Putin Video

In light of my recent posts on Russia and my discussion on perception vs. reality in the situation assessment, I just couldn’t resist adding this video. It’s a hoot!



Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Here is the final version of my part of the project on Russia. I hope to be able to publish here the team’s final report, which includes an analysis of competing hypotheses on Russian Reorganization of the Civilian Nuclear Energy Sector, a cost benefit analysis of Russia – Ukraine energy security relations, and a social network analysis of Dmitry Medvedev’s Leadership Network. However, I’m waiting for the permission of the other team members and the instructor to do so.

A brief evaluation of the effectiveness of the technique in relation to the topic

Using situation assessment to analyze Russia’s foreign policy toward the Balkans has as both its principal advantage and disadvantage the flexibility and resulting breadth of scope it offers. On the positive side, this flexibility functions to fill deficiencies in more formalized methodologies, where restriction of sub-methods and limitations of scope can result in an exaggerated focus on the particular details, failing to detect an over-arching pattern or structure. On the negative side, the potentially limitless options this method offers to the analyst can result in either oversimplification through generalization, or a lack of focus altogether. One way to avoid losing the string would be to commission situation assessments not of individual analysts but of an inter-disciplinary team. I believe this would only add to the potential multi-faceted direction this method is open to, while at the same time, keep the more wild fancies on a leash of peer review.

The elements I chose to include in this situation assessment, which in retrospect were best suited to the topic were the various IR theories on power and regionalism. In this spirit, I would advocate the use of open source analyses by various think tanks, especially if the analyst is not an area specialist. The potential pitfall of arriving at politicized information could be safeguarded against by a thorough source reliability check, which would take an infinitely shorter time than self-education of the analyst on a broad theme under the duress of a deadline.

Finally, the informal, descriptive nature of a situation assessment is conducive to writing in a narrative style, which is less prone to jargon and offers the analyst the opportunity to engage and “talk” to his/her client/decision-maker as the analysis unfolds. Not only does this make the reading experience of a person tired of reading report after report with uninspiring technical and/or management, or worse, bureaucratic language, but has the potential to establish good rapport between the two sides, minimize misunderstandings hidden in vague and ambiguous language, and add a dialogue-element to the analyst’s otherwise rather lonely job.

Introduction to Situation Assessment on Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans

I’m having so much fun writing this! The final product should be ready by Wednesday. Last minute comments welcome as always.

Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Situation assessment as a methodology aims to provide the context for strategic planning, decision-making and action. As such, it is primarily a descriptive methodology that examines events in the present and looks for patterns from the past. While the ultimate purpose of a situation assessment is future-oriented in that it serves as the starting point for generating hypotheses for alternative futures, the process of gathering and analyzing information that makes up a situation assessment does little in terms of logical speculation of the data by the analyst. This, at least, is the traditional approach of this methodology whether applied in the context of national security intelligence, business/competitive intelligence, assessment of military capabilities, or academic research of international relations and political science. Although the definition of situation assessment may vary slightly across disciplines – compare, for instance, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis in business, Case Study in international relations and politics, and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in military intelligence – the main characteristic of this methodology is its focus on providing a descriptive observational design.

The present situation assessment will try to demonstrate that a descriptive analytical method need not be confined to observational variables alone, but offers the analyst opportunities to present his/her decision-maker with a highly inferential, evaluative and nuanced assessment. I will argue that situation assessment is a particularly useful methodology for looking at complex, interconnected and interdependent environments, not only because it can provide simultaneously a detailed (microscopic) and big picture (telescopic) view, but also because it opens the possibility to distinguish between perception and reality.

One of the more important advantages of situation assessment as a method is its qualitative (open) rather than quantitative (restricted) selection of the variables – I prefer to call them elements – that constitute the observation. This allows the analyst the flexibility to adapt these elements as well as juxtapose them in different ways on the surface of the analytical landscape, with the gained benefit of exploring different perspectives, and by extension, make qualitative judgments about perception and reality, much in the same way one would analyze a picture.

This situation assessment begins with an introduction to why this particular methodology was chosen by the analyst to examine the topic of inquiry, namely, Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans. The first part is a discussion of the methodology itself, what elements and why they were chosen to constitute the situation assessment. In this section I examine the aptitude of applying a situation assessment technique to the study of a country’s foreign policy. Next, I attempt to determine the viability of analyzing a country’s foreign policy through international relations and political science theories by looking at both the epistemological (positivist and post-positivist) and constructivist camps. Given the distinctly regional dimension of the research topic, I focus in particular on theories with specific application to power distribution, balance of power and power transition. Having identified ‘energy’ as one of the two distinct means toward the end in Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans, I explore applications and implications of a theoretical model developed by Buzan and Weaver, known as Regional Security Complex Theory and its extension to energy security.

I then focus on Russia’s second regional power weapon – identity politics – through a descriptive analysis of historical, cultural linguistic and religious factors, with emphasis on the particularly Russian cultural ideology of Eurasianism as the counter-balancing ideology of the Anglo-Saxon “west”. This discussion concludes my traditional approach to the examination of a country’s foreign policy in a regional aspect, and I turn to alternative analysis as a complement to the more established methods of conducting a situation assessment.

Because I treat a situation assessment as a picture, i.e. as a snapshot frozen in time, or rather, in non-time, I introduce art history analysis as a possible analogy in looking at “the picture”. I believe a comparison of a situation assessment analytical landscape to 17th century Dutch still life is particularly appropriate in shedding light both on my original technique (cf.Greek ‘techne’ – art, craft) and topic for a number of reasons.

First, the significance of Dutch development and preoccupation with optic instruments such as the microscope and telescope in the 17th century bears a resemblance to current trends of strategic thinking, most notably the emphasis on “big picture”, holistic visions of reality. This offers a basis for comparison, especially where a situation assessment is concerned because its purpose is to piece together the details, so as to offer a bird-view (God-view?) of the situation. That said, I do not believe that this is entirely possible due to sheer cognitive limitations, so in my evaluation of the technique, I will argue that holistic analysis is an idealized ambition: it can open more doors, but it will not open all doors.

Second, still life as an artistic genre is comparable to a situation assessment in that it offers a picture of reality suspended in, what would appear to be the present moment, but could well be argued that it is a representation “out of time”. And third, the role of perspective and depth on the canvas is not unlike what various foreign policy tools aim to do in shaping both external perceptions of the state by other states, and creating self-perceptions of national identity. Hence, I believe, such alternative analogy could be useful to the intelligence analyst trying to distinguish between perception and reality by becoming aware of the deception inherent in the image.

Part I concludes with an evaluation of the technique in application to the particular topic.

Part II of this paper is where the technique comes “alive” in action to form the actual content of the situation assessment. It begins with an overview of Russian foreign policy, the traits and trends that define Russia’s role on the global scene. This overview borrows heavily from international relations and political science theories, and resembles what a political scientist might refer to as foreign policy analysis. This section is followed by a discussion of the soft and hard power tools available to the current administration in Moscow, and aims to answer three specific questions.

First: Is Russia aiming to regain its sphere of influence on the Balkans by building complex interdependencies among the countries in the region by means of securing bilateral pipeline deals? Second: How is Russia exploiting the issue of “common” identity in the region and why? Third: Assuming that no state on the Balkans currently holds regional leadership, can Russia fill this gap by transcending the geographical limits, which define the region and achieving political, economic and cultural hegemony on the Balkans?

The last section of the analysis uses an alternative technique, namely an art analogy, to look at the individual players on the Balkans as well as the region’s periphery (Turkey and Cyprus) as though we were looking at a still life painting. The contradiction in the title of this section, “A still life of Balkan regional dynamics” is intentional. It aims to show that while a situation assessment and a still life can be perceived as static representations out of time, each country’s perception of each other along a spatial and temporal perspective, as well as its relation to the “blank” surface, exhibits a dynamic that is not apparent from a static snapshot of the situation. Since the more traditional approach to a situation assessment is closer to a static image, I felt justified in exploring an alternative technique to supplement the assessment with a more dynamic representation of reality.

It is important for this exercise to distinguish between allegory and symbol. A detailed discussion on this topic is out of the scope of this paper; for our purposes, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions will suffice, and I hope, convincingly justify my preference for an allegorical over a symbolic representation for each country on the grounds that each has a story to tell on the still life canvas of our situation assessment, rather than function as an idealized symbol, which would doom the actor incapable of change.

Allegory – a story, play, poem, picture, etc. in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically

Symbol – a mark or character taken as the conventional sign of some object, idea, function, or process

Thus, through the process of allegory, Bulgaria, with its machinations to please and benefit from both its NATO/EU partnership and Russia, becomes Janus – the Roman god of the gate and door who looks both ways. Romania, with its long history of fending off vampires becomes the garlic that would help keep Russia away from breathing distance. Greece, with a stable record of adhering to its proverbial reputation – “don’t trust Greeks bearing gifts – becomes the Trojan horse. In the Western Balkans, Serbia’s vocal support of Russian cultural kinship and little hesitation to assert its cultural and historical claims on the region, becomes a Kalashnikov. Kosovo, with its ambition to proclaim its “otherness” has finally got its own flag to show for it if nothing else. And Bosnia and Herzegovina is sweetening its bitter wounds with a lethargically brewing Turkish coffee pot.

In the background, but gaining in proportion are the S300 missile Cyprus, loaded not only with Russian ammunition, but a fat Russian wallet, and Turkey – holding tight to its application for EU membership as sticky Turkish delight. Russia – emperor of the surface, the “blank” – space absorbs these unfolding dynamics with the anticipation of the Minotaur waiting for his royal breakfast of seven youths and maidens.

The alternative analysis section of the situation assessment draws no conclusions. As a complementing alternative technique, its aim is to raise awareness of different perspectives and “throw” the more traditional parts on their heads, so to speak. As such, it is an exercise in thinking, not a logical argument.

The paper concludes with some thoughts on methodology in intelligence analysis in general and a summary of the experience in preparing this paper.

Strategic Inflection Points: Myth, History and Russian Foreign Policy

greek-alphabet.jpg inflection-point.jpg  berlin-wall.jpg 

Theoretically, an inflection point is an intersection on a curve, where the curve changes its direction. Two characteristics of an inflection point are that the change is caused by an outside agent (hence my use of the word ‘intersection’), and that the change of direction is dramatic, if not opposite, to the previous course. The second characteristic is what makes an inflection point, a ‘strategic’ inflection point. If the change were not dramatic but a mere fluctuation, it would lose the magnitude of its impact, and would therefore not be strategic. Like Grove, I believe a strategic inflection point is not exactly a point but a dynamic transition caused by the collision of an outside agent with a system, and resulting in a markedly different (sometimes opposite) re-arrangements of the constituents of the system.

I believe that the bigger the impact of a strategic inflection point, the harder, and often impossible, it is to predict. The recognition of a strategic inflection point is a hindsight process from an analytical perspective and a 50-50 wild gamble if we are more prone to intuition. The 9/11 attacks were in hindsight certainly an example of a strategic inflection point: a move from state vs. state warfare to asymmetric warfare, where a variety of non-state actors are involved. Attacks from non-state actors are not new phenomena, and cannot be qualified as strategic inflection points as such. What added the “strategic” part to the 9/11 inflection point, was the magnitude of its impact. Seven years after this event, there has been enough speculation and analysis on this subject that I believe I have few original thoughts to add to the discussion. As to Hurricane Katrina, like any natural disaster, I do not consider it a strategic inflection point. Perhaps one way a natural disaster could qualify as a strategic inflection point would be to examine it under a climate change/environmental degradation category, but this will remain outside the scope of this discussion.

What I would like to do in the pages below is look at strategic inflection points first from the perspective of a myth (the myth of Theuth as narrated by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus), then a historical event (the collapse of the Soviet Union), and finally offer a theoretical summary of the dynamics of power. The choice for my first example is based on past extensive academic research on the transition between an oral to a written culture in ancient Greece, and the role of memory in this transition. My second example pertains to my current research on Russian foreign policy, which I intend to use for the final project of this course.

Our Western tradition of philosophy and metaphysics is one based upon a system of opposites.  Many of the early Greek thinkers conceived the universe as a unity, but a unity formed by a harmonious combination of polarities, bound together by necessity:  mind vs. body, good vs. evil, speech vs. writing, memory vs. forgetting, etc.  These opposites cannot stand alone as independent entities, but can only exist and function in pairs.  The second term in each pair is thought of as the negative of the first.  Language is also rich of terms that contain their opposites in one “form”, such as the word pharmakon, which in Greek can mean both remedy and poison.  Socrates’ own death by drinking the hemlock becomes ambiguous given the dual nature of this word.  A pharmakon is then something like a catalyst for change in the power dynamics of opposites. In our strategic inflection point, it plays the role of the outside agent causing a dramatic re-arrangement of the system.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates narrates the following myth:

Socrates:  Very well.  I heard, then, at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth.  It was he who first invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing (grammata).  Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon.  Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians.  And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one: and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or the bad points of the explanation.  Now Thamus is said to have had a good deal to remark on both sides of the question about every single art (it would take too long to repeat it here); but when it came to writing, Theuth said, “This discipline (ta mathēma), my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories (sophōterous kai mnēmonikōterous):  my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom.” (Phaedrus, 274 c-e)

The art of writing is presented to the king of Egypt as a pharmakon which will improve memory and bring wisdom.  But in itself, writing has no value unless the king Thamus (another name for Ammon) accepts it.  The pharmakon comes to the king not only from the outside, but also from below.  The king’s ignorance only affirms his sovereign independence.  He does not need to write.  He speaks or he dictates his word to scribes. The god of writing, according to this myth, is a subordinate character, a kind of an ingenious servant. His gift is not only useless to the hegemonic power but it is also a menace in that it threatens its very foundation, its raison d’etre. This ambivalent figure, the god of writing, or simply writing, or pharmakon is thus both a remedy and a poison.  Writing, according to Plato, has a double dimension:  no more a remedy than a poison.  Hence, the logical objection of the king to the pharmakon as an aid to both memory (mnēme) and wisdom (sophia); under the pretext of supplementing memory, it makes one more forgetful; instead of increasing wisdom, it diminishes it. 

Applied to our argument on strategic inflection points, the outside agent has the inherent dual capacity of creating growth and decline, opportunities and threats, winners and losers. And this duality translates into something more: ambiguity, uncertainty, slipperiness, and outright deception, which make possible outcomes obscured and extremely difficult to predict. Faced with a transition point situation, a leader who needs to make urgent decisions is like the Egyptian king: he can choose to assert his hegemonic authority by disregarding the intruder or accept the challenge and try to transform it to his advantage. The choice will ultimately depend on whether the leader is the suicidal, proud hero type of the Ajax variety or the “cowardly” but sly Odysseus crop, who despite all challenges thrown at him by the Gods, eventually manages to get back to his Ithaca.

Fast-forward to 1989.

Could anyone have predicted, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet system, which ended the Cold War? Despite hindsight arguments that the collapse was predictable due to the discernible economic and political decay of the Soviet Union by the late 80s, no one actually predicted that on an early November day in 1989 people will take down the Wall with hammers in Berlin while millions of others in the satellite countries would take to massive demonstrations on the streets, in what I can describe from personal memory as mass euphoric hysteria or hysteric mass euphoria, or both. The end of the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union is certainly one of the most dramatic strategic inflection points of the 20th century. It is true that the internal decay of the system was predictable and even predicted though various channels, not least of which theoretical. Already in 1947, George F. Kennan, ironically echoing Hegelian-Marxist dialectic principles, wrote:

…the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the end of the Cold War was the re-distribution of power in the system of international relations from bipolar superpowers to…? I leave this sentence unfinished because despite the temptation to say unilateral power, with the U.S. as the dominant superpower, I believe the post-Soviet power dynamics are changing so rapidly that we should be careful not to rush to conclusions. The U.S. might still be enjoying a certain privileged position in the pantheon of international relations, but the emergence of regional powers, regional power politics, reliance on interconnectedness and interdependency as opposed to traditional allies, is quickly shifting toward a multipolar system, whose center of gravity might ironically end up being the periphery.

In this light, the end of the Cold War might be seen both as a triumph of peace over conflict or as the return to a more dangerous system, in which each newly emerged power will be willing to fight tooth and nail for a larger chunk in the power distribution system. Regardless of whether one adopts an optimistic or a pessimistic view, one thing is sure: we are in the middle of a new political strategic inflection point – a rapidly developing process of regional powers coming to parity with the established superpowers. This, according to power transition theory, signals a red alert. Power transition theory is an international relations theory developed in the late 1950s, which postulates that war is imminent when the distribution of power between the dominant state and “the challenger” reaches approximate parity. It is not a purely realist theory like other systemic IR theories in that it focuses not only on power, but also on “satisfaction” (an interesting divergent discussion outside the scope of this paper would be on the trend of happiness theories and happiness economics. One of the main arguments is that conflict will only occur if the following two conditions are present: first, “the challenger” achieves parity with the dominant power; second, “the challenger” must necessarily be dissatisfied with the existing power status quo set up by the dominant power, so that it would wish to re-write the rules of the game, so to speak. Therefore, a weak dissatisfied challenger or a strong satisfied challenger are not to be feared. The power transition theory is practically opposite to the Cold War balance of power theory according to which equality of balance keeps the peace.

Now, how can theories of power and analysis of strategic inflection points provide practical guidance to political leaders or business executives? What conclusions from the above theoretical discussion and historical and mythical analogies can we draw when looking at Russian foreign policy today and Russian leadership?

One essential component of Russian foreign policy is Russia’s view of itself, i.e. self-identity. What is Russia and who is ultimately Russian? I would like to argue that Russian identity (at least post 1917) is based on negation. Russia’s view of itself has historically been a reaction to the West, i.e. Russia has seen herself as the counterbalancing reaction to what she has labelled Western capitalism and imperialism, a sort of a global “saviour” from the evils of the West, or in the words of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz:

…a collective body, a human society, cannot be the Saviour…Guilt is individual, it is my guilt. Sin is universal – not I am guilty but society, and I can be saved not through my own effort (Grace given to me) but by the collective of which I am a particle. That’s why they [Russians] are always in search of the kingdom of God, but I placed in time, substituting for it Communism, or perhaps, in the future, another type of eschatology. (Milosz and Merton, The Letters, 28)

I was reminded of this type of “reactionism” when I read the following sentence in Grove’s book: “Intel equalled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?” (p.90) Well, how could Russia give up its identity as the “counterbalancing” force to the U.S. (and certain parts of Europe)? How can it transform itself from a reactionary to a pro-active player; one that sets the rules of the game, not merely plays by them? It would seem, Vladimir Putin might just have the “right” idea of how to do that. Whether, the West likes to admit this or not, he has managed to ride the wave of success through a transition period of the gloomiest and direst economic and political degeneration, which characterized Russia in the 1990s. By hook or crook, intelligence and agility, vision, and belief in his mission, he has managed to reposition his country in quite a favourable position in the international arena. The sustainability of his policies is irrelevant to this discussion. He has shown leadership and exceptional determination in a period of serious crisis for Russia. That he might not do as good a job in a situation less characterized by crisis, is possible. Grove remarks that “People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.” (p.92) I agree only partly. Passion is the underlying quality of a leader, and that which makes other people follow him. Hence, it might be good to have a dispassionate analyst or adviser, but when it comes to leadership, passion is key.

Grove goes on to describe his anxiety upon presenting to the people at Intel’s Oregon facility the new strategy of switching from memory chips to microprocessors, and his surprise that they took the news much better than he expected: “These people, like our customers, had known what was inevitable before we in senior management faced up to it. There was a measure of relief that they no longer had to work on something that the company wasn’t fully committed to. This group, in fact, threw itself into microprocessor development and they have done a bang-up job ever since.” (p.94) I can’t help but draw another parallel with Putin’s leadership. Again, despite Western criticism and internal opposition to his leadership methods, Putin has been an immensely popular leader. One could easily see the same type of “measure of relief” among the Russian people when he turned away from what the West considered “more democratic” policies of the Yeltsin period back to centralized, hierarchical authoritarianism thereby decreasing the level of uncertainty so uncomfortable to a people used to be ruled by the iron fist for decades, if not centuries. One Russian daily observed recently that there was communism and democracy, and then, there was a third way – the Putin way: extreme right wing nationalism (my addition). It is both surprising and understandable that the people of Russia should be so enamoured with their leader. Russia is, after all, the birth place of various reactionary, revolutionary and terrorist forces, coupled with an uncanny dose of affinity toward religious mysticism – a powerful cocktail indeed!

In summary, a study of strategic inflection points is comparable to a study on the dynamics of power. Viewed from an international relations perspective, balance of power theory seems more applicable to the Cold War era while the emergence of regional power challengers to the international status quo is better viewed through the prism of transition power theory. While on the losing side of the power coefficient less than ten years ago, Russia is rapidly regaining influence in the geopolitical sphere through strong but not necessarily sustainable leadership and foreign policies. National identity and energy security will be the two defining factors that decide if Russia is to coast through its current strategic inflection period as a winner or become a marginalized loser in the international power reshuffle.