TRANSCRIPT: House Hearing on Understanding and Deterring Russia: U.S. Policies and Strategies – Oral remarks of Dr. Fiona Hill

U.S. Capitol in Bright Sunlight

House Armed Services Committee
February 10, 2016
Hearing on Understanding and Deterring Russia: U.S. Policies and Strategies

Oral remarks of Dr. Fiona Hill
Fiona Hill is director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also co-author of the second edition of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” (Brookings Institution Press, 2015). From 2006 to 2009, Hill served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at The National Intelligence Council.
[Full text of prepared statement here]

The Russian Security Challenge

Russia today poses a greater foreign policy and security challenge to the United States and its Western allies than at any time since the height of the Cold War confrontation in the mid-1980s. Russia’s military seizure and annexation of Crimea, its war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and its military intervention in Syria have upended Western calculations from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in Syria is a stark reminder that Russia is a multi-regional power-as much by intent as by geography.

As developments of the last decade have demonstrated since the August 2008 war in Georgia, both under- or overestimating Russia’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal capabilities can lead to dangerous policy miscalculations and strategic surprises. If the United States and its allies are not to be continually surprised, we will have to put more resources behind understanding what is happening inside Russia, as well as analyzing the complex of Russia’s interactions internationally. We need a more holistic approach if we are to succeed in identifying workable policy solutions.

My written statement, and a set of appendices for the Congressional record, offer a more detailed overview of the current challenge, but let me touch on a few highlights and give some supplemental thoughts to the written text.

Russian Decisionmaking

First, understanding the current nature of Russian decisionmaking is key. Russia is not the Soviet Union with a politburo, the Communist Party, and central planning. Russia is also not the Russia of the 1990s and early 2000s with limited capacity for military action. It is a very different kind of actor. Power in Russia is informal and rooted in networks around President Vladimir Putin. There are no significant institutional checks and balances on Putin’s presidential power. Putin is one aspect of the Russian challenge, but “waiting Putin out” is not a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia. Even if Putin were to “disappear” tomorrow, he is most likely to be replaced by someone from the inner circle. Everyone around Putin, in the inner circle of power, is part of a tight group from the same general age cohort, whose personal and professional relationships extend back decades, and who share the same convinctions.

Vladimir Putin has a particular style of leadership rooted in his background as a professional secret service operative. He has been trained (as he puts it) to “work with people” and “work with information.” As president, he personalizes all his interactions with other Russian officials on domestic issues and with other world leaders on foreign policy-as he would have done as a KGB case officer targeting, recruiting, handling, and dealing with an intelligence target or asset. As an operative, Putin has also been trained to conceal his true identity and intentions at all times; and to always keep his options open so that he can adapt to changing circumstances and continue to pursue his goals. As the Russian head of state, this gives Putin a great tactical advantage. If no-one knows what he wants, or how he is going to react, he can stay one step ahead of his political opponents (domestic and foreign).

In terms of his political convictions, Vladimir Putin is a traditional conservative Russian politician. There is a general consensus in Russia, deeply rooted in the political elite since the collapse of the USSR, that the current world order, and especially the European political and security order, disadvantage Russia. Russians see their state as one of only a tiny number of “world civilizational powers” with a unique history, culture, and language. They believe, on this basis, that Russia has special privileged interests in Europe, and internationally. Any successor to Putin will be-and will have to be-as staunch a defender of Russian interests as Putin is.

Putin’s Wartime Presidency

With wars on two fronts in Ukraine and Syria, Putin has transformed his current presidency into a wartime presidency. A centralized military and political command center-the Stavka, the high command in Russian-has been created in Moscow. All information on critical security and political issues is fed in to a small group of people around Putin that comprises the “hard men” from the security services. We do not really know what happens within this group; who deliberates on what; how Putin decides on a course of action. But we can be sure that the group share Putin’s operative’s perspective. Many of them come from the same backgrounds as he does. None of the “hard men” of Russian politics are military men, including the current defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, who used to be the minister of emergencies. The only military man in the security team, Gennady Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, is a relative newcomer and an outsider to Putin’s inner circle.

Before today’s wars, the August 2008 war with Georgia was the turning point for Putin and his security team. It was also the decisive moment in Russia’s relations with the West. Operational setbacks during the conflict were analyzed and assessed to guide the further modernization of the Russian armed forces. And Moscow closely observed the reactions and political responses of the U.S., NATO, the EU, UN, and individual European countries during the war. They took the lack of U.S. and NATO military support for Georgia, and all the disagreements about appropriate countermeasures, as fissures in the Western alliance that they could exploit in the future. The key lesson of the war for Russia was that no other European state was willing to engage in similar military adventures and to take Russia on.

Since the Georgia war, the Russian military has become a direct instrument for Putin and his inner circle to deploy against opponents in foreign policy for maximum effect. This gives Russia an advantage and allows Moscow to take risks. Putin and the inner circle essentially look at the Russian military as a tool. They experiment with the direct (or threat of direct) application of military force, including strategic and tactical nuclear forces, to see what advantage they can gain.

Russian Military Modernization in Perspective

However, the Russian military has its shortcoming as an operational tool. Russia’s military modernization over the last decade has been beset by planning discontinuities. Military reform-in terms of overhauling the armed forces and revamping military doctrine and operations-began in 2008. Russia’s rearmament program to replace obsolete Soviet-era weaponry and systems, and to reinvigorate its defense industry did not begin until 2011. When the operations to annex Crimea and spark war in Ukraine’s Donbas region were launched in 2014, the Russian military was not quite ready for prime time. This was one of several reasons why the war was a covert war. Russian operations in Donbas in many respects had to serve as a proving ground for new weapons and systems.

Since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian military has engaged in a series of large-scale exercises and snap exercises in western and southern Russia close to the Ukrainian border to continually test its forces and their equipment. Major snap exercises are currently underway as we meet here. Indeed February is traditionally exercise season for Russia as the annual draft comes up in March, turning over the conscript force base, and reducing military capacity for a significant period.

Putin’s Challenge

Putin’s challenge is how to maintain the military momentum Russia gained in Georgia 2008 and how to keep on taking the West by surprise as Russia has in Ukraine and then Syria. Russia may be coming to the military limits of what it has at its disposal for conducting larger-scale operations. In Ukraine, part of the impetus for dampening down the conflict-along with securing sanctions relief, and pocketing gains on the ground-is that the war has been relatively costly in the context of Russia’s partially-implemented rearmament program. The current Russian economic downturn, created by a confluence of plummeting energy prices and Western sanctions, has squeezed the defense budget. It has lowered the state’s capacity for replacing the armaments, equipment, and materiel used in the war. Indeed, Western sanctions hit Russia just as the rearmament program hit its stride, depriving Russia of access to critical foreign technology, as well as budget revenues. The intervention in Syria has further compounded the military’s replacement problem. The Syrians are not paying for the armaments and assistance they receive from Russia. So the costs of the Syrian campaign are difficult to calculate-they are not just the total of the Russian military’s declared costs, which seem quite low.

Russia’s dilemma is now one of prioritization-where to allocate its budget, and where and how to deploy its, relatively limited, trained manpower. Russian military planners are still absorbing the impact of economic decline on the resources they have available to them. Beyond the limits of men and materiel, there is the question of what might come next in the international arena that they will have to contend with? Putin’s inner circle has the same questions we do about the next big security challenges. For Russia and the Putin team, being at war in the Middle East is unfamiliar territory. Russia’s goal in Syria is to consolidate the Assad regime’s position on the ground to make sure that Bashar Assad stays in place until some better arrangement to keep some semblance of the Syrian state together is devised through international negotiations, with Moscow in a lead position (as Putin has insisted from the start of the war). Intervening in Syria to achieve this goal was a high stakes gambit. It requires a large number of other players-not just the United States-to play along with Moscow, on the ground, and at the negotiating table.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia has vacillated between and among applications of military force, economic pressure, and political negotiations-with the Ukrainians, with Europeans, and with the United States over the heads of everyone else. Moscow is constantly testing to see which avenue is most promising at a particular juncture to press Russia’s advantage, and how it can always leave its options open. There was, however, no quick military victory in Donbas, no replay of the bloodless seizure of Crimea, and there will similarly be no victory in Syria, where the risks increase every day. In Ukraine, the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane by rebel forces, in July 2014, was a decisive factor in persuading the European Union to impose additional sanctions on Russia after Crimea. Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian plane, in November 2015, has provoked a serious rift between Moscow and Ankara. There are a lot more things that can go wrong in both Ukraine and Syria, and it may be hard for Russia to deal with the inevitable operational setbacks in the Middle East.

With the economic downturn, Putin and his inner circle are under pressure to keep on delivering foreign policy victories, which have boosted the Russian public’s ratings of Putin’s political performance. The legitimacy of the current Russian political system depends almost entirely on the maintenance of Putin’s charismatic authority, his record as a leader. If the Russian people lose their faith in Putin as president then the whole political system risks becoming destabilized.

Putin’s ratings are high-a couple of percentage points short of 90% in the most recent polls- because of his record as president, and because of the siege mentality that has progressively taken hold in Russia. Public opinion surveys show a broad-based conviction among Russians that the United States and the West are “out to get them.” In the context of the Ukraine crisis and the war in Syria this has given Putin a clear, but temporary, advantage. Although the Russian economy and the state budget have taken a beating since 2013, the wars have deflected public attention away from economic and political demands. Putin and his team have been able to blame all of Russia’s woes on the United States and Western actions and sanctions.

At all turns, Putin has shown he is willing to pay a high economic and diplomatic price as he seeks to tip regional balances of power in Europe and the Middle East in Moscow’s favor. He has upset the “reset” of relations with the United States, lost “modernization partnerships” with Germany and the European Union, and ruptured relations with NATO not just with Turkey. Many of Russia’s other foreign relationships are also strained. The question is how long can this continue? Can Putin keep the population mobilized behind his presidency if things start to go badly wrong for the Russian military operation in Syria? You can be sure that Vladimir Putin is also considering this question carefully.

The United States’ Challenge

Putin’s overriding goal is security for Russia and his system. We are talking today about deterring Russia, but Putin and his security team firmly believe they are deterring us-the United States and NATO-to protect Russian interests. Ultimately, in pursuing Russia’s goals, Putin is a pragmatist. Russia does not have the military or economic resources for the mass-army, total mobilization approach that it adopted during the Cold War to defend itself against NATO. Putin has to combine conventional, nuclear, and non-conventional, non-military-so-called “hybrid”-means of defense. Russia’s military modernization program has been geared toward this.

Putin has also applied his operative’s approach to thinking about how to deter the United States and NATO from considering taking any military action against Russia-in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere. He has put everything on the table to demonstrate that Russia has the capacity to act, and is willing to escalate on all fronts. Nuclear weapons have been Russia’s ultimate deterrent for decades, but to have real deterrent value they have to be instrumentalized like the rest of the Russian military. They are no good if no-one believes that Russia will use them. So Putin and his team are clearly drawing up a contingency for deploying nuclear weapons in some way. The goal is to push the United States and NATO away from Russia and out of its neighborhood, not to actually engage in a nuclear exchange.

All this means that, for the United States, devising strategies and policies for dealing with Russia is by no means easy. Given all the factors at work in Russia and the international arena, including the informal nature of power and the role of personalized politics in Moscow, and Putin’s operative thinking about the Russian military and nuclear arsenal, the security response to the Russian challenge will have to encompass the arc of a long game. Strategic patience must accompany the judicious balance of elements of deterrence, defense, and constraint, along with clear incentives, and direct engagement with Putin and his inner circle. We need to understand the nature of Russian threat perceptions and Russia’s long-term perspectives. Managing the U.S.-Russia relationship will require a considerable attention inside and outside government, and close coordination with our allies on analysis and policies