This is the second of two posts about Franklin Graham and Vladimir Putin. This is a look at Russian foreign policy which has been belligerent and militaristic. From the invasion of Georgia to the seizure of Crimea to the threatened Baltic states; this is a look at the Russia which some evangelical Christians tragically seem to admire. Plus this is also my thoughts about what Russia’s end game ultimately is.
“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”
“The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
“In the Baltic States – and elsewhere – Russia is feared.”
Finish President Sauli Niinistoe
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Matthew 5: 3 – 6 NIV
An old Soviet parade
In order to understand what is happening with Russia its necessary to step back and do a review of Russian foreign policy and what is occurring on the global stage. From former Soviet states such as Georgia to Ukraine there has been a lot that transpired. Plus the Baltics and Nordic states of Sweden, Finland, and Norway are nervous. In addition Russia has been quite active in Syria and Europe. Lets start by looking at the Russian-Georgian War of 2008.
The Russia-Georgia war is regarded as the first European war of the 21st century. The conflict arose out of two Russian backed self proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They declared their independence from Georgia in 1991 after Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union. Relations between the pro west government of Georgia and Russia deteriorated when Vladimir Putin became the President of Russia in 2000. Russia changed the passport policies in the 2003 time frame and without Georgia’s permission started to distribute Russian passports out to people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2004 in the Rose Revolution Mikhail Saakashvili became the president of Georgia and at the top of his agenda was reasserting Georgia control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Conflict grew especially when Georgia wanted to join NATO. Russia in response stated that it would support the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Georgia opposed. Peace plans were put together to resolve the conflict by the European Union, Germany and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
At the NATO Summit in Bucharest President George W Bush pushed for admitting both the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Vladimir Putin stated that NATO expansion to Russia’s borders would be viewed as a threat. Russia’s foreign policy goal is to keep former Soviet republics from joining NATO. Vladimir Putin had long planned to invade Georgia to keep it from joining NATO. In early 2008 Putin signed a decree with Russia recognizing separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In May of 2008 Russia sent in Railway Troops to repair a rail line in Abkhazia. Tensions and conflict increased and on August 7, Georgia artillery started moving into Tskhinvali which is the Capitol of South Ossetia. Russia accused Georgia of “aggression against South Ossetia” and less than an hour later two tank columns of the 58th Russian army were on their way into Tskinvali. Russian ground forces and air force attacked Georgian positions and by August 9 Georgian forces started to withdraw. Also on August 9 Russian forces attacked Gori which is about 16 miles outside Tskhinvali. In addition to attacking a Georgian military base, Russian forces attacked apartment buildings and a local school. Russia continued to shell civilian areas on August 11, and Georgia forces withdrew to secure the capitol Tiblisi. Russian aggression continued on August 12 with the attacking of a hospital, university and more. Dutch television journalist Stan Storimans was killed in the assault. Gori was taken on August 13. Russian and Georgia naval forces also had a confrontation on the Abkhaz front. Russia also occupied Potti which is a crucial port for Georgia on the Black Sea. Also while fighting was taking place in South Ossetia Russian air force bombed the Georgian capitol Tiblisi.
What the Georgian-Russian war will go down in history for is the following. This was the first conflict to have had a cyber attack coincide with actual military conflict. Russia had swamped and disabled a number of internet websites in Georgia and some Russian websites were also affected. On August 11 the website of the Georgian president was defaced and his image was replaced with Hitler’s. Many of the attacks I believe were a DDOS or a denial of service attacks. On August 12 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a cease fire. French President Nicholas Sarkozy who was also the President in office of the European Union was involved in the process. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli signed the peace plan in the presence of Condolezza Rice. Russia started to withdraw from Georgia on August 17. Shortly thereafter to the anger of the United States and the west Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This war had a lot of consequences. As I mentioned above this is the first armed conflict to coincide with a cyber attack. It also was the first time that Russia attacked an independent state. It is considered the first modern war in Europe I believe. It prevented Georgia from joining NATO and sent a message to other former Soviet republics that Russia would not let them join NATO. Russia had 67 troops killed and 283 wounded. Georgia had 169 troops killed and 947 wounded. Russia’s behavior was roundly criticized and I believe that Russia is in defiance of the ceasefire agreement to this day.
Ukraine is a country in Europe that has long struggled with its identity, since its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 45 million people inhabit Ukraine. Since 1991 Ukraine has struggled with corruption, building its government, and powerful oligarchs. The seeds of the current crisis go back to 2013. Victor Yanukovich was engaged in talks with the European Union in crafting a trade association agreement. The Ukraine was moving in the direction of the European Union. Yanukovich agreed to sign the agreement and then on November 21, 2013 Yanikovich refused to sign the agreement claiming that the trade would hurt the Ukrainian industry. What had actually happened is that Russia had placed so much pressure that he capitulated. The decision was met with protests and demonstrations in the capitol city of Kiev. This became known as the Euromaidan. The protesters wanted the Ukraine to associate with the European Union and to condemn the corruption which was plaguing the government. Yanukovich’s government cracked down on the protesters and civil revolt broke out across the Ukraine. Riots broke out and the death toll is estimated to be between 104 and 700 people. In late February of 2014 Yanukovich fled the Ukraine for Russia which is where he is today. It was the bloodiest conflict in the post- Soviet period of Ukraine. A new group of transitional leaders promised to form a national unity government and hold elections on May 25, 2014. But problems started to occur in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
On February 22, 2014 Vladimir Putin decided that Russia needed to perform a secret operation to seize the Crimea. The Crimea was important to Russia, as the Russians had a key Naval base in Sevastopol. This military base is where the Russian Naval Black Sea Fleet is based. In Crimea rallies started to take place between Russian supporters and those who supported the Ukraine. On February 27, 2014 Russian special forces went into Ukraine and seized the Supreme Council of Crimea, which is Crimea’s parliament. In addition “little green men” started to appear in Crimea carrying Russian military weapons and equipment. They were dressed as local milita clothing but were believed to be Russian military. While the Russians had their military at the Crimean parliament they called a special session and forced the the parliament to hold an autonomy referendum. As members of parliament went in they were forced to give up their cell phones, and forced to vote for the referendum which was to be held on May 25. Within hours Crimea was cut off from the Ukraine. On April 17, 2014 Vladimir Putin openly admitted to Russian military intervention The scheduled May 25 referendum was moved up to March 30, 2014. The referendum was moved up a second time to March 16. The question that would be “posed” is whether the Crimea should accede to Russia or re-instate the 1992 Ukraine constitution which Kiev no longer recognized. The official results stated that 95% of Crimeans voted to break away. However, these results are contested and it has also been stated that in reality probably only 25 to 30% of people in Crimea actually voted. On March 17, 2014 Crimea declared itself to be independent and the following day it signed a treaty with Russia called “Treaty on Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia” and the Crimea became a part of Russia. In the time afterward Russia consolidated its grip and worked at removing elements of the Ukraine. For example even the local time zone was put on Moscow local time. In July of 2015 Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Crimea had been fully integrated into Russia.
Shortly after Russia intervened in the Crimea Russia also became provocative in the eastern Ukraine as fighting began to break out in April of 2014. On the 15th of that month the acting Ukrainian president authorizes the start of “anti-terrorist operations” against Russian separatists. The operations stall and then are re-launched on April 22, 2014. In the political regions of Donetsk and Luhansk independence is declared from the Ukraine. Against all this conflict Petro Poroshenko is elected Ukraine’s President, but much of the east does not participate in the election. Fighting intensifies in the East and Russia is allegedly supporting and arming insurgents in the east. After all by late March Russia had built up 30 to 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. As the fighting raged what was thought to be a turning point was when Russian backed rebels pulled out of Sloviansk. Then amidst the fighting Russian backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airline Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. Flight 17 which was a Boeing 777 was 40 miles from the Ukraine border and originated in Amsterdam and on its way to Kuala Lumpur. 283 civilians were killed including 83 children. To this day this remains the deadliest incident of a shoot down of a commercial airliner. The Dutch later determined that a surface to air missile was fired on the jet, and that it exploded a few meters from the front fuselage and fragments penetrated the airline which led to its destruction. The Dutch government expressed its outrage over how the situation was handled as fighting prevented recovery efforts. You actually had Dutch families plead to Putin to stop the fighting so that they can recover loved ones.
On August 22, 2014 Russia moved self-propelled military equipment into the Ukraine A few days later Russia sent two columns into Ukraine and began to fight Kiev backed troops. This was all according to NATO. Without going into all the details the fighting has continued on and off over the next couple of years. The Minks II agreements helped lessen the fighting. In January of 2017 the worst of Ukrainian fighting was occurring. Between April of 2014 and May of 2016 over 9,000 people have been killed in this conflict and 21,000 have been injured. The overall total of people killed has been close to 11,000. The Ukraine conflict still carries on and it remains the most serious conflict on the European continent since the Cold War ended. If you want to follow the Ukraine conflict here is a good website that I came across while researching the issue.
In order to understand Russia’s involvement in the Syria conflict one needs to go back and look at history. The Soviet Union grew closer to Syria in the 1960’s. The Soviet Union helped Syria develop an agriculture industry as well as transportation and oil. The Soviets sent a lot of scientists, engineers and other qualified people to help build up parts of Syria. With teh blessing of then Syrian leader Hafex Assad in 1971 the Soviet Union opened a naval base at Tartus which played a key role in Soviet influence in the Middle East. You can read more about this naval base here. In 1980 Moscow and Damascus signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. The only two challenges that came about were disagreements over the Palestinian issue and the Iran-Iraq War. The Soviet supported the PLO which Syria did not and Syria supported Iran as it fought Iraq for nearly a decade. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990 Syria supported the crusade against Saddam Hussein. To learn more about Syria’s involvement in the Gulf War I would recommend this Chicago Tribune article. As the 90’s moved into the 2000’s Russia and Syria started to draw close again. One key development occurred in 2005 when Vladimir Putin canceled 73% of Syria debt to the Soviet Union. Afterward Syria supported Russia in its foreign policy decisions. Syria came to support Russia in the 2008 Georgia War. Russia has been vocal in the United Nations in supporting Assad and then later especially as the Arab Spring played out. For more information I would read this Los Angeles Times article on the history of Russian and Syrian relations.
On September 30, 2015 Russia took a direct role in the Syrian Civil War. Despite its claim that Russia was attacking Islamic State positions Russia instead went after opposition forces to Bashar al-Assad. Coalitions that were receiving support from the west were targeted by Russia, which included the Free Syrian Army. Russia continued airstrikes sometimes aiming at the Islamic State other times the opposition but the goal has always been the strong support of Assad. On November 15, 2016 Russia started to target Aleppo. The Aleppo campaign lasted almost two months and was some of the most brutal fighting in the civil war. Russia to meet its military goals targeted civilian establishments such as hospitals. The loss of life was profound and many people believe that Russia engaged in war crimes in how they conducted themselves. I would recommend this New York Times article and this Guardian and CNN articles. The civil war in Syria still continues as of this writing. It is a vast and complex situation. After the battle of Aleppo Russia and Syria signed and agreement for Russia to expand the port at Tartus which you can read about here and here. The actions by Russia in Syria are shocking and disturbing and have taken warfare in a different direction. But sadly for Russia that is okay especially if it means expanding empire.
The Threatened Baltic States and Nordic Countries
The threat that Russia poses is felt closely by the the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Plus its Nordic neighbors to the north also have to wrestle with the Russian bear. The biggest defense spender in the Nordic region is now Norway. In 2016 their military budget was set at $6 billion. But do to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin Norway is embarking on making an additional $20.2 billion in funding available over the next 20 years. Chief among arms that will be procured is the F-35 strike fighter of which Norway is acquiring 52. Plus they are acquiring new anti-aircraft weapons. Meanwhile in Sweden they are increasing their defense budget as well in response to Russian aggression. An additional $2 billion will be made available to the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF) between 2016 and 2020. In 2016 the SAF stood at $5.1 billion. Each year the defense budget is going to increase substantially. In 2017 it will go up another $5.35 billion, in 2018 $5.48 billion, $5.78 billion in 2019 and $5.96 billion in 2020. Overall the defense budget will have increased by a total of $26.6 billion over the next five years. Then there is Finland and its response to the aggression by Russia. In 2014 one of Vladimir Putin’s former economic advisers told the Swedish press that one of Russia’s goals was to take back Finland. Finland was granted Independence by the Soviet Union in 1917 and Russia wants to take it back. In response to this news Finland started to build up its border surveillance. However Finland is still dealing with austerity measures put in place from the 2008 economic crisis. With those austerity measures in place Finland is is going to slightly increase its defense budget up to $3.3 billion for 2017.
In the Baltics there is deep fear of Russia’s aggressive behavior which has been provocative. In this case its also important to remember that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined NATO on March 29, 2004 under the guidance of President George W. Bush. As members of NATO the Baltic states fought in Afghanistan alongside the United States military in efforts to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a number of lives were lost. The Baltic states I should also add were deeply scarred by the Soviet invasion in 1940 and the German invasion in 1941. Latvia has had brushes with Russia, including Russia refusing to stop rail car service at the border and hurt Latvian trade. Also of note is Russia sailing its Navy provocatively outside Latvia in May of 2017. Currently Latvia is afraid that they will be abandoned because of Trump which you can read about right here. Plus you can also read the Latvian ambassador talk about Russia’s cyber war here.
In Lithuania there have also been difficulty with Russia. Currently Lithuania is bracing and preparing itself for a Russian invasion one day. What was the concern for Lithuania? It was watching Russia slowly carve up the Ukraine. In 2014 Russia carried out a major military drill in Kaliningrad which is on Lithuania’s border. In 2015 conscription was re-instated. Amidst all this the Lithuania started to prepare for a Russian invasion. But in addition to all that Russia has been aggressive in cyber warfare in Lithuania. Lithuania has found Russian spyware on government computers. Plus Russia has attacked the Lithuanian energy networks and there are deep fears of Russia penetrating the banking industry in the country. The final Baltic state which is threatened by Russia is that of Estonia. In 2007 Estonia faced three weeks of cyber attacks from Russia. It was one of Russia’s boldest and daring cyber maneuvers until what they did in the United States in 2016. What triggered the attacks in Estonia is when the country wanted to remove a Soviet War Memorial in the capitol of Tallinn. The Russians responded with massive attacks that targeted the computers of the Estonian Presidency and parliament, nearly all the countries government ministries, political parties, three of the six news organizations within the country, two of the countries biggest banks and communication firms. The attacks Estonia faced were an electronic Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS). In 2009 one of the attackers who allegedly was a young Russian came out to the media and spoke openly about the Estonian attacks. In addition to the cyber issues in Estonia, Russia has stepped up intelligence activity in the country. Plus recently in May of 2017 Estonia expelled two Russians from the country for unknown reasons. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid gave an interview to the Washington Post discussing the Russia issue recently.
Russia Cyber Activity in Europe
While Russia is engaging in cyber activity that is not all that has happened. In a display of strength Russian warships including their only aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov traveled through the English Channel close to the UK in October of 2016. But what has become the main story of Russian aggression is cyber activity on the European continent. Relations are strained between Russia and the Netherlands, after all remember the Ukrainian backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner over eastern Ukraine. The highest loss of life was Dutch civilians. In the recent Dutch elections the government decided to go all paper after watching Russian cyber attacks elsewhere. But during the campaign Russia used created fake news in an effort to influence the election. Then there was the French Presidential election which ended up as a run off between Marine Le Pen of the far right who was courted by Putin, and Emmanual Macron of a new movement called En Marche. On the last day of the election the Macron campaign was hit by a massive cyber attack. False documents combined with legitimate ones that were hacked were leaked online. The goal was to sow doubt and confusion and influence the French election to someone who would challenge the legitimacy of the European Union. It was later learned that the same hacking group that was involved in hacking Hillary Clinton was involved in hacking the Macron campaign. Yet the Russian campaign against Macron failed and was viewed as a major Russian defeat. The upcoming German election is also threatened by Russia. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has warned that Russia may try and interfere with the German Federal Election in September of 2017.
What are Russia’s Goals?
Before we look at Russian goals there is one thing we need to remember. Vladimir Putin is former KGB and for many people the dissolution of the Soviet Union was painful and embarrassing. After all I will use Russia propaganda to make my point, read what Russia Today says about the end of the Soviet Union. What I believe is happening is that Russia is intent to build up the former Soviet Union. When historians look back on the years from 1991 until 2016 they are going to asses that we let down our guard. And that after September 11th, 2001 we shifted too hard in our focus to Afghanistan and Iraq. And while we were dealing with both situations Russia used the time to rebuild and reorganize itself. If you notice many of the Russian foreign conflicts are with former parts of the Soviet Union. For example Georgia and the Ukraine. In time Putin probably wants to move against the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. But here is Putin’s problem. The Baltics are a part of NATO and Putin needs to break up NATO before Russia can either invade or try and start an insurgency or disrupt either of the Baltics. The Baltics can invoke Article 5 if Russia invades. This is where the American Presidential election of 2016 comes into play. Russia in 2016 did to the United States what Germany did to Russia in 1917.
In 1917 Germany was bogged down into a two front war. The Schlieiffen plan had failed and Germany was stuck in trench warfare. What German intelligence did was to send Vladimir Lenin back into Russia with the goal that he would start a revolution. Germany hoped that after a revolution took place Russia would remove itself from WW 1. Then Germany could throw its resources at the western front and win the war. We know what happened when Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg in 1917. To read more about this I would encourage you to read these articles here, here, and here. Later on Winston Churchill described the German operation in the following terms. “They turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.” After the revolution Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and gave away a substantial amount of its territory. So why am I teaching you about this? Well in order for Russia to have NATO dismembered it needed to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election. Russia saw in Donald Trump a man who could be a threat to NATO and could help break it up. So Russia engaged in illicit cyber activity to throw an election. Russia didn’t try and change the final results, as some people claim. Russia instead weaponized information and used that information to help elect Donald Trump via Wikileaks. They engaged in cyber warfare to get destructive information and release it to change people’s minds. Some people thought our cyber Pearl Harbor would be an attack on Wall Street or an energy grid. Instead our cyber Pearl Harbor occurred when Russia helped throw an election and get their man in power. In the course of time NATO I believe will fall apart due to the United States no longer supporting it like it continually had since 1949. And with NATO out of the picture Russia can then start to do to the Baltics what it did to the Ukraine. That is the motive and reason as to why Russia acted the way they did. In the end in order to understand the world one must always examine history. But this comes from someone who studied European history in grad school, and that I believe is what happened.