Thursday, August 25, 2016

Russia to Conduct Military Drills Amid Ukraine Tensions - WSJ | US Pursues Syria Cooperation With Russia Amid New Volatility - ABC News | Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters’ - The New York Times | The Sources of Russian Conduct | The National Interest

The Early Edition: August 25, 2016 

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.
Another nine or more Turkish tanks entered northern Syria todayas the “Euphrates Shield” operation to force the Islamic State out of Jarablus and the surrounding area and prevent the Kurdish militia from taking its place there continues, reports Reuters.
Syrian rebels backed by the US and Turkey announced they had seized the town of Jarablus by yesterday evening, Tim Arango et al report at the New York Times.  They have now advanced up to 10 km south of the town, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt rebel advances. [Reuters]
Secretary of State John Kerry told his Turkish counterpart that Syrian Kurdish forces have begun to withdraw east of the Euphrates River, Turkish officials said today, acceding to Turkey’s demand that they do so. [AP’s Suzan Fraser]  Vice President Biden warned the Syrian Kurds that they would lose all support from the US if they did not comply with Turkey’s demand that they withdraw, during his visit to Ankara yesterday. [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung]
The tensions between Turkey and the Kurds pit a NATO ally against the most effective US military proxy in Syria’s complex civil war, reports Philip Issa at the AP, who takes a look at the battle-hardened Syrian Kurds and their craving for the sort of autonomy their northern Iraqi counterparts enjoy.
Syrian government planes have dropped bombs containing chlorine on civilians at least twice over the past two years, according to a joint report from the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which will be made public after the UN Security Council has considered it, according to a statement released by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson yesterday. President Assad signed a treaty banning chemical weapons around three years ago after an attack killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb, Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.  The report also accuses the Islamic State of using mustard gas in Aleppo on Aug. 21, 2015, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi. 
Vice President Biden asked Turkish authorities to be patient with the US extradition process as they seek the return of cleric Fethullah Gulen, during his visit to Ankara yesterday, also seeking to assuage concerns that the US is shielding Gulen. [AP’s Suzan Fraser]
Turkey fired over 2,800 judges and prosecutors yesterday as part of the purge of so-called Gulenists following the July 15 coup attempt. The total number of people sacked from the civil service, judiciary, police forces and courts is now at around 80,000, reports the Hürriyet Daily News.
Turkey’s Education Ministry dismissed over 27,000 staff and Turkey’s Council of Higher Education forced all 1,577 university deans to resign on Tuesday night. The attacks on academia reflect possibly the most transformative chapter in Turkey’s split between its urban elite and conservative-Muslim interior, suggest Joe Parkinson and Emre Peker at the Wall Street Journal, and shows the acceleration of the  country’s move from stalwart Western ally to aspiring regional power.
Pressure from Congress on President Obama to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen is growing, a group of lawmakers circulating a letter yesterday asking the President to withdraw his request for Congressional approval of a $1.15 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia until Congress can debate US military support for the Saudis, Mark Mazzetti and Shuaib Almosawa report at the New York Times.
The UN’s human rights chief has called for an international investigation of abuses in Yemen’s civil war, reports the AP.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to stop the use of their sites to promote terrorism and extremism, according to a report by the UK Commons home affairs select committee. Social media sites are the “vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and the recruiting platforms for terrorism,” according to the report. Alan Travis reports at the Guardian.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has promised to leak “thousands” more documents relating to Hillary Clinton, the DNC, and the presidential election, claiming it would have a “significant” impact on the election during an interview with Fox News last night, reports Cristiano Lima at POLITICO.
A Palestinian was shot dead in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers yesterday, who said he had stabbed and wounded one of them, a version of events his family have said “made no sense.” [AP]
The Israeli army has cleared itself of wrongdoing over the Aug. 3, 2014 firing of an air-to-ground missile at a motorcycle as it passed a UN school in the town of Rafah, killing around 10 civilians, an event which prompted international outrage at the time. Closing its investigation, the military said that by the time the motorcycle had turned toward the school, it was too late to stop the missile. [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]
The UN Security Council will consider issuing a statement on the latest North Korean missile launchfollowing an emergency meeting last night. The US is drafting a press statement for the council, according to Malaysia’s UN Ambassador, who is serving the council’s current president, Edith M. Lederer reports for the AP.
This week’s submarine-launched missile launch was an operational success, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which says it marks the second recent milestone since June’s successful firing of a medium-range Musudan missile from a road-mobile carrier – using a Chinese “transporter-erector-launcher” acquired from a Chinese defense contractor in 2011. The US hasn’t sanctioned a single Chinese entity for arming or otherwise sustaining the Pyongyang regime, the board points out.
The test had achieved the “greatest success,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said, claiming the continental US and American military bases in the Pacific were now within striking range of North Korea’s missiles, reports Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times.
Guantánamo Bay has inspired more terrorist than it has imprisoned, writes the New York Times editorial board, reflecting on the case of Abu Zubayah, who appeared for the first time on Tuesday at a parole board hearing, and who was tortured by the CIA – for which the CIA has never been held to account – even after he had willingly turned over all the information he had to the FBI. That is an outcome that could have been avoided, says the board, if men like Zubaydah had not been tortured, and instead had been given a chance to contest their detention in a court of law.
The US is hailing a historic peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel movement which, if approved by voters, will end the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas, dating back to 1964. The US has invested roughly $10 billion to help the Colombian government strengthen its economy and security, contributing to efforts to get the FARC rebels to come to the table. [POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi]
An attack on the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul last night left 12 people dead, police said early this morning. The attack began with a large explosion, which officials said was a car bomb, followed by gunfire. Two attackers were killed. No group appears to have claimed responsibility or been specifically blamed so far. [Reuters]
Four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ships harassed a US destroyer close to the Persian Gulf,the US Navy said, calling it an “unsafe and unprofessional interaction.” [Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne] Iran will “warn” any foreign ship entering its territorial waters, and “confront” them if it’s an invasion, Iran’s Gen. Hosein Dehghan said today. [AP]
The US and Bulgaria will conduct joint air patrols next month in operations aimed at opening a new front in the NATO alliance’s efforts to deter increasing Russian military aggression, officials from both countries have confirmed. Julian E. Barnes reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Congress wasn’t persuaded by the Pentagon’s request for $12 million to build a new employee screening facility at its most-used entrance over worries that terrorists could walk right through its front door, reports POLITICO’s Austin Wright.
Plans showing “the entire secret combat capability” for French stealth submarines built for the Indian army have been leaked, raising concerns over the digital security at the company that constructed them – the same company that just signed a multibillion dollar deal to build submarines for Australia, reports the New York Times’ David Jolly.  A timeline of the conflict has been provided by the AP.
Mohamed Amiin Ali Roble, who survived the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, faced terror charges yesterday over accusations he traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State – just weeks after he received over $91,000 in settlement money for the incident, which saw his school bus plummet 30 feet as the bridge collapsed. [AP’s Amy Forliti]
President Obama could declare that “the United States will not use nuclear weapons against any target that could be reliably destroyed by conventional means.” This would be a “simpler change” to US nuclear policy that could have as great, or even greater, benefits for US security than the “no first use” pledge Obama is reportedly currently considering, according to Jeffrey G. Lewis and Scott D. Sagan, writing in the Washington Post.
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Today's Headlines and Commentary

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Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria today in Turkey’s largest yet military involvement in the Syrian conflictcoordinating with US forces to push the Islamic State out of the group’s stronghold in the town of Jarablus. Rebel troops have announced that the operation was successful. While Turkey and the US hope to deprive ISIS of a smuggling route by pushing it away from the Turkish border,Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also indicated that the operation aimed to prevent Syrian Kurdish militia fighters from gaining control of Jarablus. Hurriyet Daily News has a timeline of the operation.
The Associated Press writes that today’s operation could lead to a confrontation between Turkey and US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom Turkey claims are linked to insurgent Kurdish groups in southeastern Turkey. The US has maintained that Kurdish forces will leave border towns after liberating them from ISIS. The Wall Street Journal reports on Turkish concerns over possible Kurdish plans to seize Jarablus independently, despite a warning from Vice President Joe Biden—who is now visiting Turkey—that Kurdish fighters would not receive US support “if they do not keep that commitment” to leave the town.
Also during his visit to Turkey,Biden requestedthat Turkish officials be patient in seeking the extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has accused of masterminding the failed coup. Biden reaffirmed that, while the US had no interest in protecting Gulen, American courts must be presented with the necessary evidence to fulfill legal extradition requirements. Meanwhile, Reuters examines how tensions over Gulen could affect US-Turkey relations.
YesterdayKurdish militias signed a ceasefire with the Syrian government giving Kurdish forces control over most of Hasaka city and the surrounding province. While the agreement represents a major setback for the Syrian government, the regime’s new willingness to attack Kurdish forces during the battle for Hasaka may indicate potential for a rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Turkey. The New York Times has more here.
The ceasefire in Hasaka was brokered by Russia, which has offered military support to Kurds against opposition rebels in Syria for months. The Syrian regime had previously avoided hostility with the Kurdish forces and tacitly allowed the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region, but has begun to shift toward more aggressive anti-Kurdish rhetoric and policy similar to that of Turkey, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Intercept has publishedan interview with Mostafa Mahamed, the director of foreign media relations for the group formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, on the extremist group’s split from al Qaeda and rebranding as Jabhat Fatah al Sham. Mahamed discusses the split from al Qaeda as an opportunity to “work toward a more pragmatic option that will allow accommodation of a wider audience.”
Traces of deadly nerve agents have been discovered in Syrian regime laboratories that the government has denied were used for their chemical weapons program, a new report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons indicates. These discrepancies limit inspectors’ abilities to verify that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons program as it agreed to do in 2013.Foreign Policy has more on the report here.
Russian, German and French leaders agreed to meet next month on the sidelines of G-20 Summit in China to address the crisis in Ukraine and the recent increase in cease-fire violations. The Russian government denies directly aiding the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, but has continued supporting TheWall Street Journal has more.
Today marked Ukraine’s 25th year of independence from the Soviet UnionPolitico notes. The country’s independence day arrives amidst renewed tensions between Ukraine and Russia, which conducted military exercises in Crimea earlier this week. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned last week of the possibility of a “full-scale invasion on all fronts.”
Earlier today,North Korea test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew 310 miles toward Japan, marking a significant increase in abilities after many previously failed attempts of similar launches. While previous tests were thought to be conducted from a submerged barge to exaggerate capabilities, South Korea has confirmed this missile originated from a submarine. Reuters adds that this capability could help Pyongyang thwart the THAAD anti-missile system soon to be deployed in South Korea.
The test came two days after the US and South Korea began their annual joint military exercises and only hours before foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and China were continuing talks about the North’s growing threats. The New York Times includes that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe considered the test “a grave threat” to Japan’s security.  
According to Philippines’ foreign minister Perfecto Yasay,the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea has not caused Manila to shift its diplomatic orientation towards either Washington or Beijing. The Philippines announced that it will not raise a recent international tribunal’s verdict in favor of Manila next month at a summit in Laos of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China welcomed the news. Reuters has more.  
Reuters also writes that a Filipino police report on an anti-drug campaign that has killed 1,900 people in seven weeks has deeply unsettled human rights activists and the Philippines’ allies. According to the country’s top police chief, 756 people have been killed by the police during the “Double Barrel” operation, with an additional 1,160 people killed by what police have suggested are vigilantes. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said on Monday it was "deeply concerned" by the killings and urged the government to abide by human rights norms. The humanitarian group Human Rights Watch accused Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte of inciting violence and "steamrolling the rule of law.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warnedNigeria’s generals against committing human rights abuses during its ongoing campaign against the Islamic group Boko Haram. Human rights watchdogs have accused Nigeria’s military of numerous violations of international law, including killing civilians, torturing prisoners, and detaining women and children who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
A strong earthquake in central Italy reduced three towns to rubble as people slept early Wednesday, killing at least 73 people and injuring hundreds more as rescue crews raced to dig out survivors with bulldozers and their bare hands. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowed that the country would not leave “no family, no city, no hamlet” behind. The Associated Press has more.  
The AP also follows up on CNN’sreporting yesterday that the FBI is investigating whether Russian intelligence agencies hacked the accounts of individual New York Times’ reporters, in addition to hacking the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic entities. But according to theTimes, though hackers did target the paper’s Moscow bureau earlier this month,there is no evidence that the attack was successful.
Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to meet with U.N. special envoy on Yemen  and other senior officials from Arab governments this week as he looks to score a rare U.S. victory in the Middle East by accelerating the peace process over the Yemeni civil war. A shaky ceasefire implemented in April fell apart earlier this month. Saudi Arabia and Iran have viewed the civil war as a proxy contest for influence in the region, but the United Nations has criticized both sides for committing human rights violations. Politico has more.
A British woman was killed and two men were injured in a stabbing attack at a backpackers’ hostel in Queensland, Australia. A French suspect, who allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” during and after the attack, was arrested by police. Local authorities are examining whether this was a case of extremism or motivated by other factors such as drugs or mental illness. The suspect did not know the victims. The BBC and The Australian have more.
Norway is erectinga steel fence at a remote Arctic border with Russia in response to an influx of 5,500 migrants across the border last year, sparking outcries both from refugee rights’ groups and those who fear the fence signals a further deterioration of Norweigian relations with Russia. The government said a new gate and fence were necessary to tighten security at a northern outpost of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.
The Associated Press tells us that Wikileaks has released the personal information of hundreds of ordinary people, including sick children, rape victims, mental health patients, and, in one case, the name of a Saudi citizen who had previously been arrested for being gay. The radical transparency group’s disclosures have brought it under fire even from its traditional allies, who see Wikileaks’ publication of personal information as unrelated or even harmful to its stated mission of increasing government transparency.
ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare
Bruce Ackerman flagged the latest brief filed by U.S. Army Captain Nathan Smith in his suit charging that U.S. military operations against the Islamic State are illegal absent a tailored AUMF.
Susan Hennessey compiled a growing list of female technology policy experts who can be cited, interviewed, or invited as panel experts.
Suzanne Maloney critiqued the White House’s handling of the Iran airlift scandal whereby the United States sent $400 million to Tehran at the same time that the two countries agreed on a detainee swap.
Charles Kels offered an alternative view of the Presidential Policy Guidance on direct actions against terrorist targets.
Emailthe Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us onTwitterandFacebookfor additional commentary on these issues.Sign upto receive Lawfarein your inbox. Visit ourEvents Calendarto learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on ourJob Board.

Russia to Conduct Military Drills Amid Ukraine Tensions

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MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered snap military drills Thursday to test the combat-readiness of troops on the country’s western flank.
The exercises, announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, come amid heightened tensions with Ukraine. Russia, which is covertly supporting separatists in its neighbor’s east, blamed Ukraine for the deaths of two service members earlier this month in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
The exercises will test the ability of forces in the south “to deploy promptly self-sufficient forces to localize crisis situations” and for forces in the western and central districts to send support to the southeast, the Defense Ministry said. They will last through the end of the month.

Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov had been ordered to inform foreign military attachés about the drills, the ministry said.
Mr. Shoigu told a meeting of top military officials that troops in the southern, western and central military districts, the Northern Fleet, aerospace forces and airborne troops were put on full combat alert at 7 a.m. for the drills.
Thursday’s announcement comes as Russia is sending tens of thousands of troops to new military installations on its border with Ukraine as part of what Moscow calls a strategy to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Military analysts say it looks more like an effort to base a permanent military threat on its neighbor’s border that can be sent in at any time to support pro-Russian separatists who have carved out two unrecognized statelets in a two-year war. Russia has sent troops and weapons systems into eastern Ukraine to fend off government forces, Western and Ukrainian officials say. Russian officials deny this.
Russia sees Ukraine, led by a Western-leaning government, as part of its sphere of influence. Ukraine on Wednesday celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence with a military parade.
Russia has increased the frequency of drills on its western borders in the past two years in what it calls a response to threats. It also plans to conduct major annual military exercises, called Kavkaz 2016, near its border with Ukraine next month.
Write to James Marson at
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The Sources of Russian Conduct

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In February 1946, George Kennan sent back from Moscow the “Long Telegram,” an analysis of the sources of Soviet foreign policy, which came to serve as the intellectual foundation of the containment policy the United States pursued during the Cold War. The telegram landed in the midst of a reassessment of American Soviet policy as the hopes born of the grand alliance against Hitler’s Germany that the allies would continue to cooperate in peacetime crashed against the harsh reality of Soviet suspicion and hostility. As John Gaddis notes in his biography of Kennan, his telegram did not bring about a shift in U.S. policy but it crystallized the thinking of senior administration officials. “It was,” Gaddis writes, “the geopolitical equivalent of a medical X-ray, penetrating beneath alarming symptoms to yield at first clarity, then comprehension, and finally by implication a course of treatment.”
Today, we need a similar analysis, for we find ourselves at a similar juncture. Two years ago, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine irreversibly dashed all the assumptions that had guided America’s Russia policy since the demise of the Soviet Union a generation ago. No longer is it possible to maintain that Russia is being integrated, albeit slowly and fitfully, into the West and, for that reason, is a suitable partner for addressing global issues. Moreover, Russia itself is no longer interested in integration, if it ever was. Rather, it presents itself as a unique construct, intent on challenging the U.S.-led world order across a broad front, including hard geopolitical matters like Ukraine, as well as the values that animate Western society. This does not mean that from time to time the United States and Russia will not cooperate on discrete issues, only that the cooperation will not be grounded in a sense of shared values and a common vision of a just global order. In these circumstances, there can be no talk of a “strategic alliance with Russian reform” (President Clinton’s phrase), “strategic partnership” (President George W. Bush’s) or “reset” (President Obama’s). The times call for a new relationship, without illusions about what Russia is and where it is headed.
Kennan’s feat cannot, however, be replicated today. We live in a different world, in which Russia plays a lesser role than the Soviet Union once did. U.S.-Russian relations will never define the international system as U.S.-Soviet relations did during the Cold War. Nor will Russia, unlike its Soviet predecessor, lie at the center of American foreign policy, providing the prism through which we view all other critical foreign-policy issues. The stakes are decidedly smaller, even if Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, remains the only country that could destroy the United States as a functioning society in thirty minutes. Nor can we simply apply Kennan’s prescription of containment to Russia today. However successful it might have been in the Cold War, it is inappropriate in a globalized, increasingly multipolar world. No longer is the challenge isolating and defeating an existential foe. Rather, it is creating a sustainable balance of power that advances American interests by promoting peace and security, and fostering collaboration among geopolitical rivals in addressing global transnational threats.
Russia is nevertheless a significant actor, as it resists the United States and seeks to rally other states to its cause. This challenge comes at a time when the U.S.-led world order is under mounting pressure from powerful geopolitical, technological and ideological developments around the world. The new character of U.S.-Russian relations that eventually emerges will say much about the new world order and our ability to master the challenges we face.
At the outset, we need to stress that what we are seeking to understand is the nature of the challenge posed by Russia, not by its current paramount leader, President Putin. This is a departure from much of the commentary in the United States, which focuses on, and demonizes, Putin as the driving force behind a Russian threat, as if he operates outside an historical and political context. He has, however, made much of repairing the historical bonds that he saw burst asunder by Yeltsin, even if we would take exception to his specific reading of history and the implications for Russia today. Like his predecessors since Peter the Great, who brought Russia into Europe as a great power, he is adamant that Russia—as a political and spiritual community—cannot survive other than as a great power. His authority is reinforced by an elite that, save for a small minority, shares this view, which also resonates with the broader population. Putin’s departure will not likely change the essence of the Russian challenge, no matter how different his successor’s style and tactics might be.
THE CHARACTER of the Russian state has been central in shaping Russian strategic thinking. Despite superficial similarities, that state, of which the Soviet Union was an extreme version, differs in essence from its Western counterparts. It has never been conceived as an emanation of society, instituted to protect the rights of citizens, temper the consequences of conflicts among them and advance the public weal. Rather, it emerged as an alien force invited to establish order over an unruly people. “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us,” as the Primary Chronicle, written in the thirteenth century, describes the creation of the Russian state.
The new rulers were not kin of the local Slavic population, but Nordic Varangians, soldier-traders who moved through Slavic lands for commercial purposes. They came as proprietors, and were made princes as well. The public and the private spheres—carefully delineated in theory in the modern West—merged in Russia. The rulers ran their realms as private estates. There were no citizens with basic, inalienable rights, only subjects or servants more or less securely bound to the estate, or the state. Property rights were conditional, dependent on service to the sovereign, not protected by law. The Muscovite grand princes and their successors, the Russian czars, held theoretically absolute power and managed their realms solely for their own benefit. As an eminent historian of Russia, Richard Pipes, put it, “The state neither grew out of the society, nor was imposed on it from above. Rather it grew up side by side with society and bit by bit swallowed it.”
This all-encompassing state has been the central and decisive actor in Russian history. It gave structure to a vast, increasingly multiethnic, multiconfessional empire. Loyalty to the state in the person of the sovereign lay at the core of Russian identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that, at least in the minds of its rulers, without the state, there would be no Russia. Hence, the preservation and progress of the state has been their central mission throughout history. It is the restoration of the state after the profound crisis of the first post-Soviet decade that Russia’s current rulers count among their greatest achievements. That the rulers have identified themselves with the state, however convenient and however corrupt by our standards, does not change the essence of the matter.        
This mission requires defending the state from enemies at home and abroad.
Internally, that entails firm control over the population, for when the people appear as an autonomous political force, it is always as an enemy of order, a destructive force, the “senseless and merciless”bunt (popular uprising) of Pushkin’s imagination. That was the lesson of the great peasant rebellions under Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries respectively.
Globalization has only complicated this task, since it enables foreign powers to act directly on the people in opposition to the state. Extrapolating from their own experience, Russian rulers consider private-sector entities of foreign origin—be they corporations, media outlets, religious associations or civil-society organizations—to be instruments of rival states, not autonomous actors in their own right. The same holds true for Russian organizations that receive funding from abroad. During the past several years, Russian experts have elaborated a detailed concept of how the United States has used such entities to effect regime change in the former Soviet space (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) and elsewhere to extend America’s geopolitical sway. The men in the Kremlin themselves are convinced that the United States’ ultimate goal is regime change in Russia. Under these circumstances, they firmly believe they have the right and obligation to severely restrict and closely monitor the activities of foreign and foreign-funded entities operating in Russia, and, at the extreme, to expel them or shut them down. They remain determined not to succumb to America’s form of hybrid warfare.
Externally, defending the Russian state on the largely featureless great European plain requires strategic depth. From the middle of the sixteenth century onward, Russia has relentlessly pushed its frontiers outward, annexing disorganized territory or seizing land from states in decline. Russia moved across the Urals and transversed sparsely populated Siberia to reach the Pacific Ocean in the mid-seventeenth century. By the end of the nineteenth, it was on the verge of annexing Manchuria against the resistance of Japan and the United States. From 1700 onward, Russia pushed westward into Central Europe, defeating Sweden and Poland, and southward toward the Black Sea and into the Caucasus against the waning Ottoman and Persian Empires. In the mid-nineteenth century, it conquered the weak states of Central Asia. In the process, it created the largest contiguous state, covering roughly one-sixth of the globe’s landmass.
Russia’s expansion only stopped when it ran into countervailing geopolitical forces—the Germanic powers (Prussia and Austria, and eventually a united Germany) in the West, China and eventually Japan in the East, and the British Empire in the South. Over the centuries, this dialectic of expansion and resistance created Russia’s geopolitical space, roughly the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire. This is the sphere of influence Russian rulers consider essential to their security. This is why they have pushed back so vigorously against what they see as American encroachments on this sphere in the past fifteen years through, for example, the expansion of NATO and the establishment of military bases in Central Asia, tied to operations in Afghanistan. It is a primary reason for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014.
The internal and external imperatives have combined to feed a persistent sense of vulnerability that never lies far beneath the surface in the consciousness of Russia’s rulers. External expansion draws in ever more people of dubious loyalty, raising the costs of maintaining internal order. This situation grew acute in the nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism as a potent political force in Europe. Nationalist movements among Poles, Finns, Balts, Romanians, Ukrainians and various Caucasian nations along the periphery were constant threats to the empire’s domestic stability and external security. In these circumstances, Russian rulers have struggled to mobilize the resources to ensure domestic order and defend against external foes, constantly shifting forces and attention between domestic and external threats as the need arose in a never-ending quest for absolute security.
In this predicament, Russian rulers have been challenged to acquire the economic and technological capacity to generate the hard power for both those tasks. All the major reforms since 1700—Peter the Great’s Europeanization, Alexander II’s great reforms, Stalin’s industrialization, and Gorbachev’s perestroika—originated as state projects for this purpose and were pushed ruthlessly against the wishes of a profoundly conservative society. Because the great powers were until the current period all Western (or, in Japan’s case, Westernized) states, which Russia usually lagged behind in technology, and because economic activity was tightly intertwined with political structure in Russia, the question that has exercised Russian rulers is what aspects of Western political systems Russia had to adopt to catch up technologically. The aspiration was always to borrow as little as possible, so as to preserve as much as possible the fundamental character of the Russian state. The Soviet period offered a brief interlude, as the Bolsheviks thought they had discovered a non-Western path to modernization, but the illusion died as the country entered a prolonged period of stagnation in the 1970s. Until Gorbachev, their efforts paid off handsomely. For no matter how backward and poor Russia might have appeared by European and then Western standards, the Russian state was among the most successful if judged by the terms Russian rulers have valued—that is, territorial control, geopolitical sway and international standing. At least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia not only relentlessly expanded its territory in Europe and Asia, but it also saved Europe twice from domination by a single power, by driving its forces to the heart of the continent to defeat Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany. No other European or Asian power can claim a comparable record of success.
RUSSIA’S CURRENT rulers hope to replicate the success of their predecessors, and avoid the catastrophic failure of Gorbachev, by restoring and sustaining Russia’s position as a great power. The task is daunting. The Russian state, if not the Russian people, faces one of its most severe challenges in the last three or four centuries, a challenge born of a geopolitical predicament and a domestic dilemma.
Geopolitically, Russia is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia, radiating influence and creating strategic depth. Rather, the flow of power has been reversed. Russia is being pressed on three fronts—in Asia, Europe and the Middle East—as a new, fourth front opens in the Arctic at time of economic uncertainty. China has overtaken Russia as the leading commercial partner of each of the Central Asian states; it is drawing Russia’s eastern provinces away from Moscow economically and perhaps, over the longer term, strategically as well. The European Union, even at a time of great trials, continues to act as a magnet on the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Extremist Islamic movements in the Middle East are penetrating Central Asia and, more worrisome, the Muslim-dominated provinces of Russia itself in the North Caucasus and Volga region.
Making matters worse, Russia’s resources pale in comparison to its rivals. The economies of China, the European Union and the United States are each five to six times the size of Russia’s. The gap is only growing with China and perhaps the United States. Technologically, the United States and Europe are far superior to Russia, and China is rapidly overtaking it. Europe may suffer from a demographic fatigue similar to Russia’s, but the American population remains robust, and China’s is nearly ten times as large.
These realities shape the geopolitical contours of Russia’s grand strategy. The elements have been spelled out in official documents and leaders’ comments, and made manifest in specific actions, during the past twenty-five years. The strategy is coherent, even if the Kremlin’s capacity to execute it might be in doubt.
At the center is an effort to reassert Russia’s preeminence in the former Soviet space, to recreate a sphere of influence, which all great powers by definition must have. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have tried various institutional arrangements to achieve that goal—the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and most recently the Eurasian Union. None, however, is complete with the full participation of Ukraine, the former Soviet state with the greatest economic potential after Russia, which occupies moreover a strategic location on the north shore of the Black Sea. If Moscow cannot lure or force Ukraine into a Russian-dominated structure, then at a minimum it has to keep it out of an association—such as NATO or the European Union—beyond Moscow’s control. That is the crux of the current Ukraine crisis.
Related to this goal is the policy of building up Russia’s presence in the Arctic. Because of climate change, Moscow has been compelled for the first time in history to actively defend its position there to ensure access to the region’s abundant resources and control of potentially lucrative northern sea routes. The effort to extend sovereign rights as far north as possible reflects in addition the traditional drive for strategic depth.
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Beyond the former Soviet space, Russia seeks to balance between the two major strategic-economic zones of Europe and East Asia. It wants to enjoy the economic benefits of interaction with both while preventing either one from eroding its position in the former Soviet space. Diversifying commercial relations eastward reduces what is now an excessive dependence on Europe, which accounts for half of Russia’s overall foreign trade and provides three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia. But Russia must maintain robust relations with Europe as a source of leverage in relations with China—as Russia’s current isolation from Europe as a consequence of the Ukraine sanctions shows, China will exploit Russian weakness for commercial and strategic advantage.
Another aspect of this balancing act are steps to complicate the process of European unification, preventing the consolidation of an entity that would dwarf Russia in population, wealth and power potential much as the United States does today. The goal is to reduce the disadvantages of excessive commercial reliance on the European Union—Russia can play states against one another, as it has in energy matters for at least the past fifteen years—and it diminishes the security risks. In this effort, Moscow does not have to create fissures so much as exploit the ones that have emerged within the European Union over migration, fiscal management, the democratic deficit and other matters. The challenge is doing this in a way that does not preclude continued commercial and security cooperation with key European states.
Dealing with the Middle East presents a different problem, not one of integration, but rather of containing the contagion of extremism. Moscow’s approach, consistent with its view on the centrality of states in world affairs, is to support current regimes against popular forces, whether they be liberal, democratic, extremist or something else. That is the logic behind support for the Assad regime in Syria today and the resistance to what the Kremlin sees as destabilizing American meddling in the internal affairs of regional states aimed at regime change.
The final geopolitical element of the grand strategy is to rein in the United States, to compel it to take into account the interests of other great powers, including first of all Russia, as it pursues its own. That is the goal of Russia’s effort to rally support against the U.S.-led global order for a new multipolar world based on state sovereignty and mutual respect (at least among great powers). The Kremlin hopes to use China as a strategic counterweight to the United States and such organizations as the BRICS (an association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it coleads with China, as alternatives to U.S.- or Western-dominated international economic and security arrangements.
It this within this geopolitical framework that Russia situates transnational threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, transnational crime and even climate change. These threats do not exist in the abstract but only in specific territories, and countering them therefore always carries geopolitical consequences. Moreover, the Kremlin believes nonstate actors are largely instruments of state power wielded for advantage in the global competition for power and prestige. It sees the Iranian nuclear program and ISIS, for example, not simply as cases of proliferation and terrorism, but more importantly as factors manipulated by other powers in an effort to alter the balance in the Middle East. The Kremlin is convinced that the United States sees the situation in the same way, and uses counterterrorism, nonproliferation and democracy promotion as smokescreens for geopolitical advance.
Whether Russia can successfully implement such an ambitious, complex strategy is an open question. At the moment, it is struggling to protect its position in the former Soviet space from Chinese and Western encroachments and radical Islamic threats. But one thing is certain: to succeed, Russia must restore its historical dynamism; it must modernize and diversify its economy to generate the means to back its great-power ambitions. That is the essence of strategy—wedding means to ends. And if the means are not preexisting, they must be created, or the strategy necessarily fails.
In this quest for the means, Russia finds itself once again challenged to catch up with the West. As before, the Kremlin will try to get as many of the benefits of economic modernization as it can while adopting as little of the Western political system as it must, so as to protect the fundamental character of the Russian state. That might seem an easier task now, because the rapid rise of China suggests there is a non-Western path to power in the modern age. But that is almost certainly an illusion that ignores essential differences between Russian and Chinese cultures. Hence Russia’s domestic dilemma today.
As Gorbachev understood, in the modern information age, the quality of human capital is more important than the quantity, and innovation requires incentives, not compulsion. That, in turn, entails a break with the traditional Russian state—a reconceptualization of the state—in which the state serves and empowers the people, economically and politically, so that they can generate the resources to defend the state. Gorbachev’s ultimate vision was the transformation of Soviet communism (an extreme version of the traditional Russian political system) into European social democracy, which would represent a new beginning. But Gorbachev failed to turn his insight into effective policy, and instead of enhancing Russian power, he destroyed the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s fate haunts the Kremlin leaders, as they seek to compete with the United States, China, and other existing and emerging powers. Instead of reconceptualizing the Russian state, they are advocating patriotism, loyalty to the state in its traditional guise, as the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy, as they crack down on political opposition and narrow the space for productive debate and new ideas. And, in the face of Western sanctions, they have turned to import substitution as the path to a competitive economy. But this has not, and will not, foster the innovation and creativity that are critical to modernization in the twenty-first century.
Russia’s rulers thus face a dilemma: they can preserve the traditional Russian state or restore Russia as a great power, but they cannot do both (even if a new kind of state does not guarantee great-power status, but only holds that possibility open). They have, however, decided to try to square the circle. That leaves Russia, as it is aware, in a vulnerable position, which it tries to mask through provocative rhetoric and actions to remind the world of Russian power and to convince its own people that Russia is on the rise again. It does not solve the problem.
RUSSIA—IN DECLINE and facing the fateful task of redefining itself—is not the burgeoning menace depicted in much American commentary. Any threat to the United States is limited and, if approached with confidence and calm, manageable. Even the challenge to the U.S.-led world order is an effort not so much to displace the United States as the global leader as to gain our respect. But dealing with threats should not be the only, or even the largest, part of our Russia policy. Despite the challenges it faces, Russia will remain a significant global power for years to come, and it will act alone or together with other states in ways that help advance or harm American interests. On some issue, such as strategic stability and nonproliferation, U.S.-Russian cooperation is essential. On others, such as security in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, Russian cooperation could ease our task.
For these reasons, in today’s turbulent, globalized world, containment cannot describe a productive Russia policy. But nor should a policy based on a search for grounds for cooperation be our goal. Rather, we need a policy that advances American national interests. That necessarily means that our policy will be a shifting mix of competition and cooperation, of resistance and accommodation, based on our interests and Russian actions. That mix will shift along with our interests and Russian actions. Getting the mix right will be critical. And that will entail modifying our traditional approach to the world, which tends to see other countries as partners or foes, describes issues in black-and-white terms, favors the resolution of issues over their management, urges dealing with issues in isolation from one another “on their own merits” rather than weighing the linkages across them, and refuses to set clear priorities in favor of operating against challenges throughout the world. We will need to make these adjustments in our approach to Russia, as well as to other major powers.
In addition, we need to see Russia in a global context. Today, we largely see it through a European prism, which inevitably magnifies the discord between us as we fall back on memories of the Cold War; nevertheless, that is appropriate, many would argue, for a country that is no longer a global power and poses the greatest challenges to us in Europe. But, if Russia is not a true global power, it is a Euro-Pacific power, and the roles it plays at the two ends of the continent carry different challenges and opportunities for the United States. In Northeast and Central Asia, for example, Russia could be a significant actor in forming flexible coalitions that we could use to channel the rise of China in ways that do not harm core American interests. In any event, it makes little sense to pursue policies in Europe that weaken Russia and drive it towards China, without thinking through ways we could mitigate the inevitable downsides in Asia of our policies in Europe. Similarly, we need to avoid allowing tensions in Europe to erode what has been up to this point fruitful cooperation in the Arctic and spark geopolitical competition in a harsh and fragile region that beckons us towards cooperation. In Europe, we cannot of course ignore Russia’s challenge. Much attention has been focused on reassuring our vulnerable NATO allies through raising the alliance’s military profile along Russia’s borders. That is necessary, but we need to avoid over militarizing our response, as we did during the Cold War. The best barrier to Russian expansion, as history shows, is strong, capable, successful states along its borders. In this light, we and our allies need to devote more effort to fixing the multiple political and socioeconomic ills that now plague Europe.
This approach lacks the clarity, moral and otherwise, that has been so prized by the American foreign policy community since the Second World War. But ambiguity is today’s reality, and the challenge before American statecraft is managing that ambiguity confidently to advance American interests. We will need time to grow accustomed to this new era and to develop the skills to master its challenges. Our task is complicated by the fact that we cannot look back to recent American diplomatic practice for guidance. The mentors we need are the great European statesmen of the nineteenth century, who understood the need for balance and limits combined with a sense of purpose and of the possible—as long as we reject their all-too-easy resort to force, which would be devastating given the destructive power of modern weaponry. But their ability to maneuver without losing their way while promoting their country’s interests is surely appropriate for today’s world. That approach should inform our policy to all major countries, and, given its recent behavior and the challenge its poses, there is no better place to start mastering this approach than in our relations with Russia.
Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, was senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council staff, 2004–07.
Image: A Russian military honor guard. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

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