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

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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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Two Opposite Views of Alexei Navalny

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The views of Alexei Navalny in Russia and in the United States are virtually opposites of each other.

In America, for example, on June 20th, the New York Times headlined “U.S. Preparing More Sanctions Against Russia, Sullivan Says”, and sub-headlined “The national security adviser raised the issue of more penalties in the poisoning of Aleksei A. Navalny days after President Biden met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.” The Hill online bannered “Sullivan says US preparing more Russia sanctions over Navalny”, and the “Best” or most popular of the many hundreds of reader-comments was “Putin is too chickenshvt to face Navalny in an election”. In other words, the view is: Putin is aiming to kill Navalny because Navalny represents democracy and Putin is the dictator. That is the dominant view of Navalny not only in the United States but in its allied countries.

In Russia, however, here is the dominant view:

An RT news-report on 1 February 2021 headlined “Top Navalny aide asked alleged British spy for millions in funding, intelligence video released by Russia’s FSB claims to reveal”. Back in 2012, Russia’s equivalent of America’s FBI had a hidden camera in position filming, and recording, Navalny’s top aide trying to persuade a person he thought to be an MI6 (UK’s CIA) agent that MI6 should annually donate tens of millions of dollars to Navalny’s organization because doing this would provide billions of dollars of benefit to UK corporations if Navalny would then succeed and become Russia’s leader. 

Navalny is also known in Russia as a far-right ethnic supremacist. Here is a video that he posted to youtube on 19 September 2007, under the title of “НАРОД за легализацию оружия” meaning “PEOPLE for the legalization of weapons

He was saying there that all Russians should get guns in order to kill Muslims who are infesting Russia, which would be like swatting big flies or stamping on big cockroaches. Later, he decided that demagoguing against Russia’s “corruption” was far likelier to win him the backing of the U.S and its allies than demagoguing against Russia’s Muslims would. This was when U.S.-and-allied ‘news’-media began presenting him as the ‘democratic’ alternative to Vladimir Putin, who has always been vastly more favorably viewed by Russians than Navalny has been. On 5 September 2020, right before the latest Russian Presidential election, the internationally respected Levada polling organization in Russia reported that the top choice of Russians to lead the country was Putin at 56%, the second-from-top choice was the nationalist Zhirinovsky at 5%, and Alexey Navalny (shown there as Алексей Навальный), was the third-from-top choice, at 2%. In the 2018 Presidential election, Zhirinovsky polled at 13.7%, Grudinin polled at 12.0%, and Putin polled at 72.6%. The actual election-outcome was Putin 76.69%, Grudinin 11.7%, and Zhirinovsky 5.65%. There were many polls and Navalny was never any serious contender for Russia’s Presidency. The U.S. regime lies as it usually does (at least about international matters).

That’s what Russians know about Navalny. And, of course, it’s very different from what the publics in U.S.-and-allied countries know (or, at least, believe) about him.

Here is some recent propaganda that’s published by U.S.-and-allied regimes about Navalny: 

On May 22nd, Japan Times ran a Reuters report, “How Russia’s new gulag tries to break convicts like Alexei Navalny”.

On May 23rd, the Wall Street Journal headlined “Russia’s Navalny Fights to Stay in Public Eye in Putin Standoff”.

On May 4th, the Washington Post columnist Vladimir Kara-Murza headlined “Russia just took a big step back toward the Soviet Union”, and said: “Last week, for the first time since the Soviet era, the Kremlin officially classified opposition to its rule as a criminal offense. … Moscow prosecutors suspended the activities of the nationwide organization of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent. Navalny is currently incarcerated in a prison camp after surviving a state-sponsored assassination attempt last year.”

Navalny, though he actually is favorably viewed by only around 2% of Russians (as indicated in polls there), is widely publicized in U.S.-and-allied media as having instead the highest support by the Russian people of anyone who might challenge Vladimir Putin for Russia’s leadership. It’s a lie, and always has been. Other politicians have far higher polled support in Russia. For example, a Russian poll conducted in the days following Alexey Navalny’s alleged novichok poisoning showed the following level of support for him then, if a Russian election for President would be held at that time: Vladimir Putin 56%, Vladimir Zhirinkovsky 5%. Alexei Navalny 2%. In the 2018 Presidential election, Zhirinovsky polled at 13.7%, Grudinin polled at 12.0%, and Putin polled at 72.6%. The actual election-outcome was Putin 76.69%, Grudinin 11.7%, and Zhirinovsky 5.65%. There were many polls and Navalny was never any serious contender for Russia’s Presidency. The U.S. regime lies as it usually does (at least about international matters), such as about “Saddam’s WMD.”

To say that Navalny has enough public supporters for him to have become elected as Russia’s President is like alleging that the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke had enough public supporters for him to have become elected as America’s President. That’s how much U.S.-and-allied ‘news’-media lie.

This news-report is submitted for publication to virtually all English-language newsmedia. A Web-search for its headline will show which ones have published it.

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Fragile Stabilisation of Confrontation

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Image source: kremlin.ru

Prospects for relations between Russia and the United States after the summit in Geneva

The Russia-US summit in Geneva will certainly not lead to a qualitative improvement in Russian-American relations and will not be able to initiate a process that would lead to a change of their confrontational nature within the next several years. This is impossible, due to the systemic nature of the confrontation between Russia and the United States. Overcoming this would require one or both sides to fundamentally change their approach to the international order and their place in it; a strong bipartisan anti-Russian consensus persists among the American political elite and establishment, despite an acute polarisation of the political system in the USA.

The task of the Geneva summit is different: to stabilise the Russian-American confrontation, to put an end to its unhealthy nature and uncontrollable course of recent years, and to form a model of relations in which the parties, despite considering each other as opponents and even enemies, nevertheless will try not to cross each other’s red lines. They also can develop selective cooperation on those issues where it is expedient for their national interests and where this cooperation does not require significant concessions. This model can be defined as controlled or disciplined confrontation.

The main reason that the summit in Geneva is taking place is that the further escalation of the Russian-American confrontation would otherwise undoubtedly lead to an even greater aggravation of the Ukrainian conflict, the situation around Belarus and a large-scale spiral of the arms race. This does not correspond to either Russian or American interests (as they are understood by the Biden administration).

For Russia, such an escalation would be fraught with the emergence of anti-Russian sanctions to a qualitatively new level, the need to increase military spending (today the Russian leadership is cutting defence spending and is proud of it), and an even greater deterioration in relations with European and Asian allies and partners of the United States (not only with the EU as a whole). It would also lead to the further strengthening of Russia’s asymmetric dependence on China, not to mention the humanitarian consequences of a new escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine and the increased risk of a direct military clash with the United States and NATO as a whole. Moscow, obviously, would like to avoid all this.

The interest of the Biden administration in stabilising the confrontation with Moscow is connected, firstly, with the Chinese factor. Since January this year, it became finally clear that the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, which was launched under Trump, is irreversible, systemic and existential for both sides, and therefore it is deeper and more long-term than the confrontation between the United States and Russia. Contrary to the hopes of many observers, there was no detente in US-China relations, and the Biden administration has made it clear that it regards China, and not Russia, as its main strategic rival and adversary.

At the same time, Washington is gradually understanding the limitations of its own resources and the need to concentrate on the Pacific sphere; a vivid example is the Biden administration’s desire to limit the obligations and presence of the United States in the Middle East. The White House also sees further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, which has increased in tandem with their opposition to the United States, as undesirable. As a result, the Biden administration seeks to stabilise the “Russian front” in order not to be distracted and to be able to throw as many resources as possible at the “Chinese front”.

Second, as the events of this spring have proved, the Biden administration, on the one hand, is not ready to invest serious material resources in containing Russia in the post-Soviet space, and even less enthusiastic about going to war with Russia because of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia. On the other hand, Washington would not like to witness the termination of their statehood.

The stabilisation of confrontation does not at all mean the resolution of the most acute conflicts and contradictions in Russian-American relations. The contradictions around Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, mutual allegations of interference in internal political affairs, Russia’s accusations of illegal hostile activities and even a “hybrid war” against the Western countries will most likely not be reduced following the summit. The prospect of a fundamental change in the foreign policy of Russia and the United States and serious compromises between them is still absent. Such compromises would be reasonably viewed by both sides as steps towards a strategic defeat, which for the time being is completely ruled out by both Moscow and Washington. In this regard, the stabilisation of the confrontation does not mean the resolution of these contradictions, but the absence of their further escalation.

At the same time, this stabilisation requires understanding, and, most importantly, respect for each other’s red lines. There is no doubt that these red lines will be discussed in Geneva. The ability of the parties to recognise and adhere to them is doubtful, especially in the longer term. For example, the United States will not only not give up open support for Russia’s domestic opposition in the near future, but will increase criticism of the Kremlin over internal political issues in the event of new protests. The parties will also not come to an agreement on what “Russian interference” in America’s internal political processes entail, and where the “red lines” are. Finally, there are great risks of destabilisation of many of the above crises “from below”, contrary to the wishes of Moscow or Washington. For example, the Ukrainian or Belarusian crises, which will inevitably entail a new round of confrontation and complicate interaction on other issues as well. Therefore, the stabilisation of confrontation, which is likely to follow the summit in Geneva, will be very fragile.

The second most important result of the summit is likely to be the launch of selective cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats on issues where it is beneficial to both parties and does not require qualitative concessions from the parties. This, in turn, will mean a significant improvement in Russian-American relations compared to the state in which they have been for the past several years. Namely, building a policy towards each other based on national interests and national security considerations, as well as the ability to combine rivalry and cooperation where it is necessary and beneficial.

In recent years, this was impossible. Under Trump, the Russian factor became one of the main instruments of America’s internal political struggle, and US policy towards Russia was determined by domestic political considerations to a much greater extent than foreign policy itself. This ruled out any constructive interaction in principle. The White House was forced to constantly prove that it was not a “Kremlin puppet”, and Congress sought to weaken Trump’s ability to determine US foreign policy, making confrontation with Russia irreversible. Coupled with the Republicans’ traditional preference for maximum freedom in defence policy and the desire to put pressure on opponents with the threat of an arms race, this led to the fact that by the end of 2020 the Russian-American agenda virtually disappeared, and the mechanisms of relations (summits, diplomatic dialogue) collapsed. An illustration of the latter is the diplomatic war that has been going on for more than four years, the recall of ambassadors and the actual paralysis of consular relations.

Today the situation is gradually improving. Although Russia still remains a factor in the American internal political struggle (and will remain so as long as the polarisation of the US political system persists), the scale of the politicisation of the Russian factor has significantly decreased since the end of the Trump period. Biden’s foreign policy does not provoke resistance, at least from his own administration, bureaucracy and among Democrats, and in any case he cannot be accused of any sympathy for the Russian president. Moreover, the Biden administration does not view the arms race as a preferential instrument of confrontation with Russia and does not seek the complete destruction of the remnants of the arms control system. Finally, the Biden administration perceives transnational challenges and threats (climate change, the pandemic, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.) as significantly more important in the hierarchy of threats to national security, and prefers a multilateral approach to their solution.

All this creates the preconditions for selective cooperation with Russia on issues where both sides consider this cooperation necessary and beneficial for themselves.

First of all, the result of the Geneva summit may be the launch of broad Russian-American consultations on strategic stability: how to adapt the system to the qualitatively changed military-strategic landscape and what to do after the already-extended START-3 Treaty (the last traditional instrument for nuclear missile control) expires in 2026.

The parties are unlikely to come to a new “big” agreement in the near future on the limitation and even the further reduction of nuclear weapons to replace the START Treaty. Moreover, it is extremely inappropriate to start such negotiations: the positions of the parties differ so much that it is impossible to successfully complete such negotiations. It is unlikely that it will be possible for them to reach an agreement on the deployment of ground-based intermediate and shorter-range missiles in Europe. Nevertheless, a full-scale dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers on all aspects of strategic stability (which has long entailed more than nuclear weapons alone) is extremely expedient. It includes the discussion of how they understand the threat of a nuclear war amid new military-technological and geopolitical conditions, as well as the development of more stringent rules of conduct in the military-strategic sphere, mechanisms of conflict prevention and de-conflicting.

The second area of ​​selective cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is cybersecurity, which includes four main aspects: the fight against cybercrime, the use of ICT as a military tool, interference in each other’s internal affairs using the Internet, social networks, hacking, etc., and cyber espionage. On the first aspect, the intensification of Russian-American cooperation is most likely. The second aspect relates to the military security and strategic stability (with the help of cyber means it is possible to inflict damage comparable to the use of nuclear weapons, or to disarm or “blind” the enemy during a military crisis). Here it is important at least to determine the red lines (to agree on what infrastructure should not be subject to cyberattacks under any circumstances), develop the rules of the game and create de-conflicting mechanisms and “hot lines” in the event of a crisis. This will not be easy, but it is extremely necessary: ​​properly in the cyberspace that the risk of an unintentional military conflict with its further escalation up to a nuclear war is the highest. On the third and fourth aspects, reaching any agreements in the foreseeable future is extremely unlikely.

The third area of ​​cooperation is the intensification of interaction on the nuclear programmes of Iran and the DPRK, especially in the context of the Biden administration’s desire to restore, in one form or another, a multilateral deal on the Iranian nuclear programme and to abandon the practice of bilateral negotiations, especially summits with Pyongyang, used by Donald Trump.

The fourth area of ​​possible cooperation between Russia and the United States is environmental protection and the fight against climate change, which are positioned as one of the most important priorities of the Biden administration and are taking an increasingly important role in Russian foreign policy. Here the parties have something to talk about globally and locally. For example, the United States may suffer from the introduction of the EU carbon border adjustment mechanism (border adjustment carbon tax) within the framework of the European Green Deal, no less and even more than Russia. In the common interests of Moscow and Washington is the creation, as an alternative, of some kind of global mechanism aimed at reducing carbon emissions primarily where it is most beneficial for both countries.

However, the main object of possible cooperation between Moscow and Washington on environmental issues and climate change is the Arctic. In this region, Russia and the United States are part of a shared ‘neighbourhood’, where the rate of climate change is 3-4 times higher than the global average, and where the environmental, socio-economic and foreign policy consequences of this change are the most widespread. The fragile Arctic ecosystem, its infrastructure built on permafrost, and the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples of the North are under threat of destruction. Moreover, the melting ice of the Arctic contributes to the overflow of the US-Russia and US-China confrontation – the perception of the region, as indicated in the 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, as “an avenue for great power competition and aggression”. As a result, the militarisation of the Arctic is increasing alongside the risk of disasters and military clashes, impeding the economic development of the region. Cooperation between Russia and the United States in protecting the environment in the Arctic is the only factor that can, if not slow down, then at least compensate for these negative trends, combating climate change amid even greater acceleration, addressing the melting permafrost (it is fraught with large-scale methane emissions) and adapting to new climatic conditions in the region.

Finally, the fifth area of ​​possible cooperation between Russia and the United States after the Geneva summit is a “truce” in the diplomatic war and the return of ambassadors to Washington and Moscow, respectively. This is perhaps the easiest and most feasible decision that can be expected from the summit and implemented in the short term.

A distinctive feature of this agenda, which is important for understanding the nature of the managed Russian-American confrontation, is that the beginning of a dialogue on these topics does not require any serious concessions from the parties. This is the most important prerequisite for this cooperation. Moreover, this cooperation should not be seen as a way to improve relations between Russia and the United States. This is generally not on the agenda in the foreseeable future. The meaning of cooperation is to understand Russian and American national interests, which in the indicated areas cannot be realised in other ways, even despite the fact that the parties generally regard each other as opponents.

From our partner RIAC

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Modest results of the meeting in Geneva

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Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on Wednesday, June 16. Both separately noted that the talks went well. “There’s been no hostility,” Putin said. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.” Biden meanwhile declared “the tone of the entire meeting… was good. Positive.”

The spirit may have been constructive and the tone positive, but no major step forward was made to reset the chronically strained relations between Moscow and Washington. Although the meeting went as well as could be expected, major differences remain on a range of issues, including cyberattacks and human rights.

Putin rejected accusations Russia was involved in cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and declared that the U.S. government was the main offender in this area. On human rights he said that the U.S. supports opposition groups in Russia in order to weaken it, since Washington openly sees Russia as an adversary. Putin reiterated that Moscow did not see domestic politics as up for negotiation or discussion. He also said that pro-Trump demonstrators who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 were merely expressing reasonable political demands, for which they now faced punitive jail terms.

For his part Biden ensured the summit would be seen as the opposite of Donald Trump’s notably cordial meeting with Putin in Helsinki three years ago. He said that he had pressed the Russian leader on a range of issues, such as human rights, and that he would continue doing so. “No President of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view,” Biden said he told Putin. “That’s just part of the DNA of our country… It’s about who we are.”

On the modest plus side the two leaders agreed that their ambassadors, who were recalled amid the rising tensions, should return to their posts in the near future. In addition, the U.S. and Russia would start “consultations” on cyber-related issues. As for the overall tone of the meeting, the Russian president paraphrased Leo Tolstoy by saying “there is no happiness in life only glimmers of it. Cherish them.”

“I think that in this situation, there can’t be any kind of family trust,” Putin concluded. “But I think we’ve seen some glimmers.”

Media commentary around the world reflected one common theme: at least it is reassuring that there is a dialogue. “The US-Russian summit in Geneva confirmed the low expectations for the meeting,” commented the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland’s leading daily:

There were hardly any concrete agreements, but at least the American president is no longer inviting attack from his Russian counterpart. The chorus of commentators was pretty unanimous in the run-up to the summit from Moscow to Washington: There was no significant room for concessions or a change of strategy, either on the American or on the Russian side. The expectations therefore had to be set extremely low.

These low expectations were noted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well, which found it encouraging that the meeting lasted considerably longer than expected. The paper also thought it a hopeful sign that “the Russian President, who had already made the Pope and the British [sic!] Queen wait, arrived on time.”

“The summit flowed along conventional diplomatic lines:” wrote The Guardian; “a handshake, several hours of intensive talks and separate press conferences afterwards. The ghost of Helsinki was exorcised.” According to the British daily, the obvious and easy “deliverables” were achieved:

“One was to normalise the situation of Russia and America’s ambassadors…

“There will also be consultations between the US state department and the Russian foreign ministry on a range of issues including the Start III nuclear treaty, due to expire in 2024, and cybersecurity.”

The Russian media, unlike their Western counterparts, emphasize that one area of agreement in Geneva concerned the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta noted Putin’s statement that Biden agreed with him that the Minsk agreements should be at the heart of the settlement in Ukraine. Quoting Peter Kuznick, professor of history at American University, the paper notes the summit was an important step in the right direction for both sides. No one expected a breakthrough, he said, but the two leaders respectfully and clearly indicated their interest in finding possible areas of common interest:

Both presidents understood each other’s ‘red lines’ and marked them more clearly. Their summaries after the meeting did not contradict, but rather emphasized and complemented each other. It seems to me that Putin was speaking to the whole world, while Biden spoke more to an audience within America, with an emphasis on human rights.

Considering the current state of bilateral relations, the Geneva summit is the maximum that could be expected. All that was deemed possible, but not obligatory, did happen, Professor Fyodor Lukyanov of Moscow’s School of Economics noted.

The conversation was businesslike and informative. This means that from the insane phase we’ve had in recent years, with normal relationship replaced by sheer hysteria, we are moving into a phase of more structured rivalry… The summit only outlined a way out of the impasse. Now we have to do all the work that is normally done before the summit. Since it was not done this time, solid steps will be prepared for some future milestone.

Prior to this meeting, Washington strengthened Russophobic sentiments in countries that follow American foreign policy. The peak of Russophobia was represented by the events in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, but also by a number of other states which adjust it`s foreign policy to Washington’s foreign policy. Bearing in mind that at the moment relations between Washington and Moscow are not friendly, under American command, that kind of states accuse Russia constantly, including for events that happened years ago.

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