In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Serzh Sargsyan

The resignation of Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan after more than a week of mass protests in Russia’s backyard begs the question: Why has Moscow not intervened so far? The fist-pumping demonstrators bring to mind “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet neighborhood that the Kremlin seems to abhor, like the ones in Georgia and Ukraine. But even genuine color revolutions (which Armenia has not yet seen—more on that below) are not enough by themselves to prompt Russia to stage either a covert or overt intervention. As I have argued before, for Moscow to intervene in one of its Soviet-era satellites at least two conditions need to be present: First, Vladimir Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests, such as the potential expansion of antagonistic Western-led alliances too close to Russia’s borders; second, the chances for defending or advancing its interests through the use of force have to be relatively high.

The first condition is absent in Armenia because the dominant, pro-Russian wing of the country’s ruling elite continues to retain power. Sargsyan’s Russia-friendly Republican Party and its Dashnak allies control a majority in parliament, which means they can nominate and approve the next prime minister. (This was made possible under the current constitution, which Sargsyan successfully pushed to change in 2015, when he was president, in an ill-thought-out plan to retain power after his second and final presidential term expired this April.) If protest leader Nikol Pashinyan succeeds in ending the party of power’s control of parliament through protests or early elections, then, yes, that would be a revolution. For Russia to intervene, however, Pashinyan would not only have to oust the current party of power, he would also have to show a determination to move Armenia westward, into the EU and NATO. So far, Pashinyan has showed no such intentions, which should come as no surprise: Whatever his personal views, he realizes NATO is in no mood to accept more post-Soviet states in the short to medium term, and Armenia, therefore, has no viable alternative but Russia as its guarantor of security while it faces two hostile bordering states, Azerbaijan and Turkey. That pro-Russian elites have so far remained in control of Armenia in spite of Sargsyan’s resignation explains why Vladimir Putin—who is said to have a much cooler personal relationship with Sargsyan than with ex-President Robert Kocharyan—has not condemned the events in Armenia. Moreover, representatives of the Russian government and parliament vowed support for Armenia and some of them even welcomed the change, for example deputy speaker of the State Duma Igor Lebedev.

Armenia’s situation stands in stark contrast to cases when former Soviet republics have come under the rule of leaders intent on bringing them into blocs that Russia views as unfriendly competitors, such as NATO and the EU. When Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008 it did so because Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, with strong backing from George W. Bush, nearly succeeded in obtaining a Membership Action Plan from NATO. By that time, Georgia had been growing both friendlier with the West and more democratic for over four years. Yet Putin did not intervene until he saw the Bush administration come close to winning a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine at NATO’s Bucharest summit, which the Russian leader attended personally to head off the efforts. Although the summit ultimately did not offer the MAPs, thanks in part to opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its final communique did say that “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” That meant that any of the following summits could give Georgia and Ukraine MAPs, which Putin would have seen as an unacceptable threat to Russia’s interests. At the time, Putin probably thought he could not afford a double intervention into both Georgia and Ukraine. He picked Georgia, as least in part, because Saakashvili gave him a good pretext by taking Russia’s bait and launching a ground assault to establish control over breakaway South Ossetia. Ukraine may have been next, but in 2010 its then-leader Viktor Yushchenko lost the presidency to the more Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, who made it clear he would not seek membership in NATO. Therefore, the need to intervene in Ukraine subsided until 2014 when a pro-Western faction of Ukraine’s ruling elite came to power again amid expectations it would take the country into the EU and NATO in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution.

It is important to note that Russia does not intervene militarily in its post-Soviet neighbors’ affairs just because they have undergone a revolution and/or become more democratic or because their leaders want to build friendlier relations with Russia’s competitors. A threat to Moscow’s vital interests is the key. Take Armenia: It is ranked as more democratic than Russia and it also has friendly relations with the West. It has recently signed an EU Association Agreement (though it was watered down because of Russia) and it participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. It also has troops in the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan and even had troops in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq (withdrawn in 2008). Yet Russia has not intervened in Armenia—because, as stated above, its leadership has not displayed any ambition to pursue NATO membership. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan has consistently been ranked more democratic than Putin’s Russia and it even hosted a U.S. base (which Russia reportedly pressured Bishkek to close down). Yet Russia chose not to intervene during Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions of 2005 and 2010, despite then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s pleas for such intervention in 2010. Again, the reason is that the victorious opposition did not espouse a desire to remove the country from Russia’s zone of influence to join or ally with a hostile bloc.

 The second condition for Russia to intervene is that the overall situation in question has to be conducive to the use of force. In other words, Russian leaders must be sure they will prevail in a military confrontation or at least ensure a stalemate that would constrain the targeted state’s ability to maintain activities Russia sees as seriously undermining its vital interests. That condition is at least partially present in the case of Armenia. It is true that Russia is already heavily involved in Syria and Ukraine, and recent polls show that Russians aren’t eager for further military engagement absent any clear threat to them or Russian-speaking minorities abroad. However, Russia has a large military base in Armenia, so if Moscow were to decide to use force there, it could theoretically do so more quickly than in Ukraine or Georgia. But the consequences and costs of such an intervention could outweigh the benefits, especially in the absence of a dramatic change in Armenia’s integration preferences, such as its “escape” to NATO. Any attempt to take control of Armenia, especially in the absence of a credible threat to Russia’s vital interests, would seriously undermine Moscow’s efforts to keep other post-Soviet republics in its various international integration projects because it would demonstrate that even membership in Russian-led coalitions—like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union—does not preclude losses of territory or independence to Moscow. These republics would then probably start looking around for guarantors and patrons other than Russia, forcing Moscow to expend resources on dealing with the consequences.

So if not Armenia, then who (if anyone) could be next?

If Armenia remains a Russian ally, as it likely will, then Moldova, which reluctantly plays host to a large Russian military contingent in its separatist province of Trans-Dniester, could be the next target of Russian intervention—if its efforts to pursue integration with the EU and deeper cooperation with NATO progress to what Putin sees as a point of no return. There’s also a chance that Putin may choose to escalate in Ukraine or Georgia if these two countries manage to somehow convince NATO to grant them MAPs. However, the prospect of such NATO action plans is unlikely for either of the two, and for Moldova as well. Therefore, the probability of Russian intervention in these countries is low, though not negligible.

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo: Serzh Sargsyan during a visit to Moscow as president, March 2017. Courtesy of the Kremlin.

Jim Mattis
Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes, jointly with the U.K. and France, at what U.S. Defense Department officials described as the ''heart'' of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program came as no surprise. The U.S. leader had spent much of the previous week building momentum, warning Assad’s patrons in Moscow via Twitter “to get ready” for “nice and new and 'smart’” missiles after the suspected use of deadly chlorine gas by the Syrian dictator’s forces in Douma. When announcing the strikes Trump said the main purpose was to establish "a strong deterrent" against future use of chemical weapons. With a total of 105 missiles launched at three suspected chemical-weapons-related targets, Trump declared “mission accomplished.” But is it? And what should this mission be?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley may have believed it when she said after the strikes that they had “crippled Syria's chemical-weapons program,” but I would be very surprised if the destruction of three CW facilities can put an end to the production of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, making which, some say, is hardly rocket science . Even if the strikes did not exactly cripple the Syrian regime’s ability to produce chemical weapons, did they deter Assad from using them in the future? My guess is no. The Syrian dictator benefits in at least two ways from continued gassing of his opponents. One is that he intimidates some of them to surrender or leave without sending more of his soldiers into harm’s way. And the second is that each such use of chemical weapons widens the wedge between the U.S. and its allies on one side and Russia on the other, as such attacks have done before. The bigger the wedge, the less the already slim probability that Washington and Moscow would agree to any sort of plan for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Assad has good reason to be concerned about any such plan as it would be far less favorable to him then the forceful solution he is trying to impose with Moscow’s and Tehran’s support.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin at his reelection victory speech.
The most recent event hosted by Russia Matters focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reelection to a fourth term and what those six years may have in store for U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s policies toward other countries. Below is a summary of the three speakers’ key points in the order presented (all of them spoke in a personal capacity).

In addition to the remarks below, the speakers raised a number of important questions whose answers were not yet clear. How these questions are answered will shape not only Russia’s policies, but also policies by the U.S. and its allies toward Russia: Will Putin see a prospective successor among the up-and-coming cadre of 40-something Russian officials? How will the questions that concerned his predecessor Boris Yeltsin—namely, guarantees of safety from prosecution and from a loss of assets or privileges after stepping down—play out in the search for that successor? Could the world come a step closer to peace and stability in Ukraine by thinking up a phased approach to deploying peacekeepers along the front lines? Or would Russia be comfortable with the prospect of a “wrecked Ukraine”? And what are other places where Russia has the capacity to use military force to defend its national interests—Belarus? Moldova? Other former Soviet republics?
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putin missile speech

Of all the annual addresses Vladimir Putin has delivered to the Russian Federal Assembly since becoming president of Russia in Dec. 1999, his most recent speech, on March 1, has proven to be the most militarized. Although the Russian leader began by focusing on the need to modernize the Russian economy and reduce poverty, most of the speech and accompanying videos were devoted to guns rather than butter. While the parliamentarians warmly welcomed Putin’s showcasing of Russia’s new military might—offering frequent applause—the rest of the world felt a distinct Cold War chill. While his warning that Russia would respond to a nuclear attack on an ally with a nuclear counter-strike is consistent with the language of Russia’s current military doctrine, many of his other statements broke new ground in post-Soviet Russia’s belligerency toward the U.S. and its allies. His tedious listing of Russia’s new and not-so-new R&D in the strategic attack systems domain were reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev’s claim that Soviet Russia was producing rockets like sausages, which the Soviet leader made at the height of the Cold War. Putin’s repeated emphasis on the superiority of the newly-developed systems over those of competitors comes as no surprise. The Russian leader—who once remarked to former President George W. Bush that his dog “was bigger, stronger and faster than” his Scottish terrier Barney—is a born competitor. So it was only a matter of time before Putin responded to President Donald Trump’s touting of U.S. military might in what feminists might describe as a missile envy contest.

While it may be reactive, Putin’s loudest saber-rattling thus far is also clearly designed to achieve several objectives. One is to stoke the patriotic mood in Russia to ensure more people show up and vote for Putin in the March 18 elections, with the goal of meeting the reported target of 70 percent turnout and 70 percent of the vote for the incumbent. Prioritizing defense spending has also been explained by some Russian insiders as a way for the Kremlin to help increase GDP. More importantly, the bellicose speech may be intended to not only deter the West from interfering in Russia’s affairs before and after the March 18 elections, but also to respond to Trump’s planned increases in military procurement and the recent release of a batch of strategic documents that shift the U.S. focus from counterterrorism to countering Russia and China. It may be that this saber-rattling is a ploy to convince the U.S. to enter substantive negotiations on various aspects of strategic stability between Moscow and Washington, which have now gone the longest period of time without substantive arms control talks since the height of the Cold War. If this is the case, however, I doubt that the U.S. would respond by elevating a half-hearted dialogue on strategic stability into full-blown arms control negotiations. If anything, Putin’s belligerence would only provide extra ammunition to those pushing for sharper increases in the scale and scope of strategic systems the Pentagon plans to procure. Putin’s speech confirms that, after having seen its attempt last year to reset U.S.-Russian relations fail, the Kremlin is now settling in for a period of protracted confrontation with the U.S.—and that’s bad news not only for the two nuclear superpowers, but for international stability as a whole.

What follows below are selected points from Putin’s nearly two-hour address, compiled by RM staff.

Highlights of Vladimir Putin’s March 1 Address to the Russian Parliament

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security and safety:

  • Vladimir Putin cited the fact that the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction programs enabled U.S. personnel to visit Russia’s nuclear enterprises in the 1990s as an example of how weak Russia was at the time. “There was a way underway in (Russia’s North) Caucasus, while American inspectors were sitting at our leading uranium-enrichment enterprises,” he said in his address to the parliament. (Russia Matters, 03.01.18)

Sabre-rattling/New Cold War:

  • Putin said Moscow would regard a nuclear attack on its allies as a nuclear attack on Russia itself and would immediately respond. This statement is consistent with the language of Russia’s current military doctrine, which says the Russian Federation “reserves the right” to use nuclear arms if either Russia or its allies are subjected to aggression with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.  He also singled out a new U.S. nuclear-strategy document as threatening to lower the threshold for using the weapons, and he delivered a stern warning to the U.S. that Russia has a series of new high-technology nuclear weapons that he said can overcome any defenses. “No one has managed to restrain Russia,” Putin said in the nearly two-hour address, which he illustrated with video clips of the new arms that he said were developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian president devoted nearly thirty minutes of his two-hour long address to discussing and showing off Russia’s newly improved military capabilities. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18, The Moscow Times, Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Kremlin.ru, 03.01.18) Among the systems developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union were:
    • The Sarmat multiple-warhead ICBM, which will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic warheads. He claimed that Sarmat practically had no range restrictions and it could attack targets both via the North and South Poles. Putin said the liquid-fuel missile is being mass-produced. (Russia Matters, 03.01.18)
    • A miniature nuclear propulsion unit that can be installed on Russia’s air-to-surface Kh-101 missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. He claimed that installation of that unit turns the Kh-101 “into a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries.” Putin said the nuclear-powered missile, which has not been previously reported in open sources, was tested in 2017 and that can bypass existing missile defenses, rendering them “useless.” (Russia Matters, 03.01.18)
    • A high-speed underwater drone that was tested in 2017 and that has "intercontinental" range and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities. He said it has "very big" operational depth and a speed that is at least 10 times faster than any other vessel, which would make it immune to enemy intercept. A computer video showed the drone being launched by a submarine, cruising over the seabed, hitting an aircraft carrier and also exploding near the shore. Russia has been previously reported to have been working on a Status-6 underwater nuclear attack drone.  (AP, 01.03.18, Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Russia Matters, 03.01.18)
    • The Avangard strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment—a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested. This system, development of which has been previously reported, is capable of intercontinental flight at supersonic speeds in excess of Mach 20, according to Putin. “It flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire,” he said. (Russia Matters, 03.01.18)
    • A high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system that can fly at 10 times the speed of sound and that can maneuver during all phases of its flight trajectory, Putin said. The Kinzhal (Dagger) system is carried by Soviet-designed MiG-31 interceptors and it has a range of more than 2,000 kilometers, according to chief of Russia’s aerospace forces, Sergei Surovikin. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Financial Times, 03.01.18, Russia Matters, 03.01.18)
    • A new laser weapon was shown on video preparing for operation, and Putin said Russian troops have been “armed with laser weapons” since 2017. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Russia Matters, 03.01.18)

Missile defense:

  • “I hope what was said today will sober any potential aggressor or unfriendly gestures towards Russia, like the deployment of an ABM system and the development of NATO infrastructure close to our borders. That should be seen from the military point of view as inefficient, financially costly and simply useless. Nobody listened to us before. Listen to us now,” he said. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18)

Other bilateral issues:

  • “We are interested in normal and constructive cooperation with the United States and the European Union. We hope that common sense will prevail and our partners will opt for honest and equal work together,” Putin said. (Kremlin.ru, 03.01.18)

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Russia must not only gain a firm foothold as one of the world’s five largest economies by the middle of the next decade, but increase our GDP per capita by one and a half times,” Putin said. “Falling behind in technology is the main threat and enemy to our country. If we do not change the situation, it will inevitably intensify.”  (Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Bloomberg, 03.01.18)
  • Putin said Russia had to double spending on road infrastructure by committing over 11 trillion rubles (141.44 billion pounds) to improve the country's road network. He also told lawmakers that a bridge being built between Russia and Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014, would start operating in the next couple of months. (Reuters, 03.01.18)
  • Putin told lawmakers that Russia had to halve the poverty rate within six years and provide jobs for people. Putin said that as many as 20 million Russians were living in poverty and that the government had to ensure that real incomes grew. (Reuters, 03.01.18, Reuters, 03.01.18, Bloomberg, 03.01.18)
  • “This trend will continue in the coming years and will become a serious obstacle to economic growth,” Vladimir Putin said in reference to Russian demographics. Over the next six years, Russia will allocate at least 59.9 million dollars for demographic development, he said. “Life expectancy needs to exceed 80 years by the end of the next decade,” he added. All in all Russia will spend 3.4 trillion rubles ($60.07 billion) to support families and demographic growth in the next six years, he said. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18, Reuters, 03.01.18)
  • Russia must lower mortgage rates and get them down towards 7 percent in order to solve the country's housing problem, Putin said. (Reuters, 03.01.18)
  •  “It is important to make it easier to get Russian citizenship. The focus should be on people that the country needs — young, healthy, well-educated people,” Putin said. (Bloomberg, 03.01.18)

Defense and Aerospace:

  • “The operation in Syria has proved the increased capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces. In recent years, a great deal has been done to improve the Army and the Navy the Armed Forces now have 3.7 times more modern weapons. Over 300 new units of equipment were put into service,” Putin said. (Kremlin.ru, 03.01.18)
  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • “Our policies will never be based on claims to exceptionalism. We protect our interests and respect the interests of other countries. We observe international law and believe in the inviolable central role of the UN. These are the principles and approaches that allow us to build strong, friendly and equal relations with the absolute majority of countries. Our comprehensive strategic partnership with the People’s Republic of China is one example… We will also continue to work on a greater Eurasian partnership,” Putin said.  (Kremlin.ru, 03.01.18)

Photo credit: Russian Presidential Press Office

U.S. cyber

On Feb. 13, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was joined by CIA chief Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray in presenting to a Senate committee the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment—a document in which Russia figures prominently. Russia Matters has compiled a selection Russia-related excerpts, divided into categories similar to those in our news and analysis digests.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russia will compete with the United States most aggressively in Europe and Eurasia, Moscow will employ a variety of aggressive tactics to bolster its standing as a great power, secure a “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space, weaken the United States, and undermine Euro-Atlantic unity. However, Moscow will also seek cooperation with the United States in areas that advance its interests.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Russia has developed a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that the United States has declared is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite Russia’s ongoing development of other Treaty-compliant missiles with intermediate ranges, Moscow probably believes that the new GLCM provides sufficient military advantages to make it worth risking the political repercussions of violating the INF Treaty.

Conflict in Syria:

  • The Syrian opposition’s seven-year insurgency is probably no longer capable of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, but rebels probably retain the resources to sustain the conflict for at least the next year, .Russia and Iran are planning for a long-term presence, securing military basing rights and contracts for reconstruction and oil and gas exploitation.

Cyber security:

  • [The U.S. intelligence community expects] that Russia will conduct bolder and more disruptive cyber operations during the next year, most likely using new capabilities against Ukraine.
  • Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will pose the greatest cyber threats to the United States during the next year. Russia, Iran, and North Korea are testing more aggressive cyber attacks that pose growing threats to the United States and U.S. partners.

Elections interference:

  • Influence operations, especially through cyber means, will remain a significant threat to U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to retaliate against adversaries, to shape foreign perceptions, and to influence populations. Russia probably will be the most capable and aggressive source of this threat in 2018 … [and] the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations.

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • In his probable next term in office, President Vladimir Putin will resort to more authoritarian tactics to maintain control amid challenges to his rule. He is likely to increase his use of repression and intimidation to contend with domestic discontent over corruption, poor social services, and a sluggish economy with structural deficiencies.

Defense and Aerospace:

  • In 2018, Russia will continue to modernize, develop, and field a wide range of advanced nuclear, conventional, and asymmetric capabilities to balance its perception of a strategic military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • In his probable next term in office, President Vladimir Putin will rely on assertive and opportunistic foreign policies to shape outcomes beyond Russia’s borders. … Moscow will use a range of relatively low-cost tools to advance its foreign policy objectives, including influence campaigns, economic coercion, cyber operations, multilateral forums, and measured military force. Russia’s slow economic growth is unlikely to constrain Russian foreign policy or by itself trigger concessions from Moscow in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere in the next year.

China:

  • China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check U.S. appeal and influence in their regions. The leading state intelligence threats to U.S. interests will continue to be Russia and China, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scope. Both Russia and China continue to pursue antisatellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness. … Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years.

Ukraine:

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Tension over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh could devolve into a large-scale military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which could draw in Russia to support its regional ally. Both sides’ reluctance to compromise, mounting domestic pressures, Azerbaijan’s steady military modernization, and Armenia’s acquisition of new Russian equipment sustain the risk of large-scale hostilities in 2018.
  • Russia views Belarus as a critical buffer between itself and NATO and will seek to spoil any potential warming between Minsk and the West.
  • Moldova’s ostensibly pro-European ruling coalition—unless it is defeated in elections planned for November—probably will seek to curb Russian influence and maintain a veneer of European reform while avoiding changes that would damage the coalition’s grip on power.
  • Russia will pressure Central Asia’s leaders to reduce engagement with Washington and support Russian-led economic and security initiatives, while concerns about ISIS in Afghanistan will push Moscow to strengthen its security posture in the region.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

The United States Marine Corps provide fire support to the SDF during the Battle of Raqqa.

International press keeps digging up additional details of the Feb. 7 clash between the U.S. and its allies in Syria’s Deir el-Zour region and what has reportedly turned out to be a group of private military contractors, most of whom were reportedly Russian nationals, but also included some Ukrainian nationals. Apparently, these contract soldiers, some of whom may have belonged to a Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group, tried to advance on a base located east of Deir el-Zour held by U.S. and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The formation that tried to advance was no smaller than a battalion supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars, according to chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White. SDF commander Gen. Hassan told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius that he called his regular Russian liaison contact in Deir el-Zour, hoping to avoid a battle with the advancing unit. In response a Russian liaisons officer reportedly assured coalition officials that they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity However, in spite of the assurances, the mercenary battalion still attacked, prompting the targeted site to fire back, according to the U.S. and SDF version of events. As a result, as many as 200 members of that battalion-sized unit were killed in U.S.-led air and artillery strikes. It was then that the Russian liaison officer contacted the SDF again, asking for a pause to collect those killed in the U.S. strikes, according to Hassan’s account as narrated by Ignatius. Most of the fatalities were attributed to an American airstrike on enemy columns, according to the New York Times. Russian nationals killed in the U.S.-led counter-strike include Vladimir Loginov, Kirill Ananyev, Alexei Ladygin, Stanislav Matveyev and Igor Kosoturov, some of whom had earlier fought in Donbass, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team. Both Kurdish commander Hassan and Washington Post columnist Ignatius interpreted the incident as a breach of faith by the Russian military. However, it is possible that the Russian military was not aware of the attack planned by the Russian contract soldiers acting on orders of the Assad regime. As Bloomberg’s story points out, “The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation.” The proposition that the attempted assault was not cleared with Russia’s “official” military is also supported by the Kremlin’s muted reaction to the event. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the incident, in which the death toll of private Russian soldiers may have been five times greater than the Russian Defense Ministry’s official count of servicemen who have died in Syria. “We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Peskov was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.” Given such a reaction, chances are that the Kremlin will choose not to escalate over the incident. Nevertheless, the incident serves as a grim reminder of the complexities of the multi-party (and multi-proxy) conflict in Syria, in which there’s always a chance that rogue players’ actions may end up dragging great powers into a direct conflict in spite of their continued deconfliction efforts.

Photo credit: U.S. government work in the public domain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Just 12 minutes before the deadline, the U.S. treasury published a list of “Senior Foreign Political Figures and Oligarchs in the Russian Federation and Russian Parastatal Entities” which the Trump administration was supposed to supply to the U.S. Congress in compliance with the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA). Some Russian insiders were quick to dismiss the list of 210 names, which includes Russia’s richest persons and top Russian government officials, describing it as a compilation copied and pasted from the Forbes list of Russian billionaires and the Kremlin’s phone book. Markets also largely ignored the publication. In fact, it was clear as early as last week that they would (see the “Bilateral issues” section in the Jan. 26 issue of our Russia in Review digest). Moreover, investors were so relieved that no new punitive measures were announced that they pushed yields on Russian 10-year bonds to the lowest levels in five years, following the publication of the list, according to Bloomberg. They did so for a good reason: While unveiling the list, the Trump administration chose not to impose any new sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, arguing CAATSA is already causing pain by deterring billions in Russian arms exports. However, one should not dismiss this development entirely. First, in addition to the public portion of the list, there’s apparently a separate, classified portion, which contains more names, including those of less-senior political figures and businesspeople with less than $1 billion in assets, and which may outline their involvement in corrupt activities, according to RFE/RL and Financial Times. Second, the very publication of the list will keep potential foreign business partners from doing business with those on the list. Third, while the Trump administration’s present abstention from sanctioning anyone on either the public or secret portions of the list (with the exception of those who have been sanctioned earlier) is good news for those who want to stop further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, this does not mean sanctions won’t be imposed in the future, especially if Congress applies pressure. In fact, while unveiling the list, the Treasury warned that it has the right to use "all available sources of information," including classified versions of the report, when making decisions about additional sanctions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Read on for the RM staff’s selection of highlights from the Russia list’s publication coverage as of Jan. 30 afternoon.
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Do not cross warning.

What are a country’s red lines? And which of them are really red, while others are, to quote one German newspaper editor, merely pink? My takeaway from the beginning of the Ukraine conflict was that Vladimir Putin has come to view any post-Soviet republics’ “escape” to NATO and EU (with the exception of the Baltics) as truly crossing a Russian red line. Now Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has become perhaps the first top Russian official to explicitly say as much, in an interview to the Kommersant daily. Not only would aggression against Russia amount to the crossing of a red line, but so would an attack on one of Russia’s post-Soviet clients—even if it’s an unrecognized separatist republic—and so would the replacement of a friendly post-Soviet government through revolution, according to the interview, published on Jan. 22. Here is an excerpt:

Lavrov: Now [in contrast to the years of the Cold War] there really are no rules in terms of NATO's advance to the east. There is no line anywhere that is a red line.

Interviewer: What about the border of the Russian Federation?

Lavrov: If we proceed from the assumption that we [Russia] cannot have any interests in the region, in the Euro-Atlantic, then, yes, the border of the Russian Federation is a red line. But the fact is that we do have legitimate interests; there are [ethnic] Russians who suddenly found themselves abroad when the USSR collapsed; we have cultural and historical, close personal and family ties with our neighbors. Russia has the right to defend the interests of its compatriots, especially when they are persecuted in many countries, when their rights are suppressed, as it happened in Ukraine. … Parliament’s first action after the coup was a law stating that the Russian language should ‘know its place.’ … Two days later we heard that Russians will never pay homage to [Ukrainian military leaders who fought against the Soviets] Bandera and Shukhevich, so Russians have to be exiled from Crimea. …

Lavrov: This is Ukrainian history, the history of the coup, the history of the West's betrayal of international law, when an agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the leading EU countries [and Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych and leaders of the Ukrainian opposition on Feb. 21, 2014] was simply trampled. After that the EU tried to convince us that that’s the way things should be and that nothing could be done now. This, by and large, was a European disgrace. While stating this historical reality, we … [nonetheless] want to implement the Minsk agreements. Coming back to red lines: That was a red line, just as a red line was crossed [in 2008] on the orders of Mikhail Saakashvili as soon as the attack began on South Ossetia, where our [Russian], Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers were stationed. … Russia has its interests, and people should bear this in mind. Russia has red lines. I believe that serious politicians in the West understand that these red lines need to be respected just as they were respected during the Cold War.

One should note that, while Russia has been prepared to use force when an acute challenge arises to one of its vital interests (such as its interest in being surrounded by friendly states), Russia did not always see its neighbors’ aspirations to be closer to the U.S. as a threat. In fact, in the early 2000s Russia itself was trying to harmonize various laws and regulations with the EU’s, with a view to one day, perhaps, join the union, and Putin asked then-secretary general of NATO Lord Robertson when the alliance was going to invite Russia into the pact.

Then, however, color revolutions began to erupt in post-Soviet states and Putin, misinterpreting the West’s general support for democratization as the fomenting of revolution, became convinced that Russia would be its next victim. It was the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, I would argue, that played the lead role in changing Putin’s views of the West’s intentions toward Russia and, therefore, his perceptions of where Russia’s red lines should lie. After these revolutions and the subsequent (futile) effort by the Bush-43 administration to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership action plans for joining NATO, in 2008, the Russian leadership began to view Russian-Western interaction in the post-Soviet neighborhood as a zero-sum game. In addition, Russia’s national power vis-à-vis the West has arguably increased in that period, making the country’s leadership more confident that it can enforce its own red lines in the immediate post-Soviet periphery. Lavrov’s interview is a testament to that.

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project.

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