In June, OTH Contributing Editor Allison Hardwick sat down with Michael Homan to discuss the Russian perspective on international security. Mr. Homan is an experienced Regional Affairs Specialist and served as the United States Defense Attaché to Russia from 2006 to 2008. Mr. Homan currently serves as the Deputy Commandant of the International Officer School at Air University.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with OTH. Let’s start with some of what you saw while in Russia. What was the nature of the political environment during your time as the Defense Attaché?
I actually arrived in Russia in the summer of 2006 and left in May of 2008. It was sort of a tumultuous period in Russia, as it was a transitional period at the leadership level with Putin moving. So, on paper it was the first peaceful bicameral power transition in Russian history, which goes back 2,000 years. But, as with any movement at the top, the interesting part was all the movements below in those second and third order positions. As the United States was trying to understand that landscape and observe what was going on, some differences of opinion over where we could and could not travel and what was and was not acceptable for us to participate in surfaced. It demonstrated the ups and downs of the diplomatic discord that occurs between countries.
The difference between a country like the United States of America and Russia, while we may have political leaders that are not fully transparent for political reasons, transparency is something that you cannot deny Americans at the end of day because they have the freedom to travel, the freedom to observe, the freedom to inquire, and they can formally request information from the government and are actually required by law to get a response of some kind. That is not the climate that exists in Russia. The transparency does not exist. There is, not necessarily, the freedom to travel. There is not the ability to formally request information from the government and actually get an answer required by law. It is a different landscape and a different dynamic. It allows the centralization of power and ability to control the information flow in a way that Americans cannot begin to understand.
When Vladimir Putin’s tenure is over, do you think the next generation of leaders will be similar or might they have a different perspective and approach?
I think, ultimately, the dynamic in Russia will change, mostly because of unclassified demographic trends. The reality is that today as we talk, less than 15% of the population of the country of Russia, which covers thirteen time zones and is two and half times the size of the United States, is ethnic Russian. When you have such a diverse and vast expanse and you have a birth rate that is below the U.S. birth rate, which is about 1.5 children per family in Russia. They can’t sustain conscription in the military, and they can’t sustain a middle-class because they don’t have enough of a consumer base to drive the middle-class demographic like we have in the United States. Let’s face it, it’s the average middle-class consumer in the United States that drives most of the business in that arena. And [Russia] has a soft underbelly where their native Russian ethnicity is in decline because, in the Siberian area for instance, men cross the border, they marry, and they don’t just bring back the wife, they bring back the whole family from Siberia or China. Over time, the central portion of the country where the northern resource fields are, [as China would call them] where all the oil and potential industrial development in the future is, is practically not Russian. Those are some simple demographics that Russia will have to wrestle with in the future and will force governmental change in order for the government to stay relevant.
Knowing these factors, do you think Russia would be more open to negotiating trade deals?
Absolutely they would. One of the biggest things they would like to accomplish is some of those east-to-west pipelines to feed into Europe and in particular, to the Eastern Europeans. One of the things we need to recognize and remember in the recent history of Russia, is that after the fall of the wall in the 1990s, the Russians, actually driven by the citizenry, really embraced the democratic experiment in a grand way. What really turned the tide and set conditions for someone like Putin to return to power, was the fact that, economically, it failed for them in the near term. When you have a largely cash-based society, between the oligarchs and the black market, the average citizen didn’t see themselves as having a way to address those issues and, economically, there was no guarantee that next year would be better than this year. So, the citizenry really became disillusioned with the democratic experiment. They stopped supporting it, which just gave the oligarchs and the black-market leaders, the ones who were in control of most of the money, the power to take control of the situation. They slowly began to recognize that as long as they fought one another there would never be any way to make progress. So, the oligarchs and the black market merged and formed what is essentially a corrupt political structure that put certain people in power that was in their best interest. The lesson learned from this is that the citizenry absolutely has the power to make change in the future but they have to believe in the change. When they lose the indicators that suggest to them that the change is working in their benefit, then they don’t support it anymore and that sets conditions for a change in the type of government in place.
Expanding on this point about indicators, do you think that the average citizen believes Putin’s message to the Russian people, in terms of the economy and the future of Russia?
I think they want to internally [believe] because he has a modicum of control over the information flow within the country and he sends two different messages. He has a domestic message which is consumption for bolstering the view of Russia and the government in place. He also has an external message for the rest of the world. Russians, by in large, want to believe he is right, even when they sometimes suspect that he isn’t, because like anyone else they want their nation to be great. They want to believe the nation is on a track to make the future brighter and that is why you don’t see a tremendous amount of unrest in Russia and the major metropolis’. When you get out in the rural areas, there is not the ability to protest or make trouble in any significant way to force a change in policy, because in the rural areas, the government is not relevant.
When you go to Moscow, you will see that it is built on the historical concentric ring roads that have existed for over 1,000 years and are [designed as] closer and closer perimeter defenses. This was before car travel. The outermost ring road for Moscow proper is called the MCOD. It’s like a beltway. My wife went on a trip to a china-producing area in the northeast portion just outside the MCOD called the Gzhel. When she got there, she was fascinated by the absolutely wonderful handcrafts, but what she noted immediately, there was no running water. And they literally used an old calculator that when you push the number button down, its stays down and you pull the handle and these arms go up and print on the page. And why? Because they didn’t have electricity in the shop. It’s not lost on me when I look at Google Earth and I view the night view of Russia and there are lights in St Petersburg and there are lights in Moscow and there are lights in Vladivostok. The middle of the country is dark. That is a simple perspective on how relevant your central government is to that part of the nation.
Do you see Russia as able to reinvent itself as a global superpower?
You have to temper that with how you define superpower. They are clearly a near-peer competitor. From the leadership’s perspective in Russia, they could never admit to their citizenry that they are not a “superpower,” because to do so means that they are no longer relevant on the world stage in the way they once were, and that is to admit in some way some failing of the existing government. They are still a nuclear power. They are still the most significant nuclear power vis-a-vis the United States, so that means they are someone we absolutely need to pay attention to, because they still have a power projection capability. They have aircraft carriers. They have midrange missiles. They have a fairly large military, so they are clearly able to project power into their near abroad. We have seen the actions that have been conducted in the last few years in the news.
Their near-abroad competitors are just not capable of standing up to the military capability that Russia possesses. From that perspective, I don’t know if you would call them a superpower but you certainly would call them a country to absolutely pay attention to when considering your national security strategy. If nothing else, even if they may fall on hard economic times because they are an oil-based economy or the other problems that confront them, their leadership has demonstrated an ability to divert the citizenry’s attention from the real core internal problems by projecting external problems onto the situation by using their military. From that perspective, they will always be a mischief creator at a minimum, but they are a true regional hegemon, and a serious policy and diplomacy problem for the United States.
There are a lot of scenarios on how things could go in terms of relations between the United States and Russia. I could paint you a credible scenario that could come to pass that would place U.S. and Russian forces side by side against China. China could become the hegemon to take over the resource fields in the north if they wanted to expand their control over resources that would give them the ability to project power further than they do today. Never forget that it is the largest or second largest undeveloped oil deposits in the world. There are some challenges to developing the technology to move across the permafrost, particularly with climate change being a factor, but it is not insurmountable, and if China believes it’s in its national interest to take them, I believe they have the capability to do so.
Considering Russia as a U.S. ally in a conflict with China is a scenario that many might not have considered.
We should never ignore history. In WWI and WWII, if they taught us anything, they taught us that when the world plunges into chaos, you could have very improbable allies. It is probably not the highest probability scenario, but it is a plausible scenario that would align the U.S. and Russia against a growing China hegemony that threatened the world’s economic and political stability. Just like we would align with an unlikely country to go against any nation that demonstrated the capability to throw complete discord and chaos into the international structure. It would be in our international security interest.
It is also important to mention that large militaries don’t create wars, governments do. Sometimes there is this fallacy that creating a strong national defense is a precursor to war. I would argue the opposite. If you are the big boy on the block, politicians that make the decisions that get us into wars view the potential consequences of those decisions differently when they recognize that someone has a real capability to react. As we look forward to the uncertainty of the future, Russia isn’t going to reduce their military structure substantially in people or hardware. Their birth rate does not support their conscription approach in manning their military right now. China isn’t going to get any smaller. If we want to prevent significant disruption in the international arena, we should not get any smaller. I would argue that we should grow a little and demonstrate that we still have the ability to project power and there are consequences for misguided actions that disrupt the political system across the international environment.
Do you think the US’ current approach towards North Korea is sending a message to Russia?
Russia is definitely paying attention. They understand that there is a different international political dynamic at play with an administration that views the world differently and acts differently than the previous one. What is important for us as military members to recognize, there will always be differences from administration to administration in foreign policy. So that, in turn, makes the relationships for military to military even more important because those are the stabilizing factors where communications occur, whether the political dynamic is a positive or negative one. That is why I come to work at this organization every day with the belief that we contribute to a soft power dynamic that lends an undercurrent of stability when there is a newsworthy component that is not stable. I find that to be very rewarding.
Can you walk us through Russia’s current perspective on NATO?
They definitely see NATO as a threat and, having encroached too far, are now influencing their near abroad. They see it as having formally aligned with what has historically been Russian alliances. Albeit, boundaries may have changed a little over history and names of countries have changed a little over time, they clearly view NATO as having encroached in areas that for the last 1,500 years have been predominantly Russian influenced. That is unsettling for them.
If you are one country and you are allied against many, it is clear from a military planner standpoint that you have a resource challenge. That really has driven Russia and China to conduct more exercises and activity than they otherwise would have if NATO had not advanced as far as they have. From my observation, the exercises might not have been all that successful, since they were not truly joint. They were conducted in the same time and space. Russian forces would come in and conduct exercise operations and move on. The Chinese would then come in the same geographic space and conduct operations, but that is certainly a step forward from where they were two decades ago when they did not interact at all.
Political decisions that the [Western Nations] are making are driving those kinds of changes in that relationship, so we need to be conscious of that. I suggest that [Russian] forays into their near abroad have all been largely to send a warning signal that they are still capable of projecting power and conducting operations, even as NATO expanded into its back door. It was a clear redline when we began to seriously engage in talks with the Ukraine. I was there and went to some of the meetings and it would have been unacceptable to Russia when [NATO] sent that message. It would have been so unacceptable that I believe they would have taken military action. Ultimately, today, what are they doing in Ukraine? They are making it an untenable place for NATO to get involved because they know that NATO would be unwilling to take on the kinds of problems that exist in Ukraine today because of Russian actions, whether they would admit on a public stage or not. It was deliberate and it was a response to NATO’s expressed desire to bring Ukraine into its alliance. NATO doesn’t want to accede any place that is unstable or that has ungoverned spaces, so you can take [Ukraine] off the NATO roadmap.
The International Officer School accepts officers from many different nations every academic year. Through this and many other programs, the U.S. military builds connections with nations geographically close to Russia, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Poland, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Mongolia. Do you think Russia is concerned that the U.S. is building soft power on its periphery?
They clearly understand that we are conducting military engagement right up to their border. It is concerning to them in some ways because it is not a dynamic that has existed until the last 25 to 30 years, as we have begun to try and expand the influence we have through soft power. They don’t seem to have the same capability.
International Foreign Military Sales is a powerful tool of any nation. If you look at the statistics, the U.S., Russia, and China are the top three in total volume. It is also interesting that those are the same nations that pose the biggest threat for destabilizing the international environment or be potentially the greatest ally in terms of total power to thwart that destabilization. Never forget the power that is wielded by Foreign Military Sales and the military engagement that comes with it. The Chinese have even taken it one step further. They come to a place like Africa with not just military hardware, but with the engineering expertise to develop infrastructure to provide clean water, sewer, and power. When the military leaves, that civilian infrastructure stays along with the maintainers who know how to maintain it, and China is endearing itself to place after place with this type of strategy. They have the population to do it and Russia does not. Those are the kinds of gains that come from Foreign Military Sales and military engagement activities. They are a positive thing because they exchange cultures, exchange understandings, expand people’s ability to engage in peaceful ways as opposed to in conflict. But back to your central question, I don’t doubt that Russia sees this as disconcerting at a minimum and potentially threatening.
In your opinion, what do you think Putin is afraid of in terms of U.S. actions and power projection?
He is not afraid of a specific action that the United States would take, but Putin is afraid of actions that collectively would make him be viewed as weak to his citizenry. Putin doesn’t fear the United States of America, nor does he fear China. What he fears is that he will become irrelevant and unacceptable to the people who keep him power, to the oligarchs and the population that support his power base in Russia. To him, humans are a weapon system.
When you go into a country as part of the attaché community or you are working in the security cooperation office, or on the embassy staff and the political military department, you find that most of our Foreign Service Workers are predisposed and selected to work a particular region of the world because they can go there and make a difference by expanding friendships, engaging in an exchange of cultures, and building trust-based relationships. What I learned very quickly after I got there, is that is not exactly what the Russians think. The very demographic that came there, that are predisposed to expand trust-based relationships, were the ones that they treated the worst. They followed them around and intimidated them and they absolutely turned my view of my ability to convince my peers in the Russian Air Force that we could ever work together on a regular basis, and have something like we have in NATO, where we have people from different countries in every office going down the hallway and all working together harmoniously. It is not going to happen with Russia and the U.S. in the current environment. They won’t allow it because they think integration is tantamount to being viewed as weak and ultimately being taken over by U.S. democratic ideals. They are afraid to go there. What can we do to influence Putin? Strength. If he views weakness…if he sees opportunity that will benefit him vis-à-vis his perception in the minds of those who keep him in power, he will seize it…he will take it. Our only counter at this point is to reduce the gaps and seams. We stay strong where it matters. We remain open to credible dialogue and diplomacy, but never allow him to perceive us as weak because he will take advantage of it.
The views expressed are those of the participants and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.