In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Notable Russia-Related Commentary to Read During the Holiday Break

December 30, 2021
RM Staff

Russia Matters won't resume publication of its weekly news and analytical digests until Jan. 3, 2022, due to Harvard’s winter recess. In the meantime, we will be posting summaries of notable commentaries in our blog section.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda


Nuclear security:

Good News from the Russian Front,” Graham Allison, National Interest, 12.24.21.

  • Thirty years ago on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared. The Cold War that threatened nuclear Armageddon ended a whimper rather than a bang.
  • What could have happened to that [Soviet] nuclear arsenal in December 1991? Just two weeks before the Soviet collapse, this was the central question put to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on Meet the Press. To the question, Cheney responded: “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons and they are 99% successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.”... Try to imagine a world in which 250 nuclear weapons had ended up loose and found their way into the hands of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. Or Iran? Or others?
  • As we celebrate Christmas 2021, we should pause to remember: How many nuclear weapons from the former Soviet arsenal have proliferated? Not the 250 Cheney predicted. Not twenty-five. Indeed, not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside the control of Russian authorities. And one thing we know for certain: zero of the former Soviet nuclear weapons have exploded.
  • Disappointing as the U.S. relationship with Russia has been and promises to be, when it came to stepping up to the challenge that mattered most, the two governments found a way to prevent a plausible, even likely, catastrophe. Could the strategic imagination, readiness to take a chance on an uncertain venture, and difficult but determined cooperation between Russians and Americans displayed in achieving this nearly miraculous outcome offer clues for other challenges we face today?

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments

Great Power Rivalry/New Cold War/NATO-Russia Relations:

“Russia’s draft agreements with NATO and the United States: Intended for rejection?,” Steven Pifer, Brookings, 12.21.21.

  • The unacceptable provisions in the two draft agreements, their quick publication by the Russian government, and the peremptory terms used by Russian officials to describe Moscow’s demands raise concern that the Kremlin may want rejection. With large forces near Ukraine, Moscow could then cite that as another pretext for military action against its neighbor.
  • If, on the other hand, these draft agreements represent an opening bid, and the Russians seek a serious exchange that also addresses the security concerns of the other parties, some draft provisions could offer a basis for discussion and negotiation.
  • A deescalation of the situation near Ukraine would help greatly. U.S. and NATO officials will not want to engage as long as Russia hangs a military threat over Kyiv. Another question is the format. Washington and Moscow can have bilateral discussions, but negotiations have to include all affected parties, including Ukraine.
  • The sides should come to the table prepared to address the other’s legitimate security concerns. Agreeing on the meaning of “legitimate” will consume long hours. For example, it is unlikely that the United States (or NATO) will compromise on the principle — to which Moscow has agreed as a signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act — that states have a right to choose their own foreign policy course. The question of military activities in the NATO-Russia region is a different issue, and NATO has already shown its readiness to undertake commitments in that regard.
  • These discussions and any negotiation will be long, complex, and arduous. That is the kind of work that diplomats do. Getting started down that path, however, will require very different signals than those the West and Ukraine have seen from Moscow the past several weeks.

Russia-Ukraine conflict: America needs a better idea than NATO expansion to keep the peace,” Michael E. O’Hanlon, USA Today/Brookings, 12.14.21.

  • President Joe Biden .... appears to have avoided ill-advised threats to start World War III over a distant part of Europe not integral to core American security, yet sent an unmistakable message of firmness.
  • We should rethink the NATO expansion idea. It is virtually guaranteed to provoke Putin — and most other Russians. Moreover, as Putin’s big military exercise is demonstrating, he can get to Ukraine a lot faster than we can, with big forces.
  • It is [the] subject of a new security system for Eastern Europe that Biden and Putin should pursue, along with other NATO leaders, in the summit they are now considering. We have been in a strategic limbo on the question of further NATO expansion for too long already; it is time for a new, big, better idea.

“Russian treaty proposals hark back to post-Cold War era,” Patricia Lewis, Chatham House, 12.19.21.

  • The tone and the content of both drafts [the Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees and the Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is odd in that it harks back to the era of the end of the Cold War and the early-to-mid 1990s.
  • There are elements in the drafts with merit such as the proposed reinstatement of hotlines, and the regular exchange assessments of contemporary threats and security challenges which would be useful to supplement the US-Russia strategic dialogues.
  • In addition, a return to informing each other about military exercises and maneuvers – and the main provisions of their military doctrines – should happen as was agreed back in the 1980s and 1990s. And reigniting the mechanisms for urgent bilateral or multilateral consultations such as the NATO-Russia Council and to prevent incidents in the high seas would be important areas for discussion.
  • Despite misgivings about the purpose behind these demands and way in which they have been made, it would be a mistake – and potentially a bigger trap – to turn down the offer of negotiations.

“Can Russia and NATO Come to an Agreement?” Vladimir Frolov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.22.21.

  • Even if the Minsk agreements are implemented in the way that Moscow would like, that still won’t enable Russia to achieve its strategic goals of keeping Ukraine in its own orbit of influence.
  • Is there a realistic format for a political undertaking not to expand NATO to Russia’s borders? There are two possible options.
    • The first is to include a corresponding point in the 2022 NATO summit declaration in Madrid stating that the alliance will not expand any further to the east, and that this political declaration annuls all previous statements
    • The second option is an analogous point in NATO’s new strategic concept, which is planned to be adopted at the Madrid summit, or a combination of both of these formats.
  • An agreement to stop expanding NATO up to Russia’s border, regardless of its format, would be pivotal. It would open up the prospect of a different kind of relationship for Russia with the West and with Ukraine (as well as Georgia), while costing the NATO countries nothing but a change in rhetoric.
  • Stopping NATO’s expansion would make it possible for Moscow and Kyiv to hold direct talks on a conclusive resolution to the conflict based on the real state of affairs.

“The West Is Unlikely to Accept Russia’s NATO Demands — and the Kremlin Knows It,” Fyodor Lukyanov, Moscow Times, 12.20.21.

  • Russia submitted two documents last week to the administration in Washington — drafts of security agreements with the U.S. and NATO — that, in tone and style, more resemble ultimatums than treaties.....The real question is why Russian leaders decided to put forward such a document knowing full well that their Western counterparts would reject it and refuse to even discuss its provisions.  
  • For the U.S. and NATO, agreeing would mean taking the politically unacceptable step of capitulating to Moscow.  Also, why would the West suddenly feel the need for such a revolutionary revision to the post-Cold War system of European security?  Simply put, there is not enough of a threat to consider such drastic measures. Moscow, presumably, understands this, indicating that it might have a different goal in mind: to obtain a refusal of its empty gesture so that it can say, “We offered and so we’re not to blame for what we do next”.
  • In other words, the Kremlin is creating a pretext by which it can freely revise the existing system of relations — a step for which it apparently feels the time has come.  If this is the case, we can expect Moscow to take steps demonstrating Russia’s determination to unilaterally change the status quo.

The Berlin Crisis, Ukraine, and the 5 Percent Problem,” Sergey Radchenko, War on the Rocks, 12.22.21.

  • This will make you reach for the bookshelf to see if we encountered anything similar in the past, and how we managed to survive. It’s under “B. “The Berlin crisis (1958 to 1961) offers important lessons for the present dilemmas in Ukraine. The conflict over Berlin pitched Moscow against Washington, bringing the two to the brink of a nuclear war, but Soviet and American leaders eventually found enough wisdom to come back from the precipice.
  • There may be a 95 percent chance that Putin would get away with an invasion, perhaps even an annexation of Donbas. He managed it before in Crimea and faced tolerable consequences. But the other 5 percent weighs heavier and heavier as the stakes grow larger and larger. A smart Western policy would be to maintain this uncertainty in Putin’s mind.
  • The key lesson of the Berlin crisis is that inelegant outcomes are sometimes the only viable outcomes. ... A frozen conflict is far better than an open war.
  • It is important to unpack the Russian proposals and perhaps salvage something from them that will give Putin a dignified way out of the unpleasant situation he presently finds himself in. Such negotiations are unlikely to deliver breakthroughs. At best, we can perhaps reach a stalemate that will persist for 10, 20, even 30 years. But if the Cold War has taught us anything, it is that it often pays to be patient.

“What the US Misunderstands About Russia,” Nina L. Khrushcheva, Project Syndicate, 12.28.21.

  • The conclusion that Putin is attempting a kind of Soviet reunification is facile. The late US diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan – the architect of America’s Cold War policy of Soviet containment, for whom I conducted research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1990s – would surely take a more nuanced view. Kennan would argue that Russia’s behavior is best explained by a “special-nation” mindset.
  • According to a 2020 poll, 58% of Russians support the country following its “own special path,” and a whopping 75% think that the Soviet era was the “greatest time” in their country’s history.  Yet, crucially, only 28% of respondents report wanting to “return to the path the Soviet Union was following.” In other words, what Russians want is not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status and influence, which means maintaining its sphere of influence. The notion that the West could pursue an eastward expansion of NATO without pushback was always pure folly.
  • By ignoring Russians’ concerns about NATO, the US and Europe will bolster support for Putin. Already, just 4% of Russians blame the Kremlin for the recent troop surge, with the rest blaming the US or Ukraine.
  • While the “exceptional” US has long been able to act in its own strategic interest without, as one author put it, “the consequences that come with doing so,” the time may have come for it to account for new variables – namely, that Russians, too, view their country as exceptional.
  • Unless and until that changes, the cycle of crises will continue, with escalating, and potentially catastrophic, risks. “Such is the destructive potential of advanced modern weapons,” Kennan pointed out, “that another great conflict between any of the leading powers could well do irreparable damage to the entire structure of modern civilization.”

Is a War Over Ukraine Inevitable?” Dov S. Zakheim, National Interest, 12.02.21.

  • If Putin is serious about resolving Russian concerns regarding NATO expansion, he should order no further buildup on the Ukrainian border.
  • In the meantime, Washington could limit its military assistance to Kiev by restricting arms shipments to low levels of purely defensive systems as it has done until now. NATO could do the same.
  • Under these circumstances, both sides could begin to negotiate meaningfully, something that would be impossible with the specter of war in the background.
  • Ultimately, the choice is Putin’s. If he prefers to continue the force buildup on Ukraine’s border, he is likely to provoke an increasingly tough NATO response both economically—even previously passive Germany is now threatening to cut off the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—and militarily. If, on the other hand, he is serious about a negotiation, he will find Washington and NATO ready to talk, though not on the basis of terms set out in the two draft agreements that would have made Stalin proud.

The limits of US sanctions in dealing with Russia are becoming clear,” Megan Greene,  Financial Times, 12.16.21.  

  • If economic sanctions are not a silver bullet, why does the US keep using them? Dan Drezner, a professor in international politics at Tufts University, offers one explanation. He argues they are both a reflection of American decline (adversaries are less afraid of the US and American leaders have fewer tools at their disposal) and a catalyst for it. Sanctions antagonize enemies, irritate allies, impose costs on innocent people and drive targets to find alternatives to the US financial system, undermining dollar supremacy.
  • The Ukraine issue is a difficult one. Biden and Putin failed to resolve their differences in a two-hour phone call last week. It’s not clear what inducements the US and its allies can offer Putin to back off. Yet the threat of more sanctions may not accomplish much. They would impose a cost, but, to paraphrase Richard Nephew, former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the state department, “One can’t blame the [hammer] if it fails to perform the work of a screwdriver.”  

The Great Military Rivalry: China vs the U.S.,” Graham Allison and Jonah Glick-Unterman, Belfer Center, 12.16.21.

  • About the military rivalry between China and the United States in this century, our three major findings are these.
    • First, the era of U.S. military primacy is over: dead, buried, and gone— except in the minds of some political leaders and policy analysts who have not examined the hard facts.
    • Second, while America’s position as a global military superpower remains unique—with power projection capabilities no one can match, more than 50 allies bound by collective defense arrangements, and a network of bases on almost every continent—both China and Russia are now serious military rivals and even peers in particular domains.
    • Third, if in the near future there is a “limited war” over Taiwan or along China’s periphery, the U.S. would likely lose—or have to choose between losing and stepping up the escalation ladder to a wider war.

The Real Crisis of Global Order,” Alexander Cooley, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2022.

  • The United States cannot really contemplate defeating its current authoritarian challengers in a total war, as that would likely produce a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Its most important authoritarian challenger, China, is a totally different kind of polity than the Soviet Union was. China is wealthy and relatively dynamic, and although it has its share of structural problems, it is not abundantly clear that its shortcomings are any worse than those of the United States.
  • Neither of the historical routes to the ideological victory of liberalism seems likely. This means that liberal democracies really do need to assume that they will not retake the catbird seat of the international order anytime soon. And so the question becomes not whether the liberal order will change but on whose terms.

“What Putin Really Wants in Ukraine. Russia Seeks to Stop NATO’s Expansion, Not to Annex More Territory,” Dmitri Trenin, Foreign Affairs, 12.28.21.

  • Moscow’s demands are probably an opening bid, not an ultimatum
    • Specifically, the Kremlin could be satisfied if the U.S. government agreed to a formal long-term moratorium on expanding NATO and a commitment not to station intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
    •  It might also be assuaged by a separate accord between Russia and NATO that would restrict military forces and activity where their territories meet, from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
  • Putin is not risk-averse—operations in Chechnya, Crimea, and Syria are proof of that—but in his mind, the benefit must outweigh the cost. He won’t invade Ukraine simply because of its leaders’ Western orientations. That said, there are some scenarios that could prod the Kremlin to dispatch troops to Ukraine.....In 2018, Putin publicly declared that a Ukrainian attempt to regain territory in the Donbas region by force would unleash a military response.
  • If NATO were to build up its forces in the eastern member states, that could further militarize the new dividing line in Europe running along the western borders of Russia and Belarus. Russia could be provoked into placing more short-range missiles in Kaliningrad.
  • Putin’s actions suggest that his true goal is not to conquer Ukraine and absorb it into Russia but to change the post-Cold War setup in Europe’s east. That setup left Russia as a rule-taker without much say in European security, which was centered on NATO. If he manages to keep NATO out of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and U.S. intermediate-range missiles out of Europe, he thinks he could repair part of the damage Russia’s security sustained after the Cold War ended. Not coincidentally, that could serve as a useful record to run on in 2024, when Putin would be up for re-election.

“Strategic Ambiguity and the Risk of War with Russia over Ukraine,” Ralph Clem and Ray Finch, War on the Rocks, 12.29.21.

  • Although much of the national security commentary in the United States suggests a further expansion of the allied presence and an even higher operational tempo in the Black Sea region, we see this as a singularly bad idea. How such actions will convince Russia to ratchet down its own military operational messaging is unclear, with recent experience, as documented by our data, suggesting that it will almost certainly do the opposite. We recognize that, in some quarters, any attempt to reach a mutually satisfying agreement with Moscow at the operational level will be labeled as Munich-style “appeasement.” But doing nothing — or, worse, engaging yet more force posture — might lead to large-scale hostilities with truly horrific consequences.

What Putin Learned From the Soviet Collapse. To Preserve Its Global Ambitions, Russia Is Managing Its Economic Limits,” Richard Connolly and Michael Kofman, Foreign Affairs, 12.29.21.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government are unlikely to suffer the same fate as their Soviet forebears. .... They have learned the lessons of failed Soviet attempts to reverse decline in the 1970s and 1980s, and many key attributes of the Russian economy and Russian economic policy reflect a desire to avoid repeating the Soviet experience under Gorbachev. As the Russian economist Sergei Guriev recently remarked, “Russia’s macroeconomic policy is much more conservative, inflation is under control, there are large reserves, a balanced budget and no external debt,” and as a market economy Russia is “much more efficient and resilient” than the Soviet Union.
  • The long-term economic challenges confronting Russian leaders today are serious, but they are not deterministic of Russia’s future. Throughout Russia’s history as a great power, its per capita incomes have been substantially lower than those of its principal rivals, and it has rarely possessed the broad-based technological capabilities of its peers. Yet Russia’s security-oriented leaders have consistently managed to muster sufficient military power from a relatively backward economy to more than hold their own on the international stage.
  • Today, Russia’s economic malaise is also far less relevant to Moscow’s ability to pursue its interests overseas or to shape global affairs than it was in the context of the Cold War.
  • In setting assumptions and expectations about the strategic environment, Washington should ask itself a basic question: After years of economic stagnation, is Russia an easier problem to manage today than ten years ago? If the answer is decidedly negative, then why would said stagnation dramatically ease this geopolitical burden in the coming decade?

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“The Xi-Putin Entente Rises,” Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, 12.16.21.

  • The nations don't need to present a single strategic front to imperil American interests. They can do so by pushing on different fronts simultaneously in hopes of sapping American power.
    • The military crisis Mr. Putin has generated over Ukraine works to Mr. Xi's advantage, drawing U.S. focus from the defense of Taiwan. And if China starts a shooting war in Asia, Moscow could calculate that it's more likely to get away with its own territorial expansion. A war in either region could trigger conflict in the other.
  • The rising entente between Beijing and Moscow underscores the growing threats to the U.S.-led international order. The new reality means the U.S. needs to shore up its own alliances while also moving more quickly than it has to build military and cyber defenses that can meet this more dangerous world.

Post-Pandemic, Russia and China Must Improve Migration Governance,” Yanliang Pan, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.24.21.

  • For the Russia-China partnership to be truly comprehensive, people-to-people exchange needs to become a more significant component. Improving the governance of that process should become the post-pandemic priority for Beijing and Moscow. First basic steps should include safeguards against the abuse of foreign nationals and migrants. It also means maintaining close contact with foreign embassies regarding the state of their nationals, and actively addressing their concerns. The problem is, however, that these changes would require a fundamental revision of migrant treatment by the Russian authorities: singling out Chinese nationals for fair treatment will be hard if the whole system remains intact.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments


  • No significant developments

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments

Cyber issues:

America’s Cyber-Reckoning. How to Fix a Failing Strategy,” Sue Gordon and Eric Rosenbach, Foreign Affairs,  January/February 2022.

  • The most important thing the Biden administration can do is embrace the notion that countries that can conduct destructive cyberattacks are not likely to be deterred by Washington’s own cyber-capabilities but can still be deterred by the United States’ conventional military power and economic might.
    • The first practical step the administration should take is to prioritize the defense of data.
    • The administration should also make the rapid public attribution of cyberattacks a core component of its strategy, even in politically complex situations.
    • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency... must become the true center of gravity for domestic cybersecurity operations.
    • Biden should shape Cyber Command into something more akin to today’s nimble, flexible Joint Special Operations Command and less like the lumbering Strategic Air Command of the 1950s.
    • Congress should consider creating a cybersecurity analog to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
    • Even if Washington does everything right, it will still need global cooperation....Washington needs .... intensive cooperation with like-minded countries, such as France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  The UN is not the place to do so, however: in that forum, China and Russia can advance their interests.

“The End of Cyber-Anarchy?” Joseph S. Nye Jr., Foreign Affairs, January-February 2022.

  • Treaties regarding cyberspace may be unworkable, but it might be possible to set limits on certain types of behavior and negotiate rough rules of the road. During the Cold War, informal norms governed the treatment of each side’s spies; expulsion, rather than execution, became the norm. In 1972, the Soviet Union and the United States negotiated the Incidents at Sea Agreement to limit naval behavior that might lead to escalation. ...This seems to have been the approach explored by the Biden administration at a June summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, where cyberspace played a larger role on the agenda than nuclear weapons.
  • The Biden administration is wrestling with the fact that the domain of cyberspace has created important new opportunities and vulnerabilities in world politics. Reorganizing and reengineering at home must be at the heart of the resulting strategy, but it also needs a strong international component based on deterrence and diplomacy. The diplomatic component must include alliances among democracies, capacity building in developing countries, and improved international institutions. Such a strategy must also include developing norms with the long-term goal of protecting the old glass house of American democracy from the new stones of the Internet age.

The Case for Cyber-Realism,” Dmitri Alperovitch, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2022.

  • When the United States faces a military threat from a hostile nation, it does not tell its citizens and businesses to fund their own private armies or to negotiate their own peace deals. Many cyberthreats are not meaningfully different from military or economic threats, and yet the United States allows much of the burden of defending against them to fall on individual companies and citizens.
  • In the short term, the United States must do more to harden its defenses and to help companies and citizens do the same. Ultimately, however, Washington must accept that cyberattacks are primarily an effect, and not a cause, of geopolitical tensions. Unless the United States treats the underlying disease, it will never fully recover from the symptoms.

“How Western tech companies are helping Russia to censor the Internet,” Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Washington Post, 12.21.21.

  • Russia calls its system for controlling online discourse the "sovereign Internet." ... Despite its name, though, the system depends to a crucial extent on foreign technology.
    • Its control center is powered by 30 servers from Chinese-owned Lenovo and 30 more from U.S. company Super Micro Computer. [The company Lenovo originated in China, but Lenovo's operational HQ is in Morrisville, N.C. It could be described more accurately as a Sino-American multinational.]
    • Even more important is the deep packet inspection (DPI) software that allows Russian censors to suppress Tor traffic or to slow down Twitter across the country, as they did earlier this year. ...On the censors' orders, every Russian Internet service has to install a package of surveillance technology provided by the Israeli firm Silicom Ltd
  •  The companies cannot go on helping authoritarian regimes while claiming ignorance about the situation in those countries.

Energy exports from CIS:

“Green Upheaval. The New Geopolitics of Energy,”Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.

  • The energy transition will inevitably transform Russia’s relations with the other major powers. Russia is highly dependent on oil and gas exports, and in the long term, the clean energy transition will pose significant risks to its finances and influence. In the messy transition, however, Russia’s position vis-à-vis the United States and Europe may grow stronger before it weakens. As European countries come to increasingly depend on Russian gas in the coming years and as volatility in the oil market rises, both the United States and Europe will count on Russia to keep prices in check through its partnership with Saudi Arabia as leaders of the OPEC+ alliance, which is made up of the members of OPEC and ten other major oil-exporting countries.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Cold War is over. Why do we still treat Russia like the Evil Empire?” Joseph Weisberg, Washington Post, 12.17.21.

  • Typically, two nations in conflict try to negotiate mutual concessions along these lines, but we aren't doing that successfully with Russia, and mutual concessions aren't necessarily effective at addressing the roots of a conflict anyway. We'd be better off focusing on our own attitudes and policies and offering Russia some basic goodwill gestures....I don't know if this kind of unilateral action would prompt Russia to reciprocate. I don't know if it would reduce tensions enough to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine — where it's not at all clear Putin really wants to invade. .... We have played, at the very least, our own significant role in fueling the animosity between our two countries.


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“In Putin’s Russia, the Past Is Never Past,” Alexander Baunov, Foreign Policy, 12.20.21.

  • At the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow, the country’s oldest nongovernmental and best-known human rights organization—Memorial—is fighting for its life. State prosecutors have brought a case to close it down, alleging violations of a controversial law regulating the work of nongovernmental organizations in Russia. But the verdict…will decide much more than the fate of Memorial, which documents the crimes of the Soviet regime and commemorates the regime’s victims. At stake is an even bigger question: Who in today’s Russia has control over the past?
  • As a repository of accurate, archived information, Memorial is an obstacle to the Kremlin’s wish for a centralized memory of Soviet repression—one that papers over any conflict and minimizes continuity between the Soviet Union and today’s regime by conveniently ignoring the perpetrators.
  • Even bigger thorns in the Kremlin’s eye are some of Memorial’s activities other than commemorating the victims of Stalin-era repression and fighting for archive access. The Memorial Human Rights Center compiles a list of modern political prisoners in Russia.
  • When the Supreme Court reaches its verdict, it’s quite possible Memorial will be closed down. It’s likely no coincidence that proceedings are taking place shortly before the New Year, a time when many Russians are busy with the holidays or traveling and not paying much attention to the news. In a cruel twist, Soviet dissidents were often sentenced at this time of year. In this sense, at least, Russia has come full circle.

“In Closing Memorial, Russia Heralds a New, Grimmer Era of Repression,” Rachel Denber The Moscow Times, 12.29.21.

  • In two days, Russian courts have delivered a one-two punch to Russia’s human rights movement. Just a few days after the 30-year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, courts ruled to close Memorial, Russia’s top human rights group.  
    • Yesterday the Supreme Court granted the Prosecutor General’s request to “liquidate” Memorial International, which for 32 years has worked to commemorate victims of Soviet repression, preserve the facts about The Great Terror, and provide a platform for open debate.
    • And today the Moscow City Court ruled in favor of the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office lawsuit to liquidate the Memorial Human Rights Center, Memorial International’s sister organization, which documents a wide range of abuses in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, maintains a list of political prisoners and documents human rights violations in neighboring countries.
  • The liquidation petitions made clear the relentless determination of authorities to wrestle back total control over public discussion and memory related to the atrocities of the Stalin era, the Gulag, and more broadly, Soviet-era repression. The Kremlin intends to leave no doubt that only the authorities will assess the Soviet era, and will aggressively silence those who publicly do not conform to the state’s view of the Soviet era and Russian history more broadly.
  • Try as it may, Russia can’t wipe out historical memory or force people to stop working to protect their rights.

Defense and Aerospace:

“The Changing Face of Russian Counter-Irregular Warfare,” Benjamin Arbitter and Kurt Carlson, War on the Rocks, 12.21.21.

  • Today, Russian expeditionary counter-irregular packages draw from professional volunteer brigades and battalions, including force multipliers such as special operations forces, drone forces, military police, and private military contractors.  When integrated with air power, these force packages allow Moscow to conduct sustained operations abroad with a relatively small and scalable footprint on the ground. This ability to tailor force composition to create expeditionary counter-irregular task forces is new in the Russian experience, and represents a watershed in expeditionary mobility and command organization. The Russian kill chain is now shorter, its forces are more specialized and capable, and it retains the ability to rapidly scale Moscow’s investment abroad in a way new to Russia’s historical experience as a continental power.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments


III. Russia’s relations with other countries


Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

“Difficult Relations with Moscow. German Policy towards Russia Must Be More Carefully Calibrated,” Sabine Fischer, SWP, December 2021.

  • German policy continues to be guided by assumptions that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the reality of relations with Russia.
    • For example, there is still a widespread belief that economic integration will, in the long term, bring about positive change in Russia’s economic and political systems, and thus also in its attitude towards Germany and the EU.
    • The same applies to the hope that dialogue could prompt Moscow to adopt more conciliatory positions.
  • The new German government would be well advised to stop searching for perpetually new opportunities for “selective engagement” with Russia.
  • The next Federal Government must tailor its actions even more closely to the political reality in Russia. Coordination within the EU and with the Western alliance must also be a top priority.  


COVID-19 “Humanitarianism”: The Geopolitics of Russia’s Coronavirus Assistance,” Mariya Omelicheva, PONARS, 12.13.21.

The Kremlin might have scored points by presenting itself as a responsible global power delivering much-needed medical supplies at a time of U.S. retrenchment. Its political gambles under the guise of humanitarian COVID-19 assistance were fleeting. When the pandemic hit hard at home, the Kremlin put its humanitarian ambitions on hold. Russia’s ability to translate its humanitarian contributions into political leverage has been further limited by global, regional, and country-specific factors, such as competition from China and self-interested local actors.


It’s an open secret there’s no NATO plan for Ukraine. Why not just tell Putin?” David Von Drehle, Washington Post, 12.17.21.

  • Few presidents have promised more liberty and more democracy to the world. Laying out his Bush Doctrine in 2002, he [George W. Bush] declared: “...America cannot impose this vision — yet we can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people.”... Nearly 20 years later, the only part of that grand promise that has been redeemed is the one about the United States being unable to impose its vision. Russia is not the friend that Bush described in that speech, nor is China opening up as he theorized, nor have we nurtured free and prosperous societies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • It ought to be possible to say forthrightly what everyone in the West knows to be true: NATO has no plan, short or long term, for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. Bush did not have a plan in 2008, and no administration has developed such a plan in the years since. If Putin needs assurance that no such plan exists, what’s the harm in giving it to him?

Graham Allison in “Russian Troops Near Ukraine’s Border: How Should the West Respond?” Survey of Experts at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 12.16.21.

  • America has no vital interests in Ukraine. Contrary to hotheads calling for a military response, President Biden wisely underlined that point when he said last week that sending troops to defend Ukraine is ‘not on the table’ Since Eisenhower, presidents have repeatedly had to face choices about sending troops to defend European victims of Soviet/Russian aggression. In every case, they decided: No. That was Bush’s decision in 2008 when Russia ‘liberated’ two provinces of Georgia; that was Obama’s decision in 2014 when Putin seized Crimea. Attempting to deter Putin by threatening severe economic consequences while engaging in serious diplomacy to find a ‘good-enough’ compromise makes great sense. Going to war over Ukraine would be folly.”

“The U.S. weighs its options over Ukraine,” David Ignatius, Washington Post, 12.19.21.

  • The Biden administration is studying whether and how the United States could support an anti-Russian insurgency inside Ukraine if President Vladimir Putin invades that country and seizes substantial territory. The planning, described Sunday by a knowledgeable official, includes ways to provide weapons and other support to the Ukrainian military to resist invading Russian forces - and similar logistical support to insurgent groups if Russia topples the Ukrainian government and a guerrilla war begins. The weapons the United States might provide include shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.
  • The administration task force, which includes the CIA and other key agencies, has been studying how insurgencies were organized against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Russian-backed forces in Syria - and also against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The administration's basic goal is to impose costs if Putin invades Ukraine, without directly involving U.S.
  • While rejecting Putin's maximalist proposals for spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, the administration wants to keep negotiations open.
  • When U.S. troops were poised on the border of Iraq in 2003, U.S. officials didn't consider the grinding, enervating war of counterinsurgency that lay ahead. The Biden administration believes that Putin may be on the verge of making a similar mistake in Ukraine. They hope he doesn't make the wrong choice, but if he does invade, they want to make it hurt.

“Ukraine stood with the West in 2014. Today we must stand with Ukraine,” Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen, Washington Post, 12.24.21.

  • The Biden administration has placed diplomacy at the forefront of its efforts to deter Russia. However, these efforts must be combined with the necessary economic and military measures that would strengthen a diplomatic approach and give it greater credibility.
    • First, the United States must increase the military weaponry it sends to Ukraine to enhance the country's defensive capabilities and tailor that weaponry to the threat Ukrainians will face. ...The United States must speed up the pace of assistance and provide antiaircraft, antitank and anti-ship systems, along with electronic warfare capabilities.
    • Second, the Biden administration should not support any attempts to force Ukraine to cede control in Donbas outside the Minsk agreements.
    • Third, Biden should seriously reconsider the imposition of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
    • Finally, the United States must continue to build an international coalition of partners in Europe and elsewhere who see this threat with clear eyes.

“Why the Stalemate in Eastern Ukraine Will Likely Hold,” Katharine Quinn-Judge, Foreign Affairs, 12.15.21.

Russia’s latest military buildup seems to have been aimed, at least in part, at perceived Western slights and provocations, such as the presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea and various delays to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is supposed to supply Russian gas to Europe without crossing Ukraine. By showing Russia’s readiness for an invasion, Putin’s primary goal may have been to force Biden into a dialogue and deter a NATO expansion. This does not mean one should ignore the risk of an accidental escalation or an impulsive move by Putin to force all of Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. 

 “Air strikes or invasion: what are Putin’s military options for Ukraine?,” Max Seddon, FT, 12.29.21.

  • As Vladimir Putin threatens possible military action on Ukraine, western military analysts say Russia’s president could contemplate a wide range of scenarios — from targeted missile strikes to a limited incursion from the east or south of the country, and even a full-scale invasion backed by cyber warfare.
  • “Putin has the best track record of using force to achieve political ends of any leader by far,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a US policy studies non-profit organisation. “How many offensives does he have to conduct in Ukraine for people to think he’s not bluffing?”
  • The current deployments lacked the full scope of logistical support necessary for a sustained operation — such as ammunition stocks, field hospitals and blood banks — but there was evidence Moscow was in the process of moving these towards the border, the western officials said.
  • Russia could inflict significant damage on Ukraine’s military through aerial assaults on the front lines, military facilities and critical infrastructure, according to Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation.
  • Russia’s military superiority would enable it to overrun Ukraine’s army in weeks by launching assaults on multiple fronts — including from Belarus and the Black Sea, according to CNA’s Kofman.
  • “They could inflict tens of thousands of casualties after a couple of days. They could significantly degrade Ukraine’s military capability in the east. But would that be enough to force Ukraine to concede? That comes down to their cost-benefit analysis,” according to Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who researches Russia’s military.

“Putin’s Likely Course of Action in Ukraine,” Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Mason Clark, ISW, December 2021.

  • A full-scale Russian invasion would consist of numerous discrete operations, almost every one of which could also be conducted independently of the others to achieve more limited objectives at lesser cost and risk. The most salient of those operations include, in order from most- to least-likely:
    • Deploying Russian airborne and/or mechanized units to one or more locations in Belarus that would support a planned attack on Ukraine as well as pose other threats to NATO member states;
    • Deploying Russian mechanized, tank, artillery, and support units overtly into occupied Donbas;
    • Breaking out from occupied Donbas to establish a land bridge connecting Russian-occupied Crimea with Russian territory near Rostov along the northern Sea of Azov littoral, as well as seizing the Kherson region north of Crimea and securing the Dnepr-Crimea canal;
    • Conducting airborne and amphibious operations to seize Odesa and the western Ukrainian Black Sea coast; and
    • Launching a mechanized drive to seize the strategic city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Phoney peace fails to break Armenia-Azerbaijan deadlock,” Laurence Broers, Chatham House, 12.15.21.

  • Two significant post-war dynamics contradict the notion that the Karabakh conflict is now resolved.
    • The first is the widening of the spaces and issues in conflict. Azerbaijan’s restoration of sovereignty over territories it lost in 1990s surfaced the long-submerged issue of border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijani forces are now deployed across the border to occupy 40-100 square kilometers of Armenia’s territory.
    • The second dynamic is the narrowing of active mediation efforts to focus only on issues appearing since the ceasefire. The OSCE’s Minsk Group – mandated to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement – has struggled to reassert itself after being sidelined during the 2020 war.
  • Armenia’s development as a positive, the past year has not shown that this is compatible with security and dignity for Karabakh Armenians, or even Armenia itself. This widens the gap between his government – which is now advocating for peace measures – and Armenian society where perceptions are being reinforced that the rehabilitation of the Armenian army is the sole route to security.
  • Prescriptions for peace must recognize that many of the core dynamics of the prior status quo remain in place. Despite the passing of more than a year since the ceasefire, there remains a combustible mix of domestic political motives driving conflict, undiminished communal antagonisms, and coercive bargaining tactics – alongside great power rivalries and severe limits on Russia’s capacity to contain any festering violence.

 This is an evolving product that will be occasionally updated until January 3, 2022.