In Other News – Putin Doubles Down Despite Ukrainian Wins – 9/28/2022

September 28, 2022

Vladimir Putin is under pressure but he’s also doubling down. After a major Ukrainian counter-offensive prompted him to order a partial mobilization of troops in Russia, the spectacle of the exodus of countless military fighting-age men from Russia’s borders, visible from space, is its own special humiliation. The world is debating whether Putin is leaving his borders open to add additional pressure to the refugee tensions in Europe or if he simply lacks the forces to close Russia’s vast border. Despite the optics, there are plenty of men of fighting age still in Russia and Putin plans to send tens of thousands of them into Ukraine. Putin also is cobbling together his own legal justification for an escalation in war with his sham referendums in four partially Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. The return of highly controlled results in favor of joining the Russian Federation will be officialized tomorrow in a signing ceremony in Moscow, which is essentially an annexation of these territories. Putin will then use any Ukrainian defense of these regions as a purported attack on sovereign Russian territory. Still there is much skepticism that these mobilization efforts and annexation can do much to address the systemic and structural failings of Russia’s military invasion that have led Moscow to this crucible, especially as reports of under-equipped and under-trained new conscripts continuously emerge. Also, Putin now has to contend with a growing and more vocal domestic discontent than before, evidenced by his concession earlier today that there were mistakes made in carrying out his draft and the head of the Duma calling for the closing of Russia’s borders.

Despite the Ukrainian gains in recent weeks and the emergent prospect that Ukraine could in fact win the war, Putin’s actions are a reminder that the war is not over. Not at all. In fact, pressures of Kyiv are growing with the winter approaching. Kyiv is currently running a $5-6 billion account deficit every month to keep Ukraine functioning on a very basic level. European aid has been committed but has been slow to arrive. Even the newly announced military $1.1 billion aid package from the U.S. will fund 18 HIMARS slated to arrive in two years. And despite the Ukrainian people’s resilience, the war is taking an enormous daily toll on its people with many without jobs and with limited food and housing heading into winter. Russia’s initial response to its recent setbacks is to attack key Ukrainian infrastructure including power plants and hydropower plants. This strategic onslaught could continue as an enduring strategy. Still, Ukraine’s impressive counteroffensive ahead of the winter should give its resistance more fighting power figuratively and literally as allies believe more and more that it is a good investment to help Ukraine defend itself.

The more the U.S. and European leaders can tie the success of the Ukraine war to their own security the better. The West’s support for Ukraine remains strong but with the new governments in Sweden and Italy, there will be new pressures and divisions to overcome in order to maintain the sustained support required for Ukraine to prevail. Also, the coming winter will put the greatest pressure on European governments thus far regarding its support of Ukraine, with rising energy prices, the prospect of potential shortages, and all of this amid several economic headwinds in the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion. While the four leaks in Nordstream1 and 2 will unlikely add to the pressures in Europe because the lines were not currently delivering gas to Europe, the fact that it is suspected that Russian sabotage targeted these gas lines underscores that we have entered a more aggressive and dangerous phase of Russia’s growing confrontation with the West.

In Other News – Defeat on the Battlefield Has Brought the War Home to Russia – 9/22/2022

September 22, 2022

Defeat on the battlefield has brought the war home to Russia. The recent Ukrainian counterattack against the Russians dramatically reduced Moscow’s hold of the Kharkiv region and laid bare both the Russian military’s weaknesses and human rights abuses. No longer able to deny Russia’s military struggles, and with an increasing PR problem underway, on Wednesday Putin declared a “partial mobilization” of national reservists. The announcement is a significant elevation of the war and quickly set off a spark of activity within Russia: long lines formed at the Finnish, Mongolian and Georgian borders, flight prices to exit the country skyrocketed, and thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest. Although the Kremlin has assured its populace that the mobilization is limited to 300,000 reservists, other reports highlighted a section of the decree that wasn’t available to the public and would allow armed forces to draft up to a million military personnel.

The decree appears purposefully vague and the “partial mobilization”- a process that hasn’t happened in Russia since World War II and only a handful of times in history before that – is already being met with skepticism, confusion, and fear. It’s likely that the federal authorities will pin the responsibility on local leaders to work out the details, as they did with Covid measures. But this leaves room for discrepancy, and unverified social media reports indicate that individuals who aren’t in the reserves, including some recently arrested for anti-war protest activity, are already receiving mobilization orders. Further, on September 20, Russia’s State Duma passed new legislation that upped the penalties for “crimes against military service”, seemingly in anticipation of more widespread protests.

Indeed, the motivation and preparedness level of the new Russian troops- and of those currently serving whose short-term contracts have been indefinitely extended, is questionable. While Russia has an estimated two million reservists or more, including some with previous military experience, only a small percentage of these are battle-ready. It’s also uncertain if the newly mobilized soldiers will be willing to fight with any conviction. In some minority regions of Russia, like Dagestan, which already lost a disproportionate number of men during the initial stages of the war, protests are sparking, and some residents even reportedly barricaded the federal highway to protest the mobilization effort.

The Dagestani protestors, and others throughout the nation, assert that the war isn’t about protecting the Russian homeland but about protecting Putin’s political stature. While questions abound on the specifics of the “partial mobilization” and its efficacy, it’s a clear admission that Putin isn’t happy with the state of war effort. And just as he’s under pressure from his own hardliner contingent, Putin’s political allies, like the leaders of India and China, have started to hint at their discontent with the conflict. This week even Turkish President Erdogan, who was instrumental in mediating the recent Russian-Ukrainian prisoner swap largely in Ukraine’s favor, publicly urged Putin to return the occupied territories back to Ukraine.

However, as of now, Putin does not seem deterred by the emerging criticism. Instead, he’s fully evolved the official narrative from one of “liberating” Ukrainians from neo-Nazis, to “protecting” the Russian state against NATO’s aggression. Putin’s also moving forward on sham “referendums” slated to begin on Friday in Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Further, under increasing domestic and international pressure, Putin’s resumed his psychological ploy of nuclear saber-rattling. But until he’s facing the prospect of an all-out defeat in Ukraine, and we’re still far from that threshold, it’s unlikely that he’d resort to such extreme measures.

In Other News – Putin Struggles on the Domestic and International Fronts – 9/15/2022

September 15, 2022

Indications of struggle for Putin on the domestic and international fronts. Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region put Russia on the defensive and forced a retreat that has attracted international attention. Moscow termed the retreat “a regrouping”, but after the loss even Putin’s allies like Chechen leader Kadyrov took to social media and criticized the Russian military’s performance, insinuating that Putin wasn’t fully aware of the mistakes that were being made on the battlefield. Other Putin supporters, like the pro-war Russian hardliners, also expressed frustration with the battlefield status and called for Moscow to double-down via attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure, and to initiate an aggressive conscription campaign.

Putin, like the hardliners, would love to double down on his Ukraine attack, but he’s facing significant challenges. What he really needs is manpower, but he doesn’t want to risk losing favor with his own population. For several months, Putin has been discretely relying on financial incentives to recruit Russian soldiers and he’s also hired private military fighters- not only to gain bodies, but to avoid direct blame for any human rights abuses perpetrated by deployed soldiers. Just this week it was leaked that Russia’s shadow mercenary Wagner Group has been attempting to recruit Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, another indication that Putin is trying hard to avoid forcing all eligible citizens to enlist.

Indeed, thus far many Russians have been able to distance themselves mentally and physically from the battlefield, but a mandatory draft would drive the conflict home and could spark a broader opposition. The patriotism required to back the Kremlin in an increased offensive endeavor isn’t apparent, and with each military set-back it decreases. Further, after the losses in Kharkiv, opposition deputies in over 30 municipalities reportedly called for Putin’s resignation in a rare symbolic showing of discontent – notable even if the dissenters were not eligible for another term. It’s also likely that internal dissent will continue to grow as the effect of sanctions sets-in over the coming months.

Putin, unable to achieve the quick victory he initially anticipated, is now left with the choice of cutting a deal, grinding-on, or elevating the conflict. But just as he risks losing the support of his population with a mandatory service requirement, if Putin tries to greatly elevate the war, he risks problematic relations with some of his critical allies like China and India. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this week, Putin and Chinese President Xi reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to collaborating on their respective “core interests”, yet Putin also publicly acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine. Indeed, it needs to be in China’s continued interest to support Moscow, and this isn’t a straightforward equation.

In addition to complicating his status with major allies like China and India, the war is shifting Putin’s role in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and in conflict zones like Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria. Where before, Putin was able to devote substantial attention to playing statesman and orchestrating side-agreements, his presence has been largely absent in many of these conflict zones. And if his status in such areas is weakened, it will limit Putin’s bargaining power on other fronts. Further, Putin doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy and he’s scrambling for political and economic opportunities, as evidenced by his recent outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The paradox is that these nations are also watching him, waiting to see how they might exploit Russia by purchasing cheap energy while Putin is most vulnerable, and simultaneously looking for economic stability elsewhere.

In Other News – Authoritarian Leaders Alliances Complicated by Effects of Globalization – 9/8/2022

September 8, 2022

Authoritarian leaders are attempting to strengthen their alliances, but their efforts will be complicated by the lingering effects of globalization. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been living in an era marked by increased global links between people and companies, where state-level leadership has at times felt secondary to the power of cross-border, private relationships. Over these years, widespread internet access has allowed individuals to connect, communicate and collaborate in an unprecedented way, serving to advance business and trade relations. Simultaneously, the internet also led to a new type of security threat marked by borderless, ideological alliances. Indeed, individuals like ISIS affiliates, empowered by a global support network of ideas or funding, became a high-level national security threat, while the threat posed by many state-level actors retreated to the background.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, state-level efforts and alliances again soared to the forefront. NATO and allies, in contrast to the Afghanistan withdrawal last year, came together in a powerful way around their shared democratic mission. At the same time, Putin has made a concerted effort to recruit authoritarian state leaders as allies, most visibly China’s President Xi, but also the leaders of Serbia, Belarus, Hungary, and Turkey, among others, with mixed results. When hit with sanctions, Russia has looked to these friendly nations for economic relief and relations. Likewise, Ukraine has looked to its allies for continued economic and military aid, and this support has contributed to Ukraine’s military successes, including its recent counteroffensive efforts.

Indeed, the future of Ukraine’s effort will depend on the commitment of its allies. This week, US Defense Secretary Austin remarked that Kyiv’s allies need to sustain Ukraine’s fighters “for the long haul”, announcing $675m more in US military aid that includes heavy weapons. On top of that, US Secretary of State Blinken announced $2bn for Ukraine and other European countries threatened by Russia. While the United States and other Western nations and allies continue to demonstrate their support for Ukraine, even in an increasingly challenging environment due to global economic conditions, Russia is trying to double down on its partnerships.

Next week Putin plans to meet with President Xi on what will be Xi’s first major trip abroad since the pandemic. In addition to visiting other Central Asian nations, Xi will travel to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meeting scheduled for September 15-16. It will be a time for multiple authoritarian leaders to convene, and for Putin to reinforce his anti-Western narrative on the Ukraine invasion. But China, that plays a key role in Russia’s economic future, is significantly intertwined with the West. Notably, while US-China trade tensions are currently high, China-EU relations have long been defined as separate from direct geographical conflicts, making space for trade despite political upheaval. Further, both Russia and China still depend on access to technologies produced in the West, and this economic interdependency isn’t going to be easily displaced.

It’s clear that Putin is still threatened by what’s been set into motion over the past twenty or thirty years. Earlier this week, Putin remarked that “modern development can only be based on sovereignty”, implying that the state, not the world, will dictate economic success. He’s trying to capitalize on the worldwide ascent of populist and authoritarian leaders championing a nationalist agenda, and he’ll likely achieve some degree of success. Indeed, this increasing alliance of global authoritarian leaders will necessitate a shift in the focus of the intelligence community to state-level actors and will impact the ability of international organizations to help navigate, or supersede, inter-state conflicts.

But we also aren’t in an era of simple state-level competition. There’s already such a high degree of economic interdependence, and global issues like the pandemic and climate change will serve to encourage collaboration beyond borders. Further, for every step towards attempted authoritarian domination, there are also countermeasures. Internet access, for example, is being increasingly restricted by authoritarian leaders, but developments to circumvent the restrictions and use technology to validate unjust state actions is everywhere apparent. Indeed, while the era of globalization might be waning, the process has made the world a more nuanced place, and this will influence national strategies moving forward.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 9/1/2022

September 1, 2022

A View from Abroad
The first week of every month, In Other News will now feature a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

Myriad challenges await the next UK Prime Minister, who will need to shape what Brexit looks like moving forward. On September 5, the prolonged Conservative Party leadership contest in London will conclude, and the next UK Prime Minister will be declared. On his way out, Boris Johnson hailed a victory for Brexit, but the new leader, likely to be current Minister of Foreign Affairs Liz Truss, will be welcomed by wide-ranging political and economic challenges that are being amplified by some of the Brexit policies. In particular, the issue of Northern Ireland will need to be effectively resolved for the UK to resume good relations with the EU. While long term political prospects for the Conservatives are uncertain, and another round of elections are required within 28 months, the UK’s economic security will be pinnacle to the next leader’s success.

Several years after Brexit, the UK has yet to implement effective import controls, and EU companies have easier access to the UK market than British companies to the EU. Small and medium UK enterprises are suffering from an enormous amount of red tape, and British exports and economic growth have stagnated. Further, in addition to serious global challenges like sharp inflation, rising interest rates, high consumer energy costs, supply chain disruptions, unstable exchange rates, personnel shortages, climate change, migration, steeply rising house prices and other knock-on effects of the Ukraine-Russia war, the situation in Northern Ireland is unique and it’s hindering opportunities for UK prosperity.

According to the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol under Brexit, Northern Ireland is granted access to both the British and EU markets, with corresponding export and import controls. But the British government has attributed problems in Northern Ireland to the agreement, and implementation of the Protocol remains politically fraught. Political standstill in Belfast is the result. The EU and the UK have tried to negotiate the issue, but with no success. A new phase in scientific corporation in the Horizon program has been put on hold and agreements in the financial and data-protection sectors are also stalled.

Further, both the UK and EU have accused each other of breaking earlier commitments, and it’s turned into a heated legal battle. The EU hopes that Washington will put pressure on London to help resolve the issue, but the UK government hopes the United States will refrain from doing so. This challenge awaits the new Prime Minister, but it also provides a chance to reestablish good relations moving forward.

Indeed, as the future of the Conservative party in the UK remains undetermined, and another round of elections will occur in just over two years, it’s likely that the new Prime Minister will move closer to the political center. Liz Truss, who was originally a Liberal Democrat and initially on the fence about Brexit, could be flexible enough to navigate the new political reality, but it remains to be seen if she can win in general elections against a newly invigorated Labor leadership that’s aiming for a united front with the Liberal Democrats. Regardless of who takes the helm, however, the next Prime Minister will be met with great demands and the critical opportunity to define what Brexit looks like in practice over the coming months.