The Real Russia. Today. Russian forces arrive in Belarus

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

OSINT evidence of Russian troops arriving in Belarus, and a proposal to recognize the Donbas separatistsOpinions on Russia’s military options in Europe: Sergey Karaganov says Ukraine is an unwelcome distraction, and Pavel Luzin and Pavel Podvig think Moscow could deploy intermediate-range missiles if diplomacy failsOpinions on lessons for 2022: Andrey Sushentsov says overreach has caught up to interventionist states, and Olena Lennon wants Kyiv to learn from Armenian war optimismRussian politics: new investigative report on the daughter of Putin’s cousin, and TIME interviews Navalny

📍 Troops spotted near the border with Ukraine as Russian forces arrive in Belarus for joint military drills (3-min read)

The “Allied Resolve” joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus are underway. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on Wednesday, January 19, that Russian forces have begun to arrive in Belarus for the first phase of the maneuvers, which will last until February 9. The second phase will run from February 10–20. According to open-source reports, Russian troops and hardware have already been spotted within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the Belarusian border with Ukraine. Taking place against the backdrop of a flurry of diplomatic talks, the military exercises have further stoked international fears that Moscow is planning to launch an attack on Ukraine. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov insisted on Wednesday that the drills are not cause for concern.

🏆 Communist Party submits draft resolution to State Duma on raising issue of Russia recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’ (This was one of KPRF’s election promises. The bill emphasizes Russia’s past and present involvement in the regions, including deliveries of “humanitarian aid.”)

Opinions on Moscow’s options

🌏 NATO’s malign influence is distracting Moscow from preparations for the ‘Asian Century’

In an interview with Argumenty & Fakty, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy head Sergey Karaganov argues that Moscow has no interest in occupying Ukraine (especially after all the damage U.S. control has supposedly inflicted on the country), though he warns that NATO’s influence “aggravates the worst elements in political and social moods” and drives members “insane,” like it has Poland and the Baltic states, he says. Left unchecked, the alliance could transform Ukraine into the “main engine of anti-Russian politics in Europe.”

Karaganov says Ukraine is inescapably a “buffer” between Russia and the West, and Kyiv’s alignment “either separates us from potential Western aggressors or it’s used to pressure us.” While he acknowledges the Kremlin’s security concerns, Karaganov also describes today’s crisis as an unfortunate distraction from Russia’s greater priorities in the East. In fact, he predicts that Moscow might even enjoy friendly relations with the West again, in a decade or so, once the Ukraine issue is settled and Moscow needs to address its growing “imbalance” with China. “We could use a peaceful, quiet western flank,” says Karaganov, albeit stressing that Western culture must first save itself from the perils of liberal decadence.

Additionally, Karaganov expresses worries about recent political unrest in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, which he says will accelerate Russia’s need to intervene in failing post-Soviet states, probably “collecting” new territories. Like in Ukraine, this will divert Moscow’s time and resources from the more important work of domestic development, especially in Siberia and “Russian Asia,” where he sees the next century unfolding.

🕊️ Russian diplomatic ‘flexibility’ means a deal in Europe might still be possible despite Moscow’s ultimatum

In an op-ed for The Insider, political analyst Pavel Luzin argues that Moscow’s diplomacy owes its special rhetorical style to the fact that Russian diplomats wield almost no influence on Russian foreign policy. The political leadership’s “monopoly” on decision-making paradoxically adds flexibility to Russian negotiations because the Kremlin can shift quickly from “exhausting intransigence” to “broad conciliatory gestures for the sake of important agreements.” At the same time, Moscow is willing to use “destructive” diplomatic tactics that sabotage its own Foreign Ministry.

Luzin says the Kremlin apparently believes that it’s diplomatic outreach to the West is now enough to “save face internationally” while moving forward with its threats of a “military-technical” response. Moscow’s options here, says Luzin, include (1) deploying intermediate-range missiles that could target anywhere in Europe, (2) openly declaring Russia’s presence in the Donbas as a “humanitarian mission,” protected by the large concentration of troops inside Russia, and (3) establishing a full-fledged Russian military base in Belarus to exert greater pressure on Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states.

Though Moscow could pursue any of these options, Luzin says the Kremlin might yet settle for new agreements on arms control that would bolster Russia’s international status without requiring any real concessions.

🚀 Moscow’s ‘military-technical’ response options are limited and not great

In an article for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russian Nuclear Forces Project director Pavel Podvig argues that the most likely “qualitative change” Moscow would make in Europe is to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching anywhere on the continent. This is a “military-technical response” that is both “possible and dangerous, even if eventually counterproductive,” he says, though it “might require” the Kremlin to acknowledge reluctantly that it developed these missiles in violation of the INF Treaty.

Podvig dismisses other options for Russia has ineffective escalations, such as (1) rolling out “wonder weapons” like hypersonic missiles that are already “known quantities” in the European context, (2) deploying non-strategic nukes closer to operational units, and (3) deploying nuclear weapons abroad (he says this dramatic departure from long-standing policy would be a bad trade for “uncertain gains”).

If the Kremlin decides to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could be targeted at Europe, it will turn to what was known as the “RS-26 Rubezh.” Unlike during the Cold War, says Podvig, the West would have “limited abilities to respond in kind,” given the political infeasibility of deploying new nuclear weapons in Europe. But Podvig warns that new Russian missile deployments would nevertheless fail to improve the nation’s security, leaving Moscow without a slam-dunk “military-technical” option.

Opinions on lessons for 2022

📅 2022 will be more predictable but it will also be tense

Valdai Discussion Club program director Andrey Sushentsov says “international processes” have become more predictable in 2022, which allows leaders to prepare better, though more tensions around the world are what they should expect. The year’s main trends are (1) confrontation between the U.S. and China, and possibly Russia, (2) the “search for a new balance in Europe,” and (3) the “restructuring of the Central Asian and South Caucasus space.” Sushentsov blames Kyiv’s “irresponsible politics,” Europe’s failure to develop new principles for continental security (the Old World’s “vacation from strategic thinking”), and NATO expansion for creating a crisis in Ukraine.

In Central Asia, Sushentsov says the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan changed the configuration of power across the region. He singles out Turkey’s role in the former conflict as a major event, though he suggests that Ankara may have overextended itself and alienated its allies, while simultaneously facing growing domestic problems.

Sushentsov concludes his 2022 predictions by guessing that the year’s apparent trends will lead to (1) less regime building by interventionist states and (2) major international powers shifting more attention to “national traditions, interests, and elite thinking.”

Ukraine should learn from Armenia’s defeat, not hope for an Azerbaijani-style breakthrough

In an article for PONARS Eurasia, political scientist Olena Lennon challenges the “perceived parallelism” between the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and Ukraine’s current standoff with Russia, which she warns is based on “self-validating conclusions and flawed analogies.” At the same time, Lennon says Kyiv can draw on the “tragic lesson of Armenian war optimism” — “strategic miscalculations” and “security delusions” that she attributes to (1) fixation on previous military victories, (2) “idealistic nationalism” and “groupthink,” and (3) “overreliance on international support.”

Noting Kyiv’s purchase of Turkish-made combat drones, Lennon says improved Ukrainian military readiness and capabilities are nevertheless “unlikely to alter Russia’s strategic decision-making at this time,” which she says is “in a self-imposed rush to change the status quo by military means.”

The Ukrainian government’s cultivation of “a culture of personal vendettas, nepotism, and fear of persecution” comes “at the expense of meaningful reforms and national security priorities,” which also aggravates Western dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s “perceived lack of progress in implementing Western-backed reforms and fighting corruption.”

Russian politics

💰 Anna Tsivilyova is not only married to a regional governor. She’s also related to Putin and owns a major stake in one of Russia’s biggest coal companies. (3-min read)

Anna Tsivilyova, the wife of the governor of Russia’s Kemerovo region, happens to be the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cousin, according to a new report from the investigative outlet Agentstvo. What’s more, according to the journalists’ findings, she and her husband acquired a major stake in one of Russia’s biggest coal companies thanks to the generosity of one of Putin’s oldest friends — billionaire Gennady Timchenko. Though the coal company, Kolmar, had financial troubles in the past, it has since been propped up by the Russian government.

✍️ TIME interviews Alexey Navalny in prison

TIME journalist Simon Shuster obtained a rare interview (conducted in a series of handwritten letters) with imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. In the correspondence, Navalny criticized the Biden administration’s decision to engage Vladimir Putin on European security. Navalny says the Kremlin’s “extreme measures” (“all these wars,” both real and virtual) are Putin’s means of “consolidating the country and the elites.” What the Russian president “truly fears,” Navalny told Shuster, is “space for democratic dissent” both at home and along Russia’s border.

Navalny urges the U.S. to “pressure the Kremlin” instead of “convening talks or offering concessions.” The aim of Western sanctions against Russian billionaires, he explains, is not to get them to reason with Putin but to “pressure them to turn against him.” Shuster says Navalny’s letters “seem almost impatient for Putin’s Russia to degrade into an absolute dictatorship, because that would raise the risk of regime collapse.” Asked about the possibility of violent political upheaval in Russia, Navalny told Shuster, “Our path was never strewn with roses.”

In the article, Shuster also reports that Navalny’s remaining team (working in exile from Vilnius) “now openly calls for political backing from foreign governments and solicits money from private donors.” The Russian authorities’ decision to designate the organization as a “foreign agent” last year “untied” the activists’ hands, chief aide Leonid Volkov told Shuster. The “resulting windfall from such donors” helped pay for the team’s “new bases of operation in Eastern Europe.” Lithuania, for one, has been happy to host. “Our history obliges us to welcome such people,” Vytautas Landsbergis, modern Lithuania’s founding father, told TIME.

Yours, Meduza


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