Anne Clunan on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

War has suddenly returned to Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been swift, shocking, and devastating. In addition to killing thousands of civilians and soldiers, the incursion has rocked global financial markets and galvanized the West against Russia in ways not seen since the Cold War. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk to Russian foreign policy expert Dr. Anne Clunan to learn more about this unilateral act of military aggression. We examine Vladimir Putin’s possible motivations in invading a sovereign nation like Ukraine, look at the ways the war will affect energy markets, and talk about how Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal may influence diplomatic and military strategy.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Anne Clunan  0:23  Putin has created the thing that he fears which is he’s personally turned the Ukrainian people against Russia and against him personally.

Narrator  0:41  War has suddenly returned to Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been swift, shocking and devastating. In addition to killing 1000s of civilians and soldiers, the incursion has rocked global financial markets and galvanize the West against Russia in ways not seen since the Cold War. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talked to Russian foreign policy expert and Clunan. To learn more about this unilateral act of military aggression. We examined Vladimir Putin’s possible motivations in invading a sovereign nation like Ukraine, look at the ways the war will affect energy markets, and talk about how Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal may influence diplomatic and military strategy.

Alex Wise  1:41  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Anne Clunan – Anne is as a Russian foreign policy expert, am associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University. Anne,  welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Anne Clunan  2:02  Thank you, Alex. It’s great to be here.

Alex Wise  2:04  Well, I’m very fortunate to have Russian foreign policy expert friends like you at a time like this. We are in very crazy times, as we’ve seen the Ukrainian people fight back. Most of the reports have that Vladimir Putin has overplayed his hand did not expect this kind of resistance, had bad intelligence, thought that this would be kind of a cakewalk, is that accurate?

Anne Clunan  2:32  First, I just need to say that the views that I expressed here are my own views and not those of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy or the Naval Postgraduate School. I think it’s safe to say that Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated the war in Ukraine he he has surrounded himself with just a few individuals. And that has formed an echo chamber where they sort of repeat to him the things he wants to hear. And so he did not understand that the main result of his annexation of Crimea and invasion of Dombas in 2014, has created a lot of animosity amongst the Ukrainian population towards the Russian government, animosity that wasn’t there prior to their aggression in 2014. And so they had believed that they would be greeted by a number of you know, Russian speaking Ukrainians who would welcome the Russian army in. And as a result, they thought that they would be able to quickly take the capital, and achieve their goal of capturing the government and installing a puppet government of their own. And that is clearly failed.

Alex Wise  3:44  Now, no one can think that the Russian military can’t, quote unquote, take Ukraine. But there’s much more to it than that, like once you’ve occupied this country, the rest of the world has really reacted to this invasion in a profoundly unified way. Yes, we haven’t seen India or China, the two most populous nations on earth take a strong stand yet. But we’re seeing countries like Sweden and Switzerland famously neutral freeze Russian assets. Unfortunately, the sanctions are going to be hitting the most vulnerable populations in Russia right away. But ultimately, do you think that the sanctions can have lasting effect on Putin’s reign possibly leading to him being unseated?

Anne Clunan  4:38  It’s an excellent question. And one of the things that we don’t know and that Russia watchers have been discussing is how strong he is internally. He has been pursuing a strategy where he sort of rotates the same group of people through government positions with different perks and you know, sort of money associated with them. But in doing this action, he is severely damaging the Russian economy. And that has cut off access to the money that has kept his supporters supporting him. And so we should expect to see more defections, really from him and more discussion of what comes after Putin. That said, it’s going to be it’s going to take a while, this is not going to be something that happens overnight, it would likely take years, the Russian economy is already feeling the consequences of this. Russians are going to face hyperinflation because the Bank of Russia is now isolated from Swift and cut off from taking advantage of the large amount of international reserves that the Russian government has put away. And so there’s nowhere to spend the money because they can’t do transactions with banks overseas. And that means that it’s going to be very difficult for them to defend the value of the ruble, it’s already fallen over 40% of its value. And so life in Russia is going to become much harder for the Russian population.

Alex Wise  6:15  And can you put Russia’s position as a global leader in terms of natural gas and oil production into context for us, Anne?

Anne Clunan  6:24  For energy, you know, Russia, prior to us fracking was the number one supplier of gas overseas. And one of the things that the Obama administration did, as you know, much to the ire of environmentalists was to support fracking in part, to challenge Russia’s energy weapon, if you will. And Russia really has weaponized, the sale of gas. And that was a calculated choice by the Obama administration that it was more important to ensure that the US could counter Russia, not only for us energy security, but also for European energy security. The most important thing that we need to understand about what’s happened with Russia’s weaponization of energy is that it has galvanized the Europeans to start taking seriously their own energy security. And this started in 2006, when Russia first turned off the gas to Ukraine, and then sort of intensified after 2009 When it did it again. But of course, today, what we’re seeing is, you know, a complete about face by the Germans and the Germans have long been the main advocate for maintaining a commercial relationship with Russians in the energy sector, so much so that the former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder from the Social Democratic Party, sits on the board of Gazprom, and was one of the major forces behind the Nord Stream two pipeline that has now been suspended by the current social democratic chancellor of Germany, Olaf Schultz.

Alex Wise  8:04  And we just saw BP break ties with Gazprom, and I think Shell also. what does that mean?

Anne Clunan  8:11  What it means is that these companies are deprived of Western foreign investment, and they are deprived of Western technology. For some of these companies. reinvestment by European and American energy companies is necessary so that they have the technology to create the drilling rigs, for example, off the coast, because in those kinds of conditions, you have, you know, lots of ice very rough seas and very deep wells that need to be drilled. And they were reliant on BPS technology and shells technology for that. So this matters, because of course, now Russia is looking north to the Arctic. And it will need that kind of technology in the in the arctic conditions, if it’s to go forward. And so the main effect that the sanctions are going to have is on basically turning Russia into a technologically obsolete energy producer, as well as technologically obsolete in terms of its domestic technology industries and things like that.

Alex Wise  9:15  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Russian foreign policy expert Anne Clunan. So Anne, I watched a show I can’t remember the name of it on Netflix about it was a Norwegian show and had a fairly vanilla name.

Anne Clunan  Borgen?

Alex Wise  No, not Borgen. I likde that. That was Danish. This was a Norwegian show where the Russians take over Norway, based on the Norwegian oil supplies, and they’re like, You know what, we’re just taking over. We like it and the rest of the European countries just were like, hey, Norway, we’d like to help you out. But sorry, we need Russian oil. And we’re just gonna lay it low on this. And it seemed fairly implausible, but compared to the reasons that Russia went into Ukraine, it seems much more likely. I mean, I talked to a common friend of ours from high school, who lived in Russia a long time and speaks the language and asked him, What was Putin thinking going in there strategically? And he couldn’t give me a real straight answer, except that it’s much more historical and much more emotional. Is that an accurate assessment? In your view?

Anne Clunan  10:21  It is. There’s a lot of discussion right now about who’s to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And one of the popular memes that that we’ve heard in the United States that it’s our fault for expanding NATO, up to Russia’s borders. And that’s just fundamentally not true. What has happened is that Vladimir Putin as a decision maker has fundamentally changed since 2006. And his worldview has increasingly become anti Western, xenophobic, and nationalistic. And the the, the Russian perspective on Ukraine and on Biella ruse is that these are Russians who just happen to live outside of Russia, and that they are all one ethnic group. The the Russians, the Russian leadership, will refer to Ukrainians as little Russians, which is not particularly popular in Ukraine, the origins of, you know, sort of the Russian nation as well as the Ukrainian nation lie in Ukraine today. And the way the Russians view this is that, you know, the parts of Ukraine that are outside of Russia, or an I shouldn’t say the Russians view this, but Vladimir Putin views this is he’s come to believe this very far right? Ideology put forth by folks like, do again and Google the off, which sort of look at the ethnic Russians, as you know, people that filled the three Slavic republics, a couple of places in the Baltics, and that need to be reunited. And this far right perspective was beyond the pale under the Yeltsin administration, and under the first three terms of the Putin and then the mid VDF presidential terms, and it’s only since he was reelected in 2012, that he has really made this much more mainstream. There is official government funding for the Russian World Foundation abroad, there are repeated, you know, media appearances by Dugan on Russian state channels. And the whole narrative has been sort of talking about Ukraine as part of what Putin calls no via a sia or Russkiy Mir, so new Russia or the Russian world, and there’s a distinction your listeners might not understand. But in the Russian language, there’s a way of describing ethnic Russians to distinguish them from Russian citizens and ethnic Russians or who Skia and Russian citizens who may be of different ethnicities are Hassan and, and so Putin very carefully has been sticking to the Civic term fussy on and, but increasingly in his language and what we’ve been hearing coming out of him recently, he is increasingly using the ethnic modifier, saying that you know, that that Ukrainians in Ukraine who are you know, allegedly being killed by the Ukrainian Neo fascists, which is nonsense, are in fact ethnic Russians, and they may be in fact ethnic Russians, but they have not identified with Russia since 2014. Right? Putin has created the thing that he fears which is he’s he’s personally turned the Ukrainian people against Russia and against him personally.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise 14:32 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Russian foreign policy expert and Clunan.

Anne Clunan  15:19  Your time talking about the language that he’s using, how effective are his propaganda methods in a new world, a new connected world, this is not 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, there’s not three stations on TV anymore, right?

Alex Wise 15:36  Television is almost essentially entirely owned by the state. So all of the channels that are on television are state owned channels, or they are owned by oligarchs who are allowed to own them on the condition that they sort of parrot the state line, right? That audience for media tends to be the you know, 40 and over crowd, and so anyone who’s watching television is getting a completely different version of reality than we are, Russians do not see what we see. And, on the other hand, those who get their information from social media, the internet, and from newspapers, and radio, radio and newsprint are still there is still a little bit of freedom in Russia, and I’ve been very heartened to see that newspapers that had sort of fallen under self censorship have now come out against the war. So there is dissensus in society, but by and large, what has happened on on the TV channels is that the Russian government is saying that they’re they’re only doing an operation in the Dombas that they’re not doing any operations outside of the Dombas. So most Russians don’t think that there is a war going on. And they have to dig a little bit deeper. Now, what’s, of course, changing that is that there are lots of Russians outside of Russia, and lots of Ukrainians outside of Russia, who have relatives in Russia, who are using their own personal contacts to get the message across. So the longer the war goes on, the more likely we’re going to see increased public outrage at what Putin has done because Russians feel about Ukrainians the way Americans feel about Canadians.

Alex Wise 17:29  So there’s not this deep seated animosity between Ukrainians and Russians?

Anne Clunan  17:33  And Ukrainians love one another. And the competition, again, is over hockey. It’s not over, you know, who controls Kiev. So this is just, it’s sort of unfathomable for Russians that their government would attack you create. And that is why Putin has been so careful to try to stage manage this and manufacture this as a Ukrainian provocation. Right. And that is one of the reasons why both the Ukrainian government and the West was so careful not to give him any pretext for saying that the Russians were pushed into invading.

Alex Wise 18:13  From a military standpoint, we’ve seen Putin remind the world that he has nuclear capabilities that are incredibly potent. And the declaration he made of it was actually not part of their doctrine. And so it really didn’t have any teeth in terms of it wasn’t like a DEF CON for something like that. It was more like a reminder to the West that hey, don’t resist me too much. Because I have this as my my ace card. Is there any possibility in your mind that he uses it? If things should get more desperate for him?

Anne Clunan  18:49  I hope not. So there are a couple of facets to Russia’s nuclear posture. The first thing that your guests should know is that Russia has long said that it would use what it calls a limited or tactical nuclear response to conventional military threats to what it views as its national interests. And for a long time, their military doctrine has identified NATO as in the United States as the primary enemies of Russia. Russia also has a nuclear posture. That is or a strategy that is called escalate to de escalate, the notion being that they would use such a limited nuclear strike in order to increase the pain on the adversary and then force them to the bargaining table and start de escalating from there, which is a very scary strategy, right? It sort of goes against the Cold War, thinking about mutual assured destruction and never getting to the nuclear threshold and using nuclear weapons.

Alex Wise 19:57  When did this new doctrine emerge?

Anne Clunan  20:00  I think 2008 is when we first started seeing it. And then the strategy has really taken shape after 2012. The backdrop to this is that Russia has undergone a 10 year, modernization of its military, including its nuclear forces. So it’s been building new warheads and building new missiles. And the effort here was to make up for some of the dismal failings of the Russian military, in the 1990s in Chechnya, but also some of the failings that they saw in 2008, in the war against Georgia. And they’ve largely succeeded. And so getting back to the question about the nuclear position. Now, one of the things that Putin has reiterated, I think, now, four times with respect to the west is that, you know, nuclear weapons would be used if anyone did anything to intervene in Ukraine. And there are two sides of this, what we’ve been focused on have been the economic sanctions that have been taken by the West, and that are going to be crushing for the Russian economy. But the thing that is getting less attention is that the West is also supplying lethal military aid to Ukraine. And for the first time ever, the European Union is sending military equipment, including fighter jets to Ukraine, and that his intervention in a military conflict with Russia. And So Russia has not, in fact, followed up on it that threat, one has to wonder, you know, if it were to target the, quote, European Union, what would they hit? I want to talk a bit about the conventional front. We’re still in the early days yet. And while the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian people have been fighting incredibly heroically, against the Russians, the Russians are not bringing their A game to this. And that is because Putin cannot win the battle at home, in selling this war to the public, if he seemed to be dropping heavy artillery and bombs on ancient Ukrainian cities, and population centers. And so while they have been deliberately targeting civilians, including kindergartens, right and daycare centers, and children’s hospitals, that is not getting through into Russia, it’s only being seen on the Russian internet. And so we’re starting to see people who’ve used the internet to come out and protest against this, right? So that is heartening. We’ve seen it with, you know, the sort of artistic community in Russia as well. But depending on how uncertain Putin feels about his his ability to hold on to power at home, he could either double down and really start committing mass atrocities, because what we’ve seen in Ukraine is nothing compared to what the Russians did in Syria. And that could easily happen. But it’s, it’s very hard to sell that domestically. Dropping cluster munitions, for example, on population centers. And this is part of the miscalculation, the decisive thing that I thought was going to happen if he was serious about this, was that they would use just massive amounts of air power to basically establish a no fly zone over Ukraine. But the Russian Air Force has been largely absent up until now. And one of the changes that has come about in this relates to the nuclear doctrine is that they have said that they will use tactical nuclear weapons in the conflict with Ukraine. And that one of the things that that puts on the table are these dual use missile systems, the kinjal, and the other hypersonic weapons that the you know, super weapons that people have been talking about? Increasingly, since 2007, there are concerns about whether he is fully Kompass mentors, and whether he is actually sort of looking at the situation with what we would consider, you know, a sort of rational perspective. There’s been much discussion about his paranoia over COVID You see him sitting at these ridiculously long tables. You know, if if he meets with someone in his cabinet, they have to isolate themselves for 10 days, or they have to go through this disinfecting, you know, shower in order to see him. And so there are real concerns that, you know, his paranoia is affecting his judgment. And that, to me also speaks to what’s going to happen at home. The thing that Putin fears the most is a color revolution in Russia.

Alex Wise 24:57 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Russian foreign policy expert and Clunan. She’s the author of the social construction of Russia’s resurgence. What kind of safeguards? Does Putin have to protect himself? How do you see it playing out in a possible revolutionary type scenario.

Anne Clunan  25:17  So in addition to the military modernization that that Putin, you know, are ordered over the past 10 years, that has been overshadowed by the modernization of the internal security services. And so really the ability to create a surveillance state, everything from the tax man who has, you know, can see 100% of what Russians buy and sell, to changing the laws to make it increasingly difficult for people to express dissent, either through freedom of assembly or through freedom of speech. For example, with the protests, starting in 2011, that lasted through 2013, after Putin announced he was going to run for president again, they changed the laws on assembly such that, you know, if you were, if you brought someone who was a minor to a protest, then you were endangering that minor and you could be imprisoned for it, right? Changing the definition of treason to make it include these kinds of situations. So holding these these big sticks over the heads of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations and media organizations in Russia has been very successful. So civil society is essentially pretty controlled. Most of the protest potential in Russia has recently been about economics. And the more the economic situation goes south, the more likely we are to see that you combine it with an unpopular war, that is hurting the economy, and also just seems unthinkable to Russians that they’re attacking, you know, their relatives. It creates the potential for a lot of protests. So we should expect tons of censorship now. But as we’ve seen, we’ve already seen pretty brutal repression of the protesting that’s been going on in Russia itself. And that has already led to 6000 people being detained. You know, the official government reports say that it’s 400 people, but the non-governmental sources say it’s much, much larger. So I expect that those detention policies will continue. And they will try to keep a very tight lid on this. And, you know, it could go so far as trying to impose a more sort of paramilitary or martial law kind of situation, depending on how fragile he feels. So I think that you know, the possibility for a revolution. It’s going to take some time, but that’s the great fear he has and he will put everything into preventing that happening. And I don’t think he will be afraid to shed Russian blood.

Alex Wise 27:55  Russian foreign policy expert Anne Clunan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Anne Clunan  28:01  You’re welcome, Alex. Thank you.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by John Coltrane and George Harrison. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.

The views presented are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or the Naval Postgraduate School.