A Conversation with Pavel Felgenhauer

The senior Jamestown analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agreed to give an exclusive interview to the Jamestown Foundation Blog on Friday, May 15. Here is the condensed summary of that interview.

Jamestown Foundation Blog (JFB): How would you assess the chances for the improvement of U.S.-Russian relations under the Obama administration? Do you think the renewal of the nuclear arms reduction talks will improve those chances?

Pavel Felgenhauer (PF): Well, there is a belief on both sides that the relations may improve. At least that is what the officials speak about repeatedly. A lot hinges on how successful the negotiations on the follow-up to the START will be. There is clearly a bilateral political agreement on this issue and there is an opportunity to quickly achieve the framework document on the reduction of the strategic nuclear forces. Though this does not mean that the treaty will be renewed before December, as planned. Again, the framework agreement can be signed but the legally binding treaty will most certainly take longer to work out. The figure of 1,500 nuclear warheads on each side has been cited frequently. Moscow’s interest in reviving the nuclear arms reduction talks with Washington stems from the fact that the Russian offensive strategic nuclear capabilities and the maintenance required to keep them are declining unilaterally regardless. So Moscow wants to achieve parity with Washington by agreeing on a legally binding treaty that will prevent the United States from fielding an additional number of warheads. In the course of negotiations both sides will inevitably stumble over the problems associated with the establishment of the new verification mechanisms for nuclear warheads, including issues related to on-site inspections. Other technical bones of contention that may drag out the negotiations will most likely include the Russian insistence on counting the delivery systems. Thus, the cumulative effect of the aforementioned factors may prevent Russia and United States from signing the new treaty by the end of this year, but this will not be a tragedy. The nuclear weapons are not as important now as they were during the Cold War and the hopes that the negotiations over the nuclear arms reduction may produce a détente appear to be overstated.

JFB: What are we to make of the controversy surrounding the pending sale of S-300 advanced air defense systems to Iran by Russia? What role did the UAV deal with Israel play in this context?

PF: What is known is that up until now they [S-300s] have not been delivered to Iran. This is at least partly due to the deal that Moscow struck with Tel Aviv on the delivery of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Israelis probably managed to persuade the Russians not to deliver the S-300s at this point. This means that Russia is potentially susceptible to similar deals. Moscow will act on the S-300 deal with Tehran not out of principle but depending on other factors and necessarily in a quid-pro-quo or tit-for-tat manner. I am not sure Moscow wants Israel to attack Iran. Of course, there are those, who lobby in favor of such an outcome. Then there are others who support the development of military-technical cooperation with Iran. The resulting policy reflects the influence of multiple interests groups, as everywhere else.

JFB: What do you think of the pace and content of the military reform undertaken by the Defense Minister Serdyukov in the Russian armed forces?

PF: The pace of reforms is rapid and the reforms are radical. In essence, what Serdyukov has in mind is a comprehensive Westernization of the Russian armed forces, which are still Soviet in nature, coupled with their thorough modernization. However, the reforms are implemented in a typically heavy-handed Russian style. They are carried out with great disregard for the officer corps. The officers, who are being dismissed from the military service, are offered different social welfare packages but they are often woefully inadequate. For instance, former officers are offered free flats, which actually represent worthless real estate because they are often located in the economically depressed areas, where jobs are hard to come by. Finding a gainful occupation in civilian life is extremely problematic for them especially under the current conditions of the economic downturn. As a result, a lot of social tension is rapidly accumulating in the Russian military and this reform can be u-turned and the whole idea of modernization can be discredited.

JFB: In your recent analytical work you predict a possible resumption of hostilities in Georgia. In your view, what would be a sufficient deterrent that would effectively prevent Russia from entertaining another military invasion of Georgia in the near future?

PF: The Russian military will abandon this idea only if they see that such a military campaign will entail unforeseen risks. At present there is nothing that can act as an effective deterrent. Moreover, there is a belief among the Russian military that the Georgian armed forces have been significantly weakened since last August. The recent mutiny at the Mukhrovani base only contributed to this belief. The Russian armed forces are also much better positioned now than they were a year ago. The Russian military formations are forward-deployed in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Of course, if, hypothetically speaking, there are several American brigades deployed, say, near South Ossetia or Abkhazia, as they are deployed in South Korea, for instance, that alone would serve as a sufficient deterrent. Moscow will understand then that if it commits troops there will be a high price to pay. However, since the aforementioned scenario is not only impossible but also implausible, the Russian military feels it can “finish the business” in Georgia. Their belief is strengthened by the fact that there has been no real rearming of the Georgian military since August of last year. There has been a lot of talk of rearming, but no real rearming. The West can only offer political discouragement to Moscow. At the same time Europeans can have a positive impact if they actively reengage in shuttle diplomacy and focus on the conflict prevention. There is much talk of conflict prevention and now is the perfect opportunity for action. But that would require political will and joint action and unfortunately the West simply lacks the political understanding of the gravity of the present situation. The prevailing mode of thinking is to hope that nothing is going to happen while some in the Pentagon appear to naively believe that the restart of negotiations with Russians will be sufficient to prevent any potential deterioration in security situation in the Caucasus.