In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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newspaper
From the costs and benefits of Russia's intervention in Ukraine and the lessons of the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, to the pitfalls of Russia's national projects and the likelihood (or not) of a military alliance between Russia and China, Russia Matters' most popular reads of 2019 address a variety of challenging geopolitical questions. Click "Read More" to check them out. 
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Mary Sarotte, James Timbie and Steven Pifer at the Dec. 6, 2019 conference
In today’s U.S. media landscape, stories about Ukraine abound, crammed into a merciless 24-hour news cycle: in connection with impeachment hearings, of course, but also about local farmers and obscure lawsuits and side by side with recipes for gingery chocolate cookies. Amid the din, it came as a relief this month to see a unique conference zoom out with historical perspective to consider a foundational event for modern Ukraine: the signing, 25 years ago, of the so-called Budapest Memorandum—formally, the Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection With Ukraine's Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—which cemented the country’s status as a non-nuclear-weapons state and pledged a series of security assurances in return, including commitments to “respect … the existing borders of Ukraine,” “refrain from the threat or use of force against [its] territorial integrity” and “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance … if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.” 

These assurances have often been invoked since Russia—one of the memorandum’s four signatories, along with the U.S., U.K. and Ukraine itself—annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and began supporting insurgents in Ukraine’s east, where the ensuing war has taken thousands of lives. Indeed, some of the most interesting perspectives at the conference—attended by people who designed, negotiated and implemented policies related to the memorandum and other post-Soviet nuclear disarmament efforts—had to do with the language of the assurances in the December 5, 1994 memorandum and the central question of their strength: How binding were they? And, if they were not as binding as Ukraine had hoped, what does this mean for nuclear nonproliferation worldwide?

A full broadcast of the event, organized by the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, can be watched here. Below we’ve summarized some highlights.
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Clinton rally in Ohio
As leaders of NATO countries at their 70th anniversary this week welcomed the imminent membership of North Macedonia—another former republic of the now-defunct Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—and pledged to “increase security for all,” it is worth recalling that European security considerations were not the only factor that set off the alliance’s expansion into some countries of the former Socialist Bloc.

According to top members of the Clinton administration, on whose watch the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were admitted to NATO, the expansion of the bloc was all about making Europe secure, safe and prosperous. In a May 1997 speech at the Atlantic Council, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott presented the Clinton administration’s case for NATO’s expansion into the former Eastern bloc: “We believe the case for enlargement is compelling and rooted in the most vital security interests of this country. ... The enlargement of NATO is a key part of America's attempt to ensure that Europe is a more peaceful place in the 21st century than it has been in the 20th. If Europe is safer and more prosperous, the United States will be too …  [W]e want to finish the historic project we started in 1949—making war in Europe impossible.” Talbott’s boss, President Bill Clinton, similarly emphasized that a “gray zone of insecurity must not reemerge in Europe,” and promised that NATO expansion would ''advance the security of everyone.''

What neither these U.S. statesmen nor other members of the Clinton administration mentioned when discussing NATO’s eastward expansion at the time, was Clinton’s desire to secure votes from the Central and Eastern European diaspora, a segment of the electorate that became increasingly important as the 1996 presidential election neared following the loss of the House to Republicans in the 1994 midterms. That this desire played a major role in Clinton’s decision-making follows from analysis of voting patterns in the U.S. at the time and other evidence presented by such U.S. elections experts and scholars of NATO expansion as James Goldgeier, Alvin Rubinstein, Mary Sarotte and Kimberly Marten.
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war in Ukraine
Dr. Robert Hamilton, a retired U.S. Army colonel who’s spent much of his 30-plus-year career studying the former Soviet Union, has come back from a recent research trip to Ukraine more optimistic about possible ways to end the devastating war in the country’s east than before. Speaking last week at a Harvard Kennedy School event ahead of the release of his new report, “Five Years of War in the Donbas: Causes, Consequences and Conclusions,” Hamilton said he saw three reasons for optimism: (1) The exhaustion and frustration of people in the Donbas mean there’s a chance Kyiv could win them over by showing that it can give them a better life than the separatists; (2) Russian public opinion has shifted over the past few years, with growing dissatisfaction over the Kremlin’s engagement in expensive foreign adventures; and (3) Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has the makings of a bridge figure, dispensing with the nationalist rhetoric of his predecessor and instead offering Ukraine hope for a civic identity that transcends the country’s east-west divide. But this window of opportunity “won’t stay open forever,” Hamilton warned, and the delay of the Normandy-format summit scheduled for September was “not a good sign.”
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