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The Ass and the Elephant: Russia and the American Presidency

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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Whether one truly believes in the old adage that the President of the United States is the ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘the most powerful person on the global stage,’ it is unquestionable that whoever holds the Oval Office in the White House wields tremendous influence and impact far beyond the borders of America. As the world looks on with fascination in 2016 at the coming confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, questions remain as to which candidate is favored by which foreign leaders.

While mainstream American media is still basically covering the race with horrified fascination at the popularity and perseverance of the Trump campaign, the reality beyond America seems to show his candidacy is being taken quite seriously by other countries. Some may even be taking it not just seriously but favorably when compared to the anticipated presidency of another Clinton.

At the moment, Russia seems to be one of those countries. However, deeper analysis shows this ‘support’ might be more of an indictment against past Hillary positions and statements rather than based on real evidence that accurately predicts what a Trump presidency might mean for Moscow. In fact, looking at both candidates strictly from a ‘what-this-means-for-Russia?’ perspective reveals the next four years of White House-Kremlin relations could be rather problematic no matter who wins.

Hillary Clinton

Before some of the specific statements and positions of Hillary Clinton on Russia are considered, a subtle comment needs to be made about the state of foreign policy within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to potential candidates for President. Approximately four years ago I published a very popular piece that argued how the foreign policy of President Barack Obama was by and large ‘Republican’ in its conservative orthodoxy. While I admitted that this traditionalist approach could be partially explained by the personal comfort level of the President himself, American presidential race history also weighed heavily in explaining these right-of-center positions for a left-of-center President. This same heavy weight affects Hillary just as much as Obama and therefore bears repeating.

Why do liberal leaders in America become largely conservative statesmen when it comes to real decision-making on the global stage? Some of this is undoubtedly tied to what Democrats have had to fend off as an entire party in the past generation of presidential races: that Democrats are too focused on domestic affairs and are unfit or inexperienced to handle world affairs. In essence, Democrats always have to defend against the accusation of being foreign policy weaklings. This accusation is never leveled against Republican candidates (even when a particular candidate may be internationally amateurish, his party’s reputational legacy is apparently automatically transferred to him. This is clearly happening today with Trump).

This ‘Chamberlain Syndrome’ (Democrat-as-global-appeaser) has existed for quite some time, but it was surely exacerbated by 9/11 and the new emphasis on national security. It was a major part of the lead-up to the 2004 election, when some analysts warned, ‘if Democrats are to have any hope of returning to power in 2004, or even of running competitively and keeping the U.S. two-party system healthy and balanced in the coming decade, they will have to convince the American people that they are as capable as Republicans of protecting the United States from terrorism and other security threats.’ While it was assumed that it would be quite some time before Democrats could actually win national elections based on their national security and foreign policy stances, the big hope was to have the party advance far enough so that it would stop losing national elections solely because of these two factors. This was arguably the biggest lesson learned from the Democratic failure of 2004, when Vietnam war veteran, Purple Heart winner, and long-time Foreign Affairs Senate stalwart John Kerry lost to Bush, who had no such international military service accolades to lean on.

While in the past Democrats could always criticize Republicans for being too eager to consider war (all stick, no carrot), the reverse accusation thrown back at Democrats post-9/11 seemed more damning (all carrot, no stick). What Democrats as a party needed to ensure was that Americans could see them as not too weak or awkward when it came to handling said stick. Undoubtedly this was a legacy lesson made disturbingly eternal when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis stuck his head out of a tank in 1988, ostensibly to make people believe in his toughness, and instead became the butt of such jokes and ridicule that it arguably led to his loss to George H.W. Bush.

It seems clear that ever since that debacle Democrats have been quick to overreact to such criticism. They thus tend to be even quicker than Republicans to line up and show the ‘military chevrons’ symbolically tattooed on their arms, signifying their willingness and capability to defend America as aggressively as the opposing party. This historical weight was prominent on Obama because his past experience as a Chicago community organizer, followed by very limited service as a single-term Senator, created a hyper-sensitivity to ‘not being internationally ready.’ If anything, this same weight is heavier on Hillary: not only must she fight the traditionally sexist accusations made against all women politicians as being ‘peacemakers’ and not ‘war-makers.’ She also must fight her own personal history, which if anything began as classically feminist and liberal, two things never commonly associated with the military or the utilization of hard power. Given this background, both within the party in general and her personality in specific, it becomes much easier to understand why Hillary’s comments and positions over the years have been so decidedly skeptical and critical toward Russia. Easier to understand, however, does not necessarily translate into easier to accept.

-Many of Hillary’s critics tend to cite her steadfast belief in the mythology of ‘American exceptionalism’ and the country’s self-proclaimed role as ‘leader of the free world.’ To be fair, most Washington politicians will at least give public voice to these same ideas but few have also been Secretary of State and maintain very close ties to the military-security complex. It was Ralph Nader who decried her as both a ‘deep corporatist and deep militarist…never having met a weapons system she didn’t like.’ Perhaps most significant, this characterization would have been impossible to imagine when she began in Washington as First Lady. One only need look at the failed managed health care initiative Bill Clinton gave to her charge during his first term to see how dramatically her issue foci and temperament have adapted over time.

-Hillary still maintains unofficial and official contacts within her Eastern European team that are, amazingly, highly adaptable neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration and have succeeded in staying near to the ears of Obama, Clinton, and Kerry over time. Anatol Lieven, the renowned scholar at King’s College London, has openly decried that too many of the figures currently surrounding Hillary are old school members of the military, foreign policy, and security establishment that chronically view Russia with Cold War attitudes, regardless of evidence.

-During the Crimea crisis in 2014, Hillary tried to make a connection between Putin policy on the secession/annexation issue with policies pursued by Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. Given that over 20 million Russians died fighting Hitler, a sacrifice many historians the world over consider the crucial lynchpin that ultimately led to Hitler’s defeat, and that WWII in Russia is officially known instead as the ‘Great Fatherland War,’ it was incredibly rash and ill-thought to make such flippantly inaccurate connections given how important Russian-American relations will continue to be to the office Hillary is pursuing.

-At the powerful and influential Brookings Institution, Hillary stated that more needed to be done to ‘up the costs’ on Russia in general and Putin in specific because of Russian action in Syria. These comments were of course made under the aegis of honoring international law and wanting an end to conflict, even though Russia was formally invited to enter Syria and its intervention was technically in line with said international law. Neither statement can be formally applied to the American assistance given to the chaotically diverse opposition groups trying to overthrow Assad. This type of ‘reworking the narrative’ is continually irritating to Russia: what it considers to be blatant and untruthful manipulation of the global media covering events actually transpiring on the ground.

-Hillary has not been very gracious when discussing her personal opinion of Putin as a man, having once even described him as having ‘no soul.’ In her book “Hard Choices”, she called him ‘thin-skinned and autocratic.’ This fuels a general perception within the corridors of power in Russia that perhaps Hillary views this relationship too personally: that as long as Vladimir Putin is President of Russia (which could very well be for the entirety of a Hillary presidency), then she will not strive to achieve better relations with the country nor will she even treat Russia as an equal partner on areas of global mutual interest.

-Hillary has maintained self-serving double standards in interviews, drawing false distinctions between the presidencies of Medvedev from 2008-2012 and the return of Putin after 2012. On the one hand, she would decry Medvedev of simply doing the bidding of Prime Minister Putin, but then on the other hand would praise her ability to work and get things done with Medvedev. Medvedev, therefore, has been both a puppet who does nothing and a puppet master who let the United States achieve a nuclear arms deal, Iranian sanctions, and facilitate further operations in Afghanistan. In a massively publicized interview with the famous television journalist Judy Woodruff, Hillary clearly established a stance marked by distrust and wariness toward Russia, even if begrudgingly acknowledging that it was still a country that had to be worked with.

While many traditional liberals within the Democratic Party have issues with what they consider to be the blatantly ‘far right’ conservative foreign policy positions of Hillary, the real concern for the Russian Federation is that it sees her as a candidate that, correctly or incorrectly, wants to use Russia and Putin as a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy to establish her own ‘toughness’ on the global stage and leans on outdated Cold War rhetoric to analyze contemporary strategies and initiatives. If Russia is interested in establishing new 21stcentury relations with the United States not beholden instinctively to the legacies of the 20th, then it is hard-pressed to view Hillary Clinton as the President that would be willing to create such an environment. This is what likely fuels the quasi-positive statements coming from Russia about Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Russia should be wary of wanting a President just because he isn’t Hillary. While Donald brings a different style and approach to potential relations with Russia, it does not mean those relations will produce anything new and innovative.

Donald Trump

Having examined some of the more strident comments and commentaries made by Hillary toward Russia, it is hard to avoid the impression that Russia may be ‘supporting’ a Trump presidency in very much the same way so many Americans are: they simply do not want a Clinton presidency. In my university classes I often caution students from engaging in what I call ‘negative voting:’ the vote being cast is not so much FOR a particular candidate but rather AGAINST the opposing one. When citizens cast votes based on negation rather than affirmation, then it is not uncommon that the succeeding presidency is ultimately disappointing. I believe this will be applicable to Russia as well if it thinks simply preventing Hillary results automatically in a better presidency for Russian-American relations. To wit:

-Within Donald’s campaign has been a penchant for making bold statements that subsequently get walked back soon after. He did it with the building of a wall against Mexicans; did it with the promise to tax the super-rich; did it with the promise to raise the minimum wage; did it with the proposal to simply ban all self-declared Muslims from entering the country. While many Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) lament this as making it impossible to understand just what a Trump presidency will truly look like, many former business associates have warned that this spinning and counter-spinning is what his administration will be: no solid principles, simply a willingness to jump back and forth across diametrically opposed positions with no real logic as to why. Ultimately, the accusation is one of being supremely self-serving. Russia may think this is a personality it can work with, but that makes an assumption that the self-serving egotism will be rational and predictable. Moscow seems to emphasize the word ‘pragmatism’ with Donald. But the policy spins, flip-flops, and contradictions do not indicate pragmatism. They indicate unreliability.

-Donald has made headlines by saying he is willing to work with Russia, ‘but only from a position of strength,’ while also adding that the United States should be willing to walk away from Russia if it is ‘too demanding.’ Since Hillary has so clearly staked out a position openly antagonistic toward Russia, comments like these from Donald make it seem like a dramatically different policy. In real terms, it is not. The key is cluing in to the code words. Whenever a politician in America speaks about positions of strength and not wanting to see an opponent too demanding, it is basically arguing for the very same position crafted by Hillary: the preferences of the United States will take priority and working together only takes place if America is granted the clear leadership role. This attitudinal arrogance has been sanctified in Russian-American relations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and no President so far has seemed willing to blaze a new path. Donald’s comments are not trailblazing: they are secretly masked to hide what will simply be more of the status quo. He will be partner to Putin as long as Putin accepts a subordinate role, which, obviously, seems highly unlikely.

-The previous point is a perfect segue to what will likely be the real fuel between Trump and Putin – ego and machismo. These two things are currency to Donald. It is clearly what he admires about Putin: whether countries around the world approve or disapprove of Putin policies and initiatives, one thing is never denied – his power and undeniable sense of authority over his administration and system. That Donald sees this as something to admire does not in fact indicate a willingness to be ‘mentored’ by Putin. Rather, it is far more plausible that the relationship devolves quickly into a battle of egos. In America, this is often denigrated as a ‘pissing contest.’ When Putin called Donald a ‘bright person, talented without a doubt,’ it inspired Trump to respond: ‘I like him because he called me a genius. He said Trump is the real leader.’ In other words, substance matters not. Just be sure to stroke the Donald’s ego and he will consider you a ‘friend’ and ‘partner.’ But what will his mercurial personality do when a disagreement on substance overrides any mutual admiration society based on style? For Donald, it will be the end of partnership, the end of friendship, and thus, the end of ‘new’ Russian-American relations. Ironically, Russia may find out that only Putin is the pragmatist. Donald is simply a narcissist.

-In a bit of reverse psychology, Russia should be wary when one of the most biting opponents of Putin, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, vociferously proclaims how Trump is the American version of ‘Putinism’ and that Donald’s presidency would be the ‘best hope’ for Russia.[8] Kasparov’s logic is that the election of Donald would severely weaken American democracy and rip apart positive trans-Atlantic relations. Put simply, Kasparov treats Donald like a de facto agent of Russian interests, ie, Donald would be willingly subordinate to Putin. As mentioned before, ego and narcissism will not allow that. In the current state of Russian-American relations, when so many Americans are being fed stories about the adversarial aggressiveness of Russia, there simply is no evidence-based thought process to make someone believe Donald would buck American opinion about a so-called enemy. Rather, he is much more likely to sycophantically cater to American paranoia, in order to guarantee his own need for self-aggrandizement.

-Finally, the comments of Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Upper House Committee for Foreign Affairs, illustrate perfectly how much of the hope on Donald is really just about the lack of hope with Hillary:

“New chances may appear only as radically new tendencies in the White House, and we are talking not only about pro-Russian sentiments, we simply need some fresh air, some ‘wind of change’ in Washington. Then, we can reset certain things and agree on continuation of the dialogue…In the context of these two factors Trump looks slightly more promising…At least, he is capable of giving a shake to Washington. He is certainly a pragmatist and not a missionary like his main opponent Clinton.”

What this article has established is how misplaced such faith tends to be when considering Donald. People in Russia are making false connections: if you are not a missionary, then you must be a pragmatist. There are other more dangerous and damaging options in that equation. It is not binomial, 0 or 1. To repeat: just because Donald is not Hillary does not mean he is better or more approachable for Russia. His track record and personality indicate otherwise.

There are in fact some figures of cautious moderation in Russia and they are offering wisdom on the coming election. People like Aleksey Pushkov, head of the Lower House Committee for Foreign Relations, and Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, while admitting their understanding of the immediate Russian attraction of Donald over Hillary, also emphasize how the ‘system’ of Washington politics tends to bring any incoming President quickly to heel and that it is impossible to truly know what to expect from a Trump presidency. I think it is possible to reliably guess, however. For Russian-American relations to significantly change from its current negative status quo, the incoming President would have to be eager and intellectually motivated to instill innovative new political thinking and diplomatic pathways. Hillary has clearly staked her position in the ranks of the Old Guard of suspicion, skepticism, and distrust. Donald perhaps has not done this publicly. But his need to be adored and admired by the American public (an American public constantly fed a steady stream of negative perception and analysis about Russia and Russian leadership) means he would have to be willing to abandon the feeding of his narcissism for the sake of improved Russian relations. And while there are many mysteries in this world, one thing is most certainly NOT a mystery: the person Donald has always loved most of all is…..the Donald. Thus, Russia needs to be careful as it approaches the coming 2016 American presidential elections. Some loose assumptions and false connections are driving apparent loyalty to a candidate that is unlikely to offer anything close to what is hoped for. Indeed, it may just be the sad news that 2016 goes down simply as the American election that offers Russia option ‘C’ as the best choice: None of the above.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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The importance of the first Russia-Africa Summit

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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After several years of high-level consultations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally hinted that Russia would organize its first Russia-Africa Summit of African leaders and Ministers to roll out a comprehensive strategic road map outlining concrete economic sectors for investment, issues relating to trade and culture for Africa.

Addressing a group of invited African leaders at 2018 BRICS Summit on July 27 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Putin told the gathering “I would like to inform you that we are studying the idea of holding a Russia-Africa summit with the participation of Heads of African states. This could be preceded by meetings of prominent businessmen, policy experts and public figures. And I intend to discuss this with representatives of African countries.”

He did not provide specific dates or any further details about the proposed summit, but strongly acknowledged that Russia has always given priority to the development of relations with African countries, based on long-standing traditions of friendship and mutual assistance, and Africa has now emerged as the world’s most rapidly developing regions.

The leaders of African countries who attended his special meeting came from Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Gabon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has earlier said in interview with the Hommes d’Afrique magazine that At present, Russia’s relations with African countries were progressing both on a bilateral basis and along the line of African regional organisations, primarily the African Union and the Southern African Development Community.

He noted Russia has maintained an intensive political dialogue with African countries on one hand and on other side, representatives from African countries are active participants in international forums hosted by Russia.

“Our African friends note the need for Russia’s active presence in the region, and more frequently express their interest in holding a Russia-Africa summit. Such a meeting would undoubtedly help deepen our cooperation on the full range of issues,” he explained.

“However, it is necessary to bear in mind that arranging an event of such a scale with the participation of over fifty heads of state and government requires most careful preparation, including in terms of its substantive content,” Lavrov further argued.

As such, specific Russian participants in bilateral or multilateral cooperation should be identified, which are not only committed to long-term cooperation but are also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition. Equally important is African businesspeople who are looking to work on the Russian market, the Foreign Minister elaborated in his discussion.

Definitely, time was needed to solve all those issues, Lavrov said and suggested, both Russia and Africa could start with experts’ meetings, for example, within the framework of the St Petersburg Economic Forum or the Valdai forum and other economic cum business related events where business leaders participate.

He assertively promised that Russia would do its best to raise trade and economic ties to a high level of political cooperation. Currently, Russia’s trade with Sub-Saharan countries amounted to $3.6 billion in 2017, compared to $3.3 billion in 2016 and $2.2 billion in 2015.

Maxim Chereshnev, the Chairman of the Board of the Council for the Development of Foreign Trade and International Economic Relations also noted that Russia and African states have a long story of relations. But, what is very important today is the fact that new opportunities are arising for medium size enterprises for collaboration in Russia and Africa.

According to him, nowadays perspectives of business contacts between Russian and African business are actually underestimated, however, there are a huge number of opportunities. For instance, agricultural, high-tech, medicine, energy-saving technologies, logistics and infrastructure projects are really perspective for strengthening Russia-African economic cooperation.

The Russia-Africa summit, would therefore, highlight favorable conditions for active business interaction, participating Russians and Africans establish closer contacts and continue cooperating in key sectors of the economy of both regions. Hence the significance of the proposed summit.

As Professor David Shinn, an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), wrote in an email to GNA, Russian government’s weakness for investing or boosting economic cooperation compared to many foreign countries has been primarily the question of project financing in Africa.

As authorities have always explained Russia has its own priorities, and Africa is a priority for Russia but it’s Russia’s own priority to determine the pace and how to raise economic presence in Africa, he argued, and finally added “it neatly makes the argument that the relationship continues to be a low priority. It is difficult to affirm or change policy when key people are not present to make decisions.”

As already publicly known, all previous summits held by many foreign countries with Africa, there were concrete financial packages earmarked towards infrastructure development and concrete ways to improve bilateral trade with African countries.

From Russia’s perspective, there are undeniably important geopolitical implications working with Africa. Nevertheless, Russia’s efforts in the region have been limited thus far which many experts and researchers have attributed to lack of a system of financing policy projects.

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Russia–Turkey Relations Need a Stronger Foundation

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Relations between Russia and Turkey have always been and will always be a controversial subject. Even over the last couple of years, this relationship experienced dramatic ups and downs, sudden U-turns from cooperation to confrontation and back to cooperation.

First, relations between Moscow and Ankara will remain important for both sides. Russia and Turkey are neighbors with extensive and diverse bilateral ties — including trade and investments, energy and construction, as well as a vibrant social, humanitarian and cultural interaction.

Second, there will always be a mixture of common, parallel, overlapping and colliding interests driving Moscow and Ankara in dealing with each other.

Third, various external players — both global powers (the European Union, NATO, and the United States) and regional actors (Iran, Gulf States, and Israel) will continue to have a profound impact on Russia–Turkey relations.

Both sides should be interested in more stable, more predictable and less adversarial Russia–Turkey relations. Let’s face it: there will be no real trust between Russia and Turkey until we deal together with the most sensitive, the most divisive, and the most unpleasant issues dividing us.

As the recent history demonstrated, the “agree to disagree” approach is not good enough to move the relationship ahead. Thinking strategically, one can even imagine a more important role for Turkey as a country that might be best suited to facilitate a renewal of the currently nearly dormant NATO-Russian Council.

Russia is not an alternative to Turkey’s cooperation with the European Union; neither Turkey is a substitute for Russia working harder to resolve its problems with the United States and Europe. We need Russia–Turkey relationship to acquire a strategic depth of its own.

Relations between Russia and Turkey have always been and will always be a controversial subject. For both countries, this is a very special relationship; it contains a lot of emotions, mythology, prejudices, uneasy legacies of the past, and sometimes unrealistic hopes for the future. The glass remains half-full or half-empty, depending on how you look at it and on whether you are trying to fill it or to drain it.

Even over the last couple of years, this relationship experienced dramatic ups and downs, sudden U-turns from cooperation to confrontation and back to cooperation. The 2015 — 2016 crisis, albeit a short one, demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of this unique set of connections linking the two countries. No doubt, in years to come we will see more of surprising developments in Russia–Turkey relations that we cannot possibly predict today. Still, there are a number of features of this relationship, which are likely to remain constant in the foreseeable future.

First, relations between Moscow and Ankara will remain important for both sides. Russia and Turkey are neighbors with extensive and diverse bilateral ties — including trade and investments, energy and construction, as well as a vibrant social, humanitarian and cultural interaction. Moreover, they share vast common neighborhood; for both countries, this neighborhood presents tempting opportunities and serious challenges at the same time. Both countries claim a special Eurasian status in world politics that puts them in a league of their own, distinguishing Russia and Turkey from other purely European or Asian states. Therefore, it is hard to imagine the two powers drifting too far away from each other and losing interest in the bilateral relationship.

Second, there will always be a mixture of common, parallel, overlapping, and colliding interests driving Moscow and Ankara in dealing with each other. Elements of cooperation and competition (hopefully, not direct confrontation) will be blended by politicians into a single sweet and sour cocktail and offered to the Russian and Turkish public. We will continue to live with numerous paradoxes. For instance, Turkey is a NATO member, but it plans to purchase the most advanced Russian air defense systems (S-400). The two countries actively cooperate on the ground in Syria, but they have very different attitudes to the current Syrian leadership in Damascus. Russians and Turks are equally interested in stability in the South Caucasus but quite often, unfortunately, they find themselves on the opposite sides of the barricades in the region.

Third, various external players — both global powers (the European Union, NATO, and the United States) and regional actors (Iran, Gulf States, and Israel) will continue to have a profound impact on Russia–Turkey relations. External players can push Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, but they can also push Russians and Turks apart by offering either of them alternative options for strategic, political and economic cooperation. The Russia–Turkey cooperation will also rely on such independent variables as the rise of international terrorism, fluctuations of energy prices, volatility of the global economic and financial system and, more generally, on the fundamentals of the emerging world order.

Both sides should be interested in more stable, more predictable and less adversarial Russia–Turkey relations. It is particularly important today, when the international system at large is becoming less stable and less predictable. Besides, both Russia and Turkey face enormous challenges of economic, social and political modernization in a less than perfect external environment; it would be stupid to add to existing lists of their foreign policy problems a new round of Russia–Turkey confrontation.

So, is it possible to prevent colliding interests from curbing joint work on common problems? What can we do to reduce the risks of potential future crises between Moscow and Ankara? How can we mitigate negative impacts of external factors on our bilateral cooperation?

The immediate answer to these questions is clear — above all, we need to enhance our lines of communication. This is not about preparing the next Erdogan-Putin meeting, nor about generating new technical proposals for the Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission. This is not about mil-to-mil contacts on the ground in Syria. The enhancement of communication should bring it far beyond serving operational needs of political leaders. Let’s face it: there will be no real trust between Russia and Turkey until we deal together with the most sensitive, the most divisive, and the most unpleasant issues dividing us. These issues include mutual historical grievances, existing suspicions about one side allegedly supporting subversive and even terrorist groups on the territory of the other side, concerns that the partner country might abruptly reconsider its commitments to cooperation, should it get a better deal from a third party, and so on. If they cannot discuss these issues at the official level today, one should start with a track two format providing for informal expert dialogues.

Even more important would be not to limit such dialogues to articulating existing disagreements and conflicting narratives, but to identify ways, in which disagreements can be bridged, and narratives reconciled. As the recent history demonstrated, the “agree to disagree” approach is not good enough to move the relationship ahead. If resolving difficult problems does not seem possible now, let us at least try to stabilize areas of potential conflict. For instance, Russia and Turkey will continue to disagree on the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nevertheless, they can exercise their respective influence on both sides of the conflict in order to prevent another outbreak of military hostilities and further losses of human lives. Likewise, Moscow and Ankara are not likely to come to a common stance on Crimea. However, Turkey can play an important positive role in preventing any further cultural and civic alienation of the Crimean Tatar population in the peninsula.

Sometimes, what we routinely perceive as a part of the problem might become a part of the solution. For example, the Turkey’s membership in NATO is commonly regarded in Russia as an obstacle on the way to more productive security cooperation with Ankara. Counterintuitively, it is exactly the Turkish membership, which can help to reduce risks of dangerous incidents in the Black Sea. These risks started growing in 2014, when both Russia and NATO significantly increased their naval presence here and engaged themselves into ever more frequent naval exercises. Why doesn’t Ankara take an initiative in promoting more confidence-building measures between Russia and NATO in the Black Sea? Thinking strategically, one can even imagine a more important role for Turkey as a country that might be best suited to facilitate a renewal of the currently nearly dormant NATO-Russian Council.

It is also important to make sure that cooperation between Russia and Turkey is not regarded by either side as the “second best option” when the “first best option” is not available for this or that reason. Russia is not an alternative to Turkey’s cooperation with the European Union; neither Turkey is a substitute for Russia working harder to resolve its problems with the United States and Europe. Situational alliances based on shared frustrations and common complexes of inferiority usually do not last. We need Russia–Turkey relationship to acquire a strategic depth of its own. To quote Saint Augustine, “the higher our structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation”.

First published in our partner RIAC

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“Russian Propaganda”: On Social Networks, in Eastern Europe, and Soon Everywhere

Oleg Shakirov

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“Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign,” reads the fairly straightforward beginning of RAND Corporation’s report on Russia’s influence on East European countries via social media. The document, compiled by eight authors with support from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, looks into the nature and effectiveness of this influence and aims to identify possible countermeasures to it. The report is the latest in a series of publications by the research centre, which has close ties to the Pentagon, on how to counteract Russia. In particular, it complements the widely cited 2006 report “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” which talked about the threat that Russia allegedly posed to the Baltic States and possible ways to deter it by conventional means. The new report extrapolates this logic to the digital space. Titled “Russian Social Media Influence,” it is a continuation of the collection of U.S. projects on Russia’s informational impact, which, in the light of the scandal concerning “Russian interference” in the 2016 presidential election, has turned into a new “major threat” for political circles in Washington.

The dispute involving key American think tanks, including RAND Corporation, extends to more general questions about the role of information in international relations. However, it poses a very practical question to Russia at the same time: what should Russia do about “Russian propaganda”?

What is Propaganda…

The main idea that runs throughout the second chapter of the new report is consonant with a quotation from a recent article in Vanity Fair on the “Russian threat” to the U.S. 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential election. “So what exactly is Russia planning for the upcoming election?” the author muses. “The correct question, a half dozen security experts and former and current government officials have told me, is what are they not planning?” To draw an analogy, the RAND report raises the question of what Russia does not influence.

The authors sound quite dramatic: “Moscow blends attributed, affiliated, and nonattributed elements and exploits new realities of online and social media to conduct information warfare at a perhaps unprecedented scale and level of complexity” (pp. 7–8). “The Russian government’s sphere of influence is global” (p. 9). “The Kremlin has built a complex production and dissemination apparatus that integrates actors at varying levels of attribution to enable large-scale and complex information operations” (p. 11).

These conclusions are based on a compilation of approaches and cases taken from English-language materials, most of them published after 2014. The authors do not question the results presented in the sources they cite; they give examples to illustrate their main thesis about the Russian information threat. The report achieves its primary goal of setting the context and leading the reader to the conclusion that “Russia is engaged in an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed at multiple different national audiences to include its near-abroad neighbors on its western border” (p. 25).

The main problem with this chapter and the report in general is that the authors do not even attempt to give a clear definition of what Russian propaganda is. On the contrary, the characteristics they mention – the complex, global and multilevel nature – render “Russian propaganda” potentially unlimited, and they can be arbitrarily attributed to any phenomenon whatsoever. The problem with such a comprehensive approach is that, if we bring it to its ultimate logical end, any information coming from Russia, or even any information about Russia with which the observer disagrees, may be viewed as propaganda. In this situation, the entire world is split into “us” and “them.” And this logic of confrontation is reflected in the report’s recommendations.

… How it can be detected…

The authors propose monitoring social networks as a method for counteracting “Russian propaganda.” In the third and fourth chapters of the report, they offer their own approach to analysing Twitter communities and the dissemination of pro-Russian information. The document uses Twitter data to identify pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian communities and the most influential actors within them. The authors also determined the language signature of pro-Russian users and attempt to assess the impact of “Russian propaganda” on Twitter users in Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia.

This approach is interesting in terms of its methodology, but it has a number of significant flaws; the authors acknowledge some of these but disregard others. For example, one of the reasons they give for their choice of Twitter for analysis is that tweets are easily accessible. However, Twitter is not the most popular social network in the region: only 14 per cent of internet users in Ukraine, and 2 per cent of internet users in Estonia have a Twitter account (p. 27). The report suggests that opinion leaders on Twitter can also lead opinions on other offline and online channels, but this assumption does not appear to be convincing enough, as it is not supported by additional evidence.

A more serious flaw, one which the authors omit, is the geographical filter. One of the criteria used for the selection of tweets is the account’s location. The authors obtain the location data along with the rest of the data available through subscription to GNIP (this company, which aggregates data from social networks, was acquired by Twitter in 2014). According to GNIP, an account’s location is determined based on the information entered by the user themselves in the relevant box. If no such information is specified, GNIP does not attempt to determine the account’s coordinates in any other way. If several different cities, or even a made-up city, are entered, the GNIP algorithm will try to establish the location, but its guess will not necessarily be accurate. And those researchers who only use the data available from Twitter have no way of running a mass verification to establish the actual whereabouts of each user, even if the user in question provided accurate information about themselves.

No less controversial are the authors’ attempts to link pro-Russian Twitter activists with the Russian government. In the third chapter, they arrive at the conclusion that “many pro-Russia activists espousing a pro-Kremlin viewpoint hail from Russia and actively spread Russian propaganda on Twitter.” (p. 43) The authors acknowledge that the jury is out on whether or not the Russian government provides support to such users; nevertheless, “one can envision [italics added by me] Russia supporting these accounts either by creating nonattributed Twitter accounts that can serve as part of its bot and troll campaign or by supporting like-minded activists situated throughout the region adjacent to Russia” (p. 43). Yet further in the report the authors repeat several times that it is difficult to immediately distinguish authentic discussions from troll and bot activity.

The authors cite the opinions of regional experts to support their proposal to use this approach for monitoring the growth and geographic expansion of the pro-Russian Twitter community, since “such changes might presage pro-Russia influence and operations in the region that are more malign” (p. 59). However, given the aforementioned shortcomings of RAND’s approach, and its other flaws, it cannot be viewed as a reliable monitoring tool.

… And how to fight it

The report leaves the impression that it is very difficult for the West to tackle “Russian propaganda” in Eastern Europe: the United States, NATO and the European Union are not coordinated, and their awkward attempts at anti-Russian information operations in the region may well have the opposite effect – local Russian-speaking citizens are sceptical towards media which are openly sponsored by the West. The popularity of Russian media in the Baltic States presents the biggest threat, since it is difficult to compete with them for viewers. Worse still, due to their common past with Russia and the continuing infringement of their civil rights, Russian speakers in the region are more susceptible to information from Russia. This trend is additionally exacerbated by the discriminatory policy adopted by the regional authorities towards the Russian language. The differences between the region’s countries make the task of producing a single media product that would suit all audiences very difficult: on the one hand, “No one in Estonia wants to watch Latvian television” (p. 69); on the other hand, Ukraine’s approach, which involves the stringent censorship of information originating from Russia, is not that easy to replicate in the other countries in the region.

The authors suggest that these difficulties could be overcome by way of detecting, condemning and blocking propaganda on social networks. They propose using the experience gained as part of the Redirect Method programme developed by one of Google subsidiary companies aimed at countering Islamic State propaganda. The reports recommends that greater efforts be spent on promoting the United States, NATO and the European Union among Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Europe, as well as facilitating the creation of local content in Russian. In the latter instance, the authors recommend providing support to Russian-language influencers who have a “pan-European identity.” Contacts with NATO or the European Union are capable of undermining the reputation of such influencers, so the advice is for them to be supported by the local governments. However, this should be done with caution and, if possible, through local NGOs. Whether consciously or not, the authors’ proposal with regard to influencers brings them close to nonattributed Twitter activists, precisely those the report suggests the West should fight.

One of the recommendations in the report is potentially universal. Speaking about the need to increase immunity to propaganda among at-risk groups of the population, the authors effectively mean an increase in media literacy: developing people’s ability to process information and apply critical thinking. In a more benign political climate, raising media literacy could become a joint project of Russia and the West aimed at overcoming mutual misunderstanding and debunking mutual misconceptions. But the current situation is different; in keeping with the logic of informational confrontation, the RAND report does not contain proposals that could be implemented jointly with Russia.

Russian influence is the new black

In a broader context, “Russian Social Media Influence” reflects the interest of the U.S. research community in information influence, and in Russian information influence in particular. This interest has increased dramatically over the past few years. The authors of the report cite extensively from Clint Watts’s Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News. Watts, a former FBI operative, described the recent changes to the Washington ecosystem in a recent podcast interview. According to him, prior to the 2016 presidential election, Washington’s main fad was cybersecurity, which had replaced counterterrorism, the fad of the 2000s. After the election, the U.S. capital focused on disinformation: “[W]e have these big booms in D.C. where everybody starts up a project around whatever the big threat is. And so, there is a lot of discussion, but the big difference today [from counterterrorism in the past] is the government isn’t leading it, it’s coming from like think tanks, and the academic community, and social media companies […].”

Watts’s words are corroborated by a review of the projects carried out by leading analytical centres in the United States over the past two years. Since 2016, nearly all of the centres engaged in foreign policy research on the University of Pennsylvania Top 15 ranking have either released reports on the influence of Russian information or mentioned the topic in their reports on Russia or U.S.–Russian relations (see the table). The only leading centres that have not launched projects on propaganda are the Cato Institute and Kennan Institute. In the latter case, however, it is only a matter of time: Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, is working on a project entitled “How the West Can Learn from Eastern EU’s Experience Battling Russian Disinformation.”

Think tank Report or project addressing Russian information influence (2016–2018)
Brookings Institution The Future of Political Warfare: Russia, the West, and the Coming Age of Global Digital Competition
Center for Strategic and International Studies The Kremlin Playbook Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe

Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Russian Election Interference: Europe’s Counter to Fake News and Cyber Attacks

The Return of Global Russia Project

Heritage Foundation U.S. Comprehensive Strategy Toward Russia <
RAND Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe

The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It

Center for American Progress (CAP) Special website https://themoscowproject.org/

Russia’s 5th Column

War by Other Means: Russian Active Measures and the Weaponization of Information

Acts of an Adversary: Russia’s Ongoing Hostilities Toward the United States and Its Allies

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media

Containing Russia: How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge

Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab Program

Special website https://disinfoportal.org/

Democratic Defense Against Disinformation

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2

Strategy of “Constrainment:” Countering Russia’s Challenge to the Democratic Order

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) Populism in Europe and Its Russian Love Affair
Center for New American Security (CNAS) The Future of U.S.-Russia Relations

Together, these projects indicate that the significant portion of the U.S. political elite agree that there is an informational threat emanating from Russia, and there is demand for such studies on the part of their sponsors. The reports offer a variety of proposals, which can be notionally graded from “modest,” including improvements to information exchange between the United States and its allies and the regulation of social networks, to really massive-scale proposals, such as covert measures by U.S. special operations forces “to combat Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe with truthful information about U.S. and allied activities and intentions” (Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia, p. 156) or setting up a “Counter-Disinformation Coalition” (Democratic Defense Against Disinformation, pp. 13–14).

These numerous recommendations make no mention of the possibility to engage Russia itself in order to remove the West’s concerns about the information threat. The closest anyone comes is the following passage from the Council on Foreign Relations report: “The United States should make clear that it will continue to support free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia, as it does all around the world. But it will respect Russia’s sovereign right to hold those elections free of outside manipulation with illicit means – just as it expects Russia to respect the United States’ right to do the same” (p. 22). This idea could be evolved into a dialogue on how both sides perceive information and political threats, if not into a mutual obligation to not intervene in each other’s internal affairs.

 “Russian Propaganda” and Russia

“Russian propaganda” is being touted as one of the main problems for the West, but it understandably worries Russia itself. The comprehensive approach of the RAND report and other similar projects on information influence makes it possible to detect a Russian trace virtually everywhere, and to level accusations at Russia irrespective of whether or not the country is actually involved.

At the official level, Russia (just like the West) considers itself under an aggressive information attack. Just like the West is sceptical of Russia’s concerns about information threats, the Russian leadership does not believe, or is unwilling to believe, in the sincerity of the revived fears in the West about Russia’s information influence.

Ironically, the growing focus of the United States on information influence leads to a convergence of the U.S. and Russian approaches to international information security. For years, the fundamental difference between the two sides was that the United States viewed cybersecurity in the strict sense of network security, software security and information protection, whereas Russia was additionally concerned with how information being disseminated could influence public perception. However, the convergence of approaches is not enough to reach an agreement in this field: as demonstrated by the recommendations put forward by the leading U.S. analytical centres, the possibility of negotiating with Russia remains an unpopular option.

For an individual, information warfare may not appear particularly terrible or even entirely realistic: it can be “switched off” by merely pressing a button on your TV set or smartphone and returning to whatever you were doing. However, at the level of societies and states, in which information plays a key role, this strategy does not work and avoiding confrontation is not at all easy. In Russia’s relations with the West, both sides are attempting to question or discredit each other’s information, which exacerbates mutual distrust.

One possible way to revert this trend would be for both sides to agree to a “disarmament” of their rhetoric or information campaigns. This idea was voiced in 2017 by EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer and Russian member of parliament Irina Yarovaya. Public diplomacy researcher Nicholas J. Cull recalls that Soviet and U.S. diplomats were discussing mutual stereotypes in the late 1980s. In practice, an “information disarmament” could include more substantive discussions on issues related to “incidents” in the information space and mutual accusations; coordinated measures such as a joint fight against common information threats; and also unilateral concessions such as opting for less belligerent rhetoric. The main objective of such information disarmament should be the restoration of mutual understanding between countries, but building trust between state and society is of no less importance. One way or another, this way could prove more effective than the promotion of “pan-European identity” by brand ambassadors on the backs of special operations forces.

First published in our partner RIAC

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