Assessing the April 2021 Conflict Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the Impotency of Regional International Organizations

Sarah Martin is the 2021 Eurasia Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is Washington D.C.-based and works in human rights development in Europe and Eurasia. Prior to this, she was a Research Fellow at the Secretariate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where she covered the first dimension of political-military affairs. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the April 2021 Conflict Between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the Impotency of Regional International Organizations

Date Originally Written:  July 15, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  August 9, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of someone assessing the value of regional international organizations based on their actions and inactions in relation to the conflicts that occur in their respective regions.

Summary:  Violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in April 2021 led to tens of dead, hundreds wounded, and a fractured interstate relationship. Domestic politics headed by an authoritarian in Tajikistan and an ascending authoritarian in Kyrgyzstan exacerbated the situation. International organizations such as the OSCE or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were designed to respond but fails to do so.

Text:  On April 28, 2021, in an exclave between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a skirmish over the installation of a security camera escalated from throwing stones to employing live ammunition. On the Kyrgyzstan side, approximately 34 people were killed, 132 wounded and more than 800 evacuated, while Tajikistan suffered 15 casualties[1]. On May 1, the countries signed a peace treaty, although, according to political scientist Emil Dzhuraev, it is unlikely relations between the two countries will ever be peaceful[2]. This latest surge of violence ended swiftly and with no intervention from one of the three international organizations to which either country claims membership. This assessment reflects on the conflict itself, and also the weakness of the international organizations that could have made an impact but failed to do so.

Under the Soviet Union, the lines between the Central Asian Republics did not matter, but independence following the end of the Cold War brought out old maps, mandates, and memories, each blurred from time[3]. Such interpretation has left Kyrgyzstan, the smallest of the five Republics, with exclaves of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan within its southern panhandle. Relations among these ethnic groups and citizenships have been peaceful since the 1990s, though relations have soured in the past decade. Three issues are intensifying relations further — increasingly scarce water; the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, with whom Tajikistan borders; and the volatility of the autocratic leaders of all three countries[4].

Sadyr Japarov was recently elected to Kyrgyzstan’s presidency, following the ouster of the previous president by way of coup[5]. He is the fifth president of independent Kyrgyzstan and the fifth to reach that position through revolt. Although not technically an autocrat, Japarov is well on his way to becoming one[6][7]. Notably, he recently amended the constitution to shift powers from Parliament into his hands, and most of his cabinet is staffed by personal friends[8]. On the other side of the border is Emomali Rahmon, who has been in power since Tajikistan’s gained independence in 1991 and is an autocrat[9]. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, he had designated Tajikistan’s last independent news site as extremist and had its website blocked within the country[10]. During the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, Tajikistan was one of the last countries to admit they had cases of the virus[11]. For both Rahmon and Japarov, a small victorious war in the contested areas would have given them enough points to pursue their political interests. Japarov could use the small war to solidify his new regime; Rahmon to ensure the continuity of his decades-old one.

A flare-up of violence along contentious borders should make for a logical submission to an international organization. After all, conflict management is theoretically a core objective of such a union. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members to three: the OSCE, the CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each organization maintains a unique approach to internationalism. Each organization uniquely failed to respond to this crisis, and each uniquely demonstrated its waning relevance through inaction.

The OSCE is neither a military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nor a legislative body like the European Union (EU), but rather a forum for its 57 participating States to convene on matters of the military, environment and economics, and human rights[12]. Despite its amorphous nature, the OSCE is still built with human rights as a foundational tenant. In fact, if the OSCE is known for anything these days, it is for its election monitoring missions. The human rights component of the OSCE has long been a source of ire among some of the participating states—and Tajikistan is one of the louder complainants. In 2020 the organization faced a leadership crisis among key chairmanships of the Secretariat, and Tajikistan played a crucial role in instigating that crisis by blocking nominations[13].

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also represented in the CSTO, a Russian-built NATO equivalent [14][15], and the SCO, a Chinese-established sort-of EU analogue[16]. Both the CSTO and SCO claim to be alternatives to the Western models[17]: strictly economic and political agreements, respectively, without the hypocrisy inherent within a regime that claims to be based on human rights, as the OSCE’s does. Although one might expect to find it in Central Asia, there is not much competition between Russia, China, or their organizations. There is much speculation as to why there are not more hostilities, but it would not be outlandish to posit their détente is due to mutual competitors in the United States and EU.

April’s outbreak of violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan demonstrates the impotency of both approaches. Conflict mitigation is supposed to be one of the mandates of the political-military dimension of the OSCE, but it has failed to keep the tenuous peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Trilateral Contact Group has yet to yield sustainable results between Ukraine, Russia and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered the CSTO as a venue of deliberation, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan refused, preferring to, and ultimately coming to, an agreement amongst themselves[18]. China provided statements calling for the peaceful resolution of the conflict but offered no role in facilitating peace[19]. The SCO also had little to say; in fact, members of the SCO met in May and the violence was not even mentioned[20].

The violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlights the clashing of two systems—one that claims it ought to address conflict with human rights as its basis, but ultimately cannot; and another that does not seem particularly interested in trying. Given that none of them, the OSCE, the CSTO or the SCO, were able to provide solutions for a relatively small conflict, they can likely do little in the shadow of larger regional crises, or the modern era’s border-transcending issues: pestilence, war, famine and the climate crisis that will exacerbate all.


[1] Reuters. (2021, May 1). Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan agree ceasefire after border clashes.

[2] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict: How to Reconcile and Prevent It in The Future, Expert Opinions (Russian)

[3] Ayzirek Imanaliyeva. (2021, May 2). Tempers flaring as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan come to deadly blows. Eurasianet.

[4] Aliyev, N. (2021, May 25). Russia’s Power Play in Central Asia. The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.

[5] Pikulicka-Wilczewska, A. (2021, January 12). Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov: From a prison cell to the presidency. Kyrgyzstan News | Al Jazeera.

[6] Umarov, T. (2021, May 19). Are There Any Winners of the War on the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border? Carnegie Moscow Center.

[7] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict: How to Reconcile and Prevent It in The Future, Expert Opinions (Russian)

[8] Eurasianet. (2021, May 5). Kyrgyzstan: President signs new constitution into law.

[9] RFE/RL. (2021, May 26). Tajik Election Sees Autocratic Leader Rahmon Set to Extend Rule.

[10] Pannier, B. (2020, July 20). How Tajikistan Blocked Term Extensions for Key OSCE Officials. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.

[11] Eurasianet. (2020, April 20). Tajikistan says it has no COVID-19, attributes new death to swine flu.

[12] Epkenhans, T. (2007). The OSCE’s Dilemma in Central Asia. OSCE Yearbook 2006, 211–222.

[13] Pannier, B. (2020), Tajikistan

[14] Aliyev, N. (2021), Russia

[15] Radio Azattyk. (2021, May 7). Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict

[16] BBC News Кыргыз Кызматы (Kyrgyz Service). (2021, May 1). Чек ара жаңжалыбы же агрессиябы? эл аралык эксперттердин пикири (Border conflict or aggression? Opinion of international experts).

[17] Wolff, S. (2021, April 28). China: A Challenge or an Opportunity for the OSCE? | SHRM. Security and Human Rights Monitor.

[18] BBC News Кыргыз Кызматы (Kyrgyz Service)

[19] (2021, April 30). Китай отреагировал на конфликт на границе Кыргызстана и Таджикистана (China reacted to the conflict on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

[20] Sheng, Y. (2021, May 12). China, Central Asian countries to strengthen cooperation on Afghan issue, counterterrorism and diversify energy sources. Global Times.

Assessment Papers Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Kyrgyzstan Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Sarah Martin Tajikistan

Assessing the Failure of Minsk II in Ukraine and the Success of the 2008 Ceasefire in Georgia

Sarah Martin is a recent graduate of George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where she wrote her thesis on Chechen foreign fighters in Syria.  She was previously a fellow at NatSecGirlSquad, supporting the organization’s debut conference on November 15, 2018.  She can be found on Twitter @amerikitkatoreo. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title: Assessing the Failure of Minsk II in Ukraine and the “Success” of the 2008 Ceasefire in Georgia

Date Originally Written:  December 16, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  January 21, 2019.

Summary:  In 2019 the Donbass War in Ukraine will enter its fifth year. Over 10,000 people have been killed, 3,000 of them civilians, and one million displaced. Two ceasefire agreements between Moscow and Kyiv have failed, and no new agreements are forthcoming. When compared to the agreement of the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia, ending the stalemate in Ukraine and determining a victor might be the key to brokering a lasting ceasefire.

Text:  It is easy to find comparisons between the ongoing Donbass War in Ukraine and the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia. However, despite their similarities, one ended swiftly, in less than a month, while the other continues without even the slightest hint of deescalation in the near future. This paper seeks to assess the endpoints of these conflicts in order to begin a conversation exploring why the conflict in Georgia ended, and why the conflict in Ukraine continues.

The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia did not necessarily bring about the end of hostilities, especially at first. Indeed, even into 2018, Russia has been in violation of this agreement in a number of ways, including inching the South Ossetian border fence deeper into Georgia[1]. However, major operations between Moscow and Tbilisi have ceased, while they have not in Ukraine.

The current conflict in Ukraine involves two main players: the central government of Kyiv, and factions under the self-ascribed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The DPR and LPR are heavily supported by Moscow by way of private mercenary forces such as the Wagner Group[2] and regular soldiers and weapons [3]. Kyiv is supported by the United State (U.S.), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). This support is mostly political with some weapons sales and training, though the U.S. has recently begun to sell lethal weapons[4].

Kyiv seeks to maintain internal state integrity and political independence from Russia[5]. The DPR and LPR are keen not to be independent states, but to be united with the Russian Federation, as they see themselves as an ethnolinguistic minority with closer ties to Russia than their Ukrainian-speaking counterparts[6]. Other stakeholders have their own objectives. Western partners wish to maintain international order and to guarantee Ukraine’s national right to self-determination. Russia has always struggled with the concept of an independent Ukraine and is wary of any attempts of “democratic reform,” which it sees as a Western plot pursuing regime change within the Kremlin[7].

There have been two major attempts to bring this conflict to an end: the September 2014 Minsk Protocol and February 2015 Minsk II. In 2015, DPR representatives openly considered the possibility of reintegration with Kyiv[8]. Current Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, ran on a platform of ending the conflict and achieving peace[9]. There was, at one time, at least some political will to see the violence stop. But the Minsk Protocol fell apart practically overnight, and despite early hopes, Minsk II did not stand much longer[10].

The August War in 2008 between Georgia and Russia was equally complex. The war broke out that summer as the endpoint of a series of escalating tensions between Tbilisi, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region, Abkhazia, and Moscow. Although the European Council’s fact-finding mission pointed to Georgia as the actor responsible for the start of the war by firing heavy artillery into Tskhinvali, the region’s main town, the report noted Georgia’s actions came in response to pressure and provocation from Moscow[11].

The primary actors in the August War were the Georgian government in Tbilisi and rebellious factions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are two ethnic minority regions of Georgia and have sought independence from Tbilisi since the 1990s. Other stakeholders were Russia, the U.S., and the broader Western alliance. Russia acted unilaterally in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, overtly using their fleets and their soldiers, claiming to be defending peacekeepers and South Ossetians who were, as they claimed, Russian citizens[12].

In the months leading up to the outbreak of violence, Georgia sought EU and NATO membership, and Russia found such steps away from their influence unacceptable[13]. The U.S. and its Western allies supported Georgia’s desires to varying degrees; most agreed that the integration ought to happen, though when exactly it should, was left to some innocuous “future” date[14].

Moscow responded to the situation in Georgia with overwhelming force and had the city of Tbilisi in their sights within days. Having positioned themselves on the border during their quadrennial Kavkaz (Caucasus) military exercises and having a much more sophisticated army and modern weapons, Moscow was ready for combat. Georgia scrambled, underestimating Moscow’s interest in South Ossetia and overestimating Western willingness to intervene[15].

There are many similarities between the 2008 August War in Georgia and the ongoing Donbass War in Ukraine. However, what is strikingly different, and perhaps the most important element, is the swiftness and assuredness by which the conflict came to an end. There was a clear winner. When Nicolas Sarkozy, then acting president of the European Commission, and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to the terms which officially brought the August War to an end, Medvedev said, “the aggressor was punished, suffering huge losses[16].”

While both Ukraine and Russia have much to gain by keeping the conflict ongoing, Ukraine—on its own—does not have the capability to bring the war to an end[17]. Ending the Donbass War is squarely in Moscow’s court, so long as Kyiv bears the brunt of its own defense. Moscow is, after all, in charge of the separatists driving the conflict[18]. The failure of both Minsk agreements is an example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. To both Kyiv and Moscow, the end of this conflict is positioned as a lose / lose situation. Compromise is not an option, but on a long enough timeline, something has to give.

An end of the violence will not be the end of the conflict in the Donbass, as noted in the case of Russo-Georgian relations. However, a cessation of shelling and the laying of mines means that people can return home and the dead can be properly mourned. A ceasefire is not the final step, but the first one. The road to peace in the Donbass is a long and winding journey, but it cannot and will not begin without that first step.


[1] Oliphant, R. (2015, July 16). EU condemns Russia over ‘creeping annexation’ of Georgia. The Telegraph. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[2] Sukhankin, S. (2018, July 13). ‘Continuing War by Other Means’: The Case of Wagner, Russia’s Premier Private Military Company in the Middle East. The Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[3] RFE/RL. Kyiv Says 42,500 Rebels, Russian Soldiers Stationed In East Ukraine. (2015, June 8). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[4] Borger, J. (2018, September 01). US ready to boost arms supplies to Ukraine naval and air forces, envoy says. The Guardian. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[5] International Republican Institute, & The Government of Canada. (2016, January 01). Public Opinion Survey Residents of Ukraine: May 28-June 14, 2016 [PPT]. Washington, DC: International Republican Institute. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[6] Al Jazeera News. (2017, February 17). ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ seeks sense of nationhood. Al Jazeera. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[7] Ioffe, J. (2018, January/February). What Putin Really Wants. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[8] VICE News. (2015). The War May be Over: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 110). Clip. United States: Vice News.

[9] Webb, I. (2017, February 6). Kiev Is Fueling the War in Eastern Ukraine, Too. Foreign Policy. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[10] The Economist. (2016, September 14). What are the Minsk agreements? The Economist. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

[11] Council of the European Union. (2009). Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia: Report (Vol. 1, Publication). Brussels: The European Council.

[12] Allison, R. (2008). Russia resurgent? Moscow’s campaign to ‘coerce Georgia to peace’. International Affairs, 84(6), 1145-1171. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2346.2008.00762.x

[13] Percy, N. (Producer). (2012). Putin, Russia and the West, Part III: War. Documentary movie. United Kingdom: BBC.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Waal, T. D. (2010). The Caucasus: An Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[16] Finn, P. (2008, August 13). Moscow Agrees To Georgia Truce. Washington Post Foreign Service. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

[17] Webb, I. “Kiev War.”

[18] Pifer, S. (2017, February 15). Minsk II at two years. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

Assessment Papers Georgia Russia Sarah Martin Ukraine

#NatSecGirl Squad: The Conference Edition White Paper — Communicating with Non-Experts

Editor’s Note:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted a conference in Washington D.C. at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  Over the coming months Divergent Options, as a partner for this event, will be deviating from our traditional content and publishing a series of white papers in various formats that capture each panel at this event.

Panel Title:  Communicating with Non-Experts

White Paper Authors:  Sarah Martin and Tabitha H. Sanders

Background:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted its first all-day conference at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)-Americas headquarters in Washington, DC. As a membership organization, #NatSecGirlSquad was founded by Maggie Feldman-Piltch to foster “competent diversity across the national security apparatus.” This event represents the core of #NatSecGirlSquad: holding purposeful dialogues to disentangle complex issues and provide solutions to policy concerns that are often overlooked in other spaces. #NatSecGirlSquad was proud to host this conference with the help from its sponsors: IISS, Divergent Options, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the Center for New American Security, the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, GirlSecurity, and additional support from the International Counterterrorism Youth Network.

The purpose of this White Paper is to concisely present the ideas and topics discussed during the first panel, “Communicating with Non-Experts.” This panel was moderated by Quinta Jurecic, the Managing Editor of Lawfare. Commentary was provided by Beverly Kirk, the director for outreach in the CSIS International Security Program and director of the CSIS Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative; Valerie Insinna, air warfare reporter for Defense News; and Phil Walter, founder of Divergent Options, a non-politically aligned national security website that does not conduct political activities.

Executive Summary:  National security is a difficult subject to parse even when the audience also works in the field. Each sector – or even department – has unique jargon and objectives; each person has their own position, interests, and styles of learning. When talking to individuals outside of the field, the challenges become tenfold. Despite its complexities, national security is too vital an area to ignore or communicate poorly. To kick off the conference, this first panel allowed speakers the space to reflect on the challenges that arise when trying to talk to non-experts.

Each panelist agreed that understanding the audience and the briefing objective are essential to conveying information. Phil Walter emphasized that one should identify not only who the audience is, but the means by which they learn. Beverly Kirk of CSIS found that the best way to engage an audience is to meet them where they already are—namely, social media. She noted that the trick to translating complex information is to “simplify without dumbing down” or patronizing the audience, which can sometimes have a negative effect. Valerie Insinna of Defense News added that building credibility is one way to build trust among an ambivalent audience, and one crucial way to do that is to acknowledge mistakes.

Another element echoed among panelists was the resistance to acronyms and industry jargon. As Walter pointed out, Beltway industries have developed strong tribal instincts, and the usage of jargon can be an active gatekeeping mechanism. Phil Walter noted that this can be a form of gatekeeping between the various “tribes” of DC, noting that various governmental departments have a tendency to use different phrases for the same issue. At the same time, Jurecic noted that jargon can also be a quick way for someone to indicate expertise in a subject, thereby gaining trust. However, overuse can alienate an unfamiliar audience. There is a real danger to assuming common knowledge when speaking with people across industries—or even government departments. Walter advises against “throwing around” acronyms, and relying instead on common life experiences to help bridge gaps.

A twenty-minute discussion launched from questions posed by the moderator and the audience, drilling into the particulars of the opening remarks.  

Opening Remarks:  Quinta Jurecic set the tone of the conversation by reflecting on the current moment and setting the stakes. There are two opposing, but equally strong trends now—a deepening mistrust towards Washington, and a growing appetite for knowledge from Washington. As the Managing Editor of Lawfare, Jurecic noticed that her audience had grown from attracting those already familiar with national security to include people from outside the field. These trends can make the already-difficult task of decoding national security to non-experts a near-Herculean endeavor. There is a balance to strike between asserting one’s expertise and shunning those who are less familiar with DC’s lingua franca of acronyms.

Phil Walter was the first to speak, and he provided a practical framework to consider when preparing for a briefing to a non-expert. As a military veteran and former Intelligence Community employee, Walter pulled from his own experience preparing for and executing information briefings and discussions. He laid out his routine in a step-by-step process: first, identify the context of the conversation; second, understand the values and incentive structures of the organization or individual being briefed; third, tell a story; fourth, don’t discount the audience’s concerns. Finally, he emphasized, is the importance of trying to end the meeting on a high note. To best identify the context of the conversation, determine the purpose of the brief by asking the following question: is it to inform, to influence, or to ask for something? Note the difference between the statements: “It is going to rain today,” “I think it’s raining; you’ll want your raincoat,” and “Do you think it’s going to rain today?”

The essence of Walter’s remarks rested in his second point. There are elements outside of the speaker’s control that must be identified and mitigated when preparing the briefing. One in particular is organizational culture, specifically the individual values and incentive structures. The various branches within the constellation of the United States federal government have different expectations and objectives; each contractor or other mediary have their own forms and figures to adhere to. For instance, members of the legislature must be cognizant of their political relationships, at-home elections, and committee budgets—restrictions that Defense Department personnel are less encumbered by.

“It’s not about talking the way we like to talk, it’s about talking in a way that the audience receives it.”

Phil Walter

Walter also mentioned recognizing the audience’s personal preferences. If they prefer visuals, make sure to provide graphs and images. If the person wants straight text, a few footnotes, and even fewer bullet points – know this, and fill in the gaps. Additionally, elements surrounding the time and day of the briefing will affect audience reception and ought to be accounted for. A morning versus late afternoon briefing might require different adjustments, and speaking to a legislative aide during budget season or recess will yield varying degrees of success. The impact of the briefing will depend on outside factors that, while out of the speaker’s control, the effects of which can be mitigated. “If you can,” Walter said, “bring snacks.”

In terms of substance, Walter urged members of the audience to ground their briefings in a narrative. “Tell a story,” he said, as it is difficult for most people to connect the minutiae of policy. Touches of well-placed and well-timed comedy can not only lighten a somber mood, but can be more memorable than a graph. Walter advised speakers not to disregard their audiences concerns, even if the questions seem “bad” or superfluous. It is still important for the speaker to answer them, and to do so politely. The adage from high school is true: there is no such thing as a silly question. Walter concluded by telling speakers to try their best to end on a high note. The primary goal of any briefing is to pass along knowledge, but the second goal is to convince the room that they want to continue the relationship, and to “bring you back.”

Beverly Kirk shifted the discussion to drill into the packaging of the message. Kirk explained that CSIS works to produce not just written reports, but a variety of content: commentaries, critical questions, videos, and podcasts. The most effective way to communicate with anyone, Kirk said, is to “put the information in a format that they use or that they’re most likely to use, and to make it easy to find.” This means taking advantage of the “new media” —social media and podcasts, in addition to the maintenance of traditional websites. Many people in the industry might look upon social media as the place where “the kids” are, and Kirk agreed, but she was quick to add that, “The kids need to know what we’re talking about.”

With these different methods of packaging the message, the idea is to draw out the essence of those reports to inform and to entice the audience to seek out the original text. “Most people do not take the time, whether they have it or not, to read a twenty-five or thirty page white paper,” Kirk said frankly. She told conference attendees about a video her department at CSIS put together on the threat posed by North Korea. It distilled the complex and controversial issue into maps and graphics and “made it all make sense.” While the visuals might not be something often considered in communications, especially when the default might be to explain the situation in words, it is crucial to modern messaging, because it helps create a story.

“Put the information in a format that they use or that they’re most likely to use, and to make it easy to find.”

Beverly Kirk

Kirk also emphasized the importance of contextualizing for non-experts. Too often, a non-expert audience might be dismissed as not being interested or engaged. However, Kirk countered that most are receptive to information when they better understand how the issues impact them. “When I’m home in Kentucky, I’m explaining what I do in DC,” Kirk said, “and when I’m in DC, I’m explaining the people that I come from. I talk to both sides the same way.”

With a background in journalism, Kirk said the 4 Ws—who, what, where, when, and how—are a good metric to form an explanation. She urged attendees to steer from the jargon or acronyms that are ubiquitous in the field. Such language signals that the speaker is conversing among themselves, but not engaging new audiences. She pressed for people to take the time to explain, to “simplify without dumbing down.”

As a journalist, Valerie Insinna speaks to quite a general audience. When asked how she walks the line between writing a piece that is understandable to a general audience, while also informing the expert who seeks context and background, she admitted it was a frequent challenge. Her advice was three-fold: don’t rely on jargon, tell a story, and try to grab people’s interest.

“Don’t rely on jargon, tell a story, and try to grab people’s interest.”

Valerie Insinna

Authenticity is a difficult note to strike, but Insinna argued that her experiences tells her that audiences are quite responsive to those who acknowledge they are wrong. “Even if you’re not a journalist,” she said, “being open to feedback is important to making sure your ideas are heard.”

Discussion:  To respond to their comments, Jurecic asked the panel how they might make an idea accessible without losing its nuances.

Kirk responded with a variety of starting points. She said that one must approach such conversations- be they in person or on paper- with the enthusiasm and conciseness as though one were speaking with their best friend. Begin with, “You won’t believe what happened today!” as that will help identify the discussion’s key points and framing.  Like the best friend, one should begin by speaking to the person who doesn’t understand the issues, and then returning to the narrative to weave in critical and complicated factors. She cautioned, though, that reaching simplicity is not a simple task, and remains a critical skills despite being the hardest part of the craft.

Turning then to the audience, the panelists took a number of questions and used the opportunity to build on their earlier comments. One audience member, identifying as an employee at the Department of Defense, questioned the advice of the panel to explain information as simply as possible. Her issue sparked a larger conversation about the line between communicating concisely and “dumbing down” complex information.

Sometimes, though, the issue with communication is not necessarily a disagreement over facts or partisan issues, but can stem from a deep distrust of the national security establishment. Military affairs and security topics are undoubtedly divisive, and it can be difficult to talk about these issues with those uncomfortable or hostile to them. Phil Walter proposed practical measures—taking the effort to diagnose elements of national security that someone might not be familiar or comfortable with. The ultimate goal, he said, is to find common ground, however minute it may be.

Kirk acknowledged that speaking to an audience entrenched in a set of ideas is one of the greatest challenges any outlet faces today. She admitted that she has yet to figure out a way to “break through that wall” of bias, but she advised that the best thing to do is to “find people where they are.” More and more, information is bifurcated into silos to such an extent that, even when people are getting the right facts, it can be a challenge to get them to trust it. The best way to combat preconceived bias, she argued, is to stick to the facts and the data. Echoing Insinna’s earlier comments, she also advised that if the information isn’t immediately at hand, it’s better to say so. Transparency builds trust, which in turn builds accountability.

A student from the George Washington University asked for the panel’s endorsements for good national security sources. Kirk recommended her CSIS colleagues Dr. Kathleen Hicks and Heather Conley, especially the book Conley co-wrote with James Mina, Martin Vladimirov, and Ruslan Stefanov, The Kremlin Playbook. She also plugged anything produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Insinna recommended the Bombshell podcast, and to read Defense media. Walter offered Rational Security, and noted how much he enjoyed the mix of jovialness between the hosts and the seriousness of their topics. Jurecic plugged the Lawfare blog and podcast as well.  

In closing, one audience member lamented that they didn’t feel that it was enough to make audiences understand an issue, but that they wanted to motivate them to do something about it. For content producers, researchers, and members of the media, Jurecic reminded that no single article or podcast episode will be the silver bullet for an idea that you’re pushing. The best thing is to keep pushing out these ideas, knowing that “they’ll return with a vengeance.” Keep getting good stuff out there, she advised.

Takeaways:  This panel offered an in-depth look at the challenges and methods by which people in national security are working communicate to ever-wider audiences. While the current moment has made it more difficult to have conversations with these audiences, to impart knowledge and to gain trust, there remain five key points to remember when preparing a briefing. The first is to tell a story, as it is easier for most audiences to process narrative threads than raw data. Second, to understand how the audience is approaching the issue, and to meet them where they are, whether on social media or in the conference room. Third, when errors happen—and they will—it is best to admit them and to make open and transparent course corrections. This is where authenticity and trust are built-in an otherwise skeptical audience. Fourth, write simply, but do not condescend the audience. Fifth and finally, the panels urged those in attendance to keep making good content.

#NatSecGirlSquad Sarah Martin Tabitha H. Sanders

Assessment of the Security and Political Threat Posed by a “Post-Putin” Russia in 2040

Sarah Martin is a recent graduate from George Mason University, where she received her Master of Science in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  Her thesis examined the motivations of Chechen foreign fighters in Syria fighting for the Islamic State.  She can be found on Twitter @amerikitkatoreo.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Security and Political Threat Posed by a “Post-Putin” Russia in 2040

Date Originally Written:  June 5, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  July 9, 2018.

Summary:  In the upcoming decades, news feeds will probably continue to have a healthy stream of Russian meddling and Russian cyber attack articles.  However, a reliance on cyber attacks may be indicative of deeper issues that threaten Russia’s stability.

Text:  As Americans gear up for the midterm elections in November 2018, there have been a number of articles sounding the alarm on continuing disinformation campaigns from Russia[1].  Vulnerabilities exposed in 2016 have not been adequately addressed, and worse yet, the Kremlin is making their tools and methods more sophisticated, jumping even more steps ahead of policymakers and prosecutors[2].  However, in another 20 years, will the West be engaged in these same conversations, enmeshed in these same anxieties?

In short, yes.

In long—yes, but that might be an indicator of a much deeper problem.

Moscow has been deploying disinformation campaigns for decades, and when it knows the target population quite well, these operations can be quite successful.  Barring some kind of world-altering catastrophe, there is little doubt that Russia will stop or even slow their course.  Currently, disinformation stands as one of many tools the Russian Foreign Ministry can use to pursue its objectives.  However, there are political and economic trends within the country that might make meddling one of Russia’s only diplomatic tool.  Those trends are indicative of rather deep and dark issues that may contort the country to react in unpredictable ways, thus threatening its immediate neighbors, and spark trouble for the Transatlantic security apparatus.

Disinformation is a well-used tool in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal. Its current form is an inheritance from old Soviet tactics.  Under the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), Service A was responsible for meddling in the West’s public discourse by muddying the waters and sowing discord between constituents, ultimately to affect their decisions at the polling booth[3].  These campaigns were known as “active measures.”  Some of America’s most popular conspiracy theories—like the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) having a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—actually originated as a Service A disinformation campaign[4].  Russia has the institutional knowledge to keep the momentum rolling well into the future.

Not every campaign delivers a home run (see the French 2017 presidential elections).  However, Russia has the capability to learn, adapt, and change.  Perhaps the most appealing aspects of disinformation is its efficiency.  Cyber active measures also have the added benefit of being incredibly cost-effective.  A “regiment” of 1,000 operatives could cost as little as $300 million annually[5].

The economy is one of the trends that indicates a boggier underbelly of the Russian bear.  Russia may have to rely on its cyber capabilities, simply because it cannot afford more aggressive measures on the physical plane.

Russia, for all of its size, population and oil reserves, has no right having an economy smaller than South Korea’s[6].  Its economy is unhealthy, staggering and stagnating, showing no sign of any degree of sustained recovery.  That Russia is a petrostate is one factor for its economic weakness.  Politics—sanctions and counter-sanctions—also play a part in its weakness, though it is mostly self-inflicted.  However, each of these factors belies responsibility from the true culprit—corruption.  According to Transparency International, Russia is as corrupt as Honduras, Mexico and Kyrgyzstan[7].

Corruption in Russia isn’t simply a flaw to be identified and removed like a cancer; it is built into the very system itself[8].  Those who participate in corruption are rewarded handsomely with a seat at the political table and funds so slushie, you could find them at 7-11.  It is a corrupt system where the key players have no incentive of changing.  Everyone who plays benefits.  There has always been an element of corruption in Russia’s economy, especially during the Brezhnev years, but it only became systematic under Vladimir Putin[9].  Corruption will remain after Putin leaves the presidency, because he may leave the Kremlin, but he will never leave power.

Many Kremlin observers speculate that Putin will simply stay in politics after his final term officially ends[10].  If this does happen, taking into account that Putin is 65 years old, it is likely that he could reign for another 10-20 years.  Physically and practically then, Putinism may continue because its creator is still alive and active.  And even if Putin stepped back, the teeth of his policies are embedded so deeply within the establishment, that even with the most well-intentioned and capable executive leadership, it will take a long time to disentangle Putinism from domestic governance.

Another component of Putinism is how it approaches multilateralism.  Putinism has no ideology.  It is a methodology governed by ad hoc agreements and transactionalism.  Russia under Putinism seeks not to build coalitions or to develop friendships.  Russia under Putin is in pursuit of its former empire.  Nowhere is this pursuit more evident than with its Eurasian Economic Union.  While the European Union has its functional problems, it at least is trying to build a community of shared values. None of that exists in the EAEU[11].

Putinism, combined with a foreign policy designed to alienate potential allies and to disincentivize others from helping in times of crisis, connotes fundamental and systematic failures, that in turn, indicate weakness.  The tea leaves are muddy, but the signs for “weak” and “failing state” are starting to form, and weak states are erratic.

Weakness is what pressed Putin into Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, when the possibility of a Western-embracing Ukraine looked more probable than speculative.  Weakness is what pushed Russian troops into Georgia in 2008.  Russia had no other means of advancing their foreign policy objectives than by coercion and force.  One must wonder then what “Crimea, But Worse” might look like.

Russia will continue to use disinformation campaigns to pursue its foreign policy goals, and currently, this is one of many ways it can interact with other countries.  However, disinformation may be the only tool Moscow can afford to keep around.  This lack of other tools would indicate a rotting and faulty economic and political structure, which Russia currently has no incentive to change and may not have the ability to change after President Putin.  A sick Russia is already challenging for the world.  A failing Russia could be absolutely disastrous.


[1] Rasmussen, A. F., & Chertoff, M. (2018, June 5). The West Still Isn’t Prepared to Stop Russia Meddling in Our Elections. Politico Magazine. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kramer, M. (2017, January 1). The Soviet Roots of Meddling in U.S. Politics. PONARS Eurasia. Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bergmann, M. & Kenney, C. (2017, June 6). War by Other Means. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

[6] The World Bank. (2016). World Development Indicators. Retrieved from

[7] Transparency International. (2017). “Russia.” Corruption Perceptions Index 2017. Brussels. Retrieved from

[8] Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2017). In Brief: Corruption in Russia: An Overview. Washington, DC: Massaro, P., Newton, M. & Rousling, A. Retrieved from

[9] Dawisha, K. (2015). Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? New York City.

[10] Troianovski, A. (2018, March 19). Putin’s reelection takes him one step closer to becoming Russian leader for life. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

[11] Chatham House. (2018). The Eurasian Economic Union Deals, Rules and the Exercise of Power. London: Dragneva, R. & Wolczuk, K.

Alternative Futures / Alternative Histories / Counterfactuals Assessment Papers Russia Sarah Martin