Russia Analytical Report, April 19-26, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • The U.S. should not treat Russia as an adversary or a threat to core American interests, argues Prof. Joshua Shifrinson. Instead, Russia is a problem child in international relations that can, and should, be coolly managed. First, he suggests, the U.S. should blend defense and deterrence to reduce U.S. domestic vulnerabilities to Russian influence operations and cyber campaigns. Second, Washington must continue stabilizing the bilateral nuclear relationship. Finally, the U.S. should recognize that U.S. and Russian interests are generally not in direct conflict, and that their divergences can be more effectively compartmentalized, writes Shifrinson.
  • In a joint report, Alexey Arbatov of Russia’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, writes that one lesson from the last half-century of arms control is that shifts in the military balance make the sides periodically alternate their stances on the limitation or prohibition of certain weapon systems. Arbatov’s co-author, the Belfer Center’s Steven E. Miller, argues that if present trends continue, we may find ourselves living in a future world marked by greater contention among the great powers, more nuclear weapons, more nuclear weapons states, less stability and less arms control and international regulation of the world’s nuclear affairs.    
  • China is carefully monitoring Russia’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine with an eye to its own pressure campaign on Taiwan and the South China Sea, but there is no evidence so far to suggest Beijing and Moscow are actually coordinating their parallel pressure campaigns, according to U.S. officials and experts interviewed by Foreign Policy. However, Finland’s Matti Puranen and Juha Kukkola warn that the already strained NATO/EU-Russia relationship might escalate in a situation where Russia tries to seize some land area in Ukraine. Such escalation would tie U.S. forces down while opening avenues for Chinese advance in the Eastern end of the continent, they write.   
  • The Russian state is not simply importing China’s model of digital authoritarianism and related technologies. Instead, it is building and adapting its own version— incorporating both Chinese and Western products—based on its own needs and conditions, write Moscow-based China watcher Leonid Kovachich and the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov.
  • With Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, pleading this month for NATO membership and last week inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him in the conflict zone, the signal from the Russian leader was clear: Moscow still calls the shots in the Donbass, write Financial Times’ Max Seddon and Henry Foy.
  • When Vartan Gregorian was asked three years ago what it would mean for the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, he characteristically looked forward, not back, writes The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. "We intend to remain," he said. "But what for? And that's the point.” Gregorian was part of a movement that sought to use the experience of the genocide not to fuel bitterness and revenge, but to look outward and celebrate the spirit that had allowed the Armenian people to survive and prosper, and eventually rebuild an independent nation, Ignatius writes.  


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

“The long history of members of Congress talking directly with U.S. adversaries,” Richard A. Moss and Sergey Radchenko, The Washington Post, 04.20.21. The authors, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a professor of international politics at Cardiff University, write:

  • “Back channels are as old as diplomacy itself and often become useful where normal diplomacy fails because they can be easily disavowed. … One famous example was the relationship between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. … But another type of back channel has also long existed: from the leader of one country to the political opposition in another.”
  • “After Jimmy Carter defeated Edward Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primary, but lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election, Kennedy continued corresponding with Soviet leaders. In 1981, he wrote in the hopes of arranging another visit to the USSR. The Soviets responded "through the KGB channels," indicating the sensitivity of correspondence. … These exchanges raise the question of whether Kennedy's actions were appropriate. The answer, unknown for now, is dependent on whether the White House or American counterintelligence knew about his relationship and correspondence with Moscow.”
  • “Such back channels between foreign powers and the party out of power in the United States have a long history, and they can be productive conduits with little downside … Kissinger's discussions with a KGB officer during and after the 1968 presidential campaign epitomized such engagement. Crucially, however, he kept American counterintelligence appraised of his actions. By contrast, in 2016, President-elect Donald Trump's national security adviser designate, Michael Flynn, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the interregnum and then ended up pleading guilty for lying to the FBI about it.”
  • “The difference reveals that back channels are legitimate, legal and influential when individuals are acting within the bounds their country's accepted law and norms. … When these contacts involve the party out of power, it is critical that they remain cautious about being manipulated by American rivals.”

“Kennan’s Containment Strategy: A Consensus on What Not to Do,” Robert D. Kaplan, The National Interest, 04.24.21. The author, the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), writes:

  • “The American foreign policy elite is now more or less divided between activists and neo-isolationists (or put another way, between interventionists and non-interventionists), and more broadly between internationalists and nationalists. The very expanded size of the present policy class has also created a divide between a comfortable establishment oriented around the Council of Foreign Relations and edgy intellectuals writing in small journals, clawing from the outside at the guardrails of this establishment.”
  • “There is not even agreement on Russia, a great power rival of the United States … Liberal Democrats tend to believe the Russia threat is practically existential; conservative Republicans tend to believe it has been exaggerated.”
  • “In [George] Kennan’s day, the primary threat was the Soviet Union and world communism. In this new era, the primary threat is China and its particular brand of authoritarianism, mixed as it is with high-technology surveillance and economic and military aggression. … The dream of gradually luring China into a post-Cold War, made-in-America system of globalization is over.”
  • “This new China represents a stark and unambiguous threat. Like Kennan’s Long Telegram and X article, a successful grand strategy towards China should describe the root of the problem, the sources of Chinese regime behavior, and lay out a plan emphasizing what not to do. Concentrating on what not to do will eliminate extreme viewpoints, and identify practical constraints on our China policy: constraints originating, as with Kennan’s containment theory, with an implicit understanding of what the American people can tolerate and what they can afford.”

“America’s Military Risks Losing Its Edge,” Michèle A. Flournoy, Foreign Affairs, 04.20.21. The author, former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, writes:

  • “For almost a decade, U.S. defense officials have deemed the return of great-power competition to be the most consequential challenge to U.S. national security. … Yet despite such a widespread and bipartisan acknowledgment of the challenge, the U.S. military has changed far too little to meet it. Although strategy has shifted at a high level, much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russia.”
  • “The Biden administration has inherited a U.S. military at an inflection point. The Pentagon’s own war games reportedly show that current force plans would leave the military unable to deter and defeat Chinese aggression in the future. The Defense Department’s leadership, accordingly, must take much bigger and bolder steps to maintain the United States’ military and technological edge over great-power competitors.”
  • “Averting such an outcome will require fundamental reforms in how the Pentagon operates. … The imperative is clear: the U.S. military must reimagine how it fights and must make the technological and operational investments necessary to secure its edge. It’s not about spending more money; it’s about spending smarter, prioritizing investments to sharpen the military’s edge. … The Defense Department’s actions—or inaction—in the next four years will determine whether the United States is able to defend its interests and its allies against great-power threats for the next four decades.”
  • “The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should … provid[e] concrete recommendations on where the United States should be willing to accept more risk in order to shift more resources to the places that matter most. This assessment should be accompanied by a review of contingency plans relevant to China and Russia, where new concepts and capabilities are needed especially urgently … The Strategic Capabilities Office … should be empowered to identify new ways of using current U.S. capabilities to strengthen deterrence against China and Russia.”

“It is now time to focus on multilateral order,” Bruce Jones and Susana Malcorra, Insights/The Brookings Institution, 04.19.21. The authors, the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings and the dean of the IE School of Global and Public Affairs, write:

  • “The best-case scenario ahead is a competitive struggle over the policy and character of the multilateral order. Why? Because we simply cannot return to the cooperation and comity of the post–Cold War era and the G20. Effective policy aimed at the rejuvenation of the multilateral order should not be premised on the false hope of a reawakening of the golden age of multilateralism. Instead, we should use the rivalry between major powers such as China and Japan, India and Pakistan, Germany and France, and yes the United States and Russia, and create a foundation of ‘competitive multilateralism’ that can serve as a new method for maintaining the world order and diplomacy.”
  • “There are three steps that should be taken in order to move forward with competitive multilateralism: 1. Advance the liberal agenda with a coalition of democratic states that works within international institutions to protect and adjust economic liberalism so that it is more consistently addressing inequality. … 2. Authorize a network of middle powers to protect key multilateral institutions by working across crises (like Iran) and issues (like trade) to ‘hold the floor’ on the key frameworks for cooperation, and have the jurisdiction to hold top powers accountable if they do not uphold multilateral frameworks. … 3. Allow middle powers to implement diplomacy and policy innovation and develop the necessary guardrails against great-power conflict. Sometimes diplomatic agreements between larger nations can be quietly shepherded by middle powers.”

“Western unity is key to dealing with Russia,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 04.21.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Russia’s military maneuvers near Ukraine … are far more than a diversionary tactic from the Navalny affair and domestic disquiet over a stagnant economy. The Kremlin is determined to prevent the integration into the West of what it views as a Slavic brother state and strategic buffer zone.”
  • “[T]he first priority for Western democracies must be clarity and consistency of messaging and action. French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts at ‘trust-building dialogue’ with Putin in recent years, though well intentioned, yielded little but muddied the diplomatic waters. For all Merkel’s concerns, her government still supports the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”
  • “It is vital the U.S. and its allies are united in stressing that further Russian aggression toward its sovereign neighbor of more than 43 million people would carry substantial costs. They should make clear their willingness to supply lethal and non-lethal military aid to Ukraine if it is attacked … Though NATO countries are rightly wary of being sucked into a conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia, they should be ready to strengthen their own forces in south-east Europe as a deterrent.”
  • “The U.S. and EU should be ready, too, to step up economic sanctions. President Joe Biden last week banned U.S. financial institutions from buying new Russian sovereign debt … signaling a willingness to use the U.S. financial system against opponents. European countries should redouble efforts to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels, including finally blocking Nord Stream 2. If the West wants to appear serious about preventing Russia’s leader from trampling on international norms, it must be prepared to bear some costs.”

“Events in Czechia and Belarus Cement Eastern Europe’s New Divide,” Maxim Samorukov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.20.21. The author, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of, writes:

  • “While the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Belarusian KGB were preventing a coup in Belarus that would supposedly have seen Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko assassinated and his children kidnapped, the Czech intelligence agencies, apparently working in tandem with their Western counterparts, exposed an ‘act of state terrorism.’”
  • “Once again, the continent appears to be splitting into two fiercely divided camps. Neither side is opposed to the emergence of a clear border between them, and they are even more or less agreed on where that border should be: there are just the finer details to hash out. Each side has a realistic understanding of its own capacity and of what the other side will accept. Russia is clearly prepared to reconcile itself to the loss of any involvement in the Czech energy sector, while the United States doesn’t plan to exert much effort to protect Belarusian sovereignty. The times when minor details could change the outline of the fast-forming dividing line are over. The border is calcifying, eliminating not only movement from one side to the other, but also the freedom not to choose a side.”

“Don’t Kick Russia Out of the Chemical Weapons Convention Over Navalny,” Hanna Notte, Foreign Policy, 04.19.21. The author, a senior nonresident scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writes:

  • “Ahead of this week’s conference of all 193 state parties to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), pleas for tougher action against Moscow over the … poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have grown louder. A recent piece published by Foreign Policy calls for a 90-day ultimatum to Moscow to come clean … or else face suspension from the OPCW … Others have echoed such sentiments, calling for inspections of Russian facilities suspected to be part of the country’s alleged chemical weapons program.”
  • “Calls on the Kremlin to come clean over the Navalny affair are politically problematic in that they boil down to asking Moscow to publicly admit it has lied all along—not just about the Navalny incident but about its own chemical disarmament effort too. Given the frosty state of relations between Russia and the West, the Kremlin will surely judge the political costs of confessing a CWC violation to be far higher than those to be incurred for facing a formal charge at the OPCW. And, because Russia considers its centrality to multilateral arms control regimes a source of considerable prestige, the country would likely leave the OPCW outright before it endures a looming suspension.”
  • “Fundamentally, the West faces a choice between a difficult Russia with which the West maintains channels of dialogue at the OPCW (and, by extension, over which it exerts some influence) versus a difficult Russia whose decoupling from Western counterparts proceeds unabated. Stopping short of pushing Russia out of the OPCW over the Navalny dossier ensures there will be something left to build on at the organization—once the West’s broader relationship with Russia permits a return to more constructive engagement in The Hague. The OPCW remains a vital platform working toward the long-term prevention of chemical warfare. To be successful, it will need Russia in, not out.”

“Unlearned Lessons from History,” RIA Novosti, 04.23.21. The news outlet writes:

  • “The relations between Russia and the U.S. have gone from rivalry to confrontation … In situations like this, any incorrect step … can plunge … the whole world into the abyss of … the threat of direct military clashes.”  
  • “Such an event has already happened in our common history …  At the start of the 1960s, the Americans responded to the USSR’s deployment of strategic weapons to Cuba. The U.S. … deployed warships, placed the island under a naval blockade, and even prepared a full-fledged invasion … The situation … was saved by the leaders of the two superpowers, who … recognized and accepted the wisdom of a compromise, and therefore were ready to make concessions.” 
  • “After the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis there was no situation where both countries were so close to the war for the rest of the 20th century … [B]oth had learned a lesson: cooperation … is better than confrontation.”  
  • “But today … the United States has slipped into an unstable foreign policy … We heard a call for dialogue during the telephone call between [Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin], and then the harsh rhetoric started, new anti-Russian sanctions were introduced, diplomats were expelled, and a proclamation on the Russian threat was signed … The U.S. perceived the USSR as an equal competitor … But after the collapse of the USSR, parity disappeared … The United States … simply lost the habit of equal dialogue … The new U.S. administration … [cannot] admit that someone in the world may have the [capabilities] to compete with them.” 
  • “Not only is an understanding of the necessity and possibility of compromises needed, but also a willingness to make these compromises [and] to abandon the language of ultimatums ... which drive the dialogue into the ground.” 

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Sino-Russian Relations Already Bear Signs of a Military Alliance,” Matti Puranen and Juha Kukkola, The National Interest, 04.20.21. The authors, a special researcher at the department of warfare of the Finnish National Defense University and an officer in the Finnish Defense Forces, write:

  • “[T]he existing China-Russia relations already bear important systemic effects notwithstanding any formal commitments between the two states. These effects could cause China and Russia to function akin to a de facto military alliance, and would, of course, have the greatest impact on the United States and its allies.
  • “A military escalation with China in Asia would seriously tie down U.S. forces, but provide freedom of maneuver in the corresponding other end of the Eurasian continent for Russia. And vice versa. … China and Russia could provide each other strategic support by increasing pressure in their own regions in various different ways. Such support could happen short of any formal alliance and could be totally unrelated to the ongoing conflict.”
  • “The already strained NATO/EU-Russia relationship might escalate in a situation where Russia tries to seize some land area in Ukraine, in the Baltics or elsewhere around the Black Sea. Such escalation would, again, tie U.S. forces down while opening avenues for Chinese advance in the Eastern end of the continent.”
  • “Proliferating discussions about whether a Sino-Russian alliance is in the making could be missing the point. Due to the systemic effects discussed above, China and Russia could (and likely would) synchronize their moves against U.S. alliances without any formal treaty in place, either for strategic reciprocity or for pure opportunism. As the United States is the major security concern for both, pinning Washington down in the other end of Eurasia provides freedom of movement at the other end.”
  • “Besides causing systemic effects on both ends of the continent, the Eurasian system also incentivizes China and Russia to support each other. China and Russia have already signaled that they will pat each other’s shoulders if the occasion requires through joint military exercises organized in each other’s hot spots … Chinese-Russian relations and their systemic consequences already exist under a pseudo-alliance with possibly serious consequences that should be taken into consideration, especially as tensions are rising over Ukraine and in the Taiwan Strait.”

“China and Russia Turn Deeper Ties into a Military Challenge for Biden,” Jack Detsch and Amy Mackinnon, Foreign Policy, 04.20.21. The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write:

  • “Deepening military and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China is worrying U.S. defense planners, who fear the two frenemies that share military technology and many foreign-policy goals will complicate the Biden administration’s plan to reassert U.S. leadership.”
  • “China is carefully monitoring Russia’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, which the U.S. Defense Department said this week is larger than the 2014 deployment, with an eye to its own pressure campaign on Taiwan and the South China Sea. … ‘Our sense is that [China] is paying very close attention to what’s going on as they did initially with things in the Ukraine,’ the senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘I think it’s fair to say that they are looking closely to determine how they might leverage lessons learned into their own national interests.’”
  • “There’s no evidence so far to suggest Beijing and Moscow are actually coordinating their parallel pressure campaigns, according to 11 current and former officials and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy. But the buildups are stretching the U.S. President Joe Biden’s attention at a particularly bad time.”
  • “‘You face a two-front war where we don’t have a two-front military,’ said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. ‘If NATO is expecting U.S. forces to bail it out simultaneously with a fight over Taiwan, we can’t do them both. We don’t have the assets. That can create huge problems for us.’”
  • “‘We are looking at the situation of how to deter both simultaneously; yet, individually, what works with one may not work with the other,’ said one U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

Nuclear Perils in a New Era. Bringing Perspective to the  Nuclear Choices Facing Russia and the United States?” Steven E. Miller and Alexey Arbatov, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, April 2021.

Steven E. Miller, director of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes in his chapter, “The Rise and Decline of Global Nuclear Order?”:

  • “We live in a new nuclear world—what some are now calling the third nuclear age. The nuclear order of 1991 no longer exists. … As we have seen, starting in the late 1990s there has been a significant deterioration of relations among the great powers, an erosion of arms control, violations of the nonproliferation norm and the emergence and evolution of potentially destabilizing technologies.”
  • “[A]s Nina Tannenwald has written, ‘In this emerging nuclear era, key norms that have underpinned the existing nuclear order—most crucially deterrence, non-use and nonproliferation—are under stress. . . .The global nuclear normative order is unraveling.’ … As a result, there is a need for what Thomas Schelling described as ‘strategy in an era of uncertainty.’”
  • “The fundamentally important question is, of course, how can we live safely in such a world? If present trends continue, we may find ourselves living in a future world marked by greater contention among the great powers, more nuclear weapons, more nuclear weapons states, less stability, and less arms control and international regulation of the world’s nuclear affairs.”
  • “Understanding what has changed over the three decades since the end of the Cold War, and debating the implications of those changes, is an essential and necessary step in addressing such questions. In front of us are choices about force modernization, arms control and technological advancement that will help shape the contours of the evolving nuclear order and that will determine the relative safety or danger of the future nuclear environment. Nuclear matters may have slipped out of the limelight they once occupied and large changes may have gradually occurred without attracting adequate notice, but we cannot avoid seeking to navigate safely what Robert Legvold has described as ‘the mounting challenges and dangers of a new and far different nuclear world.’”

Alexey Arbatov, director of the Center for International Security at Russia's Institute of World Economy and International Relations, writes in his chapter, “Mad Momentum Redux? The Rise and Fall of Nuclear Arms Control”:

  • “One lesson from the last half-century of arms control is that shifts in the military balance make the sides periodically alternate their stances on the limitation or prohibition of certain weapon systems. Arms-control negotiators have frequently joked that Moscow and Washington have the same positions on all arms-control issues, just at different times.”
  • “[T]he breakdown of arms-control negotiations or refusal to ratify agreements has always damaged security and never helped resolve other international problems. … Greater near-term threats may emerge after the collapse of the INF Treaty and eventual expiration of START without a follow-up treaty. The loss of their stabilizing effects cannot be offset by any medium-range or strategic-weapons program on either side.”
  • “[T]he progress of U.S.–Soviet/Russian arms control talks during the last fifty years, despite some setbacks and exemptions, did manage to impose deep and stabilizing reductions on their medium range and strategic forces. … Dealing with new threats to strategic stability in the follow-on START treaty requires that the long-range … air-launched nuclear and conventional cruise and hypersonic missiles and nuclear gravity bombs are included under a common warhead ceiling, and that they be counted according to the actual loading of the heavy bombers.”
  • “The problem of saving the effect of the INF Treaty could be quickly fixed by agreeing on a moratorium on the deployment of the intermediate-range missiles in Europe with short-notice, and on-site inspections at Russian Iskander/Novator (9M729) missile bases and U.S. Aegis Ashore bases in Romania and Poland … Negotiating a START follow-on would be more challenging, but possible during the next five years if there were firm political directives from the Kremlin and the White House.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security:

“Digital Authoritarianism With Russian Characteristics?” Leonid Kovachich and Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.21.21. The authors, a Moscow-based China watcher and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, write:

  • “Contrary to commonly held perceptions and the rhetoric of Russian politicians, the Kremlin has big hurdles to overcome as it tries to decouple from Western technology in critically important areas. What’s more, Russia’s own use of digital repression is considerably less prevalent than such repression in China, where technology is deployed on a mass scale to surveil, control and censor citizens said to be challenging political and social stability.”
  • “Myth #1: Russia Is Discarding Its Reliance on Western Technology: It simply is not practical for Russia to detach itself from U.S. supply chains. Russia is not well-placed to achieve greater autonomy in the production of semiconductor chips … given the country’s current level of technological development. … Myth #2: Russia Wholly Trusts China as a Technology Partner: Despite growing ties with China, Russia is still keeping Chinese partners at arm’s length in some technological arenas.”
  • “Myth 3: Russia Is Fully Replicating China’s Digital Authoritarianism: Russia is increasingly adopting approaches to internet governance reminiscent of China’s model, but these similarities have clear limits. … There are two reasons for Russia’s relative online openness. … Russia’s internet infrastructure was originally built according to Western principles of openness, and the government has long touted the digital economy as a tool for promoting the diversification of the Russian economy. Second … Russian users are accustomed to using Western-owned social media networks, search engines and email services.”
  • “Myth 4: Russia Only Buys Digital Surveillance Technology From China: Chinese products cannot match the quality of Western firms … As Russian authorities continue to invest heavily in developing security and surveillance systems, they often choose to purchase highly reliable Western equipment.” 
  • “All of this goes to show the Russian state is … building and adapting its own version [of digital authoritarianism]—incorporating both Chinese and Western products—based on its own needs and conditions.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Russia’s Gas Pipeline Doesn’t Need to Rupture Transatlantic Relations. Nord Stream 2 Can Be a Source of Leverage, Not a Liability,” Wolfgang Ischinger, Foreign Affairs, 04.22.21. The author, chair of the Munich Security Conference, writes:

  • “The Biden administration has yet to expand U.S. sanctions on companies involved in the [Nord Stream 2] project, sensitive to widespread criticism of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions in the EU. But a bipartisan coalition in Congress could go ahead and expand sanctions anyway.”
  • “If there is a window of opportunity to de-escalate the Nord Stream 2 dispute and ensure the pipeline’s successful completion, it appears to be closing fast. In addition to international opposition, the project faces headwinds in Germany. The country’s next coalition government … will probably reduce the German commitment to Nord Stream 2 … While the liberals argue for a moratorium on the construction of the pipeline, the Greens demand the outright stop of Nord Stream 2 on both ecological and political grounds.”
  • “To prevent the pipeline from becoming a major domestic and international stumbling block for the next coalition government, Berlin should develop a proactive diplomatic approach: rather than halting construction, Berlin should use Nord Stream 2 as a political bargaining chip with Moscow, making the pipeline’s eventual use conditional on Russian concessions. By coordinating such conditionalities closely with EU partners and transatlantic allies, the German government can pass the buck to where it belongs: Russia.”
  • “Berlin could begin by telling Gazprom, the pipeline’s main owner and operator, that domestic and international opposition to Nord Stream 2 has increased so dramatically that the project is no longer politically tenable. Its message to Gazprom should be clear: Russia must help Germany to create the political conditions under which Berlin can afford to give the green light for the gas to flow.”
  • “To prevent Moscow from reneging on its commitments after the pipeline has become operational, Germany could build into any agreement an ‘emergency break’ mechanism that would enable it … to halt the flow of gas if necessary.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Russia: A Problem, Not a Threat,” Joshua Shifrinson, Newsweek, 04.21.21. The author, an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, writes:

  • “Although any state with a lot of nuclear weapons is a potential threat, the Russian challenge is overblown. To be sure, Russia is a destabilizing force in Europe and the Middle East, led by a government with a horrible civil liberties and human rights record. Nevertheless, these issues do not require the U.S. to treat Russia as an adversary or a threat to core American interests. Instead, Russia is a problem child in international relations that can, and should, be coolly managed.”
  • “Outside the nuclear realm … Russia's military might is a shadow of the USSR's. Although capable of generating impressive military power close to its border, Europe has an array of capable regional actors, such as Germany, who are capable of checking Moscow's strength. … A similar point applies to Russian intervention in states along its borders, such as Georgia and Ukraine.”
  • “Russia seeks—as the U.S. director of national intelligence noted in her recent testimony—to ‘give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate Russia's interests.’ To minimize the risks to the U.S. from this situation requires a nuanced approach.”
  • “First, the U.S. should blend defense and deterrence to reduce U.S. domestic vulnerabilities to Russian influence operations and cyber campaigns. … Second, Washington must continue stabilizing the bilateral nuclear relationship. … Finally, the U.S. should recognize that U.S. and Russian interests are generally not in direct conflict, and that their divergences can be more effectively compartmentalized.”
  • “Russia is a problem to be managed pragmatically and with coolheaded realism. The more we lose sight of this situation and instead overstate the Russian threat, the more difficult the relationship will become. Prudence and moderation, not hyperbole, will yield tangible results.”

“The first 100 days: Breaking with Trump on Russia,” Steven Pifer, The Brookings Institution, 04.26.21. The author, a senior nonresident fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “In his first 100 days Mr. Biden has sought to distinguish his policy from that of Donald Trump, who seemed incapable of criticizing Vladimir Putin or Russian transgressions. The first full day of his administration illustrated Mr. Biden’s approach.”
  • “[Biden] added that he did not want an escalatory cycle with Moscow but sought ‘a stable, predictable relationship.’ Stable and predictable may be as good as it can get in the near term. In both of his calls with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Biden has raised areas—such as arms control and strategic stability—where U.S. and Russian interests should coincide. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have echoed these points.”
  • “The Biden administration believes that, even with U.S.-Russian relations at a post-Cold War nadir, the two countries can do business on certain questions where they have mutual interests. In addition to using arms control to manage their nuclear competition, the sides presumably share an interest in blunting the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. As U.S. and NATO military forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, neither Washington nor Moscow has anything to gain from chaos or a return of the Taliban to power.”
  • “The president thus has correctly laid out the possibility of some positive engagement along with measures holding Russia to account for misbehavior. His ability to pursue both of those tracks, however, will depend in part on Kremlin actions.”

“Putin holds out hand of co-operation at online climate summit with Biden,” Ben Aris, bne IntelliNews, 04.23.21. The author, founder and editor of the news outlet, writes:

  • “Russia is engaged in a diplomatic dance with the U.S. as the two rivals try to set a new source for their relations in the new Biden administration. If the troop build-up around Ukraine was the stick then the attendance at the climate summit was the carrot.”
  • “The double newsmakers of Russia’s troop withdrawal and Putin’s face to virtual face meeting with Biden for climate talks is more of the same dance and suggests the Kremlin is willing to meet the new U.S. president on the common ground that has appeared between them.”
  • “The desire to do something about the climate is one of the few issues that bring Russia and U.S. interests closer together, and Putin’s amplification of the issue suggests he is looking for platforms where Russia can engage more fruitfully with the U.S.” 

“Mr. Putin's Tough Talk,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 04.21.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Mr. Putin's address [to the Russian parliament] did touch, relatively briefly, on international affairs, but it was largely a familiar plaint about Russia being picked upon 'without any reason,' along with chest-thumping about an 'asymmetric, fast and tough' response should anybody think to cross a 'red line' against Russia. That flourish raised eyebrows in the West, even though Mr. Putin never said where the red line was. But there was no mention of the current situation around Ukraine—nor of Alexei Navalny, the dissident said to be in serious condition in a prison clinic; nor about what the Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, means by his talk of an impending 'very serious' decision, which has prompted speculation about a formal union with Russia.”
  • “This month, President Biden sent Mr. Putin a clear signal. The new sanctions ordered against Russia, and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, were the response Mr. Biden had promised against hacking, election interference and the targeting of dissidents abroad. The administration took the unusual step of detailing evidence of Russian responsibility for the SolarWinds hack of government and corporate computer systems, making clear that this was unacceptable.” 
  • “With the stick, however, came a carrot, a proposal for a summit at which the United States and Russia could shift to a more productive partnership on issues of common concern—including the opening of the Arctic to navigation, the COVID-19 pandemic, arms control, the rise of China and how to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.” 
  • “Mr. Putin must surely understand that the leadership he sought to project would be far better served by a meeting with a new American president in pursuit of peaceful coexistence than it would by his bullying Ukraine or hounding Mr. Navalny.”

“Memorials aren't enough. Here's what the West can do right now to protect Alexei Navalny,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 04.21.21. The author, a Russian democracy activist, writes:

  • “As Russians are now rallying to save [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny, leading world figures in science, art and culture (among them several Nobel laureates) are demanding that he be given access to medical care. Western officials, including senior representatives of the Biden administration, are warning the Kremlin—in somewhat macabre fashion—that there will be consequences if Navalny dies.”
  • “It should not be allowed to come to that. The Kremlin must be held accountable now, not after it succeeds in killing another political opponent. … The needed response is clear. Indeed, it was suggested by Navalny himself during a European Parliament hearing late last year. ‘The main question we should ask ourselves is why these people are poisoning, killing and fabricating elections,’ he said. ‘And the answer is very, very simple: money. So [the] European Union should target the money and Russian oligarchs.’”
  • “It has been said that the biggest export from Putin’s regime to the West is not oil or gas but corruption. …  And there has been no shortage of Western governments, banks, real estate firms and financial institutions ready to welcome the loot Putin’s oligarchs are bringing to their countries.”
  • “Instead of entertaining misguided proposals to ban all Russian citizens from the European Union … Western countries should announce that Russian oligarchs who oil the wheels of the Kremlin system will no longer be able to cross their borders or access their banks, effective immediately. Before his arrest in January, Navalny helped compile a list of business tycoons who should be prioritized for immediate sanctions.”
  • “Tacit Western support of Putin’s kleptocracy must stop. It is only for Russians to change the politics of our country … The very least Western democracies can do is to stop enabling a regime that speaks to its people in the language of violence, repression and murder.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Has Nothing to Say to Russians,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.23.21. The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address on April 21, there were rumors of a sensational announcement: perhaps official recognition of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in war-torn Donbas, or even unification with Belarus.”
  • “In the end, no such dramatic declaration was made. The focus of the address was markedly on domestic policy … the main takeaway was a promise of large-scale social support. That, it seems, is the regime’s response to growing social discontent and the conflict with the political opposition.”
  • “Just like in last year’s address ahead of the constitutional reform, most of the promised handouts were for families with children…. This focus on motherhood, the family, and children is also an act of political support for conservative values, a financial boost for the ideological union between the president and the traditionalists … Putin apparently underestimates the severity of Russia’s social problems and believes that overall, the situation is satisfactory.”
  • “The next—and most substantial—section of the address was devoted to infrastructure and regional policy, but here Putin put the onus on the government. A source close to the cabinet says that the president effectively read out the plan for Russia’s strategic development through 2030 … The third part of the speech was devoted to Putin’s main interest—geopolitics—yet it was also the shortest. The reason isn’t just that Russian society is tired of foreign policy, according to all the polls.”
  • “The communication channels between the president and society are shrinking further and further … The end result of this is that Putin is removing himself from the current reality—which will increasingly be determined by outside factors—and leaving himself with fewer and fewer opportunities to show that he is up to the job of dealing with it.”

“Putin’s autocracy blocks political and economic change in Russia,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Financial Times, 04.23.21. The author, former CEO of Yukos, writes:

  • “In the third decade of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, trust between Russia and western governments is at zero.”
  • “Matters might be different if there were a genuine prospect of political change. But Putin’s regime, in its current state, is not ready for reform. Its laws completely rule out the possibility of changing the power structures by means of elections.”
  • “Can we expect a revolutionary scenario? Undoubtedly. In the event of Putin’s death or incapacitation, Russia’s personalist autocracy would be unlikely to survive the upheaval without a dramatic conflict. That would be bound to set off a whole range of other latent tensions in Russian society. Another possibility, not to be wholly excluded, is a serious political miscalculation resulting in defeat in a military conflict.”
  • As for meaningful economic change, several obstacles stand in the way … The first is domestic investment. Not only is much state expenditure unproductive, the authorities also withhold investment essential for modernizing the economy … Second, western sanctions, imposed in response to Putin’s military and espionage activities abroad, restrict the flow of investment and technologies into Russia … Finally, there is the question of Russia’s institutions and the rule of law.
  • “By now, everyone should understand that the Kremlin sees the economy as a tool of politics. Simply put, one can only achieve and hold on to economic success in Putin’s Russia by agreeing to engage in corruption or by becoming an agent of Kremlin policies. This is what western investors should keep in mind.”

“The Berlin Patient. Russia is no stranger to protests, but Navalny’s are different,” Anastasia Edel, Foreign Policy, 04.25.21. The author, a writer and social historian, writes:

  • “Can Navalny, “in the depths of Siberian mines,” as another famous dissident and poet Alexander Pushkin put it, remain a powerful force of resistance? Or will the state succeed in marginalizing, even vanquishing, him? The odds are frighteningly against him. His health, already damaged by the Novichok attack, has deteriorated in prison; he’s suffering from acute back pain and numbness in his leg. To protest authorities’ refusal to provide adequate medical care, in yet another statement of defiance against the omnipotent Russian state, he has also gone on a hunger strike.”
  • “To survive, an autocratic regime, whether the Romanovs’ or Putin’s, must adapt and change—but by dint of its rigidity, it cannot. As long as Russia remains a place where, in the words of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, “the villains who robbed the people gathered together, recruited soldiers and judges to guard their orgy, and are feasting,” there can be no peace. The best one gets is an impasse.”

“Russia’s Dwindling Middle Classes No Catalyst for Shift in Kremlin Foreign Policy,” Jake Cordell, Russia Matters, 04.22.21. The author, a reporter for The Moscow Times, writes:

  • “After years of rapid expansion during President Vladimir Putin’s first stint as president, Russia's middle class has dwindled in the years since his return to office in 2012. Confrontation with the west after the annexation of Crimea, the resulting sanctions and the Kremlin’s focus on macroeconomic stability at the expense of prosperity have entrenched a stagnation which has hit middle-earners hard. By one count, Russia’s middle class shrunk 20 percent during the economic crisis that followed.”
  • “But even as their economic decline coincided with Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy, there is little evidence that Russia’s current and former middle-classers connect their plight to the Kremlin’s conduct beyond its borders. There may be economic discontent at home, but Russia’s confrontational stance against the west remains popular, and calls to reverse years of economic inertia focus squarely on what the government can do on the domestic front—meaning Putin feels little pressure from Russia’s long-suffering middle classes to change course on the world stage.”
  • “Putin’s state of the nation address was another clue as to the separation of domestic and foreign policy in the eyes of those at the top. Amid huge tension with the west, a massive troop buildup in areas adjacent to Ukraine and persistent rumors of closer integration with Belarus, the president dedicated only a few generic words to foreign policy in his 80-minute speech, warning the west not to cross Russia’s ‘red lines.’ … This cognitive gap between foreign and domestic policy also exists within society, such that Russians in general do not consciously draw a connection between the country’s foreign policy choices and the economic costs they have brought.
  • “There are few signs Russia’s middle classes want a change in foreign policy, and even fewer that they would be an influential agent in triggering it anytime soon. If Russia does decide to change course, it will likely have little to do with economic conditions on the homefront, or the fate of Russia’s long-suffering, slowly-dwindling middle classes.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“What Has Become of the GRU, Russia’s Military Intelligence Agency?” Andrei Soldatov, The Moscow Times, 04.21.21. The author, an investigative journalist, writes:

  • “In the post-WWII Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, GRU service led saboteurs and assassins to a career in the Special Forces, whereas in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, Special Forces agents such as Anatoliy Chepiga — who was implicated in the Skripal poisoning case — move from desk jobs in the Main Directorate to working as assassins and saboteurs in the field.  And just like their predecessors, today’s operatives refrain from asking unnecessary questions about the nature of their work, even if they sometimes complain about their superiors’ poor planning.”
  • “Thus, the GRU has come full circle. Despite moving into ultra-modern headquarters replete with a helipad, the GRU remains staffed by people who view the world through a 1950s lens and indulge a Stalinist appetite for liquidating traitors.”


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant developments


“Russian brinkmanship leaves clear message for Ukraine and allies,” Max Seddon, Henry Foy and Roman Olearchyk, Financial Times, 04.23.21. The authors, journalists for the news outlet, write:

  • “As Russia’s soldiers begin to pull back from the Ukrainian border, they leave not just tank tracks and footprints in the mud—but a message to Ukraine and its western supporters that Moscow remains a threat to Europe’s south-eastern flank. Russia’s announcement on Thursday that it would wind down its military build-up eased fears that the Kremlin was planning for a full-scale confrontation with Kyiv.”
  • “With Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, pleading this month for NATO membership and this week inviting Vladimir Putin to meet him in the conflict zone, the signal from the Russian leader was clear: Moscow still calls the shots in the Donbass. Zelensky’s offer to meet Putin was a tacit acknowledgment that Ukraine cannot renege on the Minsk deal, said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a U.S. policy studies non-profit.”
  • “Putin’s build-up also showed the west ‘that from unfriendly rhetoric and escalation there is a price. And the price is a risk of real conflict, which nobody wants. The Kremlin’s words were heard,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The build-up may have convinced U.S. President Joe Biden to de-escalate tensions with Russia after Washington introduced new sanctions against Moscow and warned of ‘consequences’ if opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been on hunger strike in a Russian jail, died in prison, Baunov said.”
  • “Even as Russia’s troops withdraw, Moscow still has the option of ratcheting up the pressure on Ukraine in the future. Defense minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia’s 41st combined arms army would leave its equipment and weapons at a base near the Ukrainian border ahead of joint military drills with Belarus this summer.”
  • “Western powers’ reluctance to match Putin’s show of force on Ukraine’s eastern border may make Zelensky’s search for an alternative resolution to the conflict less tenable, Alyona Getmanchuk, director of Kyiv-based think-tank New Europe Center, said.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Biden's Recognition of Armenian Genocide Helps Healing of a Deep Wound,” Ann M. Simmons, Wall Street Journal, 04.26.21. The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “President Biden's decision to label the slaughter of more than a million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks as genocide has brought a sense of vindication to Armenians that has been decades in the making. … Armenia and a millions-strong diaspora around the world have long sought formal recognition that the massacres were among the worst crimes of the 20th century.”
  • “Many countries have already made similar moves, ignoring Turkey's protests. … The biggest prize has long been the U.S., however. Mr. Biden's declaration on Saturday [April 24] was met with celebrations among Armenians around the world, as well as in the country itself, on Turkey's eastern border.”
  • “‘The genocide is a wound for Armenians,’ said Shushan Khachatryan, a senior researcher at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the capital, Yerevan … ‘It is a matter of justice and truth that it can be acknowledged by the U.S.’ … Historians and international organizations have long considered mass killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as genocide … Hundreds of thousands of Armenians are believed to have died when they were marched from their homes in the eastern Anatolia region into the Syrian desert in 1915 and 1916, where they were executed or perished from disease or starvation.
  • “Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, objects to the use of the term genocide, arguing that the Armenians revolted and sided with invading Russian forces, and that both sides suffered casualties. ‘I was 5 when my grandmother died, but I vividly remember that she was always talking about Turks killing her family members,’ said Araks Kasyan, a doctoral student specializing in the languages, history or cultures of Turkic peoples at Yerevan State University. ‘My family always carried these memories as a part of our identity. It's an inseparable part of us,’ she said. This is why the world's most powerful country acknowledging the genocide matters so much, Ms. Kasyan said. ‘We really need it,’ otherwise, she said, ‘our wounds will continue to bleed.’”

“Biden will be the first U.S. president to recognize the Armenian genocide. That's huge,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 04.22.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “When Vartan Gregorian was asked three years ago what it would mean for the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, he characteristically looked forward, not back. ‘We intend to remain,’ he said. ‘But what for? And that's the point.’ Gregorian died last week at 87, a beloved former president of the Carnegie Corporation and Brown University, and the savior of the New York Public Library. He didn't live to see the emotional moment that's likely to come Saturday [April 24], when President Biden is expected to become the first U.S. president to formally affirm the fact of the Armenian genocide.”
  • “Armenians around the world surely will rejoice in Biden's planned announcement. They will celebrate the affirmation of justice and truth after so many decades of Turkish denial of the horrific events of 1915. But I hope they will also think, as Gregorian would have, about how to build bridges now to help Turkey escape from the horrors of its history. … Saturday ought to be a day when Turks, too, are liberated from the past.”
  • “Denial of these facts has been a dead weight around Turkey's neck, as if dragging the past into the future. Turkey's continuing anger has been manifest, too, in its support for Azerbaijan's war against Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  • “Gregorian was part of a movement that sought to use the experience of the genocide not to fuel bitterness and revenge, but to look outward and celebrate the spirit that had allowed the Armenian people to survive and prosper, and eventually rebuild an independent nation. This movement is called the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative.”
  • “Justice is often denied and suppressed, as we know from the United States' centuries-long struggle against racism. But there must be an eventual reckoning with the past, as we saw this week with the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—and then, hopefully, we move into the future, sharing the blessing of truth and justice with others.”