In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Pompeo and Putin
In an upbeat and conciliatory atmosphere that nonetheless could not hide all the many differences between Moscow and Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on May 14 with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and later with President Vladimir Putin in the seaside Russian resort town of Sochi. The visit, as noted by the Financial Times, “comes amid speculation over the potential for new U.S. sanctions against Russia, clashes between the two countries over the crisis in Venezuela and moves by the U.S. to isolate Iran, an ally of Moscow.” Pompeo—who was making his first trip to Russia in his current role—and Lavrov said their meeting covered an array of issues that have heightened U.S.-Russia tensions, including Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Prior to the talks, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two foreign ministers would be having a “very candid conversation” about concerns in the bilateral relationship.

Below you will find key comments related to the meetings made by Pompeo, Putin, Lavrov and other officials, as well as some analysis and recent developments that add important context. This post may be updated as more information becomes available.
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Russian passports
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decree to make it easier for residents of some separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine to get Russian citizenship has drawn criticism not only from Kiev but from key partners of the Ukrainian government, such as the U.S., EU and individual EU states. His subsequent statement that this liberalization may be extended to all citizens of Ukraine drew even greater fire, with both the Ukrainian government and its partners accusing the Russian leadership of seeking to assault Ukraine’s territorial integrity, test its newly elected leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy and even engage in banal trolling. The first two of these accusations are not groundless, but they ignore what I think could be the most important among the many factors that have shaped Putin’s decision: Russia needs more working hands and the best way to get them, in the Russian leader’s view, short of an instant demographic miracle would be to stimulate labor migration from countries where workers are (a) skilled, (b) speak Russian and (c) are culturally close enough that Russian authorities and companies do not have to spend undue money and time trying to train or integrate them. Ukrainians fit these requirements perfectly. Seventy-two percent of its workers had post-secondary education as of 2017 compared to Russia’s 66.6 percent, according to the World Bank; most of them are Orthodox Christian and many of them speak fluent Russian.

Russia’s own labor force has declined by 3 percent in 1992-2018, totaling 73.6 million last year, according to the World Bank and is bound to keep shrinking by 800,000-900,000 a year until 2025, according to researchers at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Putin’s plan aims to change this trajectory, attracting workers from Ukraine, which as of 2018 had nearly 20.3 million individuals aged 15 and older “who supply labor,” which is how the World Bank defines the labor force.
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Kim and Putin on escalator
This week’s summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un—the first between the Russian and North Korean leaders—has proved to be as underwhelming as expected. While the two spent twice as much time talking face-to-face as had been planned, they neither announced any major agreements nor appeared to have achieved any progress toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

In fact, the Kremlin had even warned before the talks that no major statements or deals were likely. And it did so for a reason: Contrary to some experts’ views, Russia is neither the key to denuclearizing North Korea nor can it “deliver” an arms control agreement covering North Korea’s arsenals, even in exchange for a softening of Western sanctions on Moscow. While Russia is an important player in both regional and international non-proliferation efforts, it has substantially less leverage vis-à-vis North Korea than either the U.S. or China; Moscow cannot single-handedly achieve a breakthrough in efforts to push Pyongyang into rolling back its nuclear weapons program, even though it shares America’s interest in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (Granted, Moscow is perhaps more skeptical that this can be achieved.)

Moscow’s lack of heft is determined by economics: Unlike the Soviet era, Moscow is no longer a top economic partner for Pyongyang.
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Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford with Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov during a meeting March 4, 2019.
When Russia’s Defense Ministry hosts representatives of 100 countries at its annual conference on international security this week, one group will be conspicuously absent: The U.S. and its NATO allies have reportedly decided not to delegate anyone to this year’s event. With relations between Moscow and the alliance all but frozen, “Track 2” discussions between the U.S. and Russia have become especially important. That’s where the Elbe Group comes in: The influential group of retired senior military and intelligence officers from Russia and the United States gathered in Reykjavik last month for an intimate discussion of pressing security issues affecting the U.S.-Russian relationship. They argued in a joint statement that obstacles to bilateral cooperation “should be reduced or eliminated” and that the U.S. and Russia “bear a special responsibility to negotiate and abide by agreements that ensure strategic stability.” The group also called for a “broadened dialogue on the future of U.S.-Russian relations” that takes into account new technological, military and strategic realities. The 13 delegates to the Reykjavik meeting included: from the U.S. side, former Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Maples, former defense attache to Moscow Kevin Ryan and Belfer Center Intelligence Project director Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA veteran; from the Russian side, former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, former head of military intelligence Valentin Korabelnikov and former acting head of the Federal Security Service Anatoly Safonov.

Below are the group’s conclusions on strategic stability, counterterrorism in the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, NATO-Russia relations, cyber and Arctic issues.
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Trump and Putin in Helsinki
Has Trump indeed weakened sanctions against Russia and appeased Moscow in ways that have helped advance its interests? Our review of the evidence suggests the answer may be “barely.”
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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.
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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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