Third Rome: Weekly Russia Update, 7th March 2019

It’s been an eventful week for Russia on the global stage. Over the last few months. Turkey’s ham-fisted attempts to intervene in northern Syria seemed to only harden the geopolitical battle-lines, with word of the US withdrawal leading to a series of bombastic claims and counter-claims. Ankara is overtly anti-Assad and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is anti-Turkey and anti-Iran. Iran is pro-Assad and anti-Saudi.

Russia is pro-Assad, and seems to now command the deference of all these coalitions and counter-coalitions. It is becoming increasingly certain that Russia is going to be a long-term player in West Asia, and its cooperation will be needed to allow the region to move forward. Even Israel seems to recognise this, with Israeli PM Netanyahu having visited Moscow to discuss Syria recently.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit is emblematic of this realisation. Indeed, it would appear that Russia is even involved in the Saudi-Qatar split – Lavrov flew there directly from Saudi Arabia. Keep in mind that one of the key causes of the split was Qatar’s perceived closeness to Iran. The fact that Russia, which is a de facto partner of Iran’s in Syria, seems to now have a stake in another issue of regional importance is very significant. Russia is here to stay in West Asia.

Also this week, Russia does not seem at all chagrined by repeated accusations and crackdowns on its information warfare tactics. Russia’s 2013 campaign in Ukraine involved “hybrid” tactics that used both kinetic and informational means – hacks on critical national infrastructure, SMSes sent to soldier’s phones, and simultaneous invasion using boots on the ground. Since, Russia has expanded its ability to cause chaos in the information space, being widely blamed for interfering in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and US Presidential elections as well as many other European elections. Russia’s Chief of General Staff, General Gerasimov, widely credited with initiating this “doctrine”, reiterated his support for it on Saturday. It would appear that for the foreseeable future, Russia finds this a cost-effective way to deal with its Western opponents.

Despite its intimidating presence on the world stage, cracks seem to be appearing under the home front. Russia is developing the capacity to monitor and shut off Internet traffic with great precision even as Putin’s personal popularity sinks to the lowest level that it has reached in years. (The parallel with Alexandr Dugin’s thinking is remarkable – Russia’s ruling elite seems to think that the best way to cling to power is the ‘national security and power projection against Russia’s enemies’ narrative.) This is of huge national and international significance: it increases the State’s ability to crack down on dissent and also gives Russia a bargaining chip, because the closing of Russian internet traffic channels is like “closing your airspace”. It has the potential to significantly affect internet speeds across the world, and gives Russia an additional strategic lever. It remains to be seen how it will be used.