In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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.
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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

Serzh Sargsyan

The resignation of Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan after more than a week of mass protests in Russia’s backyard begs the question: Why has Moscow not intervened so far? The fist-pumping demonstrators bring to mind “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet neighborhood that the Kremlin seems to abhor, like the ones in Georgia and Ukraine. But even genuine color revolutions (which Armenia has not yet seen—more on that below) are not enough by themselves to prompt Russia to stage either a covert or overt intervention. As I have argued before, for Moscow to intervene in one of its Soviet-era satellites at least two conditions need to be present: First, Vladimir Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests, such as the potential expansion of antagonistic Western-led alliances too close to Russia’s borders; second, the chances for defending or advancing its interests through the use of force have to be relatively high.

The first condition is absent in Armenia because the dominant, pro-Russian wing of the country’s ruling elite continues to retain power. Sargsyan’s Russia-friendly Republican Party and its Dashnak allies control a majority in parliament, which means they can nominate and approve the next prime minister. (This was made possible under the current constitution, which Sargsyan successfully pushed to change in 2015, when he was president, in an ill-thought-out plan to retain power after his second and final presidential term expired this April.) If protest leader Nikol Pashinyan succeeds in ending the party of power’s control of parliament through protests or early elections, then, yes, that would be a revolution. For Russia to intervene, however, Pashinyan would not only have to oust the current party of power, he would also have to show a determination to move Armenia westward, into the EU and NATO. So far, Pashinyan has showed no such intentions, which should come as no surprise: Whatever his personal views, he realizes NATO is in no mood to accept more post-Soviet states in the short to medium term, and Armenia, therefore, has no viable alternative but Russia as its guarantor of security while it faces two hostile bordering states, Azerbaijan and Turkey. That pro-Russian elites have so far remained in control of Armenia in spite of Sargsyan’s resignation explains why Vladimir Putin—who is said to have a much cooler personal relationship with Sargsyan than with ex-President Robert Kocharyan—has not condemned the events in Armenia. Moreover, representatives of the Russian government and parliament vowed support for Armenia and some of them even welcomed the change, for example deputy speaker of the State Duma Igor Lebedev.

Armenia’s situation stands in stark contrast to cases when former Soviet republics have come under the rule of leaders intent on bringing them into blocs that Russia views as unfriendly competitors, such as NATO and the EU. When Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008 it did so because Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, with strong backing from George W. Bush, nearly succeeded in obtaining a Membership Action Plan from NATO. By that time, Georgia had been growing both friendlier with the West and more democratic for over four years. Yet Putin did not intervene until he saw the Bush administration come close to winning a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine at NATO’s Bucharest summit, which the Russian leader attended personally to head off the efforts. Although the summit ultimately did not offer the MAPs, thanks in part to opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its final communique did say that “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” That meant that any of the following summits could give Georgia and Ukraine MAPs, which Putin would have seen as an unacceptable threat to Russia’s interests. At the time, Putin probably thought he could not afford a double intervention into both Georgia and Ukraine. He picked Georgia, as least in part, because Saakashvili gave him a good pretext by taking Russia’s bait and launching a ground assault to establish control over breakaway South Ossetia. Ukraine may have been next, but in 2010 its then-leader Viktor Yushchenko lost the presidency to the more Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, who made it clear he would not seek membership in NATO. Therefore, the need to intervene in Ukraine subsided until 2014 when a pro-Western faction of Ukraine’s ruling elite came to power again amid expectations it would take the country into the EU and NATO in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution.

It is important to note that Russia does not intervene militarily in its post-Soviet neighbors’ affairs just because they have undergone a revolution and/or become more democratic or because their leaders want to build friendlier relations with Russia’s competitors. A threat to Moscow’s vital interests is the key. Take Armenia: It is ranked as more democratic than Russia and it also has friendly relations with the West. It has recently signed an EU Association Agreement (though it was watered down because of Russia) and it participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. It also has troops in the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan and even had troops in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq (withdrawn in 2008). Yet Russia has not intervened in Armenia—because, as stated above, its leadership has not displayed any ambition to pursue NATO membership. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan has consistently been ranked more democratic than Putin’s Russia and it even hosted a U.S. base (which Russia reportedly pressured Bishkek to close down). Yet Russia chose not to intervene during Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions of 2005 and 2010, despite then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s pleas for such intervention in 2010. Again, the reason is that the victorious opposition did not espouse a desire to remove the country from Russia’s zone of influence to join or ally with a hostile bloc.

 The second condition for Russia to intervene is that the overall situation in question has to be conducive to the use of force. In other words, Russian leaders must be sure they will prevail in a military confrontation or at least ensure a stalemate that would constrain the targeted state’s ability to maintain activities Russia sees as seriously undermining its vital interests. That condition is at least partially present in the case of Armenia. It is true that Russia is already heavily involved in Syria and Ukraine, and recent polls show that Russians aren’t eager for further military engagement absent any clear threat to them or Russian-speaking minorities abroad. However, Russia has a large military base in Armenia, so if Moscow were to decide to use force there, it could theoretically do so more quickly than in Ukraine or Georgia. But the consequences and costs of such an intervention could outweigh the benefits, especially in the absence of a dramatic change in Armenia’s integration preferences, such as its “escape” to NATO. Any attempt to take control of Armenia, especially in the absence of a credible threat to Russia’s vital interests, would seriously undermine Moscow’s efforts to keep other post-Soviet republics in its various international integration projects because it would demonstrate that even membership in Russian-led coalitions—like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union—does not preclude losses of territory or independence to Moscow. These republics would then probably start looking around for guarantors and patrons other than Russia, forcing Moscow to expend resources on dealing with the consequences.

So if not Armenia, then who (if anyone) could be next?

If Armenia remains a Russian ally, as it likely will, then Moldova, which reluctantly plays host to a large Russian military contingent in its separatist province of Trans-Dniester, could be the next target of Russian intervention—if its efforts to pursue integration with the EU and deeper cooperation with NATO progress to what Putin sees as a point of no return. There’s also a chance that Putin may choose to escalate in Ukraine or Georgia if these two countries manage to somehow convince NATO to grant them MAPs. However, the prospect of such NATO action plans is unlikely for either of the two, and for Moldova as well. Therefore, the probability of Russian intervention in these countries is low, though not negligible.

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo: Serzh Sargsyan during a visit to Moscow as president, March 2017. Courtesy of the Kremlin.

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

Jim Mattis
Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes, jointly with the U.K. and France, at what U.S. Defense Department officials described as the ''heart'' of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program came as no surprise. The U.S. leader had spent much of the previous week building momentum, warning Assad’s patrons in Moscow via Twitter “to get ready” for “nice and new and 'smart’” missiles after the suspected use of deadly chlorine gas by the Syrian dictator’s forces in Douma. When announcing the strikes Trump said the main purpose was to establish "a strong deterrent" against future use of chemical weapons. With a total of 105 missiles launched at three suspected chemical-weapons-related targets, Trump declared “mission accomplished.” But is it? And what should this mission be?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley may have believed it when she said after the strikes that they had “crippled Syria's chemical-weapons program,” but I would be very surprised if the destruction of three CW facilities can put an end to the production of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, making which, some say, is hardly rocket science . Even if the strikes did not exactly cripple the Syrian regime’s ability to produce chemical weapons, did they deter Assad from using them in the future? My guess is no. The Syrian dictator benefits in at least two ways from continued gassing of his opponents. One is that he intimidates some of them to surrender or leave without sending more of his soldiers into harm’s way. And the second is that each such use of chemical weapons widens the wedge between the U.S. and its allies on one side and Russia on the other, as such attacks have done before. The bigger the wedge, the less the already slim probability that Washington and Moscow would agree to any sort of plan for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Assad has good reason to be concerned about any such plan as it would be far less favorable to him then the forceful solution he is trying to impose with Moscow’s and Tehran’s support.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin at his reelection victory speech.
The most recent event hosted by Russia Matters focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reelection to a fourth term and what those six years may have in store for U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s policies toward other countries. Below is a summary of the three speakers’ key points in the order presented (all of them spoke in a personal capacity).

In addition to the remarks below, the speakers raised a number of important questions whose answers were not yet clear. How these questions are answered will shape not only Russia’s policies, but also policies by the U.S. and its allies toward Russia: Will Putin see a prospective successor among the up-and-coming cadre of 40-something Russian officials? How will the questions that concerned his predecessor Boris Yeltsin—namely, guarantees of safety from prosecution and from a loss of assets or privileges after stepping down—play out in the search for that successor? Could the world come a step closer to peace and stability in Ukraine by thinking up a phased approach to deploying peacekeepers along the front lines? Or would Russia be comfortable with the prospect of a “wrecked Ukraine”? And what are other places where Russia has the capacity to use military force to defend its national interests—Belarus? Moldova? Other former Soviet republics?
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