In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
biden and putin
One of the few things America’s Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had agreed upon prior to their first summit almost half a year ago was that they would not hold a joint press conference after their June 16 huddle at an 18th century villa in Geneva. The two presidents’ decision to talk to press separately came as no surprise, given how many major issues they publicly disagreed on at the time. Moreover, while Biden reportedly acted to delay a missile test that could have raised tensions with Russia prior to the summit, the U.S. president asserted publicly that he did not view the meeting as an end in itself: Whatever he and his Russian counterpart agreed on during the four-hour sit-down had to be implemented if U.S.-Russian relations were to move away from hyper-tension during his presidency, Biden said. He even set a deadline for taking stock of progress: “What is going to happen next is we’re going to be able to look back … in three to six months and say, ‘Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work?  … [A]re we closer to a major strategic stability talks and progress? Are we further along in terms of…’—and go down the line. That’s going to be the test,” Biden told his post-summit press conference. “This is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest,” he added.
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While U.S.-Russian relations continue to deteriorate in many spheres, the Arctic provides an arena for possible cooperation. In particular, Russian wariness of China’s Arctic ambitions could provide novel opportunities for warming ties between Moscow and Washington.  

Washington on edge as relationship between Russia and China continues to strengthen
Moscow-Beijing ties are flourishing. Evidence of this abounds in areas ranging from military and aerospace cooperation to booming bilateral trade. In March of this year, the two powers agreed to join forces to build a research station on the Moon. In August, some 10,000 troops participated in Zapad/Interaction 2021—a series of joint strategic military exercises, which, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, aimed to demonstrate the "determination and ability of the two countries to fight terrorism and jointly protect peace and stability in the region." And in October, the Russian and Chinese navies conducted the latest in a series of joint maritime exercises in the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile, bilateral trade reached upwards of $40 billion in the first quarter of 2021—a 20% increase compared to the same period of 2020. And a representative of China's Commerce Ministry has announced plans to increase trade with Russia to some $200 billion, effectively doubling 2020's bilateral trade volume.
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On Nov. 19, the Center for the National Interest hosted a webinar, “Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?” All speakers agreed that the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border does not look like a bluff, however, the panelists disagreed about Russia’s intention. George Beebe, the vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, and Dimitry Suslov see Russia’s objective as an agreement on Ukraine’s status with NATO. Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, believes Russia wants Ukraine firmly in its sphere of influence, and will not accept Ukraine as an independent entity with its own identity. Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, emphasized that Russia does not desire a large-scale conflict in Ukraine, and would accept a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, cautions that Russia may not be backing down, and would be capable of launching a large-scale operation against Ukraine if a favorable agreement is not reached.
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Putin, Lukyanov Valdai 2021
This year’s session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club was organized in hybrid fashion, with most participants attending in person but some (myself included) choosing to participate remotely. Indeed, the pictures from the conference hotel in Krasnaya Polyana, high in the mountains above Sochi, provided a sharp contrast with what was happening in the rest of Russia: While the participants sat unmasked next to each other in a crowded auditorium, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country was rising dramatically—so much so that President Vladimir Putin ordered Russians to take a week of paid leave and stay home in the hope that the pandemic would subside.

The Valdai Discussion Club began in 2004 as a project to bring foreign Russia experts to Russia to meet with Russian counterparts and also meet with senior officials, including Putin (and Dimitry Medvedev when he was president). It has evolved from a small group of international Russia experts discussing Russian affairs, into a large gathering in which Russia features as one of many global actors and whose format now resembles Davos more than the earlier, more intimate meetings. In the early years, Russian participants included politicians and journalists from the democratic opposition, but they are no longer invited, with the exception of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Novaya Gazeta editor Dimitry Muratov, who attended this year’s session.
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Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin meeting in 1971 with representatives of Canada's indigenous population in Edmonton.
The discord of American politics, U.S. military engagements abroad, the English-language dark web—all these offer myriad opportunities for criticism. And Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of them with gusto after his June 16 Geneva summit with U.S. counterpart Joe Biden. One journalist called Putin’s deft deflection of tough questions from reporters “a masterclass in whataboutism”—which might be defined as the strategic practice of countering criticism with an accusation of wrongdoing against the criticizer, implying hypocrisy and/or disregarding circumstances that could weaken the latter charges, but not addressing the original criticism.

This tactic was frequently employed by the Soviet Union in response to Western criticism of its domestic and foreign policies, with America most often in the crosshairs. One early use of whataboutism—a term coined much later in the West—followed a speech made by then U.S. Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman in 1947, in which he warned that Soviet totalitarianism was “a new and more threatening imperialism.” In response to Harriman’s remarks, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg published a commentary in Pravda that the Christian Science Monitor described as saying that Americans wanted “to drop atom bombs on the Soviet Union because they do not like its social order” but that the Soviet people, “though they consider racial laws and slavery in the southern states of the United States insulting to human dignity, do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.” Ehrenburg also asked how the United States could be disgusted by Nazi atrocities when it has, in the Monitor’s rendition, “ghettoes for Negroes and lynch courts?” By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, accusations of America “lynching Negroes” had become a punchline for irreverent jokes about Soviet officialdom’s own hypocrisy and, as an Economist correspondent wrote in 2008, “a synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.”
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plombir ice cream in a factory
Speakers of every language have their verbal tics, but one Russian phrase seems to resurface constantly in official or semi-official speech and writing—particularly when it comes to comparisons with the West: “no worse and even better than.” Some of these “no worse” propositions go back as far as the 18th century, to the reign of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great, who was also, perhaps, the first Russian ruler to prioritize adopting Western know-how to make the Russian state more capable of competing with Europe’s leading powers. As early as 1724, Ivan Pososhkov, Peter I’s contemporary and a supporter of his reforms, wrote in his critique of mercantilism: “God has blessed us Russians with grain and honey and all matter of drinks. We have a countless plentitude of vodkas; our beers are top-notch and our honeys superb … no worse than from the Rhine, and much better than bad ones from the Rhine.”1

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the use of “no worse” persisted as the emergent Soviet state continued to compete with the West. With its people short on personal freedoms and high-quality consumer goods, the Bolshevik leadership emphasized all the ways in which the Soviet state was “no worse and even better than” the West as the two wrangled in global competition. The dissolution of the USSR 30 years ago did not end the “no worse” habit. In recent years, Russian officials, business leaders and journalists have applied this convention to everything from missile technologies and special forces to wine and tornadoes. Their counterparts in other former Soviet countries have retained a similar taste for the “no worse” trope.
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Moscow dawn
The Levada Center recently polled Russians on their attitudes toward Russia’s general standing in the international community, as well as their attitudes toward strategic competitors and countries within the post-Soviet neighborhood. Polling shows an improvement in attitudes toward the U.S., EU and Ukraine following unfavorable public opinion trends in the spring of 2021. Likewise, positive attitudes toward Georgia have been making steady improvements since 2018. However, Russian attitudes toward China have worsened since the beginning of 2021.

When asked about Russia’s presence on the global stage, respondents feel that Russia is isolated and viewed as a competitor by developed nations. Nevertheless, a majority of Russians want a more positive relationship with the West.
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SCO leaders
If geopolitics abhors vacuums, then who will fill the void created by the U.S. departure from Afghanistan? One player that may be in a position to fill some of that void is the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO), in my view. Since its prototype was established in 1996, the SCO has evolved into a viable organization for regional security and defense cooperation, and there is no doubt that most, if not all, of its members, share an urgent interest in keeping instability from spilling over from Afghanistan. However, while the SCO should be expected to try to act on that collective interest, it is doubtful that any of its members, even leading giants Russia and China, will be able to fully fill the shoes left by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.  

The change of power in Kabul has been quite abrupt, catching many regional watchers off guard, as evidenced, for instance, by a commentary published by the Diplomat in mid-July arguing that it was time for the SCO to accommodate the Ashraf Ghani government’s requests for Afghanistan to join the organization. In the wake of the subsequent demise of Ghani’s regime and the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, there is hardly a neighboring country left that would not be interested in joining forces with some of the regional powers to defend themselves from threats emanating from the (yet again) destabilized Afghanistan. Individual SCO members are no exception, and there is no doubt they will devote the lion’s share of their Sept. 16-17 summit in Dushanbe to the Afghanistan formulating a collective strategy to respond to these threats. These threats include a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, a dramatic increase in the transit of refugees, and continued drug trafficking.
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Afghan government forces in Jowzjan Province during 2021 Taliban offensive
In 2001, then-Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claims to have told the Taliban to "f--- off” in response to the group’s alleged offer to team up with Moscow against the United States. This bears contrasting with recent statements by Russian officials, such as  Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov and Russia’s ambassador in Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov. “If we compare them in terms of the ability to negotiate with colleagues and partners, the Taliban has long demonstrated a much better ability to negotiate than the puppet government,” TASS quoted Kabulov as saying.  "They made a good impression on us, adequate men, well armed,” Russia’s ambassador in Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov said in reference to members of the Taliban, which at present is designated by the Russian government as a banned terrorist organization.

The perspectives of Russia’s non-government Middle East experts on the ascent of the Taliban and its impact on Russia appear to be more varied than those of Russian diplomats and their other official counterparts. We have compiled a selection of such views, along with views on the same expressed by Western FSU watchers.
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Russia’s Voronezh Joint-Stock Aircraft Building Company has begun work on a plane designed to enable Russia’s military-political leadership to exercise nuclear command, control, and communications (N3) in the event of a nuclear war while airborne. The design of the aircraft—nicknamed “Judgement Day Plane” by the Russian media—is based on the long-range white-body airliner Il-96-400M, which was developed by the Moscow-based design bureau of the Ilyushin Aviation Complex, part of Russia's state-owned United Aircraft Corporation.

The N3 plane, which is being built as part of the so-called Zveno-3S project, which was first mentioned in the media in 2016, will carry domestically made equipment only and that equipment would allow those on board to send launch commands to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including stationary missiles in silos and mobile missiles, as well as to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried by submerged vessels up to 6,000 km away, according to a report by Russia’s state-funded RIA Novosti news agency. The plane can apparently remain airborne for days thanks to its ability to refuel in midair, which is a feature it shares with its U.S. counterpart, the E-4B. If not refueled, new plane will still have double the flight range of its predecessor, which was named Il-80 (NATO code: Maxdome) and which was based on Ilyushin’s Soviet-era Il-86 airliner.

“The plan is to replace [the IL-80] with IL-96-400M aircraft. This will significantly increase the time of airborne combat duty of command posts and increase the coverage area of command and control,” a source in Russia’s aircraft-building industry told TASS in October. The Russian Defense Ministry reportedly operates four Maxdomes at the moment.
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