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No victory for Putin: The Trump dossier scandal

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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There is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or political relations with Russia.

Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for President. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in American Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russian intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically-effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. HRC positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment.

“The Russian system has plenty of deficiencies, but no outsider could possibly find out what kinds of discussions are taking place in Putin’s office, who is angry at who, or any of that intimate detail,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Putin runs a very tight ship. No leaks. No rumors confirmed. He is, famously, very professional about it.” This estimation is totally true. Lukyanov is a very reliable source if you want opinions on Russia that you can consider astute and balanced: someone who is not hyperbolically pro-Kremlin but also not sheep-like anti-Russian either. Indeed, many of the more ‘famous’ Russian academics so often quoted and interviewed in the West are decidedly anti-Putin in their analyses, thereby effectively currying financial favor and scholarly status with Western think tanks and institutes.

As for the supposition that this dossier leak is a ‘victory’ for Putin regardless of its truthfulness, I hold the contrarian view: if Putin’s intelligence agencies do indeed have a dossier of compromising information on the President-elect, then the last thing Putin would consider a ‘victory’ would be the preemptive and uncontrolled leaking of that information all over social media by an unofficial foreign agent that he did not manage. This would be a LOSS, not a victory. It would mean Putin lost control of both the process of how to use the information and the narrative of just how to release the information to particular audiences for the greatest benefit to Russia. The leak of the dossier to everyone in the world means it does not truly benefit Russian interests at all. Just leaking it and embarrassing the President-elect, with no real ‘proof’ or ‘smoking gun’ evidence attached and no ulterior geostrategic purpose achieved means this story will fade away and be replaced by some other titillating story. To a large degree this has already happened. Thus, the Russians have lost what it hoped to be tremendous strategic leverage behind the scenes and down the road. Ergo, no victory for Putin.

Americans still trying to position it as a victory are simply not astute in the ways of real geopolitics and strategy. And that applies even for the supposed Russian experts here in America who do so much advising today to media and governmental elites. The state of ‘Russian expertise’ in America today is extremely disappointing and dull. We currently live in times that has Washington DC and the Slavic Studies community obsessed with pushing a very narrow and very cliche orthodox narrative about the Russian Federation and its motivations. That narrative believes the only thing Kremlin officials do are sit around tables recklessly and illogically pondering ways to ‘surpass’ the United States with no real calculation for national interests. Supposedly appending that 2-page summary to the formal Presidential/President-elect briefing is confirmation of how far this relationship environment between DC and Moscow has fallen. The US IC basically felt reluctantly compelled to discuss what was nothing more than a de facto TMZ gossip report. That fact alone is what signals the immediate future of Russian-American relations will remain dark and stormy.

As for how people should consider the dossier and its creation: it was collected by a ‘former British intelligence official’ hired by Republican party operatives interested in obtaining damaging information to use against Trump in the election primaries. What that really means is that he had no access to formal governmental reconnaissance technologies or personnel. As such you can reliably assume he simply dug deep into the rumor mills that run crazily around Moscow. The dossier is much closer to what TMZ, the famous gossip-paparazzi organization in America, produces than the CIA or MI6. It is not a true intelligence brief. The blurring of this distinction in the media has been irresponsible and laughable.

How many have actually read the dossier in full? It is utter tripe. None of it would pass muster for inclusion in a formal Intelligence Community briefing if it was produced by a member of the IC. But none of the details in the dossier would pass a peer-review for scholarly journal either. At best, it’s the kind of material one finds on a deeply partisan political blog. Does this mean nothing in the dossier could be true? No, it does not. But it does mean the dossier, at best, represents what I advise students when using Wikipedia for research: you can start your research using Wikipedia to learn relevant terms, actors, and events. But then you need to go deeper, far beyond Wikipedia, to understand what is verifiable and falsifiable and thus worthy of inclusion in a scholarly analysis. The dossier is Wikipedia or TMZ gossip. It is not the deeper, vetted analyses demanded by real intelligence or legitimate scholarship. This is what the American media and/or intelligence community needs to do next: transform this affair from gossip to analysis. The concern is that it does not appear that anyone, media or government, is seemingly interested in doing that deeper digging: is this just TMZ titillation or is it true debauchery that should make the American people concerned about its incoming President on a deeply moral level?

Some have scratched their heads over why US intelligence agencies appear to have legitimized the documents by supposedly including that aforementioned summary in a top-secret briefing. But the Intelligence Community is actually the only body in this sordid affair that can somewhat be given a pass, as it faced a no-win scenario. The best analogous example is to recall the situation Director Comey of the FBI was in pre-election, regarding the whole possible HRC indictment. Although it was under-emphasized in the media, Comey himself said he reopened the investigation because he felt tremendous pressure, caught between a rock and a hard place: do not reopen when new information has come to light and you are vulnerable to accusations of trying to engineer a particular electoral result, when the Intelligence Community is loath to be viewed political at all. However, reopening the case (even when you say it is just to review new material and explicitly state it is not a declaration of guilt) makes you victim to the opposite accusation: that you are still politicized and looking to engineer a particular electoral result, just a different one from the previous diatribe.

Thus, the inclusion or open discussion of a 2-page summary is much the same dilemma: do not include it or mention it, when Buzzfeed has splashed it all over the internet already, and you expose the Intelligence Community to an accusation of trying to sweep something under the rug. Doing a 2-page summary with a formal declaration that it is NOT making a statement about its validity or reliability was an IC maneuver to walk the knife’s edge of a situation that had no real optimal end-game. “Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period, the senior official said. According to the senior official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted ‘disinformation.’”

This quote, taken from an NBC News story, is the explanation most credible and accurate in terms of how intelligence officials actually behave in such situations. The professionals I have known in the Intelligence Community would absolutely convey the information so that relevant actors could be aware of information likely to emerge publicly (giving them a ‘heads up’, as it were), but they would also emphasize whether the IC takes the information as credible. If not credible or still unverified, then it makes sense that it was presented to Trump in an informal or even just oral manner. Additionally, an almost ignored aspect in the story is how an intelligence official tries to make people understand that there is a huge difference between ‘analyzed intelligence’ and ‘unvetted disinformation.’ The IC has tried rather valiantly to make people in America understand that until the dossier is formally declared the former, then it is decidedly the latter. It should not be blamed on the IC, therefore, if most media venues and political organizations are skipping right past these clarifications and attributing meaning to the American Intelligence Community that it has not claimed as its own.

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

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The “Russian Card” in the International Game

Igor Ivanov

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In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors.

In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

While doing so, they sacrifice the interests of Russia and the interests of international stability and truth, and even neglect basic logic and common sense. Let us list but a few recent examples.

In Washington, amidst almost completely suspended Russia–U.S. relations, Republicans and Democrats routinely use the “Russian card” as an instrument in their power struggle. The parties are so taken with introducing various acts and bills and making other decisions intended to hurt the Russian leadership as much as possible that they are becoming oblivious to the interests of their own country, including its immediate security concerns.

In Kiev, the “Russian card” is nearly the principal trump card for national self-assertion, the key argument justifying the inability of the current Ukrainian leaders to make any kind of progress in resolving pressing socioeconomic problems. Therefore, it is vital for Kiev that the high level of tensions in their relations with Moscow is maintained. And we see over and over again that when it comes to achieving this goal, anything goes.

London, still haunted by the ghost of its former power, attempts to find a new place for Britain in the changing global power configuration. Who would be a good opponent for London? Brexit did major damage to Britain’s relations with many European countries. Placing itself in the lead of an anti-Russian coalition and calling upon partners to show solidarity with the “victim of Russian meddling,” London can divert attention away from the painful and thus far not entirely successful “divorce from Europe.”

In many European countries, populist parties actively use the “Russian card,” profiteering, in particular, from the costs of the anti-Russian sanctions to their countries. At the same time, however, they do not offer a well-thought-out, long-term vision of the development of their countries’ relations with Russia. If they do come to power, they become less interested in the matter or use it as a trump card in their bargaining with Brussels on other issues that are of greater importance for them.

In Ankara, the “Russian card” emerges from the sleeve each time Turkey has a problem with the United States and its other NATO allies. A possible strategic partnership with Moscow is put forward as a possible alternative to Turkey’s Atlantic orientation. However, there are no reasons to expect Ankara to make a strategic turn towards Moscow right now.

The list of countries and political forces that include the “Russian card” in their diplomatic arsenal can go on and, unfortunately, it is becoming longer. And the “Russian card” is being played not only along the Russian borders, but even in more faraway regions.

Why is the “Russian card” so popular today? We should bear in mind the fact that, in the coming years and maybe even decades, the shaping of a new stable world order will be incomplete, and international relations will be in a state of permanent turbulence. Such a state is fertile ground for politicians who are ready to use any means to achieve profits here and now.

The foreign policy of the current U.S. administration is the starkest example of this state of affairs. Violating international law and treaties, imposing unilateral sanctions, introducing protectionist measures and intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries has just about become the norm of U.S. international conduct. If playing the “Russian card” becomes a norm, too, it will do progressively greater damage to Russia’s standing in the international community and will limit Russia’s options in conducting an active foreign policy.

What about Russia? What should our response to the various games played by political card sharps be?

First, Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors. Therefore, it would be a big mistake to bet on those powers and count on long-term strategic collaboration with them.

Second, the best way to knock the “Russian card” out of the hands of political profiteers is to implement a well-balanced, long-term and consistent strategy of Russia’s relations with a specific state or groups of states. The most instructive case is Russia–China relations. There have been and there will be many attempts to sow doubts or mutual suspicions, to resurrect old grievances and contradictions, but they all come to naught because of a solid edifice of bilateral relations that has been consistently constructed in recent years and which possesses clearly defined strategic benchmarks.

As far as Russia’s relations with the European Union are concerned, attempts to force political manipulators to cease and desist have thus far been unsuccessful. In the early 2000s, Russia and Europe built their relations with the common goal of achieving strategic partnership. Over the course of several years, the parties created a solid legal framework for their relations, increased their trade turnover, reached a new level of mutually beneficial cooperation and expanded educational, academic and public contacts. As these positive trends shrank and the clear benchmarks in Russia–EU relations were lost, the temptation to exploit the topic of Russia began to rear its head. It is a known fact that fishing in troubled waters is a favourite pursuit of many, and this is what we are seeing today in various European countries.

The only way to pull the rug from under the feet of these political profiteers is to develop a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Brussels, define clear and unequivocally exactly what Russia’s interests in Europe are, and abandon unconditionally all attempts to achieve tactical victories by playing on the contradictions between individual EU member countries. Such a principled approach is applicable in other areas of Russia’s foreign policy as well.

Third, we see that all kinds of provocations are one of the main instruments used by those who attempt to play the “Russian card.” These provocations include unilateral sanctions and illegal actions against Russian citizens, Russian businesses, and Russia’s property, spreading false information, etc. The intent here is simple: to draw Russia into a fruitless discussion and an endless “exchange of blows,” forcing it to divert significant political and material resources from resolving truly important problems in the country’s internal development and promoting Russia’s interests on the international arena.

How should Russia react to these provocations? We should remember here that a provocation is only successful when people take the bait. Once again, we could look at China here, whose resolve is also tested on a regular basis. In every instance, China does not react in an emotional manner; rather, its responses are always weighed and thought out thoroughly. In some cases, China will retaliate in kind (as with the United States unilaterally increasing tariffs). In other cases, when such a response is justified, China offers a token display of power. Sometimes, Beijing pretends not to pay any attention to the attacks, but the response may be forthcoming at an opportune moment.

Fourth, much in counteracting anti-Russian attacks depends on the reactions to those attacks in the Russian media. Sometimes, one gets the impression that certain printed media and TV channels are waiting for such provocations to engage in lengthy and aggressive discussions on the subject, provoke an international scandal and to call upon the Russian leadership to respond in the harshest possible manner. Such behaviour, on the one hand, instils the false impression in the public consciousness that Russia is surrounded by enemies and needs to brace itself for the worst and, on the other, it objectively prompts the authorities to take sometimes emotional and hasty actions. Of course, a response is necessary. However, this response should not consist of screaming wildly. It should instead consist of dignified and convincing arguments based on Russia’s long-term interests. Haste in such matters is inappropriate at the very least.

Of course, there are no universal recipes that work in every situation. Every day, we are greeted by a new surprise. But it is important to be guided in every specific case by the key principle: nothing must be done today that could create even greater problems for Russia tomorrow. And let those who love using the “Russian card” passionately build their political houses of cards. Historical experience shows that those houses are unlikely to last.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Is Russia a real national security threat to the west or is it only a paper tiger?

Ajmal Sohail

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Since, the 2008  Presidential elections debate of America, the American political elite and the deep-state consider Russia a number one geo-political threat, to the national security of west in general and of the US in particular.

Throughout, the electoral campaign and televised discussion among numerous presidential candidates, “Russia as a geopolitical rival”, was the main focused topic. Mitt Romney one of the frontrunner of the US presidential elections, labeled  Russia more than a dozen time, narrating that, Russia is the number one geo-political enemy of the United States. All through, the Obama Administration, Russia was mentioned as a counterbalance to the US foreign policy objective. Hillary Clinton the former foreign secretary and democratic top-dog hat always smacked the Russo-phobic dram.  Seeing as, annexation of Crimea, US instituted a large number of sanctioned on Russia, Russia was doomed with sanctions time and again. It is said when it rains it pours.

In recent move, the US Senate legislation proposed to target Russia’s state-controlled banks by freezing their access to dollars—a step which could genuinely damage the Russian economy.

In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a statement emphasizing that Moscow would “counter this war, by economic means, by political means and if necessary by other means.” He viewed the imposition of dollar sanctions, as a crossing of red-line and threat to the national security of Russian federation. However, he did not make it crystal clear, what measures would and could Kremlin embark on to mock the said sanctions.

To facilitate, it is music to ones ear to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of Russia, whether the country is capable of posing threats, to west and especially to the United States. Hence, I begin with the analysis of some political observers and the assessments of Counter Narco-terrorism Alliance Germany.

The measures Kremlin can undertake

Initially, Russia might respond in cyberspace. Microsoft recently reported that hackers tied to the Russian military already launched so-called “spear-fishing” campaigns against three candidates already running in the 2018 elections. Additionally, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats argued that Moscow remained committed to undermining American democracy, warning that the “system is blinking. And it is why I believe we are at a critical point.”

Moreover, while Russia reportedly hasn’t yet hacked into actual state-level election systems, Moscow targeted this infrastructure in 2016. And as election security experts have warned, Russia might even possess the ability to materially influence the outcome of the 2018 elections. Given the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats, if control of the House or Senate were at stake, it’s easy to imagine how this could lead to mass confusion, multiple lawsuits and the type of partisan hostility that would make the 2000 Bush versus Gore Florida recount look like a walk in the park.

The Kremlin could also respond with nuclear saber rattling. During Putin’s March speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly, he announced the development of several new nuclear missiles, while also playing a video simulating a nuclear attack on Florida. It would be easy for The Kremlin to heighten tensions by upping its nuclear rhetoric again. More concretely, the Russians might decide to formally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and/or refuse to entertain an extension of the New START Treaty. These steps might represent the starting gun for a new nuclear arms race.

Moscow might also escalate its war against Ukraine. For example, Moscow could move additional Russian troops and weaponry into Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to increase military pressure on Kiev there. Alternatively, Russia might also move to take full control of the Sea of Azov. Moscow has reportedly deployed forty of its naval vessels in the Sea of Azov, and Russian forces continue to stop and harass both Ukrainian and international merchant ships traveling through the Azov to Ukrainian ports. Ukraine has increased its naval patrols in response, and it’s easy to envision Russia provoking an armed confrontation in the Sea of Azov that could serve as a pretext for a significant Russian military escalation in the region—a step right out of Moscow’s 2008 playbook for its war in Georgia.

Russia could also increase military tensions elsewhere in Europe as well. It could for example move nuclear-armed missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. Alternatively, Russia could use Kaliningrad as a base for large-scale military exercises that simulate an attack on NATO’s Baltic members and involve occupying the strategic Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.

Putin doesn’t even need to rely on his military to harm American interests either. He could choose to openly increase economic and political support for North Korea, thereby weakening Washington’s ability to pressure North Korea to curtail its nuclear program. Given that North Korea remains on the cusp of being able to reach the continental United States with a ballistic missile this would constitute a significant setback for American interests.

Putin could also administer the coup de grace to Bosnia’s 1995 Dayton Accords—a major American diplomatic success that ended Bosnia’s bloody civil war—by openly supporting independence for Republika Srpska. This could give Putin a trifecta: establish Republika Srpska as a Russian client state in the heart of the Balkans; reignite the civil war in Bosnia; and push Serbian politicians to support Republika Srpska, thereby torpedoing Belgrade’s chances to enter the European Union. To be clear, Medvedev’s threats may be mere bluster, and Moscow could respond to dollar sanctions by hunkering down even further and try to ride out the economic and political storm.

Should the United States — and the West — worry that Russian power is on the rise?

In fact, Russian power is brittle. Masked by the country’s meddling in Western politics, invasion of Ukraine and support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia is facing profound societal and economic problems. The country’s aging population and economic weakness are at odds with its military spending and global aspirations. In fact, domestic issues overlooked by the regime will soon restrict Putin’s ability to adventure abroad and project military force. Put simply, Russia lacks the resources to fund its great power pretensions. Consider these five factors.

Russia’s economy is weak

Let’s start by remembering that the U.S. economy is ten times the size of Russia’s. Even during the heady days of high oil prices, Russia was unable to compete with American economic might.

Those days are now long gone. Over the past decade, hydrocarbon exports accounted for roughly 50 percent of government revenue. With oil prices hovering above $100 a barrel for most of the past five years, Russia experienced an economic boom. Indeed, between 2000 and 2013, Russia’s GDP grew almost nine fold, one reason for Putin’s considerable support.

But the recent collapse in global energy prices hit Russia hard, wiping out many of the economic gains of recent years and sending the economy into recession. Moreover, the outlook will not improve any time soon as Russia’s economic growth in 2018-2019 is expected to be minimal.

To prepare for the post-oil era, the Kremlin created a “rainy day” reserve fund from surplus oil and gas revenue in the 2000s. With the drop in oil prices, the government dipped into the fund repeatedly. Since 2014, Russia’s national nest egg has decreased from $87 billion to barely $16.18 billion. The country has another sovereign wealth fund that contains $73 billion, but much of that money has already been allocated.

The economic downturn has already had significant consequences. The World Bank reports that 21.4 million Russians, or 14.6 percent of the population, now live below the national poverty line and the number of Russians earning less than $10 a day has increased 8 percent. In fact, a recent survey found that 41 percent of Russians had difficulty saving enough to buy food and clothes. The Economic Ministry predicted that there would be no improvement to average living standards before 2035.

Russia is facing a demographic crisis

Russians are not having enough children. The country’s fertility rate stands at 1.7 births per woman, far short of the 2.1 births needed just to ensure population replacement. Moreover, Russia’s young men are dying far too early. The average male life expectancy is 64 — lower than that of North Korea and a full 15 years less than that of Germany, Sweden or Italy. This is due to unusually high rates of alcoholism, smoking, untreated cancer, suicide, tuberculosis, AIDS and violence.

In 2012 the WHO attributed 30 percent of all deaths in the country to alcohol; 12 million Russians regularly ingest surrogate alcohol such as medical ethanol, window cleaner and perfume. Russia is suffering an AIDS epidemic, and in the country’s third-largest city, Yekaterinburg, one citizen in 50 has HIV. Similarly, Russia’s homicide rate is 11.3 per 100,000, much higher than the OECD average of 4.1 (Britain’s homiciderate is 0.2).

As a result, Russia’s population is expected to shrink by 16 percent, or 23 million, by 2050, leading to a 25 percent reduction in the labor force. Fewer workers will inflate Russia’s annual pension deficit, which at $54 billion already threatens to bankrupt the government.

Russia can no longer afford to buy off its troubled regions

Russia continues to spend up to $10 billion a year on subsidies to problematic regions such as Chechnya or Crimea. As the handouts dry up, tensions between Moscow and outer regions may boil over, potentially reigniting conflict in the North Caucasus.

Moreover, Russia’s economy is highly regionalized. Just 14 of Russia’s 83 regions add more to the federal budget than they receive in subsidies. Continuing transfers to remote or non-Russian regions may provoke a popular backlash and will restrict Moscow’s ability to prop up separatist enclaves in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Russia will have to reduce military spending

The state of Russia’s economy largely determines its military spending. In 2017 Russia will spend 30 percent of its budget on the military and security services, with only 2.3 percent going toward health care. Because of economic stagnation, in 2016 Russia’s defense spending declined for the first time since the 1990s. By 2020, Russia is projected to spend only $41 billion on the military. That’s less than France spends, with only 46 percent of Russia’s population. Furthermore, spiraling costs in Syria and Ukraine could either force early Russian withdrawal or bankrupt the regime. Indeed, a Russian newspaper recently revealed that the government spends $1.8 billion a year just on military contractors in Syria.

Compare that $41 billion to NATO’s military spending of $892 billion in 2015. That’s a big gap, which looks set to widen. Russia simply cannot outspend — or even match up to — a well-funded and unified Alliance.

Right now, Putin can be assertive because the Russian budget prioritizes guns over butter. Putin’s regime has effectively traded economic well-being and social spending for military might. This bargain cannot hold indefinitely.

Consider, for instance, Russia’s crisis in health care. Roughly 85,000 rural communities have no medical infrastructure whatsoever. Russia came last in Bloomberg’s latest health-care efficiency survey, behind 54 other developed economies. Yet the government plans to cut health spending by 33 percent next year, bringing spending down to just $5.8 billion. The Ministry of Health will receive less than 2 percent of the funding requested for 2017-2025. Salaries for doctors in the poorest regions can be as low as $250 a month and will probably drop further.

Chronic social problems will ultimately upend Russia’s politics

Russians are famously stoic, but they are not automata. Putin’s popularity is founded not just on media manipulation and drum-thumping jingoism but on real economic gains. As Daniel Treisman has shown, even in authoritarian states, economic growth is tied to popular approval.

Indeed, work-related protests are already on the rise. And in a recent survey of Russian citizens, 32 percent of respondents said they might protest if a demonstration occurred in their home town. That’s the highest proportion since Putin first came to power in 1999.

Russia is not a Stalinist dictatorship but a “managed democracy.” A prolonged economic downturn will change attitudes. No matter how powerful or threatening Russia may seem right now, the current situation can’t last. Russian stability — and Putin’s regime — rest on shaky foundations and the cracks are beginning to show. It is said every cloud has a silver lining.

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Russia’s military diplomacy in Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Many African countries this year participated in the International Military-Technical forum dubbed «ARMY-2018» organised by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in Kubinka, located approximately 280 km from Moscow.

The «ARMY-2018» received about 120 official delegations from foreign countries and featured nearly 150 events as part of its scientific business programme. The annual games allow the different world forces to improve their efficiency, knowledge and friendship. The army extravaganza, billed the Olympics of the Military World, now in its fourth year.

There were more than 26,000 exhibits on display especially the latest weapons aimed at attracting more foreign customers. The show featured Russia’s latest fighter jet, the Su-57, the Kinzhal hypersonic weapon and the Armata battle tank among other new weapons. It also had robotic systems and flyovers by the air force’s aerobatic squadrons.

President Vladimir Putin said in an address to the «ARMY-2018» that it reflected the huge potential of Russian military industries and would serve as a platform for military cooperation with interested foreign countries.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu emphasised that most new weapons at the show have proven their worth during the Syrian campaign. “They demonstrate the latest achievements of our industries and science,” he asserted.

During the event, General Director of ROE, Alexander Mikheev noted: “By tradition, it gives the RosOboronExport maximum monetisation of all exhibition events in the world. It gathers the largest number of foreign delegations in Moscow.”

He noted the increasing special demand from African countries. “We will see a real African breakthrough. In addition to our traditional partners from North Africa, we are waiting for representatives from 16 countries of the sub-Saharan continent at our booth and meeting rooms,” Mikheev said.

For example, as gathered at the forum, it became clear that Niger was interested in buying Russian helicopters and small arms, including grenade launchers. Several agreements reviewed and signed with a number of participating African countries including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic.

“Today (at the Army-2018 forum), we signed an intergovernmental agreement on military cooperation, the implementation of which will contribute to strengthening ties in the defense sector in a number of African countries,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during talks with the Minister of National Defense of Central African Republic, Marie Noel Coyara.

The Ministry reported on its website that “Deputy Defense Minister Col. Gen. Alexander Fomin met with Ivory Coast Defense Minister, Hamed Bakayoko on the sidelines of the forum. During the meeting, the sides discussed military and military-technical cooperation projects and exchanged opinions on key regional security issues facing the African continent.”

The parties reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening friendly relations between the armed forces of the two countries further, it said. According to Fomin, there were many interested foreign customers including Asian and African countries, which works well for the Kremlin.

“The Soviet Union poured resources into the African continent for ideological reasons. Putin will not do such thing. We know that the African continent has a great potential and it can be market-oriented and based on mutual interest,” he finally stressed.

Still, the Kremlin’s larger aims are political and geostrategic. Putin’s overall military moves in the Middle East but also North Africa limit the West’s ability to maneuver.

North African countries on the Mediterranean’s southern coast can potentially gain Russia, a traditional land power, access to additional warm water ports – something Russian leaders coveted since Peter the Great. Such access would allow Russia to project military power into Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

On top priority are Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Angola. East and Southern African countries are also Russia’s market focus while recently concluded agreements with Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad.

Algeria has long been in Moscow’s camp and remained a top buyer of Russian arms throughout the 2000s. But in 2014, the two countries signed a $1 billion arms deal which a Russian military expert in business-oriented Vedomosti financial newspaper described as “possibly the largest export contract for main battle tanks in the world.”

“Several financial arrangements were also made to ensure financing of developments and production of modern military equipment samples. Firm orders from countries in Asia and Africa, and the CIS became part of Rostec’s portfolio of orders,” according to the document released August 26.

Over recent years, Russia has considerably expanded its arms sales, both in terms of the number of African countries involved in the deals and the types of weapons and military equipment being sold, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

By estimation, Russia shipped US$357.1 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2017. This included African countries. Africa accounted for 13% of Russian arms sales over the last five years.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided huge quantities of arms to a number of African governments such as Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. But, now ideology is not a significant factor, according to analysis by both foreign and local policy experts.

As Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explicitly observes that military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with a number of African countries.

“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” she also acknowledges in her discussion for this news report.

Dmitri Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the African Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told me: “With African countries, the primary aim now for Russian business is to regain a competitive edge in the global arms trade, and what’s interesting is that the approach is not ideological but very pragmatic – you pay, we ship. It’s simply business and nothing more.”

Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), founded in 1997 as a leading Russian defense industry and arms trade think tank, explained to me that Russia has revived contacts with African comrades that used to be traditional buyers of Soviet weaponry.

He pointed out that although much has changed in the sense, “Russia is using military diplomacy in order to gain stature and influence in Africa.”

Nikolai Shcherbakov, an Analyst at the Center for African Studies of the Institute of General History, indicated that Moscow is steadily seeking to strengthen its position as a major arms supplier to the African continent, and further explained that “Russia’s military technology was top-notch while the weapons were priced very good to be competitive on the market.”

In his assessment, Dr Richard Connolly, Associate Fellow at Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, noted that Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the US, and is seeking to strengthen its position in new markets.

“Asia is the most important foreign market for Russian arms producers, accounting for 70 per cent of their exports since 2000. The Middle East and North Africa is the second-most important market, but competition from other suppliers is much more intense there. Latin America and Africa are of relatively modest importance,” he concluded.

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