Worldwide Threat Assessment on Russia: 2019 vs 2018

World map February 01, 2019

The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, released this week by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, describes Russia as a major threat to U.S. interests not just in its own right but particularly in tandem with China—a pairing mentioned about twice as often as in last year’s assessment. The first half of the foreword focuses solely on these two countries and the 2019 document even has a new section called “China and Russia”—listed in first place among eight “Regional Threats.” The authors anticipate that Beijing and Moscow “will collaborate to counter US objectives” across the globe, striving for “technological and military superiority” and posing “economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges,” including attempts to use “rising doubts” about liberal democracy to their advantage. The assessment likewise points to the “disturbing” trend of “hostile states … intensifying online efforts to influence and interfere with elections here and abroad.”

More generally, this year’s assessment also places a greater emphasis on Moscow’s global ambitions, ranging from Africa and Latin America to the Balkans and Southeast Asia. (That said, Ukraine gets only five mentions in 2019 vs. 10 in 2018, although this year’s report is 50 percent longer.) Other notable differences between the two assessments arise in the areas of cyber threats and weapons of mass destruction. In the former, the 2019 document’s authors express heightened concerns about Russian threats to U.S. critical infrastructure, including power grids; in terms of WMD, they assess that Russia—not linked explicitly to chemical weapons in 2018—was among the countries that “have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years,” the latter almost certainly a reference to the March 2018 assassination attempt against former double agent Sergei Skripal in England.

Below we give a run-down of the most salient differences between this year’s assessment and last year’s. The referenced sections appear in the same order as in the 2019 document.

FOREWORD

2018

2019

Portrays Russia as a threat; the third paragraph reads as follows: “China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check US appeal and influence in their regions. Meanwhile, US allies’ and partners’ uncertainty about the willingness and capability of the United States to maintain its international commitments may drive them to consider reorienting their policies, particularly regarding trade, away from Washington.”

Portrays Russia as a primary threat; the first half of the Foreword is dedicated solely to China and Russia, arguing that they “seek to shape the international system and regional security dynamics and exert influence over the politics and economies of states in all regions of the world.” The assessment says Russia and China are “more al­­­igned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year.” It goes on to argue that their desire “to expand their global influence” will increase “the risk of regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia.”

GLOBAL THREATS

Cyber

2018

2019

Russia was said to pose one of the “greatest cyber threats to the United States during the next year,” along with China, Iran and North Korea. Russia was expected to “conduct bolder and more disruptive cyber operations during the next year, most likely using new capabilities against Ukraine.”

The list of countries posing the “greatest espionage and cyber attack threats” has been cut to only China and Russia. The Russia-related emphasis in this section has turned from Ukraine to the United States itself, as the report asserts that “Moscow is now staging cyber attack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage US civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis and poses a significant cyber influence threat.”

Online Influence Operations and Election Interference

2018

2019

The report argued that “Russia probably will be the most capable and aggressive source of this threat in 2018,” listing a number of potential strategies and techniques Russia could use in this area. It said that “the 2018 US mid-term elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations.” Such operations were described under the “Global Threats” rubric called “Counterintelligence and Foreign Denial and Deception.”

A new category of global threats has been added: “Online Influence Operations and Election Interference.” The language from the 2018 report that Russia will likely be the “most capable and aggressive” leader of influence operations has been removed; however, the potential strategies and techniques enumerated in the 2018 report largely remain. The specific election now at the center of concern is the next race for president, though without explicit mention of Russia: “Our adversaries and strategic competitors probably already are looking to the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. … We expect [them] … to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences.”

Weapons of Mass Destruction

2018

2019

The report focused on Russia’s development of a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that allegedly violates the INF Treaty. Regarding chemical weapons, the 2018 assessment said that “both state and nonstate actors have already demonstrated the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria,” but did not implicate Russia in this.

 

The report includes similar language on the GLCM but goes further to say that “Russia will remain the most capable WMD adversary through 2019 and beyond, developing new strategic and nonstrategic weapons systems.” The 2019 report also addresses President Vladimir Putin’s annual address in March 2018, in which he announced new weapons programs. The document also assesses “that North Korea, Russia, Syria, and ISIS have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years.”

Counterintelligence

2018

2019

The report assessed that “the leading state intelligence threats to US interests will continue to be Russia and China, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scope.”

The language in the 2019 report is essentially the same: “Russia and China will continue to be the leading state intelligence threats to US interests, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scopes.”

Space and Counterspace

2018

2019

The 2018 report stated that “foreign countries—particularly China and Russia—will continue to expand their space-based reconnaissance, communications, and navigation systems in terms of the numbers of satellites, the breadth of their capability, and the applications for use” and that “both Russia and China continue to pursue antisatellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness.” The report noted that Russian and Chinese launches of “experimental” satellites are “of particular concern,” as some of these satellites’ on-orbit activities are intended to “advance counterspace capabilities.” The report also notes that while Russia and China support international agreements on the nonweaponzation of space, these agreements do not address many classes of weapons.

The 2019 report states that “China and Russia will field new counterspace weapons intended to target US and allied space capabilities.” The report echoes the language of the 2018 report, noting that “China and Russia are training and equipping their military space forces and fielding new antisatellite (ASAT) weapons to hold US and allied space services at risk, even as they push for international agreements on the nonweaponization of space.” The 2019 report also notes that “Russia is developing a similar ground-launched ASAT missile system for targeting low-Earth orbit that is likely to be operational within the next several years.”

REGIONAL THREATS

China and Russia

2018

2019

The 2018 report did not have a “China and Russia” subsection.

“China and Russia” are listed as the first “regional threat” in the section (followed by “East Asia,” “Middle East and North Africa,” “South Asia,” “Russia and Eurasia,” “Europe,” “Africa” and “The Western Hemisphere”). Overall, the report concludes that “China and Russia will present a wide variety of economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges to the United States and its allies. We anticipate that they will collaborate to counter US objectives, taking advantage of rising doubts in some places about the liberal democratic model.” Chinese-Russian cooperation is “expanding,” both bilaterally and through international bodies, “to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries.”

East Asia

Southeast Asia and the Pacific

2018

2019

No mention of Russia.

This section is noteworthy in that it emphasizes a split between Russia and China: “Russia may also continue its diplomatic and military cultivation of Southeast Asian partners, and some countries will be receptive to Moscow as a balance against China’s push for hegemony.”

Middle East and North Africa

Syria

2018

2019

The 2018 report briefly covered Russia’s involvement in Syria, noting that “Russia and Iran are planning for a long-term presence, securing military basing rights and contracts for reconstruction and oil and gas exploitation.” It also said that Syria’s “battered economy will likely continue to require significant subsidies from Iran and Russia to meet basic expenses.”

This year’s assessment says much the same: “Russia and Iran probably will attempt to further entrench themselves in Syria,” supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and trying “to secure rights to postwar contracts to rebuild Syria’s battered infrastructure and industry in exchange for sustained military and economic support.”

Russia and Eurasia

General

2018

2019

The report stated that “President Vladimir Putin will rely on assertive and opportunistic foreign policies to shape outcomes beyond Russia’s borders. He will also resort to more authoritarian tactics to maintain control amid challenges to his rule.”

Similar to the 2018 report, the 2019 report states that “Putin has the tools to navigate challenges to his rule, and he is likely to sustain an assertive, opportunistic foreign policy to advance Russia’s interests beyond its borders and contest US influence.”

Russia-U.S. relations

2018

2019

“Moscow will seek cooperation with the United States in areas that advance its interests. Simultaneously, Moscow will employ a variety of aggressive tactics to bolster its standing as a great power, secure a ‘sphere of influence’ in the post-Soviet space, weaken the United States, and undermine Euro-Atlantic unity.”

“Although we judge that Putin and other elites would like to see cooperation with the United States where US and Russian interests overlap, they view publicly blaming the United States for internal challenges as good politics.” The report also argues that “Moscow will continue pursuing a range of objectives to expand its reach, including undermining the US-led liberal international order, dividing Western political and security institutions, demonstrating Russia’s ability to shape global issues, and bolstering Putin’s domestic legitimacy.”

Global Ambitions

2018

2019

Russia was portrayed largely as a regional power. The report stated that “Russia will compete with the United States most aggressively in Europe and Eurasia, while applying less intense pressure in ‘outer areas.’”

Russia is portrayed as a much more global player. In terms of “global ambitions,” the report states that “Russia’s efforts to expand its global military, commercial, and energy footprint and build partnerships with US allies and adversaries alike are likely to pose increasing challenges. Moscow will continue to emphasize its strategic relationship with Beijing, while also pursuing a higher profile in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” Furthermore, the 2019 report argues that “Russia seeks to boost its military presence and political influence in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, increase its arms sales, expand information operations in Europe, and mediate conflicts, including engaging in the Middle East Peace Process and Afghanistan reconciliation.”

Russia and Its Neighbors

2018

2019

Ukraine, which had been deemed worthy of a separate section in 2018, was seen as a stalemate: “The conflict in eastern Ukraine is likely to remain stalemated and marked by fluctuating levels of violence. A major offensive by either side is unlikely in 2018, although each side’s calculus could change if it sees the other as seriously challenging the status quo.” Regarding the general post-Soviet space, the report argued that “the Kremlin will seek to maintain and, where possible, expand its influence throughout the former Soviet countries that it asserts are in its self-described sphere of influence.”

Both the statements from the 2018 report are essentially repeated, although the post-Soviet space has been subsumed under a single “Russia and Its Neighbors” rubric. Regarding Ukraine, “a major offensive by either Ukraine or Russian proxy forces is operationally feasible but unlikely in 2019, unless one side perceives the other is seriously challenging the status quo.” And on the general post-Soviet space the 2019 report uses the exact same language as the 2018 report.

Europe

2018

2019

The section on Europe was relatively small, with only a passing reference to Russian influence campaigns.

The section on Europe is significantly longer, and the report argues that “Russia and China are likely to intensify efforts to build influence in Europe at the expense of US interests.” Additionally, the report notes that “the United Kingdom’s scheduled exit from the EU on 29 March 2019, European Parliament elections in late May, and the subsequent turnover in EU institutional leadership will limit the ability of EU and 39 national leaders to contend with increased Russian and Chinese efforts to divide them from one another and from the United States.” Finally, the 2019 report covers the Balkans, arguing that “Russia will seek to exploit ethnic tensions and high levels of corruption to hinder the ability of countries in this region [the Balkans] to move toward the EU and NATO.”

 

Photo by Yuri_B shared under a Pixabay license.

The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, released this week by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, describes Russia as a major threat to U.S. interests not just in its own right but particularly in tandem with China—a pairing mentioned about twice as often as in last year’s assessment. The first half of the foreword focuses solely on these two countries and the 2019 document even has a new section called “China and Russia”—listed in first place among eight “Regional Threats.” The authors anticipate that Beijing and Moscow “will collaborate to counter US objectives” across the globe, striving for “technological and military superiority” and posing “economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges,” including attempts to use “rising doubts” about liberal democracy to their advantage. The assessment likewise points to the “disturbing” trend of “hostile states … intensifying online efforts to influence and interfere with elections here and abroad.”

More generally, this year’s assessment also places a greater emphasis on Moscow’s global ambitions, ranging from Africa and Latin America to the Balkans and Southeast Asia. (That said, Ukraine gets only five mentions in 2019 vs. 10 in 2018, although this year’s report is 50 percent longer.) Other notable differences between the two assessments arise in the areas of cyber threats and weapons of mass destruction. In the former, the 2019 document’s authors express heightened concerns about Russian threats to U.S. critical infrastructure, including power grids; in terms of WMD, they assess that Russia—not linked explicitly to chemical weapons in 2018—was among the countries that “have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years,” the latter almost certainly a reference to the March 2018 assassination attempt against former double agent Sergei Skripal in England.

Below we give a run-down of the most salient differences between this year’s assessment and last year’s. The referenced sections appear in the same order as in the 2019 document.Daniel Shapiro and Natasha Yefimova-Trilling

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