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Russian Security and Defence in Putin’s last term

On 29 May 2018, IFS launched its new Russian Security and Defence Programme. IFS researchers shared their insights on the rapid developments in Russia’s security and defence over the past decade.

PANEL 1: Evolution or revolution in Russian security and defence?

The return of the military as a cornerstone of rUSSIAN foreign policy

Professor Katarzyna Zysk, Head of Research at IFS

Professor Katarzyna Zysk (Director of Research, IFS) highlighted the return of the military as a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy. 

She elaborated on patterns of change and continuity in Russia's approach to security, including resurgence of traditional features of the strategic culture, rooted in Russia's historical experience and psychology shaped by geography. 

Since 2008, the Russian authorities have pushed through one of the most comprehensive military modernization programs in Russia's history. Massive acquisition of new weapons and technology, and adaptation to a more information-driven battlefield were accompanied by improving combat readiness, strategic mobility and ability to conduct joint operations. Increased use of the rearmed military in Russia's foreign relations is closely related to the confidence that traditional great power politics remain at the heart of the international system. 

Zysk raised questions about Russia's ability to sustain the high level of military modernization, activity, and a direct confrontation, and its impact on political and economic stability. Yet the measured cuts in defence spending, not as dramatic as initially portrayed, seem to corroborate the continued interest to prioritize the defence sector and Russia's confidence that military foundations of power remain a crucial measure of state influence and international standing.

rUSSIAN economic policy

Associate Professor Ingerid Opdahl, Head of the Russia Programme, IFS

Associate Professor Ingerid Opdahl (Head of Programme) presented an overview of Russia's foreign economic policy and the great power project. 

Economic growth has given Russia the scope to pursue a great power project. Increasing prices of oil, and improved petroleum taxation, were foundations for success and power in the 2000s, and the country aimed for global leadership in the energy field. Competition in international markets was perceived as part of the zero-sum game between states. 

The financial crisis in 2008 showed that Russia was vulnerable to external shocks, and this motivated a change in foreign economic policy to selective integration in the global economy. The Eurasian Economic Union is a visible example of this approach. Today, the question is how Russia's likely economic stagnation will affect its great power project. In other words: How great and for how long?

rUSSIAS relations TO cHINA

Fellow Christopher Weidacher Hsiung, IFS

Fellow Christopher Weidacher Hsiung discussed the alignment between Russia and China and its implications for Europe. 

The Russia-China relationship is often portrayed as either a struggle, or a marriage of convenience. However, it is better described as careful management of dynamics and complexities. The bilateral relationship is solid, built on the realisation that the gains from cooperation are greater than the gains of struggle. The development of US foreign policy has also pushed Russia and China closer together, and motivated greater cooperation in energy and defence. 

There is a growing power asymmetry in the relationship. This is particularly evident in Eurasia as China is making its influence felt by means of the Silk Road routes, energy pipelines and sea-lanes. This raises the questions of the limits to cooperation and the potential for future conflict. 

The Sino-Russian relationship will most likely continue to strengthen in the near-to medium future. This has certain implications for Europe. Chinese companies, especially in the energy sector, will increasingly compete with European companies. China and Russia will continue to develop defence ties and increase cooperation on international security issues. However, China will not risk involvement in a military conflict between NATO and Russia in Europe by siding with Russia. From a security point of view, China's focus is still in the Asia-Pacific area and on overall stable relations with the West.

PANEL 2: Russian security and defence 

– does the domestic base matter?

Miliatarisation of the RUSSIAN society

Senior Fellow Håvard Bækken, IFS

Senior Fellow Håvard Bækken discussed the militarisation of Russian society under Putin. Militarisation is pursued through such means as patriotic education and the military's engagement in youth activities. 

The aims of militarisation are both to find able recruits for the armed forces, and unifying the country around certain patriotic values. Extended militarisation may also lead to normalising high military expenditures and the use of military means in foreign policy. But does militarisation deliver as a unifying policy? 

Bækken's own research indicates that while the army is a source of pride in the Russian population, the young and urban part of the population is more sceptical of military values than people in older age groups and in rural areas. This tendency may not bode well for maintaining a militarised society in Russia in the longer term.

Political mobilisation in Russia

Associate Professor Jardar Østbø, IFS

Associate Professor Jardar Østbø focused on political mobilisation, and asked if Russia is really mobilising its population. 

He found a clear difference between the periods before and after the 2011 post-electoral protests. The highly political 'preventive counter-revolution' in 2005-2011 gave way to the depoliticised mass events with political parties absent in the period after 2011. Even if conditions from 2014 were favourable for mobilisation, the Russian regime proved unwilling to mobilise the population. There is a fear of activism. 

The regime prefers instead to keep the population in 'survival mode' with reference to confrontation with the West. There is no coherent ideology in the regime's approach, but rather a 'virtual image' of Russia as a great power.

Russia in the Arctic

Fellow Ingvill Moe Elgsaas, IFS

Fellow Ingvill Moe Elgsaas discussed security cooperation with Russia in the Arctic in the age of international terrorism. Will we see an Arctic refreeze? 

The Arctic is hailed as a zone of peace and cooperation. However, Arctic cooperation falls within different categories: Arctic cooperation on safety sacred and insulated from external tensions. Economic cooperation was previously promoted, but is now targeted by sanctions. Security cooperation freezes and thaws in tandem with external tensions, and has been frozen since 2014. 

There are two main impediments to cooperation in the security field in general, and in counterterrorism in particular: Cyber-security and the lack of an internationally agreed definition of terrorism. 

We can expect to see continuation, stagnation, and also change, in Russia's Arctic and security policies. Russia's interest in the Arctic persists, but many developments are on hold. For Russia, military capabilities will remain central. Safety cooperation will continue, but the impediments to security cooperation remain.

The future of Russia in the High North

Professor Rolf Tamnes, IFS

Professor Rolf Tamnes raised the question of Russia as a security actor and implications for Norway. 

Recalling George Kennan's 'Long telegram' of 1946, Tamnes underlined the need to define the essence of Russian policy in the future. Geography and technology are still important factors for understanding Russian policy in the Arctic, but new factors such as climate change and the increasing importance of Asia and China will give the High North a more central place in the world in the long term. If anything, this calls for continued extensive cooperation in the area, and commitment from the states involved.        

Increasingly more important to understand Russia's security and defence

Professor Katarzyna Zysk rounded off the conference by underlining the increased importance of a Russia that has repeatedly demonstrated its will to use the rearmed military in pursing national interests. 

Both a weak and a strong Russia will have a profound impact on the security situation in Norway's neighbourhood, and in the broader international system. In order to understand Russia's evolving security and defence, it is necessary to analyse the broad spectrum of factors that influence its development, including changing geopolitical constellations, global economic dynamics, technological disruptions, and evolution of warfare, as well as their interplay with complex domestic factors that influence Russia's behaviour, both at home and abroad. 

The IFS Russia Programme aims to contribute to further the understanding of these complex dynamics with high quality research and dissemination. In doing so, the IFS looks forward to expanding cooperation with both Norwegian and international partners in producing new perspectives and insights.

Published 29 May 2018 00:00.. Last updated 14 September 2018 11:08.