Russian Mercenaries, Online Extremism, the Commercial Space Market: RAND Weekly Recap

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April 15, 2022

This week, we discuss why Russian mercenaries might be a weak link; the grim future of Russia's economy; why Indo-Pacific countries have largely resisted Western pressure to condemn Moscow; how extremist groups and movements operate online; what makes an effective summer learning program; and trends in the commercial space market.

Russian trucks on the road heading to Deir al-Zor in Kabakeb near Deir al-Zor, Syria, September 21, 2017, photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Are Russia's Mercenaries a Weak Link?

Russia is reportedly recruiting and deploying mercenaries as it adjusts course and focuses on eastern Ukraine. Writing before the war, RAND researchers discussed why the Kremlin's tendency to rely on these private contractors highlights critical Russian weaknesses.

Russia's use of mercenaries stems from a known capability gap. In fact, past RAND research shows that Moscow is limited in its ability to project and sustain ground power beyond its borders—a shortcoming that has been on dramatic display in recent weeks.

What's more, Russian mercenaries have repeatedly shown that they will pursue self-interest and commercial interests over state interests, and that they will abandon partner forces—and perhaps each other—when tactical risks fail to outweigh financial rewards. This reflects a vulnerability in Russian national will to fight.

During the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian mercenaries were dubbed “little green men” and often portrayed as elite, stealthy, gray-zone warriors. But in reality, they may be “little green vulnerabilities.”

That said, Russia's apparent reliance on mercenaries in its renewed assault on the Donbas region presents concerns; these forces are known for beheadings, strapping grenades to teddy bears, and other brutal tactics. As RAND's Molly Dunigan noted in a recent interview, “Even though they may not fight effectively with the Russian military, they may quite effectively instill terror.”

A street in Moscow, Russia, April 26, 2020, photo by Latin America News Agency/Reuters

Latin America News Agency/Reuters

Russia's Tragic Failure to Reform Its Economy

The invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions will likely devastate Russia's economy. And before the war, Moscow repeatedly failed at economic reform. According to RAND's Howard Shatz, Putin's decisions have “set back his country by a generation, if not more.” If Moscow had taken a more productive economic course over the past two decades, it might be facing a different future, he says.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, February 24, 2022, photo  by Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Pakistan's now-ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, during a meeting in Moscow, February 24, 2022

Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Reuters

Why Most of the Indo-Pacific Tiptoes Around Russia

Since the start of Russia's brutal war in Ukraine, the West has ramped up pressure on the rest of the world to condemn Moscow. But this appeal has largely fallen flat in the Indo-Pacific region. One key reason for this, says RAND's Derek Grossman, is that the benefits of siding with the West simply do not outweigh the tangible national security benefits of healthy ties with Russia.

Illustration of online extremists by Jessica Arana/RAND Corporation from Sean Rayford/Alamy; dem10/Getty Images; sestovic/Getty Images; Dilok Klaisataporn/Getty Images; Comstock/Getty Images

Images by Sean Rayford/Alamy; dem10, sestovic, Dilok Klaisataporn, and Comstock/Getty Images; Design by Jessica Arana/RAND Corporation

How Extremism Operates Online

A new RAND paper examines online white-supremacist and violent misogynist material to better understand how radical groups use the internet. The authors identify three general patterns. First, nearly all extremist movements now engage in online activity. Second, extremists mostly use the same platforms as average internet users; the idea of a separate “extremist internet” is a myth. And third, extremists will likely adapt in response to technological changes and counterextremism efforts.

Multiracial group of children raising their hands in a classroom with a smiling Black woman teacher, photo by kali9/Getty Images

Photo by kali9/Getty Images

What Makes an Effective Summer Learning Program

Children have suffered significant academic losses during the pandemic. This is especially true for students in high-poverty schools, students of color, and low-performing white students. How can summer learning programs help make up for these losses? RAND research offers some recommendations: Districts should start planning now, promote consistent student attendance, and run programs for at least five weeks.

An illustration of the International Space Station over Earth, image by NASA

An illustration of the International Space Station over Earth

Image by NASA

As part of their goal to promote the space industry and improve the national security space architecture, the U.S. Space Force and Department of Defense are looking for ways to leverage commercial space capabilities. A new RAND report reviews seven commercial space sectors—including satellite communications, space launch, and space logistics—and identifies key trends in each of them.

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