April 21, 2018

EU Ambassadors Condemn China’s Belt and Road Initiative


Clearly, European countries aren’t buying China’s rhetoric of the BRI as “win-win cooperation.”

By Ravi Prasad

April 21, 2018

On Wednesday, it was reported by Handelsblatt that 27 out of 28 EU ambassadors to China signed a report criticizing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Hungarian ambassador was the only exception. It is unclear when the report will get published, and whether Handelsblatt saw a draft of the report or a finished version. However, if Handelsblatt’s claims turn out to be true, it will mark one of the biggest setbacks the BRI has seen to date.

Europe is the final frontier of the land routes central to the BRI. Every day trains from the Chinese trading hubs of Yiwu, Chongqing, and elsewhere begin epic three-week journeys to Europe – ultimately arriving at distribution hubs in Duisburg, Madrid, and London. Moreover, the 16+1 Initiative between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries is heavily linked to the BRI. Yet the success of further opening up of trade routes into Europe, Chinese infrastructure projects in the region, and the entirety of the 16+1 Initiative are threatened by Europe’s increasing reticence with Chinese involvement in the region. This latest report focusing on the BRI is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The report’s primary critique of the BRI is that it “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalizing trade and pushes the balance of power in favor of subsidized Chinese companies.” This critique is not new; there has been concern for some time that the projects that make up the BRI, particularly in the infrastructure space, are often being discussed on a bilateral basis, while flouting international trade and investment rules. Indeed, China might be using its financial muscle to force smaller recipient countries to negotiate in this way.

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Whilst this narrative undoubtedly hides a deeper insecurity that Western multinationals now fear Chinese competitors more than ever before, there still remains considerable truth to it. The Belgrade-Budapest Railway is a case in point; in the early discussions of the project, Chinese financiers and their Hungarian partners wanted to keep bidding closed and nontransparent, in doing so circumventing EU regulations. The project was ultimately stalled by EU authorities until a more transparent bidding process was adopted.

This approach is reflected in the fact that 89 percent of projects that are labeled as part of the BRI have been implemented by Chinese companies. Foreign companies complain about their lack of access to the BRI, and combined with China’s reluctance to welcome foreign investments, it casts doubt on whether the BRI is a two-way street. Even though Chinese rhetoric around the BRI has international aspirations and calls for enhanced international participation, it remains effectively a Chinese initiative.To become truly international, the BRI needs to be more than just a vehicle for Chinese investments overseas. It needs to promote idea sharing and evolve by adopting international best practices through an inclusive consultative process with partners, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The positive for China is that the EU ambassador’s report is not an outright rejection of the BRI. Indeed, it still leaves open the prospect of European collaboration on the BRI – but if and only if Europe’s concerns are addressed. As one senior EU diplomat stated, “We shouldn’t refuse to cooperate but we should politely yet firmly state our terms.”

Chinese policymakers are doing their utmost to brand the BRI as epitomized by “win-win cooperation.” Clearly, this report shows that there is a marked disconnect between that rhetoric and the perception of policymakers in the world’s largest trading bloc. It should serve as a warning to Chinese policymakers as to what the consequences might be if the BRI continues to lack inclusiveness, fails to invite foreign participants, and does not act as a two-way street.

It’s not inconceivable that, following in the footsteps of Europe, other economic blocs could begin to band together to voice their concerns surrounding the BRI. For the sake of the BRI’s success, it would be better for Chinese policymakers to pre-emptively address those concerns, as opposed to continuing to create the impression that the initiative remains a panacea.

Ravi Prasad is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and Co-Founder of www.beltandroad.blog

Russia’s Nuclear Policy: Worrying for the Wrong Reasons


DownloadPDFThe Russian nuclear problem is real and serious – but it is political more than it is military.

By: Bruno Tertrais

Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy April–May 2018

Article Type: Commentary

Pages: 33-44

Volume: 60

Edition number: 2

Date: 20 March 2018

The dominant narrative about Russia’s nuclear weapons in Western strategic literature since the beginning of the century has been something like this: Russia’s doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate’, and its large-scale military exercises, show that Moscow is getting ready to use low-yield, theatre nuclear weapons to stop NATO from defeating Russia’s forces, or to coerce the Atlantic Alliance and end a conflict on terms favourable to Russia.

Examples of this narrative abound in recent official and non-official statements and writings. In 2015, two senior US Department of Defense (DoD) officials testified to Congress that ‘Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy – a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use’.1 In 2016, Admiral Cecil Haney, then commander of US Strategic Command, said that Russia was ‘declaring and recklessly demonstrating its willingness to escalate to deescalate if required’.2 That same year, a NATO secretary-general report claimed that Russian large-scale ‘exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO Allies (e.g., ZAPAD)’.3 A US expert declares that ‘in the event of a major war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [Russian] plans call for “de-escalatory” nuclear strikes. That is, Vladimir Putin would order limited nuclear attacks early, so as to frighten the US into ending the conflict on terms favourable to Moscow.’4 A towering figure of the US strategic community asserts that: ‘The Russian military has devised a doctrine which envisions using a small number of very low-yield nuclear weapons to attack NATO forces defending Alliance territory’.5 A European analyst writes that during recent exercises, ‘Russia rehearsed the use of limited low-yield nuclear strikes to intimidate the West into accepting Russian territorial gains’.6 Breathless reporting in Western media often includes the same claims.

The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) exemplifies this narrative and paints a rather frightening picture of the Russian theatre-nuclear threat. To wit:

Russia’s belief that limited first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its great number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict. Recent Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons. Russia demonstrates its perception of the advantage these systems provide through numerous exercise and statements.

Russia may also rely on threats of limited nuclear first use, or actual first use, to coerce us, our allies, and partners into terminating a conflict on terms favorable to Russia …

[Russia] mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia …

[Russia] is also building a large, diverse, and modern set of non-strategic systems that are dual-capable (may be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons). These theater- and tactical-range systems are not accountable under the New START Treaty and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear modernization is increasing the total number of such weapons in its arsenal, while significantly improving its delivery capabilities …

Most concerning are Russia’s national security policies, strategies, and doctrine that include an emphasis on the threat of limited nuclear escalation, and its continuing development and fielding of increasingly diverse and expanding nuclear capabilities. Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. Some in the United States refer to this as Russia’s ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine. ‘De-escalation’ in this sense follows from Moscow’s mistaken assumption of Western capitulation on terms favorable to Moscow.7

Most of the elements of this narrative, however, rely on weak evidence – and there is strong evidence to counter many of them. Russia is not building new dedicated theatre-nuclear systems, and there is little evidence of new ‘low-yield’ warheads; it does not have an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine; and it is not practising the use of nuclear weapons in large-scale military exercises. The Russian nuclear problem is real and serious – but it is political more than it is military.

Russia’s arsenal

Almost all open sources, including the US 2018 NPR, refer to a Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) arsenal of about 2,000 warheads (‘non-strategic’ here referring to those weapons not designed to be carried by New START-constrained launchers). The same sources differ in their evaluation of the number of operationally available warheads (that is, those which are available for planning and are not held in reserve). The most detailed recent open-source study, published in 2012, suggests that out of 1,900, only about half of this arsenal is available, most of it being assigned to naval, air and air-defence forces in western Russia.8 A total of 1,900 would amount, according to data provided by the author of the study, to less than 10% of the late Cold War Soviet NSNW arsenal. Such a 93% reduction, one should note, would not be vastly different from what NATO’s own deployed NSNW arsenal has undergone since its 1970s peak (a 97% reduction).9

Rumours and Russian threats of new nuclear deployments in Kaliningrad started about two decades ago. These rumours and threats generally involved a degree of confusion, perhaps deliberate, between missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on the one hand, and the warheads themselves, on the other. References were made first to the dual-capable short-range missiles SS-21 Tochka-Uand then, in the past ten years, to the more modern SS-26 Iskander-M, which is almost certainly dual-capable, although its nuclear capability has never been publicly acknowledged by Moscow.10 After years of Russian threats to do so, the Iskander-M was deployed in the enclave in 2016, allegedly temporarily, as a supposed reprisal for the deployment of NATO ballistic-missile defences. Specific references to nuclear warheads, however, have been scant. It is possible that Kaliningrad, which hosts large military facilities, has been a depot of nuclear warheads for some time, notably for the Russian navy; but there is no evidence of nuclear-warhead deployments dedicated to the Iskander-M. It has been speculated that the nuclear warhead for this missile could be either the one designed for the SS-21 or the one designed for the SS-23 Oka.11 Given the relatively short shelf life of Russian non-strategic warheads, it is at least equally possible that Russia adapted one of these designs.

Has Russia developed new types of warheads of the low-yield variety? It is possible that it reduced the yield of existing ones, as several nuclear powers have done in the past or are doing today, by reducing the amount of fissile or fusible material contained in the warhead. But evidence of new types of low-yield warheads is absent – and programmes to develop such warheads would be of dubious reliability in the absence of full-scale testing. The only available source is a nearly 20-year-old declassified (though heavily redacted) CIA Intelligence Memorandum, which seems to refer to Russian interest in, more than development of, a new, tailored, low-yield warhead.12

Ambiguity is at the core of Russian strategy. However, for our purposes here we should distinguish between ambiguity as a political strategy (intentionally projecting uncertainty about the nature of the threat) and ambiguity as a technical fact (the built-in dual capability of launchers). Dual capability applies to many bombers and missiles: it is in the genes of Russian strategic culture. It is also a product of the severe budgetary constraints of the 1990s and 2000s, as well as a practical matter, to simplify force management. Lest we forget, some Alliance assets are also dual-capable (the F-16, Tornado and Rafale bombers). Finally, as others have observed, retaining a large NSNW arsenal may also be a bargaining chip: ‘Russia is quite simply loath to give up something it has a lot of without getting something else in return.’13

Yes, Russia is ramping up the development, deployment and use of theatre-range launchers and missiles – including the new SSC-8, a cruise missile that almost certainly violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. But this does not mean a renewed emphasis on the nuclear capability of such systems.

Russia’s doctrine

In 2010, Russia raised its stated nuclear threshold. Today, its doctrine no longer emphasises nuclear deterrence, but ‘strategic deterrence’ (nuclear and non-nuclear). As described in the 2014 military doctrine:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.14

This wording – the same as in 2010 – suggests that NSNW are no longer weapons to compensate for military weakness or reverse the course of a battle, but rather instruments of war termination. That is, they would be used to re-establish deterrence more than they would be used to win the war in military terms. Russian officials have suggested that in 2010 a secret document accompanying the published doctrine was also adopted.15 But, rather than being a ‘secret nuclear doctrine’ to contradict the official one, this is much more likely to have been a more detailed version of the official document, for the purposes of planning or programming.

This change is not surprising; indeed, it is consistent with what we know about the evolution of Russian conventional armed forces over the past decade. Moscow feels much more comfortable with its capabilities than it did ten years ago, at the time of the invasion of Georgia.

Does the expression ‘escalate to de-escalate’ aptly characterise Russian nuclear doctrine? Taken literally – as its original authors (three Russian military experts) suggested in 1999 – there is nothing shocking about this concept.16 It suggests that, if Russia found itself in a losing situation, the limited use of nuclear weapons would aim at an early termination of the conflict by re-establishing deterrence. Isn’t that how NATO and its nuclear powers have traditionally thought about limited use?

In any case, the expression has long since disappeared from official Russian writings. As a matter of fact – and although some Russian officials occasionally used it in public statements in the 2000s – the word ‘de-escalation’ seems to have appeared only once in a Russian official document, a Ministry of Defence report of 2003. That document described four missions for strategic deterrence: ‘in peacetime – to prevent power politics and aggression against Russia or its allies; in wartime – de-escalation of aggression; termination of hostilities on conditions acceptable to Russia; impair the adversary’s capability to a target level’. The report also included a box defining de-escalation as follows: ‘De-escalation of aggression: forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons.’17 (Note, incidentally, that the de-escalatory threat was much broader than nuclear use.) As Olga Oliker, a noted expert on Russia, puts it, ‘the evidence that Russia’s nuclear strategy is one of “de-escalation”, or that it has lowered its threshold for nuclear use, is far from convincing’.

It is thus baffling that the US NPR referred to this expression. At least its drafters were wise enough to be cautious in one of the two references: ‘Some in the United States refer to this as Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.’18

Of course, at the end of the day, it is likely, as a NATO analyst put it after a careful review of Russia’s military thinking, that ‘Russia’s nuclear threshold in a crisis or conflict would be … subject to political decisions in the circumstances of the moment. The bottom line is that Russia’s nuclear threshold would be wherever the president, as commander-in-chief, chooses.’19 However, this last sentence, taken literally, is also true for France, the United Kingdom and the United States.20

As for Russian ‘nuclear threats’, these are generally made by mid-level officials and parliamentarians. By contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s own statements on this question are rarely shocking. To give but one example, Putin’s much-discussed 2015 statement about the Crimean crisis was simply an ex post declaration stating that Putin had been ‘ready’ to put nuclear forces on alert if need be.21 Hardly a threat.

Russia’s exercises

Exercises are important for understanding Russia’s nuclear posture, because, as the saying goes, Moscow trains as it fights and fights as it trains. So what do large-scale ones such as the Zapad (Western front) and Vostok (Eastern front) exercises tell us?

They tell us that the last time one of them indisputably included nuclear use was almost 20 years ago, in 1999 (Russia was explicit about it), and that no known theatre military exercise has included nuclear-weapons use for a decade. This is unsurprising: Russia now ‘wins’ – or at least ‘resists’ – without nuclear weapons.

It is often claimed that Zapad 2009 included a nuclear strike against Europe, but this claim comes from a single source, a report by the Polish magazine Wprost. A cable reporting on a NATO debriefing of the exercise shows how the frequent confusion between ‘nuclear’ and ‘nuclear-capable’ permits speculation to be reported as fact. The US ambassador to NATO described it as follows: ‘The exercise included … missile launches, some of which may have simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons.’22 However, as quoted by a respectable expert, this became: ‘A Wikileaks document suggests that recent military exercises in the Baltic region and the Russian Far East involved simulated nuclear launches.’23

Regarding Zapad 2013an in-depth analysis of the exercise co-published by the Jamestown Foundation – hardly known as a hotbed of Russia appeasers – concludes that ‘the limited use of nuclear weapons was not simulated during Zapad-2013’.24 Same for Zapad 2017: a conservative US expert on Russian military issues concluded in a long analysis that ‘Unlike the earlier Zapad exercises, there was no indication that Russia was in a desperate situation when they initiated simulated nuclear strikes. Indeed, they had won’.25

There is a nuclear dimension overshadowing large-scale exercises such as Zapads. In 2017, for instance, RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests bracketed or bookended Zapad: one (silo-based) test took place on 12 September, two days before the exercise; another (mobile) one happened on 20 September, its last day, although there was no indication that it was part of Zapad.26 A ballistic missile was reportedly ‘launched’ from a Northern Fleet submarine during the defensive phase of Zapad 2017, but an official Ukrainian statement – another source not known for disparaging Russian military threats – refers to it as only an ‘electronic’ launch, or a simulation.27

Nuclear exercises may thus be connected with, yet separated from, recent Zapads. (Autumn is generally the season of Russian strategic-nuclear-forces readiness exercises.) As an in-depth Swedish analysis of Russian exercises from 2011 to 2014 put it, ‘nuclear forces often, but not always, trained in connection with annual strategic exercises or major surprise inspections’.28 If so, this suggests an obvious conclusion: Russia would see any conflict with the West as a potentially nuclear one, and Moscow would engage in nuclear signalling during the conflict for the purpose of political coercion.

The psychological dimension of this issue is important. When Russia uses dual-capable bombers such as the Tupolev-22, observers often choose to see a nuclear strike even though nothing indicates that this is the case. They are subject to confirmation bias. A long-distance strike against Sweden was simulated by such bombers in late March 2013. Its claim to fame stems from the fact that this was – bizarrely – mentioned as a ‘nuclear’ strike in a NATO secretary-general public report.29 But there is no evidence that this was the case. Sloppy drafting happens even in respectable organisations. Likewise, the dual-capable Iskander-M is often used in exercises – but short-range conventional ballistic missiles have been a fixture of Russian theatre operations from Afghanistan to Georgia and Syria, so there is no intrinsic reason to believe that this is a simulation of nuclear use.

For observers who genuinely think that Russia has a low nuclear threshold and regularly practises theatre-nuclear strikes, analysing its exercising can trigger cognitive dissonance: they can only reconcile the facts with their beliefs by choosing to see a nuclear strike even though nothing indicates that this is the case. This author remembers that in 2015, during a discussion with Western experts, an analyst confessed that having studied Russian large-scale exercises, he ‘could not understand’ why there seemed to be less and less emphasis on the nuclear dimension. Having unconsciously discarded the hypothesis according to which Russia was increasingly comfortable with its classical forces, he had forgotten the cardinal rule of research sometimes known as Ockham’s razor: the simplest explanation is often the correct one. There might be an element of groupthink here.

* * *

Russia is once again proud of its conventional forces, and it wants to be perceived as an equal to the United States. Hence its emphasis on ‘strategic deterrence’ and the use of long-range conventional cruise missiles such as Kalibr in Syria. Moscow is deliberately ambiguous about the characteristics of its forces and the nature of the exercises it conducts: it does not say whether they are nuclear or conventional. This is probably a political strategy. Russia has seen that nuclear ambiguity makes us uncomfortable, and that it potentially complicates our thinking and our planning. So Russia plays with that fact. As Oliker has observed of the nuclear arming of Iskander-M, ‘the Russians have realized that the prospect makes the United States and its NATO allies nervous’.30

To reiterate the point, it would not make sense for Russia to hide a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons or a low nuclear threshold, because it knows that this is what scares us. Alternative explanations are unsatisfying: it is highly dubious, for instance, that the absence of a nuclear element in recent exercises reflects ‘concern over the unfavourable publicity’ that it would bring Moscow.31

To be clear, this has no direct implications for the Atlantic Alliance’s nuclear posture. Irrespective of what Russia’s nuclear policy is, NATO needs to have a solid deterrent that includes the possibility to selectively strike Russia to deter Moscow from – and, if needed, respond to – limited nuclear use. Thus, even if the US NPR’s diagnosis of Russian nuclear policy is flawed, it does not necessarily follow that its decisions with regard to the improvement of deterrence in Europe are off the mark.

But the Russian nuclear-threat narrative needs to be deconstructed. There are enough good reasons to worry about Russia’s behaviour – from its reckless and dangerous military provocations to its violations of arms-control and disarmament treaties, and its temptation to play the nuclear card as a tool of political coercion – to worry about its nuclear weapons for the wrong reasons. Kristen Ven Bruusgaard, a prominent European analyst of Russian military affairs, has it right: ‘The fixation with the alleged “lowered nuclear threshold” is a symptom of a larger challenge the West has not had to face for some time: a nuclear-armed adversary with mature capabilities and concepts designed to take advantage of Western weaknesses.’32


The author would like to thank Isabelle Facon, Thomas Moore and Brad Roberts for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.


1 ‘Statement of Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Before the House Committee on Armed Services’, 25 June 2015, p. 4, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20150625/103669/HHRG-114-AS00-Wstate-WorkR-20150625.pdf.

2 Admiral Cecil D. Haney, remarks to the Project on Nuclear Issues Capstone Conference, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, 13 April 2016, http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/986478/project-on-nuclear-issues-capstone-conference/.

3 Jens Stoltenberg, ‘Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015’, NATO, 28 January 2016, p. 19, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_01/20160128_SG_AnnualReport_2015_en.pdf.

4 Matthew Kroenig, ‘The Case for Tactical US Nukes’, Wall Street Journal, 24 January 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-case-for-tactical-u-s-nukes-1516836395.

5 Franklin C. Miller, ‘The Nuclear Posture Review: Fiction and Fact’, Real Clear Defense, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/02/20/the_nuclear_posture_review__fiction_and_fact_113080.html.

6 Gustav Gressel, ‘The Draft US Nuclear Posture Review Is Not As Crazy As It Sounds’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 19 January 2018, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_draft_us_nuclear_posture_review_is_not_as_crazy_as_it_sounds.

7 US Department of Defense, ‘Nuclear Posture Review 2018’ [hereafter 2018 NPR], February 2018, pp. XI–XII, 7, 9 and 30, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.

8 Igor Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces’, Royal United Services Institute, 2012, https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/201211_op_atomic_accounting.pdf.

9 US Department of Defense, ‘Report of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management, Phase II: Review of the DoD Nuclear Mission’, December 2008, p. 59, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/PhaseIIReportFinal.pdf.

10 For background, see Nikolai Sokov, ‘A Second Sighting of Russian Tactical Nukes in Kaliningrad’, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, 15 February 2011, https://www.nonproliferation.org/a-second-sighting-of-russian-tactical-nukes-in-kaliningrad-2/.

11 Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces’.

12 See Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Evidence of Russian Development of New Subkiloton Nuclear Warheads’, 30 August 2000, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001260463.pdf; and Jeffrey G. Lewis, ‘Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons’, Arms Control Wonk, 3 December 2010, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/203309/russian-tactical-nuclear-weapons/.

13 Olga Oliker and Andrey Bakilitsky, ‘The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian “De-Escalation”: A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem’, War on the Rocks, 20 February 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/nuclear-posture-review-russian-de-escalation-dangerous-solution-nonexistent-problem/.

14 ‘Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2014’ [The 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation], paragraph 27, http://Kremlin.ru/media/events/files/41d527556bec8deb3530.pdf.

15 See Mark B. Schneidet, ‘Escalate to De-Escalate’, Proceedings, vol. 143, no. 2, February 2017, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-02/escalate-de-escalate.

16 Major General V.I. Levshin, Colonel A.V. Nedelin and Colonel M.E. Sosnovskii, ‘O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voennykh deistvii’ [On the use of nuclear weapons for the purposes of de-escalation of military confrontation], Voennaya Mysl’ [Military Thought], Moscow, January 1999, http://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/2449543.

17 ‘Aktoual’nye zadatchi razvitiia vooroujennykh sil Rossiïskoï Federatsii’ [Priority Tasks for the Development of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces], October 2003. For the English text, see p. 70 of http://red-stars.org/doctrine.pdf.

18 Olga Oliker, ‘Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine. What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means’, Center for Strategic and Security Studies, May 2016, p. 2, ttps://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160504_Oliker_RussiasNuclearDoctrine_Web.pdf.

19 Dave Johnson, ‘Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds’, Livermore Papers on Global Security, no. 3, February 2018, p. 69, https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/Precision-Strike-Capabilities-report-v3-7.pdf.

20 Johnson rightly notes, in this regard, that the mention of ‘the State’ (gosudarstsvo) should be understood as state institutions or the normal functioning of the central government. See David Johnson, ‘Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict’, Recherches & Documents, no. 06/16, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, November 2016, p. 61.

21 ‘Ukraine Conflict: Putin “Was Ready for Nuclear Alert”’, BBC, 15 March 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31899680.

22 ‘NATO–RUSSIA: NAC DISCUSSES RUSSIAN MILITARY EXERCISES’, cable, 23 November 2009, available at https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/i/BlJ7l/23112009-NATO-RUSSIA-NAC-DISCUSSES-RUSSIAN-MILITARY-EXERCISES.

23 Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting’, p. 54.

24 Liudas Zdanavičius and Matthew Czekaj (eds), ‘Russia’s Zapad 2013 Military Exercise: Lessons for Baltic Regional Security’, Jamestown Foundation, December 2015, p. 6, https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Zapad-2013-Full-online-final.pdf.

25 Mark B. Schneider, ‘Zapad-2017: A Major Russian War Against NATO, Again’, Real Clear Defense, 6 October 2017, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/10/06/zapad-2017_a_major_russian_war_against_nato_again_112441.html.

26 Ibid.

27 See Johnson, ‘Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds’, p. 88; and National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, ‘Olexandr Turchynov: Missile-Nuclear Finale of the “Zapad-2017”’, http://www.rnbo.gov.ua/en/news/2887.html.

28 Johan Norberg, ‘Training to Fight: Russia’s Major Military Exercises 2011–2014’, Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut [Swedish Defense Research Agency], December 2015, p. 61, https://www.foi.se/reportsummary?reportNo=FOI-R--4128--SE.

29 Stoltenberg, ‘Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015’, p. 19.

30 Oliker, ‘Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine’, p. 11.

31 Zdanavičius and Czekaj (eds), ‘Russia’s Zapad 2013 Military Exercise’, p. 9. A possible explanation would be fear of pre-emption; but nothing indicates that this is actually the case.

32 Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, ‘The Myth of Russia’s Lowered Nuclear Threshold’, War On The Rocks, 22 September 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/the-myth-of-russias-lowered-nuclear-threshold/.

Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique.

Macron, l’américain?

While French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump may be worlds apart, Fabrice Pothier examines the issues on which they share common ground.

Date: 19 April 2018

By Fabrice Pothier, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for Defence Policy and Strategy

US President Donald J. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron are worlds apart: one is an impulsive populist, the other a cerebral centrist. Yet in this case, opposites appear to attract. Macron in particular has made a point of building a relationship with his US counterpart despite Trump’s often disdainful attitude towards Europe. The question is whether Macron’s calculated embrace of Trump can deliver positive results for French and European interests. Macron’s state visit to the White House on 22 April could provide some answers.

Macron’s opportunity

There are some similarities between the two leaders’ political stories. Both reached the highest offices in their respective countries in 2017 despite having never held elected office before, and both succeeded by challenging established party lines. But the similarities end there. While Macron triumphed by carving out new centre ground, Trump won by energising a disgruntled and putatively marginalised base, shifting the Republican Party farther to the right. While many saw his election as the beginning of the end of the liberal order, Macron has been celebrated as the unexpected saviour of liberal values against a threatening wave of populism. It would have been politically expedient for Macron to highlight these differences and distance himself from Trump, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others did. But Macron opted for a more pragmatic approach that started with a now famous handshake on the sidelines of the NATO summit in July 2017. This was followed by Macron’s surprising invitation to Trump to attend French National Day ceremonies in Paris on 14 July. Although granting Trump the international recognition he both craved and lacked was politically risky, Macron also put France and himself in the global spotlight, showcasing the grandeur of the French Republic.

Macron also had a geopolitical angle. Germany was heading for elections at the time, with German public opinion about Trump among the most negative in Europe. The United Kingdom, customarily the United States’ strongest European ally, was engulfed in difficult and distracting Brexit negotiations, and buffeted by Trump’s insulting and poorly informed comments on British domestic affairs. For the first time in decades, the field was clear for France to present itself as the United States’ go-to partner in Europe. Having served under the previous government, Macron was well aware of the depth of the military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries. Senior French military officers like to boast that the true special relationship is now Franco-American, especially in the Sahel and in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). With UK forces and capabilities diminishing, the Franco-American security relationship has rarely looked stronger.

Leveraging that relationship also fits into Macron’s broader historic vision. Like some of his predecessors, starting with Charles de Gaulle, Macron wants to restore France’s position as a pivotal power. His first bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles signalled this intention. Although Macron delivered some warnings, especially about Moscow-sponsored media outlets, according to senior officials he also tried to find some points of cooperation with Putin, particularly on the Syrian conflict. Overall, in the space of a few months, Macron has succeeded in reinvigorating France’s central role as a world power. 

Divisive issues

Any Macron–Trump agenda would be loaded with fraught issues. Of these, global climate change is by far the most divisive. According to Macron, environmental policy is not a mere addendum to a government’s programme: in his pre-campaign essay ‘Revolution’, he stated that addressing the effects of climate change should be part of all government policies, including those on technological innovation and economic growth. The 2016 Paris climate agreement was the first instance since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in which leading world carbon emitters, China and the United States in particular, could agree on emissions-curbing targets. The Paris accord closed a difficult decade of failed attempts to build a succeeding framework to the Kyoto accord, which the United States had never ratified. Key to the Paris agreement’s success was a new US–China entente on climate change, which the Obama administration had patiently forged. Since the Paris agreement was one of the few major policy successes of François Hollande’s presidency, Macron was keen to build on it.

Beyond his substantive conviction that climate change is one of the greatest contemporary threats to human welfare, Macron also saw an opportunity to place France in a leading role on a global issue. Yet he also wanted to avoid a head-on collision with his US counterpart, who has repeatedly expressed deep scepticism about the scientific veracity of climate change, and has made a point of dismantling the Obama administration’s domestic and international environmental policy. In particular, he has withdrawn the United States from the Paris agreement. Macron’s approach has been to openly criticise that US decision – sometimes sardonically, by echoing Trump’s signature slogan ‘Make American Great Again’ in his own call to ‘Make the Planet Great Again’ – while also maintaining a dialogue with Trump on the need to fight climate change even if there is little chance this fight will succeed.

The same can be said for another difficult issue: the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). During his campaign, Trump repeatedly characterised the JCPOA as the worst deal in history, something he has continued to do in office. This opprobrium evidently has more to do with politically undermining his predecessor’s legacy than with the actual effectiveness of the deal, as most experts, including many within the Trump administration’s own Defense and State departments, believe that the deal is working. While the White House has not yet crossed the line of disavowing the deal, the president appears determined to do so, having just appointed two key officials – Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser – who oppose the JCPOA. Trump has already declined to recertify the deal once, asking Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. This prompted a strong adverse response from his European counterparts, including Macron. The Europeans’ chief concern is that a US exit from the JCPOA would provide Iran’s hardliners with leverage for marginalising the country’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, who supports the deal; and with a pretext for stirring up nationalist sentiment in the midst of a crucial religious-leadership transition in Iran. They fear that such developments could trigger a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

According to French officials, Paris is trying to convince the Trump administration not to withdraw from the agreement by finding ways to address the White House’s concerns about Tehran’s ballistic-missile programme and aggressive posture in the region – concerns which many senior French officials have long shared. Dialogue is ongoing, but the prospect of Macron’s prevailing remains dim. Thus far, the US administration has failed to define a coherent strategy for the wider Middle East. Despite its hawkish tone, especially on Iran, it has remained unwilling to commit the military and diplomatic resources necessary to change the balance of power in the region, maintaining only a minimum presence in conflicts, such as the war in Syria, in which Iran is playing a critical role. The looming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May could strengthen Macron’s hand in moderating Trump’s position. Even the Iran hawks within the US administration may realise that repudiating a nuclear agreement on the eve of a ‘denuclearisation’ summit would damage Washington’s credibility with Pyongyang. Accordingly, Macron is likely to urge Trump to extend the US waiver on Iran sanctions – a key part of the JCPOA – on or before the 12 May deadline for doing so when he visits Washington later this month.

Common ground

There are several issues on which Macron and Trump share some common ground. Chief among these is their focus on countering terrorism. American and French military and intelligence personnel have cultivated very close cooperation. In the Sahel region, where thousands of French forces have been stretched thin since the launch of Operation Serval in Mali in 2012, the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK are providing critical support to French forces, including intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities and strategic airlift, which the French army sorely lacks. In turn, French fighter jets and special-operations forces are deployed in support of the US-led coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. From a homeland-security standpoint, France and other European countries are directly exposed to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, while the United States enjoys geographical protection; yet European powers alone cannot lead a region-wide counter-terrorism campaign without US support.

As the counter-terrorism effort in Iraq and Syria is wound down, however, Paris is becoming concerned that the Trump administration might disengage more widely from the region, including Syria. This would be consistent with the US president’s stated distaste for extensive foreign interventions, and his preference for insulating America from regional conflicts. It would also be in line with his decision to devote more resources to Afghanistan, and his assertion in a 29 March speech that the United States would withdraw from Syria ‘very soon’. Broader opposition to an abrupt US pullback in the Middle East within the US government, and the Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma on 8 April are, however, likely to impede any quick American withdrawal from the region.

Macron himself claimed on French television that Trump had reconsidered his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria thanks to France’s stubborn diplomacy. Macron added that he had tempered American plans to strike Syria in retaliation for the attack on Douma by convincing Trump to focus on a few critical sites. Only time and continuous pressure will tell if the joint American–British–French strikes have restored deterrence and drawn a red line. But it is clear that Macron’s France played a driving role in launching the strikes. While the UK government only explicitly joined the mini coalition late in the planning process, Macron was apparently the one who made the call to Putin to warn him about the strikes. Again, by embracing Trump, Macron is not only trying to ensure that the United States stays involved in the Middle East, but is placing France in a pivotal role. While this is unlikely to be enough to spur the development of a coherent American strategy on conflicts such as Syria, Macron’s efforts to channel some of the US administration’s instincts has still been worthwhile.

The two presidents have some improbable points of convergence on international trade. Like other EU leaders, Macron was unequivocal in rejecting US ‘blackmail’ after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium. But Washington and Paris are broadly in agreement about Chinese trade practices. Macron’s repeated call for reciprocity and fairness during his visit to China was essentially a subtle concurrence with Trump’s more accusatory rhetoric about Beijing’s abuse of global trade. Like the US, France faces a large structural trade deficit – some €62 billion in 2017. While Macron understands that the deficit is largely due to an uncompetitive French industrial sector, he has also joined those in the EU calling for fairer trade arrangements. In fact, at his first European Council meeting as French president in June 2017, Macron proposed a new EU screening mechanism for foreign investment to better control Chinese investments in Europe’s strategic sectors. This would emulate the United States’ advanced screening procedure under the inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment.


There are more issues that divide Trump and Macron than bring them together. Yet even on the most divisive subjects, such as climate change, Macron has already earned some political dividends by continuing a dialogue with the US president. At the very least, a French demonstration of resolve not to let the United States off the hook could encourage US states and cities to continue their efforts to curb emissions pending Trump’s departure from office. On the issues that bring the two leaders together, Macron’s goal is to secure the United States’ ongoing counter-terrorism support in North Africa and the Sahel, and to harness Trump’s preoccupation with reducing the US trade deficit to France’s benefit in substantially curbing China’s trade-distorting practices, which France and the EU probably cannot do without American help.

Overall, Macron’s embrace of Trump is probably more about damage limitation than carving out an affirmative agenda. Although the French public is broadly critical of Trump and US policy, Macron’s nurturing of a good relationship with the American president has yielded the symbolic benefit of positioning France at the centre of world affairs, and the substantive benefit of providing a potential check on US policies adverse to French and European interests. As a student and assistant of the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Macron appreciates the value of maintaining constructive tension between two opposites.


A large oil and gas


A large oil and gas discovery in Bahrain

The discovery of large quantities of oil and gas off the coast of Bahrain may alter the country’s economic fortunes.

Date: 05 April 2018

By Pierre Noël, Senior Fellow for Economic and Energy Security

Large quantities of oil and gas have been discovered off the western coast of Bahrain, potentially altering the economic fortunes of the small Kingdom. The announcement was made on 2 April; on 4 April, the country’s minister of oil held a press conference where a few more details were given.

This is evidently a large oil and gas discovery, but it is impossible – from what has been made public so far – to estimate with any degree of certainty what it may mean in terms of future production, let alone revenues.

The authorities in Manama have announced that the discoveries – which are held in source-rock formations akin to North American shales – contain 80 billion barrels of oil in place, and 13 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

If 10% of the oil in place proved recoverable with existing and future techniques, it would make the field one of the 30–40 largest operating oilfields in the world. Rates of production for a field with 8bn barrels of recoverable oil can be between 200,000 and 600,000 barrels per day; Bahrain, under these assumptions, could increase its oil production by a factor of two to four. Some fields have much larger shares of recoverable oil as a fraction of oil in place.

The oil discovered in Bahrain, however, is held in source rocks. In the US, the source-rock (or shale) oil deposits can hold very large volumes of oil in place – only a small fraction of which is recoverable. The Bakken Shale is said to hold up to 500bn barrels, of which some say as little as 1% may be recoverable with current technology.

Oil wells drilled in shale formations are typically highly productive at first, with high rates of decline afterwards. Sustaining production requires lots of drilling – and increasing production even more so. The cost of doing this in the waters off Bahraini shores will be higher than in the plains of North Dakota or Texas. Manama may have to offer much more generous contractual terms than is the norm in the region to attract investors, reducing the fiscal benefits for the government.

The volume of natural gas discovered – as quoted by the minister – is also significant, though less impressive than the oil discovery. A 12 tcf field may be able to feed an export project of 1 bcf per day. It would correspond to Myanmar’s exports to Thailand, a tenth of Qatari exports or a twentieth of Russian exports to Europe. At current liquefied natural gas (LNG) market prices, the gross value of the revenues would be about US$2.5bn per year. At this stage, though, the 12 tcf figure and the 1 bcf per day production rate should be treated as highly speculative.

Bahraini authorities revealed relatively little information – probably because not much is known. Oilfield technology companies Schlumberger and Halliburton are said to be working on the discovery, drilling appraisal wells that will reveal information about recoverable reserves and the likely cost of developing them. On the basis of this information, Manama will negotiate contracts with oil and gas companies, which will develop and exploit tranches of the giant field. At best, it will take years for hydrocarbons to reach the market.

That said, unless terrible news emerges from the appraisal drilling campaign, this new oil and gas wealth will surely improve Bahrain's fiscal outlook. The country’s credit rating may improve even before actual production and exports start, in turn reducing the cost of infrastructure investment. Whether this structurally improves the prospects for sustainable growth will depend on many factors but, if well managed and leveraged, the new oil revenues could help. The difficult issue will be to maintain national momentum for economic transformation and diversification, and avoid a fallback into a rentier mentality and public policies.

Beyond its local impact, the large discovery in Bahrain raises the issue of possible major shale oil and gas discoveries in other Middle Eastern producing countries. Such discoveries would have contradictory implications for the success of economic transformation plans (including in Saudi Arabia), global oil prices and the global transition to low-carbon energy.

Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness


Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness

12 April 2018

As Libya's war economy persists, prospects for the restoration of functioning central governance become more distant.

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Tim Eaton

Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness


Libya suffers from interlinked political, security and economic crises that are weakening state institutions, damaging its economy and facilitating the continued existence of non-state armed groups. As rival authorities continue to compete for power, the resulting fragmentation and dysfunction have provided a fertile environment for the development of a pervasive war economy dependent on violence.This war economy is dynamic and constantly in flux. Relative to earlier problems, there were signs of progress on several fronts in 2017: a reduction in human smuggling, a tripling in oil revenues, and increased local action against fuel smuggling. Yet the dynamics that have supported the war economy’s rise remain.Libya’s war economy is highly damaging for the future of the state for three reasons:First, it provides an enabling environment for networks of armed groups, criminal networks, corrupt businessmen and political elites to sustain their activities through illicit sales and predatory practices. Their operations are closely linked to the dispensation of violence, and are thus a spur for further conflict.Second, the war economy perpetuates negative incentives for those who profit from the state’s dysfunction. Only effective governance, supported by a durable political settlement, can tackle the foundations of Libya’s war economy. But neither a return to functioning central governance nor the development of a security sector that is fit for purpose is in the interests of war economy profiteers, who are therefore motivated to act as powerful spoilers of reform.Third, the political contestation and resource predation practised by those engaged in the war economy are having a disastrous impact on Libya’s formal economy, undermining what remains of its institutions. As the war economy persists, therefore, the prospects for the restoration of functioning central governance become more distant. This threatens to create a vicious cycle that accelerates further state collapse.Due to the limited capacity for coercion available to any actor or entity connected with the state, a strategy of co-opting networks of war economy profiteers has almost exclusively prevailed. This has failed. Drawing on the lessons from these attempts, a more successful policy must pursue targeted measures to combat the enabling structures of Libya’s war economy where possible, and to co-opt war economy profiteers only where necessary.In this, state authorities can do more to utilize what power they have to name and shame war economy profiteers in order to weaken the local legitimacy critical to profiteers’ survival. The state must present credible alternative livelihood opportunities to those engaged in, or benefiting from, the war economy. Progress will depend in part on the creation of positive incentives to abandon such activity. Where profiteers cannot be incentivized to move towards more legitimate economic activities, greater and more effective efforts must be made to reduce the profit margins of illicit schemes.The international community can do more to support Libyan efforts in countering the war economy. Cooperation over the targeting of criminal groups’ overseas assets, support for increased transparency over the dispensation of state funds, and measures to reduce the viability of illicit activities can all help to strengthen the position of state authorities

From Chechnya to Syria: The Evolution of Russia’s Counter-Terrorist Policy

From Chechnya to Syria: The Evolution of Russia’s Counter-Terrorist Policy Russie.Nei.Visions, No. 107, Ifri, April 2018

The struggle against terrorism is supposed to be one part of security policy in which Russia has every necessary capability and know-how, and its special services can draw on vast experience without encountering the legal and institutional constraints that often interfere with Western efforts.

From Chechnya to Syria: The Evolution of Russia’s Counter-Terrorist PolicyDownload

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Yet, instead of strength, counter-terrorism is a major weakness in the country’s still uncertain state-building. Relative stability in the North Caucasus is eroding, St Petersburg was shocked by its first terrorist attack on 3 April 2017, Western condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Syria has gained new momentum, and the expectations in the Kremlin for building cooperative counter-terrorist ties with the Trump administration have been disappointed. Russia is facing growing threats from both home-grown and international terrorism, and its counter-terrorist policy, instead of deterring these threats, generates more security challenges on the domestic front and new tensions in relations with the West, in particular with the EU.

Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, and an Associate Research Fellow at Ifri, Paris.

10 Takeaways from the Fight against the Islamic State

23/03/2018 Michael Dempsey Conflict

Image courtesy of DMA Army -Soldiers/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 12 March 2018.

Nearly three years on from the Islamic State’s high water mark in the summer of 2015, there are several lessons that the United States and its allies can discern from the terrorist group’s meteoric rise to control large parts of Iraq and Syria to the loss of its physical caliphate late last year. The steady decline in ISIL’s fortunes is striking given the palpable fear its rise in the summer of 2014 sparked across Washington, when a common question circulating within the policy community was whether Baghdad itself might fall. Many of these takeaways will be relevant to U.S. policymakers as they attempt to prevent the group from reconstituting itself in the coming months.

ISIL is Hurting Without a Safe Haven

Since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIL’s external operations have been sharply curtailed, and its communications have been greatly reduced (almost three quarters of the group’s media outlets have fallen silent since late last year). Absent its control of territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is now focusing primarily on trying to grow its eight overseas branches and inspire lone wolf operations abroad. It’s clear that denying the Islamic State its physical caliphate has been deleterious to the group’s operations. As such, denying the Islamic State control of physical terrain anywhere in the world should be job number one for those who want to see this group defeated decisively.  

The Islamic State Still Gravitates Toward Chaos

The Islamic State loves a vacuum. After rising again to prominence in the wake of the Syrian civil war and the political dysfunction of Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, today the group is making its greatest inroads in troubled areas from the Sinai and Libya to Yemen and parts of Southeast Asia. In Yemen alone, the Pentagon estimates that the Islamic State’s presence has doubled over the past year. Across the globe, the Islamic State has proven itself skilled at exploiting the erosion or collapse of local government authority and legitimacy, and at appealing to Sunni populations that feel threatened by growing Shia political power. The movement is also continuing to gain energy (and recruits) from the turmoil caused by the ongoing Iranian-Saudi conflict, which today shows no sign of abating and which is instead fueling the destructive war in Yemen.

The Islamic State is Hard to Oust from Cities

For most of the past two years, the bulk of U.S. and coalition military efforts against ISIL have been focused on ousting the group from cities under its control. This has frequently required block-to-block fighting by U.S. coalition allies backed by American airpower in scenes reminiscent of World War II combat. For example, in Sirte, Libya, progress in ousting the Islamic State was, for months, measured by the number of city blocks seized by the Misratan militia each day. Similar scenes played out in both Mosul and Raqqa.

In these cities, ISIL adopted a common tactical playbook, which included trapping and using civilians as human shields, cleverly using smoke to mask movements and obscure coalition airpower, destroying key transportation arteries into the cities, using tunnels to move personal and equipment, deploying suicide car bombs, and concentrating its forces in heavily booby-trapped buildings. Taken together, these tactics contributed to fights that devastated local infrastructure and triggered a wave of refugees—many of whom have yet to return home. It’s clear the Islamic State recognizes the utility of operating in cities, so U.S. policymakers and their coalition allies should expect more of that in the future.

The Islamic State is Adapting its Battlefield Tactics

In light of recent setbacks, ISIL fighters are increasingly focusing on suicide attacks and hit-and-run operations, and are avoiding large-scale battles with coalition forces. On 19 February, ISIL fighters ambushed a Shia militia group near Hawija, Iraq, the deadliest such attack since Hawija was wrested from ISIL control last October. In recent months, ISIL has used drones to target U.S. and coalition forces operating near both Raqqa and Mosul, reflecting the group’s intent to inflict as much harm as possible on its enemies while minimizing its own casualties. And in January, the group’s media wing announced that the group last year had conducted nearly 800 suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria, strongly suggesting that its leaders view this tactic as their best battlefield option for the foreseeable future.

The Islamic State is Also Shifting its Narrative

In recent monthsthe group’s public messaging campaign has, for obvious reasons, abandoned its emphasis on the physical caliphate and the religious obligation of Muslims to support it, Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on military conflict. As Charlie Winter wrote late last year in Wired UK, “92 percent of the group’s propaganda now revolves around war, and war alone.” The Islamic State’s desire to inspire as many lone wolf attacks around the world as possible dramatically increases the burden on governments and the private sector to identify ways to monitor those susceptible to the jihadist group’s new pitch, stay ahead of the Islamic State’s shifting online messaging efforts (which are not bound by the cyber norms followed by state actors), and develop effective counter-radicalization strategies.

Don’t Overlook the Islamic State’s Deep-Rooted Vulnerabilities

Because of the Islamic State’s notoriety, it’s easy to focus only on the group’s strengths. But, in reality, the group continues to suffer from many of the same shortcomings that have plagued the group since its creation in Iraq more than a decade ago. On the battlefield, the Islamic State has never found an effective way to counter U.S. and coalition air power, which has undercut its ability to mass forces and concentrate resources. In terms of governance, the Islamic State has demonstrated administrative skill when in control of territory, but it’s primarily adept at extracting natural resources and exploiting existing businesses and has proven far less capable of actually creating anything. In its branding, the Islamic State’s reliance on extreme violence, including in its propaganda videos showing bloody footage from attacks claimed by ISIL, continues to alienate virtually the entire Muslim community. And in its leadership approach, the Islamic State’s practice of entrusting only high-level foreign fighters with key leadership positions (a pattern practiced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq more than a decade ago) continues to alienate local communities. A common complaint expressed by disillusioned recruits is that the Islamic State goes to great lengths to protect its leaders while allowing local residents and ill-trained, low-level foreign volunteers to bear the brunt of the fighting.

Don’t Underestimate Local Security Forces

As ISIL seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq three years ago, it became commonplace in the West to bemoan a lack of reliable military partners on the ground. Indeed, I participated in numerous White House meetings and congressional hearings at the time in which the level of frustration with America’s lack of credible military partners was unmistakable. It’s certainly true that in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi military largely melted away in the face of ISIL’s offensive, largely owing to the dysfunctional leadership it had experienced in the preceding years under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But it’s also true that with intensive U.S. military training, including by forward based U.S. special operations forces, increased U.S. close air support, and vastly improved political and military leadership in Baghdad, the Iraqi armed forces (particularly its special operations forces) performed admirably and played a critical role in driving ISIL from the territory it once held in Iraq.

Similarly, in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (the U.S. backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters) deserve great credit for driving ISIL out of thousands of square miles of territory it once claimed. The Syrian Democratic Forces also played a lead role in assaulting the capital of ISIL’s caliphate, Raqqa. While there is no doubt that the U.S. military’s assistance, especially through close air support, in both Iraq and Syria underpinned the success of both the Iraqi military and the Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s clear that local forces did a lot of the fighting and dying, and that they proved up to the challenge when properly led and supported.

Competing Interests Abound

While the U.S.-led counter-ISIL coalition is more than 70 nations strong, it’s also true that from the beginning of the conflict several major countries have pursued divergent agendas. For example, Ankara’s ongoing military operations against the Kurdish enclave in Afrin, in northwestern Syria, is threatening to derailKurdish support for the broader counter-ISIL campaign. And while Russia purportedly entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 to target ISIL, it has spent most of its energy in Syria in combatting other groups who oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime. So, while many of the countries fighting in Syria and Iraq, including Iran, are genuinely worried about the danger ISIL poses and the broader extremist threat, it’s also apparent that they are pursuing their own self-interests in such a way that has often trumped cooperation against ISIL when necessary.

The United States Needs a Focal Point

From nearly a standing start in 2014, the U.S. policy community organized an integrated strategy that laid the groundwork for the successful counter-ISIL campaign of the past three years. Central to that effort was the appointment of a special envoy to help organize this effort, currently veteran diplomat Brett McGurk, who became the government’s focal point and chief interlocutor with the counter-ISIL coalition. In my view, the special envoy’s efforts have been critical in focusing the inter-agency on core military and diplomatic requirements, and in presenting a unified message to America’s coalition partners. There are rumors floating around Washington that this special envoy position may be eliminated soon, but, in my view, it’s vital that there remain one central entity and official charged with coordinating all of the U.S. government’s (and the coalition’s) disparate counter-ISIL efforts. The progress achieved in recent years in formulating a unified response to the threat of the Islamic State has been remarkable, and U.S. policymakers may want to proceed cautiously in altering an approach that has worked so well.

The Fight Isn’t Over

Given the rapid progress America and its partners have achieved in eliminating the Islamic State’s physical caliphate, it would be easy to believe that this fight is winding down. Indeed, a decision to shift America’s military focus from the Islamic State would be understandable given the North Korean standoff and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. But while ISIL is clearly on its heels, it remains a wily and determined foe capable of inflicting grievous harm if given the chance, and of reconstituting itself if the underlying conditions that fueled its rise are not addressed. If nothing else, the past three years should have taught U.S. policymakers that there is no single solution to defeating the Islamic State, and that what’s required is a multi-pronged, multi-year campaign with several key elements. First, to maintain steady military pressure on ISIL remnants in both Iraq and Syria. Second, to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State’s most important nodes, especially in the Sinai and Libya. Third, to increase financial investment and loans to help rebuild shattered communities (especially vulnerable Sunni ones) in Iraq and Syria. Fourth, to expand diplomatic efforts to help reduce Iran-Saudi tensions, especially by reaching an agreement to help resolve their proxy conflict in Yemen. And finally, to increase cooperation between the U.S. government and the private sector to counter online radicalization.

In the end, perhaps the most important lesson of the past three years of this fight is that while America and its coalition allies have made remarkable progress against ISIL, there is still considerable work left to do.

About the Author

Michael P Dempsey is the National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the US government. He is also the former acting US Director of National Intelligence

Russia´s Propaganda War about Syria: How Pro-Kremlin Twitter Accounts Manipulate the West

13/04/2018 Sophie Eisentraut Social Media

Image courtesy of Walkerssk/Pixabay

This article was originally published by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in March 2018.

Moscow is keen to exploit the conflict in Syria in its information war against the West. Russian messaging on Syria is meant to help expel Americans from the country. It is also aimed at discrediting the liberal ideas that have long defined the West.

Since Russia directly entered the Syrian war in 2015, the Kremlin has been keen to exploit Syria for domestic propaganda purposes. Most importantly, Moscow seeks to portray its involvement as proof that Russia’s great power status has finally been restored. By shifting Russians’ focus to Moscow’s foreign policy adventures, the Kremlin also attempts to distract its citizens from serious domestic problems, chiefly the dire economic outlook for the country.

Yet the war being waged in Syria not only chimes with the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda goals, it is also a dominant motive in the disinformation war with which Moscow is targeting the West. In this regard, most public attention has been paid to Moscow’s aggressive attempts at globally discrediting the White Helmets, the volunteer organisation engaged in rescue work in Syria.

Yet Russian messaging about the war in Syria is much more nuanced. This is apparent in data harvested by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a transatlantic initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Since summer 2017, the ASD has been monitoring pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts linked to influence operations in the United States (via its Hamilton 68 dashboard) and in Germany (via its Artikel 38 dashboard). Data collected for this article from both dashboards over the past six months reveal that in contrast to other topics promoted by the pro-Kremlin networks, stories and narratives related to Syria are often Russian-produced, with RT (Deutsch) and Sputnik (Deutschland) being referenced particularly often. The data also suggest that Russian-linked Tweets intended for Western audiences rely on two primary messaging tactics.

First, the narratives promoted support Russia’s more immediate goals in Syria, most importantly the goals to undermine Western engagement in the country and to increase Russia’s (and Bashar al-Assad’s) leverage over the conflict resolution.

The stories and headlines promoted in pro-Kremlin Tweets are clearly aimed at increasing pressure on the Americans and their allies to abandon their engagement in Syria. Syria, these stories claim, is mostly restored to normality, suggesting that the only impediment to lasting peace is the continuing US military presence. One story recently pushed to the pro-Kremlin network’s US audience claims that the Syrian peace process is essentially being stymied by the Americans, who harbour radical militants in their garrison at al-Tanf, from which jihadists then launch attacks.

By amplifying reports about the military advances of Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s troops, the Russian- linked Tweets seek to generate the impression that there is no alternative to Assad – and certainly none to talking to Moscow. Stories promoted by the networks that describe the “rhythm in which the Syrian army and Russian forces […] progress its irreversible military victory [sic]” thus buttress Putin’s desire to control any peace process and to avoid Assad’s removal at all costs.

Yet the messaging tactics deployed by pro-Kremlin accounts include a second, more long-term thread in Russia’s information war against the West: using Syria to broadly discredit Western stabilization efforts in foreign countries, sow doubt about the motives for Western foreign engagement, and subvert the very idea of humanitarian interventions and aid – all despite the fact that the West is neither officially engaged in a “stabilization mission” nor in a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria.

To this end, the narratives pushed by the networks shrewdly exploit pre-existing resentments about Western interventionism among audiences. Most importantly, the networks draw parallels with America’s war in Iraq, recycling motives that may easily arouse anti-American sentiments, including the US lust for oil and fabricated evidence used to justify foreign occupation. In sum, their messaging suggests that the war in Syria is not the result of a domestic revolution but was stoked by the West. Rather than fight terrorists, the West launched a “war of aggression” against the legitimate Syrian regime. By allying with terrorists to topple Assad, the US and its allies inflicted serious harm upon Syrians, “unleashing” a “wave of terrorism” against which the Syrian regime is now defending its people.

Pro-Kremlin Tweets suggest that in order to help the West realize its plans “to control the oilrich Middle East” Western media disguise the occupation as a “humanitarian intervention”, fabricating evidence of atrocities that the Syrian regime allegedly committed against its own people. In response to the massacre of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, one recently promoted story referred to “a disgusting, emotive propaganda game over the Syrian war” played by the West, accusing it of falsely blaming Assad and the Russians. Other headlines designed to discredit Western media reporting include “Syria: The absurdities of Western war propaganda” and “The Guardian journalist who takes ‘afternoon tea’ with ISIS and survives”.

Among the most prominent conspiracy theories fed by pro-Kremlin Tweets is the claim that Americans fund and equip Syrian terrorists, employing headlines like “US orders Al-Qaida to attack Syrian troops in Idlib” and “Bombshell report confirms US coalition struck a deal with ISIS”.

By feeding these interrelated narratives, Moscow hopes to upend patterns of Western foreign engagement (in Syria and elsewhere) that the Kremlin loathes. Just as importantly, it is intent upon undermining Western societies’ commitment to the liberal ideas that have long defined the West.

About the Author

Sophie Eisentraut is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs’ Global Security Research Programme

April 20, 2018

A two-way street: why China is not just a student departure lounge anymore


A two-way street: why China is not just a student departure lounge anymore

Posted on Apr 20, 2018 by Chris ParrPosted in Analysis, under Asia.
Tagged with China, Student mobility.
Bookmark the permalink.

Mainland China has long been known as something of a student departure lounge. Between 1978 and 2016, it is estimated that more than 4.5 million Chinese studied outside their home country, to the huge cultural and financial benefit of the universities in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and beyond.

China is seeing significant bilateral student traffic. Photo: Reisefreheit_eu/Pixabay

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About Chris Parr
Chris Parr is a freelance education journalist based in London. He was formally a reporter and digital editor at Times Higher Education, and writes regularly for a range of national education titles.

It is well on course to meet its self-imposed target of hosting 500,000 international students by 2020

It has not always been a two-way street. According to The New York Times, just 20 years ago there were only 3.4 million students studying in China.

Today, however, it is thought that more than 26 million people are enrolled in Chinese universities, and nearly 490,000 of them are from overseas.

“China wants to be seen as a major player internationally in terms of higher education”

Times, it seems, are changing. China wants to be seen as a premier higher education destination – and some would argue it already is.

Indeed, the country is now behind only the US and the UK in terms of the total number of international students on its campuses, and has been for several years.

It is well on course to meet its self-imposed target of hosting 500,000 international students by 2020 – a figure that, based on current numbers, would see it leapfrog the UK in that particular league table.

“Last year we had the highest number of international students we have had over the last five years,” says Iris Yuan, director of international affairs at The Sino-British College, an international university college established by the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and nine British universities.

“International student numbers have increased 45% in that time, [and] here is the rationale. China wants to be seen as a major player internationally in terms of higher education. The government wants to boost the internationalisation for our universities as part of a ‘soft power’ policy to project China internationally.”

More than 489,000 international students were studying in China between in 2017, a 10% rise compared to 2016. According to Ministry of Education data, there has been a 299% increase since 2004.

Source: Ministry of Education / Center for Strategic and International Studies

Much of this recent growth is arguably down to the One Belt One Road Initiative, one of the largest overseas investment drives ever launched.

It is, primarily, an infrastructure project. Some $900 billion has been allocated to initiatives that will boost both land (the ‘Belt’) and sea (the old ‘Silk Road’) trade routes which run West, to Europe, via Asia. China says its aim is to usher in a ‘new era of globalisation’ that will benefit not only itself, but all countries in the region.

“The One Belt, One Road strategy is aimed not only at strengthening exchanges between China and the rest of the world, but also at ensuring the development of Asia,” explains Yuan. “Education is the one of the most important aspects of this strategy.”

The number of China-based African students increased 26-fold to around 50,000 between 2003 and 2015

Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, an influential Beijing-based think-tank, agrees. “We are still lagging behind by the US on soft power,” he said at the launch of a CCG report on international student mobility earlier this year.

“There are more than 300 world leaders including presidents, prime ministers and ministers around the globe that graduated from US universities, but only a few foreign leaders that graduated from Chinese universities, so we still need to exercise effort to boost academic exchange and educate more political elites from other countries. The Belt and Road initiative is a good chance to achieve this goal.”

It appears to be paying off. The number of students heading to China from India, Indonesia, Laos, Pakistan and Thailand – all countries affected by the initiative – has increased more than 20% on average from 2016 to 2017.

The CCG speculates that because One Belt One Road has created jobs for people in these countries, local people are more motivated – and financially more able – to study in China.

However, it is not just countries along the Silk Road that China see as fertile ground for student recruitment. The number of China-based African students increased 26-fold to around 50,000 between 2003 and 2015, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics. This puts China second only to France in terms of the number of students it attracts from the African continent.

“The number of English taught programmes has increased by 63% in the last five years”

Numbers from countries with more established and prestigious higher education systems are on the up too. There were twice as many US origin students studying in China in 2015 (12,790) compared to 2005 (6,391), for example, while the number of UK students studying there is reported to have tripled over the same period. One of the drivers of this rise has been a proliferation in courses taught in English.

“Most of universities in China are offering a good number of English taught programmes now,” Yuan explains. “The number of English taught programmes has increased by 63% in the last five years.”

The recruitment drive in the English-speaking world was evident at this year’s Student World exhibitions in the UK – recruitment fairs profiling study abroad opportunities.

At the 2018 events in Manchester and London, 36 Chinese institutions booked exhibition space. This is a significant increase over the two previous years, when only one Chinese institution had exhibited at the events.

University of Shanghai, library. Photo: YULIN Peng/Wikimedia Commons


“There are so many misconceptions about studying in China”

The type of course that China’s international students are studying once they arrive in China is changing too. According to the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in 2016 more than 40% of foreign students in China are studying the Chinese language.

This figure represents a 15% drop compared with 2012. Conversely, the number of students on non-language courses is on the up, and the number of international PhD and Master’s students has jumped 49% and 28% respectively (see table).

Another reason for the soaring popularity of study in China is the number of scholarships on offer. In 2017, some 58,600 international students received a government scholarship compared to just 8,500 in 2006.

“There are so many misconceptions about studying in China,” says Richard Coward, chief executive of China Admissions, which assists international students wanting to study in China. “Things are changing so fast. You’ve really got to be here to see it.”

“Foreigners are coming to get a high-quality education at an affordable price… and more and more are taking full degrees, whereas before they were mostly on more short-term programmes. It is becoming a serious study destination.”

In addition to stepping up efforts to attract international students, China is also taking steps to encourage these students to remain in the country after graduation.

In 2017, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security decreed that international students who had obtained a master’s degree or above from a Chinese institution within the last year were eligible for work permits of up to five years. There are other examples too, such as the Science Innovation Center in Shanghai, which offers a two-year residence permit for international students who work or do an internship.

Why Chinese students are staying put

Although China remains the world’s top place of origin for international students, the increase in the number of Chinese opting to study abroad has been slowing in recent years. According to China’s Ministry of Education, in 2016 a total of 544,500 Chinese went abroad to study. Although this is 4% higher than 2015, the growth rate went down by about 10% on the previous year.

Security is one of the main concerns for Chinese students considering an international higher education

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of international students admitted to US higher education institutions fell by 3.7%, year on year, according to IIE, while in the UK, there was relative stability.

Security is one of the main concerns for Chinese students considering an international higher education. Specifically, the CCG cites the case of Yingying Zhang, a female Chinese student who disappeared in June 2017 in the US, as one high profile case that may have deterred a number of would-be overseas students.

Figures from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that between 2014 and 2016, the number of Chinese students overseas making requests for consular assistance leapt from 932 to more than 6,100 – another part of the narrative that might deter would-be international students from heading overseas.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, and the relatively conservative, inward-looking nature of his administration, may have acted as a deterrent. In fact, the number of US F1 visas issued to students from mainland China in 2016 was 148,000 –  drop of 46% when compared with the previous year. This drop continued in 2017, though was less steep.

In addition, the reputation of China’s own higher education institution is steadily rising. In 2015, China announced the “Double First-Class initiative”, which aims to increase the global standing of its higher education system.

By the end of 2049 – the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic – China intends to have 42 “world class” universities.

This agenda, combined with the sheer number of Chinese students who have studied overseas, means the competitive advantage gained by having a foreign degree may not be as highly prized.

Image: Anthonychong/Pixabay

According to government data, 45% of returnees have a starting monthly salary of below 6,000 yuan ($910), and only about 6% can boast a monthly income of over 20,000 yuan. When the expenses of studying abroad are factored in, the attractiveness of international study may be understandably dampened.

“China is the future, and to study there means you can get a good degree for cheaper than the UK or the US”

As a departure lounge, then, China’s future seems less certain. While its young people are still heading to overseas universities in record numbers, the striking growth charts may tail off.

In arrivals, though, the future seems much clearer. From the very top of government, the intention is to push China as a destination for students, and to further its reputation for quality higher education.

“China is the future, and to study there means you can get a good degree for cheaper than the UK or the US, and also learn the language,” says Kate, a 16-year-old attending the Student World exhibition in London. “I’m seriously considering it.”

According to recent trends, she is most certainly not alone.