In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine
The festering conflict in eastern Ukraine has been a central cause of tensions between Russia and the West for over four years. In July 2017 diplomat Kurt Volker was appointed as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations. This month, Volker—a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who now wears different hats in academe and the private sector in addition to his government service—spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs about the crisis in the transatlantic relationship.

While Russia and Ukraine were not the event’s main focus, Volker made the following points about the standoff between the two and its ripple effect in the West...
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Red square Moscow Russia
Russians’ views of Donald Trump and his country have soured since 2017, though they still see the U.S. in a better light than they did during the penultimate full year of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Pew’s 25-country Global Attitudes and Trends survey for 2018. This downturn in favorable opinion, we believe, is in part due to Russians’ unrealized hopes for better U.S.-Russian relations following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The polls also show that while Russians view the West as declining, they see China as a rising power. They also see their own country as a rising power; however, poll data shows that among the 25 countries surveyed, that view is not widely held.

Overall, Russians polled by Pew had a more negative view of the U.S. than in 2017, and often a more negative view than the median among all 25 countries surveyed. According to Pew, only 26 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the U.S., a significant drop from 41 percent in 2017, but still higher than the 15 percent who said so in 2015 (data for Russians’ views of the U.S. in 2016 is not available). Additionally, 55 percent of Russians believe that relations with the U.S. have worsened in the last year. This number is significantly higher than the median of 21 percent among the 25 countries Pew surveyed, including Russia, who believe that their country’s relations with the U.S. have worsened since 2017. While just over half of Russian respondents felt confident that U.S. President Donald Trump would do the right thing regarding global affairs in 2017, that number fell to just 19 percent in 2018. However, Trump is still enjoying greater trust amongst Russians than his predecessor.  In 2015, only 11 percent of Russians said they had confidence in Barack Obama.  The majority of Russians also believe that Trump’s America is ignoring their country’s interests when making international policy decisions: as many as 65 percent of Russians hold that view.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Where does Russia fit in today’s international order and what are its strategies for navigating it? In a nutshell, according to a recent discussion among scholars and policy analysts in Washington: Russia’s diminished status relative to the Cold War period has it seeking ways to offset its weaknesses on the world stage, including  a “trickster’s” arsenal of dissembling and deception, which has deep cultural roots; meanwhile, Russian leaders believe at times that other countries, particularly in the West, are using the same tricks to gain an unfair advantage. The overall lack of trust between Russia and the West, and particularly the lack of clarity that Moscow and Washington each see in the other's intentions, undermine the chances for badly needed progress on arms control—a key element of global security.

On one hand, as pointed out by Harvard’s Mark Kramer at this month’s PONARS Eurasia conference, Russia is still a great power—in the sense that it can affect international politics in ways that other countries cannot; on the other, its stature on the global stage is greatly diminished by comparison to Cold War days when the world was “fundamentally bipolar,” much of it divided into two feuding camps led, respectively, by Moscow and Washington. Accordingly, Kramer argues, Russia, though still important for U.S. foreign policy, is less important than the Soviet Union was. Unlike the head-to-head standoff of the 1950s-1980s, today’s relations between Washington and Moscow are “a competitive great-power relationship,” Kramer said: Russia still has enough nuclear weapons to cause “catastrophic damage”; it has engaged in large-scale military modernization; and it has not shied away from using its military forces abroad—to some extent to compete with the U.S. Economically, Russia’s immense gas reserves give it some leverage over Europe, but it is nowhere near as dynamic as China. And though President Vladimir Putin’s administration seeks to project Russia as a rival of the U.S., Russia cannot come close to matching the overall strength of the United States, according to Kramer.

PONARS conference
Mikhail Troitsky addresses the PONARS conference.

As U.S.-Russia relations drift deeper into crisis, it’s especially worth noting that arms control talks—which have done so much to boost global security—have been successful in the past even when bilateral relations were arguably more adversarial than now. To understand why, Mikhail Troitsky of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, tried to explore the conditions that made those earlier successful negotiations possible. He argues that the one necessary and “likely also sufficient” condition is “clarity of mutual intentions”: Those intentions can be adversarial, but they need to be stable and clear. Parties to talks cannot doubt each other’s intentions and credibility. If we recall arms-control agreements like those produced by SALT I, signed in 1972, or the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, signed in 1990, and others, the U.S.-Soviet relationship at the time could hardly be called cooperative. But back then neither side displayed expansionist intentions or planned for surprise maneuvers, Troitsky noted; in periods when one side started suspecting the other of wanting to turn the tables—for instance, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—effective arms control stopped. Treaties like START II and SORT, as well as New START, were signed by the two powers under a “credible commitment to communication,” Troitsky said. START II ultimately fell apart after the U.S. started discussing missile defense in the late 1990s and Moscow perceived this as confirmation of a change in intentions toward Russia, according to Troitsky. Similarly, with regional rivalries between the two sides heating up, as in 2004-2009 and 2012 to the present, both sides make statements of benign intentions, but neither side believes the other’s declarations, suspecting exploitation or subversion, Troitsky said; and arms control has never worked in the context of such ambiguity. Observers aren’t yet losing hope, at least for an extension of New START. What can be done to stem this dangerous dynamic? Even if credible signaling of intentions is difficult, perhaps rhetoric can help, Troitsky believes: Acknowledge the cost of conflict and talk about the peace dividend, instead of singing the praises of new technologies; also, he says, reducing reliance on deniability in conflicts could remove a major factor of uncertainty. From there, the two countries could make some minor advances in arms control, signaling credibility, and then build on those. Arms control still has a chance as a solid anchor in the bilateral relationship—one that’s worth saving.

Meanwhile, whatever he may say, Putin sees Russia as an underdog in relations with the West. And sometimes tries to subvert the international order, which he believes gives the West an unfair advantage, according to Viatcheslav Morozov of Tartu University. Generally speaking, this approach, even when it involves deception, seems popular with domestic audiences and Morozov, together with his colleagues, try to explain the cultural context that “might make strategic deception acceptable” in the eyes of someone who grew up in the Soviet Union or in the culture inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia has often been accused of violating international norms and such normative disagreements have been at the center of recent frictions with the West, where many are appalled because they view rules as the “sacred foundations of any civilized society.” To some extent, Moscow definitely sees its actions as mirroring those of the West—say, in violating the sovereignty of other countries; nevertheless, in many cases Russia’s explanations of its conduct have been based on deliberate misinterpretation of international norms and outright deception, according to Morozov. (A prime illustration is the “little green men” in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula: Moscow initially denied they were Russian soldiers, and then, a few months later, admitted it.) To contextualize this behavior, and explain in part why it does not outrage ordinary Russians, Morozov and his fellow researchers draw heavily on the work of literary scholar Mark Lipovetsky and his explorations of the immense popularity of the “trickster” character in Soviet culture—a figure who “skillfully violates rules” and “transgresses all sorts of boundaries,” sometimes for no apparent reason, which they consider a perfect fit for Russia’s behavior on the international stage today. This old resource, as Morozov noted, is not drawn on explicitly, but serves as crucial cultural background. These rule-breakers were popular in Soviet times, in part, because they reflected and helped justify the deceptive, cynical behaviors often necessary to survive within what Lipovetsky called the “ideologically approved simulacra of the state-run economy and ‘classless’ society”; another important explanation, according to Morozov, is that they jived with the official position of elevating commoners to the central stage of mass culture. “Russia’s claim to once again represent the dispossessed and the oppressed of the world is, of course, totally fake,” Morozov said (as its leaders are rich), but that does not diminish the appeal of this claim, even “beyond Russia’s borders,” as it resonates with the broader post-colonial agenda focusing on real inequality and oppression. 

Main photo by Kremlin.ru, shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Inset photo courtesy of Matthew Kewley, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.​​​​​​​

Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013.
Next week marks 35 years since America and Russia narrowly avoided fighting a nuclear war—the kind that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” in the words of Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t the first time the two nations lived through such a close call, and stories like this can only remind us how much our continued existence may depend on individual humans’ handling of mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations—in other words, they remind us that a nuclear war is as likely to start through inadvertence as by design.

The “stand-off” in 1983 lasted minutes, not days like the Cuban Missile Crisis some 20 years earlier, but could have likewise led to full-blown nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR: Soviet early-warning systems detected a nuclear attack coming from the United States. The natural response would have been a counter-strike by Moscow. The result, as one Stanford professor wrote later, could have been “roughly a hundred million people blown apart, burned up and poisoned on the first day of the war.” (Within months, he estimated, the death toll could have reached a billion.)

The decision that prevented that from happening was made by a Soviet officer working the night shift at a secret military facility outside Moscow who determined, in the 10 minutes he had to make the call, that the alarm was false. His name was Stanislav Petrov.
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Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague.
Ordinary Americans care more about children’s upbringing than about Russia, claims Seth Ackerman, executive editor of Jacobin. In a July 19 post on the magazine’s blog, Ackerman writes: “[O]utside the self-enclosed vivarium that is the Twitter-cable-news-late-night-show axis, nobody actually cares about the Russia issue. In last month’s Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans mentioned ‘the situation with Russia’ as the most important problem facing the country—coming in just behind ‘Children’s behavior/Way they are raised’ and far behind ‘Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness.’”

Ackerman’s interpretation of the Gallup poll is attention-grabbing, but somewhat misleading. In surveys, after all, much depends on the way questions are framed and the answer options available. While the open-ended poll cited by Ackerman asks respondents to name the “most important problem” facing the U.S., other surveys ask them to rank “threats” from an array of choices. A look at several polls from recent years suggests that Americans see Russia as more of a threat than Ackerman acknowledges, though not as a significant domestic concern.
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Protest against pension reform in Moscow, July 2018.

This summer’s polls have not been kind to Vladimir Putin and for good reason. The Russian authorities’ drive to raise the country’s pension age has sparked a public backlash. Some analysts have warned of “internal rupture,” while one headline even called the protests a “crisis that could take down Putin’s presidency.” I doubt the latter; Putin has survived worse. But if opposition to the measures grows more intense, the Russian leader could be expected to offer concessions (if only temporary) rather than double-down and risk a further surge in protest against his rule. 

A state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), published a poll on July 22 that showed Russians’ confidence in Putin had fallen to 38 percent, the lowest level since December 2011. A poll published the same day by the Public Opinion Foundation—which is not state-run, but which the Kremlin regularly relies on for gauging public sentiment—showed that fewer than half of Russians would vote for Putin if a presidential election were held now, compared to more than 60 percent in October 2017-May 2018. An even lower share of Russians approve of the government’s performance, according to Russia’s sole truly independent national pollster, the Levada Center—only 37 percent as of July 2018 compared to 47 percent in April and 49 percent a year ago. The Russian parliament’s approval rating is a bit lower (33 percent in July and 41 percent in April). Moreover, some 40 percent of Russians thought their country was headed in the wrong direction as of July compared to 29 percent one year ago, according to Levada.

While it is natural for an incumbent’s ratings to creep down after re-election, which is preceded by massive promotional efforts during the campaign period, the decline in Putin’s popularity seems too steep for that. (Recall that the Kremlin’s reported target was to have Putin win at least 70 percent of the vote in March, and he did). The most immediate driver behind the summer slump in Putin’s popularity is the authorities’ plan to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women in hopes of raising money needed to reach the ambitious economic, social and demographic targets that Putin set in May. As many as 90 percent of Russians disapprove of the increase, according to Levada. Moreover, the share of Russians who are willing to participate in political protests reached 23 percent in July—the highest level since such measurements began in August 2009, according to the pollster. Some 37 percent of Levada’s July 2018 poll respondents specifically said they were willing to protest the increase in pension age and tens of thousands are doing so already.

The protests do pose a risk for the Kremlin, but I very much doubt they will topple Russia’s president. Here are the reasons why.

First, while Russians’ confidence in Putin has dropped to 38 percent, his overall approval rating remains above 60 percent. According to Levada, 67 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s work as president in July 2018, which is 12 percentage points lower than in May, but much higher than his fellow strongman Erdogan’s pre-election approval rating of 49.8 percent, or the ratings of his democratic peers, such as Angela Merkel’s 48 percent, Donald Trump’s 45 percent and Emmanuel Macron’s 36.3 percent.

Second, as with other unpopular reforms, Putin has been trying to make sure he is not personally seen as fathering this idea and that it can be rolled back if protests rise to a critical level. Putin had Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government draft and submit the bill on the pension age to the State Duma on June 19. The Duma then passed it in a first reading on July 19 only to see protests erupt across Russia and the popularity of the majority United Russia party sink to 37.1 percent, again the lowest since 2011. Seeing the backlash, Putin broke his silence on the issue on July 20, assuring the Russian public that the decision to raise the pension age is not final. My guess is, should the protests surge to a level that could threaten Putin’s grip on power, he can either soften the bill, perhaps by reducing the increase for women to 60 during the Duma’s second reading this fall, or have lawmakers put it on the back burner indefinitely.

So far the protests have not reached the scale of 2005, when tens of thousands of pensioners rallied across Russia, blocking highways, to protest reforms to the social-welfare system, or of fall 2011/winter 2012, when hundreds of thousands protested Putin’s pending return to the Kremlin and alleged fraud in parliamentary elections—a wave of discontent that some Russia watchers prematurely described as a “Snow Revolution.” In both those cases Putin eventually offered concessions, however small, raising pensions and suggesting more leeway for small opposition parties. We are likely to see the same tactic again: His is a semi-authoritarian regime, but not without some sensitivity to public opinion, and Putin has demonstrated in the past that he is adaptive to significant changes in that opinion.

However, while Russians’ current anger over the pension reform is unlikely to topple Putin, he still faces longer-term challenges that both he and his successors will have to grapple with. On Russia’s current trajectory its share of the global population will decline by 31 percent by 2050, while its share in global economic output will drop by 23 percent, according to the U.N. and PricewaterhouseCoopers, respectively. Though all long-term forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt, Russian leaders will need to figure out how to implement structural reforms to cope with these challenges without alienating the Russian public in dangerous ways.

Photo by Andrew.Filin shared under a CC0 1.0 license. 

The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.

Putin in Siberia
The American and Russian press have been full this week of reactions to the July 16 summit between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. We have collected comments here from some of both countries’ most notable analysts of the bilateral relationship. On the U.S. side there has primarily been disappointment. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “It was a meeting that had to take place,” but it was “certainly a missed opportunity,” while Harvard’s Graham Allison saw a bit of a silver lining: “Communicating with your adversaries, even your enemies, even your deadliest enemies, is a good idea,” he said, “because what you don’t want to do is have two parties … stumbling into a war they don’t want.” Many Russian experts likewise welcomed the resumption of high-level dialogue and noted the concrete proposals on the Middle East. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin noted, however, that “what happened in this Helsinki summit—and I think it's very important—is that Putin has not only cast his lot very publicly with Donald Trump but he has involved himself from now on in domestic political strife in the United States.” Others pointed out that this could backfire for Moscow. Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council, for example, said that the Russian establishment’s general feeling that the summit was a success and Trump has prevailed over his domestic opponents may be due to misperceptions about the U.S. political system: “Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. … He tends to project that on other leaders he meets… It is difficult for him to see that the U.S. system doesn’t work this way.”
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Soldiers in Ukrainian military.
Soon after the start of Russia’s official military involvement in Syria, another army, hundreds of miles away, ramped up its activity: Ukraine’s armed forces became emboldened in their war with separatists in the east. Under the radar, they have been retaking control of a narrow strip of contested, crime-ridden no-man’s land in the war-torn Donbas region using a tactic known as “creeping advances.” Between February and May, for example, they managed to advance about 6 miles deeper into the area, deploying small, highly professional units. The slow-paced advances, ongoing since February 2016, have enabled Ukraine to take firmer control over the porous demarcation line with its separatist republics, to improve its military’s tactical capabilities (and, possibly, its morale) and to test Russia’s response—which, so far, has been minimal. For now, Ukrainian troops have focused their efforts mostly on small villages. On one hand, some analysts suspect that attempts to take bigger, strategically important settlements could provoke a large-scale Russian military response; on the other, Russia may be reluctant to deepen its involvement in eastern Ukraine’s grinding war. The paradox seems to be that, whatever Russia’s response to the creeping advances, Ukraine’s leadership—struggling to retain legitimacy and the confidence of citizens and Western donors—stands to reap a net benefit from the tactic.
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Grand Stone Bridge in Moscow

Why did U.S.-Russian relations under Trump deteriorate contrary to the expectations of many? What can we learn from measuring Russia's national power? What is the publicly available evidence for and against Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Find answers to these questions and many more in our wide-ranging top exclusives. Check them out below. 

Top 10 of 2018 (so far)

  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. Team Trump on Russia: John Bolton’s Views by Kevin Doyle
  4. Unintended Escalation: 5 Lessons From Israel for the Russia-NATO Standoff by Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky
  5. Putin's Pivot: 4 New Features of Russian Foreign Policy by Daniel Treisman
  6. Russian Strategists Debate Preemption as Defense Against NATO Surprise Attack by Alexander Velez-Green
  7. Blog: Armenia: Why Has Vladimir Putin Not Intervened So Far and Will He? by Simon Saradzhyan
  8. Thomas Graham on Russia: Insights and Recommendations by RM Staff
  9. Contrary to Expectations, US-Russian Relations Deteriorate Under President Trump by Thomas Graham
  10. Kissinger on Russia: Insights and Recommendations by RM Staff

Top 10 of all time

  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. Kissinger on Russia: Insights and Recommendations by RM Staff
  4. Yes, Russian Generals Are Preparing for War. That Doesn’t Necessarily Mean the Kremlin Wants to Start One by Simon Saradzhyan
  5. Russian Military Buildup in the West: Fact Versus Fiction by Michael Kofman
  6. Russian Nuclear Forces: Buildup or Modernization? by Hans M. Kristensen
  7. Putin as Bismarck: Ehud Barak on West’s Russia Blind Spots, the Middle East and More by RM Staff
  8. Sen. Sam Nunn: 'We Have a Choice Between Cooperation or Catastrophe' by Mariana Budjeryn
  9. Blog: How to ‘Think Like the Russians’: A Partisan Perception Chart for Improving US-Russian Relations by Bruce Allyn
  10. A Sino-Russian Military-Political Alliance Would Be Bad News for America by Simon Saradzhyan

Photo shared in the public domain.

PONARS Eurasia Point & Counterpoint logo

PONARS Eurasia, a partner of the Russia Matters project, has just launched Point & Counterpoint, a new multimedia initiative for those looking to know more about Russia and Eurasia. Point & Counterpoint features in-depth analysis, research-based debates and informed book reviews by Russia and Eurasia experts, all as part of a non-ideological platform for the study of the region. The chief editors for the initiative are Maria Lipman and Marlene Laruelle.

Posts include:

Rebalancing Russia’s Spatial Development? Infrastructural Transformations Under Vladimir Putin by Jean Radvanyi

Putin’s Reelection: Capturing Russia’s Electoral Pattern, a discussion with Kirill Rogov