This page features the weekly news and analysis digests compiled by Russia Matters. Explore them by clicking "Read More" below the current week's highlights and subscribe using the subscribe links throughout the site, like the one below, to receive our digests via email. Past digests are available in the News Archive, which is accessible via the link on this page.
This Week’s Highlights
- On Jan. 15 Vladimir Putin fired his entire government, including premier Dmitry Medvedev, and initiated a series of amendments to the Constitution meant to enable him to continue steering Russia after his fourth presidential term expires in 2024. Putin then appointed Mikhail Mishustin as the new prime minister, while Medvedev has been appointed deputy chairman of the presidential Security Council, even though the bill to create such a position has not yet been approved.
- While Putin referred to the U.S. and U.S.-Russian relations at least eight times in his 2019 address to the Russian parliament, he failed to explicitly do so in the 2020 address. Meanwhile, new U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has arrived in Moscow, according a U.S. Embassy twitter account, and is “going to play hockey in Russia, time permitting,” spokesperson Rebecca Ross wrote, adding a #hockeydiplomacy hash tag. Both Putin and new premier Mishustin play hockey in the so-called Night Hockey League, as do some ministers. During his confirmation hearings, Sullivan called for “principled engagement with Russia” and “sustained diplomacy with the Russian government in areas of shared interests … and resolute opposition to Russia where it undermines the interests and values of the United States and our allies and partners.”
- Hackers from the GRU have allegedly targeted a Ukrainian energy firm tied to the impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump. Cybersecurity experts found that Burisma Holdings, where Joe Biden’s son sat on the board, was successfully penetrated, and connected the phishing campaign to another phishing campaign targeting a media organization founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, RFE/RL reports.
- Early in his administration Trump was eager to meet Putin—so much so, "that during the transition he interrupts an interview with one of his secretary of state candidates" to inquire about his pressing desire: "When can I meet Putin? Can I meet with him before the inaugural ceremony?" he asks, according to a new book by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig.
- Around 350,000 Syrians have fled a renewed Russian-backed offensive in Idlib Province since early December, Reuters reports. The Russian Defense Ministry announced Jan. 12 that it had created three new checkpoints for civilians to leave Idlib and halted air strikes there until a ceasefire agreed with Turkey came into force, The Washington Post reports. On the eve of the ceasefire at least 17 people were killed in Syrian and Russian bombing in Idlib, according to The Moscow Times.
- New documents given to U.S. House of Representatives investigators by Lev Parnas suggest an effort to remove former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as a favor to Ukraine in exchange for information on the Bidens. Yovanovitch may have been under some kind of surveillance, suggesting the Ukrainians were perhaps more interested in ousting her than were even Rudy Giuliani and company, The Washington Post reports. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham tried to dismiss the new details, but Ukraine says it has launched two criminal investigations into the possible illegal surveillance of Yovanovitch, RFE/RL reports.
This Week’s Highlights
- Alexander Baunov of Carnegie believes President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of constitutional amendments and overhaul of the Cabinet indicate he plans a partial retirement in 2024, as does sociologist Konstantin Haase. However, while leaving the Kremlin, Putin will keep a pivotal role, perhaps as chair of the newly empowered State Council, in Baunov’s view. The Carnegie.ru editor sees no return to the "tandemocracy" of 2008-2012, while Tatyana Stanovaya of R.Politik sees just that. As for ex-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky argues that he is now on a glide path toward retirement, while Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie counters that Medvedev, by assuming the deputy position at the Security Council, remains in line to succeed Putin. According to Baunov, however, it will be one of the younger governors that Putin will install as a presidential figurehead in 2024.
- Russia’s new premier, Mikhail Mishustin, enjoys a reputation in Russia’s business circles as one of the country’s most effective technocrats and earned rave reviews as the head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, according to Reid Standish and Amy Mackinnon of Foreign Policy. Russians can expect a shift in emphasis from taxation to the allocation of funds as Mishustin draws on his management skills to make government spending as orderly and transparent as taxation became under his leadership, according to Anton Tabakh of the credit-rating agency Rus-Rating. Chris Giles of the Financial Times wrote in his 2019 in-depth look at the successful digitization of the Russian tax service, which Mishustin engineered: “This is the future of tax administration—digital, real-time and with no tax returns.”
- John Dizard of the Financial Times writes that “news from Russia is supposed to be dark and foreboding,” but, “in the real world, Russia is adopting expansionary economic and social policies that appear to be financially sustainable.”
- According to MSCI indices, Russia had the best performing equity market in the world last year.
- Russia now has a 3 percent budget surplus and foreign exchange reserves larger than its foreign debt.
- At the time of Putin’s ascent to power 20 years ago, Russian oil companies and the Russian state needed an oil price above $110 to balance their accounts. Now they can break even with an oil price of about $45.
- Much was made of Saudi Aramco’s IPO and its 5 percent dividend. Russia’s Lukoil, though, has a 20-year record as a public company and still has a 7 percent dividend yield.
- Frank Rose urges the Trump administration to seek extension of New START while launching a serious bilateral dialogue with China on arms control and strategic stability issues.
- The United States apparently does not view Russian control over Syria as a direct threat to American interests, so there are no external checks on Russia’s ability to impose itself upon the Assad regime, according to Lina Khatib.
- When it comes to information warfare, Russia is like a hurricane, while China is like climate change, according to Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer and Paul Charon of France’s Institute for Strategic Studies.