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Growing Russia-Iran military relations: An illusion?

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Not at all! Not an illusion, at least for time being. Russo-Iran relations are steadily growing and deepening. Moscow and Teheran are changing from the pragmatic business model of “armament supplier-buyer” to military cooperation. The closer cooperation serves both to target opponents of Assad – some of them backed by the USA – while also sending a sharp message to the US as fighting over the divided city of Aleppo reaches a critical point after five years of inconclusive civil war.

Six Russian long-distance Tu-22M3 and four Su-34 frontal bombers went to the Khamadan Airport in Iran on August 16. Arrival of Russian bombers at Hamadan Airbase in Iran – historic development captured headlines around the world – has set the tone for new type military relations between Russia and Iran –both have maintained, since the breakup of US-Iran military relations, strong military tires for a long time now. Further, the long-range Russian bombers armed with full payloads took off from Hamadan Airbase to attack facilities controlled by Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Jabhat Al Nusra (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh Al Sham) in Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor and Idlib provinces. On August 16, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Secretary of Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) stated that Iran had agreed to share its military facilities and capacities with Russia.

Russian strategic bombers launched from Iran struck rebel positions in Syria last week, in a second day of attacks that multiply Russian firepower in the Middle East and underscore unprecedented military cooperation between the Islamic Republic and a foreign power.

Military experts say this move was motivated both by economic reasons and the necessity to change the course of the battle for Aleppo. During combat missions in the Deirez-Zor Province on August 17, the planes destroyed an IS command post, killing over 150 Syrians. The Kremlin says the Tu-22M3 bombers attacked targets of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other factions in Syria that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of both Moscow and Tehran.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, it was necessary to relocate its war planes to the combat zone and increase the effectiveness of the mission flights. The Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, currently being used by the front line aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces, is not suitable for the Tu-22M3. The runway is too short and there is a lack of necessary infrastructure. Consequently, Russia and Syria asked Iran to let Russia deploy its planes at an Iranian base. Russia has increased the effectiveness of the long-distance flights at least threefold. Now each Tu-22M3 bomber carries about 20 tons of warheads and receives four-five targets for each flight.

The aim of the Russian terror operation in Syria was not only to support the Bashar al-Assad government and to fight terrorism, but also to get out of the political-diplomatic isolation in which the country found itself after the Ukrainian crisis. Iran says it brought Russia into the Syrian civil war due to its need of an air power to coordinate the ground operations, which Iran planned. Iranian parliamentarians raised concerns about the possibility of a foreign country establishing a military base in the country, which would violate the Iranian Constitution. High-ranking officials responded that the use of Hamedan air base was strictly for refueling purposes, while other officials assured the media that Russian planes would remain in Iran temporarily. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced Aug. 22 that the planes had left Iran “for the time being, after speculation that the departure of the Russian planes was due to outside pressure or internal disagreements.

Last week, a Russian transport helicopter Mi-8 was shot down in opposition rebel territory in northern Syria and all five crew and officers onboard were killed, the Kremlin said, in the deadliest single incident for the Russian military since its involvement in Syria’s civil war. The Mi-8 helicopter was shot down in Idlib province while returning to the Russian air base on Syria’s coast after delivering humanitarian goods to the city of Aleppo, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The helicopter had three crew members and two officers deployed with the Russian center at the Hemeimeem air base on the Syrian coast. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Idlib province has a strong presence of fighters both for the al-Qaida branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front and other groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Nusra Front announced last week that it was changing its name and relinquishing ties with al-Qaida in an attempt to undermine a potential US and Russian air campaign against its fighters. The group is part of a coalition of insurgent groups called Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, which has captured most of Idlib.

In July, two Russian airmen were killed in the central Homs province when their Mi-25 helicopter was shot down by what the Defense Ministry said were Islamic State fighters. A Mi-28N helicopter gunship crashed near Homs in April, killing both crew members, but the Russian military said there was no evidence it came under fire.

A Russian warplane was shot down by a Turkey along the Syrian border in November, and one of the two pilots was shot and killed from the ground after ejecting. Earlier a Syrian military official said that government forces repelled an attack by insurgents that was an attempt to break the siege imposed on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo. The development came a day after Syrian rebels launched the offensive to break up the government’s siege of eastern, rebel-held part of the city.

Basis

The Iran-Russia cooperation results from “the crisis of terrorism that has been created by some destructive countries in West Asia region and America, therefore Russia has found the right treatment for the region. Top Iranian officials often accuse the USA of creating and backing ISIS and other jihadists fighting Assad regime, claiming it is a bid to undermine their own Iran-led axis of resistance against US and Israeli influence in the region.

Indeed, the Iran-Russia cooperation looks temporary, defined by mutual recognition of the threat of ISIS, and “is not a coalition against a third-party state such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. It is true that taking the lead in battling and destroying Daesh ISIS in Syria and Iraq will have broader geopolitical consequences for rival states, but Moscow and Tehran have never wanted to exclude other actors from the Syrian scene. Their military cooperation is only aimed at accelerating the political solution and not winning the war in a zero sum manner. Therefore, Washington and its allies, if determined to defeat ISIS, should not feel concerned about possible long-term strategic consequences.

Russia-Iran relations have varied, often pragmatically but sometimes capriciously, according to broader agendas and with an eye to the US. Russia built Iran’s only nuclear power plant at Bushehr, but finished it years late and with frequent disputes over payments that at times seemed to emerge only when Russia was trying to cozy up to the USA.

In the 1990s, Iran refrained from backing Islamist Chechen rebels in their fight against Moscow in the 1990s, even as it supported similar militias elsewhere. Yet Russia repeatedly voted alongside the US to impose UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

And earlier this year – as sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program eased as part of a July 2015 accord with world powers – Russia agreed to sell Iran its S-300 anti-missile system, among many other arms sales. Iranian media reports that “substantial” parts of the S-300, which is to defend Iran’s nuclear sites, have already been delivered.

But while both sides have downplayed any greater regional ambitions, others see a larger strategy at play. “There could be more, and the possibility of spreading the Russian air campaign to Iraq,” says Felgenhauer. “The thing is not about Syria per se. Syria is important, but there is more: Russia wants to spread its influence over the entire region, have bases all over, push the Americans out and become the dominant power in the region.”

Meanwhile, Syria became an arena where, within a short span of time, Russia, with assistance from Iran and India was able to establish itself as a global power that could rapidly project its might thousands of kilometres away from its borders and at the same time, effectively strike terrorist groups who were also threatening the interests of the West.

UN estimates some 300,000 people are still trapped in the rebel section of Aleppo, with dwindling food and medical supplies. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned on Friday that basic supplies in eastern Aleppo could run out in three weeks.

Monday’s helicopter downing was the deadliest for the Russians since Moscow began carrying out airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces last September.

Strategic military cooperation

President Vladimir Putin met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran – “the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Iran’s leader, in an unprecedented characterization of any foreign leader, called Putin “a prominent figure in today’s world”. In January this year, Moscow and Tehran signed a military-cooperation deal that called for wider collaboration around the training of personnel and counter-terrorism activities.

Cooperation between Iran and Russia took a practical turn during the Syrian war. Both countries supported Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in direct opposition to the USA and western interests, as well as the interests of various regional actors. Relations between the two states continued to strengthen over time. In November 2015, in a high-profile meeting, Russian

Iranian and Russian interests coincide in two major areas. Apart from defying US hegemony, both countries seek to halt the expansion of US military bases in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region, as well as in this part of the world have given rise to a perceived threat to the security of Iran and Russia. These geopolitical sensitivities have formed a natural basis for cooperation between Iran and Russia. In the case of Iran, this has been one of the pillars of its foreign policy since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Russians, on the other hand, seek to ameliorate their wounded pride and increase their prestige as they attempt to address what they perceive as a lack of international respect and influence. In 2005, Putin said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

The emergence of a pro-West government in Ukraine in 2014 added to Russian anxieties. The Russians were concerned about a possible NATO military presence in their backyard. That exacerbated the confrontation between Russia and the West, led by the US, and sparked a chain of tit-for-tat actions and reactions. The Russians are now under economic pressure due to the sanctions imposed by the West with the US taking a leading role. In this context, Iran was identified as the best candidate for a Russian alliance in order to create a power pole to combat the pressure placed on Moscow by the West/US.

Another common strategic imperative for Iran and Russia emerged as events unfolded in Syria. The rise of terrorists is a serious threat to the security of both countries. Russia has been in a state of war with radical elements from Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics since the 1990s. The country has been targeted by several terrorist attacks and in June 2015, the Chechen terror group pledged allegiance to Daesh.

The USA and its regional allies were against the active involvement of Russia in the Syrian war because the Russians aimed at stabilizing the vulnerable fronts in favour of the unwanted Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad. The regime had suffered severe setbacks on the battlefield prior to Russia’s intervention. However, on the other hand, Russia’s military involvement was in line with US/West strategic goals of uprooting extremist groups. Russia’s assumed role as a major player in Syria guarantees its influence in mapping Syria’s post-war politics. This will also allow Russians to tackle their conflict with the West over Ukraine from a position of strength. On the Iranian side, as chaos grew in Syria, the rise of Daesh and the expansion of their significant presence in Iraq, which is within close proximity to Iran, became a formidable threat to the country’s national security.

Syria is of vital importance to Iran for other reasons beside the urgent threat posed by Daesh. Iran’s hostility towards Israel is an entrenched part of its foreign policy since the Iranian Revolution. Iranians took advantage of hostile relations between Syria and Israel for almost 30 years. By strengthening their ties with Syria, they sought to make Syria a de facto shield against a possible military confrontation with Israel.

In addition, with the logistical and economic assistance of the Iranians, Hezbollah of Lebanon emerged in the 1980s as a paramilitary organisation. The move was aimed at countering Israel’s hegemony in the region. Meanwhile, in a context of deterrence, Hezbollah could act as an Iranian proxy force that could pose a constant, potential threat to Israel’s anti-Palestine strategy. Syria shared the same vision with respect to Hezbollah, and as such, Syria became a vital corridor through which Iran could transport weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On another front, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has added new dimensions to Syria’s geopolitical significance for the government of Iran.

Russian military bases?

For Russia’s part, its decision to use the Shahid Nojeh military airbase in western Iran underscores its calculation that bolstering its nearly year-long overt military intervention – which began dramatically with Russia airstrikes launched from a base in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia – can help tip the battlefield in Assad’s favor. It means that keeping Assad in power is very important for Iran, and for Iranian hardliners too, since they are allowing an infidel military on their sacred territory.

Since last November, Russia’s strategic bombers have had to fly from an old Soviet airbase at Mozdok in southern Russia. The 650-mile distance to Aleppo from Mozdok is not much shorter from the western Iranian base near Hamedan, as the crow flies. But Russian planes must skirt Turkey, and targets in eastern Syria – and also anywhere in Iraq, should Russia eventually choose to take on IS targets there – are significantly closer from Iran. Flying out of Iran, therefore, enables Russian jets to carry full payloads of 24 metric tons – more than the maximum for the longer run from Russia. That is of course significant, experts say, because since they are carpet bombing Syria, the more bombs you take, the more land you cover. “Right now at this pivotal point in the battle for Aleppo, it is very important that Russia has drastically increased bomb-carrying capability, to bring the bombs to the Syrian opposition.

A top Iranian official said the new arrangement was Syria-specific but also “strategic,” and a “warning to terrorist-supporting countries” – an oblique reference to the US and its allies, which want to see Mr. Assad removed from power. While Iran- and Russia-led cooperation had already made life very tough for Syrians , the new expansion “will continue until they are completely wiped out,” said Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Russian airstrikes have hit not only ISIS jihadists, US officials say, but many more since last year have struck anti-Assad forces backed openly or clandestinely by the USA and its allies. The US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has help reduce territory of the self-declared caliphate by 30 percent, according to the Pentagon.US officials would say only that they are in “close contact” with Russia as they push for a negotiated solution to a war that has ravaged Syria, claimed more than 400,000 lives, and produced nearly 5 million refugees.

Russia says it has no hidden agenda of securing a military bases in Iran.

Trust deficit

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian withdrawal from Syria last March, and troops were filmed returning home. But that was just a gimmick as there has been little slowdown since, and Russia’s defense ministry said it “eliminated” five weapons depots in the first day of new strikes.

Top Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi noted that Russian planes were only refueling at the base, and that “generally, there is no stationing of Russian forces” in Iran. Washington called the move “unfortunate” and said it “pushes us farther away” from a nationwide cease-fire and the UN-sponsored political process in Geneva that includes Russia. Earlier this week, Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu was quoted saying the USA and Russia were in “a very active phase” of talks about the surge of fighting in Aleppo, “to start fighting together to bring peace.”

The Russian military presence is sensitive in Iran, where revolutionary ideology since 1979 opposed both US and Soviet influence during the cold war, and categorically, in rhetoric at least, rejects foreign meddling. Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament said that it was “forbidden” by the Constitution to create a foreign military base, and that Iran had not “given the base over to Russia in military terms.”

While these determinants have created a strong foundation for a strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, it could be argued that some factors may prevent the alliance from lasting through the long term. First, the Iranians distrust the Russians. They still remember the annexation of a large territory of Iran as a result of several battles with the Russians in the 19th century. The Russians also supported several United Nations sanctions against Iran during Tehran’s crisis over its nuclear program.

It can be claimed that Russia and Iran have different motives in Syria. While this assertion is true, the strategic interests of Russia and Iran converge to a high degree. Russia knows only too well that in the absence of a motivated ground force (i.e., Iran’s proxies), their military operations will have no chance of succeeding in the Syrian asymmetric war.

They also sold their friendship with Iran when the opportunity arose. In 2010, the Russians suspended the delivery of a number of S-300 missiles that Iran had already paid for. It may never be revealed what sort of deal was made between the US and Russia at the time, but the Foreign Policy article titled, ‘How the Obama Team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran’ said: The Russian decision was a dividend of the Obama government’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.” That said, it is worth noting that alliances between countries are not based on trust. Rather, they are based on the countries’ interests. For example, even though the US and Israel are close allies, they do not trust each other. Americans spy on Israelis and vice versa.

Observation

Latest developments once again raise the question as to whether the Tehran-Moscow alliance is tactical or strategic and whether the development is sustainable and long term.

The Iranian and Russian strategic intent in Syria seems much closer than the Russian and American strategic intent in Syria, an earlier agreement by the USA and Russia to seek a negotiated solution having failed. The Russian military tends to be secretive, so that was a political decision to demonstrate to the world that Russia and Iran are militarily together.

The Iranian-Russian conflict with the USA over American hegemony, which has been amplified by the diverging interests of Iran and Russia on the one hand and the US and its regional allies on the other, is not going to be resolved in the near future. In addition, the conflict between Russia and the US-led West over Ukraine has become a Gordian Knot with no solution on the horizon.

Iran’s decision to openly allow foreign troops on its soil for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – and the first Russians since World War II – is testament to its desire to achieve strategic gains and ensure that the high cost of its involvement in the Syrian war, including the loss of more than 400 Revolutionary Guard troops and a number of generals, not be in vain.

Against this backdrop, it is safe to assume that the Iranian-Russian alliance will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Perhaps just as significantly, the high-profile move allows both nations to ease their isolation, imposed by the USA and the West, while spreading their regional influence through the use of hard power.

There is a possibility of USA and Russia jointly fighting for the blood of Syrians and other Arabs in West Asia by not letting Assad to quit and encouraging him to continue posing an adamant “winner” posture.

Washington has no plan or intention of leaving energy rich West Asia and Central Asia and would continue to use its Asia pivot for some more time. Since Arab leaders, Iran, Syria as well as Moscow have shown their “soft” willingness to cooperate with Pentagon-CIA, Arabs would continue to die.

No other alternatives!

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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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