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Russia’s rising role in the world

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The end of Cold war and dismantling of mighty Soviet Union along with dissolution of Socialist system in East Europe, Russia, having lost the Cold War to USA, was forced to lay down for years as its allies began dropping the Kremlin and joining the USA and Europe through NATO and EU, one by one. Further, dismantling of anti-West military alliance Warsaw Pact increasingly weakened Russia as it gradually lost its influence globally.

Over years since the 9/11, Russia and its strong leader President Vladimir Putin have gained in international importance in the comity of nations, notwithstanding the occasional reverses they were subjected to by US led western nations.

In recent times Russia has raised its role and prestige first with its annexation of Crimea and then by sending its military to Syria, where USA is helping the anti-Assad forces, to defend President Assad and his autocratically illegal regime. Fall of Aleppo has considerably added to the prestige of efficacy of Russian military operations

By confrontation and cooperation as effective tool Moscow played its card rather too well for alliance particularly with USA so that the west cannot operate without Russia.

Notwithstanding economic sanctions of USA and Europe, Russian economy is not shrinking because of its natural resources, oil output and arms sale.

As such, one thing is plain today: the world cannot ignore Vladimir Putin’s Russia and America has to take into consideration the views of Russia in world affairs. Twenty-five years after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, President Putin is well on his way to making Russia the “ubiquitous state and indispensable partner” of his dreams, expect Russia to be very active on the diplomatic, military, and cyber fronts.

Syria offers the most dramatic illustration of Russia’s ambitions. It was the Russian Air Force’s brutal bombing campaign that turned the tide in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

Syria offers the most dramatic illustration of Russia’s ambitions. It was the Russian Air Force’s brutal bombing campaign that turned the tide in Syrian President Assad’s favor.

Strategy

And the week before Christmas, Putin hosted Turkish and Iranian officials for political talks on how to end the civil war in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry was nowhere to be seen as he busy with Mideast peace process by shoring up support for the UNSC vote for Palestine state. Nor is he expected to be invited to Russian-planned talks in Kazakhstan between the Syrian government and opposition.

Maybe, Moscow thinks USA is sincere about peace in Syria and other Arab nations. Now the Kremlin has made no secret of its intention to thwart the USA, and the West more broadly, whenever it sees fit. In a foreign policy “concept” document published this month, Moscow framed its view of the world as a “competition in the form of dueling values,” and announced it intended “to prevent military interventions or other forms of outside interference” justified on humanitarian grounds. Russia “reserved the right to react very strongly to unfriendly actions, including retaliatory or asymmetrical measures.”

True, Russia’s oil-dependent economy is weak, its state structures inefficient, its soft power limited. But it has a strong military that is getting stronger, and Putin is ready to use it. Russian troops have intervened in Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. Those operations have boosted Russia’s military confidence. They could be tempted to use military force more easily than before, if they think that will give them influence.

Especially nervous in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea are the three Baltic States – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – NATO members neighboring Russia, which has been bolstering its military forces in the region. According to the NATO treaty, an invasion of Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia would mean war. But US President-elect Trump hinted on the campaign trail that he would not necessarily feel obliged to come to their aid. And there is much speculation about the prospect that Trump would be more conciliatory toward Moscow than has President Obama.

However Trump and Putin get on, Russia and the West will remain divided over fundamental issues, not least Washington’s plan for a global missile defense system. Moscow considers the scheme a threat to its national security, the foreign policy document made clear. If the USA goes ahead with it, Moscow “reserves the right to take adequate retaliatory measures.”

Split

In the USA, a conservative split over Putin is emerging as the old guard clashes with rising hard-right nationalists over the direction of foreign policy under a president Trump. Traditional Republican hawks like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona continue to view Putin as a danger to the West. Based on standard conservative objections to Putin’s disregard for personal freedoms, human rights, and his challenge to the West in Europe, Senator McCain says the Russian leader is a thug and a murderer and a killer. He cites shadowy killings of Russian dissidents, Russian undermining of Estonia, “dismembering” of Ukraine, and precision Russian airstrikes on civilian hospitals in Aleppo, Syria.

Some close observers of the Trump transition speculate that Mitt Romney was ultimately passed over in the search for a secretary of State in part because of his perspective from the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia is America’s chief geopolitical foe – a view in line with a traditional Republican national-security outlook but at odds with the Trump camp’s perspective on Putin. But Pat Buchanan wrote in 2013 that instead of seeing Putin through an old “Cold War paradigm,” conservatives should see Putin as a defender “against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”

More recently, some of Trump’s closest aides – including Steven Bannon, named Trump’s chief White House strategist, and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be national security adviser – extol the Russian leader for his strong defense of national sovereignty, his promotion of traditional values, and his war against radical Islam. Bannon told a gathering of European conservatives that the “Judeo-Christian West” should focus more on Putin’s promotion of “traditionalism” and values that support “the underpinnings of nationalism.” In August, General Flynn, a campaign adviser to then-candidate Trump, said Putin should be considered a partner in the global war on “radical Islamism.”

There’s no doubting Putin’s opposition to sexual minorities and his deep disdain for what he sees as a decadent West. In his often-cited 2013 state-of-the-nation speech, the Russian leader defended Russia’s “traditional” values against the West’s “so-called tolerance,” which he condemned as “genderless and infertile” and for promoting “the equality of good and evil.” But Putin holds very strongly that anything blurring the line between men and women is something to be fought. But he’s not a racist, he leads a vast country of diverse cultures, he’s proudly built mosques in Moscow. However, experts warn, anyone seeing Putin as some kind of crusader for white, Christian, European culture is misreading the Russian leader. Some of these other crusades being assigned to the Russian leader are part of a white-supremacist narrative that has little to do Putin

Gaining in popularity

When last week the United Nations Security Council proposed a resolution praising outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for supporting the world’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Russia stood up to its Western colleagues to oppose it. The wording about sexual minorities, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin disdains, was replaced with a benign reference to the “most vulnerable” and “marginalized.” The Security Council’s split on Ban’s promotion of LGBT rights may be a small thing at the UN. But it offers a partial clue as to why Putin, once roundly condemned in Western circles as a dangerous authoritarian, is increasingly viewed in a positive light by conservatives across the West – by the Trump wing of the Republican Party, but also by right-wing leaders in France and other European countries. They consider Putin as an ally, though may not be reliable one. The turnaround in the Russian leader’s image in the USA can be ascribed almost completely to Trump’s repeated contrasting of Putin’s strong leadership and President Obama’s weakness. The result is that people who admire Trump’s rhetoric and style now see Putin in a positive light as a man of action. They see Putin as a leader who was dealt a weaker hand than the president of the United States, but who has somehow been able to play it better.

A new poll released this week by YouGov shows that in the US, self-identified Republicans viewing Putin as very or somewhat favorably rose from 10 percent in July 2014 to 37 percent today. Even the uproar this week over Russia’s hacking of the presidential campaign and reports Putin signed off on the operation are taken as a mere gimmick and do not seem to be spawning universal condemnation of the Russian leader and his tactics.

However, none of them think the sanctions on Putin’s country could be lifted. Now instead of facing near universal rejection in the West over his oppressive governance at home, his seizure of Crimea, and his intervention in Syria on behalf of a despot, Putin is for some a hero. Nationalist conservatives see Putin as defending sovereign nationhood in the face of globalization, and traditional values against an onslaught of threatening forces: from multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism to nontraditional sexual identity and radical Islam.

Putin does not promote white supremacy

The revalorization of Putin as a Hero may be most visible in the Trump camp of Putin admirers, but there are signs the more positive image of the Russian leader is trickling down to Republican voters. The YouGov poll released this week not only shows an uptick in support over the past two years, but also a decline in antipathy. Nearly half of Republicans – 47 percent – still view Putin somewhat or very unfavorably – but those seeing him “very unfavorably collapsed from 51 percent in 2014 to 10 percent now. “If you look at public opinion in the United States, there were pretty universal negative views of Putin up to this summer,” Darden says. “Then we had the Republican nominee sounding very pro-Putin, and the public shifted shockingly quickly.”

Actually, that shift came only among Republican voters – surveys like YouGov’s show that Democrats have as negative an opinion of Putin as ever.

Putin’s rising favorability in the US has more to do with politics than with the Russian leader’s “values” now touted by some Trump nationalists. It’s really the people who are opposed to Obama who are revising their view of Putin. It’s pure partisanship that says, ‘Putin was the enemy of Obama, therefore he must be a pretty decent guy.’

In spite of all strenuous efforts by Washington, Russia could not be made a US satellite nation to serve its global interests like many third world powers and even a few Europe nations do.

Putin cannot be pro-America leader.

Russia’s anti-satellite weapon readiness

Even while trying to notionally reset relations with the West, Russia has also been continuously improving its military capability. Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon launch makes the point amply clear.

Once more, Russia has conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon on December 22. It was the fifth time the weapon, a PL-19 Nudol missile, had been tested. Some military analysts have expressed concern over the test, saying that it was a provocative demonstration of Moscow’s might on a relatively new military frontier: outer space. But they suggest that it’s more about Russian posturing than an imminent threat.

Over the past few years, the United States, Russia, and China have been gradually beefing up their space-based weapon capabilities, focusing on anti-satellite defense strategies and technology. With modern militaries and much of the world’s economy dependent on the information and communication systems supported by satellites in orbit, it has become a higher priority than ever to protect assets outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. If a direct conflict were to break out between space-capable powers, it seems likely that the battle front lines would be drawn thousands of miles above the surface of our planet.

The latest test of the Nudol missile took place on December 16. The launch originated from a facility near Plesetsk, about 500 miles north of Moscow, and was apparently successful, despite CNN reports that no debris was detected by US monitoring stations, meaning that no test target was destroyed. “We monitor missile launches around the globe, but as a matter of policy we don’t normally discuss intelligence specific to those launches,” Strategic Command, overseer of US space operations. “We remain concerned with growing space capabilities around the globe, particularly those of China and Russia, since both countries are developing or have developed counter-space capabilities.”

Both Russia and China have conducted successful anti-satellite weapons tests in recent years. Russia may have also developed kamikaze satellites designed to disable other satellites by crashing into them, and China’s military-run space program has also seen massive development in multiple areas at the orders of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We have demonstrated ASAT [anti-satellite] capabilities in the past. And we have very high accuracy capability to monitor the threats.”

Concerns over Russia’s recent antagonism toward the West in the form of Syrian intervention, invasion of Ukraine, and the alleged hacking of the Democratic National Convention in order to influence the outcome of the recent presidential election, suggest that USA is likely to remain committed to ensuring there are no warlike surprises coming from the Russian space program. The Pentagon’s budget for space-based programs currently stands at $22 billion per year, which includes considerable funding for defense against emerging orbital threats.

Russia has flexed its muscles in orbit even during the cold war, the space race between the US and the then-Soviet Union helped to define worldwide politics during the second half of the 20th century. But after the cold war ended and Russia down, the USA became the only space-faring superpower for years, with most subsequent conflicts occurring between non-space capable countries and non-state organizations, leaving the possibility of satellite attacks by powers like Russia remote and unrealistic until only recently. Just wanting to let everyone know they are back to being a world power to be reckoned with, under Putin and clearly due to his leadership and standing up to the USA.

But while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reestablish Russia’s position as a global superpower may be worrying to the Western powers, this test is mostly hot air. “It’s just posturing.”

Today, Russia is a new military power even with less economic prowess. There is no way the West could utilize it for advancing its capitalist or imperialist goals.

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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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