Tony Kevin, Australian National UniversityThe past week has marked a watershed moment in Russia’s relations with the West — and the US in particular. In two dramatic, televised moments, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have changed the dynamics between their countries perhaps irrevocably.
Most commentators in the West have focused on Putin’s “trolling” of Biden by dryly — though, according to Putin, unironically — wishing his American counterpart “good health”. This, of course, came after Biden called Putin a “killer”.
But a more careful and complete reading of Putin’s message to the US is necessary to understand how a Russian leader is, finally, ready to tell the US: do not judge us by your claimed standards, and do not try to tell us what to do.
Putin has never asserted these propositions so bluntly. And it matters when he does.
The tense test of strength began when Biden was asked about Putin in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos and agreed he was “a killer” and didn’t have a soul. He also said Putin will “pay a price” for his actions.
Putin then took the unusual step of going on the state broadcaster VGTRK with a prepared five-minute statement in response to Biden.
In an unusually pointed manner, Putin recalled the US history of genocide of its Indigenous people, the cruel experience of slavery, the continuing repression of Black Americans today and the unprovoked US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second world war.
He suggested states should not judge others by their own standards:
Whatever you say about others is what you are yourself.
Some American journalists and observers have reacted to this as “trolling”. It was not.
It was the preamble to Putin’s most important message in years to what he called the American “establishment, the ruling class”. He said the US leadership is determined to have relations with Russia, but only “on its own terms”.
Although they think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests.
And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it. They will have to reckon with this, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, insults, they will have to reckon with this.
This is new for Putin. He has for years made the point, always politely, that Western powers need to deal with Russia on a basis of correct diplomatic protocols and mutual respect for national sovereignty, if they want to ease tensions.
But never before has he been as blunt as this, saying in effect: do not dare try to judge us or punish us for not meeting what you say are universal standards, because we are different from you. Those days are now over.
Putin’s forceful statement is remarkably similar to the equally firm public statements made by senior Chinese diplomats to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week.
Blinken opened the meeting by lambasting China’s increasing authoritarianism and aggressiveness at home and abroad – in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. He claimed such conduct was threatening “the rules-based order that maintains global stability”.
Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief, responded by denouncing American hypocrisy. He said
The US does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and to incite some countries to attack China.
He said the US had no right to push its own version of democracy when it was dealing with so much discontent and human rights problems at home.
Putin’s statement was given added weight by two diplomatic actions: Russia’s recalling of its ambassador in the US, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting in China with his counterpart, Wang Yi.
Beijing and Moscow agreed at the summit to stand firm against Western sanctions and boost ties between their countries to reduce their dependence on the US dollar in international trade and settlements. Lavrov also said,
We both believe the US has a destabilising role. It relies on Cold War military alliances and is trying to set up new alliances to undermine the world order.
Though Biden’s undiplomatic comments about Putin may have been unscripted, the impact has nonetheless been profound. Together with the harsh tone of the US-China foreign ministers meeting in Alaska — also provoked by the US side — it is clear there has been a major change in the atmosphere of US-China-Russia relations.
What will this mean in practice? Both Russia and China are signalling they will only deal with the West where and when it suits them. Sanctions no longer worry them.
The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.
Countries in Asia and further afield are closely watching the development of this alternative international order, led by Moscow and Beijing. And they can also recognise the signs of increasing US economic and political decline.
It is a new kind of Cold War, but not one based on ideology like the first incarnation. It is a war for international legitimacy, a struggle for hearts and minds and money in the very large part of the world not aligned to the US or NATO.
The US and its allies will continue to operate under their narrative, while Russia and China will push their competing narrative. This was made crystal clear over these past few dramatic days of major power diplomacy.
The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money might be on Russia and China now.
The idea that someone recently tried to influence Americans to vote for a particular candidate by sending them threatening emails may sound outlandish – as might federal officials’ allegation that the Iranian government is behind those messages.
But U.S. voters should prepare for even more strange and unexpected examples of information warfare that manipulate, distort or destroy election-related information between now and Election Day – and perhaps beyond that, depending on whether there are questions about who may have won the presidency.
Since 2016, Americans have learned that foreign interests attempt to affect the outcomes of presidential elections, including with social media postings and television ads.
As a scholar of Russian cyber operations, I know other nations, and Russia in particular, will go to extreme measures to influence people and destabilize democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Here is what to look out for.
Also, watch for claims that hackers have gained access to, or manipulated, state or local election systems. It doesn’t have to be true for people to become worried, uncertain and untrusting of election results.
Be prepared to see ransomware attacks – software that seizes control of key computers and demands a ransom to unlock the system – on precincts in key battleground states, which may not aim to alter the vote, but rather stall the vote count and certification. A mid-October ransomware attack on Hall County, Georgia, government networks interrupted phone service and some computer systems, including a database used to verify voters’ signatures.
Anything can happen – but Americans can be ready to skeptically and critically examine any announcements of attempted, or claims of successful, election interference.
The real goal of information warriors – no matter where they are from, even beyond Russia and Iran – is to make it hard for Americans to know what is real.
In 2016, for instance, Russian disinformation operations created fake social media accounts claiming to be U.S. citizens, in hopes of spreading political division and conflict. They portrayed Hillary Clinton as weak and corrupt, which damaged her support among voters.
In this election cycle, the information warfare is more sophisticated. Russian-made propaganda has portrayed Joe Biden as incompetent and corrupt – but has also claimed that U.S. democracy is failing. Examples include an episode on a Kremlin-controlled Sputnik show titled “How much money to buy the presidency? Bloomberg tries to find out” and an episode called “Iowa Caucus Chaos: People are Losing Confidence in Election Results” on its sibling Russia Today video network. These outlets are available across the U.S. on radio, cable and satellite TV systems, and online – including on conservative websites.
Russian information warriors are impersonating real advocacy groups. They even created a now-defunct news website named Peace Data, which used fake names and photos for its editors, but hired unsuspecting real journalists as freelancers and ordered them to write stories critical of Biden, discussing corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations.
Some of the stories were also hostile to Trump, which indicates that the main goal remains to sow division in the United States.
Fortunately, businesses, federal cybersecurity officials and intelligence leaders are signaling that they are more willing than they were in 2016 to sound the alarm about foreign interference in the U.S. presidential election.
For instance, in August, the National Security Agency warned the cybsersecurity community about malicious software written by the Russian military, including details of the military unit involved, as well as advice on how system administrators can protect their networks and servers.
And in September, Microsoft reported that a Russian hacking group has attempted to intrude into the digital files of at least 200 organizations tied to the 2020 U.S. election. It targeted political campaigns, advocacy groups, parties and political consultants. Affiliated with Russian military intelligence, this is the same group that hacked and leaked damaging Democratic Party emails in 2016.
In late October, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray alleged that Russia and Iran had obtained U.S. voter registration information, at least some of which is publicly available. They also claimed – without offering evidence – that Iran is responsible for sending threatening emails to voters in as many as four states, including Florida and Alaska, that reportedly said “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
Big technology platforms have also taken steps to fight disinformation. Facebook took down a network of fake accounts linked to Russian military intelligence. Facebook will not post political ads in the week week before Election Day and Google will reject all election-related ads after Election Day to prevent false claims.
Twitter has also shut down accounts that it could reliably attribute to Russian-sponsored entities. And Twitter has sought to slow the spread of posts by limiting retweeting – though that has concerned Republicans, who fear this measure will stifle conservatives’ speech.
The week after Election Day could be volatile, especially if mail-in ballots are slow to be counted and results appear to change as the count continues.
Russia could use social media accounts that have not yet been detected to push reports of voter suppression or ballot fraud, trying to convince the public that election results are somehow inaccurate. U.S. Cyber Command might take Russian troll servers offline, as it did during the 2018 U.S. midterm election.
Meanwhile, voters can protect themselves by being skeptical of urgent or alarming claims in online media, and by remembering that they may be targets of disinformation campaigns. U.S. security agency efforts might stop Russia from altering the vote count, but sowing discord about its integrity could be enough to serve Russia’s goal of undermining democracy.
Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.
The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.
Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.
The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.
Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.
Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.
Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.
Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.
The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.
While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.
This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.
With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.
At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.
As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.
Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.
Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.
Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.
This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.