In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Putin at Valdai 2018
In contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.
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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev
As Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms-control treaty, one of its original signers, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has said the decision is not the work of “a great mind.” We will never know the opinion of the other signer of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, because he died in 2004. But 32 years ago this month the two leaders met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit that helped pave the way to the INF Treaty. And the discussions weren’t limited to serious matters of global security and “trust but verify.”

Here we share three moments of levity and camaraderie from Oct. 12, 1986, recorded in two U.S. memoranda on the day’s meetings, which have been made available through the efforts of the National Security Archive at George Washington University...
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Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine
The festering conflict in eastern Ukraine has been a central cause of tensions between Russia and the West for over four years. In July 2017 diplomat Kurt Volker was appointed as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations. This month, Volker—a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who now wears different hats in academe and the private sector in addition to his government service—spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs about the crisis in the transatlantic relationship.

While Russia and Ukraine were not the event’s main focus, Volker made the following points about the standoff between the two and its ripple effect in the West...
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Red square Moscow Russia
Russians’ views of Donald Trump and his country have soured since 2017, though they still see the U.S. in a better light than they did during the penultimate full year of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Pew’s 25-country Global Attitudes and Trends survey for 2018. This downturn in favorable opinion, we believe, is in part due to Russians’ unrealized hopes for better U.S.-Russian relations following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The polls also show that while Russians view the West as declining, they see China as a rising power. They also see their own country as a rising power; however, poll data shows that among the 25 countries surveyed, that view is not widely held.

Overall, Russians polled by Pew had a more negative view of the U.S. than in 2017, and often a more negative view than the median among all 25 countries surveyed. According to Pew, only 26 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the U.S., a significant drop from 41 percent in 2017, but still higher than the 15 percent who said so in 2015 (data for Russians’ views of the U.S. in 2016 is not available). Additionally, 55 percent of Russians believe that relations with the U.S. have worsened in the last year. This number is significantly higher than the median of 21 percent among the 25 countries Pew surveyed, including Russia, who believe that their country’s relations with the U.S. have worsened since 2017. While just over half of Russian respondents felt confident that U.S. President Donald Trump would do the right thing regarding global affairs in 2017, that number fell to just 19 percent in 2018. However, Trump is still enjoying greater trust amongst Russians than his predecessor.  In 2015, only 11 percent of Russians said they had confidence in Barack Obama.  The majority of Russians also believe that Trump’s America is ignoring their country’s interests when making international policy decisions: as many as 65 percent of Russians hold that view.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Where does Russia fit in today’s international order and what are its strategies for navigating it? In a nutshell, according to a recent discussion among scholars and policy analysts in Washington: Russia’s diminished status relative to the Cold War period has it seeking ways to offset its weaknesses on the world stage, including  a “trickster’s” arsenal of dissembling and deception, which has deep cultural roots; meanwhile, Russian leaders believe at times that other countries, particularly in the West, are using the same tricks to gain an unfair advantage. The overall lack of trust between Russia and the West, and particularly the lack of clarity that Moscow and Washington each see in the other's intentions, undermine the chances for badly needed progress on arms control—a key element of global security.
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Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013.
Next week marks 35 years since America and Russia narrowly avoided fighting a nuclear war—the kind that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” in the words of Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t the first time the two nations lived through such a close call, and stories like this can only remind us how much our continued existence may depend on individual humans’ handling of mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations—in other words, they remind us that a nuclear war is as likely to start through inadvertence as by design.

The “stand-off” in 1983 lasted minutes, not days like the Cuban Missile Crisis some 20 years earlier, but could have likewise led to full-blown nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR: Soviet early-warning systems detected a nuclear attack coming from the United States. The natural response would have been a counter-strike by Moscow. The result, as one Stanford professor wrote later, could have been “roughly a hundred million people blown apart, burned up and poisoned on the first day of the war.” (Within months, he estimated, the death toll could have reached a billion.)

The decision that prevented that from happening was made by a Soviet officer working the night shift at a secret military facility outside Moscow who determined, in the 10 minutes he had to make the call, that the alarm was false. His name was Stanislav Petrov.
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Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague.
Ordinary Americans care more about children’s upbringing than about Russia, claims Seth Ackerman, executive editor of Jacobin. In a July 19 post on the magazine’s blog, Ackerman writes: “[O]utside the self-enclosed vivarium that is the Twitter-cable-news-late-night-show axis, nobody actually cares about the Russia issue. In last month’s Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans mentioned ‘the situation with Russia’ as the most important problem facing the country—coming in just behind ‘Children’s behavior/Way they are raised’ and far behind ‘Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness.’”

Ackerman’s interpretation of the Gallup poll is attention-grabbing, but somewhat misleading. In surveys, after all, much depends on the way questions are framed and the answer options available. While the open-ended poll cited by Ackerman asks respondents to name the “most important problem” facing the U.S., other surveys ask them to rank “threats” from an array of choices. A look at several polls from recent years suggests that Americans see Russia as more of a threat than Ackerman acknowledges, though not as a significant domestic concern.
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Protest against pension reform in Moscow, July 2018.
This summer’s polls have not been kind to Vladimir Putin and for good reason. The Russian authorities’ drive to raise the country’s pension age has sparked a public backlash. Some analysts have warned of “internal rupture,” while one headline even called the protests a “crisis that could take down Putin’s presidency.” I doubt the latter; Putin has survived worse. But if opposition to the measures grows more intense, the Russian leader could be expected to offer concessions (if only temporary) rather than double-down and risk a further surge in protest against his rule.
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Putin in Siberia
The American and Russian press have been full this week of reactions to the July 16 summit between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. We have collected comments here from some of both countries’ most notable analysts of the bilateral relationship. On the U.S. side there has primarily been disappointment. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “It was a meeting that had to take place,” but it was “certainly a missed opportunity,” while Harvard’s Graham Allison saw a bit of a silver lining: “Communicating with your adversaries, even your enemies, even your deadliest enemies, is a good idea,” he said, “because what you don’t want to do is have two parties … stumbling into a war they don’t want.” Many Russian experts likewise welcomed the resumption of high-level dialogue and noted the concrete proposals on the Middle East. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin noted, however, that “what happened in this Helsinki summit—and I think it's very important—is that Putin has not only cast his lot very publicly with Donald Trump but he has involved himself from now on in domestic political strife in the United States.” Others pointed out that this could backfire for Moscow. Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council, for example, said that the Russian establishment’s general feeling that the summit was a success and Trump has prevailed over his domestic opponents may be due to misperceptions about the U.S. political system: “Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. … He tends to project that on other leaders he meets… It is difficult for him to see that the U.S. system doesn’t work this way.”
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Soldiers in Ukrainian military.
Soon after the start of Russia’s official military involvement in Syria, another army, hundreds of miles away, ramped up its activity: Ukraine’s armed forces became emboldened in their war with separatists in the east. Under the radar, they have been retaking control of a narrow strip of contested, crime-ridden no-man’s land in the war-torn Donbas region using a tactic known as “creeping advances.” Between February and May, for example, they managed to advance about 6 miles deeper into the area, deploying small, highly professional units. The slow-paced advances, ongoing since February 2016, have enabled Ukraine to take firmer control over the porous demarcation line with its separatist republics, to improve its military’s tactical capabilities (and, possibly, its morale) and to test Russia’s response—which, so far, has been minimal. For now, Ukrainian troops have focused their efforts mostly on small villages. On one hand, some analysts suspect that attempts to take bigger, strategically important settlements could provoke a large-scale Russian military response; on the other, Russia may be reluctant to deepen its involvement in eastern Ukraine’s grinding war. The paradox seems to be that, whatever Russia’s response to the creeping advances, Ukraine’s leadership—struggling to retain legitimacy and the confidence of citizens and Western donors—stands to reap a net benefit from the tactic.
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