It is debatable whether the US–Russian agreement for deterring terrorists will actually work.
The fifth Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), which met on 26–28 April 2016, made clear that Russian policymakers may want to restore relations with the West, but only if Western leaders change their policies and thinking to accord better with Russian preferences. The Russian speakers, which included the country’s senior national security leadership, called for more cooperation against common threats, especially international terrorism, but insisted that various Western policies inhibited such reconciliation. The Russian presenters also provided details of the Russian military operation in Syria and an assessment of global terrorism threats.
The Russian military operation in Syria has proved surprisingly successful. But Russia lacks strong regional partners in the Middle East besides the Syrian government and Iran, is an energy competitor and unattractive economic partner of many Middle Eastern countries, has complex relations with Israel and potential Western partners, and cannot easily replicate the Syrian military intervention in any other location. Even in Syria, the problem of international terrorism has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, Russian relations with NATO remain frozen over Ukraine, despite the incentives to cooperate against terrorism and other regional security challenges.
Mixed Messages to the West
According to deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov, whose team organised the conference, nearly 700 delegates from over 80 countries attended the event—including 52 official military delegations and 19 foreign defence ministers. NATO governments again declined to participate at the official level, though some military attachés came informally. Although NATO governments participated in the first two of these conferences, which began in 2012, they started boycotting them in April 2014, when NATO suspended military exchanges with Russia over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Even so, Russian government speakers addressed many of their remarks to Western audiences, though most of the attendees came from Russian official or non-governmental organisations, or non-Western governments. Unlike previous sessions, when the conference focused on highlighting a particular Russian concern about Western security policies (missile defences, NATO enlargement, alleged promotion of “colour” revolutions, etc.), the tone at this year’s conference, whose central theme was the fight against terrorism, was more measured. For example, president Vladimir Putin sent a message to attendees renewing his call, first made at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly last September, for a broad-based global coalition, based on international law and the authority of the United Nations, against international terrorism.
Sergei Makarov, head of the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, argued that NATO and Moscow needed to cooperate more since they faced common threats. “It’s inappropriate to talk about European and Russian security separately, as if we were at opposite poles … We have not had ideological barriers between us for a long time but there are growing common threats and dangers.” (All quotes come from Russian government news sources, including similar stories in Interfax, Tass, Sputnik and RIA Novosti.) Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Alexander Grushko, insisted that NATO and the EU needed Moscow’s partnership to deal with transnational threats like terrorism and migration: “Not a single organisation is able to create islands of security on its own”.
In his keynote address, defence minister Sergei Shoigu reflected the nuanced, mixed messaging on Russian–NATO relations. On the one hand, he praised their cooperation regarding Syria. Shoigu said that “Our bilateral agreements on the prevention of incidents in the airspace are working, the military structures responsible for the reconciling the parties are interacting”. He noted that, as members of the UN Security Council, Russia and the United States bore special responsibility for countering global threats like international terrorism. However, Shoigu added that, while Moscow had proposed closer collaboration to the United States, “the ball is in Washington’s court” since Moscow had yet to receive a positive response.
Other Russian speakers developed this negative line about the West. For example, they still claimed that NATO was behaving aggressively and denying Russia’s call for equal and indivisible security in Europe. Shoigu noted that the first NATO–Russia Council (NRC) meeting in two years, which occurred on 20 April at the level of permanent representatives, ended without major achievement or even a date for a next session; he told the conference that the meeting did not inspire confidence that concrete military cooperation between Russia and NATO—which the Alliance had suspended on 1 April 2014 over the Ukraine issue—would resume anytime soon: “The situation in this field is deplorable. Russia’s cooperation with the NATO and EU countries remains frozen not through our fault.”
These comments should not have been surprising given the pessimistic assessment the Russian foreign ministry offered shortly after the NRC meeting:
Despite the fact that NATO clearly manifested its inability to go beyond politicised intra-bloc positions during the discussions, and all-too-known attempts by individual NATO members to discredit the RNC, we still regard it as a useful channel for holding consultations between NATO and Russia on key security issues.
We will carefully review the results of the meeting. With regard to our further contacts and the level of intensity of political dialogue with NATO, we will be based strictly on NATO’s willingness to maintain equal cooperation and account for Russia’s national interests.
We hope that NATO will be able to muster its political will and demonstrate a truly responsible approach towards establishing a systemic interaction with our country.
Furthermore, Shoigu accused the West of waging a “harsh and uncompromising information war” against Russia by fabricating stories that Moscow threatened European countries, which justified strengthening NATO’s military deterrent, while he claimed that in reality it was the West that was threatening Russia by enlarging the Alliance, augmenting its defence capacity, and moving its military infrastructure eastwards. Although Shoigu said that “we are against an arms race,” NATO’s actions were compelling Moscow “into taking proportionate military and military-technical countermeasures”. The head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha, also complained that NATO was increasing its military activities, such as surveillance flights and troop rotations, in the vicinity of Russia and Belarus. According to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov,
What we see on the NATO Eastern flank is the continuous rotation of US troops and the troops of its allies, almost daily military exercises, and the construction of new military infrastructure. Taken together, these steps are inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the NATO–Russia Founding Act and alter the military and political landscape in a major way, especially in north-eastern Europe, making it an area of heightened tension instead of a peaceful and stable area in the military sense, which it was only recently.
Beyond Europe, the Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, claimed that unnamed countries were still promoting “coloured” revolutions. Antonov said that one of the themes of the conference was “the danger of using terrorists to achieve political goals and the fact that there are no ‘good’ terrorists”. In another indirect criticism of the United States, Lavrov warned that
It is imperative to learn all our lessons and say no to the actions and policy decisions that have sent the Middle East and North Africa in a downward spiral to overall degradation with still unclear outcomes. This concerns recognising, not only in words, but in real politics, the cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world and the right of nations to determine their own destiny, without any foreign-imposed recipes or values. Otherwise, extremists will continue to recruit their supporters peddling violence as the only way to uphold their identity for the peoples who are not at the top of global rankings.
Furthermore, Lavrov said that “It is imperative to resolutely stop trying to use terrorist groups as a tool in fighting for a place in the new regional balance of power, or for settling scores with a regime that fell out of someone’s grace”.
The Middle East Mess
The Russian speakers rightly boasted about Moscow’s military success in Syria. The intervention led by the Russian Aerospace Forces, which began at the end of September, has been surprisingly successful—a textbook example of the application of limited military power for attainable goals. With few Russian casualties, the Russian forces saved the Assad government from likely defeat last year and have made Moscow an indispensable player in the Syrian peace process. Lavrov termed the cooperation between Russia, the United States and other countries on the Syrian issue as “an advance towards implementing Russian president Vladimir Putin’s initiative to create a broad-based antiterrorist front, which he addressed to the UN General Assembly”.
This is a more favourable assessment of Russian–US cooperation over the Syrian situation than many observers would have offered. Washington was displeased that Moscow was allowing the Syrian government to violate the 27 February truce agreement to attack pro-Western insurgents fighting against the regime led by president Bashar Al-Assad, especially around Aleppo. The High Negotiations Committee, the main Syrian opposition group, withdrew from the Geneva talks seeking to negotiate a more durable end to the fighting, partly because the Russian government persists in treating its key members, such the Ahrar Al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, as terrorists excluded from the February ceasefire. Sergei Afanasyev, deputy head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), told the conference that these groups were attacking “both government forces and members of the moderate opposition which has joined the peace process. In many cases, this happens thanks to the double standards of certain countries, who attempt to use jihadists to overthrow Bashar [Al-]Assad’s regime.”
Other Russian speakers emphasised the imperative of addressing the broader global terrorist threat. Afanasyev warned that Russian military intelligence estimated that Daesh had deployed 33,000 fighters in the Middle East (14,000 in Syria and 19,000 in Iraq), and that these units were equipped with substantial heavy weaponry, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems. He warned that Daesh was in the process of destabilising Libya, was infiltrating hundreds of fighters into Europe every year, and was preparing to expand its operations in Africa.
Manoeuvring in Central and South Asia
The alarm the Russian speakers expressed about Afghanistan at previous conferences had not abated on this occasion. Afanasyev warned about extremist groups exploiting the region’s ethnic, sectarian and other fault lines centred on Afghanistan. He was particularly worried about how Hizb ut-Tahrir, Laskhar-e-Tayba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other extremist groups were aligning under the banner of the Islamic State, fielding a force of what the GRU assessed to be around 4,500 fighters. Shoigu said: “We are paying particular attention in this context to the alarming situation in Central Asia and the development of negative influence from terrorist threats from Afghanistan”. Kyrgyz Armed Forces Chief of General Staff, Colonel Zhanybek Kaparov, warned that militant groups based in Afghanistan, which include nationals from former Soviet bloc states, might enter Central Asian countries this spring and summer if they were driven northward by an Afghan government offensive.
To deal with this problem, Shoigu said that the Russian defence ministry wanted Moscow’s CSTO allies to have advanced weapons and equipment to make them into “compact and highly mobile armies … capable of reliably and effectively resisting challenges and threats to national security”. He called on the Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to promote regional stability as well as those countries’ own security. He also argued that strengthening the military component of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—whose members include Russia, China and several Central Asian countries—“would meet common interests”. Shoigu recalled that the Russian defence ministry had proposed creating an institute of national military advisers within the SCO framework.
CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha said there was a need for “consolidation around the countries that have proven to be honest and unselfish fighters against terrorism, who have the potential for global work on the anti-terrorist track”. Bordyuzha, a former Russian general, proposed further intensifying cooperation between his organisation and the SCO, and between Russia and China, against international terrorist movements. Lavrov likewise advocated that “enhanced cooperation among China, India and Pakistan within regional organisations, particularly the CSTO and SCO, where Afghanistan and all its neighbours are represented in various roles, should play a special role in overcoming the challenges and security threats emanating from Afghanistan”. Furthermore, Bordyuzha advocated a broader framework to include “more coordination among a set of other organisations in their respective regions, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the African Union (AU)”. Bordyuzha proposed that the first mission of this network, whose activities would be coordinated by the United Nations, would be “to compile a common list of terrorist groups, which all involved countries should take measures to neutralise”.
In a further step in their strengthening security relationship, Russia and Afghanistan took advantage of the presence at the conference of acting Afghan defence minister Masoom Stanikzai to establish a bilateral military-technical cooperation committee and pursue expanded defence collaboration to include possible intelligence sharing and the training of more Afghan military personnel in Russia. They also discussed joint measures to counter terrorism and trafficking. Zamir Kabulov, the Russian government’s special envoy on Afghanistan, called the current format of the Afghan peace talks—which involve only the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States—inefficient, but added that Moscow might join a more inclusive structure.
The improving relationship between Pakistan and Russia was in evidence when the visiting Pakistan defence minister, Khawaja Asif, told the Russian media that he saw Moscow as “playing the leading role in the stabilisation of the Mideast and Central Asia regions”. Asif said that, besides cooperating on regional security threats and global terrorism, Pakistan also wanted to buy military helicopters, warplanes, tanks and air-defence equipment from Russia. Any purchases would build on their November 2014 defence cooperation agreement and the August 2015 contract for the sale of four Russian Mi-35M transport and attack helicopters to Pakistan.
Asia-Pacific: China and Beyond
Chinese State Councillor and defence minister Chang Wanquan spoke about the dangerous spread of international terrorism. He joined the Russian speakers in calling for a broad global coalition, based on mutual respect and ideological coexistence in line with international law and under the auspices of the UN Security Council, that respected the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the participating countries. These in turn should, in his view, employ a comprehensive approach involving diplomatic, economic, political, cultural and other means to counter terrorism. Chang also mirrored Moscow’s view in denouncing double standards, actions directed against a certain nationality or religion, interference in other countries’ internal affairs and pursuit of unilateral benefits at the expense of global security. In addition to affirming the readiness of the Chinese military to combat terrorism at home and abroad, Chang cited the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” initiative as a means of advancing regional security through international development.
Although North Korea did not attend this year’s conference, its nuclear programme was very much on everyone’s mind. In his presentation, Lavrov called on North Korea to refrain from irresponsible actions and abandon its illusions of being recognised as a nuclear-weapons state. However, he cautioned the US and its allies that Moscow saw their desire to exploit “this situation as a pretext for augmenting their military presence in Northeast Asia as extremely dangerous and counterproductive”.
In his speech to the conference, Vietnamese defence minister Ngo Xuan Lich backed Russia’s assumption of a more prominent role in Asia-Pacific affairs, including trade and economic ties as well as security issues. Shoigu and the heads of the military delegations from the ten ASEAN countries held a separate meeting on the sidelines, building on Moscow’s existing ASEAN-based multilateral security engagement through the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+). Shoigu said that the participants developed plans for expanded cooperation in such areas as counterterrorism, maritime security, natural disaster relief, military medicine and clearance of unexploded ordnance. Nonetheless, the Russian representatives at the conference kept their formal comments on Asian security to a minimum, perhaps seeking to hide the differences between China and some of its neighbours.
The conference confirmed the widespread recognition of Russia’s importance for international security. Whether they see Russia as a threat or a partner, other countries cannot ignore its military power. Nonetheless, Russian foreign policy is generally constrained by limited non-military means. President Obama once correctly characterised Russia as a regional power with global ambitions but not many global capabilities. Moscow’s power is great in the former Soviet Union, where other republics rely heavily on Russian energy and media outlets and face overwhelming Russian conventional military power along their borders.
But Moscow’s influence is heavily constrained in the rest of Europe due to the superior power resources of NATO and the EU, in the Middle East due to regional turbulence and Russia’s weak local partners, and in Asia due to China’s overwhelming presence and power. In other regions, such as Africa and South America, Russia has limited military power projection capabilities and must rely on the entertaining but discredited Russian media, a Russian economy based on depreciating energy exports, and its UN Security Council veto, which other actors can circumvent.
Even in Syria, Russia faces the same challenge as everyone else in securing an enduring military victory or peace settlement given the large number of internal and external parties and their diverse interests and capabilities. Unlike during the Cold War, even a comprehensive peace deal between Moscow and Washington would likely fail to apply given the refusal of the terrorists to accept it and the incentives for the other parties to treat any agreement as a temporary opportunity to rearm before the next round of combat.