“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.”
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
Putin, United Russia and the Message
On Dec. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the plenary meeting of the 18th United Russia party congress, reiterated the key challenges, problems and accomplishments for the nation. The congress delegates identified the challenges and priorities in the party’s work for the coming year.
Putin acknowledged the party’s support during his presidential election campaign, saying it was “a momentous thing shaping the top institution of power” in Russia. This concerns the president, the government, the region – any level, down to the local or municipal one.
Putin further referred to an action plan that was presented in a condensed form in the Executive Order in May 2018 and that set out in national projects drafted by the Government (the majority in the Government are United Russia members) and was supported by legislators (United Russia holds the majority in the State Duma). He pointed to the fact that there would not be any success without United Russia’s backing at the regional and municipal level.
“The United Russia party plays a special role. For a number of years the party has been showing its competence, its ability to make responsible decisions, explain these decisions to the people,” Putin told the party delegates during his address, while acknowledging frankly that there have been pitfalls and problems in the political leadership.
Leadership means making responsible decisions the country needs. This leadership is an enormous resource to achieve dynamic and substantive change that can ensure a radical improvement in the quality of life and greater well-being of the population.
Putin reminded the party meeting that the entire world going through a dramatic situation. In his words: “the world is undergoing a transformation, a very powerful and dynamically evolving transformation, and if we do not get our bearings, if we do not understand what we need to do and how, we may fall behind for good.”
He suggested that United Russia with its tremendous legislative, organisational and human resource potential must fully utilise it and consolidate all of society, in solving development issues, in implementing the nationwide agenda.
Putin told the party delegates never allow any sort of rudeness, arrogance, insolence towards people at any level – at the top level and the lowest, municipal level. This is important because it does the country a disservice, it is unfair to the people and it denigrates the party to the lowest of the low. The public demands fairness, honesty and openness.
What is “society” after all? It is the people. Thus, one key factor here is that people’s opinions and attitudes must necessarily be taken into account. There must be commitment to implementing people’s initiatives, and their initiatives must be used in attaining common goals, especially at the municipal level, according to the Russian leader.
The most crucial thing for a political party is a steady standing of its representatives and that United Russia does not have to fear change but rather work strategically towards making a change for the better.
Putin further asked the delegates to work relentlessly for a free democratic country, development of nationwide tasks, realisation of new ideas and approaches. Discussions and competition, including within the party itself are very efficient tools for solving problems in the interests of the nation. United Russia has to do everything needed to instil both inside the party in particular and in society in general this political culture, an atmosphere of dialogue, trust and cooperation with all political forces of Russia.
G20 Summit: Looking for Compromise
The G20 is an important international forum, a meeting place for representatives of the world’s largest economies. Now, we can say that the division into the so-called “developed” and “developing” economies is irrelevant within this forum. Additionally, the G20 generally does, indeed, represent the interests of the global population, since its countries account for over 80 percent of the gross world product and two thirds of the entire population of the planet. It is also important to remember that such venues are very convenient for privately owned businesses, which, through the support of governmental agencies, can get favourable opportunities to hold talks with their foreign partners. Additionally, a rather large number of meetings and talks at G20 summits remains outside the spotlight, but their results confirm the significance of the many unofficial meetings, informal negotiations and talks on the side-lines of the summits. These meetings, which take place in a variety of formats, are vital for understanding the issues that are most important for leading international participants and whether there is consensus among them on the approaches required to resolve these issues. Moreover, as we consider meetings and agreements concluded on the side-lines of G20 summits, we can, to a degree, draw conclusions on the current configuration or re-configuration of international relations.
From the outset, we will note that the importance of G20 summits is gradually growing, even though they started out as meetings of ministers of finance and their initial goal was to formulate a joint response to global financial issues. Today, the summit has transformed into an international venue for discussing issues of global financial and economic policies and other pressing matters of the day. However, economic and financial issues remain significant for G20 discussions.
The summit is also important for the expert and political communities of various countries that assess the prospects of inter-country interactions. Apparently, at the Argentina summit, the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin attracted the greatest interest, but it never happened, since the U.S. President cancelled it at the eleventh hour, which certainly demonstrates the growing tensions in U.S.–Russia relations.
At the same time, the summit is useful, since its function is not to settle bilateral relations, but to develop common approaches that satisfy different states with different economic indicators and representing different political regimes.
G20 summits are convened to discuss several pressing issues proposed by the presiding state.
The summit held in Argentina was devoted to building a consensus for fair and stable development. Face-to-face meetings between heads of state are particularly important for handling the task. The goal of the summit indicates that the global community is aware of the current tectonic shifts in the global economy and in world politics. For a full-scale scale discussion of the problem, four issues were put on the agenda: the future of work and new professions, infrastructure for development, sustainable food future and gender mainstreaming.
Clearly, the G20 is not just a venue for discussing issues that have been defined as key; it is also an opportunity to “compare notes” via different formats “inside” the summit. For instance, we can say that France, Germany, Austria and Italy did not represent themselves or their interests alone, but were also united by their common tasks as EU countries. In addition, as one of the world’s largest economies, the European Union is a member of G20 as a single body. At the present summit, the European Union was represented by the heads of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Similarly, BRICS countries use G20 to discuss issues of their own.
G20 in Implementing Russia’s Strategic Tasks
Russia’s current strategic priority is to take part in the establishment of the concept of a multipolar world and in elaborating new principles of interaction within integration processes in Eurasia. Therefore, special emphasis will invariably be placed on the possibilities for implementing the idea of “integrating integrations” at G20 summits, and this summit was no exception. In particular, special attention was paid to mechanisms for connecting the development of the EAEU with the “One Road – One Belt” strategy. In addition, issues of stepping up cooperation within BRICS are also addressed, and there is an ongoing search for parties interested in bolstering global political and economic stability through the instruments of “integrating integrations,” which entails Russia paying attention to China, India and other Asian partners, as well as the gradual stable growth of Russia’s interests in Latin America.
As for meetings that have the greatest significance for Russia, the key talks for understanding the development of Russia’s foreign policy are the now traditional sessions held with BRICS countries. In addition, a meeting was also held between the heads of state of Russia, India and China (in the RIC format). Objectively, this format could be the most efficient, since interaction between Eurasia’s three largest states is of principal significance for both regional and global security. The dialogue on security issues and collaboration in all areas will be continued at the second Belt and Road Summit in April 2019 that Xi Jinping invited Vladimir Putin to attend.
The President of the Russian Federation was probably one of the most active figures at the present summit. Naturally, he had a meeting with representatives of Argentina. It is all the more important today since the EAEU and MERCOSUR are building up their cooperation potential, and a Memorandum on Cooperation is being prepared. What is more, Russia and Argentina concluded an agreement on nuclear power generation that will allow Russia to start construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Argentina.
The main topic of discussion at the meeting between Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin was the Syrian agenda. Indeed, an exchange of opinions on this question now, when various formats of building up the peace process are being discussed, is of particular importance. In addition, the President of the Russian Federation discussed the current situation in Syria with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also confirmed the significance of the Turkish Stream for the stable and secure development of the economy of Turkey and other states.
The meeting between the President of the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on energy issues, with the two parties agreeing to extend the agreement on cutting oil production.
Vladimir Putin also met with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, with the Japanese side raising the issue of concluding a peace agreement. For Russia, the issue is not particularly relevant anymore, and at the meeting, the two heads of state agreed to continue active cooperation to increase the level of mutual trust between the two sides.
Of course, a great number of people were interested in the informal conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who only had time to exchange opinions on the “Kerch Strait incident.” Trump’s refusal to meet with the President of the Russian Federation means a further loss of confidence between the two countries.
On the whole, meetings between heads of state were of particular importance at the summit, since, for instance, the meeting at the level of ministers of foreign affairs was downsized due to the absence of Russian and French ministers of foreign affairs, the U.S. Secretary of State and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
G20: The International Agenda
The so-called Iran nuclear deal has become one of the most crucial problems in international relations. Russia and the European Union have adopted the same stance on this issue.
In addition to economic matters, G20 also tackled the climate change problem and proposed complete and utter compliance with the decisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, significant progress is unlikely after the withdrawal of the United States from the accord.
No less important were the discussions on the problem of terrorism. The G20 countries agreed that their Leaders’ Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism needed to be implemented. Incidentally, that statement declared the need to fight terrorism internationally in all its forms and manifestations. However, the current situation is extremely complicated, and discussions concerning Syria confirm this fact.
The influence of the European Union and the United Kingdom on the international security agenda and their claim that Russia is the main disrupting force are just as worrying. The European Union, in the person of Donald Tusk, sought to expand the summit’s agenda with a discussion of Russia’s so-called aggression against Ukraine, which he likened to the problem of trade wars. However, despite the suggestion put forward by both Tusk and the United Kingdom that the G20 discuss Russia’s allegedly impermissible conduct and use some instruments against it, the proposal failed to gain traction. It say a lot that the “Kerch Strait incident” did not overshadow any of the meetings held by the President of the Russian Federation at the G20 Summit.
The attention of international actors was also focused on the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, who failed to achieve a consensus on economic interaction, but agreed to a 90-day moratorium on introducing increased tariffs. Accordingly, special hopes are pinned on this interim measure. Clearly, China will not make the unilateral concessions that the United States is calling upon it to do, appealing instead to the idea of a compromise.
Results of the G20 Summit
While the summit’s final declaration does not contain specific figures and objectives for the most sensitive issues on the agenda, it does offer mechanisms for their resolution. In this respect, the summit did not turn out to be a breakthrough in resolving pressing issues. However, it demonstrated that no issue will ever be resolved if the parties abandon dialogue and compromise.
The results of Russia’s efforts at the summit include the signing of a large set of bilateral agreements between public and private bodies. The summit also demonstrated that Russia is actively and successfully stepping up cooperation with Latin American countries and enhancing its multi-format collaboration with the BRICS nations, particularly with China and India.
It is both curious and telling that the media was most interested in the meetings held by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump. However, we should mention the different approaches of these heads of state. For example, the President of the United States demonstrated that his country was not especially interested in following the established rules and was far more concerned about retaining the right to develop new rules of the game independently of other participants in international relations. Meanwhile, China’s and Russia’s leaders spoke about cooperation and compromise both in their joint meetings held in various formats and in their conversations with other heads of state. Additionally, the fact that the world is changing rapidly was recognized at the summit, meaning that the rules of the game can and should be changed and that new rules need to be formulated, but only through collaboration and compromise.
The heads of state also appealed to the IMF and the World Bank to work towards improving the economic situation in various countries and increasing the transparency of their work in interacting with states. This should help reduce sovereign debt and ensure that the recommendations offered by international financial institutions in individual states are implemented more effectively.
In addition, the leaders of the G20 countries concluded that responses need to be developed to current and future challenges in the development of the WTO and attempts should be made to avoid excessive contradictions, sanctions and tariff restrictions. The parties also agreed that the WTO needs to be reformed for it to work more efficiently. This aspect will be considered at the next summit in Japan.
Interestingly, virtually all countries supported multi-laterality, confirmed their commitment to the rules of international trade and agreed that efforts to overcome crisis trends in the global economy should be stepped up in order to avoid a repetition of the 2008 global crisis. The final declaration states that the global economic growth is increasingly less synchronized between countries, which entails risks to economic security, particularly given geopolitical tensions and financial unpredictability. To overcome this problem, it is important to step up interaction and increase trust among all parties in international relations.
The G20 states also announced that it was necessary to continue joint work on studying the impact that the digitalization of economy has on the global tax system, which needs to be adapted to current conditions by 2019 (final decisions on the matter will be elaborated and published in 2020).
Thus, the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires once again demonstrated the significance of the mechanisms of dialogue and achieving compromise based on constant information exchange between countries. The compromise-based approach was officially adopted as the foundation of all agreements, and was the leitmotif of the event. Given the circumstances, an increasing number of states recognize their significance as participants in international relations and, with each passing year, they strive to more forcefully state their stance on the most sensitive issues. Clearly, the Russian Federation wholeheartedly welcomes this trend.
Therefore, it should be noted that the recent summit in Argentina demonstrated that the G20 is just that – a group of countries – and not a political club. This fact increases its significance as an organization exhibiting a multilateral, multi-format and pluralistic nature of today’s international relations. Active discussions in such a format confirm the relevancy of multipolarity and the current processes of reconfiguring the world. In such circumstances, Russia can most fully implement its interests and convey its vision of international matters. An analysis of the volume of news reports in the European media is quite telling in that it proves that EU journalists were primarily interested not so much in meetings of heads of EU states, but in meetings with the participation of the leaders of Russia, China and the United States, meaning that EU representatives were running second in the newsfeeds of many news agencies. Thus, the results of the summit allow us to state that there has been a significant increase in the international community’s attention on Russia.
First published in our partner RIAC
Russia Calling the Shots: Extrapolating from the Kerch Strait
The quasi-standoff this past week between Russia and Ukraine over the Kerch Strait has been painted in the West with a decidedly anti-Russian brush. After Russia fired near three Ukrainian naval ships attempting to enter the strait (which sits as a small maritime passageway between the eastern edge of Crimea and the western tip of the Krasnodar region of the Russian Federation, allowing ships to move between the Black and Azov Seas) and ultimately resulted in their seizure by Russian border guards, political actors all across the West have been quick to snap judgment against ‘Russian aggression:’ the EU has debated whether it needs to enact new sanctions against Moscow; Ukraine invited NATO to send a heavier naval presence into the Black Sea; even the Trump administration has at least temporarily canceled a future visit that was scheduled between the American president and Vladimir Putin, although it is not entirely certain that this is perfectly aligned with the Kerch Strait incident.
As has been the standard media and political play when it comes to Russian-American relations over the past several years, no one seems to be attempting to analyze what the Russian position is, other than derisively dismissing the Russian accusation of the entire incident being a Ukrainian ‘provocation.’ Regardless of the strong desire to put the black cowboy hat on to Putin (and to be fair, Putin sometimes seems to actually enjoy donning it, if at least to thumb his nose at the West), the Russian position, if taken more seriously, does give Western leaders important information about how Russia views not just its immediate region but also its political mentality on the global stage. America would do well to pay attention to this at least for the insights it can give into the Russian mindset.
First, Russia clearly still harbors irritation and resentment over what it considers to be continued interference from the West in Ukraine, ostensibly giving Ukraine a false sense of being able to ignore Russia as the true regional power and harbor false dreams of closer military ties to the European Union and NATO. This gives Russia the marked perception that the West is thereby purposely fomenting dissension between Russia and Ukraine. Second, Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, has a unique talent for enflaming this Russian perception to near hysterical heights, what with his penchant for making nearly continuous claims about Russia intending to ‘steal his entire country’ and installing ‘partial martial law’ over part of his own country when it comes to access to Crimea. Third, the consequences of the first two problems create Russian exasperation with what the Kremlin considers a ‘foreign policy double standard’ that favors the United States, causes its neighbors to act ‘irrationally’ (at least irrational according to Russian national security interests) and which will simply never be accepted by Russia.
The Crimean referendum, which led to Russia accepting Crimea back into the regional fold of the Russian Federation formally, was the first obvious (to Russia) example that false promises were being made to Ukraine. After all, it was the Russian military that came into Crimea after the referendum and literally dared NATO or the EU to come forward and try to expel it from the peninsula. It was calling out the NATO promise – made to the leaders of the Maidan revolution in Kiev – that it would not allow Russia to make ‘any incursions’ into Ukraine, and proving it to be nothing but a bluff. Russia marched. Kiev called. NATO didn’t pick up. Even now, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, recently expressed disappointment with NATO over the Kerch Strait incident, declaring how the ‘good relations’ between Ukraine and the Western defense organization have not materialized into ‘stronger military communication.’
This has been the foundation of Russia’s tough love approach to Ukraine and its misplaced Slavic shuffle: stop thinking you have a bigger or more powerful ally than the one that has always been on your Eastern border and has deep historical, religious, and cultural ties to you. The EU and NATO will never stand up to Russia in favor of Ukraine when the issue is relatively small on the global conflict scale. And despite what current Russophobes may think, Crimea and the Kerch Strait, since they have not escalated into something bigger or more violent, apparently do not pass the Western intervention sniff test. Thus, with the Kerch Strait today (which not coincidentally is the maritime pass over which Russia built a massive superhighway, literally connecting the Russian mainland directly to Crimea and which, understandably, the Kremlin is a bit sensitive about when it comes to any appearance of military maneuvers near it by another nation), Russia is challenging what seems to be a second NATO bluff. Instead of hoping for NATO to draw a red line, Ukraine might be better off paying attention to the Russian red line.
In the end, this is not Russia trying to escalate violence or war with Ukraine. It is not Russia attempting to bring Western powers deeper into what it considers its own sphere of neighborhood influence (based on very simple, classical realist power considerations). Rather, it is Russia attempting to ‘educate’ Ukraine about who its real allies should be and who its false friends are. Perhaps more than anything, it is Russia somewhat condescendingly telling the West that no matter how much nonsense it fills in the heads controlling Kiev (consider Putin just announcing that Kiev would get away with ‘eating babies’ as long as it would make things more difficult for Russia, all major decisions in this region of the globe are going to remain firmly in Russian hands. The West may not like it, but so far in the game of Ukrainian Bluff, it is Russia 2, the West 0.
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