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Are 'Color Revolutions' A New Front In U.S.-Russia Tensions?


U.S. relations with Russia are at their lowest point since the Cold War thanks to the crisis in Ukraine. Russian defense officials are talking about a new doctrine of subversive warfare between major world powers. They accuse the West of using popular uprisings to topple unfriendly governments. And some analysts say Moscow itself is employing that strategy in eastern Ukraine. More from NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russia's defense establishment holds a conference each year to discuss the most pressing security issues that face the region. This year's conference was originally scheduled to focus on what would happen in Central Asia once the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. But Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu changed all that with an opening speech in which he said that major threats to peace today are the so-called color revolutions.


SERGEI SHOIGU: (Through translator) More and more, color revolutions are turning into armed struggles that are devised in terms of military art, from information warfare to special forces.

FLINTOFF: In Russia, the term color revolution has come to mean popular uprisings, like the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Russian officials give it the negative connotation of a violent upheaval that overthrows the legitimate authorities and destabilizes the state. According to this view, color revolutions would include the Arab Spring revolts in Egypt, Libya and Syria, and, of course, the latest revolution in Ukraine. The Russian defense minister says it's all about control of resources.


SHOIGU: (Through translator) The socioeconomic problems of some countries are used as an excuse to replace nationally-oriented governments with regimes controlled from abroad. Those regimes provide their patrons with unimpeded access to these countries' resources.

FLINTOFF: The main villain in this scenario would be the United States, aided by its Western allies. Analyst Dmitry Gorenburg attended the Moscow conference and says he wasn't sure if the statements about color revolutions were propaganda for Russian domestic consumption or whether the defense officials really believe them.


DMITRY GORENBURG: If they really do believe that this is what Washington has been doing - well, we're going to do all the same things you do and see how you like it.

FLINTOFF: Gorenburg, with the research group CNA, says the uprisings in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk mirrored what had happened in Kiev a few months earlier. Pro-Russian separatists staged protests, then occupied government buildings. With the help of an intense campaign by Russian media, they held a hastily organized referendum and declared independence. There were even concerns that Russia might annex the area as it did with Crimea earlier this year. Dmitry Babich, a political analyst for the state-run Voice of Russia, says that was a misreading of Russia's intentions.


DMITRY BABICH: Russia's desires are actually pretty modest. I think the Russian elite wants security for itself. And it wants to trade with the West. And it wants to integrate itself into the Western elite.

FLINTOFF: Babich says the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych set off alarm bells among the Russian leaders, who saw the Ukrainian revolution as something that could threaten them.

BABICH: When security is at stake, when they see someone like them, Mr. Yanukovych, being toppled in a neighboring country, then they're ready to put aside their integration agenda, their trading agenda, and concentrate on security.

FLINTOFF: In some ways, Russia may have already gotten what it wanted in eastern Ukraine. There's little chance Ukraine will be joining NATO anytime soon. The new president, Petro Poroshenko, is calling for a ceasefire in the East and wants to restore relations with Russia. Analyst Dmitry Gorenburg says the pro-Russian separatists may have served their purpose by raising the specter of a civil war that Ukraine cannot afford to fight.


GORENBURG: At some point, Putin will make a deal with Ukraine. And if it works out, then the separatists will be abandoned. They - I doubt - I don't they'll last too long without Russian support.

FLINTOFF: And if not, the new direction in Russian strategic thinking may take the form of support for more pro-Russian color revolutions in other parts of Ukraine. Corey Flintoff. NPR News, Moscow.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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