In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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Monkeys and bells
Inquiring minds want to know what's really going on. Is Russia building up its nuclear forces? Under what conditions does Russia intervene militarily in other countries? Did Russia really slash its defense budget? What's next for jihadists from the former Soviet countries of Central Asia? Check out our most popular reads for answers to these questions and more.

Top 10 of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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