This is a summary of the discussion at the concluding workshop of the current series of online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 13 September 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. 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.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian risk-opportunity calculus is evolving.  Russia preferences stability over renovation, but strategic surprises through 2020-2021 (Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Afghanistan) force risk-opportunity recalculation and generate a Patrushev-fostered impression that threats to Russian core national interests are increasing.
  • Institutional responsibilities also shape calculus, with Crimea an FSB bastion, Syria a MoD issue and approaches to the Arctic increasingly shaped by the MFA.  The MoD which is on the ground in conflict zones and addressing reality is more pragmatic and less ideological, less inclined to see the US “producers hand” as the cause of every source of insecurity.  The MFA’s approach to the Arctic appears pragmatic but in all other issues more ideological.
  • The competitive goals of all key Security Council stakeholders are served more through policies of confrontation with the West than de-escalation and cooperation.  The next generation will share the values of the current elite but not necessarily the priorities.

Patrushev, the Secretariat of the Security Council and Risk Calculus

Security Council Secretary Patrushev provides an example of how in Russia power and influence are not synonymous, and how political influence may be more effective than bureaucratic power.  Patrushev is an influential hawk, trusted by Putin.  He is a de facto National Security Advisor who shares, shapes and interprets Putin’s world view.  Like Putin, Patrushev privileges stability over renovation, supports the contention that all policy is security policy and Russia encircled by a destabilizing West/US (“ravaging the whole world to advance its hegemony”) intent on regime change.

  • The Security Council is a large body with an inner core of permanent members (akin to the Soviet Politburo) who are the key stakeholders in the system.  It is a deliberative rather than decision-making body.  Its Secretariat drafts the NSS, brokers inter-agency disputes, directly provides all threat assessment documents and acts as information gatekeeper – though FSB, SVR and GRU have direct inputs.
  • Patrushev is now 70, although physically fit and mentally alert. A bill passing through the Duma enables Putin to extend those who reach the 70 year hard cap (“Patrushev Amendment”).  His influence increased as Putin was subject to a bio-security bubble due to COVID.  There are no signs of SC Secretary succession planning.
  • The NSS (“paranoid’s charter”) recognizes and codifies the priorities and values of the Kremlin and is focused more on identifying constraints and challenges than opportunities and collaboration.  With Patrushev‘s continued presence and influence we can expect pragmatic confrontation continuity rather than productive relations.  Patrushev has an ally in Bortnikov, head of the FSB.
  • Putin always retains agency.  Though his natural pragmatism is distorted by his restricted access to very carefully doctored data, Putin can sack Patrushev if needs be.  However, Putin demonstrates a diminishing desire to go beyond the confines of current sources of information and believes Patrushev’s policy counsel provides best options for his own security, historical legacy and status of Russia.
  • SVR head Naryshkin is considered a good soldier and technocrat not policy setter, performing a function in which his personal capacity matters least. He implements broad policy objectives and advocates for funds.  It is likely Naryshkin retires to the Senate where he may remain influential voice depending on committee assignments.

The European Theatre: Russian Risk and Cost Calculus

Risk is another word for “probability”. In IR risk is related to the probability of major military conflict or war. Costs can be political (loss of status, prestige and influence) economic and financial, or invole loss of territory.

  • The Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 practically posed no risk of American and NATO military responses (that is, military support for Georgia) and carried very little cost: Relations with Russia very quickly reverted to “business as usual”.
  • Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine also posed no risk that the U.S or NATO would intervene militarily in support of the Ukrainian armed forces. But Russia’s military intervention this time entailed substantial political and economic costs.
  • The Zapad (West) strategic maneuvers are conducted every four years by Russia and Belarus, with a (more or less symbolic) sprinkling of units from other countries. They cover the area from the borders with Norway and the Kaliningrad oblast’ to the Crimea and the Black Sea.
    • Concerning Zapad-2021, actual figures of how many Russian soldiers are participating vary considerably. The Russian defense ministry provided a figure of 200 000, which is almost certainly an exaggeration. Rosgvardia is participating with its own forces to exercise the suppression of so-called “diversionary” activities. That may explain part of the inflated MoD figure.
    • According to Belarusian official sources, the scenario is predicated on a deterioration of the military and political situation in Europe.  The West, having failed to destabilize Belarus through non-military means, a hostile coalition decides to use force to achieve its political aims comprising Nyaris (Lithuania?), Pomoria (Poland?), and the Polar Republic (Norway?) along with so-called terrorist organizations. 
    • The task for the joint Russian-Belarusian forces is to compel this Western group to terminate hostilities and withdraw its forces. The exercise is conducted in two stages. In the first stage, Russian forces simulate the military intervention and the joint Russian and Belarusian response, which include engaging in sustained counterattacks, seeking to disorganize and degrade the opponent’s offensive operation through conventional strikes and electronic warfare. The second phase involves a comprehensive combined-arms “counteroffensive”.
    • Putin is known to make unexpected moves, not a self-destructive megalomaniac. A frontal attack by regular Russian troops on a neighboring NATO country would pose disproportionate risks and, therefore, is not to be expected. More to the point, Viktor Gulevich, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Belarus, has stated that the maneuver was a signal to the West that it cannot speak to Minsk and Moscow from a position of strength.  In addition, Zapad-21 encourages close cooperation and integration, as do the joint Union Shield and Slavic Brotherhood exercises and the purchase of Russian weapons (Belarus plans to buy $1 billion worth of Russian weapons by 2025). Both states are dismantling and militarizing their civil society, use violence to suppress any criticism and opposition and increase the power and influence of the law enforcement agencies. It is also likely that Zapad-21 is used to intimidate neutral and “anti-Russian platform states” in Russia’s neighborhood.
    • Western responses rely on three deterrence pillars: 1) national armed forces; 2) NATO‘s rotating enhanced forward presence with its symbolic “trip wire” function and 3) reinforcement during war-time.  Reinforcement, however, is unlikely to succeed because Russia has constructed a wide-ranging anti-access / area denial network of ballistic missiles, combat aircraft and air defense systems, a kind of “defense dome” over the Baltic Sea region, which the NATO air forces would find difficult to penetrate.
    • The Arctic is the only theater that Russia feels strong in comparison to NATO.  Russia wants to make its chairmanship of the Arctic Council a success and does not want tensions in relations with China.  As a result, Russia emphasizes cooperation, engagement and joint projects.  A third test of the Burevesik nuclear cruise missile or not – essentially the risky crash landing of a nuclear reactor – is a good indicator of whether cooperation or confrontational impulses dominate Russia’s Arctic policy.
    • Constituencies in Moscow advocate three different approaches to Ukraine: 1) “Russia’s own security necessitates absolute control of Ukraine through Donbas” – that appears to be the dominant view at present; 2)  “Ukraine is a side-show; the current status quo is the best state of affairs” – a choice exemplified by Kozak as kurator (fixer and manager) of Donbas as his approach appears to minimize risks, costs and secure control; 3) “withdraw from Ukraine as the US did from Afghanistan” – the option that dare not speak its name.  The next generation in Russia may view Ukraine much more as a foreign county than the current elite.  

Russia, Afghanistan and the Middle East

  • Russia’s risk calculus with regards to Afghanistan has evolved: 1) From 2001-2014 risk avoidance was the core policy objective, with Russia as a relatively marginal player, critical of but not fully opposed to the NATO mission; in 2014-15 Russia shifted policy towards risk mitigation, engaging the Taliban and opening up relations with Pakistan; from 2018 to 2021 Russia looked to capitalize on opportunities through intra-Afghan politics involvement and regional diplomatic efforts; by August 2021 Russia was one of three priority countries for the Taliban.
  • Russia was involved in risk taking – Taliban bounties, providing a public platform for the Taliban in Moscow and straining relations with India – but these moves are best understood as tactics in a wider risk mitigation strategy aimed at opening up new channels of influence with the Taliban and other militant actors and improving ties with Pakistan. Russian diplomacy through the Moscow Format and other talks is inclusive in that it engages states on the basis of shared interests, not shared values. 
  • Russia emerges as a reasonably influential power, with traction on the ground in Afghanistan and with its CSTO allies in Central Asia more resilient than in the 1990s, with greater capacity while the attraction of radical ideologies are less and China, Russia and the West prepared to offer more support.  However, with the formation of a 33 person Sunni clerics and Pashtun non-inclusive government, Russia hedges, with Patrushev in India seeking to strengthen ties. Russia is also aware that its CSTO allies are hardly united: Tajikistan rejects the Taliban outright; Uzbekistan is lukewarm and Turkmenistan (“positive neutrality”) is quietly seeking to do deals with the new regime.  Russian-led snap CSTO military exercises are designed to reassure allies and signal resolve to the Taliban.
  • The worst case scenario for Russia would be an all-out conflict in Afghanistan, one that gives space to groups such as Islamic State – Khorasan to thrive, and risks a regional divide with  Pakistan and China supporting the Taliban, while Russia, Iran and India sponsor a “Northern Alliance 2.0”. Russian policy will be directed towards avoiding this outcome as well as the proliferation of refugees, opium and radical jihadi ideology through Central Asia and into Russia.  At the same time, Russia will work to maintain its position as the key security provider in Central Asia and as a key diplomatic player on Afghanistan, proving not only to the West that Russia is back, but also demonstrating to Beijing that it is an indispensable partner.
  • In the Middle East, Russia becomes more cautious and risk averse, due to set-backs that highlight the limits of its influence.  An all-out attack on Idlib in 2020 was vetoed by Turkey.   Russia’s support for Haftar in Libya was also opposed by Turkey, with Haftar’s forces pushed from the suburbs of Tripoli; the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was a strategic surprise, but with risk came opportunity in the shape of a new military base and PKO in Azerbaijan.  The status quo in Syria – the bridgehead of Russia’s Middle East presence – could be upended suddenly, with a Lebanon scenario occurring.  U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates a Patrushev-led “first Kabul then Kyiv” narrative premised on the notion that the U.S. is an unreliable security partner.  However, it also poses the question: what is Russian national interest in Syria?

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