Moscow Conference on International Security 2017: Cooperation Lost in Translation

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the military parade in Red Square, May 9, 2017.

At Russia’s annual defense showcase, the Kremlin can’t help but remain stern and confrontational.

May is a busy time in Moscow, from tanks drilling on the city’s main thoroughfares in preparation for the annual World War II victory parade to the cavalcade of defense ministers flying in for Russia’s annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). Since 2012, the Russian Ministry of Defense has endeavored to host its own showpiece conference on international security, an homage to the well-known Munich Security Conference in Germany. Russia’s MCIS is a mix of official diplomacy, international spectacle, and a reason for Russia’s national-security elite to meet with the defense ministers of what are chiefly non-Western countries. In recent years it has become institutionalized, a forum for Russia to advance its policy agenda, present the party line on new issues in international security and, of course, rehash familiar grievances.

This year the conference attempted to balance a confrontational tone with offerings of cooperation, in particular on counterterrorism, which was the overall theme for the event. But judging from much of the discussion, the real topic should have been information warfare, which not only made its debut at this conference, but permeated many of the talking points. “Fake news,” “post-truth world” and numerous other terms in the modern discourse on information warfare were sprinkled throughout speeches, with a separate panel dedicated to the topic. “Information war” had clearly arrived in a big way, and not just because nobody could stop looking at their smartphone during the conference.

MCIS 2017 proved another interesting foray into the minds of Russia’s national-security aristocracy, with a veritable lineup of who’s who in terms of leadership, including Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, Sergey Lavrov, Alexander Bortnikov, Sergei Naryshkin and, of course, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. However, from the very opening it was clear that Russian leadership was somewhat out of practice when it came to speaking about a cooperative agenda, and while their rancor over long-standing problems with the West came through, the willingness to work together was much less apparent. In general, they had trouble holding back sincerely held sentiments on NATO’s activities in Europe, missile defense and the United States’ foreign policy writ large, which got in the way of the desire to extend an olive branch to the West.

Despite the fire and brimstone, the Russian leadership did signal a desire to reengage with the United States, while compartmentalizing other issues in the relationship, but it was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Moscow did not come off as desperate to cooperate, but if anything as more firm. Fighting ISIS together was the focal point of Russian commentary on prospective cooperation with the United States, but these points came with reproaches on violating countries’ sovereignty, and the recent cruise missile strike in Syria, which was termed a crude violation of international law. It seemed that Russian officials were trying to speak from a position of strength.

Sergei Shoigu offered four points for solving Syria: defeating the radical ideology at the root of ISIS, passing a new constitution, implementing economic reconstruction and conducting demining operations. This came with an offer to share Russia’s experience in fighting terrorists with air strikes, particularly arms and tactics, which made sense since the conference has always been partly an arms expo (the subtle hints included numerous weapons-company logos on the side of the conference screen and the large Rosoboronexport booth outside the hall). He reserved particularly harsh words for NATO’s role in Europe, reminding the audience that it was a political-military bloc and not a stamp-collecting club (which was reassuring, since some people in DC wonder). Shoigu emphasized that the expansion to include Montenegro was a bid by NATO to control the Balkans, while NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission and other activities were intended to create an antiaccess zone around Kaliningrad.

Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, was followed directly by Andrei Ravkov, Belarus’s minister of defense, in what were complementary presentations on the Russian and Belarusian views of European security. The gist was that NATO’s increased military presence and high tempo of activity are resulting in the militarization of Europe, driven by the alliance’s desire to reinstate Russia as its traditional enemy. Perhaps on a less serious note, Ravkov mentioned that American demands for greater defense spending were merely lobbying for the U.S. defense sector, portraying the entire affair as a cynical corporate ploy. Gerasimov’s four factors behind the increased state of confrontation in Europe included NATO’s growing militarism, continued expansion of missile defense, unregulated conflicts in areas such as Ukraine and the rise of radicalism on the continent.

While some of the opening speeches touched on the topic of information security, it was Gerasimov’s presentation that featured the most concrete language blaming the West for launching an information-warfare campaign against Russia. He charged Western mass media with a fixation on Russian hackers, assigning fault to Moscow, in order to discredit its efforts in the international arena. Gerasimov reminded the audience of the inherent difficulties of cyber attribution—that is, don’t blame Russia. At the same time, he emphasized the increased transparency of the Russian military, and potential opportunities for cooperation against terrorism, after taking pause to reflect on what a great job he and the General Staff had done in Syria.