In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

When Does Russia See Red? Foreign Minister Lavrov on Red Lines

When Does Russia See Red? Foreign Minister Lavrov on Red Lines

full Do not cross warning. Do not cross warning. When Does Russia See Red? Foreign Minister Lavrov on Red LinesJanuary 23, 2018Simon SaradzhyanWhat are a country’s red lines? And which of them are really red, while others are, to quote one German newspaper editor, merely pink? My takeaway from the beginning of the Ukraine conflict was that Vladimir Putin has come to view any post-Soviet republics’ “escape” to the U.S. and EU (with the exception of the Baltics) as truly crossing a Russian red line. Now Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has become perhaps the first top Russian official to explicitly say as much, in an interview to the Kommersant daily. Not only would aggression against Russia amount to the crossing of a red line, but so would an attack on one of Russia’s post-Soviet clients—even if it’s an unrecognized separatist republic—and so would the replacement of a friendly post-Soviet government through revolution, according to the interview, published on Jan. 22.

What are a country’s red lines? And which of them are really red, while others are, to quote one German newspaper editor, merely pink? My takeaway from the beginning of the Ukraine conflict was that Vladimir Putin has come to view any post-Soviet republics’ “escape” to NATO and EU (with the exception of the Baltics) as truly crossing a Russian red line. Now Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has become perhaps the first top Russian official to explicitly say as much, in an interview to the Kommersant daily. Not only would aggression against Russia amount to the crossing of a red line, but so would an attack on one of Russia’s post-Soviet clients—even if it’s an unrecognized separatist republic—and so would the replacement of a friendly post-Soviet government through revolution, according to the interview, published on Jan. 22. Here is an excerpt:

Lavrov: Now [in contrast to the years of the Cold War] there really are no rules in terms of NATO's advance to the east. There is no line anywhere that is a red line.

Interviewer: What about the border of the Russian Federation?

Lavrov: If we proceed from the assumption that we [Russia] cannot have any interests in the region, in the Euro-Atlantic, then, yes, the border of the Russian Federation is a red line. But the fact is that we do have legitimate interests; there are [ethnic] Russians who suddenly found themselves abroad when the USSR collapsed; we have cultural and historical, close personal and family ties with our neighbors. Russia has the right to defend the interests of its compatriots, especially when they are persecuted in many countries, when their rights are suppressed, as it happened in Ukraine. … Parliament’s first action after the coup was a law stating that the Russian language should ‘know its place.’ … Two days later we heard that Russians will never pay homage to [Ukrainian military leaders who fought against the Soviets] Bandera and Shukhevich, so Russians have to be exiled from Crimea. …

Lavrov: This is Ukrainian history, the history of the coup, the history of the West's betrayal of international law, when an agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the leading EU countries [and Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych and leaders of the Ukrainian opposition on Feb. 21, 2014] was simply trampled. After that the EU tried to convince us that that’s the way things should be and that nothing could be done now. This, by and large, was a European disgrace. While stating this historical reality, we … [nonetheless] want to implement the Minsk agreements. Coming back to red lines: That was a red line, just as a red line was crossed [in 2008] on the orders of Mikhail Saakashvili as soon as the attack began on South Ossetia, where our [Russian], Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers were stationed. … Russia has its interests, and people should bear this in mind. Russia has red lines. I believe that serious politicians in the West understand that these red lines need to be respected just as they were respected during the Cold War.

One should note that, while Russia has been prepared to use force when an acute challenge arises to one of its vital interests (such as its interest in being surrounded by friendly states), Russia did not always see its neighbors’ aspirations to be closer to the U.S. as a threat. In fact, in the early 2000s Russia itself was trying to harmonize various laws and regulations with the EU’s, with a view to one day, perhaps, join the union, and Putin asked then-secretary general of NATO Lord Robertson when the alliance was going to invite Russia into the pact.

Then, however, color revolutions began to erupt in post-Soviet states and Putin, misinterpreting the West’s general support for democratization as the fomenting of revolution, became convinced that Russia would be its next victim. It was the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, I would argue, that played the lead role in changing Putin’s views of the West’s intentions toward Russia and, therefore, his perceptions of where Russia’s red lines should lie. After these revolutions and the subsequent (futile) effort by the Bush-43 administration to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership action plans for joining NATO, in 2008, the Russian leadership began to view Russian-Western interaction in the post-Soviet neighborhood as a zero-sum game. In addition, Russia’s national power vis-à-vis the West has arguably increased in that period, making the country’s leadership more confident that it can enforce its own red lines in the immediate post-Soviet periphery. Lavrov’s interview is a testament to that.

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project.

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

A Moscow Reporter’s Notebook: Myths, Misunderstandings and 6 More Years of Bad News for US-Russia Ties

A Moscow Reporter’s Notebook: Myths, Misunderstandings and 6 More Years of Bad News for US-Russia Ties

teaser David Filipov arguing with Leonid Kalashnikov David Filipov arguing with Leonid Kalashnikov A Moscow Reporter’s Notebook: Myths, Misunderstandings and 6 More Years of Bad News for US-Russia TiesJanuary 12, 2018David FilipovAfter spending the past 13 months in Moscow (and 14 years before that), I have come home with a few firm convictions: (a) Americans and Russians woefully misunderstand each other; (b) Moscow does not, and will not, accept complicity in or responsibility for any of the breakdowns in the bilateral relationship, at least since the fall of the U.S.S.R.; (c) Russia’s senior leadership has internalized the assertion that the country is hemmed in by hostile forces determined to keep it from assuming its rightful place as a world power. None of this bodes well for U.S.-Russia ties.

It’s hard to imagine now, but 2017 started out with an air of wild optimism I’ve rarely seen in Moscow. Donald Trump’s improbable presidential election victory had generated widespread anticipation of a reversal in the downward spiral of U.S.-Russian relations. The investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election still seemed like the "death throes” of the Obama presidency, as officials never tired of telling me. No one expected Trump to move quickly to lift sanctions, but a goodwill gesture, such as returning Russian diplomatic compounds seized at the end of December, looked possible, if not inevitable.

A year later, only two things seem inevitable: On March 18, Vladimir Putin will be reelected president by a wide margin. And no turnaround in the course of U.S.-Russian affairs is in sight.

After spending the past 13 months in Moscow (and 14 years before that), I have come home with a few firm convictions: (a) Americans and Russians woefully misunderstand each other; (b) Moscow does not, and will not, accept complicity in or responsibility for any of the breakdowns in the bilateral relationship, at least since the fall of the U.S.S.R.; (c) Russia’s senior leadership has internalized the assertion that the country is hemmed in by hostile forces determined to keep it from assuming its rightful place as a world power. None of this bodes well for U.S.-Russia ties.

In Moscow, the notion that Russia is under siege is at the heart of TV talk shows, political debates and Putin’s own policy statements. Every major international event is viewed as a zero-sum proposition, and the player on the other end of the game board is the United States—or, rather, the deeply Russophobic mainstream that refuses to cede power to the Trump White House and the Americans it represents.

Consider this recent exchange on Russia’s state-run 24-hour news station involving one of Putin’s so-called rivals in the presidential race. Communist Party nominee Pavel Grudinin was detailing his plans to raise living standards, invest in infrastructure and repatriate the huge sums held by Russians in offshore accounts, when the interviewer interrupted him: How could a Russian president find the time to focus on the economy, she asked, “when someone is trying to take Crimea from us and push us off the world stage?”

This view of the world may have started out as a politically expedient way to deflect attention from pressing domestic troubles, but the whispers in Moscow’s corridors have it that, with time, it has become Putin’s genuine conviction. (He certainly sounded sincere at a foreign policy conference last October when he said that Russia’s biggest mistake in dealing with the West had been trusting it too much, and the West’s biggest mistake had been taking that trust for weakness and abusing it.) I honestly can’t say what Putin believes, but I do subscribe to another widely held view among Russian analysts: that Putin gets his information from a very limited set of sources, which provide exactly the facts and analysis that support the idea of a Russia under siege.

Viewed from Moscow, there are more than enough examples to back up this interpretation. Last year I appeared on a Russian TV talk show where I tried using a map to show how the Baltic states view Russian military presence in the region as an existential threat; this was shortly before Russia’s large-scale Zapad war games, which had some Western observers worried Moscow would invade its Soviet-era territories. Before my sketch was done, Leonid Kalashnikov, a Communist lawmaker in the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, was shouting in my face that it was Russia, not the Baltics, who was surrounded, and Vyacheslav Nikonov, another virulent critic of U.S. policy in the Duma, sketched out a line of U.S. nuclear destroyers moored off Russia in the Baltic Sea.

Sadly, portrayals of Russia-related affairs in the U.S. can be so one-sided and ill-informed—particularly in today’s ultra-polarized political climate—that they too often feed into the Russian elites’ narrative. Ahead of Zapad, for example, some American media rang alarm bells about the possibility of Russian aggression and even an invasion of a neighboring country under cover of the exercises; no such attack happened, but the overwrought tone was set. Likewise, U.S. officials and Beltway pundits have often swept aside Russian claims that Western leaders had promised NATO would not expand into Moscow’s Soviet-era domain; yet recently declassified documents show that high-level Western officials, including then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, did give Moscow such assurances in the 1990s. Meanwhile, U.S. military officials accuse Russia of violating the 1987 INF Treaty on medium-range missiles without publicly providing proof; while they pay short shrift to Moscow’s counter-accusations about U.S. violations, a retired American general last month explained how the launcher used by Washington in its Aegis Ashore missile-defense system does in fact appear to violate the letter of the treaty.

The lack of understanding cuts both ways, of course. One thing officials in Moscow seem not to get is the ferocity or nature of the battles among stakeholders in U.S. politics. A senior Russian diplomat asked me in exasperation last year why America’s foreign policy elite can’t agree on a unified position and stay on the same page. “We all agree,” the diplomat said of the Russian side, “and only then do we talk.” Moreover, after news broke last fall that in March 2017 Putin had offered the White House a plan for the “wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military and intelligence channels,” analysts were left wondering how well the Russian leader understands the mechanics of American democracy. Did the Russian elites really buy Trump’s rhetoric and think he’d be able to single-handedly turn the relationship around? Does that explain the optimism of early 2017?

Putin didn’t invent Russia’s siege mentality, but he has worked hard to cast his primary role as guardian of the interests of the Russian state in a world order that seeks to exclude it. He now limits his involvement in domestic affairs to gestures—upbraiding underlings for their poor performance, making annual televised shows of interest in his constituents’ affairs, spitting out statistics about macroeconomic growth or the size of this year’s grain exports. Domestic affairs may return to center stage as the issue of succession looms in 2024, but as long as Putin is president, Russia, according to semi-official doctrine, will be under siege from the West, led by the United States. And hand in hand with the myth of the West’s eternal siege goes the legend of Russia’s imperviousness to external pressure. The big question, I suppose, is: Will the West find just the right pressure points to help improve relations and, with them, global security? Or will Washington and Moscow keep pressing all each other’s wrong buttons and ramping up the risk of full-blown conflict?

David Filipov is a former Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He has (thus far) spent a total of 15 years in Russia.

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

Can Russia Help the US on North Korea, or ‘The Problem With Deterrence? You Only Know When It Fails’

Can Russia Help the US on North Korea, or ‘The Problem With Deterrence? You Only Know When It Fails’

teaser Female soldiers in North Korea military parade Female soldiers in North Korea military parade Can Russia Help the US on North Korea, or ‘The Problem With Deterrence? You Only Know When It Fails’December 22, 2017Kevin DoyleIn their efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff U.S. policymakers should leverage Moscow’s long history of relatively close ties with Pyongyang and give more consideration to the role Russia could play as a mediator: This was the consensus among an international panel of scholars, including two Russians and three Americans, at a talk hosted last month by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The event coincided with FPRI’s publication of a report , “Nuclear Weapons and Russian-North Korean Relations,” featuring the scholars’ work and claiming to be the most in-depth recent examination of the Kremlin’s relationship with its reclusive Far East neighbor.

The conference proved timely, coming just one day after North Korea launched its new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which some analysts say could threaten the U.S. mainland. All the panelists emphasized the importance of negotiations with the North Korean regime, as the alternative could very well be nuclear war, which would be devastating for all involved. While Pyongyang and Washington may not want an active conflict on the Korean peninsula, the countries face a “binary choice” between war and negotiations, according to Georgy Toloraya, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

While Russia has its own interests surrounding North Korea, including stability, denuclearization and limited Western influence on the peninsula—the first two coincide with U.S. interests, while the last does not. Still, Moscow has enough common interests with all the relevant parties to authoritatively communicate with them, according to the panelists.

In their efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff U.S. policymakers should leverage Moscow’s long history of relatively close ties with Pyongyang and give more consideration to the role Russia could play as a mediator: This was the consensus among an international panel of scholars, including two Russians and three Americans, at a talk hosted last month by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The event coincided with FPRI’s publication of a report, “Nuclear Weapons and Russian-North Korean Relations,” featuring the scholars’ work and claiming to be the most in-depth recent examination of the Kremlin’s relationship with its reclusive Far East neighbor.

The conference proved timely, coming just one day after North Korea launched its new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which some analysts say could threaten the U.S. mainland. All the panelists emphasized the importance of negotiations with the North Korean regime, as the alternative could very well be nuclear war, which would be devastating for all involved. While Pyongyang and Washington may not want an active conflict on the Korean peninsula, the countries face a “binary choice” between war and negotiations, according to Georgy Toloraya, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

While Russia has its own interests surrounding North Korea, including stability, denuclearization and limited Western influence on the peninsula—the first two coincide with U.S. interests, while the last does not. Still, Moscow has enough common interests with all the relevant parties to authoritatively communicate with them, according to the panelists. Moreover, Russia has deep historic and diplomatic connections to North Korea. “Since the late 19th century, Russia has been a major stakeholder in Korean affairs,” according to Artyom Lukin, a professor of international relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. The speakers also pointed out that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it is officially known, was practically built by the Soviet Union. This shared history has created trust between the two countries, the panelists noted, and Russia can be seen as an “honest broker” between sides with wildly divergent interests—serving a role similar to the one it had during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

While China today has the strongest economic ties of any country with North Korea, policymakers in the U.S. need to look beyond their “obsession” with Beijing as the only other relevant stakeholder in negotiations in the view of Rensselaer W. Lee III, a senior fellow at FPRI. China is often perceived as too supportive of the North Korean regime, and the DPRK is skeptical of Western promises. As many of the speakers said, Kim Jong-un is primarily interested in regime survival, and he has greater faith in Russia than in the U.S. to ensure that.

Tolaraya, who had just returned from North Korea, strongly criticized the current U.S. strategy to contain the conflict, saying, “You cannot expect North Korea to stop its course just because of sanctions.” He said that the sanctions continue to affect ordinary North Koreans, but that elites always find ways around them. Tolaraya also described the rhetoric from the Trump administration as unhelpful, and he urged U.S. leaders to examine North Korea’s interests in creating a nuclear program and to devise effective negotiation strategies that will address the concerns of all parties.  

Somewhat surprisingly the speakers disagreed on one key issue: North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. William Severe, a former physicist who held positions at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the State Department, claimed that many experts are overreacting about the North Korean nuclear threat, which he insisted was minimal. Sue Mi Terry, a senior advisor for North Korea at the Bower Group Asia consultancy and a former U.S. intelligence officer, strongly disagreed, arguing that the U.S. has “consistently underestimated” advances in North Korean nuclear technology.

The panelists agreed that U.S. cooperation with Russia would be difficult, given the growing tensions in the bilateral relationship and President Donald Trump’s aversion to multilateral negotiations. While some of them expressed hope that Russia’s involvement could offer avenues for U.S.-Russia cooperation in a relationship increasingly devoid of them, it is clear that, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation intensifies, Trump will likely face more domestic pressure to distance himself from Russia. Any attempts to bring Moscow into the negotiation process with North Korea would be met with considerable skepticism by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Many panelists also noted that the Trump administration has shown a clear preference for bilateral negotiations, excluding third parties from the table. But the urgency of the problem was apparent to the entire panel. A stalemate may prevail for the time being between the U.S. and North Korea, with both sides deterred from attacking. But, as Chris Miller of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy pointed out, the problem with measuring the effectiveness of deterrence, from a political science perspective, is that “you only know when it fails.”

Photo by Uri Tours, shared under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license. 

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

Putin’s Legacy: Brezhnev Lite?

Putin’s Legacy: Brezhnev Lite?

teaser Putin amid birches Putin amid birches Putin’s Legacy: Brezhnev Lite?December 14, 2017Andrew C. KuchinsLast year, Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin—who for the past 18 months has been preparing, with many colleagues, the most comprehensive and liberal program of structural economic reforms Russia has seen in a long time—spoke at the annual Valdai Club gathering with modest optimism for the country’s future. This year Kudrin did not take part in the Valdai meeting, and when I saw him earlier in October he seemed a beaten and depressed man who sensed that his hard work would lead to little or nothing.

That turnabout gives a good sense not just of the domestic economic policies we can expect from President Vladimir Putin, who did not exactly shock the world this month when he announced his candidacy for another six-year term, but also a hint of the legacy we might expect him to leave behind when his time as Russia’s de jure and de facto leader—now at 17 years and counting—comes to an end. Operating on the assumption of a Putin victory in 2018, I suspect that (a) his early economic successes—like robust growth of 7 percent annually in 2000-2008—will be eclipsed by much weaker economic performance to come and (b) we will not see significant change for the better in Russia’s relations with the West.

Both these features resemble Russia under a different long-serving leader, Leonid Brezhnev, whose tenure from 1964 until his death in 1982 was marked by political stability and, toward the end, by a stagnant economy, with the Soviet Union falling behind global competitors, and by tensions with the West, especially with the United States. Both in today’s Russia and in Brezhnev’s, the troubled relations with Washington dropped to new lows after brief thaws (which have been the exception, not the rule, over the past hundred years): détente in the early and mid-1970s and the Obama-Medvedev “reset” of 2009-2011. And as Putin has focused on reinvigorating Russia’s military might and global stature—at the expense, some would argue, of improvements at home—so did Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, reaching full nuclear and military parity with its superpower rival while its citizens famously queued for food and toilet paper.

That said, the USSR under Brezhnev—even in his much-joked-about dotage—was a far more authoritarian police state than today (and likely just about as corrupt); in foreign policy, it was much more seriously contesting the interests of the United States and its allies all over the world. And yet in the 1980s few, if any, of us, inside or outside Russia, had any idea that within a decade the mighty Soviet Union would collapse.

One big question about Putin’s legacy has to do with just that: Are there real seeds of revolution in the country and what will make them sprout and grow? The Western press has made much of the youth demonstrations organized and inspired by opposition figure Alexei Navalny, but this is more of a mirage than the embryo of a major social movement. Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center and perhaps Russia’s most respected pollster, told us in Moscow that it is exactly the young generation (age 18-29) that is the most pro-Putin of all, with nearly 90 percent supporting the president. How badly disappointed will they be in the regime in the years to come and what will they do about it?

Last year, Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin—who for the past 18 months has been preparing, with many colleagues, the most comprehensive and liberal program of structural economic reforms Russia has seen in a long time—spoke at the annual Valdai Club gathering with modest optimism for the country’s future. This year Kudrin did not take part in the Valdai meeting, and when I saw him earlier in October he seemed a beaten and depressed man who sensed that his hard work would lead to little or nothing.

That turnabout gives a good sense not just of the domestic economic policies we can expect from President Vladimir Putin, who did not exactly shock the world this month when he announced his candidacy for another six-year term, but also a hint of the legacy we might expect him to leave behind when his time as Russia’s de jure and de facto leader—now at 17 years and counting—comes to an end. Operating on the assumption of a Putin victory in 2018, I suspect that (a) his early economic successes—like robust growth of 7 percent annually in 2000-2008—will be eclipsed by much weaker economic performance to come and (b) we will not see significant change for the better in Russia’s relations with the West.

Both these features resemble Russia under a different long-serving leader, Leonid Brezhnev, whose tenure from 1964 until his death in 1982 was marked by political stability and, toward the end, by a stagnant economy, with the Soviet Union falling behind global competitors, and by tensions with the West, especially with the United States. Both in today’s Russia and in Brezhnev’s, the troubled relations with Washington dropped to new lows after brief thaws (which have been the exception, not the rule, over the past hundred years): détente in the early and mid-1970s and the Obama-Medvedev “reset” of 2009-2011. And as Putin has focused on reinvigorating Russia’s military might and global stature—at the expense, some would argue, of improvements at home—so did Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, reaching full nuclear and military parity with its superpower rival while its citizens famously queued for food and toilet paper.

That said, the USSR under Brezhnev—even in his much-joked-about dotage—was a far more authoritarian police state than today's Russia (and likely just about as corrupt); in foreign policy, it was much more seriously contesting the interests of the United States and its allies all over the world. And yet in the 1980s few, if any, of us, inside or outside Russia, had any idea that within a decade the mighty Soviet Union would collapse.

One big question about Putin’s legacy has to do with just that: Are there real seeds of revolution in the country and what will make them sprout and grow? The Western press has made much of the youth demonstrations organized and inspired by opposition figure Alexei Navalny, but this is more of a mirage than the embryo of a major social movement. Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center and perhaps Russia’s most respected pollster, told us in Moscow that it is exactly the young generation (age 18-29) that is the most pro-Putin of all, with nearly 90 percent supporting the president. How badly disappointed will they be in the regime in the years to come and what will they do about it?

Whither Economic Reform

Going back to his landmark article published on the eve of his promotion to the presidency in December 1999, Vladimir Putin has always strongly supported evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. The Valdai conference title “Creative Destruction: Can a New World Order Emerge from Conflicts?” characterized the current global period as highly turbulent with changes in the balance of power coupled with dramatic, rapid, ultimately unpredictable technological change. The message from Russian leaders was that a rapid pace of economic, political and social reforms has historically led to chaos and twice in the past century to the collapse of the state.

Maybe it’s not surprising then that an economic reform program to stimulate growth in Russia during the next term does not appear to be on the agenda. Kudrin’s plan, according to a high-level Russian government official, was supposedly being considered alongside several more, including that of the Stolypin Club, the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade and others, and the Kremlin would choose the best features of each to go forward with. That sounds like a recipe for no plan at all. In addition, officials in Moscow emphasized that discussion of key economic reforms, such as pension reform, would not be part of the presidential campaign.

We also learned that privatization of state-owned enterprises was not on the agenda for the foreseeable future. Officials provided some flimsy explanations for why this is the case, but the reality is that, with Russia under Western economic sanctions, there is little market for Russian assets, thus making them highly undervalued. The Rosneft privatization last December appeared as an embarrassing sham for the Russian government. Probably better to hold off on privatization if one has to resort to such a farce.

Without major reform or privatization, the Russian leadership appears to be betting on Russia taking the lead on technological breakthroughs in the next five to 10 years to catch up with, perhaps even surpass, its global competitors. Sberbank CEO German Gref gave a dazzling Steve Jobs-like presentation about major ongoing and accelerating breakthroughs taking place now in fields such as artificial intelligence, blockchain technologies, robotics, big data and others that will radically change the workplace as well as the global economy. He was effusive in his praise of Putin and the government, which has “seen the light” and executed a “U-turn” in the promotion of high tech. Even Gref, who had authored Putin’s initial economic reform program in 2000, did not talk about the need for reforms per se, but said that a technocratic government in Russia would be best in the years ahead. I would like to share his optimism, but it does remind me of the emphasis in the late Brezhnev years placed on the “nauchno-tekhnicheskaya revolyutsia” (scientific-technological revolution) and the idea that the USSR had to keep pace with, if not overtake, the United States and its allies. We know that did not turn out so well for the Soviet Union.

My main takeaway from these recent trips and discussions is that Russia is looking at fairly stagnant economic growth of about 2 percent in the coming years and, like all countries, will be grappling with great technological change that will be very disruptive at the individual, state and global level.

Ukraine, Sanctions and the West

One constraint on economic growth, as suggested above, lies in the continuing, and possibly deepening, Western sanctions against Russia, whose effect will likely increase over time. Russian elites, even Putin, acknowledge that the sanctions are having a detrimental effect on the Russian economy—usually pointing to the 1 percent drop in GDP estimated to be caused by sanctions. But in official circles the tendency is to diminish the negative effect and point to the positives of an import substitution policy, especially for agriculture. Privately, experts and business people debate how pernicious in the longer term (three to five years) the impact of the sanctions will be for the development of critical Russian technologies, such as in the oil and gas sector.

This naturally brings us to the question of Ukraine, as it is the main reason for the sanctions—imposed by the U.S., EU, Japan and Canada shortly after Russia annexed Crimea—as well as the biggest obstacle to normalizing Russia’s relations with the West. Last August, the United States Congress, in what I call a “hostile takeover of U.S. Russia policy,” codified these sanctions and placed further restrictions on U.S. economic engagement with Russia, as well as with Iran and North Korea. Symbolically Congress was saying that Russia is now part of an updated “axis of evil” that is dangerously opposed to U.S. interests in many contexts. This was also an expression of deep anger over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, as well as congressional distrust of President Donald Trump who has long advocated easing the sanctions if not lifting them altogether.

From what I heard in Russia this fall, I see no reason for optimism here. Putin was especially defiant on Ukraine and on relations with the West in his remarks at Valdai. When a European panelist posed a question about Ukraine and prefaced it by saying “Europe sees now that the ball is in Russia’s court,” Putin immediately fired back that he sees it exactly the opposite—that the ball is in Europe’s court to put much more pressure on Poroshenko and his weak government to abide by the commitments he made in the Minsk II agreement. When another participant noted that Mr. Putin was very critical of many Western policies toward Russia over the years, and asked what he thought were the mistakes Russia had made with the West, his answer was simple and powerful: “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much. And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.”

It is clear that Putin and his colleagues are very disappointed in the Trump administration, but they do not ascribe guilt to Trump personally, but rather to the deep Russophobia that permeates the U.S. Congress, media and political class. Perhaps the Kremlin really was expecting the Trump administration to make major concessions to Russia in order to re-track the relationship—it is hard to blame them looking back on the things Trump said about NATO, Ukraine and the status of Crimea and other issues pertaining to Russia. But it is also clear that the Kremlin was not, and still is not, ready to make any significant concessions on Ukraine that could result in a breakthrough. We also need to keep in mind that there is no powerful domestic constituency in Russia now to promote much stronger ties with the West or deep economic and social reforms to modernize the country.

Postscript

To conclude, let’s return to the legacy question and what this could look like in 2024, at the end of Mr. Putin’s (highly likely) next term. While I would like to be wrong, there is no substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the Russian president will unveil a major economic reform program that is essential for stimulating substantial economic growth, or that any resolution on Ukraine is in the offing that could begin to normalize Russia-Western relations. Absent something quite dramatic, the new normal for Russia is a stagnant economy, falling further behind competitors, coupled with a very scratchy adversarial relationship with the West.

No doubt Putin views himself as the only person capable of steering Russia through the rough waters ahead, and in announcing his candidacy—at an 85th-anniversary celebration of the Gorky Automobile Plant—he suggested a populist platform, positioning himself as the only candidate who can protect Russians’ jobs and security. But will his policies match the promise? And will his supporters stay loyal? I couldn’t help but notice that Putin himself evinced virtually no enthusiasm with the announcement, leaving the stage very shortly after a cheering crowd of “volunteers” endorsed his candidacy.

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

Photo credit: Press service of the government of Russia (premier.gov.ru).

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

From Cockroaches to Weather: What’s Russia Weaponizing?

From Cockroaches to Weather: What’s Russia Weaponizing?

teaser loaded gun loaded gun From Cockroaches to Weather: What’s Russia Weaponizing?December 13, 2017RM StaffIn a Foreign Affairs essay published online in December 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of weaponizing corruption, among other things. “Russia has invaded neighboring countries… More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy and corruption,” he wrote together with his co-author, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. Biden’s observation made us wonder what else Russia has been accused of weaponizing in recent years. Here’s the list we have come up with...

In a Foreign Affairs essay published online in December 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of weaponizing corruption, among other things. “Russia has invaded neighboring countries… More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy and corruption,” he wrote together with his co-author, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. Biden’s observation made us wonder what else Russia has been accused of weaponizing in recent years. Here’s the list we have come up  with:

Bigotry (The Daily Beast, 10.19.18)

Disability (Euromaidan Press, 03.28.17)

Dolphins (AFP, 03.09.16)

Energy sector (The Hill, 10.17.17)

Facebook (Bloomberg, 08.07.18)

Federalism (Ukrainian Canadian Congress, 12.04.15)

Fossil fuel supplies (EU Observer, 11.30.18)

History (Russian Life Magazine, July/August 2007)

Hybrid business (RFE/RL, 07.20.16)

Infrastructure underpining democratic societies (Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18)

Interdependence (Financial Times, 12.05.18)

Its financial default (Russia Insider, 09.19.15)

Its national trauma (Read Russia, 09.18.15)

Its own population (Real Clear World, 12.03.17)

Journalists (ECFR, 05.19.16)

Media (The Atlantic, 04.21.15)

Migration (BBC, 03.02.16)

Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (RFE/RL, 05.28.18)

Pop singers and rock stars (ECFR, 05.19.16)

Puppies (AP, 01.02.18)

Racism in the U.S. (CNN, 07.02.18)

Requests to Interpol to issue Red Notices (The Atlantic, 07.30.18)

Robotic cockroaches (Modern Notion, 09.28.15)

Social media (NPR, 11.05.17)

Syrian refugees (RFE/RL, 02.19.16)

Twitter (Bloomberg, 08.07.18)

Weather (Daily Mail, 02.15.15)

Updated Dec. 11, 2018.

Photo credit: Max Pixel

Putin at Valdai: Gloomy Prospects for U.S.-Russia Relations

Putin at Valdai: Gloomy Prospects for U.S.-Russia Relations

teaser Putin at Valdai Putin at Valdai Putin at Valdai: Gloomy Prospects for U.S.-Russia RelationsOctober 19, 2017RM Staff

President Vladimir Putin showered criticism on the “so-called West,” particularly on Washington, in a speech and question-answer session in Sochi on Oct. 19, leaving foreign-relations analysts in the audience with a rather grim view of the foreseeable future of U.S.-Russia ties. The Russian leader did make a point, however, of blaming the troubled relationship on Congress and President Donald Trump’s predecessors rather than the current administration.

Putin spoke calmly for most of his three or so hours at the Valdai Discussion Club—an annual international gathering of Russia experts, policymakers and journalists—but grew visibly emotional when discussing the Ukraine crisis, showing no readiness for any concessions and blaming the West and pro-Western political forces in Ukraine for both the conflict and the stalemate in implementing the long-stalled Minsk-2 peace accords. In contrast, he was cool and collected when claiming he was not worried about the deployment and training of NATO forces on Russia’s western flank.

In an unusual twist, Putin also repeatedly emphasized his discontent with U.S.-Russian interactions in the area of nuclear security, blaming the U.S. for what he saw as a failure to reciprocate for Russia’s unilateral granting of access to its nuclear weapons facilities in the 1990s. Not only did he reiterate earlier grievances that Washington had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, but he invoked the perceived one-sidedness of that early cooperation when answering seemingly unrelated questions. One of those concerned Russia’s response if the U.S. declares the American bureaus of state-funded Russian media RT and Sputnik to be “foreign agents” (Putin said the response would be “symmetrical”). This indicates that Americans’ purported betrayal of Russia’s good will on nuclear security is now another official talking point on Russia's list of grievances vis-à-vis the U.S.

The Russian president didn’t face any direct questions on his plans to run for re-election in March and dodged indirect ones, but he did not sound like a man preparing to step down.

His comments concerning the most salient aspects of U.S.-Russian relations are below, paraphrased except for remarks in quotation marks, which are direct speech. The original Russian can be found via this link . The compilation was prepared by RM Staff in Sochi and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Update: The Kremlin's English translation is now available .

President Vladimir Putin showered criticism on the “so-called West,” particularly on Washington, in a speech and question-answer session in Sochi on Oct. 19, leaving foreign-relations analysts in the audience with a rather grim view of the foreseeable future of U.S.-Russia ties. The Russian leader did make a point, however, of blaming the troubled relationship on Congress and President Donald Trump’s predecessors rather than the current administration.

Putin spoke calmly for most of his three or so hours at the Valdai Discussion Club—an annual international gathering of Russia experts, policymakers and journalists—but grew visibly emotional when discussing the Ukraine crisis, showing no readiness for any concessions and blaming the West and pro-Western political forces in Ukraine for both the conflict and the stalemate in implementing the long-stalled Minsk-2 peace accords. In contrast, he was cool and collected when claiming he was not worried about the deployment and training of NATO forces on Russia’s western flank.

In an unusual twist, Putin also repeatedly emphasized his discontent with U.S.-Russian interactions in the area of nuclear security, blaming the U.S. for what he saw as a failure to reciprocate for Russia’s unilateral granting of access to its nuclear weapons facilities in the 1990s. Not only did he reiterate earlier grievances that Washington had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, but he invoked the perceived one-sidedness of that early cooperation when answering seemingly unrelated questions. One of those concerned Russia’s response if the U.S. declares the American bureaus of state-funded Russian media RT and Sputnik to be “foreign agents” (Putin said the response would be “symmetrical”). This indicates that Americans’ purported betrayal of Russia’s good will on nuclear security is now another official talking point on Russia's list of grievances vis-à-vis the U.S.

The Russian president didn’t face any direct questions on his plans to run for re-election in March and dodged indirect ones, but he did not sound like a man preparing to step down.

His comments concerning the most salient aspects of U.S.-Russian relations are below, paraphrased except for remarks in quotation marks, which are direct speech. The original Russian can be found via this link. The compilation was prepared by RM Staff in Sochi and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Update: The Kremlin's English translation is now available.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • Basic multi-lateral and bilateral agreements are being "devalued." A few hours ago I was told the U.S. president tweeted about U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear issues. This is indeed one of the most important areas of cooperation and the U.S. and Russia bear special responsibility for this on the global arena. In the 1990s several landmark agreements were signed—for example, Nunn-Lugar and the agreement on converting highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU). The first one dealt with material protection, control and accounting (MPC&A), decommissioning of subs, etc. Americans paid 620 inspection visits to the "holy of holies" of Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, including enterprises developing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The U.S. had access to all secret facilities of that kind in Russia. As part of the HEU/LEU agreement there were 170 more inspection visits by U.S. specialists; they even had American flags up inside some of these top-secret Russian facilities. Five hundred tons of weapons-grade uranium (about the equivalent of 20,000 warheads) were converted into LEU as part of that agreement. This was one of the most significant disarmament achievements in history.
  • The Russian side demonstrated unprecedented openness as part of this endeavor. In response, we got our national interests fully ignored, support for separatism in the Caucasus, use of force that bypassed the U.N. Security Council, for example to bomb Yugoslavia and send troops into Iraq. It is clear why: They saw the state of our nuclear complex, our armed forces, and economy.
  • In the 2000s we saw a new stage of cooperation where we really achieved a partnership of equals with the U.S. This included the 123 Agreement, but that agreement was then suspended. The Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement was being implemented. We fully implemented that deal, while the Americans completed 70 percent of their MOX production plant, and now the U.S. government is requesting funds to shut down construction. Now they want to dilute and bury plutonium rather than turn into MOX, but that violates the spirit and letter of the agreement. The U.S. has not yet ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and we have. They also withdrew from the ABM Treaty. They have yet to destroy all their chemical weapons; they “remain the only and the most powerful possessor of this type of weapon of mass destruction.”
  • We suspended the plutonium disposition agreement because the American side is not doing anything. They did not even warn us that they were violating this treaty. We learned it from the Congressional budget bill.
  • It was humiliating when we let you into our nuclear enterprises, hoping the U.S. would reciprocate. But expecting that was stupid.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • The situation surrounding North Korea is dangerous. Hints and direct threats of a disarming strike create a dangerous situation. What if the North Koreans had hidden something? North Korea should be treated with respect and war-like rhetoric should be abandoned.
  • Russia is fulfilling all UNSC resolutions, but this problem should be solved diplomatically, through dialogue, not arm-twisting. “North Korea should not be backed into a corner.” It is a sovereign state.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • No significant comments.

Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

  • Our greatest mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much, while your mistake is that you took advantage of this, treating it as weakness.
  • We are not worried by U.S./NATO training in Eastern Europe. Let them train. Everything is under control.
  • The challenge posed by the USSR spurred many of the West’s 20th-century achievements: improved living standards, the development of a strong middle class, labor and social reforms, the development of education, guarantees of human rights, including the rights of minorities and women, overcoming racial segregation.
  • The end of the USSR offered a unique opportunity for a genuinely new chapter in history; unfortunately, "Western partners" divided up “the geopolitical legacy of the Soviet Union, grew convinced of their unquestionable rightness,” “declared themselves the winners of the Cold War” and “began openly interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, exporting democracy” like the Soviet leadership tried to export socialism. We encountered a redistribution of spheres of influence and an expansion of NATO. “Two and a half decades have been lost.”
  • We had greater differences in Soviet times, but there was greater respect; no one would pull down flags at Soviet diplomatic institutions.

Missile defense:

  • No significant comments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Is nuclear disarmament possible or not? Yes, it is. Yes, Russia wants full nuclear disarmament and will strive for it. However, modern states are developing new weapons that come close to being equal to nuclear weapons. The destructive power of high-precision weapons is coming close to that of nuclear weapons.
  • The ABM Treaty has been a cornerstone of strategic stability. We are not planning to exit New START.
  • As for the INF Treaty, we have recently heard accusations that Russia is violating it by developing something. Maybe we would have been tempted to do that if we hadn’t developed sea- and air-launched missiles, including the Kalibr. The U.S. has long had such missiles, which made the INF effectively a unilateral disarmament treaty under which the USSR axed land-based missiles. Now we have sea- and air-launched missiles and we feel we’ve simply leveled the playing field. If our American partners want to exit the INF, our response will be “immediate and mirror-like. But we have complied and will continue to comply” with the treaty.

Counter-terrorism:

  • There was full support of separatism in the North Caucasus [on the part of the U.S.] and I know this as ex-director of the FSB.

Conflict in Syria:

  • We will finish off the terrorists in Syria very soon, but the root causes need to be addressed, including lack of education. Therefore, finishing off terrorists will not eliminate the threat. Negotiations between the government and the opposition promise to be very difficult. One idea is to convene a Congress of Peoples of Syria and that could be a step toward a political resolution and then maybe toward a new constitution, though it is too early to talk about that.
  • It is normal that countries’ national interests do not coincide. However, when national interests are advanced at any cost, that leads to harsh conflicts and no problems are solved. Recent examples include events in the Middle East, which has seen coups organized from outside. Some of our counterparts are doing everything they can to ensure there’s permanent chaos in the region; some people still think this chaos can be managed. But the Syrian experience shows that there are alternatives to this overconfident, destructive policy: Russia acts in concert with the legitimate government and other regional powers to fight terrorism. We work with all participants in the Syrian process and respect their interests. Our efforts there generate hope.
  • The Astana negotiations are showing signs of progress. The U.S., though not participating directly, plays an important role. We’ve been in constant contact with our American partners on this; it hasn’t always been easy or conflict-free, but the cooperation overall has been more positive than negative.

Cyber security:

  • No significant comments.

Elections interference:

  • An unprecedented anti-Russia campaign has been launched in the U.S and that campaign has no grounds whatsoever. There is anti-Russian hysteria in the U.S. “Someone lost the election to Mr. Trump, placed all the blame on Russia and launched just unbridled anti-Russia hysteria.”
  • The American people voted for Trump. He won honestly.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant comments.

Bilateral economic ties:

  • No significant comments.

Sanctions:

  • The recent U.S. sanctions package “clearly aims to squeeze Russia out of European energy markets” and to force Europe to abandon Russian gas for more expensive U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). Obstacles are being put up to new pipelines we are building, including Nordstream-2, even though “such a diversification of logistics is economically efficient, advantageous to Europe, [and] serves to enhance its security.”

Other bilateral issues:

  • We don’t know whether it would have been easier to work with a President Hillary Clinton. President Trump’s unpredictably is in part due to powerful resistance within the country. He is unable to implement his campaign promises. But we will still work with them. The U.S. is a great power, the world’s largest economic and military power, but our trade with them is negligible, unfortunately. We will work with the U.S. no matter what the difficulties, if they want to. If they don’t want to, we won’t.
  • We do have a dialogue with the U.S. on levels of diplomatic, defense and special services in Syria and we achieve results. That experience can be replicated elsewhere.
  • Washington and Moscow should “cross out” the past, turn a new page and move forward on the basis of “mutual respect” as equal partners.
  • Regarding Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik: We have been told many times that it is not democratic to put pressure on mass media. I am at a loss for words to describe what’s happening to Russia Today. International media directly influence politics in many countries, but that’s natural. As for turning the other cheek, recall what we did to open our nuclear enterprises, opening them fully in hopes of being treated as equal partners, but in vain. The Americans saw the state of our nuclear complex and concluded that weak partners’ interests should not be taken into account. Therefore, we will immediately reciprocate for whatever happens to Russian media in the U.S.

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • When asked what the winner of the 2018 presidential election should focus on: We need to make Russia flexible and competitive, including the management of its economy. We need to strengthen our defense and perfect our political system. We don’t even realize what big data is. Just recently, a U.S. company began sending offers of pregnancy-related products to a 14-year old girl; a computer analyzed her internet behavior and came to this conclusion.
  • Revolution is always the result of a deficit of responsibility, both on the part of those who want to preserve the old order and on the part of the revolutionaries. The results of the October 1917 revolution include both the negative and the positive and the two are tightly intertwined. And it’s worth asking: Could change not have been achieved through gradual evolution? Nonetheless, the revolution led to changes worlwide.
  • Asked if a woman can be the next president: “Anything is possible” in Russia.
  • When moderator asked him how the Valdai Club could meet next year if Putin is not president: “It’s time to wrap up.”
  • Expect 2 percent growth of economy, 3 percent inflation—lowest in post-Soviet Russian history.

Defense and aerospace:

  • See "Nuclear arms control" section above.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

No significant comments.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

World order, globalization:

  • The pace of events is so fast that you have to react all the time and quickly. Qualitatively new processes are evolving in all spheres (e.g., technological revolution). Competition for places in the global hierarchy is getting increasingly acute. The speed of change is so great that the scientific-technological factor becomes the crucial one in the military and security spheres and these changes are irreversible.
  • Scientific-technological progress, like robotics, leads to dramatic shifts. How do we ensure employment in the period of automation? Could humans lose control over AI? The importance of science and technology is increasing, acquiring a political character as well. No modern technologies can ensure sustainable development on their own. It has to be accompanied by social responsibility.
  • Growing inequality helps leads millions of people, entire peoples even, that the world is unfair; this in turn leads to radicalization.

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • The situation in Spain is an internal matter for Spain and should be resolved in accordance with Spanish law. But it’s the result of processes lasting for centuries. Why didn’t anyone think about this before? And why was the disintegration of several European states welcomed with glee in years past? It was in part due to political expediencies and a desire to court “the big brother in Washington” that some players unconditionally supported the independence of Kosovo and now, there you go, we have Catalonia. In the view of some of our international colleagues, there are the “right” kind of freedom fighters and there are “separatists.” That’s the double standard. Apologists of globalization once assured us that globalization would lead to fewer conflicts through economic interdependence, but that’s not the case, is it?
  • Recognition of Kosovo has opened a Pandora’s Box.
  • We need to abandon the old agenda and start looking forward, stop looking back. We need an honest conversation by the international community. There’s no alternative to the U.N. The U.N. Security Council veto was designed to avoid conflict among world powers. Reform of the U.N. should be incremental. Regional organizations should act under the aegis of the U.N.

China:

  • On Russian-Chinese relations: Xi and I call each other friends because it reflects our human relationship. The interests of our countries often coincide or are close. We always reach an agreement on any disputable issue and both countries benefit from these agreements.

Ukraine:

  • The ball is in Europe’s court, not Russia’s. It is because of the previous European Commission’s unconstructive position that Ukraine went through a coup. Disturbances emerged and were fully supported by the E.U. and U.S. Both supported forceful seizure of power.
  • Today’s situation in Ukraine is the result of a coup and Europe is guilty because it supported the coup.
  • We signed Minsk-2, but Ukraine is sabotaging that agreement and everyone knows that. I don’t see how the president of Ukraine can implement Minsk-2, but there is no other way, so we will support Minsk-2 and the Normandy format.
  • On restoring Ukraine’s control over its border: Closing the border between eastern Ukraine and Russia before special status is given to Donbass and an amnesty is implemented would lead to a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica. Russia voluntarily gave up territory upon agreeing to the independence of former Soviet republics. We want to have friendly relations with Ukraine. What do you imagine would have happened if the E.U. clinched a deal with Ukraine on free trade that would have turned Ukraine into a free gateway for EU goods into Russia, because Ukraine had free trade with Russia? It is not enough to turn to Russia; pressure should be put on Ukraine.
  • Russia will ease granting of citizenship to one million Ukrainian refugees.
  • Even the most complex knots should be untied rather than cut and that includes Ukraine.

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant comments.

Photo credit: Kremlin press service

Outgoing US Ambassador to Russia Reflects on Troubled Relationship and Key Issues

Outgoing US Ambassador to Russia Reflects on Troubled Relationship and Key Issues

teaser Tefft (right) and former Secretary of State John Kerry Tefft (right) and former Secretary of State John Kerry Outgoing US Ambassador to Russia Reflects on Troubled Relationship and Key IssuesOctober 03, 2017RM StaffOn the eve of his departure as U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft (pictured above, right) sat down for a lengthy interview with the Russian daily Kommersant. Needless to say, the changing of the guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow—Tefft’s successor, Jon Huntsman, presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 3—comes at a low-point in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations.

Among the topics broached in Tefft’s interview were Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the retaliatory expulsions of diplomats that has left the Moscow embassy short-staffed—severely so, in Tefft’s view. Still, the outgoing ambassador suggested that he saw promise for U.S.-Russian cooperation on several fronts, including Syria and North Korea, and he was receptive to a Russian plan to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in Ukraine—with some big caveats. At the same time, Tefft bluntly insisted that Russia needed to acknowledge meddling in the election and to restore Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.”
One topic that was notably absent from Tefft’s interview was arms control, even as differences between Moscow and Washington threaten to kill the INF Treaty and hobble the Treaty on Open Skies. What follows are highlights of the interview, back-translated from Kommersant. (We presume the interview was in English, but no transcript was publicly available at the time of publication.)

On the eve of his departure as U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft (pictured above, right) sat down for a lengthy interview with the Russian daily Kommersant. Needless to say, the changing of the guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow—Tefft’s successor, Jon Huntsman, presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 3—comes at a low-point in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations.

Among the topics broached in Tefft’s interview were Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the retaliatory expulsions of diplomats that has left the Moscow embassy short-staffed—severely so, in Tefft’s view. Still, the outgoing ambassador suggested that he saw promise for U.S.-Russian cooperation on several fronts, including Syria and North Korea, and he was receptive to a Russian plan to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in Ukraine—with some big caveats. At the same time, Tefft bluntly insisted that Russia needed to acknowledge meddling in the election and to restore Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.”

One topic that was notably absent from Tefft’s interview was arms control, even as differences between Moscow and Washington threaten to kill the INF Treaty and hobble the Treaty on Open Skies. What follows are highlights of the interview, back-translated from Kommersant. (We presume the interview was in English, but no transcript was publicly available at the time of publication.)

On leaving Moscow and top priorities in bilateral ties:

  • I am leaving with mixed feelings. I am proud that my team and I have managed to do our work professionally, with dignity and respect, even at times when we were treated otherwise. … At the same time, I am obviously disappointed that we have not been able to make more progress in areas that require the utmost and urgent attention. First, of course, this concerns the Ukraine issue. It had dominated the agenda before I came here and continued to dominate it during the entire period of my work in Moscow. Cyberattacks carried out against the United States have had a terrible impact on our relations.

On election hacking, after the interviewer pressed Tefft to substantiate the claim of Russian involvement, saying that “the U.S. has not provided any evidence publicly”:

  • We have presented certain evidence to the public, but we are also very cautious, because we do not want to disclose the sources and methods used to obtain this evidence, and I think that Russian special services would have used the same approach in such a situation. And there is more evidence that Russia has invested money in advertising on Facebook to influence the election results. Evidence keeps emerging. We want Russia to somehow acknowledge that it actually carried out these [cyber]attacks, and to clearly state that it would never do so again. … The problem is that all official representatives of the Russian Federation deny that Russia did this, while in the U.S. everyone is convinced that Russia did do it.

On Russia’s proposal to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in Ukraine, which Kiev has deemed inadequate:

  • We believe that the idea proposed by Russia is worth studying. And I know that the U.N. Security Council in New York has already started this work. We are convinced that the mandate of such a mission should be based on respect for the sovereignty of Ukraine and contribute to the goal of restoring its territorial integrity. U.N. peacekeeping forces should be given a broad mandate that would allow them to work on the entire territory affected by the conflict, including international control on the Ukrainian side of the border between Ukraine and Russia so that deepening or institutionalizing the dividing lines within Ukraine can be avoided. … If we can make progress in Donbass, then we would be prepared to cancel part of the sanctions. So far, however, we have not even come close to this goal, so there has been no serious conversation on this topic [of easing sanctions].

On Syria:

  • I have always believed that Russia and the United States can cooperate in Syria. Our main common goal is to destroy IS [Islamic State]. There is an IS bridgehead there and we are fighting to remove it. And we are nearing this goal. The whole basis of our cooperation with Russia rested on two pillars: to defeat IS and to find a diplomatic way out of the political crisis in Syria. We believe that [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad must go. This was the position of the previous administration, which believed that Assad must leave first, and that is the position of the current administration, which believes that his departure will be inevitable later on.

On allegations that U.S. forces in Syria were responsible for the recent death of a Russian general there and otherwise endangered Russian soldiers:

  • In response to these reports, I would like, first of all, to express my condolences to his family. It is terrible when soldiers die. However, statements that we are responsible for what happened are absolutely groundless. They have no basis in reality. They are wrong. And Washington has already clearly stated this. Quite frankly, such accusations make us doubt that Russia wants to cooperate with us in Syria.

On North Korea:

  • We have had an excellent series of talks between [U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Ambassador Joseph]Yun and Deputy [Foreign] Minister [Igor] Morgulov, and we are aware that a high-ranking representative of the DPRK Foreign Ministry is coming to Moscow in the near future. Let us see what she says. However, the basic idea is that we want nuclear and missile tests to stop. They threaten international peace and security. Our Russian friends tend to view this issue as any other foreign policy issue, but I think that they are wrong. North Korea represents an existential threat to us. When a country threatens to send nuclear warheads and strike the continental territory of the United States, then this is very serious.

In response to the suggestion that the U.S. refers to Russia as a "friend" only when it needs its help:

  • We know that Russia is a world power that influences many processes. And we approach the interaction with Russia in a very pragmatic way. It seems to me that the Russian authorities are approaching cooperation with the United States the same way.

On a recent report in BuzzFeed that Putin proposed a broad “reset” of U.S. relations in March that seemed to be largely ignored by Washington:

  • [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson has pointed out several issues, in particular the Ukraine issue, on which the U.S. expects positive steps from Russia. That, in a nutshell, is the current policy of Washington toward Moscow. Many documents with proposals circulate both ways, but the statement of the secretary of state has been vetted and agreed upon, so it very accurately sums up our position.

On whether the “embassy wars” between Russia and the U.S. had ended:

  • I hope so. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, Russia has ensured parity [in number of embassy and consular employees], we have ensured parity, so we are now ready to turn this page and go forward.

Latest New START Numbers Show Russia on Track to Meet Treaty Deadline

Latest New START Numbers Show Russia on Track to Meet Treaty Deadline

teaser New START warheads New START warheads Latest New START Numbers Show Russia on Track to Meet Treaty DeadlineOctober 02, 2017RM StaffThe U.S. State Department released new figures on compliance with the New START Treaty on Oct. 1. The numbers of U.S. and Russian warheads and delivery systems have continued to decline, undermining earlier speculation that Russia may fail to meet the treaty’s central requirements by the Feb. 5, 2018, deadline. We remain confident that Russia will meet the requirements on time. To do so, it must simply retire some more Soviet-era MIRV’ed ICBMs. As noted by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, Russia “is now only 11 warheads above the New START treaty limit of 1,550 warheads … [and] is already below the treaty limit on deployed launchers as well as deployed and non-deployed launchers.” The latest data on systems covered by the treaty can be found in our Facts section, while Dr. Kristensen’s detailed explainer on Russia’s nuclear modernization can be found at this link.

The U.S. State Department released new figures on compliance with the New START Treaty on Oct. 1. The numbers of U.S. and Russian warheads and delivery systems have continued to decline, undermining earlier speculation that Russia may fail to meet the treaty’s central requirements by Feb. 5, 2018, deadline. We remain confident that Russia will meet the requirements on time. To do so, it must simply retire some more Soviet-era MIRV’ed ICBMs. As noted by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, Russia “is now only 11 warheads above the New START treaty limit of 1,550 warheads … [and] is already below the treaty limit on deployed launchers as well as deployed and non-deployed launchers.” The latest data on systems covered by the treaty can be found in our Facts section, while Dr. Kristensen’s detailed explainer on Russia’s nuclear modernization can be found at this link.

New START figures as of Oct. 1, 2017

 

2 Years On, Has Russia Achieved Its Objectives in Syria?

2 Years On, Has Russia Achieved Its Objectives in Syria?

teaser Russian servicemen in Aleppo Russian servicemen in Aleppo 2 Years On, Has Russia Achieved Its Objectives in Syria?September 29, 2017RM StaffTwo years ago this month, Russia launched its military intervention in Syria. This step was almost instantly criticized by the Obama administration, with the U.S. president warning that Vladimir Putin is dragging his country into a quagmire. The Russian military operations in Syria have proved at times to be brutal and indiscriminate, causing many civilian deaths—nearly 4,000 in the first year of its campaign alone, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which continues to blame Russia for scores of civilian deaths with grim regularity. But has Russia gotten stuck in a quagmire or has it achieved any of its goals? Take a look at this presentation that Russia Matters director Simon Saradzhyan gave on Moscow’s objectives and interests in Syria shortly after Russian warplanes launched their first strikes and decide for yourself.

Two years ago this month, Russia launched its military intervention in Syria. This step was almost instantly criticized by the Obama administration, with the U.S. president warning that Vladimir Putin is dragging his country into a quagmire. The Russian military operations in Syria have proved at times to be brutal and indiscriminate, causing many civilian deaths—nearly 4,000 in the first year of its campaign alone, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which continues to blame Russia for scores of civilian deaths with grim regularity. But has Russia gotten stuck in a quagmire or has it achieved any of its goals? Take a look at this presentation that Russia Matters director Simon Saradzhyan gave on Moscow’s objectives and interests in Syria shortly after Russian warplanes launched their first strikes and decide for yourself.

Russian Interests and Objectives Underlying Intervention in Syria

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, 1 of 5

 

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, 2 of 5

 

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, 3 of 5

 

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, 4 of 5

 

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, 5 of 5

 

Russian objectives and interests in Syria, final

 

PDF of full presentation

Photo credit: Russian Defense Ministry photo shared under a CC-BY-4.0 license.

Cold War Legacy: Why Russia, China and America Are Where They Are Today

Cold War Legacy: Why Russia, China and America Are Where They Are Today

full Mikhail Gorbachev in front of Berlin Wall sculpture in Fulton, Missouri Mikhail Gorbachev in front of Berlin Wall sculpture in Fulton, Missouri Cold War Legacy: Why Russia, China and America Are Where They Are TodaySeptember 25, 2017Kevin DoyleWith all the talk lately of a “new Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia, historian Odd Arne Westad’s latest book is a timely one. “The Cold War: A World History” examines the conflict from its ideological roots in the late 19th century through the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, Westad offers keen insights into how the Cold War and its dénouement have given rise to the current conflict between Russia and the West, as well as the ascendance of China and the emergence of a multipolar world order. Westad, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recently discussed these topics in a book talk and in an essay called “The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory” in the New York Times. What follow are key points from the talk and the essay.

With all the talk lately of a “new Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia, historian Odd Arne Westad’s latest book is a timely one. “The Cold War: A World History” examines the conflict from its ideological roots in the late 19th century through the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, Westad offers keen insights into how the Cold War and its dénouement have given rise to the current conflict between Russia and the West, as well as the ascendance of China and the emergence of a multipolar world order. Westad, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recently discussed these topics in a book talk and in an essay called “The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory in the New York Times. What follow are key points from the talk and the essay, some paraphrased and some directly quoted.

  • “The Cold War: A World History” is “not an attempt to say, ‘If we only understand how the Cold War ideological divide works, we will understand everything about the 20th century,’” Westad said at the talk. “But I would probably argue the opposite: If we want to understand the Cold War, we have to understand how it fits into the 20th century.”
  • Westad examines the Cold War through three significant turning points:
    • The split between social democrats in Europe and communists, which allowed the former to continue to develop without being labeled communist.
    • The Korean War, the first hot war of the conflict, which led to the militarization of the two superpowers on a global scale.
    • And the 1970s—a decade typically seen as a moment of American weakness, but in fact a time when the globalization of capital allowed the U.S. to buy into markets in Asia, while the U.S.S.R. remained isolated.
  • As China increasingly embraced the free market, the space for the Soviet Union to operate narrowed—which would prove to be a major factor in its collapse. Westad takes issue with the idea that Ronald Reagan’s hardline stance toward the Soviet Union was the main reason for its demise. While this may have contributed to Moscow’s isolation, Westad notes that Reagan was a willing negotiator on everything from nuclear weapons to regional conflicts.
  • The flawed belief that the Cold War had been won by the West would have lasting consequences. The West bought into two versions of post-Cold War triumphalism, Westad writes in his essay: “First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale. Its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy ‘the peace dividend.’ As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance.”
  • U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East can be directly traced to this flawed understanding: “As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals,” Westad writes.
  • There were also lost opportunities in the 1990s for greater cooperation with Russia. More should have been done to “link Russia in” with the European Union, especially through security cooperation. “Both the West and Russia would have been considerably more secure today if the chance for Russia to join the European Union, and possibly even NATO, had at least been kept open in the 1990s,” Westad writes. (In remarks made last year, Westad noted that, in hindsight, the biggest problem in the 1990s with regard to Eastern Europe was the lack of will to build structures in which Russia could participate, especially in terms of economic integration.)
  • As a result of this flawed approach, America is “less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics,” Westad writes.
  • On the Russian side, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster and the “ultimate tragedy,” as Westad noted in his talk. The U.S.S.R. had gone from a superpower to nearly irrelevant in the span of years, naturally leading to feelings of discontent among Russians, who had been under repression for decades and now faced dire economic woes and a complete collapse of familiar institutions. “The collapse left Russians feeling déclassé and usurped,” Westad writes. Meanwhile, the West applauded the economic reforms under Boris Yeltsin, which were disastrous for Russia. In this context, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his promise to restore Russia’s lost glory is understandable.
  • The prime beneficiary of the end of the Cold War is China, which is now well integrated into the world economy and is directly challenging U.S. hegemony. “Russia and China, unlike the Soviet Union, are not likely to seek isolation or global confrontation,” Westad writes. “They will attempt to nibble away at American interests and dominate their regions. But neither China nor Russia is willing or able to mount a global ideological challenge backed by military power. Rivalries may lead to conflicts, or even local wars, but not of the systemic Cold War kind.”
  • Westad cautions against a false romanticism of the Cold War period. His book is meant in part to show younger generations that it was in fact “a dismal epoch” in history, he said. There was little sense of security and balance; rather, it was an incredibly dangerous time, with the superpowers often poised on the brink of war.

Kevin Dolye is a masters-degree candidate at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a student associate at Russia Matters.

Photo courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.

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

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