It is 9am on a chilly March morning. Delegates from across the world have assembled for an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main decision-making body. The main item on the agenda: an update from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe on Russian escalations in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, to determine NATO’s response.
No one doubts the gravity of the situation. Russian forces are moving west to occupy parts of Ukraine beyond the Donbas region and the Crimea. There have also been severe Russian cyber attacks on German infrastructure, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to invade Estonia. NATO’s secretary general has asked one of his predecessors, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, to join the meeting and share advice.
Do not adjust your set: this meeting took place, but it was a simulation – set in a very near future in which the Ukraine has joined NATO and the UK has left the EU.
These kinds of exercise are conducted regularly by NATO and national armies to anticipate what might happen in the “fog of war”. Standing in for the NATO headquarters in Brussels on this occasion was the University of Stirling in central Scotland. The delegates were students on the university’s masters programme in international conflict and cooperation, and the doctorate in diplomacy.
Lord Robertson was the only person playing himself. He briefed delegates under Chatham House rules on his time chairing NATO, including the historic decision on September 12, 2001 to invoke collective defensive action under Article 5 of the founding treaty.
Immersed in NATO’s engine room, our delegates had to strike a balance during two days of negotiations between countries advocating conflict resolution and those inclined to deterrence – if not pre-emptive action. As well as informing the students’ learning, it produced the following insights for the real world.
1. Russian capabilities
Delegates had to assess Russian defensive capabilities using real-life data. They concluded that while Russia looks strong on a country-by-country comparison, its armed forces remain stretched and are sometimes poorly equipped. Russia would probably not be able to sustain a war with NATO troops over several months, and would likely be challenged by fighting on two fronts.
Having said that, the country’s forces have recently modernised, making them more effective than a few years ago. Russia is also closer than most NATO powers to Ukraine and the Baltics, so could mobilise more quickly and potentially gain strategic advantages.
NATO action in Ukraine would be complicated by a low bridge that Russia has opened connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. This makes it difficult for larger ships to move between Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and the Mediterranean. Russian expertise in cyber attacks and creating confusion by spreading fake news could also create disunity among NATO members.
Takeaway: the Russian bear is frail but can still bite.
2. Expect complexity
Countries in our simulation negotiated according to national interests. The multilateral negotiation splintered into smaller discussions as mini-alliances emerged. For example, Turkey – with its improving relations with Russia and exposure to potential refugees – was so conciliatory to Moscow that its NATO membership became questionable.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ukraine and also Romania, which feels threatened by Russian aggression in the Black Sea region, sought immediate offensive action. Alliances like these weren’t always visible to the outside world. They complicated negotiations, especially when such countries had essentially non-negotiable aims.
Takeaway: things are not always what they seem, even within a negotiation. Try and stay flexible, and don’t rely on media reports about counterparts’ interests.
3. Events, events, events
Just like in real life, our delegates had to keep monitoring an internal news feed. In one announcement, Russia began mobilising after hard-line statements from certain NATO members leaked to the media on day one of the negotiation. Several times, discussions had to start from scratch as delegations changed priorities and strategies.
Takeaway: constantly ask yourself how events affect your own position and those of your counterparts.
4. Clarity under pressure
With full military intervention and occupation of Ukraine by Russia on the cards by the middle of day two, NATO allies had to deploy ground troops or risk ceding ground to Moscow. Issues agonised over the day before became less relevant as delegations were forced to compromise in the interests of collective action.
Takeaway: time pressure can make decision-making hot-headed, but can lead to clarity of purpose. Negotiators who understand this can use it to their advantage.
5. EU security
As EU members of our fictional North Atlantic Council discussed issues among themselves, we witnessed how the EU has become a geopolitical actor with “state-like” qualities. Before committing to security actions through NATO, EU members negotiated with each other and sought a coherent position.
One important dimension in the real world is the EU’s Russia sanctions, which are slightly different to US sanctions. With Ukraine now also party to an EU Association Agreement, the EU is demonstrating its capability to project power abroad.
Takeaway: the EU is developing its own geopolitical and security role in Europe, with potential consequences for NATO.
6. The UK squeeze
Within NATO, the UK has generally mediated between the US and usually softer EU positions. Our simulation showed that after Brexit, despite its important role as a nuclear-armed NATO member, the UK will likely feel squeezed between the US and EU.
Takeaway: the implications of Brexit for the UK in NATO deserve more attention.
7. Refugee risks
In our simulation NATO members closer to Russia, such as Poland and Hungary, were particularly worried that military action in Ukraine would lead to a large number of refugees – with potentially serious domestic political consequences.
Takeaway: we don’t always take enough account of the linkages between military and human security.
8. Take positive decisions
When the BBC war-gamed a similar scenario several years ago, the UK got drawn into a nuclear war. Our fictional delegates managed to avoid such awful outcomes by using what deterrent power they had. They combined mobilisation with the offer of talks in such a way that Russia backed off. Despite some hawkish pressure, the situation was mostly defused by dominant countries such as the US as well as conciliatory EU voices.
Takeaway: On March 18, on the fifth anniversary of annexation, NATO reiterated its view that Crimea is Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, hostilities continue in Donbas. The apparent stalemate in Ukraine could change overnight – not least with the presidential election at the end of March. If so, NATO members will have to make a choice, despite the fact that Ukraine is not currently a member of the alliance. As became clear to our participants, the one thing you can’t do in a moment of international crisis is to refuse to act if your interests are at stake.
December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
On October 20 2018, US President Donald Trump announced he intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – an arms control treaty with Russia that contributed to the end of the Cold War.
Russia followed suit and reports say it is aiming to create new land-based missiles within the next two years. Reports also say the US is allocating funds for the research and development of such missiles.
So, what is the INF Treaty? And will its collapse lead to an increase of global nuclear tensions that marked the Cold War?
What is the INF?
The INF Treaty took seven years to negotiate, contributed to the end of the Cold War and ushered in three decades of strategic stability.
US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on December 8 1987 to give effect to their declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
The treaty prohibited the development, testing and possession of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500km to 5,500km, whether armed with nuclear or conventional warheads.
A joint statement from Reagan and Gorbachev noted:
This treaty is historic both for its objective – the complete elimination of an entire class of US and Soviet nuclear arms – and for the innovative character and scope of its verification provisions.
It entered into force on June 1 1988. By its implementation deadline of June 1 1991, 859 US and 1,752 Soviet missiles had been destroyed.
Reflecting the dominant Cold War architecture of nuclear arms control, the INF Treaty was bilateral. US National Security Adviser John Bolton, writing in 2011 as a private citizen, conceded the treaty had successfully “addressed a significant threat to US interests”. The threat was a surprise Soviet/Russian nuclear attack in Europe using missiles in the 500-5,500km range.
But the arms control architecture began fraying when US President George W. Bush pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001. Signed in 1972, the ABM controlled systems designed to counter “strategic” ballistic missiles, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
With the INF Treaty now dead and another arms control treaty, New Start, set to expire in 2021, the world will be left without any limits on the two major nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.
What now, for Europe?
Since 2014, under the Obama administration, Washington has accused Russia of deploying nuclear-capable ground-launched missiles with a 2,000km range (the SSC-8) in Europe that are non-compliant with INF Treaty obligations.
The US decision to pull out of the treaty will deepen the strains in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Baltic countries insist Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty demand robust diplomatic and military counter-measures. The UK has lined up firmly behind Washington, blaming Russia for the breakdown.
But Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, urged Washington to consider the consequences of withdrawal for Europe and for the future of nuclear disarmament. And the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said:
The INF contributed to the end of the Cold War and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture.
NATO stands to lose more from the INF Treaty collapse than Russia. Russia will be able to move ahead rapidly with the development and deployment of short and medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles. But, unlike in the 1980s, the US would face difficulty in finding allies in Europe prepared to station such missiles on their territory.
Also, would the host countries have a voice or veto on launching them and in choosing targets?
What about the Asia-Pacific?
In addition to alleged Russian violations, the US exit is motivated by China’s growing challenge to US dominance in the Pacific. China and North Korea have been developing missile-delivery capabilities.
“To reduce the threat from INF-range missiles,” Bolton concluded back in 2011, “we must either expand the INF Treaty’s membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrent capabilities.” Trump has done the latter.
As a non-signatory, China is unconstrained by INF Treaty limits. About 95% of its missiles are in the prohibited range. This enables it to target US ships and bases from the mainland by relatively inexpensive conventional means.
Without INF restrictions, the US could develop and station ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missiles across the Asia–Pacific, which would force Beijing to divert significant military resources to defend its homeland.
China’s nuclear stockpile has remained relatively stable over many years despite the fluctuations in the Russian and US numbers. It is below 300, compared to nearly 7,000 and 6,500 Russian and US warheads, respectively.
This signifies a policy of deliberate restraint in China despite substantial growth in economic and technological capability since its first nuclear test 55 years ago.
The collapse of the INF Treaty and deployment of China-specific US missiles could compel China to institute counter-measures – such as rapidly expanding its warhead numbers and missile-delivery systems – to protect vital security interests, including nuclear assets deep in its interior.
China’s response in turn may trigger re-adjustments to India’s doctrine of credible minimum deterrence and could produce matching re-adjustments by Pakistan. The nuclear arsenals of both these countries is presently limited to under 150 each.
In a worst-case scenario, China, India and Pakistan could engage in a sprint to parity with the US with a rapid expansion of warhead numbers and missile-delivery capabilities, and perhaps even move to keeping a stock of nuclear weapons on high alert just like Russia and the US.
However, economic and technological limitations will constrain India and Pakistan’s ability to engage in an open-ended nuclear arms race.
Expanding arms control
The sensible alternative would be to begin urgently multilateralising the Cold War bilateral structure of nuclear arms control regimes. This means involving more countries than just Russia and the US in arms control treaties, and in particular involving China. Chinese nuclear expert Tong Zhao’s conclusion holds for the whole world, not just China:
… the era of relying on the US-Russia bilateral arms control structure is at its end.
Multilateralising the arms control negotiating process and resulting structure will avoid a free-for-all nuclear arms race and instead anchor strategic stability in arms control agreements.
Meanwhile, thanks to Donald Trump and John Bolton, we shall continue to live in interesting times.
Many analysts have seen China’s rapidly growing naval power as a sign that Australia needs to rethink its defence strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, China has made remarkable strides in building up its defence capability. But it is worth noting that another military power is increasingly making its presence felt in our region – Russia.
The Coalition government does not give Russia much consideration at all in its current strategic planning. None of the recent Australian defence white papers, including the 2016 paper, considered Russia a significant military power. This perception stems from post-Cold War assumptions that Moscow has little political influence due to its reduced military power and limited economic engagement with our region.
Perhaps these assumptions were true in the 1990s or even ten years ago. However, current strategic realities are very different.
Putin’s game plan for military prowess
In the 2000s, Russia’s military began to gradually rebuild its combat potential. Under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the once cash-strapped military force received a massive financial boost and, more importantly, full political support.
After years of decline and neglect, Russian military power in the Asia-Pacific region is making a major leap forward. According to my research, Russian air force units deployed to East Asia received some 300 new upgraded aircraft from 2013-18. This is about equal to the total strength of the current Royal Australian Air Force.
By 2019, the Russian Eastern Military District (the military arm responsible for operations across the Pacific) is expected to receive more than 6,240 pieces of new and upgraded military equipment. This will include battle tanks, missiles and heavy artillery, aircraft, electronic warfare systems and more.
The Russian Pacific Fleet, the main means for Russia to exert power in the region, is expected to receive some 70 new warships by 2026. This will include 11 nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines, and 19 new surface warships – nearly the same number Australia is planning to add over the coming decade.
Russia is also increasingly showcasing this new-found military power in the region.
From late August to mid-September, the Russian military carried out the largest single show of its military power in 37 years, the Vostok 2018 war games. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the war games involved 297,000 personnel, more than 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. A sequence of large-scale exercises was held across eastern Siberia, the Russian Far East and parts of the Arctic. The maritime component was staged in the Okhotsk and Bering seas on Russia’s Pacific coast.
Condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for “large scale conflict”, the war games signalled that Russia’s military is prepared for possible confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. This reinforces what many analysts believe is Putin’s intention – to reassert Russia’s status as a global power.
Russia’s ‘soft’ military power on the rise
Russia also continues to be a key provider of advanced military technology in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, Russia supplied 52 countries globally with US$45 billion worth of arms – making it the world’s second-biggest arms supplier, behind the US. Over 60% of Russian arms exports go to Asian countries, with Southeast Asia accounting for most of that total.
Through these arms sales and joint activities, Russia is increasingly bringing Asian countries into its orbit and altering the balance of power in the region by increasing their military capabilities.
In addition to existing security and defence relationships with China, India and more recently Pakistan, Russia has been actively seeking to build ties with other countries on Australia’s doorstep – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Fiji.
Australia should closely follow Moscow’s growing strategic intimacy with Beijing. In contrast with Western countries, Russia has been willing to share its military expertise with China. And China has taken up the offer. The PLA, for instance, took part in the Vostok 2018 war games under Russia’s command.
Russian activities in and around Australia
Finally, we should not be ignorant of Russia’s activities in Australia and near our shores, which have intensified in recent years.
In 2009, Australian intelligence reported a sharp increase in Russian intelligence-gathering activities in Australia. Russia continues to have an interest in Australia’s national intelligence, especially highly sensitive information shared by the US and its NATO allies.
In November 2014, a Russian naval task group staged operations near Australia’s north at the same time Putin attended the G-20 summmit in Brisbane. This triggered a brief media storm, and was seen by some as a projection of Russia’s naval power.
Last December, Russian strategic bombers conducted exercises out of an Indonesian airfield close to Australia, forcing Australian Defence personnel in Darwin into a state of “increased readiness”. There were concerns the exercises may have been aimed at information gathering.
Then in March, two “undeclared intelligence officers” were expelled from the Russian embassy in Canberra, raising more questions about Russian covert activities in Australia. Two months later, a Russian training warship visited Papua New Guinea – the first visit of its kind for the Russian navy.
Australia-Russia relations at a low point
Russia is making its presence felt in the region for the benefit of its regional allies and clients, and as a form of deterrent to its geopolitical rivals.
Australia’s strategic alliance with the US is clearly on Moscow’s radar. Russia has a keen interest in our joint defence facilities and intelligence sharing, as well as our latest defence technology and operations.
Australia’s hard stance on issues related to Russia, such as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK, further complicates our relations with Moscow.
In October, Canberra also joined London in condemning the Russian military for its ongoing cyber-operations against the West, including Australia.
Australia’s relations with Moscow are at their lowest point in decades. And while Australia is by no means a priority for Russia, the country is still being viewed as a geopolitical and security rival. The time has come for us to appreciate a power north of the Great Wall, as well.
At the now infamous Helsinki press conference held after the summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Trump indicated he was impressed with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
That answer must have pleased Vladimir Putin.
Strength and power have been key to Putin’s political brand ever since August 1999, when he was appointed as Russia’s prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin.
Putin led the country to victory in the second Chechen War, and as the virtual incumbent following Yeltsin’s resignation, he rode that wave of patriotism to victory in the presidential election of March 2000, with 53 percent of the national vote.
Putin makes strongman politics look effortless, and President Trump could not be clearer in his expressions of admiration and trust for his more experienced counterpart. From over two decades studying communist and post-communist politics, I believe there is value in looking past Putin’s confident self-projection and examining the machinery behind it.
As a former KGB officer and head of FSB, Russia’s national security agency, President Putin has professional roots in deception, disinformation and violence beyond the imagination and experience of most Americans outside the intelligence community. His 18-year record in public life provides high-profile cases where he has been equally “strong and powerful” in undermining truth – and targeting those who expose him.
Truth, lies and consequences
Here is a short catalog of Putin’s most glaring lies, as well as his actions against those who challenged him.
1. In 1999, bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings in Russia, killing 293 civilians.
The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, driving up patriotic support for Russia’s military in invading Chechnya. When one bomb was detected and defused in the city of Ryazan before it went off, new Prime Minister Putin praised the people of Ryazan for their vigilance.
His subsequent strong leadership during the Chechen War was key to his election as president in March 2000.
Yet forensics, eyewitness accounts and whistleblower revelations all indicated that Russia’s security service, the FSB, planted the Ryazan bomb.
The commission established to investigate the FSB’s role in all the bombings discontinued its work in 2003 when two key members died violent deaths. Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down, and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in a hospital from an “unknown allergen” that shut down all his vital organs. FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who directly accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the apartment bombings, was poisoned in London in 2006.
2. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.
Russian authorities refused to negotiate and instead deployed military forces to storm the school. More than 330 people died and another 550 were wounded. Among the dead were 184 children.
Putin was adamant that the use of force was justified and necessary in the face of terrorism, and used Beslan to increase centralized Kremlin power. He rejected a European Court of Human Rights judgment that Russian authorities used excessive force against their own citizens.
Journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic Ana Politkovskaya was poisoned when traveling to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived, and continued to research and publish on Putin’s assault on democracy until she was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.
3. In 2005, the American-born British CEO of Moscow-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, was denied re-entry to Russia, and declared a threat to national security.
Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky then uncovered a US$230 million tax fraud scheme against Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky’s work revealed high-level government collusion in the criminal looting of public assets.
After taking the allegations public, Magnitsky was arrested in Moscow on fabricated charges and detained for 11 months prior to trial. He was repeatedly abused in jail, including denial of treatment for chronic health conditions. Eventually he was beaten to death.
The Russian state’s punishment did not stop then. Magnitsky was posthumously tried and convicted for tax evasion.
Browder has subsequently pursued justice for Magnitsky, advocating for the worldwide adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 to sanction individual Russians involved in human rights abuses.
Putin held a December 2012 press conference
following the Magnitsky act’s passage and the Russian Duma’s subsequent retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. Putin said, “Magnitksy … was not tortured — he died of a heart attack.”
4. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
In direct contradiction of the forensic evidence, Putin flatly denied any Russian involvement in shooting down MH17.
That denial comports with Putin’s long-time denial that Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 – one of 10 false Russian claims about Ukraine identified and debunked by the U.S. State Department. That report is no longer available on the U.S. government website.
5. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow. Just before his death, Nemtsov had taped a television interview in which he discussed his investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and called President Putin “our expert in lying. He is a pathological liar.”
After Nemtsov’s death, President Putin assured Nemtsov’s mother, “We will do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.”
Nemtsov’s relatives and allies insist on Putin’s complicity and have called the investigation and prosecution of five killers a cover-up. Video evidence and the journalistic investigation into the details of Nemtsov’s murder, likewise, see the highly organized hit involving multiple gunmen and vehicles as the work of a professional intelligence organization like the FSB.
Connecting the dots
The risks for individual Russians challenging Putin’s lies are clear. One journalist has listed 34 suspicious deaths since 2014.
Those killed have nonetheless left an evidentiary trail for a host of contemporary writers like Masha Gessen, David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. Those writers, and others, detail how Putin has built enormous wealth and power by deploying violence and deception to control the political narrative and disable or eliminate meaningful opposition.
He might conclude that all of these independently produced, empirically-grounded investigations are somehow part of a grand deep-state conspiracy to defame or discredit a man of integrity who can and should be taken at his word.
<!– Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. –>
That conclusion, though, would dishonor the ordinary and extraordinary Russians who have stood up to the deception and violence of President Putin’s regime, risking or losing their lives as a result. It’s the responsibility of the American president to acknowledge this. By virtue of the office he holds, President Trump has the ability to stop being played by Putin, and speak truth to power.
In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?
Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.
Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.
It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.
In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.
They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.
As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).
Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.
I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.
Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.
More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.
Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.
The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.
This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.
<!– Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. –>
This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.
US President Donald Trump’s eyebrow-raising visit to Europe has confirmed Europeans’ worst fears: if another “Crimea-like” take-over by Russia occurs somewhere on the continent, they will likely be on their own.
Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.
The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.
Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.
Another war in Europe remains possible
Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.
Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.
The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.
It certainly doesn’t help when Russia conducts military drills or dispatches warplanes on the borders with the Baltics, giving a real sense that military escalation in this part of Europe is entirely plausible.
Tensions are building in Eastern Europe
The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.
The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.
Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.
These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.
Going it alone
But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?
It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.
While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.
Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.
France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.
Trump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.
In contrast, he displays indifference – if not hostility – towards the liberal rules-based order that has served US interests since World War II. Issues like human rights, trade, climate change, and even America’s democratic allies have all been criticised or undermined by the president during his time in office.
But is the explanation that simple or is there something else at work? Is there a strategy that, President Trump and his allies believe, serves America’s geopolitical interests? If there is, it’s about China.
America’s ideological problem
Consider that there are a number of states throughout the Asia-Pacific and across Eurasia that may soon be “up for grabs” as US-China tensions escalate and states hedge their position. Clearly, Washington wants as many states as possible to maintain their strategic distance from Beijing and lean towards the US. This is a task that will become more difficult as China’s power continues to rise and America finds it harder to reassure its allies that it can maintain its dominance in the region.
A number of these states have authoritarian governance systems, forms of illiberal democracy or may be trending in this direction. They do not share America’s governing liberal ideology. This ideological difference could complicate America’s efforts to keep these states out of China’s orbit, which claims to have no interest in the domestic affairs of other states.
US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War cannot have reassured authoritarian and illiberal states that Washington’s ideological values play only a minor role in it. US foreign policy, at times, has looked like that of a revolutionary power intent on transforming the international system in its own image. After all, the Bush administration appeared to believe that the only way for the world to be safe was for liberalism and democracy to triumph everywhere, which could usher in a global democratic peace. This is an assumption with some empirical support.
Furthermore, the immense power of the US may have made it difficult for non-liberal states to feel assured that even if they complied with US demands to give up their weapons of mass destruction (which they perceive as a critical deterrent to US intervention), they might still face further requests and threats. As Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi found out in 2011, even a regime change can be a consequence.
Addressing a disadvantage
So how does all this tie back to America’s competition with China for the allegiance of states across the world? What could encourage authoritarian and illiberal states, in particular, to lean towards China in the years to come and accelerate the emergence of a bipolar US-China system?
Firstly, America’s power provides it with immense discretion to act and the capacity to undermine and enact regime change against illiberal states. Since 2003, we’ve seen this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Secondly, it is US ideology, and their fears that US power will be used for ideological ends – that is, to militarily intervene against illiberal states to try replace their regimes with liberal ones. The first point can generate concern all on its own but it’s further magnified by the second point.
To illiberal states, US liberalism has compelled Washington in the past to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” – and they are the ideological “monsters”.
Therefore, a case can be made that if the US credibly communicates that it is not motivated by liberal impulses, it will reduce these ideational concerns. It will increase (by how much is debateable) incentives for states to lean towards the US. Thus, American liberalism, rather than being seen as a source of strength, could leave the US disadvantaged as China’s power rises.
Trump’s challenge to the liberal order
Trump’s recent behaviour towards the G7 is consistent with this. It further communicates the point to authoritarian and illiberal states that this administration does not care about a state’s ideological stripes. This approach even gives President Trump more room to manoeuvre to attempt his own “Nixon to China” initiatives towards Moscow (if he can overcome domestic opposition) and Pyongyang.
Rapprochement with North Korea could reunify the Korean peninsula in a way that benefits the US at China’s expense (as well as eliminating a nuclear threat). With respect to Russia, it could stop Moscow’s drift towards China, and eliminate the prospects of Eurasia coming under the effective domination of a China-Russia led de facto alliance. Removing liberal ideology from the picture removes one roadblock towards these geopolitical initiatives.
The Trump administration appears to believe there is little material costs to adopting this approach. America’s traditional liberal allies lack the will to pay for their own defence and thus cannot constitute a true challenge to US global power. They can issue rhetoric and voice their opposition to US foreign policy but President Trump, rightly or wrongly, does not view these as meaningful forms of influence.
Ultimately, to the US president, liberalism is an ideology with no clear foreign policy benefit. To him it is one that could, at worst, act to drive states towards China, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order. This is one consistent element of the president’s strategy. The faster we reconcile ourselves to this, the quicker we will be able to grapple with the implications his foreign policy has for the existent liberal international order.