In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
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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New START warheads
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 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.
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Russian servicemen in Aleppo
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.
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Mikhail Gorbachev in front of Berlin Wall sculpture in Fulton, Missouri

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.

Chinese ship
As the Russian and Chinese navies hold joint war games for the second time this year, experts can’t help but wonder whether the growing size and geographic range of such exercises mean that Moscow and Beijing are moving closer to a military pact. “They are building a de facto alliance,” leading Russian military expert Vasily Kashin told the Wall Street Journal in reference to the second stage of Joint Sea-2017, which is set to begin this week. “They want to understand on a granular level how their two militaries can cooperate.”
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This week, thanks to BuzzFeed, we learned that back in March Vladimir Putin thought he could strike a deal with Donald Trump to reset the bilateral relationship and had submitted an ambitious proposal calling for the “wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.” What does this say about the Russian leader’s understanding of American politics? Is he under the impression that a U.S. president can single-handedly reverse U.S. policy on a major international issue with no regard for opposition from official and unofficial branches of power, including Congress, the media and the public? That certainly seems to be the case.
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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met on sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany on July 7, 2017
Pew has just released a summary of its Spring 2017 survey of residents of 37 American, Asian, African and European countries who were asked to express their views on Russia, the United States and China – and the results are remarkable. A median of only 26 percent of those surveyed have confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” while a median of 60 percent have no such confidence. This was still, however, sufficient for the Russian leader to beat out U.S. President Donald Trump. Respondents in as many as 22 out of 36 countries trust Putin more than Trump, according to the poll. (In Tanzania, an equal share of respondents trusted Putin and Trump.) It is quite astounding that in spite of having taken Crimea from Ukraine, stirred trouble in Donbass, and intervened militarily in Syria, Putin is still enjoying greater confidence than Trump in the majority of the countries polled.
Perhaps Trump would do well to reflect upon his foreign policy, given the fact that more people trust the leader of the country that NATO’s leadership has described as an adversary, including in such NATO countries as Germany, France, Greece and Italy, as well as Japan and South Korea. In addition to flaws in Trump’s policies, the results may also reflect the fact that not all residents of the surveyed countries necessarily share the West’s mistrust of Russia.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu relaxing shirtless on a boat in Siberia.
That Vladimir Putin went spearfishing the other day isn’t surprising. He’s reportedly done it before, as have Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Medvedev’s deputy Dmitry Rogozin and even Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But never before this weekend’s Siberia trip has there been footage of the president actually shooting fish, as released by NTV, the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel and then RT.

Alas, while shots of Putin’s spearfishing expedition may impress those with no knowledge of the sport (likely the bulk of his voters), seasoned spearos in and out of Russia, who know about diving for fish “on breath hold,” will see little more than a novice—no matter how many times state-controlled TV channels tell them the Russian president “chased a giant pike for two hours before catching it with [his] bare hands.”
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