Kremlin Plans for Long-Term, Zero-Sum Game in Global Standoff With Washington

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 160

US President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference in Helsinki (Source: EPA/EFE)

Russia’s Security Council (SC) secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, penned a policy article published on November 11, in the government-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The piece covers the Russian military, long-term (up to 2035) economic and political threat assessments, as well as issues related to strategic planning (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 11). Within the Russian governmental system and according to the constitution, the SC is the country’s main national security coordinating body; and the most important national security decisions—such as the order to go into Crimea in 2014 or enter Syria in 2015—are regularly taken following meetings of SC permanent members, chaired by President Vladimir Putin. But when it comes to practical, day-to-day decision-making, the SC’s role is much more curtailed. The SC staff, headed by Patrushev, can often be marginalized by powerful departments like the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the intelligence services or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which have their own threat assessment and strategic planning capabilities, not to mention bigger staffs and budgets. At the same time, the Kremlin presidential administration is itself very much in the business of coordinating decision-making. Because of this reality, Patrushev has recently started promoting the creation of an interdepartmental analytical system that would facilitate more accurate decision-making based on the shared gathering of strategic planning data and the formulation of joint threat assessments. On November 13, the SC press service reported that, apparently in pursuit of the above goal, Patrushev chaired an interdepartmental committee meeting on strategic planning to assess progress on building an “info-analytical system”—which would likely also boost the SC’s standing within the Russian government (, November 13).

Patrushev’s long-term strategic threat assessment for Russia, as published in Rossyskaya Gazeta earlier this week, is grim. The United States, Patrushev contends, grossly underestimated China’s meteoric economic and military ascendance into an equal economic and military superpower; likewise, the US misjudged the revival of Russia’s own military might. Consequently, Washington is now desperately pushing back, pursuing a strategy of double containment of Moscow and Beijing. Political and military instability is mounting as the US abandons multiple existing international agreements. Patrushev accuses Washington of promoting insurrections and radicalism that undermine regional stability and boost terrorism. Russia is threatened by US (Western) information war threats, covert cyber “hybrid” attacks, economic and technological sanctions, as well as direct military threats. In response, Russia must build up its military capabilities and nuclear deterrence as well as defend its internal stability, “territorial integrity and constitutional political order” against insurrection, cyber and other hybrid attacks. To resist effectively, Patrushev writes, Russia must build up ties with allies and partners within the post-Soviet landmass along with BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries. The SC and Patrushev apparently do not foresee any letup in this global standoff through 2035 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 11).

Patrushev’s world view, as published in Rossyskaya Gazeta, reflects the consensus opinion of the Russian ruling elite more generally. It is traditional and closely matches the Cold War pattern of seeing the world as a global chessboard on which various, sometimes especially distant proxy battles rage: the US and its allies versus Russia and its allies. Putin is 67; Patrushev is 68; Alexander Bortnikov, who in 2008 succeeded Patrushev as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), is 67. All three began their careers in the KGB in the mid-1970s, at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, the vast majority of Putin’s closest entourage (permanent members of the SC) are in the same, mid-60s, age bracket; they are inclined to see any international developments that remind them of the Cold War as necessarily part of a global zero-sum game. The collapse of the leftwing regime of Bolivia’s long-serving president, Evo Morales, following a disputed election there, is seen in Moscow as akin to a replay of the Chilean coup of 1973. The Americans were clever, the thinking goes. Namely, Washington purportedly removed Putin’s friend Morales without openly exposing the US involvement, but its actions were strategically motivated: Bolivia has large lithium deposits, a metal needed to make batteries for civilian and military purposes. In Moscow’s eyes: in Venezuela, the US failed to oust the Russian-supported leftwing regime of Nicolás Maduro; and in Syria, the Russian military intervention utterly thwarted Washington in its efforts to oust Bashar al-Assad. But in Bolivia, the US won a point (Izvestia, November 11).

After the Bolivian debacle, the traditional rules of a zero-sum game thus require Moscow to push back somewhere else on the global chessboard. A possible venue could be northeastern Syria, where—despite President Donald Trump’s initial announcement of a full withdrawal—US forces retain a relatively small, but heavily armed contingent in Deir el-Zour province. Those US units are guarding local oilfields to prevent their falling back under the control of Islamic State radicals or of the al-Assad regime (or its Iranian and Russian backers). Moscow believes the revenues from these oilfields, which can produce 350,000–385,000 barrels a day, could play an important role in stabilizing al-Assad’s government and enable it to actually begin paying back some of Russia’s aid—not to mention line various Russian elites’ pockets. The Russian MoD, MFA and the Kremlin, together with Damascus, have sharply denounced as unacceptable the US move to keep control of the Syrian oil deposits (see EDM, October 31).

Capitan First Rank (ret.) Konstantin Syvkov, a former MoD threat assessor and strategic planner, recently published a scenario of a possible operation to push the United States out of Syria. Of course, the Russian forces, the Damascus regime and Iran will avoid a direct clash with the US. But an array of local irregular militant groups could provide cover for a sustained campaign to harass US personnel and create sufficient casualties to facilitate an eventual US pullout. Importantly, such a campaign could be discretely supported by Damascus and its backers from Moscow and Tehran. The US forces in northeastern Syria are isolated, according to Syvkov, stretched out and inadequately equipped to effectively repulse a combination of clandestine Grad missile launches, homemade drone attacks or suicide bombings. Expanding casualty lists in an election year could make a US withdrawal inevitable, giving Moscow the double satisfaction of wrestling control of the Syrian oilfields away from Washington as well as seeing the US military flee—akin to what occurred in Lebanon, after the deadly 1983 suicide truck-bomb attack on the US Marines’ barracks in Beirut, allegedly organized by pro-Tehran and pro-Damascus actors (Vpk-news, November 11).

Russian officials and experts all seem to agree: a deadly, global zero-sum game is back today, as it was in 1983.