In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Russia and the 2018 Midterms: Laying Out the Publicly Available Evidence

Russia and the 2018 Midterms: Laying Out the Publicly Available Evidence

teaser 2018 midterm election interference 2018 midterm election interference Russia and the 2018 Midterms: Laying Out the Publicly Available EvidenceNovember 07, 2018Mari Dugas and Natasha Yefimova-TrillingThis week’s midterms offer a good opportunity for a status update on the latest evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Over the past six months, there has been no shortage of alarming warnings. In August, five of the country’s top national security officials spoke to reporters at the White House about the threat posed by Moscow and efforts to combat it. “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” FBI director Christopher Wray said then. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, added that “the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that “our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”

At the same time, the officials noted that Russian interference efforts seem far less intense than during the 2016 presidential race. “It is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” Coats said of alleged Russian efforts to meddle in the midterms. “We know that, through decades, Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America. However, they stepped up their game big-time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.” Wray likewise said that, “in the context of 2018, we are not yet seeing the same kind of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure—voter registration databases, in particular.” In July, Nielsen delivered a similar message, as reported by CNN, saying there are "no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016."

Senior Russian officials have denied accusations of election interference, calling them “baseless.” Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company indicted in February for allegedly funding a “troll farm” that meddled in the 2016 election, pleaded not guilty in May and has tried to fight the charges in a U.S. court since then, arguing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was unlawfully appointed and lacks the legal authority to push the case forward.

Some U.S. commentators have been skeptical about “the supposed Russian threat to the midterms,” with an analysis in The Nation arguing recently that “given what we actually know about Russian disinformation [so far], its most significant impact appears to be as fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.”

Nonetheless, U.S. officials, political operatives and tech executives have made a concerted effort to remain vigilant about meddling efforts. The Washington Post reported this month that “DHS has created round-the-clock communications channels with election officials in all 50 states, run national tabletop exercises with state and local officials to game out how to respond to possible crises and, at the states’ request, is monitoring election system network traffic for cyberthreats. Social media companies and political organizations have also strengthened their defenses.” In May, according to the New York Times, “eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies … met with United States intelligence officials … to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.” A number of think-tanks have been contributing expertise as well. Harvard’s Belfer Center has been training state election officials through its Defending Digital Democracy initiative, for instance, while the Atlantic Council has tried to track Russian disinformation efforts through two projects, the Disinfo Portal and DFR Lab.

For some security analysts, the seeming lull in Russian activity is cold comfort. “The Russians are too smart to run the same play a second time,” Dmitri Alperovich, a founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told the New York Times. “If they were going to do anything in today’s environment, they certainly wouldn’t want to act until the very last moment.” As two examples of last-minute efforts that could be used “to convince voters that their ballots might not be counted, or [not be] counted correctly,” the paper mentioned an “attack on county or state voter-registration systems, just to knock them off-line, [which] would create an uproar from voters who might show up at the polls and find they could not vote,” and a “strike at power grids, turning out the lights at polling places, or just disrupting transportation systems [that] could suppress turnout and lead to charges of manipulation.” (Unnamed intelligence officials and technology company executives reportedly told the Times in July that they have seen “surprisingly far more effort [by Russian hackers] directed at implanting malware in the electrical grid” than interfering with elections.)

Moreover, as with the 2016 polls, new specifics about attempts at interference are likely to become public well after the voting is over and done—and Russia’s role is unclear thus far. In August, the Times cited unnamed officials as saying that “vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections.” The Times also reported that last weekend “cybersecurity firms and some election officials reported seeing an increase in cyberattacks on websites and infrastructure surrounding the vote,” but “it is unclear where the attacks are coming from; … the sources appear to be a mix, everything from other countries to lone hackers looking to make a name for themselves, investigators say.” Cloudflare’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, told the paper that “the incursions were not an effort to disrupt the vote, but merely to bolster rumors of election fraud and interference. ‘They are going after anything that can undermine the process itself,’ he said. ‘Their aim is to put the outcome in doubt.’” This, the paper noted, could give losing candidates and their supporters a chance to claim elections were rigged. Earlier, too, the Times had reported that disinformation campaigns used to influence public opinion “are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.”

On Nov. 5, the Boston Globe reported that government documents reviewed by the newspaper show that “federal agencies have logged more than 160 reports of suspected meddling in U.S. elections since Aug. 1” and the “pace of suspicious activity has picked up in recent weeks—up to 10 incidents each day,” with officials “on high alert.” The previously unreported incidents, mostly documented in DHS election-threat reports reviewed by the Globe, range from “injections of malicious computer code to a massive number of bogus requests for voter registration forms.” The reports “make no conclusions about who is behind the attacks,” but “describe most of the recent incidents as ‘foreign-based.’” A DHS cybersecurity official, speaking anonymously, told the paper: “‘We’re seeing the same thing [as in 2016]; the only difference is now we aren’t saying Russia… It’s nuanced. We haven’t attributed the attacks to anyone yet.’”

Earlier this year, Russia Matters tried to lay out the publicly available evidence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (That was published before July’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, charged with “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.”) Here we have tried to do the same thing for evidence related to the 2018 midterms, divided into two categories: the cyber domain and the information domain. Like our earlier attempt, this is not an investigation, merely a stock-taking of evidence about meddling in the U.S. midterm elections. In compiling this evidence we have limited ourselves to using information that is publicly available at the time of writing, such as media reports and public statements or documents from government officials and company representatives. The list is not exhaustive and we welcome suggestions for ways to improve it (please use the comments section below).

This week’s midterms offer a good opportunity for a status update on the latest evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Over the past six months, there has been no shortage of alarming warnings. In August, five of the country’s top national security officials spoke to reporters at the White House about the threat posed by Moscow and efforts to combat it. “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” FBI director Christopher Wray said then. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, added that “the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that “our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”

At the same time, the officials noted that Russian interference efforts seem far less intense than during the 2016 presidential race. “It is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” Coats said of alleged Russian efforts to meddle in the midterms. “We know that, through decades, Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America. However, they stepped up their game big-time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.” Wray likewise said that, “in the context of 2018, we are not yet seeing the same kind of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure—voter registration databases, in particular.” In July, Nielsen delivered a similar message, as reported by CNN, saying there are "no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016."

Senior Russian officials have denied accusations of election interference, calling them “baseless.” Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company indicted in February for allegedly funding a “troll farm” that meddled in the 2016 election, pleaded not guilty in May and has tried to fight the charges in a U.S. court since then, arguing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was unlawfully appointed and lacks the legal authority to push the case forward.

Some U.S. commentators have been skeptical about “the supposed Russian threat to the midterms,” with an analysis in The Nation arguing recently that “given what we actually know about Russian disinformation [so far], its most significant impact appears to be as fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials, political operatives and tech executives have made a concerted effort to remain vigilant about meddling efforts. The Washington Post reported this month that “DHS has created round-the-clock communications channels with election officials in all 50 states, run national tabletop exercises with state and local officials to game out how to respond to possible crises and, at the states’ request, is monitoring election system network traffic for cyberthreats. Social media companies and political organizations have also strengthened their defenses.” In May, according to the New York Times, “eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies … met with United States intelligence officials … to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.” A number of think-tanks have been contributing expertise as well. Harvard’s Belfer Center has been training state election officials through its Defending Digital Democracy initiative, for instance, while the Atlantic Council has tried to track Russian disinformation efforts through two projects, the Disinfo Portal and DFR Lab.

For some security analysts, the seeming lull in Russian activity is cold comfort. “The Russians are too smart to run the same play a second time,” Dmitri Alperovich, a founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told the New York Times. “If they were going to do anything in today’s environment, they certainly wouldn’t want to act until the very last moment.” As two examples of last-minute efforts that could be used “to convince voters that their ballots might not be counted, or [not be] counted correctly,” the paper mentioned an “attack on county or state voter-registration systems, just to knock them off-line, [which] would create an uproar from voters who might show up at the polls and find they could not vote,” and a “strike at power grids, turning out the lights at polling places, or just disrupting transportation systems [that] could suppress turnout and lead to charges of manipulation.” (Unnamed intelligence officials and technology company executives reportedly told the Times in July that they have seen “surprisingly far more effort [by Russian hackers] directed at implanting malware in the electrical grid” than interfering with elections.)

Moreover, as with the 2016 polls, new specifics about attempts at interference are likely to become public well after the voting is over and done—and Russia’s role is unclear thus far. In August, the Times cited unnamed officials as saying that “vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections.” The Times also reported that last weekend “cybersecurity firms and some election officials reported seeing an increase in cyberattacks on websites and infrastructure surrounding the vote,” but “it is unclear where the attacks are coming from; … the sources appear to be a mix, everything from other countries to lone hackers looking to make a name for themselves, investigators say.” Cloudflare’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, told the paper that “the incursions were not an effort to disrupt the vote, but merely to bolster rumors of election fraud and interference. ‘They are going after anything that can undermine the process itself,’ he said. ‘Their aim is to put the outcome in doubt.’” This, the paper noted, could give losing candidates and their supporters a chance to claim elections were rigged. Earlier, too, the Times had reported that disinformation campaigns used to influence public opinion “are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.”

On Nov. 5, the Boston Globe reported that government documents reviewed by the newspaper show that “federal agencies have logged more than 160 reports of suspected meddling in U.S. elections since Aug. 1” and the “pace of suspicious activity has picked up in recent weeks—up to 10 incidents each day,” with officials “on high alert.” The previously unreported incidents, mostly documented in DHS election-threat reports reviewed by the Globe, range from “injections of malicious computer code to a massive number of bogus requests for voter registration forms.” The reports “make no conclusions about who is behind the attacks,” but “describe most of the recent incidents as ‘foreign-based.’” A DHS cybersecurity official, speaking anonymously, told the paper: “‘We’re seeing the same thing [as in 2016]; the only difference is now we aren’t saying Russia… It’s nuanced. We haven’t attributed the attacks to anyone yet.’”

Earlier this year, Russia Matters tried to lay out the publicly available evidence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (That was published before July’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, charged with “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.”) Here we have tried to do the same thing for evidence related to the 2018 midterms, divided into two categories: the cyber domain and the information domain. Like our earlier attempt, this is not an investigation, merely a stock-taking of evidence about meddling in the U.S. midterm elections. In compiling this evidence we have limited ourselves to using information that is publicly available at the time of writing, such as media reports and public statements or documents from government officials and company representatives. The list is not exhaustive and we welcome suggestions for ways to improve it (please use the comments section below).

CYBER DOMAIN

In July 2018, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat battling to keep her seat in the November midterms, confirmed a Daily Beast report that Russian hackers had attempted to infiltrate her official Senate computer network. “Russia continues to engage in cyber warfare against our democracy,” McCaskill said in a statement, adding that “this attack was not successful.” On July 26, the Daily Beast had identified McCaskill as one of the three unnamed midterm candidates targeted in phishing attacks described earlier that month by Microsoft; the software giant had attributed the hacking attempts to the same group referred to as Fancy Bear and APT 28, which, in turn, is widely believed to overlap with the group of Russian military intelligence officers indicted in July (see details below). According to the Daily Beast, the methods deployed in the hack attempt resembled phishing scams used successfully against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in 2016. McCaskill later told NPR that the attack had been detected by Microsoft. In August 2018, researchers at RiskIQ, an internet-security company, described some of the technical proof they had found that a phishing page used in the McCaskill hack was created from Russian IP space. 

On July 19, 2018, a week before the above-mentioned Daily Beast report, Mircosoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, Tom Burt, told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that earlier in the year Microsoft had detected the creation of a Russia-linked fake Microsoft domain that was being used for phishing attacks against staff members of three candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.1 Burt could not name the candidates under privacy rules, but said they “might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint as well as an election-disruption standpoint.” (McCaskill, whom press reports have called “a vocal Russia critic,” serves on Senate committees focusing on armed services, homeland security and finance.) Burt said the domain was one of dozens taken down by Microsoft since August, after the company won a court battle to take over fake Microsoft domains being registered by an “activity group” that Microsoft internally calls Strontium; he added that the group is the same as one that other IT security experts have called Fancy Bear and APT28 and is “very much the subject” of the July 2018 indictment against Russian military intelligence agents. Burt noted that Microsoft could not know whether the hackers answered to Russian officials, but that the indictment “cites very convincing evidence that indeed that organization is directed by officials in Russia’s GRU [the former acronym of Russia’s military intelligence service] and … we know that their [the hackers’] conduct is consistent with that.” Burt added that, in the case of the midterm candidates, Microsoft and the government were able to “avoid anybody being infected by that particular attack.” He also said the fake domains had been set up both for phishing attacks and for other purposes, such as “command and control.” On Aug. 20, Microsoft announced that it had taken down six more internet domains “created by a group widely associated with the Russian government and known as Strontium, or alternatively Fancy Bear or APT28,” bringing the total to “84 fake websites associated with this group” in two years. Three of the six domains appeared to mimic Senate domains and two more seemed to mimic accounts associated with two Washington-based NGOs—the International Republican Institute, a democracy-promoting organization with six senators on its board, and the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank; the sixth domain appeared to mimic Microsoft’s popular Office 365 service.

Based on its review of DHS election-threat reports, the Boston Globe wrote that, on Oct. 23, “a senior official in charge of a state’s election process had a personal social media account hacked and reregistered to a Russian e-mail provider, a [DHS] report shows. The report does not list the state or include other identifying details.”

In late August, also according to the Boston Globe, “Vermont officials found that hackers—believed to be from Russia—were scanning their voter registration databases and looking for vulnerability, according to [Jim] Condos, Vermont’s secretary of state. The state immediately notified the Department of Homeland Security, which opened an investigation.” The Nov. 5 Globe story did not mention the outcome of the investigation.

In August 2018, according to multiple press reports, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson warned that Russia had breached election systems in Florida and may purge voters from the rolls. In a letter quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the FBI and DHS reportedly said they had “‘not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida,’” although “‘Russian government actors have previously demonstrated both the intent and capability to conduct malicious cyber operations.’” A spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of State told the Tampa Bay Times that her agency “has received zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims," and two fact-checking efforts, at Politifact and The Washington Post, challenged the claim as well, pointing out that the senator had provided no evidence. NBC, meanwhile, cited three unnamed people “familiar with the intelligence” as saying that “there is a classified basis for Nelson's assertion,” rooted in information he’d gotten from leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Speaking with the Tampa Bay Times, Nelson had said: "We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records.” Before making those comments, as quoted in the same article, Nelson had also said: “They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about."

INFORMATION DOMAIN

On Sept. 28, the FBI filed a criminal complaint against a Russian citizen, Elena Khusyaynova, charging her with conspiracy to defraud the United States in her role as chief accountant of “Project Lakhta,” a Russian effort whose “stated goal in the United States was to spread distrust towards candidates for political office and the political system in general.” (One of the many Russian entities through which Project Lakhta allegedly operated was the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, or IRA, charged in February 2018, along with two other Russian companies and 13 Russian nationals, with crimes committed “while seeking to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes.”) According to the September complaint, made public on Oct. 19, the conspiracy described therein sought to influence “U.S. elections, including the upcoming 2018 midterm elections” and “to conduct what it called internally ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media.” The fake accounts, according to the complaint, were “designed to attract U.S. audiences and to address divisive U.S. political and social issues or advocate for the election or electoral defeat of particular candidates,” both Republican and Democratic. The midterms are mentioned a dozen times in the 38-page complaint: once in the description of the conspiracy; twice as a topic to be covered in the thousands of tweets sent from the fake accounts; and the other times in reference to seven concrete tweets, which range from neutral exhortations to take part in voting to messages in support of specific candidates or parties. The complaint states that Project Lakhta’s operations targeted populations in Russia, the U.S., the European Union and Ukraine; its “proposed operating budget” between about January 2016 and June 2018 was over $35 million, with $10 million of that allotted for January-June 2018. In that latter period, Khusyaynova allegedly “compiled and submitted” expenditures of $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook and $6,000 for ads on Instagram; over $18,000 was budgeted for “bloggers” and “developing accounts” on Twitter. According to the Associated Press, Khusyaynova “mocked the accusations” on an internet news site reportedly linked to businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, one of the Russians named in the February indictment: “I was surprised and shocked, but then my heart filled with pride,” AP quotes Khusyaynova as saying. “It turns out that a simple Russian woman could help citizens of a superpower elect their president.”

In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Russian trolls [had] found ways to remain active on Twitter well into 2018,” posting “politically divisive messages” as recently as May 2018. The findings were based on the newspaper’s own analysis of freshly released “investigative documents and Twitter data,” including a “new tranche of about 1,100 account names released … by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.” The newspaper noted that “people connected to the IRA have previously denied ties to election interference efforts.” On Oct. 17, Twitter released an enormous dataset (more than 10 million tweets) including “all the accounts and related content associated with potential information operations” that the company had found since 2016. The data dump, Twitter officials said on the company’s blog, included “3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA [Internet Research Agency], originating in Russia.” The stated goal of making the data available was to encourage “open research and investigation of these behaviors” by researchers and academics worldwide.

Shortly before the midterms, on the evening of Nov. 4, U.S. law enforcement contacted Facebook about “online activity that they recently discovered and which they believe may be linked to foreign entities,” according to the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher. The company “immediately” blocked around 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts that may be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior” and was investigating them in more detail, Gleicher wrote on the company’s website on Nov. 5. He added that “[a]lmost all the Facebook Pages associated with these accounts appear to be in the French or Russian languages, while the Instagram accounts seem to have mostly been in English—some were focused on celebrities, others [on] political debate.”

In August, Facebook announced that it had “removed Pages, groups and accounts that can be linked to sources the U.S. government has previously identified as Russian military intelligence… While these are some of the same bad actors we removed for cybersecurity attacks before the 2016 U.S. election,” the company said on its website, “this more recent activity focused on politics in Syria and Ukraine. … To date, we have not found activity by these accounts targeting the U.S.” About a month earlier, Facebook had announced that it had removed “eight Pages and 17 profiles on Facebook, as well as seven Instagram accounts, that violate our ban on coordinated inauthentic behavior”; the pages had been created between March 2017 and May 2018. Facebook said at the time that it did not know who was behind the accounts, but had “found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year.” For example, the accounts used some similar techniques and one of the disabled pages, “Resisters,” had hosted a Facebook event that had been shared by an IRA account disabled in 2017; moreover, the Resisters page “previously had an IRA account as one of its admins for only seven minutes.” Facebook also described some differences between the two sets of accounts—most notably that “whoever set up these [newly disabled] accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past.” Facebook noted, for instance, that it had not found any Russian IP addresses in use with the freshly disabled accounts. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, wrote at the time that the “set of actors we see now might be the IRA with improved capabilities, or it could be a separate group. This is one of the fundamental limitations of attribution: Offensive organizations improve their techniques once they have been uncovered, and it is wishful thinking to believe that we will always be able to identify persistent actors with high confidence.”

1The New York Times reported that Burt later said “employees from only two legislative offices” had been targeted.

Mari Dugas is project coordinator for the Cyber Security Project and the Defending Digital Democracy initiative at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Natasha Yefimova-Trilling is editor of Russia Matters. 

Illustration by pjedrzejczyk shared in the public domain.

Valdai Highlights: Putin’s Hard Questions on US Global Role

Valdai Highlights: Putin’s Hard Questions on US Global Role

teaser Putin at Valdai 2018 Putin at Valdai 2018 Valdai Highlights: Putin’s Hard Questions on US Global RoleOctober 26, 2018Andrew C. KuchinsIn contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.

In contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.

Chinese journalist Sheng Shilang compared Russia and China to trees in a forest who want calm, but are continuously shaken by an intimidating wind—the U.S., which now considers China and Russia “revisionist states” and has unleashed a trade war against the former and endless sanctions against the latter. Putin agreed, but added that “the weather is changeable. … [T]hose who stir up this wind, they also suffer from it.” After citing figures from the mounting U.S.-Chinese trade war, Putin concluded that it will contribute to “a future recession of the global economy. Everybody will feel it and nobody wants it to happen. Therefore, it is possible to stir up a wind at some point, but a moment will come when it will not benefit anybody.” (The metaphor wasn’t a new concept for Putin, hearkening back to his 2007 speech at the Munich Security conference, which was also about irresponsible stewardship of the international system, in that case with reference to security issues.)

As a listener, I also couldn’t help but recall that it was the United States, supposedly the hegemon of the global financial system, that nearly brought on a global depression in 2008 by the irresponsible greed of its own banking and mortgage-investment institutions. This was an extremely unpleasant wake-up call for Putin and Russian financial institutions that had exposed themselves through large-scale private-sector debt. It was the combination of this debt exposure and the collapse of the oil price in 2008-2009 that resulted in a harder hit to Russia than any other G-20 economy.

Russian economist Yaroslav Lissovolik asked Putin about the potential for de-dollarizing the global economy in response to Washington’s repeated sanctions on countries for “bad behavior”—or, from Moscow’s perspective, for implementing policies that run counter to U.S. interests. Putin returned to the theme that the United States is in the medium and longer term undermining its own global power and influence. Putin’s colorful reply is worth quoting at some length:

“As I recently said, our American friends are quarrelling with their bread and butter. They challenge the reliability of the dollar as a universal tool for international settlement [i.e., financial transactions]. Once again, this is a typical mistake for an empire.

“Why is this happening? Because—and I am not lashing out at anyone—but an empire always thinks it can make minor mistakes and allow excesses because its might makes it all irrelevant.

“But the number of these excesses and minor mistakes inevitably grows, and the time comes when this cannot be handled either from a security standpoint or from an economic standpoint. Obviously, this is the way our American friends are acting; they are devaluating confidence in the dollar as a universal settlement tool and the world’s sole reserve currency.

“And of course, everyone [has] started giving it more thought. The EU countries want to conduct trade with Iran. They do not think Iran has violated anything in its nuclear deal with the international community. And it actually has not. … [O]ur U.S. partners decided that this deal should be revised, but the Europeans disagree with that.”

Asked about the Middle East, Putin could not restrain himself from pointing out that U.S. and allied policy in Iraq and Libya resulted in much greater instability and increased terrorist threat. His remarks were especially pointed regarding Libya:

“[T]hat state ceased to exist. It is being torn to pieces between separate armed units still fighting among themselves. This is a catastrophe. Gaddafi once said Libya was an insurmountable obstacle to the movement of refugees and immigrants from Africa to Europe. He said: ‘What are you doing? You are destroying this wall.’ It’s been destroyed. That’s what is happening right now. [They’re] looking for someone to blame. But it’s [their] own fault.”

Putin discussed Syria in a very sober manner. Asked whether he believed the decision to intervene there three years ago was worth it, the president replied in the affirmative, saying that a sovereign state had been preserved and the “Somaliazation” of Syria prevented.  He praised the efforts of Turkey in particular, stemming from the Russian-Turkish Sept. 17 agreement to de-escalate violence in the Idlib region, the last major stronghold of the opposition, and to seek to convince fighters to lay down their arms. He acknowledged this is an extremely difficult task; a Turkish scholar earlier in the conference had noted that about 60 percent of the fighters have disarmed to date. But myriad problems remain. First, where do the international fighters go if they disarm? No country wants them. Second, how do you manage the approximately 7 million Syrian refugees living outside Syria? Third, who pays for and manages the reconstruction of Syria?

From a Russian standpoint, U.S. positions on Syria have been unconstructive, dangerous and perhaps even immoral. The Trump administration’s demand that all Iranian military forces leave Syria before the smaller U.S. force does is nearly impossible to fulfill. When asked about Russia’s position on Iranian forces, Putin dodged by noting this will be a decision for the Iranians to make jointly with the Syrian government. He did say that Russia is working to reach a near-term agreement to keep Iranian forces away from the Golan Heights, a major concern for Israel. Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a top Russian Middle East expert, Vitaly Naumkin, all criticized the U.S. military’s defense of a Kurdish stronghold where, Putin claimed, the terrorist threat is not being effectively addressed. Interestingly, it was the moderate and intellectual Naumkin who clearly stated that the Russian position supports Syrian government control over 100 percent of Syrian territory and “it is time for the United States to leave.”

As for the immoral, the recent Trump administration announcement that the U.S. will sanction any company that is involved in reconstruction on Syrian government-controlled territory is deeply problematic. The Russian leadership believes that U.S. demands that Assad leave power (mainly by the Obama administration) have failed, catastrophically and tragically. Should we further punish the whole Syrian population for that reality?

Fans of Putin’s acerbic side weren’t disappointed: Much has been made already of his comments about Russians going to heaven while their adversaries just drop dead in the event of a nuclear confrontation. Essentially he simply confirmed Russia’s no-first use policy, but in a uniquely Putinesque manner. The president also showed visible irritation over the format of this year’s meeting, where the moderator kept reciting back to him things he had said at Valdai gatherings over the past 15 years: “I want this conversation to end,” Putin finally said. “I am flying to Tashkent this evening, and I want to play hockey before I leave.”

Overall, I left Sochi with a feeling similar to the one I had after reading Putin’s Munich speech in 2007. I may not care for the messenger, but a lot of what he says about the United States undermining its own interests, power and influence across Eurasia is on target. In 2014 Washington embarked on a policy to isolate Russia. There is no question that policy has failed, and our concern should more be about what we are doing to isolate ourselves in the genuinely multipolar world that is emerging.

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

Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.

Photo credit: Kremlin press service.

Remembering Reykjavik: On Path to INF Treaty, Some Levity and Warmth

Remembering Reykjavik: On Path to INF Treaty, Some Levity and Warmth

teaser U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev Remembering Reykjavik: On Path to INF Treaty, Some Levity and WarmthOctober 23, 2018RM StaffAs Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms-control treaty, one of its original signers, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has said the decision is not the work of “a great mind.” We will never know the opinion of the other signer of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, because he died in 2004. But 32 years ago this month the two leaders met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit that helped pave the way to the INF Treaty. And the discussions weren’t limited to serious matters of global security and “trust but verify.”

Here we share three moments of levity and camaraderie from Oct. 12, 1986, recorded in two U.S. memoranda on the day’s meetings, which have been made available through the efforts of the National Security Archive at George Washington University...

As Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms-control treaty, one of its original signers, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has said the decision is not the work of “a great mind.” We will never know the opinion of the other signer of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, because he died in 2004. But 32 years ago this month the two leaders met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit that helped pave the way to the INF Treaty. And the discussions weren’t limited to serious matters of global security and “trust but verify.”

Here we share three moments of levity and camaraderie from Oct. 12, 1986, recorded in two U.S. memoranda on the day’s meetings, which have been made available through the efforts of the National Security Archive at George Washington University:

“The President had a different picture… Ten years from now he would be a very old man. He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world. … He would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say, ‘Hello, Mikhail.’ And Gorbachev would say, ‘Ron, is it you?’ And then they would destroy the last missiles.”

“Gorbachev expressed regret that there was not more time to address humanitarian questions. There were some specific concerns he had wanted to put before the President. … One question he did want to broach had to do with expanding the flow of information between the two countries. … Gorbachev pointed out that that half of the foreign films shown in the Soviet Union were American. Virtually no Soviet films were shown in the U.S. … The President replied that this was a function of the market rather than any attempt to ban Soviet films. … If the Soviet Union wanted to, it could do what other countries had done and form its own distributing company. If it could convince local theatres to show its films, fine. But the [U.S.] government could not order them to.”

“To illustrate his point, the President began a quote from Marx, prompting Gorbachev to observe jocularly that the president had dropped Lenin for Marx. The President countered that Marx had said first much of what Lenin said later. … Gorbachev had no desire to quarrel. He was convinced, in fact, that, while he and the President might have different characters and conceptions, a man-to-man relationship between them was possible. The President said he looked forward to welcoming Gorbachev at one point as a new member of the Republican Party.”

Photo from the Ronald Reagan Library shared under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Kurt Volker Weighs In on Minimal Requirements for Resolving Conflict in Ukraine

Kurt Volker Weighs In on Minimal Requirements for Resolving Conflict in Ukraine

teaser Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine Kurt Volker Weighs In on Minimal Requirements for Resolving Conflict in UkraineOctober 10, 2018Daniel ShapiroThe 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...

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.

Kurt Volker speaking at Belfer
Kurt Volker at Harvard Kennedy School, Oct. 1, 2018. Photo by Martha Stewart.

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:

  • As minimal requirements for resolving the conflict, the Kremlin wants a Russia-friendly Ukrainian government, while Ukraine and the West want Donbas under Ukrainian control. Volker called Russia a direct party to the Ukraine conflict, not an external player, saying that the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are under Russian control. While Russia claims that it accepts the stipulations of the Minsk agreements, Volker said, in reality, “what Russia wants is a Ukraine that is a part of Russia’s orbit, and where you have a friendly government in Ukraine toward Russia again.” However, according to Volker, the opposite has in fact emerged: Ukraine has become more anti-Russian and pro-Western than before. “What is minimally acceptable for Ukraine, for Europe, for the United States, is that the territory of the Donbas is restored to Ukrainian control.” Additionally, Volker said, the United States should not support or recognize the annexation of Crimea.
  • The Minsk agreements are still important. Volker said that this is mainly because they remain the framework under which Russia affirms that the contested Donbas territory should be brought back under Ukrainian control and sovereignty. He added that the failure to implement the Minsk agreements is the basis for some of the U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia. Everything necessary for resolution of the conflict is there within the agreements, Volker believes; there is nothing concrete missing. What is lacking, he said, is the political will to implement them.
  • The Trump administration’s policies on Russia have been tougher than the president’s rhetoric might suggest. Volker believes that, despite President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, if one focuses on policies instead, there is a lot of convergence between American and European views. Volker pointed out that the current administration has adopted a much tougher policy on Russia than the Obama administration, stepping up sanctions against Russia, sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine and generally taking a relatively hard line against Russia. None of this, he argued, could be possible without Trump’s participation and support.
    • Other speakers pushed back on this point to some degree, arguing that Trump’s rhetoric was important and often undermined American-European cooperation. Additionally, Ambassador Nicholas Burns noted that Trump has not fully supported the tightening of the sanctions regime.
  • Current tensions between the United States and Europe will pass. The main factors stoking the crisis in transatlantic relations are found in each country’s domestic politics, Volker suggested. Debates about populism, nationalism, identity, immigration, culture, religion and so forth "have manifested themselves as very hotly fought contests inside societies" in the United States, Germany, France and Sweden, among others. These factors are not permanent, Volker believes, saying that “the fabric of our relationships, between the U.S. and the European countries, is much, much deeper and more resilient than just governments. Our people, our businesses, our cultures, our ideas, our values—they are completely in agreement. And I don’t see any way that that changes.”

Author: Daniel Shapiro is a graduate student associate at the Russia Matters project and Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Main photo: Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine, courtesy of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Russians in 2018 Feel Disenchanted With US, But See China and Russia as Rising Powers

Russians in 2018 Feel Disenchanted With US, But See China and Russia as Rising Powers

teaser Red square Moscow Russia Red square Moscow Russia Russians in 2018 Feel Disenchanted With US, But See China and Russia as Rising PowersOctober 05, 2018RM StaffRussians’ 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.

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.

While Russians’ views of the U.S. have taken a negative turn, the opposite is true for Russians’ views of China. In stark contrast to the quarter of Russians who view the U.S. favorably, 65 percent of Russians say they have a favorable view of China. When China is pitted against the U.S., Russian respondents showed a clear preference for their Asian neighbor. At 34 percent, more Russians see China as the world’s leading economic power, while only 25 percent view the U.S. that way. Regarding world power, just 16 percent of Russians think the U.S. is playing a more important role today than in the past, while 73 percent think China has taken on a more important role. Going forward, 35 percent of Russians would prefer to see China as the world’s leader, while only 13 percent prefer the U.S. This more favorable view of China, as compared to Pew’s 25-country median of 70 percent, could be due not only to the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, but Russians’ perceptions of the West’s decline and Russia’s rise.  

Russians also see their own country’s power on the rise. Nearly three-quarters of Russians, 72 percent, see their country as playing a more important role than in the past. Not everyone in the world agrees with that proposition, however. Among the 25 countries surveyed, a median of 41 percent, inclusive of Russia, agreed that Russia is playing a more important role. Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the second least trusted world leader, with only 30 percent of respondents in 25 countries saying that they have confidence in him to do the right thing in global affairs, coming in just above U.S. President Donald Trump’s 27 percent vote of confidence.

While Russians’ views of the U.S. are not as low as they have been in the recent past—such as the scant 15 percent who viewed the U.S. favorably in 2015—they have fallen markedly in the last year. Meanwhile, Russians continue to see China in a positive light, expressing views that are often more favorable than the median across the 25 countries surveyed.

Russia on the World Stage: Great Power, ‘Trickster,’ Would-Be Arms-Control Partner

Russia on the World Stage: Great Power, ‘Trickster,’ Would-Be Arms-Control Partner

teaser Kremlin Russian President Vladimir Putin Russia on the World Stage: Great Power, ‘Trickster,’ Would-Be Arms-Control PartnerSeptember 28, 2018Natasha Yefimova-TrillingWhere 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.

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.​​​​​​​

Nuclear Near Miss: Remembering the ‘Man Who Saved the World’

Nuclear Near Miss: Remembering the ‘Man Who Saved the World’

teaser Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013. Alamy Stock Photo. Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013. Nuclear Near Miss: Remembering the ‘Man Who Saved the World’September 21, 2018RM StaffNext 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.

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.

According to several authoritative books by scholars of the Cold War, and one journalistic account,[1] Petrov was a software engineer serving in the Soviet Space Defense Forces as a lieutenant colonel. As deputy head of the department of combat algorithms, Petrov spent most of his time fine-tuning the software of the Soviet Union’s early-warning system, Oko (an archaic—and Biblical—word for “eye”), which had been put into service in late 1982 even though it was not fully ready. He also regularly worked 12-hour shifts at Oko’s secret “nerve center” near Moscow to keep on top of the system.

Petrov was on such a shift on Sept. 26, 1983, when one of the nine Oko satellites watching U.S. intercontinental-ballistic-missile fields sent a signal that a missile had been launched from the Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana. The satellite then alerted Petrov’s center that four more Minuteman ICBMs had taken off and were headed toward the USSR. The alerts were automatically sent to the Soviet General Staff, but it was up to Petrov, as the commanding officer on duty at the center, to make the ultimate judgment on whether an American nuclear attack on Soviet Russia was really underway. The then 44-year-old officer had 10 minutes to decide.

Then, like now, tensions were running high between Moscow and Washington. Just a few weeks before, the Soviet Air Force had mistakenly shot down a South Korean passenger plane, prompting U.S. condemnation of a “massacre” by “Soviet aggressors.” About five weeks later, NATO would start Able Archer, a military exercise that involved raising the alert levels of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe to simulate preparations for an attack—war games that themselves would nearly prompt a nuclear conflagration.

Petrov himself recalled that his decision was based partly on an educated guess. He had been briefed many times that a U.S. nuclear attack would be massive, but the monitors showed only five missiles. Another factor, he said, was that Soviet ground-based radar installations, which search for missiles rising above the horizon, showed no evidence of an attack.

The false alarm was eventually traced to the Cosmos 1382 satellite, which picked up the sun's reflection off the tops of clouds and mistook it for missile launches. (As noted above, this was not the first such incident: In 1960, for instance, a comparable false alarm was triggered in the U.S. when one of its early-warning radars mistook the rising moon for a Soviet missile. Other stories abound, though exactly how close a “close call” each one was often remains a matter of debate.) After the 1983 scare, the glitchy computer program was rewritten to more effectively filter out such information.

The incident involving Petrov remained secret until the early 1990s when it was disclosed by Yuri Votinstev, who had been commander of the Soviet missile-defense forces at the time. Immediately after the incident, Petrov recalled, he had won praise from Votinstev. But then came an investigation, and Petrov’s questioners pressed him hard for failing to immediately write down the details of what had happened. Petrov was not surprised that he received no official recognition: If he had, he told an interviewer in 2004, “someone would have had to take the rap” for the glitch, most likely including some influential scholars who had designed the early-warning system.

Last year Petrov died, at the age of 77. When the news became widely known, some four months later, he was feted in headlines as “the man who saved the world”—the title of a 2014 documentary about his fateful choice. In his lifetime Petrov received awards in the U.S. and Germany, but he was famously humble about his accomplishment, saying he was just doing his job: “Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism,” he said in the 2004 interview. “I was in the right place at the right moment.”

Good thing he was. As Eric Schlosser reports in his acclaimed 2013 book “Command and Control,” Gen. George Butler, who took over the U.S. Strategic Air Command in 1991, once said, “[W]e escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

[1] Main source: David Hoffman, “The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy,” 2010. Additional sources: Gordon G. Chang, “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World,” 2006;  Stephen J. Cimbala, “The Dead Volcano: The Background and Effects of Nuclear War Complacency,” 2002; and “On the Brink,” The Moscow News, May 29, 2004.

Photo by Oliver Killig. Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013. (c) Alamy Stock Photo.

How Much Do Americans Care About Russia?

How Much Do Americans Care About Russia?

teaser Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague. Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague. How Much Do Americans Care About Russia?August 16, 2018Angelina FloodOrdinary 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.

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.

For example, in a 2017 Pew poll on national security threats, 47 percent of Americans saw “Russia’s power and influence” as a “major threat to our country,” ranked as No. 4 out of seven options. Pew’s 2016 survey showed similar results, with 42 percent of U.S. respondents saying that tensions with Russia were a major threat to their country. Likewise, in a February 2016 Gallup poll, 39 percent of respondents called Russia’s military power a “critical threat” to the U.S., ranking it 12th out of 12 options, while 47 percent saw it as an “important but not critical threat,” the top-ranked out of 12.

Pew Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey

Pew Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey

Americans and Europeans agree ISIS is top threat

2016 Gallup Poll on Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

That said, two recent Pew polls—like the Gallup poll cited by Ackerman—show a low level of concern among Americans about Russia when the former Cold War foe is not framed as a potential threat. A January 2018 survey asked respondents to identify their top policy priorities for President Donald Trump and Congress for 2018. Neither Russia nor election interference featured among the responses, either for this year or for 2017.

Public’s policy priorities for 2018
Public’s policy priorities for 2017

Other recent polls show somewhat more ambiguous results. For instance, in Gallup’s February 2018 poll on threats to U.S. interests, Russia was not mentioned by name, but “cyber-terrorism/use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society” came in as the No. 2 critical threat. In its analysis of the results, Gallup attributed Americans’ heightened concern about cyberattacks to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This may be true, however, in early 2016—months before the election and related talk of Russian meddling—cyberattacks already ranked as the No. 3 most feared danger to the U.S., with 73 percent of respondents calling it a critical threat to American interests (see table above), while Russia’s military power, as mentioned before, ranked much lower.

2018 Gallup Poll on Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

In short, while Ackerman may be right that pundits and news junkies attach more significance to Russia than the U.S. public at large, Russia is not missing from ordinary Americans’ threat radar altogether.

One final point: While Ackerman writes that Russia comes in “just behind” children’s behavior and upbringing as the most pressing problem facing the U.S., he doesn’t mention that the difference between the two was under one percentage point—less than the poll’s margin of error. In fact, since January 2017, the share of people naming one of the two problems as America’s most important has alternated between 1 and less than 0.5 percent, making it unclear which of them Americans consider less urgent.

July 2018 Gallup Poll on the Most Important Problem

July 2017 Gallup Poll on the Most Important Problem

Photo by MichaelBueker shared under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Will Pension Protests ‘Take Down’ Putin?

Will Pension Protests ‘Take Down’ Putin?

teaser Protest against pension reform in Moscow, July 2018. Protest against pension reform in Moscow, July 2018. Will Pension Protests ‘Take Down’ Putin?August 02, 2018Simon SaradzhyanThis 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.

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.

US Experts Largely Negative on Outcome of Trump-Putin Summit, Russians Give Mixed Assessment

US Experts Largely Negative on Outcome of Trump-Putin Summit, Russians Give Mixed Assessment

teaser Putin in Siberia Putin in Siberia US Experts Largely Negative on Outcome of Trump-Putin Summit, Russians Give Mixed AssessmentJuly 20, 2018RM StaffThe 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.”

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.”

U.S. Experts

Russian Experts

Graham Allison

Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School; Former Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

“Communicating with your adversaries, even your enemies, even your deadliest enemies, is a good idea because what you don’t want to do is have two parties that are competitors or adversaries or even enemies stumbling into a war they don’t want. … We should understand both Americans and Russians. Any day either president decides to kill everybody in the other country, he can do it. That’s a hard, ugly fact. … What they shouldn’t do is stumble into a war… [A] lot of Americans misunderstand … the ways in which failures to communicate … could lead, as they did in 1914, to a bunch of misunderstandings at the end of which you could be in a catastrophic war, which would be crazy for Russia, would be crazy for the U.S.” (RT, 07.19.18)

George Beebe

Director for Intelligence and National Security, Center for the National Interest

“Expectations were low heading into the Helsinki summit, but the United States and Russia still managed to sail their listing bilateral ship directly into the rocks of the Russian cyber-meddling controversy. … Trump’s ambivalence at the summit press conference poured gasoline on America’s simmering domestic political fire and narrowed his already slim room for maneuver with Moscow to almost nothing.” (The National Interest, 07.19.18)

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council

“The criticism directed at President Trump is on target. Trump has given a lamentable demonstration of his own ignorance, willfulness, and failure to understand with whom he is dealing. It is, sad to say, quite understandable that critics in both parties would label such behavior treasonous, imbecilic, and shameful. If the president is not an agent of influence, or a useful idiot to use the Russian terms that would be appropriate here, his performance in Helsinki represented an excellent facsimile of one of these two categories. And therefore it is all too likely that Putin’s probes against the U.S. and its allies will intensify rather than subside and that relations with Russia will grow even more acrimonious.” (The Hill, 07.17.18)

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

“When we look back on it, Helsinki will be seen as a major turning point for this president, and for U.S. relations with the rest of the world,” Gvosdev says, adding that Trump lacked credibility and cemented perceptions of his relationship with Putin, “[killing] off any prospect of improving U.S.-Russia relations. … The message not just the Europeans but the Japanese and Israelis and others will take from Trump’s whole trip—and from the uproar that’s followed here at home—is that it’s time to choose a new partner, and maybe Russia is the more stable of the two now.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.18.18)

Henry Kissinger

Former U.S. Secretary of State
“It was a meeting that had to take place. I have advocated it for several years. It has been submerged by American domestic issues. It is certainly a missed opportunity. But I think one has to come back to something. Look at Syria and Ukraine. It’s a unique characteristic of Russia that upheaval in almost any part of the world affects it, gives it an opportunity and is also perceived by it as a threat. Those upheavals will continue. I fear they will accelerate. … I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident. … I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world. I have conducted innumerable summit meetings… [T]hey didn’t learn this one [Helsinki] from me.” (Financial Times, 07.20.18)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Director, Intelligence and Defense Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

“President Donald Trump demonstrated that he is as much an advocate for Russia’s interests [as] if he were indeed recruited by Russian intelligence and formally responding to Russian tasking. In fact, his handlers would probably exercise a greater degree of subtlety and discretion to ensure he did not go too far in revealing himself as an agent for Russian policies and interests. … For the already diminishing number of die-hard advocates of efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, the summit was a death blow.” (The Cipher Brief, 07.16.18)

Olga Oliker

Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

"My sense is very little was agreed on other than to keep talking on a number of issues." (CNBC, 07.16.18)

Regarding an extension of the New START treaty, discussions about U.S. missile defense systems and the INF Treaty: ““These are things that they [Trump and Putin] actually could have put together into something of a joint statement because there is enough agreement, even if it’s agreement to talk about the disagreements, to have gotten a ‘get’ out of the summit on these topics. And instead what we have is that the Russians passed over a paper with suggestions.” (NPR, 07.17.18)

Steven Pifer

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

“President Trump, when given the opportunity, did not name a single Russian misbehavior that has contributed to the decline in U.S.-Russian relations. If that's the message that President Putin is taking back home to Moscow, why should we expect that there are going to be any changes in Russian policy that have caused some of the problems over the last four years?” (NPR, 07.17.18)

"It was not a good summit. It was an embarrassing performance by President Trump. Not only did he take at face value President Putin's denial of election interference, he took that over the judgement of his own intelligence community. … I worry that Mr. Putin goes back to Moscow thinking, 'I got no criticism. I can continue these policies.' And in some cases these policies are very detrimental to American interests." (CNBC, 07.17.18)

“U.S. foreign policy interests would have been better served had Trump stayed home. … Based on the press conference, Vladimir Putin has every reason to be happy. … U.S. allies will likely keep their views to themselves publicly, but they have to be dismayed in private. Contrast Trump’s reluctance in Helsinki to criticize Putin or any Russian misbehavior with his eager readiness to criticize allies [at last week’s NATO summit] in Brussels.” (Reuters, 07.17.18)

Matthew Rojansky

Director, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center

“Putin described something as ‘a very interesting offer’… We don’t actually know of what the offer consisted, but it’s very interesting to me that they discussed Ukraine, and Putin said that there is ‘an interesting offer’ there. … So, when asked whether Putin asked for sanctions relief, Putin … simply says, ‘No, but we talked about the interests of our two business communities in increasing economic ties and how we might do that in the current environment.’ So, that’s code for, ‘Yeah, they talked about how to get around sanctions.’ They actually had … [a] surprisingly substantive conversation. We heard none of it in the press conference.” (CNN, 07.16.18)

Angela Stent

Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

“Trump is clearly playing to his domestic base; they love it. If you look at poll numbers now among his base, their view of Russia and Putin is going up. … Never in the history of U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian relations has an American president essentially said that he doesn’t agree with his own intelligence agencies, criticized them and essentially agreed with a Russian president who is a former KGB case officer. … No one has ever seen something like this before. It is unprecedented and it really does raise questions about what really is going on, why he would possibly say that in a public press conference." (CNBC, 07.17.18)

Andrew Weiss

Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrew Weiss said that in his prepared remarks Trump had for the first time managed to explain why he wanted a more co-operative relationship with Russia and was prepared to take the political heat for that. “If that’s all that had come out of this press conference, and there had been this kind of chumminess, I think we would have seen a kind of Singapore Kim Jong Un light. There would not have been a lot of process, there would not have been a lot of deliverables to point to, but it would have looked semi-credible… But due to Trump’s own lack of discipline … it went off the rails.” (Financial Times, 07.17.18)

Alexander Gabuev

Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center

“Nobody in Moscow who is realistic had any illusions that this one meeting can produce any breakthroughs. … The hope was at least we can start talking to each other.” Gabuev said Putin ably won over his domestic audiences, notably by pushing back at accusations of Russian election meddling with his own accusations against the U.S. Russians welcomed Putin’s offer to allow the FBI to interrogate Russian military intelligence officials accused of hacking the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And they especially welcomed Putin’s insistence on a tit-for-tat deal aimed at discrediting U.S. sanctions against rich and powerful Russians. And unsurprisingly, Russians welcomed Trump’s suggestion that he trusts Putin more than U.S. intelligence agencies. Russian officialdom “will be super-cautious in order not to damage Donald Trump any more than he did himself,” Gabuev said. (AP, 07.17.18)

 

 

 

Igor Ivanov

President, Russian International Affairs Council; Former Foreign Minister of Russia

“There is no point in deciding who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’ at the Helsinki summit: neither leader was expecting his counterpart to make unilateral concessions, and neither intended to make concessions. However, the presidents took a crucial step forward, paving the way for further steps in the future. … After the Helsinki summit, Moscow’s ability to maneuver in both the western and eastern directions will increase. …  An equally difficult and important period begins after Helsinki. How can we maximize the huge positive momentum provided by the summit? How can we prevent the cumbersome and sluggish bureaucratic machines of both countries from dragging us—accidentally or deliberately—back into the quagmire of pointless confrontation? … The Helsinki discussions have shown that security remains the central item on the agenda in U.S.–Russia relations. … This is why the parties should focus their attention on the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and the United States on the establishment of permanent mechanisms for military and political talks and consultations. This will require the immediate resumption of '2+2' talks between Russian and the US heads of foreign policy and defense ministries, the formation of an agenda for the most pressing problems, and the initiation of relevant talks. Among priority tasks is the prevention of unprovoked military incidents. In the longer term, the agenda could feature negotiations on prolonging the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the future of the INF Treaty. Moscow and Washington urgently need to establish an expert dialogue on cybersecurity issues, given the associated ambiguity and sensitivity.” (Russian International Affairs Council, 07.18.18)

 

 

 

Sergei Karaganov

Dean of the International Economics and Politics Faculty, Higher School of Economics

“It seems Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump did come to some preliminary agreements at the Helsinki summit. … [T]he Russian president mentioned some sort of possibilities for the demilitarization of the Golan Heights on the border between Israel and Syria. … As far as reactions to the summit’s outcome go, America’s and Europe’s were predictable. The losing political elites of the U.S. and Europe have an especially strong hatred for Trump as the symbol of their defeat. The chances that Trump will now be able to overcome this Russophobia that has emerged are practically nil. … Russia has been turned into a coauthor of the domestic [political] battle in the U.S. And although Trump is winning that domestic battle, the old elite will fight him to the end. Because … [he] threatens their position in the most serious way. Now there is a real possibility that Trump will go for a second term and win.” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 07.17.18, in Russian)

 

 

 

Andrei Kortunov

Director, Russian International Affairs Council

Putin’s apparent complacency about his summit success, and the general feeling in Moscow that Trump must have prevailed over his domestic opponents, may be due to a lack of understanding in the Kremlin of how the U.S. system works, says Andrei Kortunov. Russia policy risks becoming a long-term casualty of Trump’s domestic battles, he says. “Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. His word is final,” he says. “He tends to project that on other leaders he meets, which is why he does very well with authoritarian leaders, who have similar weight within their own political systems. It is difficult for him to see that the U.S. system doesn’t work this way,” and that anything Trump decides might get canceled out amid public outcry and congressional push-back. “Russia needs to get smarter, and diversify its outreach to various segments of the American establishment. We should be talking to the Democrats, Congress, think tanks, and others, explaining ourselves and forming relationships. It’s just not enough to meet the top guy and decide things with him. We urgently need to realize this.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.17.18)

 

 

 

Fyodor Lukyanov

Editor, Russia in Global Affairs

Lukyanov told the daily Vedomosti that "Syria, where there are concrete topics, and matters of strategic stability" was the most likely area for next steps. (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)

“It’s hard to say whether anything positive will come from this. It depends on whether they will actually work on any of the issues they discussed." (The Moscow Times, 07.17.18)

“If we were living through normal times, we would be justified in seeing Helsinki as a moderately successful summit… But these are anything but normal times. These days, issues of strategic policy are subordinated to domestic affairs, and any achievements can be derailed by the kind of angry, hostile reactions we are seeing [in the U.S.]… Trump certainly made a mistake by failing to seriously address the meddling issue that Americans are so preoccupied with. He even seemed to be taking sides with Putin… Many people in Moscow appear pleased at how good Putin looked in Helsinki, and may not be aware of the risk that it may have been completely counterproductive” to Russian long-term hopes of rebooting the relationship. “One thing we think was very significant is that Putin, for the first time, publicly spoke about Israeli security as a goal of Russian policy… Americans should join this deal, and it would be a shame if it got ruined by the toxic political atmosphere surrounding Trump.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.17.18)

Lukyanov said he believes two issues of substance had come out of the summit. First, he believes Putin and Trump’s comments on Syria suggested a concrete agreement had likely been reached to curtail Iran’s presence close to Israel in southern Syria. Lukyanov also said he believes the two presidents' pledges to push to reinvigorate key nuclear arms control treaties meant that could now likely happen. (ABC News, 07.16.18)

“This was not the assertive Trump we saw with NATO or Britain,” said Lukyanov. “Putin led, Trump followed. And that … is likely to cause a tsunami in the United States.” (Independent, 07.17.18)

 

 

 

Alexei Makarkin

Deputy Head, Moscow's Center for Political Technologies

“Russian political institutions are very weak and therefore, as president, Putin felt much more confident [than Trump] during the news conference… Putin is only constrained by his own mind-set. … The meeting was valuable to Putin because it showed that despite the indictments and poison accusations, the West is still compelled to speak to Russia and regards it as an important and respectable country.” (New York Times, 07.18.18)

 

 

 

Yuri Rogulyov

Professor of American Studies, Moscow State University

Rogulyov said that bilateral relations were moving from "megaphone diplomacy to direct negotiations." (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)

 

 

 

Dmitri Trenin

Director, Carnegie Moscow Center

Dmitri Trenin said the talks signaled a new point in relations. “We are exiting a period of 'no dialogue,' and Russia is ceasing to be toxic,” Trenin said. The process will continue if Trump and Putin visit each other's capitals in the near future, he said. (New York Times, 07.18.18)

“I don't think that Mr. Putin's power is so vast, so big that he could have manipulated Donald Trump. Donald Trump has his own reasons, I believe, to say things, [or] not to say things. Donald Trump is involved in a cutthroat competition or even worse than that with the bulk of the U.S. political establishment, including in his own party.

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. … When we start playing in other nations' political struggles, things become more complex. And the likelihood of conflict being exacerbated and escalated to a much higher level than before is getting greater.” (NPR, 07.17.18)

 

 

 

Alexei Venediktov

Editor in Chief, Ekho Moskvy Radio

Venediktov said the composition of the delegations at the Helsinki lunch revealed the differing agendas of the two sides. "On the Russian side at that lunch ... there was, of course, [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov… But further down sat Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. … Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov, and the director of the Foreign Ministry's North America department, Georgy Borisenko. I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister. … Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. … Now let's take the American delegation. … John Bolton is in charge of global [national] security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [U.S. presidential] election. … You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry." Venediktov said the delegations showed that the main U.S. concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and election interference, while Putin's concerns were Syria and "public relations." (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)

 

 

 

Photo: Putin meets with scientists in Siberia, February 2018. Kremlin press service.

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