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The central theme of the traditional Munich Security Conference last weekend was the current assessment of the Russian threat. The briefs prepared for the high-level participants, including US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, had, however, to undergo urgent revisions as at least three new developments in the week preceding the event revealed the growing complexity of this threat. First, the intelligence alliance known as “Five Eyes” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) put the blame squarely on the Russian military for launching the destructive cyber-attack dubbed “NotPetya” in June 2017 (Newsru.com, February 16). Second, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens for interfering in the 2016 US elections as a part of his on-going investigation (Kommersant, February 16). And third, it gradually becomes clear that a major direct clash between Russian and American forces happened in Syria on February 7, when a massive US air and artillery strike destroyed a battalion tactical group comprised of Russian mercenaries (New Times, February 15).

The first two of these revelations fall into the fast-expanding cybersecurity domain. While operations of Russian “troll factories” like the Internet Research Agency, included in Mueller’s indictment, are well documented, the attribution of the destructive and indiscriminate cyber-attack last June to the Russian military is a significant move (RBC.ru, October 17, 2017). A White House statement promised succinctly that the attack “will be met with international consequences,” but it is also known that Igor Korobov, the chief of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who is the responsible party, recently visited Washington for discussions on counter-terrorism matters (Kommersant.ru, February 1). The decision of NATO defense ministers taken at the meeting before the Munich conference to establish a new Cyber Operations Center reflects the need to counter Russian experiments in this domain, where Russia has no technological advantage but feels free to play fast and loose (Gazeta.ru, February 15). Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, mentioned in Munich that countering Russian propaganda by exposing its lies and dirty tricks is a key element in the Alliance’s cyber-defense (RBC.ru, February 18).

The third development, while shaped by a conventional clash, still falls into the “hybrid” category, because Moscow can hide behind official denials. It was triggered by an attack by the Syrian government forces on a stronghold of the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where US personnel were present—and Russian field commanders were well aware of that (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 13). The urge to capture control of a minor oil plant prevailed over strategic caution, and the results were devastating for the band of Russian mercenaries known as the “Wagner Group” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 16). Rumors in Moscow measured the casualties in the hundreds, and while only a dozen or so are reliably confirmed dead, the most shocking twist in the battle was that the US commanders maintained constant communication with their Russian counterparts over the “de-conflicting channel,” but Moscow opted against giving any warning to its mercenaries (Novaya Gazeta, February 17). Russia’s Defense Ministry had perhaps expected that the episode would remain obscured by the fog of war, but ironically, the social networks that Moscow is so keen to exploit for its propaganda have exposed its duplicity (Republic.ru, February 12).

The stunning defeat in the Euphrates valley signifies a further mutation of the multi-party Syrian war, where Russia sought to augment its reduced intervention with expanded “hybrid” engagement. The rout of “deniable” mercenaries coincided with the Turkish offensive into the Afrin enclave controlled by Kurdish forces, and Moscow expressed full support for this operation expecting that it would further strain the damaged alliance between Turkey and the United States (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 12).

On another front of the messy war, and just three days after the destruction of the “Wagner Group,” in response to an Iranian drone incursion in its territory, Israel delivered a devastating airstrike on Syrian and Iranian military bases primarily around Damascus, wiping out nearly half of the Syrian air defense system (Kommersant, February 12). Russian air defense assets at the Khmeimim and Tartus bases did not interfere with the Israeli operation, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry merely expressed “grave concern” and called for restraint (MID.ru, February 10). This feeble message cannot hide the reality of Russia washing its hands over the Kurds in Afrin, letting down the al-Assad regime, turning its back on its Iranian allies, and betraying its own “dogs of war.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed a piece of the Iranian drone at the Munich conference to reinforce his point about readiness to act against Iran, but he did not spell out his concerns of whether and how would Russia help in rebuilding Syrian air defenses (RBC.ru, February 18). Russia’s influence across the Middle East has definitely suffered, but Putin can hardly find an option for projecting power in order to restore it, while his personal diplomacy becomes increasingly self-serving and leaves the counterparts, like the King of Jordan Abdullah II, puzzled about what Russia really stands for (RIA-Novosti, February 15). Russia’s image in the West has suffered even more as McMaster asserted that the evidence of Russian interference in US elections was “incontrovertible”—and Lavrov’s refusal to comment on this “hearsay” did not help (Kommersant, Newsru.com, February 19). The “hybrid” means and methods appeared to be very useful, but presently they have started to backfire badly, and unintended consequences keep piling up.

The apparent need to re-evaluate and rethink the results of Russia’s resolve to engage in confrontation with the West dictates certain caution in launching new unconventional offensives. It might also be possible for Moscow to benefit quietly from multiple disagreements and general discord in trans-Atlantic relations that were evident at the Munich conference. What makes such self-restraint less plausible is the introduction of new sanctions and other delayed punishment for past malefaction. Putin is trying to avoid further quarrels, but not responding to affronts amounts in his book to showing weakness, which on the election trail, easy-walk as it is, is entirely prohibited. Events are pushing his hand, and while in international affairs subtle threats often work better than rash moves, domestic politics demands a new show of force.

— Pavel K. Baev

Ukraine Advances Its Missile Production Program

On January 30, 2018, Ukraine conducted the first successful flight test of its new cruise missile Neptun, aimed at examining the functions of its solid-propellant thruster and launcher (Rnbo.gov.ua, January 30). The Ukrainian defense industry is currently implementing two essential missile projects—the cruise missile Neptun and the multiple launch missile system Vilkha (MLRS Vilkha). A state-owned company, SE State Kyiv Design Bureau “Luch,” is designing both projects. In addition to these missile projects, the SE Design Bureau “Pivdenne” is developing a new mobile short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) system Hrim-2.

Until 2014, Ukraine’s leadership mostly ignored the subject of developing missile weapons, although the military and design companies continually raised it. However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed aggression in the Donbas changed Kyiv’s defense thinking and made missile systems one of the priorities in strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

The Neptune project is a subsonic missile with a range of up to 300 kilometers (km) (Ukrinform, January 30). It is equipped with different types of target seekers to be able to hit various types of targets (112.ua, January 30). In general, ground, naval and airborne variants of this cruise missile are expected (Defense Express, January 26).

The Neptun project combines new ideas, proven solutions and dependable designs, already developed in Ukraine. This approach will significantly reduce the cost of its mass production preparations (112.ua, January 30, Glavcom, February 2). Experts estimate that within two to three years the Neptun missile will be brought to mass production and will be supplied primarily to coastal defense units, which today are in dire need of capable anti-ship weapons (Glavcom, February 2).

The project is of great significance for Ukraine. For the first time since independence, the Ukrainian army will receive an effective means to deter the enemy—the “long arm” capable of hitting targets at a maximum range with minimum use of missiles. At the same time, given the state’s limited financial resources, this cruise missile is the optimal solution according to the “cost-effective” criteria.

Vilkha is a modernization of the Soviet MLRS Smerch. The system’s parameters are not disclosed in detail, but it is generally known that its missiles would be able to hit targets at a distance of up to 120 km (Glavred, April 25, 2017). The critical feature of this project is the guidance system and the possibility of adjusting a missile’s trajectory when it is already in flight. With this, the flight adjustment is not carried out by GPS, whose signals could be suppressed, but rather by impulse engines. As a result, each of the 12 missiles of the volley can hit separate targets (Defense Express, November 6, 2017).

In 2017, all tests within the framework of this project were completed. In particular, during the recent tests in December, all four missiles hit their targets, which proved the high ballistic characteristics of the new missile, its guidance system, new solid rocket fuel and new missile frames (Unian, December 22). According to experts’ estimates, the arrival of Vilkha in the Ukrainian army is expected by 2019 (Apostrophe, February 1).

In addition to these missile projects, the SE Design Bureau “Pivdenne” is developing a new mobile short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) system Hrim-2, whose launcher and missile engine tests were shown in mid-January (24tv, January 16). Currently, the Hrim-2 project is carried out on behalf of a foreign customer. This imposes restrictions on its range, which, according to the manufacturer’s data, is 280 km. If developed for the Ukrainian army, the range of the new SRBM Hrim-2 could be increased up to 450-500 km (Defense Express, August 16, 2016; Wartime.org.ua, August 5, 2016).

According to experts, the production of the Hrim-2 system for the foreign customer could start in two years. The Ukrainian military has set their hopes on this system and expects that after the successful completion of all tests and the supply cycle for the foreign customer, the cost of upgrading it to their requirements will be significantly lower (Apostrophe, January 8).

Ukraine’s need for this SRBM is critical, as the state has been under attack. Currently, the most powerful system of the Ukrainian army is the Soviet tactical ballistic missile Tochka, which has a range of 120 km, but inferior accuracy. The Hrim-2 system, in its upgraded version to 450-500 km range, would be able to hit targets at distances three times farther than Tochka. At the same time, its accuracy and power will be much higher than those of its Soviet analog.

The creation of these missile systems is a timely solution that is entirely consistent with Kyiv’s current security and defense policy. Ukraine’s military doctrine says that by giving up its nuclear arsenal—one of the most powerful in the world—the country has the right to rely on the international community’s support for reinforcing its conventional defense capabilities. Meanwhile, Ukraine will use its existing military capabilities and reserves to guarantee state sovereignty and territorial integrity (Zakon3.rada.gov.ua, September 24, 2015, Segodnya, April 30, 2017).

The development and production of these three missile systems are of vital importance for Ukraine. First, these powerful, modern weapons systems will significantly increase the overall defense capability of the state. Second, according to the “cost-effective” criteria, these systems are currently the best solution developed by the Ukrainian defense industry. Third, the availability of such weapons to the Ukrainian military would both serve as a deterrent and would also have an extremely positive psychological significance. Fourth, the successful work on the missile systems shows that the Ukrainian defense industry has sufficient intellectual and productive capacities to implement such high-tech projects independently. This demonstration of capability is especially important as Russian propaganda claims that, without cooperation with Moscow, Ukraine’s defense industry has no chance of survival. And finally, the active oversight of the missile projects by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine indicates the state’s interest and support for them, which in its turn suggests a good chance of their appearance in the Ukrainian army in due time.

— Igor Fedyk


Moscow Wants to Homogenize Cossacks, Destroying Their Distinctive Traditions

The Kremlin is now working to integrate the estimated five million Cossacks of the Russian Federation into Putin’s power vertical, reducing them to a transmission belt for the powers that be by denaturizing and homogenizing one of the most extraordinarily complex social groups in the Russian Federation. Moscow has had some success because it has offered the Cossacks a role in society that many of them may like. However, by overplaying their hand sometimes, the authorities have set the stage for more conflicts with this group, because the center defines what a Cossack must be in ways many Cossacks do not accept.

“Cossack” is the name given to an extraordinary assemblage of peoples whose relations with the state—especially the Soviet one—have often been fraught. They consist of some who had been at the margins of other countries in Eurasia from time immemorial; others who fled from state power; yet a third who were mobilized by the Russian state to engage in building the empire; and still others who since 1991 have identified with this tradition even if they have no direct connection with it. As a result, their relations with the state have been equally complicated: the tsarist state viewed them as useful if unruly allies, the Soviet state attempted to destroy them in the early years and then exploit their tradition during World War II. Most recently, the post-Soviet regime has sought to use them as adjuncts to the police.

Most were and remain Russian Orthodox in religion; a few are Muslim, slightly more are Buddhist, and some even were Jewish despite their role in the anti-Jewish pogroms of the late imperial period, as a recent article has pointed out (Russian7). Nearly all speak Russian, although some Cossacks argue that their language is distinct; and many would like to see their people counted as a separate nationality, something neither the Soviet nor post-Soviet regime has been willing to do.

Both the pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Cossack world in Russia is divided into about a dozen “hosts” led by host atamans who are chosen by their members—thirteen existed in tsarist times, and eleven operate now. These hosts vary in their rules, dress and attitudes toward the Russian state, with some being absolutely obedient and others taking a more independent stance (Nazaccent, February 12). They also vary in their attitudes toward one another, with some favoring an all-Russian unity but most opposed, at least until recently. Now the Russian government has weighed in on the side of the former, and the balance may be changing.

On February 15, at a meeting at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, some 1,500 Cossacks from 80 regions of the country assembled at what was styled as the First Grand Circle (krug) of the Russian Cossacks. The meeting was organized by the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs (whose head Igor Barinov is a Don Cossack), the Presidential Council for the Cossack Affairs, the Moscow Patriarchate’s committee for relations with the Cossacks and the government of the city of Moscow. The explicit purpose of the sessions was to unify the Cossacks under a single ataman, come out in support of Vladimir Putin’s re-election (having first declared him “the first Cossack of Russia”) and resolve conflicts among the various hosts about their relationship with the state authorities (TASS, January 22; URA, January 30, and VZ.ru, February 18).

At a superficial level, the meeting performed as its organizers hoped, but at a deeper one, things did not go all that well. The meeting did come out in support of Putin and did support the Russian government’s rapprochement with the Cossacks. But two things marred the session. On the one hand, Patriarch Kirill declared to the assembled Cossacks that no one who was not Orthodox could be a Cossack—a position at odds with those who are Buddhists (especially in the Trans Baikal host) and Muslims, and one that many others appear to have been offended by (Forum-msk, February 18).

And on the other hand, the Moscow meeting was not as inclusive as its organizers sought to present it. Many groups, especially those from the Urals host and further afield, were either only very sparsely represented or not represented at all. The Urals Cossacks signaled their distaste for what Moscow is trying to do by ousting an ataman that the Russian authorities had imposed on them at the very time when the meeting in the capital was taking place (URA.news, January 30).

Perhaps even more serious for the future, however, was the sharp attack on the meeting by the most senior Cossack politician in Russia, Viktor Vodolatsky, a Cossack general, who currently serves in the Russian Duma. “The session, which is occurring in Moscow,” he said, “alas does not correspond fully with all the aspirations of the Cossacks, who want to see a mechanism for unifying the Cossacks. This is sad and bad… Russia needs a united Cossack community, and perhaps Barinov, as a Cossack himself, will be able to find a way to promote that” (VZ.ru, February 15).

Moscow is likely to find, however, that unifying under its notions of who is a Cossack—“only the Orthodox”—and who is not is going to be a difficult challenge. After all, one of the origins of the word “Cossacks” is “free men.” And they show little sign of being willing to march in lockstep with anyone but themselves.

— Paul Goble