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Russian Society and the Conflict in Ukraine: Masses, Elites and Identity

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This article was originally published by E-International Relations (E-IR) on 26 April 2017.

This is an excerpt from Migration and the Ukraine Crisis: A Two-Country Perspective – an E-IR Edited Collection.

This chapter looks at how Russian society reacted to the conflict in and with Ukraine. The active phase of the conflict began in March 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and continued with Moscow’s support for the separatist movements in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. The main object of interest here is popular views of the conflict and its context, and in particular the way these views are conditioned by nationalism and the national identity discourse. At the same time, as I show in the first section, it is hardly possible to consider ‘public opinion’ as ontologically separate from the public debate waged mainly by the elites, as well as from the state’s policies and the way they are legitimated. The issue is not just that public opinion is influenced by the state propaganda, but that both are part of the same broader discursive domain where meaning is constructed and reproduced.

Accordingly, this chapter starts with an analysis of Russian public opinion on the conflict and its relationship to the official propaganda. I then go on to discuss how the attitudes to Ukraine and the wider assessment of Russian foreign policy in recent years are related to the complex ways in which the Russian nation is defined and how the concept of the ‘Russian world’ plays into the picture. The final section focuses on the broader context of what Russians see as Western expansionism and how they justify Russia’s conduct in terms of the need to defend the country’s sovereignty and moral integrity against Western subversion. It is not my ambition in this chapter to present any original analysis of primary sources; rather, I see my task as summing up the findings of the existing studies (including my own) and highlighting the key issues that have come up in the scholarly debate so far.

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Is President Trump’s Foreign Policy Shaping Up?

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This article was originally published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on 20 April 2017.

April has been an eventful month geopolitically so far. President Trump carried out a much-trumpeted-about Tomahawk missile strike at the Syrian regime, held responsible by him for a nerve-agent attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, a province largely held by rebels. Trump has changed his mind on China, which he previously accused as a ‘currency manipulator’. He has also changed his mind on ‘resetting’ relations with Putin and US-Russia relations are at their ‘lowest point’ in years. Trump has issued a harsh warning to North Korea to stop missile and nuclear tests. There are signals that Trump would scale up the US military engagement in Afghanistan. Trump has congratulated, with alacrity, Turkey’s President Erdogan on his referendum victory. Are all these developments related to one another?

Syria

On March 30, 2017, the US stated that it no longer wanted to topple President Basher al-Assad and would instead concentrate on defeating and destroying the Islamic State (IS). Assad, on life-support provided by Russia and Iran, must have heaved a sigh of relief. He might have thought that over time he could free himself from the life-support system and even recover the lost territory in full.

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Russia: A Land Power Hungry for the Sea

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This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 April 2017.

Trying to understand the military behavior of nations has been a hobby of Western academics, beginning with the great geopoliticians of former centuries, such as Nicholas Spykman, Sir Halford Mackinder, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Simply, the argument is that geography demanded that insular and coastal nations such as England, Japan, and the Netherlands develop strong navies to support their national economic and political interests. Conversely, Germany, the Turkish Republic, and the Roman Empire were required to use their formidable land armies to defend and expand their territories. Russia stands out as a one-off. Situated squarely on the borders of Eastern Europe and central Asia, she endured numerous land assaults, and, accordingly built large defensive and offensive land armies. However, in fits and starts, she has also assembled naval forces equal to or greater than most of her presumptive adversaries. Why does Russia, a traditional land power, engage in such counterintuitive and unique behavior? Do recent international events shed light on Russia’s future naval activities?

When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on building a navy 330 years ago, he did so to defend the homeland from Swedish and Turkish enemies, north and south, while at the same time buying Russia a seat at the “great power” diplomatic table. Serendipitously, his navy did enable him to expand Russian boundaries and give him access to the world’s oceans. A second noteworthy Russian foray into the sea was at the height of the Cold War when Soviet Adm. Gorshkov planned and built a naval force that rivalled American supremacy at sea. His submarines alone (385) outnumbered those of the NATO Alliance and they regularly patrolled off the American Atlantic and Pacific coasts until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the surface of the oceans, it was commonplace for U.S. warships visiting exotic ports around the world to be joined by their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War.

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Challenges to US-Russia Strategic Arms Control during the Trump Presidency

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This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 3 April 2017.

The coming years may mark the end of bilateral limitations of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The future of the New START treaty is unclear, chances for a new agreement slim, and violation of the INF treaty by Russia remains a serious challenge. While strategic arms control strengthens NATO’s security, it should not come at the price of concessions undermining the role of the U.S. as guarantor of security and stability in Europe.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent contradictory signals about the future role of U.S.-Russia strategic arms control. On the one hand, as president-elect he indicated that the nuclear forces of both countries should be substantially reduced and that an agreement to do that could be an element of rebuilding mutual relations. On the other hand, Trump also declared that the U.S. nuclear arsenal must be greatly strengthened and expanded and implied that the United States should seek nuclear dominancy. After taking office, he questioned the need for the New START treaty (formally, “Treaty between the U.S. and Russia on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms”), which was agreed in May 2010. According to the U.S. president, the treaty is disproportionally advantageous to Russia. Greater clarity about the U.S. approach to strategic arms control will be provided by the Nuclear Posture Review, ordered by Trump in January 2017.

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The Two Levels of Russia’s South China Sea Policies

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This article was originally published by the East-West Center (EWC) on 28 March 2017.

Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.

One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.

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