In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
U.S. cyber

On Feb. 13, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was joined by CIA chief Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray in presenting to a Senate committee the intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment—a document in which Russia figures prominently. Russia Matters has compiled a selection Russia-related excerpts, divided into categories similar to those in our news and analysis digests.

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

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russia will compete with the United States most aggressively in Europe and Eurasia, Moscow will employ a variety of aggressive tactics to bolster its standing as a great power, secure a “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space, weaken the United States, and undermine Euro-Atlantic unity. However, Moscow will also seek cooperation with the United States in areas that advance its interests.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Russia has developed a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that the United States has declared is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite Russia’s ongoing development of other Treaty-compliant missiles with intermediate ranges, Moscow probably believes that the new GLCM provides sufficient military advantages to make it worth risking the political repercussions of violating the INF Treaty.

Conflict in Syria:

  • The Syrian opposition’s seven-year insurgency is probably no longer capable of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, but rebels probably retain the resources to sustain the conflict for at least the next year, .Russia and Iran are planning for a long-term presence, securing military basing rights and contracts for reconstruction and oil and gas exploitation.

Cyber security:

  • [The U.S. intelligence community expects] that Russia will conduct bolder and more disruptive cyber operations during the next year, most likely using new capabilities against Ukraine.
  • Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will pose the greatest cyber threats to the United States during the next year. Russia, Iran, and North Korea are testing more aggressive cyber attacks that pose growing threats to the United States and U.S. partners.

Elections interference:

  • Influence operations, especially through cyber means, will remain a significant threat to U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to retaliate against adversaries, to shape foreign perceptions, and to influence populations. Russia probably will be the most capable and aggressive source of this threat in 2018 … [and] the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations.

II. Russia’s domestic news

Politics, economy and energy:

  • In his probable next term in office, President Vladimir Putin will resort to more authoritarian tactics to maintain control amid challenges to his rule. He is likely to increase his use of repression and intimidation to contend with domestic discontent over corruption, poor social services, and a sluggish economy with structural deficiencies.

Defense and Aerospace:

  • In 2018, Russia will continue to modernize, develop, and field a wide range of advanced nuclear, conventional, and asymmetric capabilities to balance its perception of a strategic military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

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

  • In his probable next term in office, President Vladimir Putin will rely on assertive and opportunistic foreign policies to shape outcomes beyond Russia’s borders. … Moscow will use a range of relatively low-cost tools to advance its foreign policy objectives, including influence campaigns, economic coercion, cyber operations, multilateral forums, and measured military force. Russia’s slow economic growth is unlikely to constrain Russian foreign policy or by itself trigger concessions from Moscow in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere in the next year.


  • China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check U.S. appeal and influence in their regions. The leading state intelligence threats to U.S. interests will continue to be Russia and China, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scope. Both Russia and China continue to pursue antisatellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness. … Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years.


Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Tension over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh could devolve into a large-scale military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which could draw in Russia to support its regional ally. Both sides’ reluctance to compromise, mounting domestic pressures, Azerbaijan’s steady military modernization, and Armenia’s acquisition of new Russian equipment sustain the risk of large-scale hostilities in 2018.
  • Russia views Belarus as a critical buffer between itself and NATO and will seek to spoil any potential warming between Minsk and the West.
  • Moldova’s ostensibly pro-European ruling coalition—unless it is defeated in elections planned for November—probably will seek to curb Russian influence and maintain a veneer of European reform while avoiding changes that would damage the coalition’s grip on power.
  • Russia will pressure Central Asia’s leaders to reduce engagement with Washington and support Russian-led economic and security initiatives, while concerns about ISIS in Afghanistan will push Moscow to strengthen its security posture in the region.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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

The United States Marine Corps provide fire support to the SDF during the Battle of Raqqa.

International press keeps digging up additional details of the Feb. 7 clash between the U.S. and its allies in Syria’s Deir el-Zour region and what has reportedly turned out to be a group of private military contractors, most of whom were reportedly Russian nationals, but also included some Ukrainian nationals. Apparently, these contract soldiers, some of whom may have belonged to a Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group, tried to advance on a base located east of Deir el-Zour held by U.S. and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The formation that tried to advance was no smaller than a battalion supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars, according to chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White. SDF commander Gen. Hassan told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius that he called his regular Russian liaison contact in Deir el-Zour, hoping to avoid a battle with the advancing unit. In response a Russian liaisons officer reportedly assured coalition officials that they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity However, in spite of the assurances, the mercenary battalion still attacked, prompting the targeted site to fire back, according to the U.S. and SDF version of events. As a result, as many as 200 members of that battalion-sized unit were killed in U.S.-led air and artillery strikes. It was then that the Russian liaison officer contacted the SDF again, asking for a pause to collect those killed in the U.S. strikes, according to Hassan’s account as narrated by Ignatius. Most of the fatalities were attributed to an American airstrike on enemy columns, according to the New York Times. Russian nationals killed in the U.S.-led counter-strike include Vladimir Loginov, Kirill Ananyev, Alexei Ladygin, Stanislav Matveyev and Igor Kosoturov, some of whom had earlier fought in Donbass, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team. Both Kurdish commander Hassan and Washington Post columnist Ignatius interpreted the incident as a breach of faith by the Russian military. However, it is possible that the Russian military was not aware of the attack planned by the Russian contract soldiers acting on orders of the Assad regime. As Bloomberg’s story points out, “The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation.” The proposition that the attempted assault was not cleared with Russia’s “official” military is also supported by the Kremlin’s muted reaction to the event. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the incident, in which the death toll of private Russian soldiers may have been five times greater than the Russian Defense Ministry’s official count of servicemen who have died in Syria. “We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Peskov was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.” Given such a reaction, chances are that the Kremlin will choose not to escalate over the incident. Nevertheless, the incident serves as a grim reminder of the complexities of the multi-party (and multi-proxy) conflict in Syria, in which there’s always a chance that rogue players’ actions may end up dragging great powers into a direct conflict in spite of their continued deconfliction efforts.

Photo credit: U.S. government work in the public domain.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Just 12 minutes before the deadline, the U.S. treasury published a list of “Senior Foreign Political Figures and Oligarchs in the Russian Federation and Russian Parastatal Entities” which the Trump administration was supposed to supply to the U.S. Congress in compliance with the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA). Some Russian insiders were quick to dismiss the list of 210 names, which includes Russia’s richest persons and top Russian government officials, describing it as a compilation copied and pasted from the Forbes list of Russian billionaires and the Kremlin’s phone book. Markets also largely ignored the publication. In fact, it was clear as early as last week that they would (see the “Bilateral issues” section in the Jan. 26 issue of our Russia in Review digest). Moreover, investors were so relieved that no new punitive measures were announced that they pushed yields on Russian 10-year bonds to the lowest levels in five years, following the publication of the list, according to Bloomberg. They did so for a good reason: While unveiling the list, the Trump administration chose not to impose any new sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, arguing CAATSA is already causing pain by deterring billions in Russian arms exports. However, one should not dismiss this development entirely. First, in addition to the public portion of the list, there’s apparently a separate, classified portion, which contains more names, including those of less-senior political figures and businesspeople with less than $1 billion in assets, and which may outline their involvement in corrupt activities, according to RFE/RL and Financial Times. Second, the very publication of the list will keep potential foreign business partners from doing business with those on the list. Third, while the Trump administration’s present abstention from sanctioning anyone on either the public or secret portions of the list (with the exception of those who have been sanctioned earlier) is good news for those who want to stop further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, this does not mean sanctions won’t be imposed in the future, especially if Congress applies pressure. In fact, while unveiling the list, the Treasury warned that it has the right to use "all available sources of information," including classified versions of the report, when making decisions about additional sanctions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Read on for the RM staff’s selection of highlights from the Russia list’s publication coverage as of Jan. 30 afternoon.
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Do not cross warning.

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.

David Filipov arguing with Leonid Kalashnikov
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.
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From Henry Kissinger to Sam Nunn, from Russia’s military modernization in the West to economic disparities between Russia and China in the Far East—check out Russia Matters' 10 most read pieces for 2017.
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Female soldiers in North Korea military parade
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.
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Putin amid birches
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 (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?
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Putin at Valdai

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 .
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Tefft (right) and former Secretary of State John Kerry
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.)
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