The Russian Threat

DNI James Clapper

Ahhh, the annual testimony . . . and a story based mainly on English sources for a change.  Thanks to for picking up the Vzglyad piece which printed a few lines on what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s unclassified Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony to the SSCI had to say about the state of the Russian military.  Otherwise, this would have been overlooked.

A few preliminaries . . . Clapper is a tall septuagenarian reared professionally in the Cold War who manages to keep on climbing the career ladder.  His bulbous dome once prompted underlings to dub him “the Martian” (although it’s known he’s actually from Remulak).  But analysts liked him (at least long ago) because he really seemed to listen to them.

Now on to his testimony, or statement for the record.  Clapper didn’t write it, nor did his staff.  It’s carefully crafted compromise language melding the views of CIA analysts mostly, and DIA analysts and others a little.  One guesses the text hasn’t changed too much from previous years.  A comparison of changes (especially adverbs) from year to year might be more revealing than what the document says.

Thanks to the Washington Post for printing the DNI’s sanitized testimony.  Unlike the impression you’d get from the Russian media, Clapper’s statement isn’t all about the Russian threat.  It definitely isn’t 25 years ago when the USSR was front and center throughout.  Russia appears first on page 7 as a state-based cyber threat and page 8 as an economic espionage threat.  Then it retires to page 20 where a mainline discussion of the country finally begins.

Domestic politics gets one-third of a page; foreign policy (you can read it yourself) gets two-thirds.  The document boldly predicts “more continuity than change” under once-and-future president Vladimir Putin “at least during the next year.” 

But that’s just the problem, isn’t it?  Putin can’t change his fragile system of rule without toppling the entire shaky edifice.

The reader’s also told (shockingly) that Putin’s unlikely to be an “agent of liberalization,” will continue protecting his wealthy cronies, and will try to placate the masses (though Russia’s moderate economic growth rates won’t support this). 

This straightline type of assessment is easy and safe to stick with, especially for one year.  Continuity is always the baseline scenario with a sufficiently short timeframe.  

Good thing the document didn’t have to judge whether Putin will complete his third term in office, the conditions under which he could be forced out, or who might take his place. 

One might have even settled for the simple conclusion (that many Russians are making):  Putin’s regime has exhausted its potential after 12+ years.  It’s unlikely to last another six, let alone another 12, even if it’s impossible to foresee exactly what Putin’s undoing will be.

Maybe the real answers are in the classified testimony.  No, not likely.

The next page has 3 paragraphs, two-thirds of the page, at last, on the Russian military.  The first is lost to a largely factual effort to explain the military’s reforms since late 2008.  The second sensibly concludes that:

“. . . funding, bureaucratic, and cultural hurdles—coupled with the challenge of reinvigorating a military industrial base that deteriorated for more than a decade after the Soviet collapse—will complicate Russian [rearmament and force modernization] efforts.”

One could say deteriorated for nearly two decades, and there are many Russian observers who believe it can’t be revived.  Surprising nothing’s said about buying weapons and arms technologies abroad.  Again, perhaps in the secret version. 

But at least this testimony doesn’t assume the military and OPK will automatically and absolutely get every ruble and every system talked about in the context of GPV 2011-2020.

The third paragraph tries to say what all this means.  Russia will have the military might to dominate the post-Soviet space (already largely true for the past 20 years) but not to threaten NATO collectively. 

Which raises an interesting point.  Is this document insinuating  Moscow might try to threaten one NATO member individually to test the alliance’s reaction and cohesion?

But, in the end, the text says until improvements in conventional capabilities really reach Russian troops, the Kremlin will continue looking to its nuclear forces to offset its weaknesses vis-a-vis potential opponents with stronger militaries.

You can read on yourself for more on Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine, and Belarus.

6 responses to “The Russian Threat

  1. seems to me that the Russian Defense Policy “assessment” is just as poor. After all, who is talking about Putin being forced out? Lack of liberalization under his tenure – a statement clearly detached from economic reforms over the past decade. Finally the RDF sordidly hides behind vague numbers, speaking of “many Russians” Well, maybe 150,000…or even 1.4 million might be tired, but the majority surely isn’t, but are more scared to let incompetents run their country. But RFD is in tune, is in vogue, is following the latest fashion trends of the “liberal” “elite” with flags. I thought RFD offered sober evaluations, not repeated already worn out slogans about “Putin’s regime”. Hopefully RFD will have something incisive and informative from which one can benefit, instead of this sordid seepage.

  2. The DNI assessment is as accurate as it might be.
    Unfortunately for Mr Obama and his supporters, the “reset” has already been made years ago by Putin. Back to the USSR. Or, better, ahead to USSR-2.
    As to the “many Russians”, the numbers of the electoral fraud speak for themselves. United Russia really got about 26% of the true votes.
    Alas, numbers do not tell the whole story. In the absence of convincing leaders, this opposition wave will probably fade away – at least in the short-medium term.
    The Putin regime has a lot more to be afraid from shale gas discoveries…

  3. I think that your assessment of the testimony is a tad harsh given that the time horizon is one year. Certainly Russia suffers from a number of socio-economic fault lines that will continue to manifest themselves but are unlikely to reach a critical mass within the next year.

    • Ahhh, Hamchunk . . . I can see you’ve been tokin’ Petersen’s pipe again. And you’ve been inhaling. Hope you didn’t write the testimony. It’s a farce precisely because of the short horizon. The short horizon means it won’t ever say much meaningful. I really enjoyed watching my O’s bounce your Bosox from the playoffs. When you’re perennial last place, you take solace wherever.

  4. Hamchunk did write it, all of it. Yes it is a farce because the primary purpose is not accuracy but avoiding flake from Congress. By the way, I give the system threeyears at the most. I think we are at 1988 and Putin’s looking for his 28th CPSU Party Conference. Your Orioles deserved it.

  5. Dude, your pen names are killing me! Don’t feel bad; they tell you what to write and how to say it. Makes you wish they’d write it themselves. It’s not authorship if you can’t give your own views. I agree with you. I think it could go 3-6, but certainly not another 12 years. The only issue is the combination of internal and external events and forces that finally causes the system to collapse. One of those will be, like the USSR, when even cogs in the system start ignoring orders. I’m actually more concerned about what comes after. I’m happy you are doing well (it seems). I bet junior is really a sight now, isn’t he? Love you bro.

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