The Real Russia. Today. Ukraine’s chances against the Russian military

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

International: Ukraine’s chances against Russia, (opinion) Igor Zevelev explains last week’s negotiations, a report on the Ryanair incident in Belarus, the Tokayev family’s real estate, (opinion) Michael Kimmage says NATO must shut its doors, (opinion) Rob Lee breaks down Moscow’s time horizon in Ukraine, (opinion) Thomas Graham wants to resolve Europe’s frozen conflicts, and (opinion) Andrey Kortunov says Moscow needs to study history and its frightened neighborsLaw and order: new prison torture videos, and Dmitry Muratov’s latest finesPublic policy: withdrawn vaccine passport legislation, and why Russian weddings aren’t funny


🛡️ Ukraine’s improved but still longshot odds of withstanding a full-fledged Russian invasion (10-min read)

After last week’s talks between Russia, the United States, and NATO led to no apparent breakthroughs on European security, speculation has resumed in the West that Moscow is preparing an expanded invasion of Ukraine that could begin at any time. The Kremlin denies any plans to attack Ukraine, but policymakers in Kyiv and Washington say the Russian military’s buildup near Ukraine’s borders suggests otherwise. Some experts in the West, including several former senior U.S. military personnel, now argue that the Ukrainian Army might be able to withstand a Russian onslaught, if it receives all feasible support from NATO. Hoping that is purely a thought experiment, Meduza reviews some of the theories about how a larger war between Russia and Ukraine could unfold.

🕊️ (Opinion) Political scientist Igor Zevelev breaks down Russia’s security talks with the U.S. and NATO (6-min read)

Russia’s week of security talks with the U.S., NATO, and the OSCE wrapped up on Thursday, January 13. The meetings took place amid ongoing international concern over Russia concentrating troops near its border with Ukraine. However, the talks didn’t result in any agreements, as each party refused to budge on key issues. Russia has demanded an array of security guarantees, including that NATO rule out membership for Ukraine and Georgia. But both the alliance and Washington insist that Moscow has no say in the matter. For Meduza, political scientist Igor Zevelev breaks down why this week’s talks failed to produce results and where there may be room for negotiations.

✈️ UN aviation agency releases fact-finding report on Ryanair incident in Belarus (5-min read)

The UN’s civil aviation agency has released its fact-finding report on the May 2021 diversion of a Ryanair passenger plane to Belarus. The Athens to Vilnius flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk after Belarusian dispatchers warned of an alleged bomb threat. Once the plane touched down, the Belarusian authorities promptly detained two of its passengers: Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and Russian national Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend. The arrests prompted an international scandal that resulted in European countries banning airlines from traveling through Belarusian airspace. According to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which obtained a copy of the fact-finding report, the investigation documents inconsistencies in the Belarusian authorities’ version of events, as well as their failure to comply with standard aviation procedures.

💰 Journalists trace real estate in Russia to Kazakhstani president’s ex-wife and son (5-min read)

Precious little is known about the immediate family of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But according to a recent investigation from RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time TV, Tokayev’s ex-wife and son are both closely connected to Russia. Indeed, according to media reports, Tokayev’s ex-wife is a Russian citizen. And both she and her son have been linked to pricey real estate in and around Moscow. More recently, their ownership of two apartments in the Russian capital appears to have been covered up in Russia’s federal property database.

🛡️ (Opinion) NATO should end its open-door policy before Eastern European ‘complexities’ drag it into a war with Russia

In an essay for Foreign Affairs, historian Michael Kimmage argues that NATO should abandoned its open-door policy, which he says renders the alliance’s eastern flank “incomprehensible.” Describing Eastern Europe as “the ruthless playground of empires, nation-states, and ethnicities,” Kimmage clarifies that NATO itself isn’t the cause of regional stability, though its “nonneutral presence” makes the alliance inseparable from this instability. The expansion of NATO under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush was based on two assumptions, says Kimmage: (1) the organization was “the best vehicle for guaranteeing European peace and security,” and (2) “the magnetic Western model” would attract Russia and others to Europe. Though NATO achieved wonders for midcentury Western Europe, the expanded alliance “operates entirely differently in Eastern Europe.”

Kimmage says Washington should lean more on the EU and economic statecraft in its future conflicts with Russia. The U.S. also needs to acknowledge that “Putin’s Russia […] is not going away any time soon,” which necessitates “attuning” NATO membership to Eastern Europe’s “complexities.” When dealing with Moscow (unless Russia attacks a NATO member), Washington should turn to “ad hoc coalitions with allies and partners instead of directly involving NATO.” Ending NATO expansion, he argues, “would be an act of self-defense for the alliance itself, giving it the gifts that greater limitation and greater clarity confer.”

🛡️ (Opinion) Russia’s ‘compellence strategy’ in Ukraine is based on the perceived costs of not acting

In a paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, military expert Rob Lee explains how Moscow pivoted from deterrence in Ukraine to a “compellence campaign.” Lee lists several recent events and broader “trend lines” that explain why Moscow has decided to mobilize against Ukraine now: (1) the Kremlin has come to believe that Ukrainian domestic politics prevents further progress in implementing existing peace agreements “without external pressure”; (2) Ukraine’s acquisition of Turkish TB2 UAVs constitutes encroachment by Ankara and shifts the balance of power between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas; (3) a TB2 strike against artillery in the Russian-occupied Donbas last October, Britain’s decision to send a naval frigate through Crimean territorial waters, and Washington’s accelerated weapons shipments to Kyiv were all “public embarrassments that tested Russia’s credibility” after a previous mobilization in the spring of 2021; and (4) Ukraine continues to strengthen its defensive capabilities, improving its own conventional deterrence.

Given today’s deadlock, “Russia has concluded that Ukraine will remain a hostile neighbor for the foreseeable future” and eventually acquire long-range missiles that could threaten Russian cities. These calculations raise Moscow’s perceived costs of not acting, says Lee.

Clarifying that “a large-scale invasion is not Russia’s only course of action as part of a compellence campaign,” Lee offers competing reasons for the likelihood of both aggressive and more restrained strategies. For example, Russian forces’ current posture “points to a ground invasion towards the Ukrainian capital” that might “threaten the survival of the Ukrainian state,” but Moscow also has reasons to limit its objectives and use less force. Russia’s need to exact major political concessions from Kyiv makes aggressive options “more likely,” but compellence that falls short of occupying forces (such as planned withdrawals or artillery and missile strikes) would likely (1) “not incur the maximum response from NATO” and (2) reduce the chances that domestic public opinion turns against the Kremlin.

As policy advice for the United States, Lee suggests that Washington could try to deter Russian assaults on Ukraine by threatening to deliver the same long-range missiles or missile defense systems to the Baltic countries that Moscow wants to prevent in Kyiv. This could potentially “negate whatever security benefits [Moscow] hopes to achieve by escalating in Ukraine,” says Lee.

🛡️ (Opinion) NATO should suspend enlargement while Europe settles its frozen conflicts

In an interview with Elena Chernenko at Kommersant, former National Security Council senior director for Russia Thomas Graham argues that the United States should be ready to “discuss the problem of NATO expansion.” Graham points out that last week’s supposedly failed talks between Moscow and the West were in fact designed merely to familiarize both sides with each other’s core positions (not to reach a final compromise), meaning that the meetings weren’t necessarily a disaster. He advocates a 20–25-year moratorium on further NATO expansion, arguing that this period would be long enough to allow Moscow to claim victory and simultaneously let America say that it upheld the alliance’s open-door principle.

Graham says another key to any breakthrough on European security and stability is addressing the continent’s frozen conflicts not just in Ukraine but also in Kosovo, Transnistria, and the Caucasus. He proposes referendums in these areas, controlled and monitored by “international structures” and regulated by “a series of political and technical agreements.” These plebiscites could enable the “amicable divorce” that’s eluded Europe for decades. (Graham says he expects Kosovo would vote for independence, Crimea would vote to remain inside Russia, and he isn’t sure what the people of the Donbas would do.)

Reflecting on strategic thinking in Moscow, Graham says Russia’s geographic position makes it “critically important what happens on its borders,” driving the nation’s leaders to seek buffer zones at its periphery. Washington worries that Russia will inevitably violate the rights and interests of the states in its supposed buffer zone, but the United States is also an “expansionist power,” admits Graham, arguing that “these two types of expansionist impulses” are now clashing in Europe. He says the final result of negotiations between Moscow and the West should be a new dividing line in Europe. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he argues, adding that America’s allies must be consulted actively throughout this process (though “the countries that bear the main responsibility for security in Europe should be the key negotiators”).

🛡️ (Opinion) For its own sake and everyone else’s, Moscow needs to exercise the restraint that eluded the West

In an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov cautions the Kremlin against the “uncompromising” “shock therapy” that the West adopted in the aftermath of its Cold War victory. Policymakers in Moscow, he says, are eager to punish the West diplomatically and to disrupt Western security wherever possible as retribution for Washington’s refusal to make concessions in Eastern Europe. This would repeat NATO’s “tragic mistake” and perpetuate a “vicious circle,” Kortunov says.

The biggest priority today in Russian-U.S. relations is clearly separating strategic weapons issues from disagreements about European security. (Negotiations on nuclear bombs, he explains, are simply too important to the world to link them to other problems.)

Kortunov argues that the current hopelessness of bridging the fundamental disagreements between Moscow and the West means it is even more imperative that both sides take steps to make the confrontation stabler and more predictable. Regarding Russia’s concerns about NATO’s expansion to its western borders, “it would be logical to focus on this infrastructure and not on the theoretical possibility of NATO expansion itself,” says Kortunov. Moscow should also confront the reality that its neighbors are running to NATO, not the other way around. To reduce the pressure on the West to respond to these overtures, Russia should “focus on finding alternative mechanisms for ensuring the security of the countries in its ‘common neighborhood’” that will lower states’ desperation to join NATO.

Law and order

📼 Human rights group releases video showing abuse in Omsk prisons (The footage was apparently recorded in November 2021. Last month, Russian lawmakers drafted legislation that would raise penalties on state officials convicted of torturing prison inmates.)

⚖️ Moscow court fines Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov and Novaya Gazeta over missing ‘prohibited organization’ disclaimer (add this to several fines imposed on Muratov and his newspaper in November 2021 for failing to identify several “foreign agents”)

Public policy

🛂 Russian lawmakers withdraw controversial vaccine pass bill from consideration (despite a surge in Omicron coronavirus infections, the measure was both unpopular and potentially damaging to the economy)

👰 Head of Rostov’s civil registration office explains why ‘loud laughter’ is prohibited during wedding ceremonies (Olga Isaenko chides journalists for reporting a ban on any laughter at all, though she also insists in very proper and upstanding terms that there’s nothing funny about getting married)

Yours, Meduza


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