What Is Russia Doing?


“He who does not take risks, never drinks champagne.” These are the words spoken by Russian President Vladimir Putin to two interlocutors from the Financial Times who joined the Russian strongman in the Kremlin for a whirlwind, 90-minute interview. These words, taken from an old Russian saying, encapsulate the last 10 years of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian reign over Russia all too well.

It also explains why Russia, despite being a country in decline, with a volatile, petro-economy; a bleak financial future; autarkic political system; ossified military culture; and turgid fertility rates has managed to become such a concern among Western leaders (also, the fact that Putin is not a Communist, but instead a nationalist, angers the Red Diaper babies who comprise the elite circles of the West, meaning that the Left has automatically converted Putin into, as 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, Eric Swalwell claimed, America’s “number one geostrategic threat”).

During the course of this interesting conversation, Putin made several controversial remarks, ranging from his declaration that “liberalism is obsolete” to his apt assessment that Western, democratic globalist elites are detached from their people which is why nationalist-populism is on the rise throughout the West.

Over the course of the interview, Putin reiterated his confusion as to how a country, like the United Kingdom, could allow the poisoning of a man and his daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skirpal, in Salisbury last year to effectively poison the great state relations between Moscow and London (of course, Putin never once acknowledged that the poisoning in question was done in a very public venue, which exposed dozens of innocent British passersby to the lethal Novichok poison). Also, Putin never once denied that his agents conducted the illegal attack in English territory. Instead, Putin focused on the Russian claim that Skirpal was engaged in spying against Russia.

When pressed by his English interlocutors as to whether he was placing “too many eggs [in China’s basket” by moving Russia so close to Xi Jinping’s China, Putin replied that, “First of all, we have enough eggs, but there are not that many baskets where these eggs can be placed.” In this, Putin is correct: we in the West have rightfully taken umbrage with the fact that Putin’s Russia has engaged in a series of illegal annexations directed against their neighbors, whether it be in Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014; Russia has expanded its military movements into Syria and the Greater Middle East, thereby complicating U.S. foreign policy (whatever U.S. foreign policy is–at this point few seem capable of discerning this).

Putin’s Russia has become highly aggressive in the cyber domain and Moscow has proven adept at the old Soviet art of disinformatzyia. Meanwhile, Putin continues to make strategic investments in Russia’s robust nuclear weapons arsenal; he continues to agitate for the development of advanced hypersonic missiles–against which there is no real defense–as well as Russia’s incredible space warfare capabilities. Because of these capabilities, coupled with Western antipathy toward recent Russian aggression in the last decade, the United States has led the West in pushing Russia away from its nominal orbit and into the waiting arms of Russia’s neighbor, China.

Together, a loose coalition of autocratic, state capitalist states is emerging in Eurasia that might very well coalesce into a strategic threat lest the United States start playing the geopolitical game smarter than it has been playing it. In this way, then, Putin’s lamentation over the lack of diplomatic baskets in which to place his proverbial eggs is apt. But, Putin’s Russia is not some innocent victim. Yes, the United States has spent the last 30 years foolishly pushing Russia into the current geopolitical stance it has taken. No, Russia was not some passive party to this.

Ultimately, it takes two to tango.

Russia and China Sitting In a Tree…

It’s also important to note that Putin emphasized the fact that under his reign, Russia is “moving in line with [its] mainstream bilateral agenda [with China] that was formulated as far back as 2001.” This is an interesting quip, considering that the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, included a proviso that, should conflict erupt between the United States and China over Taiwan, the Russian Pacific Fleet would be deployed to block U.S. Navy assets from intervening to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression.

Given recent events in the Pacific, wherein a Russian warship nearly collided with a U.S. Navy warship–and that the Russians have been rehabilitating their once-dilapidated Pacific Fleet over the last few years–this is something Washington policymakers should keep an eye on. Although, it’s important to note that the 2001 Russo-Chinese pact has a sunset clause in it dated for 2021. So, unless major changes are afoot in the Sino-Russian “alliance,” come 2021, there should be distance put between these two powers.

Putin then explained why he was moving Russia closer to China. First, it’s important to note that Putin leads a group of Russian national security hawks–the siloviki–who all believe that Russia’s future lies to the East, as Jeffrey Mankoff has explained. Almost from the start of his presidency, Putin has striven to get Russia to pay closer attention to the Russian Far East (RFE).

Second, Putin asserted that, whereas China was predictable and flexible–meaning they were no longer the most threatening state Russia must contend with today–the United States was unpredictable. He then insinuated that the United States would make “rash” decisions to what would undoubtedly be Russian provocations (although, thus far, the United States has been incredibly strong yet restrained to ongoing Russian provocations). Putin refused to rule out whether there would be some form of military clash between the United States, China, and Russia, arguing that, “the entire history of mankind has always been full of military conflicts.”

Russia Is Readying For a World War

And this gets us to Putin’s great bugaboo of late: American skepticism over arms control agreements. Previously, I’ve assessed Putin’s attacks on both President Donald. J. Trump and previous U.S. presidents (usually from the Republican Party) who weaken and/or pull the United States out of arms control agreements.

Former President George W. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to allow for the creation of reliable missile-defense systems (though his successor, Barack Obama, negated any progress that was made when he terminated the program to place ABM systems in Poland and Eastern Europe). President Trump pulled the United States out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, thereby making the United States more competitive in the area of medium-range nuclear weapons–something that both the Russians and Chinese had come to monopolize (despite Russia having also signed on to the INF Treaty).

Vladimir Putin insists that reducing arms control agreements removes the mechanisms that are needed to mitigate great power conflict in the nuclear age. He is right–to a point. Yet, Russia has not only found ways to work around arms control agreements that they’ve signed, but Moscow has also become masters of what’s known as “asymmetrical warfare.” Therefore, their threat to the United States is unconventional.

For example, in a pending article due out at the end of July this year in Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs, I make the argument that Russia has been building up their space warfare capabilities by illegally deploying small cubesats with grappling claws into geosynchronous (GEO) orbit. These satellites, nicknamed “Space Stalkers,” are designed to tailgate behind sensitive, large, and poorly defended American satellites, latch onto them, and push them out of orbit.

Sensitive systems like the vital Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation that provides the U.S. military–specifically the Army–with unprecedented global communications capabilities are targeted by these Space Stalkers. Also, the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), which links together America’s global navy, operates in GEO and could be attacked. What’s more, highly sensitive early missile warning and surveillance satellites orbit the Earth in GEO. These satellites are expensive and, because of their distance from Earth and the functions they serve, should they be damaged or destroyed, American forces would be left deaf, dumb, and blind.

Of course, the United States would eventually recover from such an attack, but modern warfare–particularly against rival great states employing asymmetrical warfare tactics–is about timing. Any American response would be slowed down and, until those C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capabilities were fully restored, the American response would be haphazard while the Russians would be well-positioned to achieve whatever their strategic objectives were in attacking American satellite constellations to begin with.

Now, the United States, once it figured out that it was enduring a Russian-perpetrated “Space Pearl Harbor,” would attempt to migrate its critical communications functions away from orbit to the vaunted undersea cables. Of course, the sheer volume of traffic that would be migrated to the undersea cables would necessarily mean everything would be going slower through those cables. Thus, prioritization of traffic would be critical. Yet, the overloaded undersea communication would mean slower response times on the part of the U.S. military, should the Russians decide to attack somewhere in Eastern Europe (right now, there is a large Russian tank force sitting on its border with Ukraine waiting for God-knows-what).

Regardless of the slow-down in traffic, though, this is one way of mitigating the damage that a Russian space stalker attack on a key military system, such as the WGS or MUOS. But, what if the Russians, anticipating such a countermove by the Americans to preserve their global situational awareness, countered by attacking or tapping into these undersea cables? After all, it is public knowledge where the bulk of these cables lie on the seafloor. And, both the United States and the Soviet Union spent much time and effort compromising these cables during the Cold War.

Russia Moves Against Undersea Cables

Two months ago, I warned a group from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) precisely about the potential threat that Russia posed to not only America’s satellite constellations in GEO, but also to our vital undersea cables. It seems farfetched to some, but over the last year, Russia has been making key investments and expansions of their submarines that are designed to attack and conduct covert missions against global undersea communications cables.

In December 2017, U.S. Navy Admiral Andrew Lennon, commander of NATO’s submarine force, stated that:

We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of underwater cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen.

The importance of undersea cables cannot be overstated. At any given moment, these cables carry some $10 trillion of financial transfers and process some 15 million financial transactions. One report identified them as the “arteries to modern society” as we know it. Cutting off U.S. military communications in space and then severing other, vital communications and economic linkages via undersea cables would not only mollify any American response to a potential Russian attack into Eastern Europe, but it would also leave the United States on its knees.

Cutting off an enemy’s critical communications infrastructure is not outside of the bounds for Russian strategists. After all, on the eve of their invasion of Crimea, Russia cut off Crimea’s internet and telecommunication linkages, thereby isolating it away from the rest of the Ukraine. A potential Russian attack on critical American communications and surveillance nodes, both in orbit at undersea, would merely be the same principle applied on a larger-scale. And, despite their overall weaknesses, the Russian military has maintained–and expanded–their ability to conduct such a large-scale operation.

Russia’s Main Directorate for Deep Sea Research, also known by the acronym of “GUGI,” has a large base east of Norway in Olenya Bay according to the Barents Observer. It is from this covert base where Russia maintains nine advanced nuclear submarines and an assortment of surface vessels, all of which are special purpose submarines aimed at “seabed operations.” This unit maintains ships that are capable of deploying smaller, more compact, and easier-to-maneuver submarines as well. Even in times of economic hardship, Moscow has not only maintained its investment in this secretive fleet, but they have enhanced its capabilities, clearly recognizing the strategic value (and vulnerability) of these undersea cables.

This GUGI force was enhanced even more by the arrival of the world’s largest submarine earlier this year. The Belgorod, which is based off the keel of an incomplete Oscar-II-class submarine that was first laid down at the Sevmash shipyards in 1992. The Belgorod was equipped with two nuclear reactors and is massive. What’s more, it is part of this fleet of bizarre and advanced submarines designed to dive deep and fiddle with the undersea cable network.

Earlier this week, in fact, one of the other submarines involved with the GUGI fleet, the Losharik, suffered an unexplained explosion in the Barents Sea resulting in damage to the sub and the loss of 14 Russian sailors. The Russians are claiming the mission these sailors were on is a state secret. But, one can impute that whatever they were doing was not good for Western security. After all, some of the most sensitive undersea cables exist in the Barents Sea. Severing or tapping them, which is a capability the submarines in the GUGI fleet possess, would be difficult to detect and would be a strategic boon for the Russians–especially if this was part of a larger Russian assault on Western communications, such as the kind of space stalker attack I outlined above.

A rendering of the Losharik.

In the year 2000, another mishap aboard another Russian submarine resulted in the loss of the warship with all hands. The world watched in stunned horror as Putin’s government refused all entreaties from other navies to assist the stricken sailors of the Kursk. Putin refused and many were confused as to why. At the time, the Kursk was another Oscar-class submarine (though not as advanced as the Belgorod). It has since been speculated that Putin was testing a nascent form of Russia’s new Poseidon nuclear missile when something on the Kursk went wrong. He refused assistance from the West because he feared that the world would discover that the Russians were testing illegal weapons aboard the Kursk.

The Kursk after it was raised from the seafloor by the Russians.

Something similar may have transpired aboard the Losharik. It’s possible they were testing a new weapon. Or, that they were engaged in an illicit operation directed against critical undersea cables when something went awry. Rather than admit what they were doing, the Russians are covering it up and handing out medals to the families of the 14 dead Russian sailors as if they were going out-of-style.

Putin Gets Drunk on Champagne

Those reading this piece are likely skeptical of my concerns. Good. Skepticism is healthy and we need more of this in intelligence assessments. Although, we needn’t be so skeptical that we discount everything. Remember: no one believed that anyone–let alone Japan–could so effectively attack Pearl Harbor as they did. Similarly, few today believe that the Russians would even risk all-out war with the West by attacking our critical linkages in space and undersea. But, clearly, the Russians have yet to abandon their pretensions of being a great imperial power. Putin has risked much with the United States in his bold actions against Georgia, Ukraine, and in Syria. He continues investing in weapons that are explicitly designed to hurt and threaten America.

For several years, Putin has insisted he wants to do a deal with the West. Unfortunately, the West has been detached and refused to engage him as an equal. This has compelled Putin to greater levels of aggression against the West. Like a toddler trying to get an ambivalent parent’s attention, Putin continued escalating his hostility, hoping to encourage the Americans to come to the negotiating table and compromise with him. No one in Washington is listening. And, Putin is receiving plaudits from his own people for appearing to stand up to the decadent West. This creates a negative feedback loop in Putin’s decision-making, which means the United States and Russia are closer to war than ever before.

By risking so much in order to drink champagne, Putin is getting drunk. Far from the United States acting rashly, it is Moscow that is behaving foolishly in the face of overwhelming odds stacked against them. Putin has been consistently rewarded for his bad behavior, either out of Western apathy over Georgia or fear of a larger conflict with Russia over Ukraine and Syria. He has engaged in what’s known as a “salami slice” strategy for getting what he wants. And, what does he want? Putin wants to cleave a sphere of influence out of the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe. His targets indicate as much. He believes that NATO and European Union “double expansion” are threats to Russian national security.

Putin also knows that he simply cannot go big and invade these areas in order to acquire the territory he desires. Instead, Putin is keeping hostilities below the threshold of war, keeping the West off-balance, while undermining America’s military advantages. His strategy is working. By disabling the U.S. satellite constellations in GEO and then severing critical undersea cables, that will basically make the U.S. and NATO forces defending Europe giant window-dressing.

This is the real threat and there is little indication that the West is even paying attention. Going forward, unless we want to suffer a surprise attack of such drastic proportions, it would behoove the West to make a deal with Russia over NATO and EU expansion; to negotiate over the matter of Ukraine and attempt to stabilize the bipolar Russo-American relationship before it is too late.

In the eternal words of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, “We are on notice but we have not noticed.”


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