Moscow Conference on International Security, 2019


By Richard Weitz

Last month, Second Line of Defense attended the eighht annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS-2019), which met from April 24-26.

The Russian capital was surprisingly warm, with the temperature higher than in Washington, but the frigidity of the Russian-U.S. relationship was pervasive at the conference.

The Russian speakers, which included the country’s senior national security leadership, said that they wanted greater cooperation with the West, but there was no expectation that this might occur soon given the wide gap in the two sides’ positions and perceptions.

Excluding some favorable comments about Russian-Western (and Chinese) collaboration regarding Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula., the Russian speakers mostly criticized various Western policies.

Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev depictedWestern governments as resisting necessary reforms in established international laws and norms to accord with the new realities of a multipolar world order. Instead, Patrushev accused the West of trying to impose alien values and political systems on foreign countries.

In his keynote address, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu charged the West with creating new global dividing lines and the United States with reviving the Monroe Doctrine in punishing Venezuela.

Shoigu warned that, in response to NATO’s strengthening its military power near Russia’s borders, including the Baltic and Black Sea regions, Moscow would pursue countermeasures.

The one novelty of Shoigu’s presentation was his denunciation of the supposedly horrendous conditions in the U.S.-controlled refugee camps in Syria, including forced underage homosexuality and a paucity of food and medicine.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovdelivered one of his standard template speeches. He said that Western governments were repeating the same policies of “geopolitical engineering” in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua that they had earlier pursued in the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc. He interpreted these efforts at regime change as having contributed to terrorism, transnational crime, and illegal trafficking in arms and people.

Additionally, Lavrov charged Washington and its allies with constantly rewriting international laws and manipulating international organizations—violating the principles of sovereign equality and international equality—to advance their specific national interests.

Lavrov castigated supposed Western obstructionism in blocking realization of Moscow’s proposals for a global coalition against terrorism under UN auspices, a Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Chemical and Biological Terrorism, and the Russian-Chinese draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space.

The only novel element of Lavrov’s speech was his accusation that the United States had pressured European governments not to attend the conference. In my assessment, however, at least some decided for their own reasons to continue their post-2014 boycott.

In any case. the Western governments had their lowest presence ever. Although NATO governments participated in the first two of these eight conferences, which began in 2012, they started boycotting them in 2014, following NATO’s suspension of most military exchanges with Russia due to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, some U.S. military personnel attended in civilian dress, but not on this occasion.

Whereas Western governments have continued to avoid the conference, the annual meetings have attracted a large number of defense officials from developing countries.

This year there were many speakers and delegates from Asian, African, South American, and Middle East nations. They were particularly in evidence in the foyer examining the models and brochures of Russian-made weaponry exhibited by various Russian defense companies.

Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Russia’s General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, warned that technological proliferation has empowered individual states and terrorist groups to weld unprecedented tools of violence previously only available to nation states.

Yet, Gerasimovsaw the most serious threat to global stability as allegedly aggressive U.S. policies to control global resources and transportations routes,

Washington’s employment of information technologies to depict governments the United States opposes in a bad light, its use of economic and military coercion as well as other non-kinetic means against foreign targets, and Washington’s alleged violation of international law and exempting itself from international treaties.

Gerasimov correctly noted that U.S. military doctrine has shifted from focusing on counterterrorism to concentrating on great power threats, especially from Russia. He claimed this transformation aimed to justify U.S. military spending buildup.

Although Gerasimov claimed that Russia had displayed maximum military restraint in its countermeasures, and had been forced to redeploy forces to Russia’s western and southern fronts from other military regions, he warned that Russian military planners would have to proceed on the basis of worst-case planning regarding NATO’s moves.

Interestingly, Gerasimov confirmed the assessment of Western analysts that the unexpected Russian military intervention that began in September 2015 had saved a Syrian regime that would, according to Moscow’s calculations, have collapsed in only 1-2 months.

At variance with Western assessments, however, was Gerasimov’s avowal that Russian operations had strived to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

In his remarks, Sergey Naryshkin, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, addressed the supposed misperceptions of Euro-Atlantic elites, who he claimed refused to recognize the reality of a multipolar world and therefore resisted it by force, generating global instability.

Naryshkin saw other Western policies, such as the push for multi-culturalism, as sparking populism and additional forms of resistance.

Naryshkin argued that Western governments no longer believed in the world order that they had created and now arbitrarily interpreted international rules.

Unless the West changed its behavior, he warned, other countries will need to build a new world order on their own based on sovereign equality right to develop in their own way.

Beyond substantive arguments, the Russian organizers refined the format of the conference as well as their messaging. This year, they expanded the practice of holding concurrent sessions, at times running a roundtable discussion along with a pair of panel discussions as well as the usual plenary sessions.

These sessions addressed such topics as:

  • preventing armed conflicts and military incidents,
  • strengthening military peacekeeping,
  • the militarization of space,
  • “hybrid” warfare and “color” revolutions,
  • the destabilizing implications of missile defense, and
  • comprehensively addressing terrorist threats (e.g., the spread of extremist ideologies, return of terrorist fighters, post-conflict reconstruction, refugee resettlement).

There was more focus on South American conflicts than in past conferences, which tended to focus on Ukraine and more recently the Middle East.

Another difference was that the Russian speakers did not spare President Trump from criticism, a recognition of the continuities of his policies from those of past U.S. administrations.

In terms of messaging, the Russian organizers adopted the tactic of having prominent officials lay out several tenets in the plenary sessions that other Russian speakers reiterated in the various panels and roundtables.

Still, this year’s session attracted much less attention in the media, even from Russian news agencies, than in previous years.

Unfortunately, the large number of speakers at all the panels and workshops meant that there was no opportunity for audience questions or comments.

Almost all the sessions were broadcast live and then posted on YouTube, expect for several specially sensitive foreign speakers, such as the Chinese and North Korean defense ministers, Minister of the People’s Armed Forces General No Kwang-chol (though I have audio recordings of these presentations available for those interested).