In the Thick of It

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

Top 10 of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the rebukes leveled at Trump was, in the words of one Republican commentator, that he was repeating “Soviet-Putinist propaganda.” But was he?
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Haymarket riot
Russia Matters’ weekly analytical digest did not come out Dec. 24 or Dec. 31 because of the winter holidays in the U.S., but here is a roundup of notable Russia-related commentary published since our last edition of the Russia Analytical Report—beginning with Anatol Lieven’s compelling argument that Western leaders must address the causes of domestic discontent instead of demonizing Russia and China in a new cold war.
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Image of the Kerch Strait from space
Looking to make sense of the events between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and their implications? Click below for our recommendations.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eschatological talk of nuclear Armageddon at this year’s Valdai forum has stirred up heated debates on how well his description of Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons matches the country’s official military doctrine. One commentator concluded that “Putin clearly doesn’t put much stock even in rules that he wrote himself,” while another accused him of lying that the Russian military doctrine does not provide for the possibility of a first nuclear strike. However, a close look at Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks and Russia’s 2014 military doctrine reveals that, while Putin deviated from the language in the doctrine, he did not lie on the first use issue. Nor did he seem to be hinting at a shift in Russia’s nuclear posture. More likely, he was signaling to Washington that the existing nuclear arms control treaties need to remain in place for the sake of ensuring strategic stability in the U.S.-Russian nuclear dyad and avoiding an accidental war between the two countries.

First, about the supposed lie: In her Oct. 19 take on Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks, New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen claimed that the Russian leader supposedly insisted at the Valdai forum that Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not...

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Davis Center timeline
This fall, Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies celebrated its 70th anniversary with a weekend of panels that brought together alumni, current students, faculty and others associated with the center for discussions on a wide range of topics concerning Russia and Eurasia. Below are some highlights. An exhibit featuring the timeline of U.S.-Russian interaction shown above is on view at Harvard until Dec. 14, 2018.

Present-Day Russian Politics

Harvard’s own Alexandra Vacroux chaired a panel on the connections between Russian foreign and domestic policy, with speakers discussing political networks, xenophobia and sanctions. Henry Hale of George Washington University argued that Russian politics are largely defined by extended networks of personal acquaintance and that the Putin regime is not as stable as it may appear, since it is vulnerable to interruptions in these networks, among other problems. Yoshiko Herrera from the University of Wisconsin-Madison approached the topic from a different angle, focusing on Russian nationalism. She noted that while xenophobic violence in Russia has decreased, it has been refocused toward a dislike of the West, although not toward a rejection of European identity. Other panelists focused more on economics. Oksana Antonenko, an analyst with the global consultancy Control Risks, addressed Russia’s continued resource reliance and lack of presence in many global supply chains. Antonenko also discussed sanctions, arguing that they have in fact served to benefit state-run industry to the detriment of the private sector. Christopher Jarmas, a recent Davis grad now working as an analyst at the Sayari consultancy, also addressed sanctions, emphasizing that they are meant to have a long-term impact and are more effective when states are closely tied together economically, and that their impact on Russia will really be felt once oil prices fall.
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VOTE sign
What impact will this week’s midterm elections have on the U.S. policies most relevant to U.S.-Russian relations? Russia Matters has scanned publications by some of the West’s leading media and think-tanks for initial insights. Most commentators seem to agree that a Democratic-led House of Representatives is likely to revive or intensify some of the investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and to expand sanctions against Russia, but that President Donald Trump’s executive powers are deep and broad enough to let him continue pursuing a Russia policy of his own choice. (Though it’s worth noting that even with a Republican-led Congress, the Trump administration has hardly been dovish on Moscow.)

The center of decision making on Russia sanctions and policy, according to former Obama administration official Peter Harrell, will likely shift from the Republican-majority Senate to the House. In fact, new sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of the election’s winners, according to Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. They note that under a Democratic House, the Kremlin...
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2018 midterm election interference
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).
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