coordinating with Russia and to strengthen military cooperation with the countries which have accepted the Russian air superiority.

For example Israel which, for the time being, offsets by Russia the de facto breaking of military and strategic relations with the United States and the political anti-Semitism mounting in Europe.

Furthermore, Putin also holds together – in a hegemonic way – Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, thus setting himself up as a mediator and power broker between the Shi’ite bloc and the West when, in all likelihood, the clash between the Sunnis and the “Party of Ali” will become disastrous and fatal for European security.

Furthermore, the Russian President wants to push the United States away from the Middle East definitively, regardless of the United States maintaining or not their preferential relations with Saudi Arabia.

Finally, within the UN Security Council, Russia will do its utmost to capitalize on its hopefully future victory against Isis/Daesh, by exchanging it with the achievement of other Russian primary interests: the management of the Arctic; the forthcoming militarization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the regionalization of NATO eastward and possibly a new military agreement with China, which would make the composition of the UN Security Council completely asymmetrical.

Not to mention the great attraction which Russia would hold for a Eurasian peninsula left alone by the United States and devoid of acceptable defenses in the Southeast.

In this case, the Eurasia myth of the Russian philosopher and strategist, Alexander Dugin, would come true very quickly.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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