In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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Putin, Macron, Merkel, Erdogan
The conference of the Valdai Club in Sochi took place before the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the new surge in Russian influence in the Middle East; but the increase in Russian confidence was already very marked. The mood, however, was one of sober confidence rather than arrogance. As Marc Champion remarked in his report for Bloomberg, “President Putin delivered his least vituperative performance for a decade or more” of annual speeches to the international gathering of policymakers, academics and journalists. There was in fact a good deal less for journalists at this year’s Valdai than previous ones. Rather, it was interesting as usual for the chance to gauge the current mood and attitudes of the Russian foreign policy establishment, and for a chance to look at global issues from a different perspective.
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The Russia Trap cover
The U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals by about 70 and 80 percent, respectively, since the peak of the Cold War, according to the Federation of American Scientists, and the two countries remain committed to bilateral and multilateral documents meant to prevent either intentional or accidental war between them. However, while the Cold War may be history, the danger of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is not a threat consigned to the history books, according to a new book by George Beebe, vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest and former director of the CIA’s Russia analysis program. At a recent book talk moderated by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, and hosted by Russia Matters, Beebe discussed the problem of anticipating and avoiding "a war that no one wants and that few believe is likely or even possible.” Such a war, Beebe argues, is actually frighteningly plausible due to “a combustive mixture of clashing ambitions, new technologies, misplaced fears, entangled alliances and commitments, domestic political pressures and mistaken assumptions about how adversaries might react.”
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Putin speaking at Valdai 2019 in Sochi
The message from this year’s annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club was clear: The U.S.-led hegemonic world order is over, Pax Americana is dead and soon Russia, along with China, will lead the way in promoting a new, “democratic” word order. And what is a democratic world order? One in which independent states set the rules for “responsible behavior” and the United States and allies can no longer dictate the rules.
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Downtown Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the capital of Kazakhstan
This fall, Central Asia’s richest country was shaken yet again, on at least two separate occasions, by anti-government protests with decidedly anti-Chinese sentiments. Local unease with Beijing’s intentions and investments—which have ballooned to tens of billions of dollars throughout the region—has become easy to exploit for “the mischievous and hot-headed,” as a veteran Central Asia reporter wrote after the protests. It’s no wonder then that China’s role in the region, alongside Russia and other world powers, was a popular topic of discussion at a recent conference held by PONARS-Eurasia, a global network of scholars who convene once a year in Washington, D.C. Among the points that resonated most were that Central Asians’ perceptions of China are complicated, that Western countries have a role to play in Central Asia despite their limited presence in the region and that, whatever tensions Central Asia may cause in the Russia-China relationship, ties between the two countries are generally close and durable enough to withstand them. (The presentations described in sections one and three below can be viewed here.)
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Russian village (Teriberka), Kola Peninsula
Last week, in a meeting with top advisors, Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented the population decline in the country’s Far East, saying it falls in an “alarming, red zone.” While this sparsely populated region, which shares a border with far more densely populated Chinese provinces, may raise particularly acute demographic concerns for the Kremlin, the country’s population decline more broadly—in both absolute and relative terms—is once again vexing the Russian leadership. Earlier this year the U.N. Commission on Population and Development concluded that the world’s population will grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of some 26 percent; Russia, meanwhile, was projected to lose a little over 10 million people, shrinking by about 7 percent from 145.9 million in 2019 to 135.8 million in 2050, according to the U.N.’s World Population Prospects. Indeed, Russia’s population has dropped for the first time in a decade: According to World Bank data, this happened between 2017 and 2018 and the year-on-year drop was about 19,000; according to official Russian population statistics—which have been recalculated for 2015 and beyond to include the population of Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine—the drop happened between the start of 2018 and 2019 and was close to 100,000. While estimates of the country’s population vary from source to source (official national statistics place it at 146.8 million), the current downward trend is now undisputed. Its causes include a declining birth rate, a relatively high mortality rate and a drop in inbound migration.
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Minuteman missile
Is the risk of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia now higher than at the height of the Cold War? Yes, it is, according to an article former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn have penned for Foreign Affairs. “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,” the co-chairs of the Nuclear Threat Initiative warn in their commentary published on Aug. 6, 2019. To back their claim, the two American statesmen describe an imaginary scenario in which Russian air defense systems shoot down a NATO aircraft that has accidentally veered into Russian airspace during a wargame in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave in 2020. This incident sets off a chain of events in which NATO rushes air squadrons to the region, while “a cyberattack of unknown origin is launched against Russian early warning systems, simulating an incoming air attack by NATO against air and naval bases in Kaliningrad.” With only minutes to confirm the authenticity of the system’s alert, the Russian military-political leadership orders conventional cruise missiles to be launched from this exclave at NATO’s Baltic airfields, according to the scenario. NATO then responds ...
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