Geopoliticus

Departure of Bossert Reveals “Boltonization” of National Security Council

On April 10, 2018, Thomas P. Bossert, the President’s Homeland Security Advisor, abruptly resigned from his post. It came as a surprise to homeland security observers and to Bossert himself. Speaking at the Cipher Brief’s 2018 Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia, Bossert gave no hint that his departure was mere hours away. What the Bossert exit represents is a rapid move by Bolton to put his own imprimatur upon the National Security Council.

As a fellow member of the George W. Bush administration, I worked homeland security issues with Bossert although we did not work closely together. He was a denizen of the West Wing in those days, while I worked domestic intelligence matters on Nebraska Avenue at the Department of Homeland Security. Lawyerly and thoughtful, Tom was respected for his work ethic and notably his ability to master the chaos that was the Hurricane Katrina crisis of 2005.

Unlike many other veterans of Bush 43, Tom was able to shed those “scarlet numbers” and join the Trump administration. By all accounts, he and President Trump got on well. Bossert’s relations with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second National Security Advisor, were a bit more complicated. Beset by a Byzantine chain of command conundrum, McMaster and Bossert feuded over NSC seniority and who reported to whom. Besides their “who’s on first arguments,” the two sparred over other matters of national security policy as well as often engaging in shouting matches that reverberated through the black and white marbled halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 

A number of NSC staffers also complained that Bossert was a bit of a foot dragger when it came to execution on policies relating to counterterrorism and especially cybersecurity. The Trump administration’s failure to, as yet, delineate a cogent national cybersecurity strategy has been a criticism that has been laid at Bossert’s feet. In defense to Tom, counterterrorism and cybersecurity are both extremely complex issues, involving many stakeholders in government, the private sector, and with our allies abroad. Getting these issues right and crafting a workable strategy should take time and be subject to a great deal of thought and discussion.

Of course, the more important story here is the alacrity with which National Security Advisor John Bolton moved to replace Bossert. Bolton, assuredly not a shrinking violet in the hard-elbowed politics of bureaucratic Washington, has in one scythe-like move begun the process which will result in the “Boltonization” of the National Security Council. Firings did occur after McMaster took over as NSA, the most high-profile example being Ezra Cohen Watnick, but not at the scale currently occurring during Bolton’s first week as NSA. Bolton represents the geopolitical hard, hard line of the Republican party. Indeed, many would contend that he is not of the GOP at all, holding a worldview that is so combative and reactionary that he remains an outlier among more traditional Republican foreign policy thinkers.

Expect Bolton to bring in his own people who share his worldview in the coming weeks. Most of the new recruits will come with street creds that will label them as hardline foreign policy reactionaries who will dismiss globalism and unity of action among the Western allies in favor of American “go it aloneism.”

Since the Trump administration came into office, the NSC has been roiled with the hirings and firings of two National Security Advisors, the departures of now three Deputy National Security Advisors and several senior departmental directors as well as a slew of rank and file staffers. Morale among council employees is said not to be robust.

Another changeover at the NSC could not come at a more inconvenient time.  If Bolton is going to look for a new and tougher staff at NSC, one that reflects his own vision of U.S. national security, the real test for them will be decidedly immediate with the U.S. now facing an instant decision on whether to undertake military action to punish Syria’s Assad regime for yet again dropping chemical weapons on its own citizens, more challenges from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the looming summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.   

With varsity level competition facing him, let’s see if John Bolton’s attempt to re-make his NSC team in his own image will be successful or will result in just a bunch of ideologue scrubs taking the field in possibly the biggest game of their untested careers.

While it is understandable that Bolton will seek to populate his NSC with like-minded thinkers, it is also important to ensure that national security policy-making enjoys the rigorous give-and-take that will be needed to examine all facets of a projected course of action. Indeed, within the Intelligence Community where I served, contrarians are highly valued for the leavening they provide to any intelligence policy decision. Without examining and valuing the opinions of “the loyal opposition” in foreign policy decision-making, we run the risk of following policies untested. When the stakes are as high as North Korean missiles or strikes against Syrian (and Russian) targets, National Security Advisor Bolton would be well-served by a few dissenting voices in the EOB.  


Jack Thomas Tomarchio is former Principal Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Collective Security without an Alliance: Finland’s Defense Relationship with Sweden

Recent concerns over Russian aggression have led countries all around the Baltic Sea to take their security more seriously. Poland certainly has; Sweden has, too. Those concerns have also driven Sweden closer to Finland. A country well-accustomed to the threat from Russia, Finland fought two major wars against the Soviet Union, Russia’s twentieth-century incarnation. Despite pulling off many incredible battlefield successes, Finland lost both the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944). And after each Finnish defeat, the Soviet Union annexed territory whose terrain could present natural obstacles to a future Russian invasion, leaving Finland in an ever more vulnerable position.

Finland’s Strategic Situation

Finland’s modern-day security challenge is daunting. Its current border with Russia stretches 1,340 km and has few natural defensible barriers. Finland must also worry about its capital of Helsinki, which sits near the Russian frontier, and its strategic Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, which lie off Finland’s mainland to the southwest. More worrisome still, the Russian military rehearsed seizing those islands in a 2015 military exercise.[1]

Meanwhile, the armed forces that Finland has available to defend its territory are tiny, especially when compared to those of its Russian neighbor. Making Finland’s numerical inferiority even worse today is the changing character of its people. The Finns who fought the Soviet Union knew how to live in and take advantage of Finland’s rugged countryside. But the steady urbanization of Finland’s population has meant that ever fewer modern Finns possess those skills.

What has not changed is Russia’s interest in Finland. Since Russia founded Saint Petersburg in the eighteenth century, Russia has seen Finland’s position as one that could either protect or threaten the security of its grand port city on the Baltic Sea. Ultimately, that was why the Soviet Union invaded Finland at the start of the Winter War. It was also why the Soviet Union demanded from Finland all of its islands in the Gulf of Finland and a 50-year lease to a naval base on its southern coast as part of their peace treaty after World War II. While the Soviet Union eventually relinquished the base, it kept the islands.

Deep Defense

Acutely aware of its long-term vulnerability to Russia, Finland has never really let its guard down. Even after the Cold War, Finland continued to invest steadily in its armed forces. Just recently, it began to upgrade its mechanized units with the procurement of 100 Leopard 2A6 tanks and 48 K9 self-propelled artillery pieces. In the meantime, Russia’s annexation of Crimea reminded Finns of their need for peacetime military conscription. It also prompted the Finnish military to work towards accelerating the mobilization of its reserve forces for wartime duty.[2]

Given its strategic situation, the Finnish military has long prepared for the worst—the possibility that a Russian invasion could overrun it. Typically, a country in Finland’s position might attempt to defend in depth, trading space for time so that it can gradually wear down an adversary’s assault. But in Finland’s case, it does not have much space to trade. Thus, Finnish leaders have sought to create new strategic space.

Back in 2013, Finland and Sweden began discussions on how to strengthen their military cooperation. After Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and provocations in the Baltic region, the two countries proposed a plan to improve communications between their armed forces and share the use of their military bases. In 2017, Finland and Sweden went a step further. They announced a concept called “strategic depth” that would enable Finnish forces to use (and presumably fight from) Swedish military bases should a Russian invasion occur.

Swedish Calculus

What is remarkable about the “strategic depth” concept is not that Finland embraced it, but rather that Sweden agreed to it. Though it does not constitute a security alliance between Finland and Sweden, the concept would have serious repercussions for Sweden should it ever be put into practice. That is because if Russia invaded Finland and Finnish forces were to fall back to military bases in Sweden, it is easy to imagine that Russia would try to destroy those forces. It is equally easy to imagine how Russian attacks on Swedish soil would bring Sweden into the conflict.

Why would Sweden, ostensibly a neutral country, support such a concept? For starters, Swedes have a deep affinity for Finland. As many Swedes recall, Finland was once a part of Sweden, and many Finns can trace their ancestries to Sweden. In fact, during the Winter War, Sweden contributed many of the armaments used by Finnish forces.

But beyond its fondness for Finland, Sweden also has a strategic reason to support the concept. In recent years, Sweden has tried to bolster its security by enmeshing itself in a web of defense relationships. Though none of them rise to the level of mutual security alliances, those relationships could complicate Russian decision-making by raising the escalatory risks associated with future aggression. Already, Sweden has edged closer to NATO and the United States than it ever has before. Its “strategic depth” concept with Finland appears in the same vein.

Finland and Sweden may hope that such a web of defense relationships would be enough to deter Russia from upsetting the Baltic Sea region’s status quo. If successful, both countries could not only enjoy greater security, but also do so without abandoning their long-cherished nonaligned status. But what if the vague prospect of escalation does not deter a reckless Russia? That would leave Sweden with a difficult choice: plunge into a conflict against Russia or renege on Finland. Sweden faced a similar choice during the Winter War. Ultimately, Sweden hesitated, and its assistance fell short of Finnish expectations given Sweden’s pre-war commitments. Perhaps the lesson for Finland is not to rely on hope as a strategy.


[1] Edward Lucas, “Baltic Sea Security: The Coming Storm,” Center for European Policy Analysis Report, June 24, 2015, p. 9.

[2] Bruce Jones, “Finland to speed up mobilisation time,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 2, 2016.

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From Poster Child to Pariah: Poland Embraces Illiberalism

Over the course of the past two years, onlookers have been confounded at the speed with which Poland, a darling of shock therapy economics and liberal institutionalization, has spiraled towards illiberal democracy. Since the 2015 parliamentary election, the country has made a dramatic political U-turn, which has hurt its diplomatic efforts and eroded goodwill as it now faces the possibility of EU sanctions.

The international press used to extol Poland as a stellar example across the board: a paradigm of democratization; the only European Union member to avoid a recession during the financial crisis; an advocate for Ukraine’s EU ambitions; a diplomatic buffer between the EU and Russia; a testament to the transformative power of EU money. It seemed like this nation from “the Other Europe” had finally arrived on the international stage.

The past two years have shown just how quickly perceptions change. The Poland of today seems increasingly like an ideologically feudal outpost, its politics once again ridden with the legacy of communism, conspiracy theories, and exclusionary discourse towards opponents. Since Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) swept the Sejm (Polish Parliament) in 2015, the country’s international reputation has been characterized by a slew of highly publicized and controversial decisions.

Poland First

In January 2018, widespread international outrage erupted over legislation denouncing any suggestion that there was Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Last summer, PiS had enraged environmentalists and Eurocrats when it began a nonsensical logging campaign in the protected Białowieża Puszcza, the last remaining primeval forest on the European continent. The party also refused to support Donald Tusk’s (a former president from the opposition party) bid for his second term as President of the European Council. Brussels was left dumbfounded by this self-sabotage. Last spring, PiS inspired widespread revolt with its introduction of a draconian abortion bill that spurred Polish women to launch a “black protest” and organize a nationwide strike (the bill did not pass). Polish public media has also transformed into a government propaganda machine. And, at the very start of its tenure in government, PiS began an overhaul of the Constitutional Tribunal (CT), passing seven amendments on the functioning of the tribunal, including changes to its composition and procedures. When the CT ruled these changes unconstitutional, PiS blocked the rulings from being published, therefore preventing them from coming into effect. The government’s actions are negating the CT’s role as a capable oversight body and raising red flags from democracy watchdogs.

From an outsider’s view, it would appear that the current government keeps digging itself deeper, allowing for little goodwill. And it needs some goodwill. Poland’s ability to conduct effective foreign policy is tied inevitably to its standing in the EU, and EU-Polish relations are at an all-time low. The Holocaust bill has caused a rift with Israel and other key allies (including the U.S.). If the high point of the last two years of diplomacy was securing a visit from President Trump last summer, the very theatrics of that visit only served as further embarrassment and gained little clout with Brussels. So why does this government continue down this slippery slope? Because the mantra of Jarosław Kaczyński, the de facto godfather of PiS is: Poland first, EU second.

This approach is simple, but effective (and familiar, no?). When the EU says member states need to accept migrants, Poland responds, “we must protect our culture and people first.” When Israel is infuriated by legislation that aims to distort history, Poland claims, “we were victims, too.” When Europe is aghast at draconian views of women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights, Poland purports, “we protect Christian values.” This mentality is in every PiS sound bite. And it has been for the past several years. PiS is placing its bets, and currently, it’s betting on what international media might deem as “bad PR.” But these actions might actually be quite effective in winning elections domestically. When the next election cycle comes around, the evidence of a “Poland First” approach will be readily available.

Tapping into the “Real” Poland

PiS is banking on political gain from rubbing salt into old wounds. Because the events which have shaped Polish memory and identity are overwhelmingly based on trauma and loss. PiS is able to tap into strong emotions for political gain with great success. For example, with the approval of the Holocaust bill, the domestic debate over Polish historical memory will serve to question the patriotism and loyalty of critics. Furthermore, the outcry from Brussels (over this and other legislation) only serves as further proof that the EU does not understand the country’s history or respect its sovereignty. As historian Timothy Garton Ash points out, PiS came to power on the shoulders of “Poland B:” the Poles in small towns and poorer regions who felt “alienated by social liberalism, on issues such as abortion, gender, and sexual orientation, which came with the opening to Western Europe.”[1] To PiS and its supporters, Poland is the last bastion of Christianity in Europe, rebelling heroically against the “immorality” of its Western neighbors.

Little over a decade after Poland’s accession to EU membership, PiS achieved electoral victory in part because it questioned if Poland had acquiesced too much to EU demands in its over-eagerness to achieve Westernization. When examining motivations for voting for PiS in the 2015 elections, a CBOS (Polish Public Opinion) poll found that over 30 percent of voters were swayed by the perception that PiS had Poland’s true interests at heart. A March 2018 CBOS poll showed that PiS enjoys the support of 41% of the population, while support for its rival Civic Platform (PO) has dropped to 14%. If parliamentary elections were held today, PiS would win 39.4% of the vote (significantly more than its closest rival, Civic Platform). Though the past two years may have been pockmarked with boisterous protests, these were mainly confined to left-leaning metropolitan areas like Warsaw. Despite its bad reputation abroad, PiS’ portrayal of the EU as no longer aligned with Poland’s culture needs has helped it maintain a strong mandate at home.

An Uncertain Path Forward

How times have changed. Just 25 years ago, EU membership was the main goal of Central European governments after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This goal could only be achieved by a wholehearted dedication to abiding with the democratic principles outlined. At the time, the incentive of EU membership superseded nationalist political agendas. Though Czech President Vaclav Havel may have hailed the former Soviet satellite states’ post-communist transition as a “return to Europe” in the 1990s, it seems that modern Central European governments are now reevaluating the implications of that historic homecoming.

Central Europeans had hoped that EU membership would be their ticket to a rapid increase in economic status. Years later, not everyone has reaped these benefits as economic crises, massive emigration, and unequitable distribution of wealth created socioeconomic problems most political parties were slow to acknowledge. EU integration was supposed to level the playing field—instead, it seems to have exposed the fissures hiding behind its shiny façade.

In recent months, PiS has amplified its campaign to vindicate its policies in Brussels; Mateusz Morawiecki, the new prime minister, recently presented the European Commission with a white paper aiming to convince Eurocrats that his government’s reforms will actually increase the independence of the judiciary. When Brussels rejected this defense, Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, was quick to accuse the EU of a “double standard” in its treatment of member states, emphasizing the discord between East and West. The efficacy of such moves is inconsequential. PiS may try to play nice to improve relations on the surface, but it’s in no rush to offer concessions.

Poland’s deteriorating international position results mainly from the escalating conflict with Brussels and the weakening credibility of the government outside the country. Even if there are no EU sanctions against Poland in the end, the drawn out debate and process will significantly reduce Poland’s influence in the EU, which it ultimately wants to wield on its own terms. This diplomatic loss has yet to be counterbalanced by revivals in other channels. The Visegrad four, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, are not more unified than before, and while Poland’s relationship with the U.S. putters on, it is inevitably tied to the whims of an unpredictable Trump administration.

A year ago, it seemed improbable that the EU would launch Article 7 proceedings against Poland. At present, it still seems unlikely that there would be a unanimous vote to invoke sanctions, though enough pressure from Germany and France could theoretically make it happen (Hungary has vowed to support Poland in this cause). With the EU now threatening to dole out structural funds only to members who abide by the rule of law, Poland finds itself in an unprecedented scenario. If Article 7 is ever invoked, Poland could face serious financial penalties, withholding of EU funds, and a ripple effect in its economic stability. Kaczyński’s approach to EU membership has always been skeptical at best; a steady flow of EU funds has always been the main perk of membership. Should those be cut off, the EU bargain loses its appeal both for the PiS and the people that put them in power. Poland’s inability to fill its coffers with EU money, combined with potential penalties for breaking EU regulations, could instigate a surge of “Polexit” support. For the already Eurosceptic PiS, this would be politically advantageous.

With the EU embroiled in multiple crises, and with Hungary vowing to veto any EU sanctions against Poland, the government is unlikely to back down even with the looming threat of Article 7. With PiS in power, Poland will continue down the illiberal path that Hungary has been clearing for almost a decade, leaving it up to Brussels to make the concessions.


[1] Ash, Timothy Garton. “Is Europe Disintegrating?” The New York Review of Books. January 19, 2017. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/01/19/is-europe-disintegrating.

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Comrade Kim Goes to China, but What Does That Really Mean?

At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011. The first concrete signs that a high official was travelling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.

On March 26, a source described to Daily NK how local police rehearsed rapid deployment of protective metal road barriers the day before. Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was known for taking his train rather than flying, over fears of safety. The mode of transportation was only one of several continuities in tradition. With two summits planned with national leaders—one on April 27 with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and a slightly more spectacular (and uncertain) one with U.S. President Donald Trump set for late May—it would have been a notable break of tradition had Kim Jong-un met with either of these two leaders before North Korea’s only nominal ally, China.

As leader, Kim Jong-il’s first two foreign visits went to China, where he met with then-President Jiang Zemin. For his third visit, Kim the elder went to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between North Korea and China may be more fraught than in the past several decades, with China enforcing international sanctions on North Korea with greater force than it has ever has before. But some traditions are heavier than others. Kim Jong-il, too, only ventured abroad after he had consolidated his power internally.

Reports from the meetings between the two leaders also carried few surprises. The mandatory and regular talk of their historical friendship, sealed in blood and forged through ideological union, has been as present as tradition commands in both Chinese and North Korean state media reports of the visit. Given the current tensions and uncertainties surrounding the Korean peninsula, emphasizing that continuity is an important message in its own right.

The diplomatic developments of late have taken place largely without much of a clear part for China, at least not what the outside world has been able to see. As the Chinese government news agency Xinhua emphasized, Kim’s visit was a way to loop in China and give the country its due recognition as a key player in the process:

At present, the Korean Peninsula situation is developing rapidly and many important changes have taken place, Kim said, adding that he felt he should come in time to inform Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping in person the situation out of comradeship and moral responsibility.

Xinhua also reported that Kim mentioned denuclearization several times, but none of what he said gave evidence of a change of policy or even a new North Korean attitude to the nuclear issue. To grasp the full context of these citations, they are worth quoting in full (my own emphasis):

Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is starting to get better, as the DPRK has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.

It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said.

Kim said that the DPRK is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides.

The DPRK is willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.

The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim.

This is not the first time over the past few weeks that other outlets or channels than North Korean ones claim that Kim has made statements positive to denuclearization. When North Korea communicated to the United States that it wanted to meet, a South Korean envoy relayed the message that Kim wanted to talk denuclearization. North Korean media is yet to acknowledge or even mention this or even that Kim is scheduled to meet with Trump. The same is true for Kim’s comments in Beijing: North Korean reports of what was said there do not mention denuclearization.

Even if they had, “denuclearization” can mean a whole number of things to North Korea, and it almost certainly does not entail a one-sided capitulation of its nukes to the United States. Take the following piece from the excerpt above of Kim’s statements: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”

Note: consistent stand. In other words, nothing has really changed in North Korea’s line on the nukes. Despite what some media outlets have speculated, this was not a promise by Kim to give up his nuclear weapons in future negotiations. North Korea is still prepared to denuclearize—as long as the U.S., South Korea, and maybe the rest of the world takes steps that are still yet to be defined. We don’t actually know what North Korea demands in exchange for denuclearization, and North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” may be so wide as to be meaningless because what it will demand in return are things that its negotiating partners cannot or will not give.

Despite their tense relationship, North Korea and China need each other for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with strategic conditions in the region. These have not changed. The visit was a way for China and North Korea to close ranks before North Korea’s upcoming negotiations, and they’ve shown that for all the bad blood between them, they remain allies, albeit uncomfortable ones.

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Collective Defense or Unilateral Action: Poland’s Strategic Dilemma in the Baltics

In 1999, Poland joined the NATO Alliance. Ever since, collective defense has been at the heart of Poland’s national security strategy. But recent changes in Europe’s strategic environment may be leading Poland to think twice about whether collective defense alone can guarantee its security. The combination of a more aggressive Russia, a less resolute Western Europe, and a growing divergence between the military capabilities of Poland and those of the rest of NATO have made unilateral Polish action a real possibility.

Strategic Environment

Despite the West’s economic sanctions against it, Russia has continued to throw its weight around on its periphery. After annexing Crimea and fomenting separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia appeared to have shifted its attention to the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Finland, Sweden, and NATO’s Baltic members of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all experienced repeated Russian incursions into their air and maritime spaces. it would not only create a new threat on Poland’s border, but also damage, perhaps irreparably, NATO’s credibility as a defense alliance.

NATO is important to Polish security. Despite its bigger and better equipped military, Poland cannot deter Russia by itself. Poland needs a strong NATO and one committed to the defense of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Poland, most of its NATO allies seem less than fully committed. Twenty-three out of NATO’s 28 members do not meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending , which obligate each country to spend at least two percent of its GDP on defense and 20 percent of that spending on major new equipment or defense research and development.[1] Nor have Poland’s allies invested in the infrastructure needed to deploy their forces to Eastern Europe, Indeed, many of the elites within some NATO countries, most notably Germany and Italy, want to entirely lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

All of these issues make Poland nervous about the reliability of NATO’s security guarantee. Considering Russia’s threat to the Baltics, Poland has begun to think about what it can do to ensure NATO’s commitment to collective defense should a crisis erupt there. Paradoxically, what it can do—owing to its geographic location and increasingly robust military—may lead Poland to take unilateral action.

Strategic Dilemma

On the one hand, Poland could wait for NATO before taking action against a Russian intervention in the Baltics. But such a wait could last for weeks as each NATO country must debate and approve the use of force, mobilize its troops, and send them to Eastern Europe. While NATO’s rapid response forces could go into combat faster, they could not fight for long without sufficient logistical support. That could result in a long pause in the crisis that would give Russia time to consolidate its territorial gains and conduct an information campaign to discourage already reluctant NATO countries from ever trying to liberate the Baltics. The result could be a negotiated settlement that leaves Russia in control of part or all of the region—which would restore peace in the short run, but mean the end of NATO in the long term.

On the other hand, Poland could act immediately, and unilaterally. The swift entry of a major NATO country would undoubtedly complicate Russian operations. It would also escalate the crisis without a unified NATO decision to do so. While that may sound a little troubling, it may not trouble Poland as much as one might think. After all, Warsaw has long sought to

“internationalize Poland’s security within [NATO] to ensure that an attack on Poland would generate a collective allied response.”[3] Reflecting on Western Europe’s lack of enthusiasm to confront Russian aggression, Poland might think it wise to hold NATO’s feet to the fire.

Unilateral Action and Its Consequences

Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has generally worked in concert with other European countries on security matters. But it has acted alone when it felt its interests were at stake. In 2011, after a rigged election in Belarus, Poland unilaterally slapped sanctions on those Belarusian officials it saw as responsible without waiting for the European Union’s (EU) approval. If relations between the EU and Poland continue to deteriorate because of their conflict over Polish judicial reforms, Poland would have even more reason to act to compel a united NATO response.

However, a unilateral Polish reaction to a Russian intervention in the Baltics could make things far more difficult for NATO. Strategically, it could undercut NATO’s ability to manage the conflict’s escalation, a perilous proposal given Russia’s relatively low threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. At the operational level, it could disrupt plans for a larger and more coordinated NATO counteroffensive, which would arguably stand a better chance of success than the piecemeal introduction of Polish military and NATO rapid reaction forces.

Fate of Collective Defense

The best way to avoid a potentially disruptive, unilateral Polish military action is to ensure that Poland never loses faith in NATO’s credibility. Surely nothing would reassure it like the combination of firm political resolve and strong military forces. Sadly for NATO, that is probably more than it can muster at the moment. NATO needs to do better on both counts. Otherwise, it can expect that some of its members, like Poland, may take unexpected (and possibly unwelcome) actions in a crisis.


[1] In 2018, the five NATO members that do meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ironically, six NATO members met the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals when they were first agreed to in 2006. The number gradually fell to three in 2010 and did not rise until after Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.

[2] Brooks Tigner, “NATO’s rapid deployment ability faces many obstacles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 25, 2016.

[3] Andrew A. Michta, “Polish Hard Power: Investing in the Military as Europe Cuts Back,” in A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners, Gary J. Schmitt, ed. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), p. 164.

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Afghanistan Achieves Pyrrhic Success via Chabahar Port

Afghans celebrated the new access that Iran’s Chabahar port provides the country, but this victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one. As recent as May 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed their first-ever trilateral partnership agreement allowing Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran, while also inserting new geopolitically competing players into the region. Over one year later, in October 2017, the first shipment of Indian wheat arrived in Zaranj, Afghanistan, via Chabahar port.

While utilizing Chabahar does fuse common regional and economic interests by allowing an alternate trade route into Afghanistan—and thereby reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports—relying too heavily on Chabahar raises serious security and economic concerns in Kabul because using Chabahar is bound to further fray Afghanistan’s already tenuous relationship with Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s access to Chabahar will have greater implications for the geopolitical situation and for countries in the region, specifically India, Pakistan, and Iran.

India: Developing New Opportunities

India’s development of the Chabahar port is a calculated move granting New Delhi unimpeded access to Afghanistan and thence to wider Central Asia, while summarily bypassing the subcontinent’s archrival, Pakistan.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s mid-February visit to India indicated a new strategic collaboration between India and Iran punctuated by the countries’ signing of nine additional agreements extending Iran’s 2018-19 bilateral energy infusion to India by some half a million barrels per day (25 MT), an increase of 25% over the 2017-18 estimate of 370,000 barrels per day (18.5 MT). Considering India’s lack of oil and natural gas reserves, opening the gates to Iran’s major ones makes perfect sense, and it is specifically Chabahar that has afforded India the opportunity to import even more natural resources from Iran, which will surely add to the port’s already growing geo-economic cachet.

India made this strategic move to compete with China, its main economic rival in Asia, and also the world’s top importer of Iranian oil commodities. However, India’s reaping of its own political and economic benefits via its agreement with Iran is certain to leave Afghanistan as the odd-country-out, standing more unstably vis-à-vis its potential economic threat to Pakistan, due to Afghanistan’s declining resource dependence.

Pakistan: Complicated Relationships

According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s contribution to Afghan trade has declined from 56.5% in 2008 to 38.9% by 2015, with Iran and India now as the largest importers of Afghan goods. The trilateral agreement on Chabahar port between Iran, India, and Afghanistan has allowed Afghanistan to diversify the ways and means by which it distributes goods to and from its provinces. By design, it completely bypasses Pakistan, which could create a new conflict between Kabul and Islamabad, and more so if Afghanistan continues to disentangle its import/export ties. The resulting deeper tensions would certainly result in further adverse effects on Afghanistan’s still fragile security and economy. The potential for such adverse effects has been amplified by the World Bank’s 2016 public recognition of Pakistan’s hostile Afghan intentions, a recognition that sharply indicates that if push comes to shove over Afghanistan’s further utilization of the Chabahar port, Afghanistan would remain defenseless if faced with a threat from Pakistan.

Iran: A New Power Broker?

Iran’s February anti-government protests again signaled Tehran’s instability to the region and the world. The West’s frequent imposition of sanctions, coupled with international criticism over Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, reveals that global mistrust of Iran is still widespread. Furthermore, in March, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would extend the Chabahar port project to Pakistan and China. The statement may have come as a shock to the region since the sole purpose of the port was to sidestep Islamabad. It is not a concrete partnership and more of a diplomatic declaration to indicate that ties between Tehran and Islamabad are not hurt.

Kabul doesn’t trust Tehran, yet Afghanistan still views Iran as its obligatory, if fickle, diplomatic partner. U.S. intelligence officials have recently revealed that Tehran has gallingly equipped the Taliban with arms, and even deployed Afghan refugees as its foot soldiers in Syria’s bloody civil war. Given these developments notwithstanding the geographic necessity of Iran in the Chabahar agreement, Afghanistan has little say in final trade route decisions; it’s hard not be cynical about the long-term prospects of Afghan international trade. Having such a domineering, frequently disruptive regional power as a neighbor and primary trade partner forces Afghanistan to tacitly accept its severe disadvantage. Another disadvantage is that Afghanistan can’t cut ties with Pakistan because then it would have to rely solely on the already hemmed-in Chabahar route. Were that to occur, Iran would have a leading role in the region not only by establishing Tehran as a major channel of trade entry and exit, but also by potentially giving the Islamic Republic the upper religious and cultural hand in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Gambit: Looking to the Future

History tells us that something deceptively simple and non-political as a trade port can have major security implications both regionally and globally. This is especially true in the Chabahar case, given its natural limitations and the generally fraught state of affairs in Central Asia. The United States remains a strong partner to Afghanistan, both in fighting terrorism and in bolstering Kabul’s overall progress as a governing body, and the Trump administration has (so far) pledged its full support. However, Kabul simply cannot—and should not—rely on a single partner, especially due to its rising tensions with Pakistan. This dynamic makes Afghanistan’s strategic relationships with India and Iran essential, though these relationships are by no means be a perfect one, due to the haranguing influences of Pakistan.

Though Afghanistan is often referred to as the “beating heart” of Central Asia, its distant and isolated geographic position has always left it economically, politically, and militarily vulnerable. There are no easy solutions to the country’s difficult circumstances, but connecting Afghanistan with Chabahar via a calculated geopolitical strategic move with India and Iran could prove a worthwhile gambit, despite its potential for only pyrrhic success.

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Preparing for the Worst: Poland’s Military Modernization

No one needs to remind Poland of the strategic dangers arising from its geography. Often sandwiched between great European powers, Poland has been invaded, carved up, and occupied for over two centuries. During World War II, its mostly flat and open terrain made it particularly vulnerable to the mechanized armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s position is less tenuous, but still fraught. While its western and southern borders are anchored by friendly NATO countries, its eastern border abuts Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad, Belarus (a close Russian ally), and Ukraine (a country riven by Russia).

Russia’s New Military Challenge

Unfortunately for Poland, the last decade has seen the emergence of a militarily stronger and more aggressive Russia, despite Western economic sanctions against it. Much of Russia’s new-found strength can be traced back to its long-running “New Look” military reforms, which assumed a new sense of urgency after its lackluster war against Georgia in 2008. The reforms sought to streamline Russian combat units, outfit them with new military equipment, and most importantly boost their training and readiness.

The reforms turned Russia’s once-lumbering military into a more nimble fighting force, one far better able to fight modern conventional wars as well as leverage “hybrid warfare” techniques.[1] Several of Russia’s airborne and “New Look” brigades can now go into action within 24 hours of an alert.[2] Russia demonstrated that capability in 2014, when it swiftly deployed its special forces, airborne, and naval infantry units to Crimea on short notice. Soon afterwards, it massed another 40,000 to 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

Rising to the Challenge

Russia’s military success in Ukraine convinced an increasingly anxious Poland of the need to be prepared to fight across the entire spectrum of operations. Fortunately for Poland, its briskly growing economy has enabled it to fund those preparations. Over the last three years, its regular armed forces have grown from 100,000 personnel to over 130,000. By 2025, Poland’s Ministry of Defense expects that number to reach 200,000. It also plans to expand the Polish army’s force structure from three divisions to four. In 2017, it even established a new armed service called the Territorial Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej or WOT). Separate from the regular army, the WOT’s wartime role will be to counter Russian airborne and special operation forces behind the frontlines. The WOT will eventually field 17 light infantry brigades, one in each of Poland’s provinces (two in the largest province), with an authorized strength of 53,000.[3]

Poland has also accelerated its military’s modernization. Rather than wait for new-build acquisitions, the Polish military chose to buy off the shelf and update its existing kit. Thus, Poland not only acquired 105 retired Leopard 2A5 tanks from Germany in 2015, but also began to upgrade its 142 Leopard 2A4 tanks with improved armor and combat systems a year later. Likewise, it laid plans to modernize its T-72 and PL-91 tanks and may purchase more second-hand Leopard 2A4s. Poland also expects to procure a full range of short-, medium-, and long-range anti-tank guided missiles for its regular army and the WOT.[4]

In its modernization drive, Poland has not overlooked its combat support arms. In the summer of 2017, it took delivery of the first 14 of 96 Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers and the first eight of 64 Rak 120-mm self-propelled mortar systems. And, to enhance the mobility of its mechanized forces, it has begun discussions to acquire new mobile bridging equipment. Finally, to counter Russia’s deployment of 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles and Su-35 fighters in Kaliningrad, Poland has decided to buy U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot air defense systems and as many as 48 new multirole combat aircraft.[5]

But perhaps the most telling sign of Poland’s earnestness has been the repositioning of its combat forces. Notably, Poland has shifted its best armored forces eastward. Last year, it transferred the PL-91 tanks of the 1st Armored Brigade on the eastern edge of Warsaw to the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, near the Polish border with Kaliningrad and the strategic Suwalki Gap that links Poland to Lithuania. Replacing the PL-91 tanks will be two battalions of Leopard 2A5 tanks, which will be transferred from the 34th Armored Cavalry Brigade on Poland’s border with Germany.[6]

Commitment to Deterrence

In the coming years, Poland’s total defense expenditures will likely exceed two percent of its GDP—well above what most other NATO countries are spending. Even so, Poland’s military modernization still has gaps. A big one lies in its small Soviet-era attack helicopter fleet. Though Poland is upgrading its 23 Mi-24 attack helicopters with new sensors and guided missiles, it needs a next-generation attack helicopter and far more of them.[7] A recent war game demonstrated that even with 120 attack helicopters, Poland would have trouble holding back a determined Russian assault before NATO rapid reaction forces could arrive.[8]

Ultimately, what is most notable about Poland’s military preparations is not how complete they are, but rather the scale and speed with which they are being made—which for a European country are extraordinary. While other NATO countries make excuses for their plodding attempts to enlarge or modernize their armed forces, Poland has done both, at the same time. Surely, Poland hopes for peace. But Poland also seems committed to building a stronger military to help preserve it.


[1] Andrew Monaghan, “The ‘War’ in Russia’s ‘Hybrid Warfare,’” Parameters 45(4), Winter 2015-2016, pp. 65-74.

[2] Gustav Gressel, “Russia’s Quiet Military Revolution and What It Means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, Oct. 15, 2015, p. 4.

[3] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), pp. 46, 53; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland to stand up Territorial Defence Force,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 22, 2016.

[4] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland seeks short-range ATGM,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 9, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland reinforces armour,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 12, 2017.

[5] Bruce Jones, “Russian Duma confirms Iskander-M Kaliningrad deployment,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 8, 2018; Nicholas Fiorenza, “First Polish Army unit receives full complement of Krab SPHs,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 4, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland receives first Rak 120 mm mortar vehicles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 3, 2017.

[6] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland relocates Leopard 2A5 tanks to the east,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2017.

[7] Charles Forrester, “Thales, Poland to integrate rocket launchers onto Mi-24s,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 6, 2017.

[8] Reuben Johnson, “Baltic conflict simulation concludes Poland is wasting valuable time,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 21, 2017.

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What Poker Tells Us about ISIS’s Changing Strategy 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Discussions concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have lately shifted to when, rather than if, the group will ultimately be defeated. After being pushed out of longtime strongholds in places like Mosul and Raqqa, the group no longer appears to pose the kind of entrenched threat that prompted the intervention of global powers just a few short years ago. Surprisingly, the game of poker offers important lessons about the group’s changing strategy amid its current circumstances. One reason why poker is such a popular game is because it offers players with weak hands the opportunity to turn the tables on stronger opponents. While ISIS undoubtedly weakens with every passing day, the potential threat it poses remains at an all-time high. If the global community no longer takes this threat seriously, or shifts attention to other issues, ISIS could successfully reverse its fortunes.

The most important rule of thumb for poker players is to never place a bet when the odds of winning are smaller than the expected payoff. For instance, when the odds of winning a hand are 4 to 1, and the expected return on a bet is 3 to 1, experienced players know to avoid wagering their money. This is known as the “Strict Calculation Matrix” and it ensures that players only place bets when they are in a relatively strong position. But there is one important exception: the concept of “implied odds.” If additional cards are to be drawn, the future (implied) odds could change in a player’s favor, even if that player currently holds a losing hand. This is often the case in many popular variants of poker, such as Texas Hold ‘Em. Players with weak hands therefore continue to bet based solely on their expectations of the future.

All terrorist groups, including ISIS, hold weak hands. While ISIS finds itself in a particularly dire situation at the moment, the group has always been in a position of weakness relative to its enemies. Even at its strongest, such as when the group seized Mosul, ISIS anticipated a day when it would be strong enough for a large-scale fight against the governments of Syria, Iraq, and their allies. The most important clue to this anticipation of the future is their intense focus on apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, the title of the group’s former online publication, Dabiq, was named after the prophesied site of Armageddon. But today, with its military forces routed, ISIS’s apocalyptic visions seem more distant than ever, and the concept of implied odds especially relevant. 

With its conventional capabilities diminished and territorial control slipping away, ISIS is likely to refocus its energies on surviving until it can fight again in the future. To do this, its best chances lie in transitioning from an experiment in state-building to a low-level insurgency relying primarily on terrorism. But to successfully reverse its fortunes, it needs a “big hand” to get back in the game—an attack or set of attacks so shocking that it demonstrates the group’s resilience to both enemies and supporters. To accomplish this, the group is pursuing two important strategies. 

First, ISIS is accelerating its calls to the “soldiers of the caliphate” around the world, hoping to inspire individuals to commit brutal attacks. The group still maintains sophisticated media and communications operations which it is leveraging to encourage sympathizers to launch attacks, particularly in Western countries. This strategy has generated the few high-profile attacks for the group in recent months, such as December’s subway bombing in New York City. Expect such attacks to become more, rather than less, frequent in the coming months. 

Second, despite its declining operational capacity, the group is likely more focused than ever on planning a major, catastrophic terrorist attack. Just as the 9/11 attacks served to reinvigorate al-Qaeda, ISIS is undoubtedly hoping to pull off an attack so sensational and so barbaric that it would shore up support and re-brand the group as a growing, rather than declining, threat. We know that the group tried to access a nuclear power plant in Brussels, for instance, but a devastating, headline-grabbing attack could be carried out in a variety of ways.

These strategies are risky, of course, but they offer the best chances for the emergence of “ISIS 2.0.” And since the strategies rely on terrorist attacks to salvage the credibility of the organization and attract new supporters, the true demise of the organization cannot be achieved through military means alone. Like all terrorist organizations, the key to ISIS’s decisive defeat lies in comprehensive and sustained military, diplomatic, legal, and communications operations. This includes redressing the grievances of the populations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere who are most attracted to the group’s messaging. If the U.S. and its allies turn their attention to other problems around the world, as lately seems to be the case, ISIS might launch that one attack that shifts the odds back in its favor. As Boko Haram has demonstrated in Nigeria, terrorist groups thought to be “defeated” may only grow more violent. The U.S. and its allies should make a sustained, long-term commitment to ensuring that ISIS’s weak hand never improves.

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After Russia’s Election, Expect Economy to Putter On as Before

This blog draws on a report written by Yuval Weber for FPRI’s Russia Political Economy Project, titled Running In Place: The Latest Round of Russian Economic Modernization.

In the two months between Vladimir Putin’s virtually assured victory on March 18 and the presentation of the new government in mid-May, Russia’s president will need to address three very different economic proposals. He’ll need to oversee enough change to satisfy the public without alienating an elite that has done exceedingly well through corruption and insider access.

It is economic policy where many Russians hope to see the most immediate change after the election. Opinion polls show the public wants to reverse several years of increasing poverty, falling real incomes, and cuts to health and education spending.

To develop ideas about economic reform, Putin has tapped ideologically distinct bureaucrats.

The person most familiar to the Western financial community, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, is a fan of classically liberal ideas and orthodox monetary policy. Kudrin’s plan, the main points of which were released in May 2017,identifies excessive state intervention into the economy and socially inefficient spending as the main reason for poor economic performance. He would reduce the size and impact of the government: cut defense spending, redistribute government resources to health and education to raise human capital, increase transportation infrastructure spending, lower inflation and budget deficit targets, reduce the government workforce, and raise the pension age. To benefit future generations, Kudrin would undercut the interests of powerful elites in the military-industrial complex, the security services, and big business.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is a plan offered by Boris Titov, the state business ombudsman, and Sergei Glazyev, advisor to the president on Eurasian regional integration. Whereas Kudrin sees the problem as too much state, Glazyev and Titov see the problem as insufficient demand that can only be addressed by the state. They advocate large-scale government stimulus, looser monetary policy, government intervention and subsidization in the food and medicine sectors, and reduced taxes and tariffs for exporters. They directly contradict the outward-facing arms of the government: the Ministries of Finance and Economic Development, the Central Bank, and mainstream economists.

In the middle is the government’s current plan. Presented to Putin by Minister for Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin in April 2017, the plan identifies low productivity and lack of political stability as the impediments to faster growth. As the person currently responsible for boosting growth, Oreshkin advocates staying the course and allowing existing policies, including import substitution, to raise growth rates and allow businesses to plan better. This status-quo plan would benefit the current elites scared by Kudrin’s plan. It would also continue to harm the great middle of Russian society: small- and medium-sized businesses and individual borrowers.

Which of these three plans is Putin likely to select? Several clues were planted in his recent state of the nation speech. More than half of the speech was devoted to economic issues, specifically addressing poverty, wages, and reduced health and education spending. Yet where the interests of the elite were most concerned, Putin’s promises were less forceful.

“The state must gradually reduce its share in the economy,” Putin declared. “The state has taken over a number of financial assets in an effort to revive the banking sector. These initiatives are headed in the right direction and have my support. That said, these assets should be put on the market and sold without delay. […] We need to get rid of everything that enables corrupt officials and law enforcement officers to pressure businesses.”

It was standard Putin: vague assurances of action eventually.

This suggests a continuation of the playbook of recent years: change just enough to stay in place. After the election, expect the government to select some of Kudrin’s ideas, but mostly maintain the status quo. Success for Putin means mollifying the public and creating the perception that corruption is declining and services are improving. But stability above all is key. Reform is good, but not so much reform that the privileges of business and security elites are threatened.


This article was originally published by Eurasianet on March 15, 2018. Geopoliticus has republished the essay, without further editing, with permission from Eurasianet.

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The Mixed Feelings of Russian Voters

This article has been translated into English from Russian by Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI.

On March 18, a significant number of Russian voters will go to the polls with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they want to vote for Putin—at least out of habit—but they are not very happy with the idea that Putin’s reelection means nothing will change in their lives for the subsequent six years. On the other hand, they are afraid to vote against Putin because they think that without him everything will come crashing down in Russia.

Formally, the president’s ratings remain as high as they were three years ago when Putin’s popularity increased to an all-time high after Crimea. However, data from focus groups show that people are far less enthusiastic now. The standard of living continues to decrease, and the system continues to benefit the rich at the expense of the masses. This discontent is not yet political; however, the voters just want something in their lives to change for the better. Paradoxically, they are also deathly afraid of change. This is mostly because the memory of the traumatic experiences from economic restructuring and reforms of the 1990s is still fresh in their minds. The Kremlin has run a successful propaganda campaign promoting and exacerbating this fear, instilling in the Russian voters the idea that change does not lead to an improvement of the situation, but rather to its deterioration.

Putin, of course, will win. But the votes he receives will be mainly driven by negative emotions. His victory will be based not so much on the voters’ faith in the future, but on their fear of the future. In such election campaigns, regimes rarely come out strong. Usually, fatigue and disappointment end up dominating the atmosphere.

Putin could change all of this. In order to do so, it would be enough for him to say that his next presidential term would be radically different from the previous one in that the government’s focus will shift from foreign policy to domestic policy. He could say that the central task of his third presidency—strengthening Russia’s image in the world—is now successfully fulfilled. Putin could tell the Russian people that going forward the world will not ignore Russia’s international interests; therefore, immediately after the election, the government will focus on domestic policy—reforming the economy and addressing social issues. He could tell his voters that moving forward his goal will be to improve the living standards of the Russian population. If the Kremlin announced that in the upcoming election Russians would be, in fact, voting for Putin’s new domestic focus, it would see an overwhelming voter support for such a re-arrangement of priorities, and the voter turnout would not have to be enforced through administrative measures. Russians would start to line up in the polling stations early in the morning, and a burst of universal enthusiasm would even put the organizers of Stalin’s first Piatiletka (five-year plan) to shame.  Why won’t Putin do this? Because the Russian economy is deteriorating and he knows that there are no great prospects for its future. Putin knows that he must make some unpopular reforms, like raising the retirement age and abolishing certain social benefits. Putin cannot afford to create overly high expectations for the people of Russia because it does not play into his personal long game.  

With the election less than a week away, Putin and all of Russia understand that they must move past the election and its results as soon as it is over. Probably, this is the best thing they can do in the current situation. 


Abbas Gallyamova former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a political consultant in Russia, and comments on Russian domestic policy in Moscow’s leading daily newspapers as a political scientist. Mr. Gallyamov previously held the position of deputy head of the Rustem Khamitov administration in Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia

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