Tag Archives: CSIS

Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

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Not so doomed: Russia in 2018

‘Russia is doomed’ is a common refrain of newspaper articles and think tank reports. It is quite refreshing, therefore, to read something which while not entirely optimistic about Russia’s immediate future is nonetheless a little more circumspect. A new report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), entitled 2018 Security Outlook: Risks and Threats, aims ‘to explore the drivers influencing the security risks and potential threats related to specific regions of the world and themes by the year 2018.’ According to the introduction, ‘five leading global thinkers were commissioned’ to write about China, the Middle East, Russia, weapons of mass destruction, and ‘state power and cyber power’. CSIS doesn’t reveal who these ‘leading global thinkers’ are, but the one responsible for the chapter on Russia has produced 15 pages of sober analysis without any of the hyperbole normally associated with the subject.

The chapter begins by noting that ‘Pessimism characterises much Western analysis of Russian futures,’ and states that ‘the consensus appears to be that the future is alarming.’ However, it then lays out a far less negative picture, stating at the end of the introductory segment that ‘the [Russian] government’s long term family development and transport policies have shown some sign of success … Serious health problems … have substantially declined … [and immigration] is likely to sustain Russian population growth.’

After this, the chapter discusses three so-called ‘mega-trends’ which will determine Russia’s condition in 2018.

The first mega-trend is the economy. The chapter states that Russia ‘faces a wide range of problems’, and that security concerns are having an ever greater influence on economic policy. This is resulting in greater defence spending, import substitution, and increased Kremlin ‘control over macroeconomic policy.’ The chapter suggests that there is considerable ‘potential for at least the partial reversal of either liberalisation [or] international integration.’ Nevertheless, it concludes that these factors are unlikely to substantially alter the trajectory of the Russian economy, which ‘is more likely to slowly adapt to the adverse environment.’ The economy will probably move ‘firmly into positive territory in 2017 with growth of 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent in 2018.’

The second mega-trend is Russian domestic politics. The report says that the ruling United Russia party will probably do well in the forthcoming Duma elections. Although minor changes in personnel in the government are likely in the next two years, major changes in Russian politics are not. Theoretically, terrorism and social protest could produce significant changes in the political environment, but in practice are most unlikely to do so. The chapter therefore concludes that, ‘despite potential influences, the push and shove of political life, and some contradictions within the system, the main trend in Russian domestic politics is one of evolving consolidation.’

The third mega-trend is ‘Russia on the world stage.’ The chapter notes that Russia would like to improve its relations with the West and ‘there are strong lobbies, particularly in continental Europe, who seek to stabilise relations with Russia.’ But there are too many points of contention between Russia and the West to permit the two sides to draw closer together in the near future. In the face of ‘considerable turbulence and insecurity’ brought about by ‘Western regime change operations’ and ‘increasing competition between states over resources and values’, Russia will continue to act assertively to defend its interests. The chapter concludes that ‘the Russian leadership shows little sign of softening its position, even under economic duress. Quite to the contrary … Russia responded not by changing course, but by reinforcing it.’

Since 2014, Western policy has been to sanction Russia in an effort to undermine its economy, weaken its political leadership, and encourage a change in Russian foreign policy. If the analysis in the CSIS report is correct, none of these objectives are likely to be achieved. By 2018, the Russian economy will once again be growing; the ‘Putin regime’ will have further consolidated its power; and Russia will still be pursuing an independent line in defence of its interests. The CSIS report does not draw any policy conclusions – that is not the role of intelligence agencies – but the conclusions seem fairly clear: current Western policy is failing and will probably continue to fail; a new policy is needed.

CSIS misses the mark

This seems to be the season for reports about Russia. Hot on the footsteps of the Bow Group report last week, another volume has just landed in my mail box – a booklet from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entitled Russia and the West: The Consequences of Renewed Rivalry. The report (which is available online) is a summary of a workshop held by CSIS’s Academic Outreach program. As the workshop was held under Chatham House rules, and as I wasn’t invited to the event, I can’t tell whose opinions are reflected in the document (though I could make some guesses). Also, the fact that what were probably 30-40 minute presentations have been reduced to 2-3 page summaries means a lot of sweeping generalizations and broad brush conclusions without much substantiation. As a result, the report is of limited use. Nevertheless, it does show what advice the academic community is giving government agencies in the West about Russia.

Some of it, such as the sections on the Russian intelligence community, business and politics in Russia, and the effects of sanctions, is o.k. Others parts are less sensible. The overall tone of the report is negative, putting the entire blame for current tensions in Russia-West relations, as well as for the war in Ukraine, on Russia. In the chapter on the Ukrainian conflict, there is a brief spark of recognition that things may be a bit more complicated than normally depicted, with a statement that, ‘Ukraine’s non-compliance with the [Minsk] agreement has now become glaringly obvious’, but this is little more than a blip in the general narrative.

This is clear from the first paragraph of the Executive Summary which states that after becoming president in 2012, ‘Instead of emphasising diplomatic initiatives, Putin introduced a comprehensive narrative of grievance which rejected post-World War Two security principles, revived traditional Russian imperialistic themes, and promoted an aggressive interpretation of Russia’s status’. Next, the chapter ‘Russia’s Self-Image and its Consequences’ states the following:

There is a clear historical link between Russia’s top-down form of government and Moscow’s imperial record. … That understanding includes the presumed right and need to dominate neighbouring regions. … What we have today is a set of legally protected myths which glorify the past. Stalin and the Great Fatherland War are its core elements. … The reality of rule by a narrow, self-interested and in part nervous cabal is by now imperfectly concealed. … Russian decision-makers have insisted with increasing vehemence that their principal antagonist is indeed the West. … It is hard for Western observers to grasp the meaning of such hollow narcissism. … Does Moscow really not understand why so many of its neighbours are afraid of it? … The logic of Russian policy is that the Kremlin should impose its rule by proxy on Kyiv. … Putin’s Kremlin is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage.

This reflects a common Western perception that autocratic, or at least imperfectly democratic, states are more aggressive than liberal democratic (i.e. Western) ones. And yet, most scholars who have studied the subject believe that while democracies rarely if ever fight each other, they are not in fact any less aggressive than other regime types. Martin Malia convincingly showed in his book Russia under Western Eyes that Russophobia in the West has rarely had any relation to the actual threat Russia has posed. When Russian leaders’ domestic policies have been viewed favourably, Western commentators have turned a blind eye to Russian imperialism, but when its leaders have been viewed as tyrannical, the West has vastly exaggerated the Russian danger to its security. Thus, public opinion in the West was vehemently anti-Russian during the reign of Nicholas I, even though Nicholas refrained from aggressive military actions, but it was very pro-Russian during the reign of Catherine the Great (perceived as an enlightened ruler) even though Russia expanded enormously. The idea that centralized and autocratic rule makes Russia a threat is without solid basis in fact.

Next, the idea that Stalin is a central part of Russia’s contemporary self-image is somewhat bizarre. Certainly, the Great Patriotic War plays an important role in Russian identity (as indeed does the Second World War in some Western nations), but Russians aren’t all neo-Stalinists. As for Russia’s alleged ‘hollow narcissism’, this charge is not entirely without foundation – Russian fears of Western hostility are, I believe, exaggerated, and there is a tendency for Russians to think that Western actions are directed against them when they are not. But there are some good reasons for it. Take, for instance, NATO’s proposed European anti-ballistic shield. I tend to the view that NATO planners really do see this as protecting Europe against Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles, and not as a tool against Russia. But I fully understand why Russians don’t agree. After all, the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist. Accepting NATO’s claims means accepting that its leaders live in strange fantasy world. It’s easier to believe that they are rational, in which case, the anti-missile shield must have an alternative target, i.e. Russia. Russian fears do have some foundation. And while it is true that Russia’s rulers do not seem to realise how their actions in Ukraine might frighten some Europeans, this report makes it very clear that many in the West are equally incapable of seeing how Western actions might frighten Russia. This lack of self-awareness, on both sides of the Russian-Western divide, is a major cause of current tensions.

Finally, the claim that the Kremlin ‘is trying to force Russia into a mould that rejects its European heritage,’ is not untypical of comments in recent months which like to emphasize Russia’s alleged ‘turn to the East’, the supposed influence of Eurasianism, Putin’s increasing conservatism, and so on. But it is a huge exaggeration. The fact that Russia is trying to increase its ties with its Asian neighbours does not in any way mean that it wishes to cut its ties with Europe. On the contrary, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and others have made it clear that this is not their intention. Moreover, Russia’s ‘European heritage’ is a cultural phenomenon which runs so deep that rejecting it is simply impossible.

The report’s final chapter concludes that ‘the relationship [between Russia and the West] is going to be cold, unproductive, and adversarial in certain areas, and will offer minimal opportunities for successful mutual cooperation.’ This fate can be avoided. But doing so will require a change in attitudes not only in Russia but also among those in the West who perpetuate negative stereotypes.