Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- Russia’s top priorities in the Asia-Pacific lie beyond the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, and Moscow does not have much to offer these potential partners, write Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Aleksandar Vladicic. In both respects, Russia is content to serve as China’s de facto junior partner. Thus, they write, all roads the United States may pursue for gaining Moscow’s support for or acquiescence to U.S. policies toward North Korea and in Southeast Asia run through Beijing. In a separate report, Rumer and Sokolsky warn that Russia will remain a formidable adversary for the United States for many years, but the U.S. and its allies have an important stake in reducing the risk of war that will arise if the new strategic dynamic results in an uncontrolled, unmanaged geopolitical competition and a new arms race.
- There are few new actions the United States should take regarding Russia, except to stay on guard and continue to press it to reverse its aggressive policies, writes Howard J. Shatz of RAND. Russia’s foreign military interventions are likely to continue. These interventions tend to be low cost and high priority for the Kremlin’s foreign policy, although popular support for the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria has declined. Likewise, Shatz writes, information operations and interference in U.S. and other foreign elections are low-cost and likely to continue.
- Given the American propensity for regime change overseas, it makes sense that other nations would seek, in turn, to interfere in American politics—for reasons of self-defense, if nothing else, writes Richard Hanania, a research fellow at Defense Priorities and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. What’s less understandable, he argues, is the moral indignation that American leaders express about what are relatively minor incursions, compared with U.S. violations of some of the most fundamental rules of international law.
- In the cases of Crimea’s annexation and the war in eastern Ukraine, it was clear to all that the Russian state, or major regime elements, was culpable, justifying economic sanctions, writes Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov. Where individual murders are concerned, targeted sanctions are the West’s go-to response. In the case of Navalny’s poisoning, however, the difficulty of identifying the culprits increases the likelihood that broader sanctions will be imposed, Baunov writes, a step that will be especially painful amid the economic disruption of the coronavirus pandemic but which Europe will probably feel compelled to take.
- In an interview with the Center for National Security, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer says, “What I worry about is, if we see too many of these episodes of high hopes and disappointment, then at some point, particularly in Europe, you may see Ukraine fatigue. How many times does this country try and then fail to get things right? … Right now I would give the Trump administration policy towards Ukraine pretty good marks. They've maintained support for Ukraine. They've increased assistance to Ukraine. They've provided lethal military assistance in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, which the Obama administration was not willing to do. They've maintained sanctions on Russia, albeit under a lot of pressure from Congress.”
- By mobilizing and deploying the Belarusian army to maneuvers on the country’s western border, the regime has enacted the “Zapad 17” scenario, claims ECFR’s Gustav Gressel. In this scenario—as in every Belarusian defense plan—the Belarusian armed forces are subordinated to the Russian Western Military District command. While these Belarusian maneuvers are insignificant militarily, Gressel writes, the move has significant political implications: Belarus has surrendered its armed forces, and hence its sovereignty, to Russia, according to Gressel.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant developments.
New Cold War/saber rattling:
“Etched in Stone: Russian Strategic Culture and the Future of Transatlantic Security,” Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.08.20: The authors, the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program and a nonresident senior fellow in the program, write:
- “The Cold War–era conceptual map underpinning U.S. and Russian views on strategic stability, nuclear deterrence, arms control and the U.S.-Russian strategic balance, had several distinct features … Perhaps most importantly, the two sides defined strategic stability relatively narrowly as a condition in which neither had an incentive to use nuclear weapons first.”
- “Today this paradigm is too narrow for understanding the requirements of maintaining and strengthening nuclear deterrence and strategic stability in the face of evolving conventional weapons technologies. The United States and Russia should agree to the unconditional extension of New START and begin talks on a follow on strategic arms control treaty. But to remain relevant in the future, arms control will have to take account of new and emerging weapons technologies.”
- “Looking ahead, it is tempting to hope that changes in Russia’s domestic politics or its economic difficulties will trigger shifts in its foreign policy similar to those of the Gorbachev era, and consequently that East-West relations will improve dramatically. However, the framework of Russian strategic culture suggests that such a turn of events is highly unlikely for three reasons.”
- “Russia will remain a formidable adversary for the United States for many years, and future administrations will need to take forceful action whenever its behavior threatens important U.S. interests. But the United States and its allies have an important stake in reducing the risk of war that will arise if the new strategic dynamic results in an uncontrolled, unmanaged geopolitical competition and a new arms race.”
“Erosion of Nuclear Deterrence Makes India-China Relations Critical,” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 09.07.20: The author, chief foreign affairs columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “There are three international rivalries where tensions between nuclear-weapons states are reaching dangerous levels. The biggest current risk is on the China-India border—where recent clashes have led to 21 Indian fatalities and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Military tensions are also rising between China and the U.S. in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the crisis in Belarus has led to fears of Russian military intervention, which would put NATO on alert.”
- “If Beijing and New Delhi’s confidence that the other side will not use nuclear weapons persuades China to press home its military advantage, then India may be tempted to alter its policy in an attempt to restore deterrence. Some experts point to the possibility of India deploying tactical nuclear weapons in the Himalayas, or formally renouncing its no-first-use policy. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is always tempting for a country that fears it might lose a conventional war. Pakistani military doctrine envisages an early resort to nuclear weapons, in the event of an invasion by India that would otherwise lead to defeat.”
- “Western analysts have long feared that, for similar reasons, Moscow will threaten to use nuclear weapons early in any conflict with NATO. This strategy is known as ‘escalate to de-escalate.’ NATO planners sometimes point to a 2009 Russian military exercise that reportedly ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw. The Russian scenario was centered around a conflict over Belarus … American concern that Russia might use smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, in any conflict with NATO has led the U.S. to develop its own new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons.”
- “Even when Barack Obama was president, I heard senior American strategists predict that there will eventually be a military confrontation between the U.S. and China—probably at sea. Their expectation was that any confrontation would be quickly brought under control through diplomacy. The risks of such a clash are now rising … The obvious danger in a clash is that diplomacy fails to calm things down and the conflict escalates.”
“How Many More Red Lines Is the Russian State Prepared to Cross?”, Andrei Kolesnikov, The Moscow Times, 09.03.20: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “Crossing red lines has become a national political sport in Russia. The annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbass, the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, cyber interference in foreign elections, the Skripal saga, the increasing participation of Wagner mercenaries in military conflicts and the resetting of presidential terms. To all of this we can now add the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.”
- “The use of Novichok is a surprise that we could have expected. Another anticipated ‘surprise’ is the complete denial of guilt from the Russian side. The strategy and tactics are always the same.”
- “The state provides cover for state terror via a ‘state-private partnership,’ in the sense that those who carry out these deeds may not formally be representatives of state structures but mercenaries. Those who order the hits are not people right at the top, but mid-level functionaries, carrying out their official duty in this rather ‘particular’ way. Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that the outsourcing of killings, beatings, trolling and provocations is a growing part of the ‘state procurement’ market.”
- “Nobody is holding back any longer, since Russia is de facto in a Cold War with the West. Of course, it does not resemble a classical Cold War. But all the worse: It is being waged without rules and without any kind of visible desire from the Russian side to initiate a new ‘détente,’ or at least a ‘restart’ in the manner of Dmitry Medvedev.”
- “We should not expect the liberalization of the political system, it is moving in one direction only. There’s no reverse gear.”
“The Belarus Uprising: A Repeat of Ukraine?” Russell A. Berman and Kiron K. Skinner, The National Interest, 09.07.20: The authors, a senior fellow and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, write:
- “An aggressive move by Russia in Belarus on the scale of what took place in Ukraine would be another matter altogether. It is urgent for the United States to underscore how serious the consequences will be if Moscow takes an adventurist wrong step.”
- “First, it is urgent to launch intensive diplomatic consultation with all the NATO members. … Second, diplomacy has to lay the groundwork for a suspension of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. … Third, … eastern flank countries need clear reassurance of American support. … Fourth, it is time as well to pressure ‘old Europe,’ especially the former front-line state, Germany, to live up to its commitments.”
- “Belarus is part of the European theater, but it is also a piece of the encompassing global competition. Weakness in Northeast Europe will tempt adversaries in East Asia. One has to plan for worst case scenarios: a conventional Russian advance in Belarus could be followed by a Chinese move on Hong Kong or even Taiwan. Preventing such catastrophic developments requires clear expressions of commitment, fortifying our alliance and building a defense posture appropriate to today’s circumstances, not to the last war.”
“Allies and Former US Officials Fear Trump Could Seek NATO Exit in a Second Term,” Mike Crowley, New York Times, 09.03.20: The author, a White House correspondent for the news outlet, writes:
- “Although Mr. Trump has been known to have expressed interest in withdrawing the United States from the Atlantic alliance since 2018, new evidence of his thinking has emerged in the run-up to the November election.”
- “This summer, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton published a book that described the president as repeatedly saying he wanted to quit the alliance. Last month, Mr. Bolton speculated to a Spanish newspaper that Mr. Trump might even spring an ‘October surprise’ shortly before the election by declaring his intention to leave the alliance in a second term.”
- “And in a book published this week, Michael S. Schmidt, a New York Times reporter, wrote that Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, told others that ‘one of the most difficult tasks he faced with Trump was trying to stop him from pulling out of NATO.’ One person who has heard Mr. Kelly speak in private settings confirmed that he had made such remarks.”
- “Congress would most likely move to block any effort by Mr. Trump to exit the alliance altogether, but experts said he could deal it a near-lethal blow in other ways. One would be to undermine a provision in the original treaty, Article 5, that calls for collective self-defense. Previous presidents have interpreted it as a promise to defend any member from military attacks, but Mr. Trump has questioned it.”
Impact of the pandemics:
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- “Even if each side chooses to begrudgingly accept the other's presence in Eastern Syria—and there are pressures on each side to do so—the pathway toward stabilization would not be easy to navigate. The five most consequential challenges would be (1) where to draw the deconfliction line; (2) whether and how to organize mutually agreed flows of unarmed civilians, economic goods and relief supplies across the Valley; (3) managing water scarcity and sharing oil and gas revenues; (4) attending to the needs of displaced communities and their influx back into the Valley …; and (5) mitigating the risks of retributive violence against communities suspected of having ISIS sympathizers.”
- “For the MERV [eastern Syria's Middle Euphrates River Valley] overall, priority actions would include orchestrating a surge of relief aid …; managing the influx of returning refugees and internally displaced persons … ; ramping up repairs to water pumping stations and the electrical grid, along with the provision of agricultural assistance; developing plans for more extensive recovery of public services; working with Turkey on Euphrates River water management over the longer term; and ensuring transparency of external support for relief aid and local infrastructure repairs.”
- “For areas of the MERV held by U.S.-backed coalition partners, priority actions would focus on assisting communities in removing explosive hazards, supporting the formation of locally focused civil councils, ramping up efforts to generate locally accepted Sunni Arab security forces, refining screening procedures to facilitate the returns of refugees and IDPs, repairing damaged oil and gas facilities previously held by ISIS and countering youth radicalization through curricular reforms in the education sector.”
- “For heightening the prospects of the interactive stabilization approach, priority actions would include mapping out the MERV's socioeconomic interdependences to preview likely cross-river flows of people and economic goods, crafting protocols for processing transiting cargo and people through checkpoints, developing a plan for sharing oil and gas revenues …, crafting a template of benchmarks for successful stabilization and anticipating the need to apply constructive pressure to inhibit a flare-up of retributive violence against civilians.”
- No significant developments.
“From Russia, With Links,” Editorial Board, The Boston Globe, 09.06.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “If you wanted more proof that intelligence officials urgently need to do more—not less—to inform Congress and the American people about ongoing Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing discord and affecting the outcome of American elections, it came with news Tuesday [Sept. 1] that Facebook shut down a network of fake accounts designed to peddle misinformation about Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to ‘Democratic Socialists, environmentalists and disgruntled Democrats.’ According to a report by Graphika, a network analysis firm, the fake accounts appeared to be a repeat of Russian tactics from 2016, an effort to help reelect President Trump by plotting ‘to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden's campaign.’”
- “Last month's fifth and final Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election … provide[d] a clear legislative road map to prevent future foreign efforts to target government systems, individuals and political campaigns. Congress should pass legislation implementing every one of the recommendations, which include updating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”
- “But first, Congress must insist that ODNI does its duty to inform lawmakers and members of the public of election security threats by resuming in-person briefings. Lawmakers should also demand a briefing on worldwide threats before the election to fully understand the extent of Russia's efforts.”
- “Oversight is crucial, and lawmakers should not be kneecapped by the Trump administration—especially given the president's repeated efforts to deny and downplay the extent to which Russia has sought to inject itself into American democratic systems.”
“Forget Russia and China, the Biggest Threat to US Elections Comes From Within America,” Richard Hanania, The National Interest, 09.04.20: The author, a research fellow at Defense Priorities and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, writes:
- “This month, U.S. intelligence reported that Russia wants Donald Trump to win reelection, while China and Iran seek to help Joe Biden. Both sides of the political aisle have cited the report, claiming that one adversary or another would be happy if the other party takes power in January. It shouldn’t surprise us that foreign countries have preferences about American electoral outcomes. Why wouldn’t they, given U.S. influence in the world?”
- “According to political scientist Lindsey O'Rourke, during the Cold War, the United States engaged in 64 attempts at covert regime change. More recently, we have overthrown and ultimately helped kill leaders in Iraq and Libya, while aiming to replace governments in Syria and Venezuela. Hillary Clinton believes that Vladimir Putin’s grudge against her goes back to comments she made about the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently urged the Chinese people to overthrow their government.”
- “Given the American propensity for regime change overseas, it makes sense that other nations would seek, in turn, to interfere in American politics—for reasons of self-defense, if nothing else. What’s less understandable is the moral indignation that American leaders express about what are relatively minor incursions, compared with U.S. violations of some of the most fundamental rules of international law.”
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“It's No Wonder Putin Thinks He Can Get Away With Poisoning His Adversaries,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 09.02.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny suddenly fell ill two weeks ago, Russian authorities dismissed his supporters' charges of poisoning and resisted allowing his transfer to a German hospital for treatment. Eventually, they relented—and now the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is reporting ‘unequivocal evidence’ that Mr. Navalny was attacked with a chemical nerve agent. Once again the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been caught attempting to murder a leading opponent using a weapon banned by international treaty.”
- “So far, at least, Ms. Merkel is at least signaling a tougher line. She delivered her own statement saying the attack was ‘a crime against . . . basic rights we stand for’ and ‘raises severe questions that only the Russian government can answer, and will have to answer.’ She said Germany would discuss a ‘joint action’ with other European Union and NATO governments, and that it would report to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the treaty prohibiting weapons such as Novichok, to which Russia is a signatory.”
- “Whether there are more concerted consequences will depend in part on whether President Trump is willing to work with Germany and other allies. Following the Skripal poisoning, Mr. Trump only reluctantly agreed to join diplomatic expulsions by Britain and the EU. He still has not confronted Mr. Putin about intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to the Afghan Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers. Nor has he objected to ongoing Russian efforts to help his reelection campaign … It's little wonder Mr. Putin thinks he can get away with another chemical weapons attack. To all appearances, he has the president of the United States in his pocket.”
“Did the US Government Support Chechen Separatism?” RM Staff, Russia Matters, 09.03.20: In this fact-check, the Russia Matters staff writes:
- “Claim (in 2004, 2015 and 2017): The U.S. government supported Chechen separatism. Partially Correct: There is no publicly available evidence that the U.S. ever provided direct material support to armed Chechen separatist groups, much less North Caucasus-based militants who have engaged in terrorist attacks. However, U.S. officials did openly meet with Ilyas Akhmadov, who represented the Chechen separatist movement and whom the Russian government described as a terrorist. In addition, former and serving U.S. government officials publicly expressed sympathy for ‘moderate’ Chechen separatists and the separatist cause.”
- “Remarks by Putin and his subordinates can be broken into two distinct claims: Claim #1: U.S. government officials met with representatives of armed Chechen separatist groups whom the Russian leadership described and/or officially designated as terrorists. Claim #2: The U.S. government provided direct material support and/or intelligence to armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus that Moscow described and/or officially designated as terrorists.”
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
- No significant developments.
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:
“Where Navalny’s Poisoning Is Taking Russia, at Home and Abroad,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.08.20: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru, writes:
- “Far from a purely internal or external affair, Alexei Navalny’s poisoning has shaken Russia’s domestic politics as well as its foreign relations. Although it is closer to its beginning than its end, the affair sheds light on the degradation of authoritarianism in Russia, the dynamic between Moscow and an embattled Aleksandr Lukashenko and the difficult relations between Russia and the West, especially Germany.”
- “Contrary to popular belief, Russia’s regime is less than enthusiastic about its supporters carrying out acts of violence. It prizes its monopoly on violence. … Whoever stands behind the attack, its logic could have been that having an enemy in the rear is too dangerous when a battle with foreign foes … is likely imminent.”
- “Navalny’s brush with death stands apart even from past assassinations in which the Kremlin was accused of having a hand … As former security service members, Litvinenko and Skripal may have been seen by Russian intelligence as traitors worthy of punishment, whereas Navalny is an opposition politician who operates in the open rather than covertly. Navalny’s poisoning, then, eliminates the distinction previously drawn by Putin between enemies and traitors, the former being deserving of respect. If that line has been erased, it suggests that the regime … feels more endangered than ever.”
- “None of that has stopped Lukashenko from offering up a conspiracy theory about Navalny’s poisoning that points the finger at the West.”
- “In the cases of Crimea’s annexation and the war in eastern Ukraine, it was clear to all that the Russian state, or major regime elements, was culpable, justifying economic sanctions. Where individual murders are concerned, targeted sanctions are the West’s go-to response. In the case of Navalny’s poisoning, however, the difficulty of identifying the culprits increases the likelihood that broader sanctions will be imposed, a step that will be especially painful amid the economic disruption of the coronavirus pandemic but which Europe will probably feel compelled to take.”
“Putin’s Poison,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 09.04.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “The permissive climate Russia has created for assassinations is part of a broader picture. Not only does Moscow no longer want to play by the rules of a democratic Western community, it wishes to subvert them. Changing the Kremlin’s calculus requires a more coherent strategy.”
- “That should start with energy, and a German and EU-wide rejection of Nord Stream 2 … future Western investments in Russian energy should be subject to government scrutiny, and efforts to bring in liquefied natural gas from the U.S. and elsewhere stepped up—even if these would be costlier. European preparedness to pay more to reduce its energy reliance on Russia would send a potent message.”
- “Second, Russia’s membership of international ‘clubs’ should be restricted. There should be no return to the G7; Russia’s readmission last year to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the human rights body, is regrettable.”
- “The U.K. has an important part to play in clamping down on ‘dirty’ Russian money flows and influence-buying. Restrictions should be tightened on everything from visas to opaque shell companies to political donations; more transparency should be demanded of Russian businesses raising funds.”
- “None of these will improve Mr. Navalny’s chances of recovery. Rather than, in essence, turning a blind eye, however, it is time for more concerted Western efforts to deter any repeat of such outrages in the future.”
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
“Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Less Than Meets the Eye,.” Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Aleksandar Vladicic, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.03.20: The authors, affiliates of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, write:
- “Much has been written about Russia’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and break with the West, but there is less to this supposed strategic shift than meets the eye. The country is and will remain a European—rather than an Asian—power by virtue of its history, strategic culture, demographics and principal economic relationships.”
- “The Asia-Pacific will remain important for Russia’s foreign policy primarily because of its growing strategic partnership with China, a rapprochement that began not in 2014 but in 1989. Moscow’s other … interests in the region are of much less importance.”
- “Some analysts … have argued for the adoption of a wedge strategy to prevent further Russian-Chinese alignment. This is an unrealistic and impractical proposition … The strategic partnership between Russia and China is rooted in their domestic political, economic and geopolitical complementarity and in the confluence of their interests and threat perceptions. … Both countries consider the United States the primary challenger to their interests. … The partnership is reinforced by the personal commitments of the presidents of both countries. … The partnership predates Russia’s 2014 break with the West. … Russia remains a European rather than an Asian nation. Its key interests are at stake in Europe rather than in Asia.”
- “Russia’s top priorities in the Asia-Pacific lie beyond the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, and Moscow does not have much to offer these potential partners. In both respects, Russia is content to serve as China’s de facto junior partner. Thus, all roads the United States may pursue for gaining Moscow’s support for or acquiescence to U.S. policies toward North Korea and in Southeast Asia run through Beijing.”
- “The geopolitical geometry of great-power competition in the Asia-Pacific will not be triangular. China and the United States will be the main players in the contest for regional supremacy. Russia will be an interested but not terribly influential bystander, ready to take advantage of openings created by U.S. mistakes and miscues.”
“COVID-19 and Economic Competition With China and Russia,” Howard J. Shatz, War on The Rocks, 08.31.20: The author, a senior economist at RAND, writes:
- “Even before the coronavirus, Russia was in economic trouble. Russia’s gross domestic product grew an average annual 2.6 percent from 2010 to 2014, but only 0.5 percent from 2014 to 2018. A lack of structural reform, leaving the Russian economy reliant on oil and gas exports, compounded those problems. Over the longer term, Russia also faces demographic challenges … as does much of Europe.”
- “The United States may have a window of opportunity to press allies and partners to reduce their economic connections with China and even to gain their willing cooperation in the effort. … Even if decoupling stalls, the United States needs to ensure that there is a diverse supply of components, including inputs to components down the supply chain, especially for defense items.”
- “There are few new actions the United States should take regarding Russia, except to stay on guard and continue to press it to reverse its aggressive policies. … Russia’s foreign military interventions are likely to continue. These interventions tend to be low cost and high priority for the Kremlin’s foreign policy, although popular support for the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria has declined.”
- “Finally, there are implications for both Russia and China together, with Russia continuing or even quickening its turn toward China. Accelerated by the 2014 sanctions, the two countries have drawn closer and upgraded their relations to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era.’”
- “As long as Russia remains at odds with the West, a longer and steeper Russian downturn could create greater incentives for Russia to draw closer to China as a market and source of investment. Furthermore, either Russia’s own policy of increasing isolation from the West, or an increase in the benefits it reaps from working with China, could disincentivize Russia from resolving its disagreements with the West to get sanctions lifted. That, in turn, may hamper Russia’s ability to get much-needed Western investment and technology, potentially further stunting its growth over the long term—but not reducing it as a near-term challenge.”
“Russia and China Wield Dull Wedges,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 09.07.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “One of the biggest concerns experts have about President Trump's foreign policy is that by alienating key allies like Germany, it offers China and Russia an opportunity to divide Europe from the U.S. Yet while trans-Atlantic tensions have worsened since 2016 and public opinion in key European countries has turned sharply against the president, there are few signs Russia or China are effectively capitalizing on the moment. On the contrary. Far from severing the ties between the U.S. and Europe, China and Russia seem to be strengthening them.”
- “Neither China nor Russia is ready to do what it would take to pry Europe and Washington apart. In part this is because, as Americans well know, Europe demands a high price for its support. For Beijing or Moscow to meet European demands on everything from climate change to human rights would require changes that neither is willing or perhaps able to make.”
- “The trans-Atlantic alliance will remain bound by the same powerful force that creates many international bonds: a sense of common threat. … Both Russia and China feel relatively unconstrained at the moment. With the U.S. consumed by election politics and domestic polarization, and the European Union still divided and slow-moving, neither Moscow nor Beijing seems to fear consequences for its reckless behavior. The rest of 2020 could have a few more nasty surprises up its sleeve.”
- “All of this suggests that Russia and China will continue to anger and alarm their neighbors and the world at large. And much as the bluster and bullying of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II strengthened the encircling coalition that he feared, so China and Russia are driving much of the rest of the world into a defensive alliance.”
“In Belarus, China Is Neither at Odds With Russia nor Wedded to Lukashenko,” Temur Umarov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.07.20: The author, a consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “Courted by Alexander Lukashenko since the 2000s, China has gradually expanded its presence, economic and otherwise, in Belarus. However, its strengthening position there has not come at Russia’s expense.”
- “Beijing sees no point in openly backing one side or the other in Belarus’s political crisis given the situation’s uncertainty. In any case, China simply has no real means of influencing events in Belarus. Hence its adoption of the highly reliable tactic of avoiding loud statements and leaving the action to Russia, which has more instruments of influence and for which the stakes are higher.”
- “To be sure, Beijing finds working with Lukashenko easy. Should he manage to remain in power, it will continue to deepen relations with Minsk. But if he is ousted, China will search for a common language with whoever replaces him. A Lukashenko successor, for their part, will not have the option of ignoring a partner like the PRC, which Belarus needs much more than China needs Belarus.”
“Ukraine—Then and Now,” Interview with Steven Pifer, Center for National Security, 09.03.20: In this interview, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine says:
- “I remember a conversation I had with a Russian deputy foreign minister, probably in 1994 or 1995. … He understood things had changed, but said to me, ‘Up here in my head, I understand and I acknowledge that Ukraine is an independent country. Here in my heart, it's going to take a long time.’ I think that reflects the attitude of a lot of Russians, most importantly Vladimir Putin.”
- “The tension that you now see between Russia and Ukraine is Russia trying to assert that sphere of influence … whereas it's clear since the Maidan Revolution that the majority of Ukrainians see their future as a fully integrated European state.”
- “What Mr. Putin does want is a sphere of influence … That means countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and others in Central Asia should defer to Moscow on issues that Moscow considers key to Russian interests. That certainly means, how close you can get to institutions such as the European Union and NATO.”
- “Moscow’s plan B now is to pressure and keep Ukraine from becoming a successful state and, thus far, the Kremlin's calculation of the costs and benefits seems to be that they are prepared to bear the risk of political isolation, the condemnation, the sanctions and such. One of the things we want to think about in the West is, how do you change that calculation?”
- “What I worry about is, if we see too many of these episodes of high hopes and disappointment, then at some point, particularly in Europe, you may see Ukraine fatigue. How many times does this country try and then fail to get things right? … Right now I would give the Trump administration policy towards Ukraine pretty good marks. They've maintained support for Ukraine. They've increased assistance to Ukraine. They've provided lethal military assistance in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, which the Obama administration was not willing to do. They've maintained sanctions on Russia, albeit under a lot of pressure from Congress.”
“The Slow Dismantling of the Belarusian State,” Gustav Gressel, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 09.02.20: The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:
- “By mobilizing and deploying the Belarusian army to maneuvers on the country’s western border, the regime … enacted the ‘Zapad 17’ scenario. In this scenario—as in every Belarusian defense plan—the Belarusian armed forces are subordinated to the Russian Western Military District command. While these Belarusian maneuvers are insignificant militarily, the move has significant political implications: Belarus has surrendered its armed forces, and hence its sovereignty, to Russia. Any move the army makes will be not only with Moscow’s consent but under its orders.”
- “Having accepted Lukashenko’s political surrender, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to deploy a ‘law enforcement reserve force’ if the protests got out of hand. … Given that the circumstantial evidence points towards Moscow establishing de facto control of the Belarusian state, the issue of whether Lukashenko stays or goes is a secondary matter. Moscow has long sought to weaken Belarus as an independent state and increase its control of its purported ally.”
- “Europe … need[s] to realize that economic outreach and dialogue will not make the Kremlin change its behavior. And, as the case of Belarus has once again illustrated, the constant foreign policy clashes between the West and Russia are due not to a lack of dialogue … but to fundamentally opposed interests and value systems.”
- “The dismantling of the Belarusian state will have profound long-term consequences in the region. Before the 2020 election, Lukashenko preserved a minimal degree of independence from Moscow by refusing to recognize the annexation of Crimea or to allow Belarus to become a springboard for Russian military interventions. He will no longer have this freedom, and will have to accept new Russian military bases and deployments on Belarusian territory. Accordingly, Ukraine will have an even longer border with territory in which Russian forces can maneuver, leaving the country more vulnerable. The shift will alter the regional balance of power on NATO’s eastern flank to the detriment of the alliance. Europe must now prepare for all these changes.”
“Domestic Geopolitics: Belarusian Protests and Russia’s Power Transition,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.01.20: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru, writes:
- “For two weeks, the Kremlin watched closely to see whether Lukashenko was determined enough to cling on to power, whether there was a split within the elite, whether the security services would betray him. Satisfied that Lukashenko was indeed determined enough, and that there was no division, the Kremlin made the decision once and for all to support him. After all, there’s no other visible candidate who would better guarantee the Union State that Russia and Belarus form, or who would keep Belarus the same distance—or further—from the West.”
- “Even Russian domestic public opinion, which is tired of Putin, still professes twice as much support for Lukashenko (over 50 percent of Russians) as for the protesters (about 25 percent). This was also significant when the decision to support Lukashenko was being taken.”
- “Judging by this rapid simplification of events in Belarus, the Kremlin won’t complicate matters for itself when the issue of power in Russia arises. The version of events eventually selected for Belarus is the default one of a color revolution fomented by foreign powers, which corresponds most closely to the polarized perception of the world as a geopolitical standoff between its rulers and those who refuse to be ruled. Similarly, within Russia itself, after some brief consideration, the plan enacted earlier this year was the most straightforward option: restarting the clock on presidential terms, allowing Putin to stay in power beyond the end of his current term in 2024.”
- “The internal political agency of the Belarusian people is important, but less so than the external political agency of the Belarusian state as a player in the global power balance. Demands for freedom can be accommodated—as long as they don’t conflict with the task of maintaining the geopolitical equilibrium. The same goes for the demands of the Russian people.”
“The Kremlin and the Protests in Belarus: What’s Russia’s Next Move?” Maxim Samorukov, Institut für Sicherheitspolitik/Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.02.20: The author, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of Carnegie.ru, writes:
- “The Kremlin has little interest in running Belarus’s domestic affairs. Rather, it would prefer to turn the country into a sort of Abkhazia on steroids. Georgia’s breakaway province, which is recognized only by Russia and a few other states, boasts contentious political life with highly contested elections, never-ending protests and frequent personnel changes at the top. But the Kremlin cares little about these excesses of democracy so long as Abkhazia’s foreign policy remains firmly under Russia’s control. A similar state of affairs in Belarus would ensure that the Kremlin sees and treats it as a reliable ally.”
- “To be sure, Russia can hardly implement such a project in full. The West’s refusal to recognize Lukashenko’s victory is a far cry from the almost universal non-recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. Lukashenko, a survivor, will cling to power with little willingness to hand it over to the Kremlin. He is bound to become a far less malleable partner for Moscow as soon as the peak of the crisis passes. Finally, Belarusians with their newfound passion for political activism may raise their voices to promote their own vision of the country’s future. Still, the Kremlin’s course is unlikely to encounter major obstacles in the short term, tempting it to undertake another geopolitical adventure.”
“What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus and Why Western Leaders Must Act,” Michael Carpenter and Vlad Kobets, Foreign Affairs, 09.08.20: The authors, the managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and the executive director and co-founder of the International Strategic Action Network for Security, write:
- “Instead of deploying ‘little green men’ to occupy Belarusian territory, Moscow is aiming for something we have called ‘soft annexation.’ The strategy is to ‘boil the frog’ gradually, starting with economic integration and a common currency, followed by political integration through a common foreign and defense policy and culminating in a full-fledged Union State that would mean the de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia.”
- “The Kremlin needs Lukashenko in power to achieve this goal—at least for the time being.”
- “Today’s protest movement has given birth to a new consciousness that both mobilizes and unites Belarusians. Western leaders must empower this movement by fully embracing its leaders and their demands: new elections following a peaceful democratic transition, an immediate end to terror and repression, the lifting of restrictions on the media and the release of political prisoners.”
- “Too many Western politicians are immobilized by the expectation that Russia will invade Belarus or use repressive means to keep Lukashenko in power. To be sure, the Kremlin will not shy away from using its covert leverage to achieve its goal of soft annexation. But it will face fierce resistance from Belarusian society.”
- “Western democracies cannot be passive or, worse, supportive of a Russian-controlled transition. For Belarusians, such acquiescence would amount to a brutal betrayal of their hopes, substituting the current dictatorial regime with an equally brutal dictatorship by the Kremlin. Western leaders must offer full-throated support for the Belarusian democratic movement and its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, and shape the incentives for actors on the ground waiting to see how events play out. Such a decision should not be a hard one to make.”
“Fractures Appear in Belarus Opposition as Lukashenko Digs In,” James Shotter, Financial Times, 09.07.20: The author, a correspondent for the news outlet, writes:
- “When Alexander Lukashenko was met by boos, whistles and chants of ‘Resign! Resign!’ on a visit to the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant the day after hundreds of thousands of people protested against his disputed re-election, it looked as if the Belarusian autocrat’s days as president might be numbered. Three weeks on, however, Belarus’s opposition movement has had to reconcile itself to the fact that, in the short term at least, Mr. Lukashenko has been able to cling on to power.”
- “With Mr. Lukashenko digging in, there were for the first time signs last week of disagreement within the opposition about how to keep up the pressure on his regime. … Maria Kolesnikova, one of the trio of women who fronted Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign against Mr. Lukashenko … announced that she was launching a new political party, ‘Together,’ which would push for constitutional reforms. … This drew a rebuke from Ms. Tikhanovskaya who warned that focusing on constitutional change was a distraction from the main goal of ousting Mr. Lukashenko.”
- “The episode underscored the potential fault lines in an opposition movement that was created at breakneck speed in the run-up to the election … and that was united mainly by opposition to his regime, rather than a common political program.”
- “But even though the opposition has not been able to translate the protests and strikes into concessions from Mr. Lukashenko, his position is still far from comfortable. … Although the belated support from Mr. Putin has helped … in the short term, the assistance is likely to come at a price. … The other looming problem for Mr. Lukashenko’s regime is the Belarusian economy. Economists are forecasting a contraction of between 4 percent and 6 percent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Russia’s Relationship-Building in Belarus: Investing Beyond Lukashenko?” Emily Ferris, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 09.08.20: The author, a research fellow at RUSI, writes:
- “All of Russia’s actions so far suggest that it is keen to build and maintain important relationships with political, economic and religious groups, but nothing tangible yet suggests that Russia has entirely thrown its support behind Lukashenko. It is possible Russia has not yet made up its mind, but the commitment of funding and support for specific personnel is far more telling than words.”
“We Are the Future of Belarus—and That Future Doesn't Include Alexander Lukashenko,” Alice Sitnikova, The Washington Post, 09.06.20: The author, a student at Minsk State Linguistic University, writes:
- “Why should the government listen to a bunch of spoiled brats who don't even remember the hardships of the Soviet era or the '90s? Well, because we don't have to remember them. Because we can't and won't live our lives in fear of the past, and we can't and won't build our futures based on such fear. Young people can't embrace a system that is hopelessly dated, one that has time and time again failed to protect us from unlawful arrests and police brutality and one that is stagnant by design. We are the future of this country—and that future doesn't include Alexander Lukashenko.
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“October 2020 Parliamentary Elections: Georgia at the Crossroads,” Beka Chedia, PONARS Eurasia, September 2020: The author, a political scientist from Georgia, writes:
- “The convention in Tbilisi is that no political party has stayed in power beyond two consecutive terms, and Georgian Dream’s second term concludes this fall. Even though it is only a tradition, it opens the way for political formations to change. Instead of one ruling party or electoral bloc, the future government may be a coalition of forces.”
- “If Georgia manages to hold fair elections in October and, in the aggregate, opposition parties receive more votes than Georgian Dream (all surveys are indicating this), the creation of a coalition government will be a challenging test for the political class. One uncertainty is that we cannot currently predict what the 20-50 percent of the neutral/undecided voters will do. What if the elections are not free and fair? Falsification and bribes are possible. If Georgian Dream retains power through manipulation, Georgians, like Belarusians, have a rich experience of activating street pressures and protests.”
“Uzbekistan’s Transformation,” Andrea Schmitz, SWP, September 2020: The author, a senior associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia division at SWP, writes:
- “The presidential transition in Uzbekistan represents a novel development in the post-Soviet space. Regime insider Shavkat Mirziyoyev has succeeded in initiating change without provoking destabilization. His reform program aims to liberalize the economy and society while leaving the political system largely untouched.”
- “Implementation is centrally controlled and managed, in line with the country’s long history of state planning. Uzbeks accept painful adjustments in the expectation of a rising standard of living. And the economic reforms are rapidly creating incontrovertible facts on the ground.”
- “Uzbekistan has also made significant moves towards political liberalization, but remains an authoritarian state whose institutional framework and presidential system are not up for discussion. Rather than democratization, the outcome of the transformation is more likely to be ‘enlightened authoritarianism’ backed by an alliance of old and new elites.”
- “Nevertheless, there are good reasons for Germany and Europe to support the reforms. Priority should be placed on the areas most relevant for fostering an open society: promoting political competition, encouraging open debate, fostering independent public engagement and enabling genuine participation.”