This is a summary of the discussion at the most recent of the online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 15 June 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The speakers were Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence/UCL/RUSI and Pavel Baev of PRIO, and the discussion was moderated by Graeme Herd of the GCMC. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

RHSS#6, June 15, 2021

‘Biden-Putin Geneva Summit, June 16, 2021’

Central Proposition: Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. is now the norm; relations with the EU have deteriorated to a record low and will continue to remain there; and offensive cyber operations as well as active measures against the political West are ongoing and likely unremitting.  The strategic interests of Russia and the West are incompatible and irreconcilable.

Context: Characterizing U.S. Policy to Russia:

  • There is a transatlantic consensus for a targeted “pushback” against the Kremlin’s malign activity and influence and to build resilience in defense of shared core democratic values and practices. This approach suggests targeted ‘Containment 2.0’, in that it seeks to contain (or constrain) Russian aggressive and malign strategic behavior within “stable and predictable” lines.
  • The U.S. and Europe can coordinate approaches to “impose real costs” to reduce Russian military and diplomatic efficacy through disruption. Disruption can cause friction, overextend and unbalance Russia and thereby control Russian escalation and deter further malign activity. The tools at the disposal of the U.S. and its friends and allies that facilitate the imposition of costs are varied and context specific. These tools can be diplomatic, economic and cyber.
    • Diplomatic tools include “attribution diplomacy” (“name and shame”), diplomatic expulsions, and closing diplomatic properties.
    • Economic tools are also varied.  Tariffs, full embargoes and restrictions on technology sales necessary for hydrocarbon exploration and production, could shape Russia’s malign strategic behavior.
    • Cyber tools can be used to reveal or freeze Russian leaders’ foreign assets and expose corruption and a policy of “defend forward” or “hack back” can be used.
    • In public diplomacy terms, the West can restructure the narrative from Putin’s preferred image of Russia as a besieged fortress encircled by an aggressive, dysfunctional, and failed West to one about a Russian kleptocracy and oligarchy (“Kremlin blacklist”) versus Russian civil society. As well as countering Russia directly, the West needs to invest in narratives that point to the advantages that liberal and democratic practices can offer, and the connections between rule of law, transparency and accountability with development, progress, peace and stability, as well as help countries build their capacity and strengthen their statehood (sovereignty and territorial integrity).
  • A ‘theory of change’ underpins sanctions against the Russian oligarchic business elite close to Putin. Sanctions are designed not to crash the Russian economy or force regime change, but rather to impose a cost on those sanctioned, and thereby change Russian strategic behavior from destabilizer to constructive international relations actor.

Context: Characterizing Russian Policy towards the U.S.

  • Anti-Americanism is not a temporary phenomenon: “Putin and his anti-Western rhetoric remain popular in Russia precisely because he expresses a view widely held domestically (and reinforced by ceaseless anti-Western propaganda).” Putin, himself subject to emotional neuralgias, has proved a master at exploiting the dominant phobias, expectations, myths and emotions of Homo sovieticus, mainly because he himself shared them and so could ride “the wave of the public disorientation, frustration, resentment, and diffused aggression.”
  • Confrontation with the West are not based on misperceptions: Confrontation is hard-wired into Russia’s foreign policy and current strategic behavior is unlikely to change.  As Pavel Baev observes: “Every step in bolstering solidarity among Western democracies and in upholding democratic values constitutes a threat to the existence of this corrupt autocracy, and no détente or a “reset” can possibly mitigate that threat in the Kremlin’s eyes.” In reality, Russia is too weak for the U.S. to recognize as an equal, too strong to be willing and able to accept unequal tactical allay status.
  • Russia explains its failure to gain recognition as a product of the U.S.’s determination to oppose it through “containment”.
    • In February 2021, President Putin noted the United States’ “so-called containment policy towards Russia.” He stated: “This is not competition as a natural part of international relations, but a consistent and highly aggressive policy aimed at disrupting our development, at slowing it down and creating problems along our external perimeter and contour, provoking internal instability, undermining the values that unite Russian society, and ultimately, at weakening Russia and forcing it to accept external management, just as this is happening in some post-Soviet states…”.
    • In May 2021, at an online meeting of the UNSC Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow views as unacceptable attempts by the U.S. and the EU to impose “totalitarianism”. Lavrov argued that Western countries instrumentalize the notion of a “rules-based order” and sanctions as a substitute of the norms of international law to prevent the process of the formation of a polycentric world.  Later that month, at a Russian-German Potsdam Meeting forum, he accused Germany of stepping up its containment policy toward Moscow: “We have to admit that Berlin has only intensified its policy of systemic containment of Russia.”
  • Russia leverages unintended consequences of U.S. pushback:
    • Putin can profit from sanctions by redistributing resource rents to strengthen the existing system and elite cohesion. Sanctions provide an alibi for economic downturn and encourage de-dollarization of SWF by end of June, use of a digital rouble and other alternatives to SWIFT.  The “theory of change” that animates Western policy appears unproven.
    • Attribution diplomacy can be ineffective when siloviki in Russia have de facto immunity from prosecution.Adverse publicity can intimidate opponents, instruct, and educate society into submission, be worn as a badge of loyalty and have a rally round the flag effect.  Information secrecy in Russia is justified as is greater KGB-SVR cooperation “to counter Western destabilization”.

Geneva Summit, 16 June 2021

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev met in Geneva for preparatory talks. Sergei Lavrov characterised the talks as “frank” and showing a potential to “remove certain irritants” in bilateral relations and “covered the entire spectrum of our relations, similar to our discussion with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken a week earlier in Iceland”.
  • Engagement with Putin’s Russia poses dilemmas and difficult choices.  While this coercion-plus-dialogue statecraft approach to Russia may better manage conflicts and disputes at lower risk and is supported by allies (Charap, 2021), a trade-off exists between widening negotiations to create leverage between issues areas, and increasing the legitimacy of the Putin regime through high level dialogues and summits. (Petrov, 2021)
  • What does Putin want?
    • A legitimizing spectacle that raises his profile, underscores Russia’s Great Power status and suggests Russian power plays win external recognition and acknowledgement.  “Biden’s initiative on granting Putin the privilege of a personal meeting, which incentivized Russia to reduce military tensions with Ukraine—but also paved the way for Gazprom to complete the construction of the geopolitically divisive Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline.” (Baev)
    • President Biden’s conditional offer of “stable and predictable” relations should Russia refrain from malign activity is problematic for Russia, as to be both stable and predictable is to be strategically irrelevant.  In most policy areas, excepting perhaps the Arctic, Russia seeks to be stable but unpredictable to maintain its strategic relevance.  For Russia, Belarus is very unstable but Russian support very predictable.  Ukraine is stable and unpredictable and the Middle East neither stable or predictable.
    • Likely agreement to start discussions on strategic stability re strategic offensive and defensive weapons, non-strategic nuclear weapons and even space. Given that the larger the agenda, the lengthier and more complex the talks will be, the greater the ability of Russia to shape the agenda, and define the parameters. The talks become an end in and of themselves: political theatre and stagecraft trumps statecraft.
    • Emotional neuralgias of a mature autocracy are central to the Summit: grievance and resentment that the “empire was taken from us” animate Putin’s inner circle. (Galeotti, 2021)  The Summit presents an opportunity to push back and a chance to lay down red lines.  Discussion of Russian domestic affairs (the escalation of repression) is considered off-limits, as are granting Ukraine NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, or attempts to deny Russia its “rightful role.” Putin is not an anarchist: he only opposes the notion of a rules based order when he feels Russia does not have a say in their formulation and implementation.  These feelings make it harder to convince Putin that current frameworks work to Russia’s advantage.
    • It is in Russia’s interest not to highlight its partnership with China as this detracts from Russia’s standing and draws attention from the uniqueness of a forum where China not strategically relevant.
    • The inclusion of Dmitry Kozak (Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine) and Alexander Lavrentyev (Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Syria) in the Russian team may indicate that Ukraine and Syria are on the agenda.  President Zelensky is nervous that the U.S. may not be a reliable partner, while the slow implosion of Belarus and its increasing dependence on Russia relieves some of the pressure Russia imposes on Ukraine.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.