ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2014
Harvard U/CNA, US, firstname.lastname@example.org
Geopolitics: Ukraine, Russia, EU and the West
Countering Colored Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy
The May 2014 Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense, was focused on the role of popular protest, and specifically color revolutions, in international security. The speakers, who included top Russian military and diplomatic officials such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, argued that color revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones controlled by the West. They argued that this was part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept U.S. hegemony and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.
While the West considers color revolutions to be peaceful expressions of popular will opposing repressive authoritarian regimes, Russian officials argue that military force is an integral part of all aspects of color revolutions. Western governments start by using non-military tactics to change opposing governments through color revolutions that utilize the protest potential of the population to engineer peaceful regime change. But military force is concealed behind this effort. If the protest potential turns out to be insufficient, military force is then used openly to ensure regime change. This includes the use of external pressure on the regime in question to prevent the use of force to restore order, followed by the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces. If these measures are not sufficient, Western states organize a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Russian officials at the MCIS conference described color revolutions as a new technique of aggression pioneered by the United States and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique, compared to military intervention, is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.
Furthermore, while Russian discussion of the destabilizing role of color revolutions usually portrays U.S. actions as taking place around the world, there is a clear perception that Russia is one of the main targets. This drives fear that unrest in the post-Soviet region may be a wedge for the United States to force regime change in Russia itself.
This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although the Russian government has not produced any kind of document summarizing this new strategy, the key aspects can be gleaned from an analysis of Russian leaders’ statements and Russian actions in recent months. The counter-strategy combines political and military actions.
On the political side, Russia has stepped up its efforts to make alliances with other authoritarian regimes that are similarly concerned about the possibility of a popular uprising that could lead to their loss of power. This strategy has been used by Russia to some extent throughout Vladimir Putin’s presidency, with efforts to develop ties with former Soviet allies in the Middle East and Asia. The second part of Russia’s political strategy is to damage the unity of the Western alliance. This effort has been pursued for several years through the development of political alliances with right-wing parties throughout Europe and in the United States.
Russia claims to reserve the right to protect Russians living abroad. Given the large numbers of Russians living throughout post-Soviet Eurasia, this claim has the potential to provide Russia with an excuse for intervention anywhere in the region. Furthermore, it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which governments of other post-Soviet states come to distrust their ethnic Russian populations, leading to discrimination that creates the conditions for a potential Russian intervention.
On the military side, Russia has determined that the best way to counter the perceived U.S. strategy is through a combination of strong support for existing authoritarian regimes around the world. This support has included military and economic assistance, as well as public support for actions taken against protesters, who are often conflated in Russian rhetoric with terrorists or supporters of radical ideologies such as radical Islam or fascism.
In circumstances where this proves insufficient and the situation is in an area deemed crucial to Russian national interests, Russia has shown that it is willing to go further by providing direct support to forces opposed to those supported by the West. This support may include the simulation of popular uprisings, support for local insurgents, and the threat of direct military force to protect co-ethnics.
The Russian Strategy in Ukraine
The actions that Russia has been undertaking in Ukraine in recent months are based on this strategy and closely parallel Russian officials’ perceptions of how the U.S. color revolutions strategy works. Russian officials provided the Yanukovych government with advice on how to deal with anti-government protesters. This advice appears to have involved encouragement to use repressive measures, though the government appeared to lack either the capacity or willpower to carry it out to the end.
At the same time, the Russian government provided economic assistance to Ukraine, including a $15 billion aid package and an agreement to lower the price Ukraine paid for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas from $400 to $268. This assistance was canceled after the change of government in Ukraine.
When Russian assistance proved inadequate to maintain the Yanukovych government in power, Russia took immediate steps to weaken the new anti-Russian government that was being formed in Kyiv. It seems highly likely that Russian agents were involved in organizing counter-protests in eastern Ukraine and Crimea after Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from Ukraine.
From the start of the conflict, Russia repeatedly used the threat of force to try to influence the actions of the new Ukrainian government, both by making statements reserving the right to intervene in the conflict and by staging several military exercises on the Ukrainian border. The statements initially focused on the right of the Russian government to protect its co-ethnics abroad, though as the conflict accelerated over the summer they shifted to the need to protect civilians in general from a humanitarian disaster. This parallels past Western statements that use the doctrine of the international responsibility to protect civilians to justify interventions in internal conflicts.
Finally, Russia has engaged in covert military action in Crimea and, at a minimum, provided military and financial assistance to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The quick Russian intervention in Crimea was made possible by the presence of a relatively large contingent of Russian troops (approximately 14,000) who were already based in Crimea and the strong antipathy of the local population to the new Ukrainian government. The Russian naval infantry based in Sevastopol were augmented by special forces troops from Russian military intelligence, who occupied key locations on the peninsula, including government buildings and the isthmus connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine, and surrounded Ukrainian military bases in the region.
Russian actions in eastern Ukraine escalated more gradually, as the conflict dragged on for several months. Initially, Russian support consisted of a mass media propaganda campaign in opposition to the “fascist junta” that had taken power in Kyiv and in support of the actions being taken by protesters in the Donbas. As the conflict became more violent in April and May 2014, volunteers from Russia joined in the fighting. Many of these volunteers were recruited (unofficially) through military recruitment offices in Russia. While no conclusive evidence has surfaced, there is a strong likelihood that agents from Russian security services were involved in coordinating protests in eastern and southern Ukraine from their earliest stages.
Russia’s role in the conflict has increased over time, especially after the separatist forces began to lose territory in late June 2014. Early on, local protest leaders were sidelined by Russian citizens, some of whom had a background working for Russian security services. Beginning in June, Russia began to provide heavy weaponry to the separatist forces, including multiple rocket launchers and air defense weapons. Beginning in July, Russian forces have shelled Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent Ukraine from sealing off the border and ending the provision of military assistance to separatist forces. In August, the Russian government responded to continued Ukrainian victories by sending in a limited contingent of Russian troops and opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol in southern Donetsk region. This escalation in Russian military assistance caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout the Donbas and losing control of approximately half of the territory they had gained over the summer.
Russian actions in Ukraine appear to mirror the actions Russian leaders believe the United States has been taking in its efforts to eliminate unfriendly governments around the world. While the increase in military support for separatist forces during the summer of 2014 appeared to have been largely improvised, the earlier actions to destabilize Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv seem to have been based on existing contingency plans. It is possible that Russian leaders believe that the United States actively seeks to destabilize opposing regimes because such activities are a standard part of their own policy toolkit.
Lessons learned from the Ukraine crisis
The events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine provide a number of lessons for countries seeking to prevent similar interventions. First of all, the events in Ukraine highlight the importance of maintaining a credible military force for defensive purposes. Throughout Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, various governments consistently underfunded the military, on the assumption that the country did not face any serious security threats. Furthermore, much of the funding that governments did provide to the military was diverted through corrupt practices. As a result, the Ukrainian military was unable to maintain its equipment or to train its forces for most of the last 20 years. While some analysts have blamed the Yanukovych government for deliberately undermining the military, the situation was comparable during the preceding Yushchenko presidency.
Steps to eliminate conscription also had a negative effect on military morale and cohesiveness. To minimize expenses, professional contract soldiers were usually stationed near their places of origin, which meant that a disproportionate number of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea displayed pro-Russian sympathies. Other countries with territorially-based political divisions should ensure that their military forces are well-integrated, with military personnel rotating from region to region every few years.
In addition to military preparedness, governments of states that may potentially be targeted by Russia need to take measures to ensure that minority populations are well integrated into their political systems. Political education efforts need to be undertaken among vulnerable populations to make them less vulnerable to Russian information warfare tactics. Steps leading to better integration of minorities will close a set of potential opportunities that Russia could exploit to create instability.
There has been a continuing debate on whether domestic or international factors are primary in Russia’s current foreign policy. In reality, it appears that both are working together. Russian foreign policy appears to be based on a combination of fears of popular protest and opposition to U.S. world hegemony, both of which are seen as threatening the Putin regime.
Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukraine’s economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even its potential NATO membership. Similarly, the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal has been to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism is the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal explains the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.
In this environment, it is not worth spending time trying to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the United States does not get such an opportunity.
Dmitry Gorenburg (PhD, Harvard 1999) is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. He is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law, an associate at Harvard University's Davis Center, and a Vice-President of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN).