Thematic Seminar - Russian Threat – the 10-year perspective

The Czech Security information service (BIS) hosted a thematic seminar in Prague on the topic of Russian threat – the 10-year perspective. The seminar took place on May 23 – May 25, 2023.

The two-day seminar was divided into four blocks: first one focused on Russia as a security threat for Central Europe and Western countries in general in 10 years, the second on the future of Russian relations with the rest of the world, namely China and African countries. The third dealt with the issue of energy and its use as a Russian weapon (again with the 10-year perspective). The last block consisted of several short presentations of Czech security services and other state institutions on the main seminar topic.

In the upcoming years, Russia will remain a security threat for the West, mainly because of the nature of the Russian regime. To understand Russia’s position and motivation of its leaders, cultural proximity or economic dimension are among least relevant categories. Russians perceive their country as the greatest, unique and victorious. They believe that Russia’s role in European and world history is unique. The source of this feeling of uniqueness is ideology, which reflects, and is strengthened, by vastness and remoteness of Russian territory.

Russia has never taken seriously the liberal view, where interdependence softens competition and builds trust, and where economic relations are more important than power priorities. The main goal of the Russian elites is to maintain unlimited power inside Russia and the maximum possible influence in the world. Putin has built a neo-Soviet regime and it is unlikely that there will be a radical change in this development trajectory, regardless of him staying in office.

Further developments, diplomatic pushes and the promoting of economic attractiveness can all be expected to be part of a common China-Russia strategic plan for the coming few years. The next Xi-Putin Summit, to be held in Beijing probably in autumn, promises to be an interesting yardstick as concerns progression and what is yet to come in terms of global realignment.

Russia and China share domestic and international interests. In the Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development (February 4, 2022), Russia and China declared a “no limits friendship” and rejected universalism when it comes to political system and values. From their perspective, certain states attempt to impose their own “democratic standards” on other countries. Russia and China agree, “Advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. No country is superior to others, no model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order”. Russia and China promote a “truly multilateral world order” and “greater democracy in international relations”. They declared friendship with no “forbidden” areas of cooperation and perceive themselves as “responsible global powers”.

Russian presence in Africa will be weakening in the upcoming years and it will be limited to the conflict-ridden regions. As African leaders will be aging, Russia is going to lose its historical ties to African countries. It will compete with China for influence in the region.

Russia’s economy is weak and declining. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, its share on the global economy was approximately the same as that of China. In 2020, China’s share on the global economy was 17.5%, while that of Russia was some 1.78% and it was predicted to keep declining in every year over the following decade.

Russia’s economy is resource-based and its structure is under-developed. In 2021, fuel and energy accounted for 53.8% of Russia’s export revenues, metals and metal products for 11.2%. Several times in the past Russia declared that it would diversify its economy and develop a technological sector, yet it has never succeeded and it is unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future either.

Russia has learnt from the Western sanctions imposed on it after its annexation of Crimea. Between 2014 and 2022, the country prepared itself for the effects of potential sanctions by developing self-sufficiency in supplies of basic foods, restructuring its official reserves, decreasing dependency of government debt financing on foreign investors, making legal arrangements for making departure of foreign firms from Russia difficult, etc. For all these reasons, as well as for the pervasive evasion of sanctions, the current sanctions against Russia so far have not affected the Russian economy as much as it had been expected.

Estimated impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s GDP relying on comparisons of predicted Russian GDP growth before and after the invasion of Ukraine suggests that the country’s real GDP of 2022 was 7–10% below what it would have been had sanctions not been applied following the invasion. This reduction in GDP growth is likely to continue through 2023 and early 2024.

Over the time, Russia is likely to keep developing alternative trading patterns that will dampen any future impact of sanctions, primarily through third-country re-exports – some via China, most via Turkey and Central Asian countries, but also UAE, Armenia and Georgia. These countries benefit from the war and sanctions imposed on Russia and the flight of Russian capital from Russia. While Russian economy is shrinking, their economies are expected to grow at around 5% growth on average. About 15,500 Russian companies are currently registered in Kazakhstan – 100% increase since last year. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are in a customs union with Russia and, on the other hand, Turkey is in a customs union with the EU.

When it comes to Russian military, Russia has suffered huge losses and achieved less than anticipated after invading Ukraine (in February 2022). The main reasons were both operational (low numbers of soldiers, poor planning and assumptions, difficult logistics in the vast Ukrainian territory) and structural (soldiers with limited education and capabilities, unwillingness to use conscripts and to mobilize, corruption and ineffective spending in the military). In the conflict, Russia has burned part of its military depots and suffered huge personnel causalities. If Russia improves its arms production, it can re-equip its units by 2028–2030. Personnel replenishment can be quick in terms of numbers; however, replenishment in terms of quality will last perhaps a decade.

From the perspective of the USA (or the UK and some other West-European countries), there is a linear relationship between how much Russia is weakened and the threat Russia poses to them. For CEE countries, the situation is more complicated. The key pillar of our security is the US presence on the continent. If the USA decides to withdraw (e.g. because Russia is no more a credible threat), our security position might be worse than before the war.

We believe that the event was enriching for both the intelligence services representatives as well as the members of the academy.