In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Trump and Putin in Helsinki

A few weeks before today’s release of the voluminous Mueller report, a former New York Times executive editor, Max Frankel, argued in an op-ed that the Trump campaign and “Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy” had reached an “obvious bargain” in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election: The “overarching deal,” he writes, was Russian “help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for … a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions.” As proof of the American side of the bargain the author cites his impression that, since taking office, “President Trump has watered down the sanctions and otherwise appeased Russian interests.”

Frankel is not the first to accuse Trump of diluting Russia sanctions and/or appeasing Putin. Early this year dozens of members of Congress tried to stop the administration from lifting sanctions on companies controlled by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska; when a Senate effort to do so failed in January, its leading Democrat, Chuck Schumer, accused 42 Republican colleagues of choosing “to stand with Vladimir Putin” because they “are too afraid of breaking with President Trump.” Last year, two senior analysts from the Center for American Progress (a group founded by top aides of Trump’s one-time Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton) wrote that the administration “refused to implement new, legally mandated sanctions against Russia in January [2018].” They were likely referring to punitive measures required under the CAATSA sanctions package, which the president grudgingly signed into law in August 2017 after his hand was forced by “veto-proof majorities” in Congress. Like Frankel, other authors have also accused Trump of appeasing Russia, and worse, especially after the two leaders met last year in Helsinki. Republican lawmakers criticized the president, in particular for publicly taking Putin’s word over that of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and thus making America look “like a pushover.” The New Yorker dubbed the meeting an “appeasement summit,” quoting Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass’ view that Trump seemed unwilling “to speak truth to Russian power.” More recently, political analyst Fareed Zakaria asked whether Venezuela will “be the moment when Trump finally ends his appeasement” of Putin’s Russia.

We wanted to test the claims at the end of Frankel’s piece: Has Trump indeed weakened sanctions against Russia and has he appeased Russia in ways that have helped advance its interests? Unfortunately, the author did not specify which sanctions or interests he means, so we’ve had to cast a wide net.

The results of our effort are below. Overall, we found: (1) that Trump’s administration lifted one set of sanctions introduced under his predecessor and wielded another less forcefully than intended by lawmakers, but also sanctioned dozens of new people and organizations in Russia, including some very close to Putin; and (2) that—despite words and actions by Trump that may have boosted Russia’s global-stage cred and undermined the authority of U.S. institutions—his administration has taken many more steps detrimental to Moscow’s actual national interests than beneficial to them. As various authors have pointed out, this does not necessarily reflect Trump’s own intentions toward Russia as there is an important distinction to be made between the president and his administration. Simply put, Trump may face too many checks and balances to pursue the more Russia-friendly policy he touted during his campaign and beyond, and, perhaps, he, like his Russian counterpart, did not realize how difficult that would be.

Proposition 1: “President Trump has watered down the sanctions against Russia.”

Evidence for:

  • From what we’ve been able to turn up in our research, the only instance in which the current administration has managed to water down existing Obama-era sanctions is when it lifted restrictions on three companies controlled by Deripaska in exchange for the tycoon’s slashing his stakes in the companies and giving up control over them; Deripaska himself remains subject to U.S. sanctions.
  • In early 2018, instead of imposing at least five of a possible 12 new punitive measures called for by CAATSA, the administration chose not to introduce any new sanctions, saying that existing ones were working and the mere threat of additional measures was a sufficient deterrent. The language in the legislation seems to leave leeway for such a decision (and one list of Russians who could have been sanctioned under CAATSA was branded “a disgrace” for its inaccuracy and superficiality); nonetheless, senior Democratic lawmakers saw the lack of sanctions as “apparent violations … of CAATSA’s mandate and intent.” For more detail on the administration’s battle with Congress over the CAATSA legislation, see the additional points below.

Evidence against:

  • Of the 72 measures against Russia currently listed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in its sanctions tracker, 26 were enacted under Trump. With the exception of the CAATSA and Deripaska-related episodes described above, the Trump-era changes placed restrictions on dozens of new individuals and organizations (including some of Putin’s top officials and closest associates, like Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Rotenburg), augmenting earlier sanctions rather than giving them less bite.

Additional points:

  • There have been some reports of unsuccessful attempts by the Trump administration to lift or weaken restrictions against Russia. In January-February 2017, “top Trump administration officials … tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow,” according to Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, who spoke to “multiple sources familiar with the events,” including Dan Fried, a veteran State Department official who served as chief U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February 2017. “‘There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,’” Fried alleged in an interview with Isikoff: “He said in the first few weeks of the administration, he received several ‘panicky’ calls from U.S. government officials who told him they had been directed to develop a sanctions-lifting package.” Both Fried and Tom Malinowski, who had been President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, told Isikoff that these developments prompted them to lobby members of Congress to pass legislation that would help keep the sanctions in place.
  • The CAATSA sanctions created intense tensions between the White House and Congress in the summer of 2017. In June of that year the New York Times reported that the White House was “quietly lobbying House Republicans to weaken a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last week that would slap tough new sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and allow Congress to block any future move by President Trump to lift any penalties against Moscow.” Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper they were “not trying to weaken sanctions on Russia, but rather are concerned that the legislation usurps the president’s authority to impose such penalties, and could undercut … the administration’s ability to credibly signal to Moscow that it is willing to ease them in exchange for changes in behavior. The officials said the White House wanted lawmakers to eliminate a congressional review process that would allow the House and the Senate to block the president from lifting sanctions against Russia, or to add a waiver that would permit him to circumvent such an action.” According to a report by Politico the White House efforts “to preserve the president’s power to warm relations with Russia” continued into August until the president ultimately signed the CAATSA legislation. While Trump realized that he lacked the congressional support to veto CAATSA, he said in a statement upon signing the bill into law that it “remains seriously flawed—particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
  • The New York Times pointed out that the Trump administration’s position on CAATSA was “not an unusual one. Presidents, who have authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to unilaterally impose sanctions in response to national threats, often bristle against attempts by Congress to review or block such moves. … President Barack Obama had similar disputes with Congress over Russia sanctions. And Mr. Obama clashed sharply with lawmakers in 2015 over legislation that gave Congress the power to review the nuclear deal with Iran—which was then being negotiated—and block a move by the president to lift sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s compliance.”

Proposition 2: In addition to watering down sanctions, “President Trump has … otherwise appeased Russian interests.”

Evidence for:

  • As noted above, Trump has publicly embraced Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and renounced U.S. intelligence findings to the contrary, despite the indictment of Russian officials.
  • Trump has criticized NATO and even threatened to withdraw, thus potentially casting doubt on the durability of the alliance, which Moscow sees as hostile. (That said, Trump’s criticism has centered on what he sees as U.S. interests—in part, reducing spending on international organizations—while Putin’s complaints about the bloc have focused on Russia’s interests.)
  • In December 2018, against the counsel of his military and civilian advisers, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria—a move that senior national security officials argued would bolster the influence of Russia and Iran there; the timeline of the withdrawal has yet to be determined.

Evidence against:

  • In 2019 the administration slapped sanctions on four Russian nationals and six defense firms over Moscow’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait; Trump snubbed Putin after the incident, refusing to meet with him on the sidelines of the G20 in Argentina.
  • The Trump administration is negotiating with Poland to open a new NATO facility and station military hardware there, a move aimed directly against Russia.
  • According to Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), “In just more than two years in office, Trump has requested more than $17 billion for EDI [European Deterrence Initiative] compared with just $5 billion requested in Obama’s final three years in office. As a result, thousands of U.S. troops, along with other NATO allies, have deployed to Poland, the Baltics and Norway to deter further Russian expansion.”
  • In 2018 Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty over Russia’s alleged violations of the agreement; Washington suspended its participation in the agreement in February 2019 and Moscow followed suit immediately thereafter.
  • The Trump administration made its first use of CATSAA in March 2018, imposing sanctions on Russia’s Federal Security Service and military intelligence directorate, known as GRU, as well as six Russian nationals. (Concurrently, using an earlier executive order, the Treasury Department sanctioned the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, its alleged funder Yevgeny Prigozhin, two more of his companies and a dozen more individuals linked to the IRA.)
  • Also in 2018, the administration supplied Ukraine with its first shipments of U.S. “lethal aid,” in the form of Javelin antitank missiles, for the country’s battle with Russia-backed separatists—something the Obama administration had refused to do.
  • Trump has been pushing hard to prevent the completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, reportedly preparing sanctions against the project via a CAATSA amendment; at the Helsinki summit he openly said energy supplies to Europe would be an area of competition with Russia, reiterating less explicit comments to that effect made in July 2017.
  • Trump reportedly approved U.S. Cyber Command’s operation to block internet access to the Russian Internet Research Agency during congressional mid-term elections, in what unnamed sources called the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election.
  • In 2018, on Trump’s watch, the U.S. military killed an unspecified number of Russian mercenaries—perhaps “a couple of hundred,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who tried to stage an offensive against U.S.-backed forces in Syria.
  • The Trump administration also imposed sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of the Skripals in 2018, expelling 60 diplomats (though Trump reportedly wanted to expel far fewer) and shuttering the Russian Consulate in Seattle, leaving Moscow with no diplomatic presence on the West Coast for the first time in nearly 50 years. The administration also imposed a ban on arms sales, arms-sales financing, U.S. government credit or other financial assistance, exports of national-security-sensitive goods and most foreign assistance to Russia. It is currently readying another round of sanctions related to the poisoning.
  • In 2018 Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia values and had worked hard to negotiate. The six-country agreement had been a rare success in U.S.-Russian cooperation amid extremely tense bilateral relations.
  • On Feb. 15, 2018, the White House accused “the Russian military” of launching the devastating June 2017 cyberattack known as NotPetya, which caused billions of dollars in damage worldwide.
  • Trump complained in early 2018 that Russia was helping North Korea evade international sanctions: “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” he told Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.” (Several of the Russia-related sanctions imposed under Trump target activity related to North Korea.)
  • In 2017 the U.S. closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco.

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panelists at Fletcher-MGIMO conference
Russia’s focus on alliance formation in its “near abroad” is motivated by Moscow’s key security objectives: “to diminish the number of attack directions and maintain buffer zones,” according to MGIMO’s Andrey Sushentsov. He spoke at a recent conference organized by his institute and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where Russian and American scholars discussed various aspects of alliance formation.
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RT-2PM2 Topol-M system
The U.S. State Department has just released new data on New START, which shows that both the U.S. and Russia remain in compliance with the treaty. According to the data, which shows compliance as of March 1, 2019, Russia has remained below the treaty limits in all three categories: the number of deployed delivery systems, the number of warheads on these deployed systems and the total number of deployed and non-deployed systems. The U.S has also remained below treaty limits in the first two categories, but its number of deployed and non-deployed systems remains at the 800 system maximum allowed by the treaty.

The new data shows that between September 2018 and March 2019, the number of U.S. deployed systems declined by 3 to 656, the number of warheads on these deployed U.S. systems declined by 33 to 1365, while the total number of U.S. deployed and non-deployed systems stayed the same. Over the same time period, the number of Russian deployed systems increased by 7 to 524, the number of warheads on these deployed Russian systems increased by 41 to 1461, but the total number of Russian deployed and non-deployed systems declined by 15 to 760. The New START treaty was signed in 2010 and came into force into 2011. Unless extended, it will expire in February 2021.
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William Burns (center) with Graham Allison and Cathy Russell

William Burns has been hailed as one of America’s most outstanding diplomats—perhaps the only living person to have a room named after him at the State Department, according to Ambassador Cathy Russell. In his new book, “The Back Channel,” Burns argues that the U.S. now needs skillful diplomacy like never before and shares insights on key foreign-policy challenges, including relations with Russia, where he was ambassador in 2005-2008. On March 28, Burns, Russell and Harvard professor Graham Allison discussed the book and, more broadly, diplomacy’s crucial role in international affairs, as well as its illusions and limitations.

During the talk, Burns applied a decidedly pro-diplomacy lens to Russia: Despite the badly damaged relations between Washington and Moscow and the “very narrow band of possibilities” in those relations under Vladimir Putin’s regime (“from the sharply competitive to the nastily adversarial”), “there is space for artful American diplomacy as you look ahead” and a need for “guardrails” that keep the situation from getting worse, he argued. “It’s important,” Burns believes, “not to give up on the Russia beyond Putin”: The Russian middle class is not “revolutionary” but it is “restive … over economic stagnation” and an “absence of possibilities,” and in the longer term Russians will start chafing at being “China’s junior partner” just as they chafed at Moscow’s status as America’s junior partner after the end of the Cold War, Burns said. Even in the short term he was hopeful there may be room for cooperation on Afghanistan, where Russia, like the U.S., has “a stake in some kind of stability.”

At the same time, Burns was far from Pollyannaish about bilateral ties today: “Essentially we’re managing an adversarial relationship” with Russia and “we don’t have to have illusions about that,” he said. He expressed particular concern that what’s left of the bilateral arms control architecture “is about to crumble,” with the INF Treaty effectively null and the renewal of New START, due in 2021, looking increasingly unlikely. “That would be a huge disadvantage not only for the U.S. and Russia but for the rest of the world at a time when we’re trying to make the argument against the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Burns said.

After the event, Burns—who rose to the rank of deputy secretary of state and has served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since leaving the Foreign Service in 2014—gave some details about what he thought a realistic U.S. strategy for relations with Russia might entail, other than joint efforts toward peace in Afghanistan. First and foremost, this included expanding New START and “talking about what we used to call strategic stability,” including all the ways in which the intersection of cyber instruments with nuclear weapons and advanced conventional weapons can destabilize the relationship. Options for coming closer to agreement on Syria are very limited, Burns feels, but at least Moscow and Washington could work to guard against escalation in the region between Israel and Iran and between Turkey and the Kurds.

Those who are interested in Burns’ insights about Putin—whom the diplomat calls an “apostle of payback” and a “combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity”—and in his prescient concerns about “leaving NATO expansion on autopilot” can view the whole event below, read Graham Allison’s review of “The Back Channel” and Burns’ recent interview with The New Yorker and, of course, read Burns’ book for themselves.

The book contains a separate chapter on U.S.-Russian relations during Putin’s rule and an appendix full of fascinating, newly declassified documents. In one of the cables Burns sent to Washington as ambassador in Moscow, he noted that the U.S. has come to face a “Russia that's too big a player on too many important issues to ignore.” The book also features a February 2008 email from Burns to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the subject heading “Russia Strategy.” The e-mail argued against the Bush administration’s intention to push for NATO membership action plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at an upcoming summit of the alliance, describing it as one of  “three potential trainwrecks” in U.S.-Russian relations, along with Kosovo and missile defense.

The email warns that granting a MAP to Kiev will amount to crossing a Russian redline and may prompt Moscow to start meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Granting a MAP to Georgia, Burns argued, would raise high the prospects of a war between Russia and Georgia. The final communique of the April 2008 NATO summit did not include references to MAPs, but stated unequivocally that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” Four months later Russia and Georgia fought a war along the lines Burns had anticipated, and five years later Russia—its military significantly improved, based in part on its Georgia experience—sent its “little green men” to meddle in Crimea and eastern Ukraine after a pro-Western revolution in Kiev.

In addition to Burns’ foresighted email to Rice, the book’s trove of correspondence includes a 1993 memo written by outgoing Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for the incoming Clinton administration, in which he rightly argued that “the collapse of Communism … has not ended history” and warned that it was “certainly conceivable that a return to authoritarianism in Russia or an aggressively hostile China could revive” the Cold War-style threat of “a global military adversary.” It also contains Ambassador Thomas Pickering’s Jan. 11, 1995, cable from Moscow to Washington describing the challenges Boris Yeltsin faced as he tried to quell violent separatism in Chechnya, a sign of Russia’s “slow crumbling," and a May 27, 2008, memo to the secretary of state discussing U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Iran beyond the future nuclear deal, noting that Russian help could be instrumental in implementing parts of this strategy.

Photo by Gail Oskin, courtesy of Harvard's Institute of Politics.

Munich Security Conference
The Munich Security Conference is the largest annual gathering of political and security leaders from government, think tanks and academia worldwide. This month more than 600 key decision makers and policy shapers from across the globe gathered in Germany to discuss and debate pressing security issues. Unsurprisingly, Russia has often figured prominently at the conference. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin shocked the audience with a speech forcefully challenging what he saw as U.S. hegemony; two years later, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden offered Moscow a “reset.” Below we offer insights on how Russia fit into this year’s conference from Graham Allison—Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and author of nine books, most recently “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?”
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The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.
What can we expect for Russia in 2019 and beyond? At a recent policy workshop held by the Washington, D.C.-based PONARS Eurasia network, scholars and analysts addressed this broad question and related issues, including the outlook for Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as president, the expected impacts of sanctions and some aspects of Russian foreign policy. With Russia’s political and economic environment arguably the most challenging the Kremlin has faced in years, the points that resonated the most at the workshop were that Putin will maintain his power through the end of his term (and possibly beyond), will likely implement policies to combat his falling approval ratings and will continue shifting Russia toward new partnerships—mainly in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Prospects for U.S.-Russian relations were generally seen as grim, although one historically minded scholar provided a spark of optimism for the future, saying that America’s current turmoil could lead to more normal relations sooner than commonly believed.
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Monkeys and bells
Inquiring minds want to know what's really going on. Is Russia building up its nuclear forces? Under what conditions does Russia intervene militarily in other countries? Did Russia really slash its defense budget? What's next for jihadists from the former Soviet countries of Central Asia? Check out our most popular reads for answers to these questions and more.

Top 10 of 2018

1. Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline? by Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev

2. Russia and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Laying Out the Publicly Available Evidence by David Filipov, Kevin Doyle and Natasha Yefimova-Trilling

3. Isolation and Reconquista: Russia’s Toolkit as a Constrained Great Power by Marlene Laruelle

4. Kissinger on Russia: Insights and Recommendations by RM Staff

5. When Does Vladimir Putin’s Russia Send In Troops? by Simon Saradzhyan ...
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Photo of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy over photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump
With Russia and the U.S. both suspending participation in the INF Treaty, fears of a new arms race abound, with some analysts declaring a “new Cold War.” Russia’s foreign minister dismissed such notions this week, reportedly saying, “I don’t think we’re talking about the development of a Cold War… A new era has begun.” NATO’s secretary-general made the same point last spring. But not everyone agrees with them.

In policy and academic circles the “New Cold War or Not” debate has been percolating for years, prompting thoughtful dueling Twitter threads among the professorial social-media set. Those who call today’s tensions a “Cold War” sometimes use the term simply to emphasize the intensity and dangers of the current standoff between Russia and the West. When details of the comparison surface, they tend to involve military threats—top among them nuclear war, including accidental war—and the two sides’ competition for global supremacy. Those who say “Cold War” doesn’t apply today also marshal plenty of convincing arguments. These include Russia’s relative weakness since the Soviet collapse, the absence of an ideological battle between Moscow and Washington, the end of the global bipolarity that had accompanied that battle, Russia’s much greater interconnectedness with the global economy and, of course, the rise of China. Both those who do subscribe to the term “Cold War” and those who don’t point out differences between today’s confrontation and the 20th-century version. Many foreign-policy experts, for example, have noted with alarm the lack of communication channels between Moscow and Washington and of safeguards to manage the risks of escalation.

Below are some of the most striking similarities and differences between U.S.-Russian tensions now and before as pointed out by Western and Russian politicians and analysts on both sides of the debate.
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World map
The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, released this week by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, describes Russia as a major threat to U.S. interests not just in its own right but particularly in tandem with China—a pairing mentioned about twice as often as in last year’s assessment. The first half of the foreword focuses solely on these two countries and the 2019 document even has a new section called “China and Russia”—listed in first place among eight “Regional Threats.” The authors anticipate that Beijing and Moscow “will collaborate to counter US objectives” across the globe, striving for “technological and military superiority” and posing “economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges,” including attempts to use “rising doubts” about liberal democracy to their advantage. The assessment likewise points to the “disturbing” trend of “hostile states … intensifying online efforts to influence and interfere with elections here and abroad.”

More generally, this year’s assessment also places a greater emphasis on Moscow’s global ambitions, ranging from Africa and Latin America to the Balkans and Southeast Asia. (That said, Ukraine gets only five mentions in 2019 vs. 10 in 2018, although this year’s report is 50 percent longer.) Other notable differences between the two assessments arise in the areas of cyber threats and weapons of mass destruction. In the former, the 2019 document’s authors express heightened concerns about Russian threats to U.S. critical infrastructure, including power grids; in terms of WMD, they assess that Russia—not linked explicitly to chemical weapons in 2018—was among the countries that “have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years,” the latter almost certainly a reference to the March 2018 assassination attempt against former double agent Sergei Skripal in England.

Below we give a run-down of the most salient differences between this year’s assessment and last year’s. The referenced sections appear in the same order as in the 2019 document.
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A Soviet soldier on watch in Afghanistan, 1988.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump offered his take on Soviet Russia’s experiences in Afghanistan as he argued in favor of a huge U.S. troop withdrawal and a larger contribution by Moscow to stabilize the war-racked country. The U.S. president put forward two basic propositions: that the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union and led to its collapse and that the reason Moscow (rightly, according to Trump) invaded Afghanistan “was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Both claims drew a barrage of criticism in the U.S., Europe and Afghanistan. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers, normally measured in their criticism of Trump’s conduct and policies, said of his contention about terrorists that they “cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”

Among the rebukes leveled at Trump was, in the words of one Republican commentator, that he was repeating “Soviet-Putinist propaganda.” But was he?
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