In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russians have come to think that President Vladimir Putin represents the interests of oligarchs above everyone else, according to the latest Levada Center poll. Thirty-eight percent of respondents in the March 2020 national survey said Putin is a champion of the oligarchs, a perception that has been rising since 2001. This is the first time oligarchs have overtaken “siloviki"—members of Russia’s so-called power agencies—as the top group whose interests Putin represents, which 37 percent of respondents chose in the 2020 poll (see Table 1).  The shift is remarkable, given the previously popular view that Putin, a former KGB agent, upon becoming president, was observed soon putting the interests of security, intelligence and defense agencies first. (In fact, a smiling Putin told a meeting of the Federal Security Service top brass less than a fortnight after becoming acting president of Russia: “A group of FSB colleagues dispatched to work undercover in the government has successfully completed its first mission.”)

Third on the list in Levada’s most recent poll are government officials and bureaucrats, with 28 percent of respondents saying Putin represents their interests. The middle class, heads of large enterprises and ordinary people have hovered in the middle of the pack since 2000, with 18 percent, 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in the most recent poll. Directors/CEOs of large enterprises rank fourth on the list of groups Putin represents, according to the March 2020 poll. The share of Russians who hold that view has declined from 25 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2020, but it is still higher than the share of Russians who believe Putin is representing the interests of all Russians. The view that Putin is a champion of all Russians “without exception” has waned over the past three years. That view peaked at 17 percent in 2016- 2017, but then shrank by more than half to a mere 9 percent in 2020. While Putin is now seen more as a champion of the oligarchs than the siloviki, most Russians still believe Putin relies most upon the latter in his rule. Forty-six percent of respondents in 2020 hold that view (see Table 2). Oligarchs and government officials trailed behind with 37 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
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tanks
The share of Russians who are in a state of permanent fear of a world war has declined somewhat since 2018, but it continues to exceed the share of those who have no such fear at all by almost 100 percent, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s respected independent pollster, which has been polling Russians about their fears since the mid-1990s. As of March 2020, 40 percent of Russians polled responded that they live in “constant fear” of a world war, compared to 42 percent in 2019, 46 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2012 (see table 2). Levada’s polls also show that in March 2020, fear of a world war was the second-largest concern of Russians surveyed (see table 1).
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icbm
The U.S. State Department on April 1 released new figures on compliance with the New START Treaty as reported by the U.S. and Russia. The numbers show that in March 2020, Russia declared 1326 deployed warheads (1426 in the previous update in September 2019), 485 deployed delivery systems (513 in September) and 754 total delivery systems (757 in September).

The U.S. in March 2020 declared 1373 deployed warheads (1376 in September), 655 deployed delivery systems (668 in September) and 800 total delivery systems (also 800 in September). The reduction in Russian numbers was probably caused by the decommissioning of single-warhead Topol (SS-25 Sickle) ICBMs, according to Pavel Podvig.
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1980s Moscow
How much do Russians miss the USSR and how many of them would like Russia to emulate Soviet ways?

The Levada Center has been tracking answers to these questions for 28 years and its latest poll shows 65 percent of Russians regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Although this number has decreased by 1 percent from the previous year’s data, this response still represents a significant increase from a low of 49 percent in 2012 (See Table 1). Three-quarters of Russian respondents agreed to some extent that “the Soviet epoch was the best time in the history of our country, with a high level of welfare and opportunities for common citizens.” Such a strong fondness for the Soviet epoch is especially remarkable given that the percentage of Russia’s adult population with concrete memories of the Soviet Union keeps decreasing—about 35 percent of Russia’s current population was born since 1991 according to U.N. estimates.
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communication
A popular talking point for many watchers of U.S.-Russian relations is to warn that reduced communication between the two countries, caused by the enduring animosities between Moscow and Washington, are increasing risks of a misunderstanding that could cause the world’s two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war. The experts, such as Sam Nunn and Ernest Moniz, certainly have a point. The less Washington and Moscow communicate, the greater the risk of misinterpreting each other’s actions in a way that could lead to a conflict, which could ultimately escalate into a nuclear war. You would be surprised, however, how much the U.S. and Russia still communicate both on government and non-government levels in spite of the animosities. At least that’s the impression I got when I looked into it, compiling a list of such communications. From checking on each other’s strategic nukes to co-managing polar bear populations, the U.S. and Russia are still talking to each other, even though they might be talking past each other.
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Moscow crowd
Several polls just released by the Levada Center on Russians’ attitudes toward foreign countries, show that Russians’ animosities toward the West, which increased notably after the color revolution in Kyiv that Brussels supported, are declining. As many as 67 percent of Russians believe their country should treat the West as a partner, according to the poll, which the Levada Center conducted in January and released in February. The previous such poll was conducted in June 2018, at which time 61 percent of Russians believed the West should be treated as Russia’s partner. In contrast, the share of Russians who think their country should treat the West as an enemy or competitor declined from 21 percent in June 2018 to 19 percent in January 2020.
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Yeltsin's nuclear briefcase
Twenty-five years ago this week, a U.S.-Norwegian team of scientists launched a rocket with equipment to study the northern lights from the coast of Norway. Due to the rocket’s size, speed and trajectory—as well as some possible lapses in communication—Russian systems mistook it for a missile attack and went on high alert. One former CIA official called the Jan. 25, 1995, incident “the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age.” But was it?

Indeed, Russia’s early-warning system was activated “up to the top, including [then President Boris] Yeltsin's ‘nuclear briefcase,’” according to one former Russian diplomat. However, based on multiple sources (including the ex-diplomat), officials in Moscow quickly realized the mistake and stood down. Moreover, according to Pavel Podvig, a leading expert on Russia’s strategic forces, there is even some evidence suggesting that the alarm didn’t reach Yeltsin’s emergency satchel on the day of the launch but, rather, the briefcase sequence was staged for him the next day. In fact, the Kremlin may have deliberately publicized how the alert about the launch went all the way up the chain of command in Russia’s early warning system (SPRN) to

to remind the West that Russia was still a nuclear powerhouse whose interests and opinions should be factored into decision-making on the world stage. Russia’s domestic power struggles also may have played a role: Playing up the threat allowed the country’s then Space Forces and Air Defense Force to prove their “usefulness” and to temporarily delay a bid by the Strategic Missile Forces to wrest away control of SPRN components (which eventually did occur in 1997-1999, though that re-subordination did not last).

Given all of what Russians calls podoplyoka (background), it should come as no surprise that renowned experts on Russia’s nuclear forces, such as Podvig, believe the danger of the incident has been seriously exaggerated. Some U.S. accounts of the incident also note that the Russians saw “within minutes” that the rocket posed no threat. Others, however, were far more alarmist, with one U.S. expert writing as recently as 2013 that “we came much closer to Armageddon after the Cold War ended than many realize. In January 1995, a global nuclear war almost started by mistake.”

The Russian-Western strategic relationship has seen its fair share of  close calls that genuinely brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. You can decide whether the Norwegian rocket incident belongs in this category by familiarizing yourself with a selection of Western and Russian accounts of the 1995 incident.
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Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin caught much of Russia’s ruling elite off guard when he fired the entire government on Jan. 15. With implementation of Putin’s much-prized national projects by the government in trouble and real incomes declining year after year, it was, perhaps, only a matter of time before Russia’s ultimate decision-maker was to sacrifice someone from the government’s socio-economic bloc. However, few Kremlin insiders expected Putin to fire not only all the ministers, but also the premier (and one-time president), Dmitry Medvedev, with more than four years still left in Putin’s fourth term. Yes, Medvedev has been chronically unpopular, but some Kremlin watchers thought that the loyal premier would only be axed sometime closer to the end of Putin’s fourth term to please the public ahead of a reconfiguration of power in Russia in 2024.  
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A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook
As we are all well aware, the original Cold War, which officially ended 30 years ago last month, featured a number of close calls that almost turned it into a hot war. Thankfully, neither the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 nor the Able Archer exercise of 1983 (nor any other perilous incidents), led to a war between Washington and Moscow. More recently, however, respected statesmen have again begun to sound alarms. “Not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today,” former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn warned in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. I have expressed some doubts about this proposition, but it is nevertheless worth asking what it is—other than the fear of mutually assured destruction—that keeps the U.S. and Russia from stumbling into a war today or tomorrow. Part of the answer lies in the bilateral and multilateral agreements specifically designed to prevent incidents that could escalate into a war. 

As is clear from the list below, there are at least half a dozen bilateral agreements between Moscow and Washington that have been concluded for the purposes of preventing dangerous military incidents. These deals include the 1972 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities. Some other NATO members—including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Greece and Portugal—have agreements with Russia on prevention of incidents on the high seas that are similar to the 1972 agreement between Moscow and Washington, while Canada and Greece also have agreements with Russia on prevention of dangerous military activities. However, almost a dozen NATO members have no such agreements with Russia, even though they abut seas. These countries include Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia. Nor are there any multilateral NATO-Russia (or NATO-Collective Security Treaty Organization) agreements on prevention of dangerous military incidents, though a NATO-Russia Memorandum of Understanding on avoiding and managing such incidents has been discussed in Track II.  
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Yeltsin and Putin, Dec. 31, 1999.
Twenty years ago this month, resigning Russian President Boris Yeltsin tapped Vladimir Putin to be his successor. Unlike Yeltsin, who’d been a prominent political figure in Moscow for about a decade, Putin was still relatively unknown outside of Russia, having been appointed prime minister from obscurity in August 1999. There was one big question on the minds of Westerners trying to figure out where Russia was going and one of the first to ask it was former U.S. diplomat Thomas Graham: “Who is Vladimir Putin, and what does he believe in?” A few weeks later, American journalist Trudy Rubin famously put it more bluntly, asking a panel of Russian officials and businesspeople almost the same thing: “Who is Mr. Putin?” Instead of an answer, several journalists wrote later, “there was a pause.”

The new acting president’s opaqueness stirred up a storm of expert and press speculation about what a Putin presidency would mean for Russia. Below is a sampling of some of that discussion. Where possible, the predictions are paired with later statements on Putin to show the evolution or accuracy of the commentators’ thinking.
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