Russia Analytical Report, April 26-May 3, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • Compartmentalizing the policy response to another country is not an alien or unrealistic idea. The United States and Russia have often done so, writes Columbia University Prof. Robert Legvold. Compartmentalization, however, can only be an imperfect and highly vulnerable recourse of uncertain duration. To achieve a more durable and substantial outcome, something else is necessary, Legvold argues. What both governments need to do, he writes, is more directly and effectively integrate short-run considerations with longer-run objectives.  
  • Any effort to address Russia’s or China’s behavior must account for the two countries’ deepening partnership, write Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security and David Shullman of the International Republican Institute. However, the Chinese-Russian relationship is not impermeable, they argue, and the United States should not shy away from proactive measures to exploit its fissures. In the Arctic, for example, Russia is seeking to limit the role of non-Arctic states—especially China—in regional governance. The United States should support Moscow in this endeavor.
  • If a U.S. pullback were to occur in Europe, it would leave Europe increasingly vulnerable to Russian aggression and meddling, allowing Russia to exploit Europe’s centrifugal dynamics to augment its influence, argue Sciences Po research fellow Hugo Meijer and Dartmouth Prof. Stephen G. Brooks. A U.S. withdrawal would also likely make institutionalized intra-European defense cooperation appreciably harder, according to the authors.
  • U.S. plans to build limited homeland missile defenses against rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, or even missile defenses deployed abroad to protect allies against such threats, should not be incompatible with future nuclear arms control agreements with Russia, claims Robert Soofer, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. To be sure, given the gamut of intractable issues, such as non-strategic nuclear weapons, space strike systems and hypersonic capabilities, the next round of nuclear arms control negotiations will not be easy, Soofer writes, but missile defense, as history shows, will not be the deal breaker. 
  • Currently, the U.S. administration is evaluating the impact of its sovereign debt sanctions on Russia and is prepared to ramp up the pressure, writes Maria Shagina, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zurich. The second round of sanctions, specifically related to Navalny—under rules against the use of chemical weapons—is due early June and could include new penalties against Russian bonds. According to Shagina, Americans are the largest non-resident holders of Russia’s state debt, amounting to around 7 percent of the total.  
  • Some Ukrainian analysts and officials are resigned to a long, frozen conflict with Russia and say Kyiv’s best strategy is to rebuild its economy and modernize its state, the Financial Times reports. A Ukrainian official described it as the “West German strategy”: focus on outlasting Putin and forging peace after a new leadership comes to power in Russia, but from a position of relative strength. 


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“UN Panel of Experts Report on North Korea: More Advanced Weaponry, Better Sanctions Evasion,” Joe Byrne, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 04.27.21. The author, a research analyst at RUSI, writes:

  • “Earlier this month, the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea (PoE) released their annual report on sanctions implementation. Issued every year since 2012, the reports have been an invaluable resource, shedding light on how North Korea evades international sanctions. This year, even with the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, appears no different.”
  • “Why are the sanctions not working? Research shows that lax enforcement is a core issue. Whatever one’s view on the current sanctions regime, if they are not enforced, they will not have the intended effect. They will thus become less effective measures than were agreed, and will be drawn out for longer than necessary.”
  • “This year’s U.N. report highlights that lack of enforcement and international action have given North Korea the impression it has a formula that is working, and it has built upon that.”
  • “What to do? … One path is to better understand the impact of the sanctions and the underlying actors at the center of sanctions evasion. … Another is a stronger commitment to the sanctions from member states, upping the consequences for entities that are directly facilitating sanctions evasion activity.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

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

“Biden Calls for U.S. to Enter a New Superpower Struggle,” David Sanger, New York Times, 04.29.21. The author, a senior writer for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Competition with China, and containment of Russia, were the subtext of Mr. Biden’s call for action [in his April 28 speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress].”
  • “‘We’re at a great inflection point in history,’ Mr. Biden said. In fact, he is facing the worst relations in two decades with very different superpower adversaries that are seeking to exploit America’s very visible divisions. And so he is making the case that the country must compete with rising power in China, while containing a disrupter in Russia.”
  • “Xi Jinping … is ‘deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,’ Mr. Biden argued. And Mr. Xi and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who are developing their own alliance of convenience to challenge the United States, are among those who ‘think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus.’”
  • “What is becoming clear from Mr. Biden’s first months in office is that he is pursuing very different strategies for China and Russia. … He clearly regards Mr. Xi as a worthy competitor who will force America to up its game … Mr. Biden has made clear to his aides … that his administration must finally focus the country on the existential threat of a world in which China dominates in trade and technology, and controls the flow of electrons—and the ideas they carry.”
  • “In contrast, he regards Mr. Putin’s Russia as a declining power whose only real capability is to act as a disrupter—one that seeks to split NATO, undermine democracy and poke holes in the computer and communications networks that the United States, and the rest of the world, depend upon. That came through in the speech. While he did not repeat his reference to Mr. Putin as a ‘killer,’ he focused on the recent sanctions. ‘He understands we will respond,’ he said, while opening the door to new agreements on arms control and climate.”

“Don’t Underestimate Importance of Joe Biden’s First Sanctions Move,” Maria Shagina, The Moscow Times, 04.27.21. The author, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Zurich, writes:

  • “Currently, the U.S. administration is evaluating the impact of its sovereign debt sanctions on Russia and is prepared to ramp up the pressure. The second round of sanctions, specifically related to Navalny—under rules against the use of chemical weapons—is due early June and could include new penalties against Russian bonds. There are already rumors that the next expansion could bar U.S. financial institutions from the secondary market for ruble-denominated bonds.”
  • “Such measures would have much stronger repercussions that the first round—as the overwhelming majority of foreign investors are engaged in secondary trading. Americans are the largest non-resident holders of Russia’s state debt, amounting to around 7 percent of the total. At the same time, the Biden Administration wants to avoid any unintended consequences, akin to Trump’s sanctions on Oleg Deripaska’s companies in 2018 which rocked global markets. The U.S. Treasury is currently conducting a review of financial sanctions to ensure that they are fit for purpose and can remain a strong and viable policy tool.”
  • “Equally, Russia has other options up its sleeve. Moscow claims to have prepared an array of ‘painful decisions,’ including economic sanctions and shrinking the U.S. diplomatic representation if Washington continues down its ‘confrontational course.’ Other options include the termination of the Memorandum of Understanding on Open Land signed in 1992 which allows U.S. diplomats to travel across Russia without prior notice. More importantly, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that it could also end the activity of American foundations and NGOs, which it believes interfere in Russia's internal affairs.”
  • “While U.S.-Russia relations are back to the status quo ante, both parties reserve options for further escalatory measures—either economic or military.”

“The impact of Western sanctions on Russia and how they can be made even more effective,” Anders Åslund and Maria Snegovaya, Atlantic Council, 05.03.21. The authors, a senior fellow and a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, write:

  • “Although Russia has not been forced to withdraw from Ukraine, observers often miss some important achievements of Western sanctions on Russia. … Their most obvious effect is that they deterred Putin from proceeding with his preannounced military offensive into Ukraine in the summer of 2014.”
  • “Russia’s economy has barely grown since the West imposed financial sanctions on Russia in 2014. … [I]t is not likely to grow significantly again until the Kremlin makes sufficient concessions to the West … Finally, personal sanctions on the main kleptocrats … have divided Russia’s very wealthy into those who stay and those who leave. … The gradual expansion of Western sanctions has proved successful.”
  • “By and large, the principles of U.S. sanctions on Russia are sound and clear, though they could benefit from some streamlining. This review of the U.S. sanctions policy naturally leads to a number of key recommendations for how the United States should proceed in its sanctions on Russia.”
  • “Three kinds of sanctions appear particularly effective, namely sanctions on Putin’s cronies and family members, oligarchs working for the Kremlin, and Russian foreign debt. The primary issuance of all Russian sovereign debt in any currency appears low-hanging fruit that would raise the funding cost of the Russian government. The West should continue to force Russian government entities to reduce their foreign debt.”
  • “The West has two great weapons in its reserve, which are better kept there but could be used in an all-out war. One is freezing Russia’s Central Bank reserves of some $570 billion … Another ultimate weapon is to take Russia out of the SWIFT payment system … The West has many options, but they should not be used vainly.”

"Illusions of Autonomy: Why Europe Cannot Provide for Its Security If the United States Pulls Back," Hugo Meijer and Stephen G. Brooks, International Security, Spring 2021. The authors, CNRS Research Fellow at Sciences Po and a professor of government at Dartmouth College, write:

  • “Given the combination of strategic cacophony and capacity gaps, which are mutually reinforcing, Europeans are currently not in a position to autonomously mount a credible deterrent and defense against Russia.”
  • “This situation would likely continue for a very long time, even if there were a complete U.S. withdrawal from the continent, and all the more so in the event of a partial U.S. withdrawal, a much more likely counterfactual. If a U.S. pullback were to occur, it would leave Europe increasingly vulnerable to Russian aggression and meddling, allowing Russia to exploit Europe’s centrifugal dynamics to augment its influence. A U.S. withdrawal would also likely make institutionalized intra-European defense cooperation appreciably harder. Accordingly, a U.S. pullback would have grave consequences for peace and stability on the continent.”
  • “These findings have major implications for both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, scholars and policymakers need to be realistic. The strong desire for strategic autonomy is justified and understandable, but it is necessary to discern between distant hopes and present realities.”
  • “In the United States, restraint scholars … also need to be realistic. Far from portraying the world as it is, their assessment of Europe is guided by an unfounded optimism that Europeans can easily balance Russia if the United States pulled out. … The assessment … that pulling back from Europe is an easy call ultimately rests on a wholly unsubstantiated assumption: that an effective European balancing coalition would emerge quickly if the United States pulled back.”
  • “[I]n an ideal world, Europeans would and should develop the institutional and material capacity to defend themselves without needing to rely on the United States. But until Europeans can come together effectively in the political and foreign policy realms … it is important to be realistic and recognize that a U.S. departure would be destabilizing.”

“Strengthening the G-20 in an era of great power geopolitical competition,” Colin I. Bradford, Brookings Institution, 04.27.21. The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “There are several ways that the G-20 could be strengthened in terms of institution-building and process reforms.”
  • “First, the most overarching innovation in how G-20 summits operate would be to intensify the preparatory meetings that lead up to the annual summits—making them month-to-month, week-to-week processes that produce results themselves, rather than focus largely on the peak moment of the two-day annual G-20 summit. … Second … the G-20 can become a platform for ministers themselves to act, not only to feed ideas to their leaders and wait for them to act. G-20 countries, by definition, have sufficient weight in the world to drive change. … Third, ministers with other portfolios could follow this model and create new institutions that support, implement and encourage their actions and use existing institutions to amplify their work.”
  • “To leave geopolitical issues off the G-20 agenda is to ignore the elephants in the room. The most important change would be to enable the G-20 to address geopolitical tensions directly by opening summit agendas to selective strategic and political security issues and to include foreign and defense ministers and officials in some G-20 processes.”
  • “The G-20 is a promising forum for addressing the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. Taking actions to strengthen the G-20 and engage these tensions within the G20, rather than avoid them, could be the most promising steps to empower global governance to meet the global challenges of the 2020s.”

“China’s test for Biden: A slow military escalation,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 05.01.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Putin’s troop buildup along the border with Ukraine this spring garnered considerable international attention—which might have been his main objective. Less noticed has been a series of incremental escalations by Chinese forces in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Both Mr. Putin and the regime of Xi Jinping are testing the Biden administration in its opening months. The difference is that while Mr. Putin is probably in it for the show, China is substantially advancing a strategy for establishing its dominance in East Asia and forcing Taiwan's surrender.”
  • “Few analysts expect offensive military action by China against Taiwan or in the South China Sea in the near future. But unlike Russia, which announced the withdrawal of its forces from the Ukraine border last month, the Xi regime is aiming for more than political or diplomatic points. As Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution points out, it is steadily wearing down the Taiwanese air force, which must scramble every time warplanes from the mainland approach. If it keeps control of Whitsun Reef, it will have gained another pawn in its bid for control of the South China Sea and its vital sea lanes.”
  • “A firm stand by the United States and its allies seems to have induced Mr. Putin to back off from Ukraine; deterring Mr. Xi is a much more complex challenge.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“China and Russia’s Dangerous Convergence. How to Counter an Emerging Partnership,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, Foreign Affairs, 05.03.21. The authors, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, write:

  • “The Biden administration has signaled that China is its number one foreign policy priority. … At the same time, the administration has rightfully downgraded Russia to a second-tier concern. But Washington shouldn’t underestimate Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees over a highly capable military and has shown that he is willing to use it. Fearful of irrelevance, Putin is looking for ways to force the United States to deal with Moscow and likely views a relationship with Beijing as a means to strengthen his hand.”
  • “Any effort to address Russia’s or China’s behavior must account for the two countries’ deepening partnership. … The link between the two countries is more than strategic, as China and Russia are learning from each other when it comes to authoritarian tactics.”
  • “Some policymakers and analysts have recommended a ‘reverse Nixon’ strategy of cozying up to Russia to pull it away from China. We instead suggest a far more modest and incremental approach designed to demonstrate to the people around Putin the benefits of a more balanced and independent Russian foreign policy.”
  • “Washington could start with its stated desire to use the February extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty as a jumping-off point for dialogue on arms control, strategic stability and nonproliferation. … The United States could further engage with Moscow to facilitate Iran’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal and secure a stable peace in Afghanistan. … In the Arctic, too, the United States could work to slow Moscow’s turn toward Beijing.”
  • “Washington will need to devote more resources to monitoring and countering the effects of Beijing and Moscow’s collaboration. … The Chinese-Russian relationship is not impermeable, and the United States should not shy away from proactive measures to exploit its fissures. … [D]riving even small wedges between the partners can contribute to friction and mistrust that limit the extent of cooperation.”

“Russia a huge ‘polar bear’ the West can’t digest,” Hu Xijin, Global Times, 04.19.21. The author, editor of the news outlet, writes:

  • “It can be said Russia's sufferings are a geopolitical tragedy. The Soviet Union's problems could be resolved through reforms.”
  • “The changes Russia made at a huge cost failed to receive any political recognition from the West. The U.S. and the West have continued to place Russia in the polar opposite of Western ideology.”  
  • “Such reality is regretful. It tells people that the attitude of the U.S. and the West doesn't depend on what Russia's political system is. Instead, it hinges on the geopolitical relationship between the West and Russia. Russia's ‘democratic reforms’ cannot win it the U.S. and West's friendship.”
  • “Given Russia's powerful nuclear arsenal and the fact that Russia has to pursue its own interest, which contradicts the interests of the West, the country will continue to be a target of the West. Russia is more ‘democratic’ than Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Unfortunately, it's much stronger than these two countries. Russia is a huge ‘polar bear’ that the West cannot digest. This is why being repelled by the West has becomes its destiny.”  

Missile defense:

“Missile Defense Is Compatible with Arms Control,” Robert Soofer, War on the Rocks, 04.29.21. The author, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, writes:

  • “According to official statements, Russia opposes U.S. missile defenses because they could someday provide the United States a strategic advantage during a nuclear exchange. While elements of Russia’s position are no doubt genuine … there are likely other, more compelling reasons for Russia to oppose U.S. missile defense, ones having more to do with geopolitics than nuclear strategy.”
  • “The modernization and expansion of Russian nuclear forces has not been driven by U.S. missile defense deployments. Since pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the U.S. has deployed a modest 44 ground-based interceptors … Russian leaders surely realize Russia deploys more homeland defense interceptors than the United States, and that their S-400 and S-500 air defense systems are comparable to U.S. theater missile defense systems. Finally, Putin himself has noted that by 2021, 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear forces will be modernized and, in his words, ‘capable of confidently overcoming existing and even projected missile defense systems.’”
  • “What does this mean for the Biden administration as it formulates its negotiating objectives and strategy? … Most importantly, the United States should not make any concessions on missile defense as a precondition for negotiations. … During negotiations, Russia no doubt will insist upon limitations and constraints on U.S. missile defenses in return for an agreement. U.S. negotiators should hear them out and then explore ways to reassure the Russian side … that U.S. missile defenses pose no threat to Russia’s formidable nuclear forces.”
  • “To the extent Russia fears the potential for U.S. missile defenses in the future, Moscow can take comfort from knowing that such plans will be revealed well in advance through the normal Congressional oversight process.”
  • “U.S. plans to build limited homeland missile defenses … should not be incompatible with future nuclear arms control agreements with Russia. To be sure, given the gamut of intractable issues … the next round of nuclear arms control negotiations will not be easy. But missile defense, as history shows, will not be the deal breaker.”

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


“Displaced Conflict: Russia’s Qualified Success in Combatting Insurgency,” Mark Youngman and Cerwyn Moore, Russia Matters, 04.29.21. The authors, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Portsmouth and a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Birmingham, write:

  • “In both Syria and the North Caucasus, Russia claims success in fighting insurgency and terrorism, offering itself as a model of best practice. Closer examination, however, shows that this ‘success’ carries major caveats and is more illusory than it first appears.”
  • “Russia has successfully defeated the domestic insurgency, in part by displacing the conflict to Syria, but has remained in the crosshairs of Russian nationals recruited to fight abroad. Furthermore, Russia’s failure to address underlying problems makes it likely the North Caucasus will continue to experience low levels of violence and instability, even if the re-emergence of organized insurgency is unlikely in the short term.”
  • “On the surface, Russia’s claims to success appear justified. In Syria, Thomas Schaffner has detailed how Russia has succeeded in protecting or advancing its national interests through intervention in multiple ways. In the North Caucasus, year-on-year insurgent violence has declined and organized insurgency has been eliminated … Dig a little deeper, however, and the picture is more complicated. Russia’s approach to counterinsurgency raises serious ethical and legal concerns, relying on a definition of success based around the number of body bags, not the peaceful resolution of social and political conflict.”
  • “What started as a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime gradually transformed into a jihadist insurgency crossing the border with Iraq and spawning the state-building project known as the Islamic State (Daesh). Alongside the Syrian authorities’ policies and its allies, the thousands of foreign fighters who migrated to the conflict from around the world played a crucial role in this transformation. Russian-speaking insurgents, in turn, comprised a significant portion of this transnational contingent. North Caucasians were among the first foreign volunteers to support the Syrian uprising.”
  • “The various groups with which Russian-speaking fighters were involved pursued different priorities and agendas, but they typically had one thing in common: animosity toward Russia. Several of the experienced leaders who travelled to Syria in the first years of conflict did so because they could not find a way back to the North Caucasus.”

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security:

“Russia Can’t Afford to Block Twitter—Yet,” Dylan Myles-Primakoff and Justin Sherman, Foreign Policy, 04.30.21. The authors, nonresident senior fellows at the Atlantic Council, write:

  • “Russia cannot block Twitter without causing significant collateral damage, and Twitter could easily circumvent Russia’s censorship should it choose to do so. Russia remains reluctant to block a major Western platform, and Twitter is reluctant to directly challenge digital sovereignty.”
  • “Future technological developments giving digital censorship tools a firm edge over circumvention technology (such as the ability to block specific pieces of content without any collateral damage) are one way this apparent stalemate might be resolved. More likely, however, the stalemate will be broken by the changing political calculations of the Russian state as it grows ever less concerned with the repercussions of repression of all kinds.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Nord Stream 2 – Germany’s Dilemma,” Kirsten Westphal, SWP, April 2021. The author, a senior associate in the Global Issues Research Division at SWP, writes:

  • “The Nord Stream 2 project presents the German government with the dilemma of choosing between energy and foreign policy interests. Geopolitical arguments often prevail in the political discourse. Yet, a weighing of priorities requires a look at the energy policy context, too. When it comes to balancing interests, there are no easy or ‘cheap’ answers.”
  • “Depending on the political choice, two and a half options arise in the context of energy policy from the current situation: 1) participation in the sanctions against Russia to stop construction; 2) active flanking of the project and search for a compromise. A passive wait-and-see approach is not really a political option, as U.S. pressure alone forces a position.”
  • “[S]topping the construction has already proven to not be easy for the U.S., since many activities are now being carried out by Russian companies. … Regarding the second option, the building blocks for finding a compromise are actually obvious: further integrating Ukraine into the EU internal energy market, not only through synchronizing Ukraine’s electricity grid with the EU’s electricity grid, but also through the extension of gas transport or its decarbonization.” 
  • “One of the central ideas from Washington—the emergency brake and snapback mechanism—is difficult to implement for at least two reasons. … First, there is currently no foreseen regulatory mechanism that can be used. … Second, the ‘quid pro quo’ would not only cost the EU dearly in literal terms, but it would also … be accompanied by massive restrictions on the security of supply.”
  • “However, there is still leeway regulatory- and time-wise after the completion of the pipeline that can be used for political negotiations. There are still stopping points on the way to the commissioning of the pipeline: the acceptance of the pipeline and the implementation of the Gas Directive. Gazprom and the Kremlin will then have to disclose which rules they want to play by.”

“How to Break the Logjam Over Nord Stream 2,” Pierre Noël and Chi Kong Chyong, Foreign Policy, 04.29.21. The authors, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Energy Policy Research Group, write:

  • “Berlin and Paris must take the lead in negotiating an incentive contract with Kyiv that will smooth out the transition to a post-Nord Stream 2 era. This new EU-Ukrainian gas strategy should rest on three pillars.”
  • “The first and by far the most important pillar consists of bringing down the Ukrainian gas transmission system’s excessive operating costs. It is vastly oversized. Capacity needs to shrink at least by half and headcount by a factor of four. … The second pillar of the strategy would give all importers of Russian gas in the EU the contractual option of having their gas delivered at the Russo-Ukrainian border. The third pillar would promote the use of Ukraine’s substantial underground storage facilities by European gas traders.”
  • “Kyiv must renounce its strategy of maximum tension and relying on Washington to coerce Berlin, as if Germany were supporting Russia against Ukraine. Because Nord Stream 2 makes sense for Europe and has no adverse strategic implications, Europe must simply help Ukraine adapt to the new situation economically. By holding firm against U.S. pressure, Germany has shown it is serious about Europe’s strategic autonomy. Now it must put it to good use and work with Ukraine on a post-Nord Stream 2 strategy. With such a strategy, the pipeline’s European supporters can facilitate a change in U.S. policy on Nord Stream 2, help Ukraine and other European transit countries, and defuse an unwelcome source of trans-Atlantic tensions.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“US-Russian Relations: Where to Now?” Robert Legvold, Valdai Club, 04.29.21. The author, Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and director of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative, writes:

  • “Compartmentalizing the policy response to another country is not an alien or unrealistic idea. The United States and Russia have often done so. … Compartmentalization, however, can only be an imperfect and highly vulnerable recourse of uncertain duration. To achieve a more durable and substantial outcome, something else is necessary. … What both governments need to do is more directly and effectively integrate short-run considerations with longer-run objectives.”
  • “They should start by assessing where they want the relationship to be seven or eight years from now, setting realistic expectations in a workable time frame. The assessment should focus on the relationship’s critical dimensions: … progress toward increased strategic stability … the configuration of factors shaping European security … if not cooperative, then at least non-competitive approaches to potentially disruptive change [in and around Eurasia] … the dynamics … in the trilateral US-Russia-China relationship.”
  • “In integrating the short- with the long-run, the challenge for each country would then be how to address immediate problems … in ways that mitigate these concerns without damaging any chance of reaching these longer-term goals.”
  • “As a first step, the United States and Russia might focus on what should be the easiest areas for accommodation: what level of collaboration could they anticipate the two countries achieving in dealing with climate change and health pandemics eight years from now, and what steps should they now take to move in that direction?”
  • “The reality, of course, is that neither the United States nor Russia does that, nor have they at any point tried to do that, and maybe for a host of reasons they cannot do that. If that be the case, then, because a broader perspective is desperately needed if the two countries are to begin unfreezing the iceberg, the expert community in the two countries has a responsibility … to develop that framework, undertake the analysis and demonstrate how an agenda that integrates short-run policy imperatives with realistic intermediate-range goals can be formulated.”

“The successful campaign to block Matthew Rojansky's appointment is ominous for Biden's Russia policy,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, 04.27.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The successful campaign to block the appointment of Matthew Rojansky as Russia director on the National Security Council is not only a sad reflection of the poisonous state of the debate on Russian policy today, but also an ominous sign for Biden's foreign policy going forward.”
  • “With China becoming a ‘near-peer competitor,’ according to the administration, we should be trying to divide Russia from China, not drive them together. As Rojansky wrote, ‘America's task is not to replace enmity toward Russia with a partnership … It is to manage the current competition in ways that protect vital U.S. interests while minimizing risks and costs, and allowing space for selective cooperation.’ … Rojansky's tempered realism is at odds with the strident consensus of the foreign policy establishment. The foreign policy ‘blob’ sees Russia as weak and paints Putin as the devil.”
  • “For his independent thinking, Rojansky has been slandered as a Putin ally, an advocate of Russian partnership and an opponent of human rights in Russia. In fact, Rojansky stands in the tradition of George Kennan, for whom the institute he heads was named.”
  • “If Rojansky is considered ‘controversial,’ as the Politico headline had it, then the mainstream media and the foreign policy establishment are stigmatizing those who seek diplomacy, who hope to avoid unnecessary conflicts and foster cooperation in areas of mutual concern. This does not augur well for U.S. policy toward Russia and, moreover, is a troubling reflection of our constricted foreign policy debate today.”
  • “Upon taking office, Biden promised a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ … Keeping that promise requires profound rethinking. By reversing some of Donald Trump's most egregious follies … Biden has taken the first steps. Recalibrating our relations to Russia—and reducing the tensions around Ukraine and the Russian border—surely must be part of that effort. Getting that right will be much harder if sensible experts such as Rojansky have no place in the administration.”

“Escalation and Retreat: The New Model for U.S.-Russian Relations?” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.29.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “Amid the dangerous escalation in tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border this month, analysts struggled to find a rational explanation for why it was happening—and why now.
  • “The speed with which worst-case scenarios have once again receded from view proves that fear itself could be the motivation, with the rapid reduction of the threat the real goal. Having established their determination and intransigence, the two sides—especially Russia—then demonstrated generosity and flexibility to their opponents, thereby artificially bringing about a de-escalation and constructive atmosphere.”
  • “This tactic of an instant, intentional escalation will remain in the arsenal, and we can expect its use in any situation when de-escalation and constructive behavior fail to achieve the Kremlin’s goals. Escalation followed by de-escalation could be repeated again and again: it won’t always be explicable, will rarely be predictable, and won’t necessarily be linear or proportionate to its causes.”

“Why are the Russians pranking Washington think tanks?” Melinda Haring and Damon Wilson, The Washington Post, 04.28.21. The authors, deputy director and executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, write:

  • “Early this month, senior staff here at the Atlantic Council received an email claiming to come from Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. ….The message was fake. The people who sent it were trying to lure us into a potentially sensitive or even embarrassing online conversation.”
  • “In March, the leaders of another Washington-based nongovernmental organization received a similarly personalized email with a request for an on-camera meeting. The set-up was similar: The message claimed to come from exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Unfortunately, the person claiming to represent Tikhanovskaya turned out to be a troll.”
  • “Every step we take to make our community less vulnerable and more resilient and aware will make it harder for the Kremlin and other mischief-makers to discredit their perceived adversaries.” 

“Four Pivots Joe Biden Should Make with Russia,” Bonnie Kristian, The National Interest, 05.02.21. The author, a fellow at Defense Priorities, writes:

  • “In the six weeks or so Biden has before the meeting [with Putin] he can begin reorienting the U.S.-Russia relationship with four strategic pivots.”
  • “First, … Biden shouldn’t overvalue his summit with Putin, a mistake his predecessor frequently made with antagonistic nations (especially North Korea). He should prioritize routine, productive communication between the two governments as well as working-level talks on points of friction. … One pressing project here is returning the U.S. ambassador to Russia to our embassy in Moscow and the Russian ambassador to the United States to their outpost in Washington. … Another is building on Biden’s wise decision to renew the New START treaty by reviving the Open Skies and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties, both of which were jettisoned by the Trump administration.”
  • “Next, Biden should actively reduce opportunities for the United States and Russia to stumble into military conflict. Bringing back Open Skies is a piece of this, but so is ending ongoing U.S. military intervention in Syria, where Russia too has forces afield. … Similarly crucial here is steering clear of Russian deployments in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, where Russia is currently drawing down its troop presence.”
  • “The third pivot is relying on good defense and the moral leadership of a good example rather than attempted coercion—especially through overuse of sanctions, which have a very poor record of actually changing target states’ behavior. Biden’s newest sanctions on Moscow are layered atop hundreds of others. … The United States should remain the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all but the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
  • “The final pivot is one Biden has already gestured toward in his calls for normalcy and de-escalation: The primary goal of Washington’s strategy with Moscow must always be peace.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“A Newer, Greener Putin?” Konstantin Simonov, The Moscow Times, 04.28.21. The author, director-general of the National Energy Security Fund, writes:

  • “The problem is that Russia does not intend to make real improvements to the environment for the simple fact that leaders are completely indifferent to the genuine ecological problem.  This is the saddest part. Officials are using ostensibly more ambitious and high-sounding green rhetoric as a smokescreen for domestic political problems and lobbyists are using the transition to green energy as a way to raise money for pet projects. Every attempt at bureaucratic modernization in Russia ends the same way, with government funds flowing into the pockets of shrewd officials and the industrial and financial structures to which they are closely tied.”
  • “As a result, the raw materials business will simply pay off the green lobbyists — who will spend that money on their personal projects. So what if Norilsk Nickel paid a nearly $2 billion fine for its Arctic oil spill: will the chronically polluted city of Norilsk become an urban paradise as a result?  As disappointing as it might sound, any honest observer can see that Russia’s green policy is simply another struggle for government funds, and not for a better environment.”

“The Great Turn in Putin’s Post-Post-Modern Authoritarianism,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 05.01.21. The author, director of Mayak Intelligence, writes:

  • “There is no way of escaping the realization that a major policy shift has taken place in Russia. A regime that for twenty years sought to be an exemplar of a kind of “hybrid authoritarianism,” seems to be seeking to get back to basics. … [Putin has made an] apparent decision to drop the mask and turn to much more openly repressive measures.”
  • “Presumably, the decision to poison Alexei Navalny in August 2020 reflected a conviction not just that he and his movement was dangerous – which itself would be a striking admission of insecurity for the Kremlin — but also that, knowingly or not, he was contributing to a Western campaign of subversion against Russia.”
  • “Once you start along some roads, it’s hard to stop. When he survived and defiantly returned to Russia the regime clearly felt it had no alternative but to imprison him, lest it look weak. And once his movement began to hold mass protests, which spread beyond the usual metropolitical set and into towns and cities across the country, then the “logic” of cracking down more broadly became hard to resist.”
  • “It may be that before or, more likely, after the September elections, or even connected with his presumed presidential re-election campaign in 2024, that Putin may try to step back. The prosecutors may be chided for being “over-zealous,” some detainees released, token apologies made, promises of a fresh start extended with an eagerness hear alternative views.”
  • “But this is not a path that can be retraced. While the scale of repression can and will be modulated depending on the needs and fears of the Kremlin at any time, it will be impossible to rebuild the delicate legitimacy which, in its own way, the earlier “post-modern authoritarianism” had permitted.”

Alexei Navalny Is Russia's True Leader,” Oleg Kashin, The New York Times, 04.27.21. The author, a Russian journalist, writes:

  • “The turning point, for the country and for Mr. Navalny, came in 2011, when Mr. Putin decided to become president of Russia again and his party, United Russia, gathered a wildly improbable majority. Mass protests broke out and the leaders of the opposition, who had grown accustomed to seeing a hundred or so people at their gatherings, suddenly found themselves looking out at tens of thousands of citizens. It's tempting at this point to say that there was a leadership competition that Mr. Navalny won, but that would not be true. There were many other leaders … [O]ne after the other -- through assassination, intimidation, imprisonment and blackmail -- they disappeared from the scene. That left just Mr. Navalny, leading some to suspect he was working for the Kremlin.”
  • “When Mr. Putin agreed to allow Mr. Navalny's evacuation to Germany for treatment, he in all likelihood felt sure that the man would not come back.”
  • “Though Mr. Navalny's condition … seems to have stabilized, there can be no assurance of his safety as long as he languishes in prison. The prospects for the opposition movement -- not least after the activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Mr. Navalny's political organization, were suspended on Monday -- look bleak.”
  • “By not recognizing Mr. Navalny's right to participate in politics, Mr. Putin brought himself into a confrontation with a leader who is his equal. Now, after getting rid of all his opponents, real and imaginary, Mr. Putin finds himself alone.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“New Tools, Old Tricks: Emerging Technologies and Russia’s Global Tool Kit,”Andrew S. Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04.29.21. The author writes, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, writes:

  • “Russia’s activity around the world needs to be taken seriously and scrutinized carefully. At the same time, its capabilities should be evaluated without yielding to alarmism or exaggeration. This is essential for forming an accurate yet clear-eyed assessment of the Kremlin’s actual influence beyond its immediate periphery.”
  • “Western policymakers should pay greater attention to pertinent instances of Russia’s overreach and failure on the global stage. … At the same time, Western policymakers must be able to set clear priorities and avoid playing into the Kremlin’s hands.”
  • “That means being able to identify the types of Russian actions that are most concerning and resisting the temptation to enter into a game of whack-a-mole in theaters of lesser importance … The flow of disinformation from niche online platforms operated by the Russian security services or the presence of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic are the kinds of problems that Western policymakers can afford to live with, albeit unhappily.”
  • “At the same time, they must stay closely attuned to the potential evolution of the Russian tool kit and be prepared for the Kremlin’s use of AI and machine learning to match the pattern that has been observed in the information domain … Russia can be a “fast follower” and operational innovator in applying such tools to its global activism, even if Russian engineers are not the ones actually inventing, for example, new forms of deep learning.”
  • “Russia’s small AI/machine learning research field and its structurally challenged tech sector may matter less than its durable criminal and intelligence/military sectors ... These actors will help determine the balance between the assimilation of increasingly sophisticated and destabilizing technologies and the continued reliance on tried-and-true tactics. For the foreseeable future, tools in the latter category appear likely to dominate.”

“Russia’s Strategic Transformation in Libya: A Winning Gambit?” Samuel Ramani, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 04.28.21. The author, a PhD student at Oxford, writes:

  • “On 15 April, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah travelled to Moscow for the first time.”
  • “At first glance, the cordial nature of Dbeibah’s meeting with Russian officials is surprising. Russia provided extensive material support for Libyan National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which was the predecessor of the Dbeibah-led Government of National Unity (GNU). On 12 March, Dbeibah described foreign mercenaries, which included Russian Wagner Group private military contractors, as a ‘stab in our back and a threat to Libyan sovereignty’.”
  • “Since the GNU’s establishment on 9 March, Russia has embraced Libya’s interim government and supports Libya’s plans to hold national elections in December 2021. However, Russia also maintains residual links with anti-systemic actors, such as Khalifa Haftar, the al-Kaniyat armed group and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, in case the GNU’s authority weakens. This balancing strategy could allow Russia’s influence in Libya to remain impervious to political changes on the ground and yield lucrative reconstruction contracts for Russian state-owned companies.”
  • “As the GNU’s domestic and international legitimacy strengthens, Russia’s strategy in Libya is undergoing a drastic transformation. Russia wishes to preserve a diverse array of local partnerships and leverage its standing as a Mediterranean power to secure lucrative reconstruction contracts. The success of Russia’s strategy hinges on its ability to rebuild its depleted soft power and outbid stiff competition from rival international stakeholders in Libya.”


“Zelensky forced to ‘face reality’ over peace process with Russia,” Roman Olearchyk and Ben Hall, Financial Times, 05.03.21. The authors, the Ukraine correspondent and editor for Financial Times, write:

  • “Moscow’s massive military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea last month, followed by a partial troop withdrawal, was “from the Kremlin’s perspective a clear success”, Kurt Volker, former US special representative to Ukraine, wrote last week. Russia’s sabre-rattling left “Ukraine looking vulnerable, the west having demonstrably shied away from a military show of force and [Vladimir] Putin having strengthened his position” in the region.”
  • “Zelensky, who was elected in 2019 on a promise to end the war in the Donbas region, has few options for breaking the deadlock, having failed to galvanize Kyiv’s western allies behind further economic sanctions against Russia and with Washington’s willingness to engage in a new diplomatic effort unclear. A senior Ukrainian official admitted it had taken Zelensky two years to ‘face reality.’”
  • “Zelensky called for changes to the Minsk peace accord negotiated by the Normandy four, which has not been implemented, with Kyiv and Moscow at loggerheads over terms and sequencing. But the Kremlin refuses to renegotiate the deal … Paris and Berlin, meanwhile, fear walking away from the Minsk accord could provoke Moscow. Scrapping it would also make it harder to sustain EU sanctions against Russia.”
  • “Kyiv insists it is not required to grant permanent autonomy to the breakaway areas, fearing such a status would thwart its aspirations to join the EU and NATO … Some Ukrainian analysts and officials are resigned to a long, frozen conflict and say Kyiv’s best strategy is to rebuild its economy and modernize its state. A Ukrainian official described it as the “West German strategy:” focus on outlasting Putin and forging peace after a new leadership comes to power in Russia, but from a position of relative strength.”

“How to Solve the Humanitarian Crisis in Donbas,” Melinda Haring and Shelby Magid, The National Interest, 04.26.21. The authors, deputy and associate direct at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, write:

  • “Before Covid-19 struck, approximately 56 percent of families [in separatist-controlled Donbass] depended on pensions as their main source of income. Provision of social services was essential even before the pandemic and the latest round of hostilities. Now, the already struggling population faces a double whammy of increased dependence on humanitarian aid while the delivery of such essential services simultaneously decreases.”
  • “Assistance must be targeted to those living along both sides of the contact line. Since fighting began in 2014, those closest to the contact line face hellish circumstances. Access to clean water, food, shelter, health care, and education is never guaranteed. The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people in Ukraine’s east require assistance in 2021, which is more than a 50 percent increase from 2020. This includes access to the most basic needs of food and clean water.”
  • “When the gunfire quiets down and the news turns to the next global crisis, aid will still be needed. Landmines will still be littered about. Critical infrastructure will still need repairs.”
  • “The United Nations says that it requires $168 million to help 1.9 million people in Ukraine’s Donbas. So far, the aid organization has received only 5.5 percent. Let’s change that.”

“Can Be a Model for Ukrainian Reform,” Anatolii Pinchuk and Max Karyzhsky, The National Interest, 04.26.21. The authors, president and project director at Ukrainian Strategy, write:

  • “If President Biden and his administration are serious about supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the United States needs to establish stronger bilateral ties with Ukraine. Washington and Kyiv should work together to establish a clear “rules-based” approach for making Ukraine a mature nation-state. By serving as a model for Ukraine in its efforts to reform and eliminate corruption, America would help not only bring the country more in line with the Euro-Atlantic community but also help build resilience (and deterrence) against an increasingly aggressive Russia. That is an objective which Washington and Kyiv both seek.”

“Russia, Not NATO, Has the Upper Hand in Ukraine,” Ali Demirdas, The National Interest, 04.26.21. The author, a professor of international affairs at the College of Charleston, writes:

  • “NATO’s pledge to defend Ukraine in its row with Russia raises the question as to whether the transatlantic alliance could keep its commitment. History, technical issues, changing global political order, intra-alliance problems, and a lack of public support in the West for a war with Russia are rendering NATO unable to counter Russia in Ukraine, as well as the rest of eastern Europe, making a Russian victory ever more likely.”
  • “For Putin, blinking in Ukraine is tantamount to losing Moscow and he is ready to do everything in his power to keep the gains he has made.”

“Russians Largely Blame US, NATO Allies for Escalation of Tensions Near Ukraine,” RM Staff, Russia Matters, 04.29.21. The Russia Matters staff write:

  • “Almost half of Russians blame the U.S. and its NATO allies for the escalation of tensions in eastern Ukraine, according to the results of a poll released April 29 by Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center. Forty-eight percent of respondents hold that view.”
  • “Those who believe the U.S. and NATO are to blame for the escalation dominate all age groups among the poll’s respondents. They account for 36 percent of respondents 18-24 years old, 40 percent among respondents 25-39 years old, 50 percent of respondents 40-54 years old and 57 percent of respondents 55 years old and older.”
  • “Among those who get their news from TV or the radio, 57 percent and 52 percent, respectively, blame the U.S. and other NATO countries. In contrast, only 26 percent of those who rely on Telegram channels for news hold that view.”
  • “Importantly, only 2 percent of Russians believe the situation in eastern Ukraine will inevitably escalate into a war, while 16 percent are confident that it will not. That common wisdom reflects the change in the situation on the ground, where Russian top brass has ordered the withdrawal of many of the units whose deployment to areas adjacent to Ukraine in March and April fueled concerns among some experts that a war could be imminent (although some of these units have left equipment in those areas before returning to their permanent bases).”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.