Russian Heavy Metal Diplomacy

Russia conducts “guerilla geopolitics” and any response has to be underpinned by an understanding of its political aims and strategy.


Mark Galeotti – Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, Director of the consultancy firm Mayak Intelligence, and Visiting Fellow at ECFR.

Anna Maria Dyner – Head of the Eastern Europe Programme at the Polish Institute for International Affairs

Marek Menkiszak – Head of the Russian Department at the Centre for Eastern Studies

ECFR Warsaw office had the pleasure to host a debate between professor Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, director of the consultancy firm Mayak Intelligence, and a visiting fellow at ECFR, Anna Maria Dyner, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, and Marek Menkiszak, head of the Russian department at the Centre for Eastern Studies. The debate, which dealt with the political aims behind Russian military activity, was based on Mr Galeotti’s recent Heavy Metal Diplomacy paper and moderated by the head of ECFR Warsaw, Piotr Buras.

Prof. Galeotti presented Russia’s foreign policy as “guerrilla geopolitics” – it knows its weakness, so it tries to exploit the inherent fractiousness and indecisiveness of Western democracies. Russian policymakers do not doubt NATO security guarantees and do not predict a victory in a kinetic conflict, necessitating the shift to non-kinetic warfare. Russia can mobilise and focus its resources in a way a democracy can’t, spending about a third of its federal budget spending is in some way connected to security. It is a mobilisation state and any asset, e.g. non-state hackers, can be used for state purposes.

Given these circumstances, two distinct narrative on non-kinetic means have emerged in Moscow. One is that they represent a prelude to kinetic action, the other states that they are an alternative to direct confrontation. In any case the toolbox is diverse – threats, intrusions, symbolic deployments, wargames – and serves various purposes: to divide the West, to distract its attention, to dismay the public opinion and policymakers in order to force a favourable compromise, and to dominate its neighbours.

Ms Dyner agreed with prof. Galeotti’s assessment of Russian military weakness and recommendations. She underscored that while the Russian “military revolution” was a success, it was forced by a disastrous state of Russian army, merely an upgrade from poor to adequate or good. Moreover, armed forces remain the sole imperial tool at Kremlin’s disposal, as it suffers greatly in other areas, such as economic influence or cultural impact.

It is thus important for Western states, Dyner argued, to implement their promises – including those made at the Warsaw NATO Summit, and not be intimidated by Russia’s demands as Russia has the tendency to move goalposts. Russia is going to test NATO states’ resolve and try to undermine European unity but will not risk a conventional conflict, she predicted.

Marek Menkiszak, on the other hand, disagreed on what he perceived as the paper’s main thesis: that Russian military activities are a means of signalling and should be met with political, not military, means. Recalling earlier cases of aggression (Georgia and Ukraine), military preparations and expansion of defence spending despite austerity, he argued that current moves by Russia are not a substitute for direct conflict but a preparation for it, and it would be a mistake to claim that Russia will eventually shy away from open hostilities. From this perspective, Mr Menkiszak demanded a much more assertive Western response, as ignoring provocations further emboldens Russia.

Prof. Galeotti responded to this criticism by reframing the paper’s recommendations: it is not a call for disarmament, but rather a call to think beyond kinetic means. NATO is a strong deterrent, he argued, but remains limited to military domain, while many cases call for a strong, united, full-spectrum (i.e. both kinetic and non-kinetic) response. Moreover, Russia’s supply of modern, deployable army units is already stretched thin, shifting focus of conflict to non-kinetic means.

To that Ms Dyner added the need to discern Russian aims, as they may dictate different responses. Mr Menkiszak took another approach, noting that the internal crisis of the West is primary threat, which Russia merely exploits. Russia did not predict Trump’s victory but reacted with absolute euphoria and joy and is almost desperate to forge personal ties with Trump. Paradoxically, this will stabilise the international order in short term, since Russia will not act aggressively as to not endanger the possibility of engagement with Trump. However, should the engagement not happen, Russia will again demonstrate its capacity to “cause mischief”.

A plethora of points was raised in the ensuing Q&A. Asked about the proof of Russian lack of offensive capacity, prof. Galeotti pointed to data points beyond combat readiness: Russian is dependent on imports, especially food imports, while Russian policymakers themselves demonstrate lack of willingness to risk conflict. Mr Menkiszar, however, pointed to the rapid deployment capability gap on NATO eastern flank and the improvements in Russian anti-access area-denial weapons.

As for the prospects of a US-Russia deal under Trump, Ms Dyner pointed out that a series of small deals might be more natural for Trump than a grand bargain. Mr Menkiszak also noted that the distrust between the two countries is structural – the US cannot credibly offer Russia a promise not to pursue regime change in Moscow – and Trump’s presidency will only partially and temporarily mitigate it. Moreover, Russia has little to offer in the way of positive incentives to the US. Finally, all panellists agreed that any such rapprochement would be limited by Russian need to remain on good terms with China, which is ultimately not acceptable to the US.

Commenting on the sanction regime, prof. Galeotti expressed his support for personal sanctions that can influence Russian elite to change course and lamented the recent sanction tweak (concerning the licences for sale of electronic equipment in Russia) which, while minor in material terms, sent a bad signal. He also noted that the recent military escalation in Donbas is ambiguous and may equally well be an aggressive signal from Russia or be instigated independently by separatist forces trying to spoil an agreement that would sell them out.