Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 16-23, 2019

This Week’s Highlights

  • If NATO tries to renew relations with Russia, the alliance must be careful lest its actions be construed as rewarding Moscow for aggressive behavior, cautions Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO. The alliance will also need to bring its reluctant members on board, Gottemoeller writes, and the best way to achieve these ends is for NATO to focus its efforts on arms control. NATO could then play a crucial part in future negotiations between Washington and Moscow over tactical nuclear warheads.
  • The current flurry of pro-Russian activity in the Western Balkans is clearly driven by local demand rather than by a more proactive or effective Russian strategy, writes Maxim Samorkuov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Balkan leaders believe getting closer to Moscow is the easiest way to make the West less demanding in the negotiations on joining the EU. With Macron turning his sights on engineering a reset with Moscow, the Kremlin is unlikely to jeopardize such favorable dynamics by making disruptive moves in the Western Balkans, where Russia has limited interests at best.
  • Relations between Moscow and Beijing are increasingly those of allies, but not an alliance of the former Soviet type (the Warsaw Pact), or the current U.S. type (NATO), which are both dominated by their main member, writes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Both China and Russia take their sovereignty very seriously and are keen to preserve their freedom of maneuverability in terms of foreign policy, according to Trenin.
  • The real turning point in Putin’s attitude toward the West, according to ex-Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, who was then working in the Kremlin, came in 2008 with the meltdown of global financial systems, writes Andrew Higgins of the New York Times. “Before this he [Putin] orientated himself toward America. Yes, he disliked in the extreme what the Americans were doing around the world, but all the same he saw America as the strongest economy that runs the world economic system. Suddenly it turned out: no, they are not running anything,” Pavlovsky said.
  • The slowdown of Russia’s economic growth dates from 2012, and cannot simply be blamed on falling oil prices and sanctions, writes Philip Hanson of Chatham House. Rapid growth in 1999–2008 consisted in large part of recovery from the deep recession of the 1990s and the initial development of a services sector, sources of growth that are no longer available; investment is low; and the labor force is declining, according to Hanson.
  • In the three months through September, the Ukrainian economy expanded by 4.2 percent year over year; there’s little doubt that Zelenskiy’s progress is watched jealously in the Kremlin, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. If Zelenskiy proves a winner, Putin will look dated and clueless next to the young, sincere and very human leader of Ukraine. He’s Ukraine’s not-so-secret weapon against the leviathan to the northeast, because he’s living evidence that a former Soviet country doesn’t have to tolerate a fusty authoritarian regime, Bershidsky writes.

Dear readers: Please be advised that the Russia Analytical Report will not come out on Dec. 30 due to Harvard’s winter holidays. We look forward to resuming publication on Jan. 6 and wish you all the best in the New Year!


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“European Security Is Becoming Euro-Asian,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.18.19The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The world is probably entering a period of new bipolarity, in which the main players will be the United States and China. … The resumption of global rivalry between the great powers from the mid-2010s is having a significant impact on international and regional security, including in Europe.”
  • “Any confrontation between these two poles is unlikely, however, to be as implacable and all-encompassing as that between the Soviet Union and the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s also unlikely that the world will see clear dividing lines like those of the Cold War era.”
  • “Now European security is becoming an element of an emerging system of Euro-Asian security, in which an increasingly important role is played by China, alongside the United States and Russia. The problem facing European security … is how to ensure the continent’s security at a time when the two crucial components of the existing security landscape (NATO states and their partners on one side, and Russia on the other) have close ties to opposing sides in the main conflict of the twenty-first century.”
  • “The strategic aspect of Russia and China’s military cooperation is therefore intensifying and becoming even more intimate [but that is] not yet testament to the formation of a Sino-Russian military alliance, still less of a monolithic bloc that would oppose the United States and its allies. Relations between Moscow and Beijing are increasingly those of allies, but not an alliance.”
  • “This arrangement creates opportunities for Russia to establish flexible relationships with other countries whose relations with China may be less trusting or friendly: with India … Japan … and European countries. … What is absolutely essential … is to prevent a new Euromissile crisis that could escalate along the same lines as in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

“The New Cold War? It’s With China, and It Has Already Begun; Turning Points,” Niall Ferguson, New York Times, 12.02.19The author, the Milbank family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes:

  • “When did Cold War II begin? Future historians will say it was in 2019. Some will insist that a new Cold War had already begun—with Russia—in 2014, when Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine. But the deterioration of Russian-American relations pales in comparison to the rise in Sino-American antagonism that has unfolded … And though the United States and China can probably avoid a hot war, a second Cold War is still a daunting prospect.”
  • “It was not until 2019 that the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to China was effectively embraced by members of the policy elite on both sides of the partisan divide. … Public opinion made a similar shift. … Something else changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war … rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.”
  • “If Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems … its benefits could very well outweigh its costs. … If Americans are now waking up to a new external enemy, might it not reduce the notorious internal polarization of recent times … ? It is possible.”
  • “The one big risk with Cold War II would be to assume confidently that the United States is bound to win it. … China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did. … The North Atlantic Treaty was signed 70 years ago to counter Soviet ambitions; nothing similar will be set up to contain China’s. I do not expect a second Korean War to break out next year. Nevertheless, I do expect this new Cold War to get colder.”
  • “Cold War II has begun. And, if history is any guide, it will last a lot longer than the president on whose watch it started.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“NATO Is Not Brain Dead. The Alliance Is Transforming Faster Than Most People Think,” Rose Gottemoeller, Foreign Affairs, 12.19.19The author, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, writes:

  • “In November, French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist that NATO so lacked direction that it was suffering ‘brain death.’ The remark drew criticism from both European and U.S. officials, but when the leaders of NATO member states met in London on Dec. 4, Macron’s words served as a catalyst.”
  • “The alliance has faced growing challenges in recent years. … But to be nimble in handling today’s threats is not enough. NATO must prepare for the threats of tomorrow, when dynamics may be more complex than those between superpowers in the twentieth century. To plan for such a world will signal that the alliance is far from brain dead.”
  • “If NATO chooses Macron’s route and tries to renew relations with Russia, the alliance must be careful lest its actions be construed as rewarding Moscow for aggressive behavior. It will also need to bring its reluctant members on board. The best way to achieve these ends is for NATO to focus its efforts on arms control. … With regard to China, as with Russia, NATO has a constructive role to play for the benefit of all. … All concerned will benefit if NATO helps train Chinese peacekeepers to protect civilians in armed conflict zones in accordance with the highest international standards.”
  • “The alliance should consider other priorities that were not discussed in London as well. Climate change will create resource scarcity and drive migration. Economic stagnation and lack of jobs in developing countries will bring young people to the street and fuel political radicalization, leading to extremism and terrorism in some cases.”
  • “The last Strategic Concept is nearly a decade old, drafted before Russia seized Crimea and ISIS set up its caliphate. The task of getting member states to agree to a new one may be arduous, but NATO can draw from the daily experience of consensus-making, which will help it to forge a new Strategic Concept. With a new document settled, NATO allies can begin to focus on the work ahead.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“America Cannot Afford to Leave The Open Skies Treaty,” Dana Struckman, The National Interest, 12.19.19The author, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, writes:

  • “The venerable Open Skies Treaty appears to be in peril. Dumping this treaty would be a mistake. … [I]n effect since 2002, [it] involves thirty-four signatories largely comprised of European states but most importantly the United States and Russia. Open Skies allows for overflights over member states’ territories to mitigate concerns of a possible military build-up or potential attack. The intelligence obtained during these flights is designed to be shared freely among members providing a degree of transparency and (hopefully) trust.”
  • “Critics of the treaty claim the Russians have snubbed their nose at the treaty by placing flight restrictions over their own sensitive military areas while still conducting flights over the United States, resulting in the Americans giving away too much information while the Russians give up too little.”
  • “Proponents of the treaty, however, point to Open Skies as one of the last vestiges of arms control that provide a degree of stability through transparency and information sharing. The treaty is designed for ease of transferability of imagery to all signatories providing some countries access to information they otherwise may not have.”
  • “The United States should stay in the Open Skies Treaty because it’s about much more than the competition with Russia. The world is watching the rapid erosion of numerous long-standing agreements including important nuclear arms control accords. Pulling out of Open Skies will put the European members on edge, and rightly so.”
  • “With the expiration of New START in 2021 and seemingly no clear path to an extension, that gives added importance for the United States to remain in Open Skies … How can it be expected that North Korea, for example, will entertain any negotiating with the United States if Washington continually gives the appearance it would rather cut and run from longstanding treaties? “

“The United States and Russia Must Work Together on Nuclear,” Grace Kier, Foreign Policy, 12.19.19The author, a student at the College of William and Mary and winner of the 2019 Foreign Policy and Carnegie Corporation Essay Contest, writes:

  • “A tired soldier sits in an office, counting down the minutes until he gets to go home. He thinks about what he will eat for dinner, maybe whether he will watch something on TV or read a book. Suddenly, there is a ping on his screen: ‘INCOMING OBJECT.’ He sees a foreign missile about to enter his country’s airspace and must immediately evaluate the threat: Is the object a nuclear weapon? The soldier knows that the future of his country and the entire world hinges on his decisions in the next two minutes. Should he flag the missile as a nuclear weapon, causing the release of his country’s nuclear arsenal? Or should he wait two painfully long minutes to see if it is simply a weather probe? In either scenario, being wrong is deadly.”
  • “In order to improve global security and avoid the type of scenario described above, the United States should further engage Russia on arms control and nuclear security; these issues are inherently intertwined with other key issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, including cybersecurity and geopolitical competition. By effectively engaging Russia on nuclear security, the United States would see tangible results in these other sectors as well, thereby improving global security across many dimensions.”


“Shorn of Prejudices, the Lubyanka Shooting Is a Familiar Story,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 12.20.19The author, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), writes:

  • “The story of the Lubyanka shooter, the man who embarked on what must have been a suicide mission in the heart of Moscow [killing two FSB officers and injuring several others and one civilian], is still unrolling, and one minute’s consensus can easily become old news the next. We will no doubt learn much more about Evgeny Manyurov and his possible motivation, but in the meantime one aspect of the case which struck me, while fielding numerous press queries, was how far they often reflected a continuing gap between the images of Russia.”
  • “This case is clearly a tragedy … but also a strikingly familiar one. A man who appears to have been as unlucky in love as in business; a loner still living with his mother; a failure in life fascinated by guns, presumably for the sense of near-magical power they conveyed on the chronically powerless. Sometimes such ‘lone wolves’ … gravitate to religious causes, sometimes political ones, sometimes incoherent conspiracy theory-fueled paranoias.”
  • “The shooter may have been a Russian, wielding a Russian gun, targeting a Russian institution, but the story is a universal one. This, as much as anything else, ought to remind governments in Moscow and the West that they need to go beyond their empty platitudes about deep cooperation against terrorism, and actually revive this area of common interest.”

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Russia Is a Mess. Why Is Putin Such a Formidable Adversary?” Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 12.23.19The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Bid farewell by Mr. Yeltsin on the steps of the Kremlin with a melancholy request that he ‘take care of Russia,’ Mr. Putin appeared on television a few hours later to deliver his first New Year Eve’s address to the nation, vowing to ‘protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilized society.’ He delivered much the same message a year and a half later in a historic speech, the first by a Russian leader, in the Reichstag in Berlin, sketching a vision of Russia as inextricably bound to Europe and its values.”
  • “By 2002, however, he was already growing weary of Russia being viewed as a supplicant junior partner. ‘Russia was never as strong as it wants to be, and never as weak as it is thought to be,’ he warned. Bitterly disillusioned with the West on security issues, in 2007 Mr. Putin delivered a speech in Munich bristling with resentment and anger at American unilateralism and disregard for Russian opposition to the expansion of NATO.”
  • “But the real turning point, said Mr. Pavlovsky, who was then working in the Kremlin, came a year later with the meltdown of global financial systems. ‘For Putin this was a decisive threshold,’ he said. ‘Before this he orientated himself toward America. Yes, he disliked in the extreme what the Americans were doing around the world, but all the same he saw America as the strongest economy that runs the world economic system. Suddenly it turned out: no, they are not running anything.’ This, Mr. Pavlovsky said, ‘was the moment of truth,’ when ‘all the old norms vanished.’ Since then, he said, Russia has set about creating its own norms. … [H]e said. ‘In other words, things simply don’t look like you thought they do, like you wanted them to, like you expected them to.’”


II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russian Private Military Companies: Continuity and Evolution of the Model,” Anna Borshchevskaya, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 12.19.19: The author, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, writes:

  • “Russian private military companies or contractors (PMCs) have received much attention in recent years, but the Russian state has a long history in utilizing such groups. Under Vladimir Putin, however, this model is growing, evolving and expanding.”
  • “From a foreign policy perspective, the Kremlin has concluded the PMC model is a useful tool. It will continue to experiment with PMCs as part of its competition with the West—a struggle in which the Kremlin will use any tool it has in its arsenal, without any concern for human rights, neither of its own citizens nor those of other countries. This means wherever Russian PMCs appear, the West should pay attention.”
  • “The evolution of the PMC model shows consistency with Putin’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa, where Putin has worked to build leverage and connections with all major actors, rather than openly taking sides. … That Russian PMCs are increasingly showing up in Africa is another indicator that this region increasingly matters to the Kremlin.”
  • “If the PMCs are not always controlled directly by the Kremlin, then this raises additional questions for the U.S. As the incident in Der Ezzor demonstrates, Russian PMCs can create more instability and engage dangerous clashes. More broadly, the use of PMCs demonstrates both creativity in terms of utilizing different tools and methods to achieve foreign policy and military objectives, but the weakness of the Russian state and its inability to control powerful actors in Russia.”
  • “The PMC model will evolve and expand insofar as the Kremlin sees it as successful in achieving foreign policy objectives. For Moscow, this means its focus on weakening the West in a zero-sum effort to prop up its own position. Analysts must study PMC groups in greater depth, examining their structure and operations … In the end, as PMCs play a larger role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the West needs better solutions for countering Russian them.”

“Seven Lessons Russian Strategists Inferred from Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan,” Simon Saradzhyan, The Moscow Times, 12.23.19: The author, founding director of Russia Matters, writes:

  • “This month 40 years ago, the military phase of the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan commenced with units of the 40th Soviet army crossing en masse into this Central Asian country to support a coup that would replace Hafizullah Amin with Babrak Karmal at the helm of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). This intervention lasted for nearly a decade.”
  • “Russian strategists have inferred a number of important lessons from the experiences of the so-called Limited Contingent of Soviet Troops in Afghanistan (OKSVA) and I have reviewed them in a recent paper on the subject.  Of these lessons, seven stand out for the U.S and its allies to consider applying as they look for ways to end their own military campaign in this Central Asian country.”
  • “Lesson 1: Do not try to mold your local allies in your own image. Empower them instead. … Lesson 2: You cannot succeed in a military intervention unless the side on whose behalf you intervene is willing to fight for your joint cause … Lesson 3: When leaving, leave… Lesson 4: …but before you leave, take time to secure firm and enforceable agreements that would not only meet your own minimum requirements for a negotiated settlement, but also those of your local allies … Lesson 5: Prevent mission creep even after you leave … Lesson 6: Take care of your soldiers even after the war is officially over … Lesson 7: Last but not least—be willing to learn the lessons.”

“Did Macron Hand the Balkans to Russia?” Maxim Samorukov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.23.19: The author, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of, writes:

  • “French President Emmanuel Macron is being widely pilloried for his recent snub of the Balkans by vetoing the start of European Union accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia. Many observers are warning that Russia will reap the benefits, as the countries of the Western Balkans feel shut out by the West after having completed a substantial part of what was asked of them. These fears are being heightened by conspicuous moves by local elites to cozy up to the Kremlin. The Kremlin is stepping into the vacuum, offering lucrative arms deals and issuing invitations to high-profile summits.”
  • “The current flurry of pro-Russian activity in the Western Balkans is clearly driven by local demand rather than by a more proactive or effective Russian strategy in the region. Balkan leaders believe that getting closer to Moscow is the easiest way to make the West less demanding in the negotiations on joining the EU. The Kremlin is eager to play along to bolster its international clout, but is reluctant to switch from its current reactive posture to a more proactive approach to the region.”
  • “For Russia, the Western Balkans are still just one of several playgrounds within its badly deteriorated relationships with the EU and the United States. Keeping the region in limbo and out of NATO/the EU helps distract the West from similar pursuits in parts of the former Soviet Union where the stakes for Russia are infinitely higher. With Macron turning his sights on engineering a reset with Moscow, the Kremlin is unlikely to jeopardize such favorable dynamics by making disruptive moves in the Western Balkans, … where Russia ultimately has limited interests at best.”

“Murder in Berlin: Not Just Germany’s problem,” Gustav Gressel, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 12.19.19: The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:

  • “In a drive-by shooting, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili—an ethnic Chechen holding a Georgian passport—is killed by an assailant using a bicycle to hunt down his quarry. After the suspect was detained, the case evolved, first, into something approaching an espionage thriller, and then into a bilateral Russian-German spat.”
  • “The German authorities asked their Russian counterparts to assist in the investigation. But the Russian statements were either vague or contradictory when it came to the alleged identity of the murderer, while German investigators had reason to assume he was in fact Vadim Krasikov, mafia contract killer and formerly of Federal Security Service special operations.”
  • “[T]he German culture of restraint and consensus proved counterproductive in this situation. … Germany still deals with Russian malign activities on a case-by-case basis, and it does not broaden the debate to match the bigger landscape of election interference, propaganda and subversion.”
  • “While counter-intelligence investigations remain the purview of national authorities, the nature of this threat ought to command a pan-European effort to counter it.”
  • “Berlin is cautious because large segments of the population want it to stay on good terms with Moscow. But many of those who think the government needs to court the Kremlin do so because they perceive Russia as much more powerful. Any strong and decisive action taken by Germany, they reason, will put the two countries on a path of escalation that Germany can never surmount. And, again, the weaker and more submissive the government appears, the more the public is convinced of this argument. The Tiergarten murder presented an opportunity to do the opposite … For the moment, homegrown German caution remains the order of the day.”

“Fear of Russian Attack Hangs Over Chechens in Germany,” Guy Chazan, Financial Times, 12.22.19: The author, Berlin bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “When news broke last August that a former Chechen rebel had been gunned down in broad daylight in Berlin, Mukhamad Abdurakhmanov feared he would be next. ‘I felt that Germany just isn’t safe anymore for people like me,’ he said.”
  • “Mr. Abdurakhmanov is one of thousands of Chechens who have left their homeland in the Northern Caucasus, fleeing the increasingly brutal regime of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Many thought they had escaped Mr. Kadyrov’s clutches for good and found a safe haven in Europe. The murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili … shattered that hope.”

“Europe’s Authoritarian Challenge,” Jessica Brandt and Torrey Taussig, Washington Quarterly, Winter 2020: The authors, the head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a research director at the Belfer Center, write:

  • “Europe is at the center of two defining trends in international politics today: renewed great power competition and the resurgence of global authoritarianism. Migration, the rise of extreme nationalism, Brexit and fractured ties with the United States all increasingly make European countries more vulnerable to Russian and Chinese authoritarian influence—a spectrum of overt and covert activities that range from benign state tools such as public diplomacy to more malevolent efforts including direct interference in electoral processes—that presents a growing set of challenges to European cohesion and stability.”
  • “Russia sees European democracy, prosperity and particularly the European security order as inherently aimed at weakening Russia. Putin has, therefore, taken steps to expedite its decline. China, on the other hand, prefers a stable Europe that can serve as a trading partner, albeit a fractured one willing to operate on Chinese terms.”
  • “Despite differing capabilities and tolerance for risk, Russia and China share underlying objectives in Europe: undermine democratic norms, weaken European institutions and cohesion and capitalize on fissures in the transatlantic relationship.”
  • “Both policymakers and the public must see the forest through the trees and acknowledge the effects that Russian and Chinese influence is having on European democratic institutions and norms.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Power of Siberia or Power of China?” Mikhail Krutikhin, Al Jazeera, 12.19.19: The author, co-founder and partner of RusEnergy, a Moscow-based independent analytical agency, writes:

  • “On Dec. 2, China's Chairman Xi Jinping looked very pleased as he presided over an elaborate ceremony in Beijing inaugurating a new cross-border pipeline, the Power of Siberia, supplying natural gas from Russia. Russia's President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, looked gloomy as he watched the proceedings via video link from Moscow.”
  • “The volume of natural gas the Power of Siberia is to deliver in 2020 will be just a modest 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, less than two percent of China's national consumption. … This is a far cry from Moscow's dream of making China dependent on Russian gas deliveries.”
  • “[T]he capacity of gas production on the Russian side of the border is open to doubt. The Chayanda gas field in Yakutia region, currently the only source of gas for the pipeline, can produce up to 25 bcm a year. … The completion of the infrastructure needed for pumping the required volume to China is probably going to take more than 10 years, according to Gazprom’s pre-feasibility study of the project.”
  • “Another important, and unpleasant for Moscow, issue is the cost of the project which currently stands at $55 billion. In 2014 Gazprom invited its Chinese counterparts to co-finance the Power of Siberia and even announced that China agreed to provide up to $25 billion, but it turned out to be wishful thinking.”
  • “The Power of Siberia will hardly have a big impact in terms of diversifying Russia's energy exports or giving it additional leverage to negotiate pricing. For China, on the other hand, it is a small, but welcome, addition to energy import diversification. … All in all, the Power of Siberia is a big image-building stunt for Russia, but not a profitable commercial project, and it translates into a net loss for state-controlled Gazprom. It also entrenches further Russia's role as a mere supplier of energy and raw materials to China and solidifies its dependence on Chinese consumer goods.”


“Ukraine’s Zelenskiy Showed He’s the Anti-Putin in 2019,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 12.20.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “In the three months through September, the median of six economic forecasts tracked by Bloomberg was 3.3 percent real gross domestic product growth; in reality, the Ukrainian economy expanded by 4.2 percent year over year. There are reasons to expect Ukraine to keep beating such high expectations (forecasters tracked by Bloomberg see a 3.1 percent expansion next year and a 3.4 percent one in 2021).”
  • “There’s little doubt that Zelenskiy’s progress is watched jealously in the Kremlin. If he proves a winner, Putin will look dated and clueless next to the young, sincere and very human leader of the neighboring country. Even now that Zelenskiy’s presidency is more about promise than provable progress, the unflattering comparisons can hardly be avoided.”
  • “He’s Ukraine’s not-so-secret weapon against the leviathan to the northeast, because he’s living evidence that a former Soviet country doesn’t have to tolerate a fusty authoritarian regime. Government with a human face isn’t about imperial greatness, it’s fallible and fragile, but—especially if it gets results—it can be irresistible to people who are tiring of greatness at the price of stagnation and oppression.”
  • “The Zelenskiy weapon doesn’t require help from the U.S. to deploy, although the Ukrainian president certainly would appreciate U.S. support once American politicians remember that Ukraine isn’t just an impeachment prop. It’s up to the novice president and the Ukrainian people to make sure it works. There are good reasons to hope that, in the longer run, it will.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Belarus-Russia: From a Strategic Deal to an Integration Ultimatum,” Arseny Sivitsky, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 12.16.19: The author, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, writes:

  • “The Kremlin has been advancing initiatives to reshape the current model of the Belarus-Russia political and military alliance. These initiatives suggest that the Kremlin is not satisfied with the status quo. Instead, it seeks a relationship in which Belarus, currently enjoying a high level of strategic autonomy, becomes asymmetrically dependent on Russia in economics, politics and security.”
  • “Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has opposed such an abuse of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty.”
  • “Conflicting views between Minsk and Moscow regarding the Union State may cause a crisis in bilateral relations, particularly as Belarus refuses to make concessions that undermine its sovereignty.”
  • “There is a risk that Belarus will be transformed from a supporter of regional security and stability into a source of security threats and challenges.”

“Ten Years of Eastern Partnership in Azerbaijan: Time to Take Serious Steps,” Anar Valiyev, Jordan Center, 12.16.19: The author, an Associate Professor at ADA University in Baku, writes:

  • “Within Azerbaijan itself, both the population and the political establishment see their future with Europe. This stance dictates prioritizing policies that would move the country closer to both the EU and the international community.”
  • “For instance, with the EU’s help, Azerbaijan could accelerate the process of joining the WTO; continue to promote institutional reforms; and build more strategic partnerships in the region. However, if the EU and Azerbaijan continue to exist in a relationship defined by passivity and inaction, the moment could be lost, leaving Azerbaijan vulnerable to other regional centers of political gravity.”


III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Transition Time? Putin Initiates A Wide-Ranging Discussion Of Constitutional Reform,” Tatyana Stanovaya, R.Politik, 12.23.19The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “On Dec. 19, Putin held his annual end-of-year press conference. … For the first time in 20 years, Putin accepted the possibility of open-ended change to the Russian constitution. … This is a significant shift in Putin’s approach—he has always stood for constitutional stability.”
  • “The first sign of Kremlin interest in revising the constitution appeared in 2017. The following year, Constitutional Court head Valery Zorkin wrote a contradictory article that both called for the constitution to be protected from change and opened the door to the possibility of doing exactly that.”
  • “Putin has officially triggered the start of a discussion about constitutional reform for the first time in 20 years. His red lines have been drawn: Chapter 1 [The Fundamentals of the Constitutional System] remains off-limits and there will be no re-writing. … Putin proposed amending Article 81 of the constitution. ‘One thing that could be changed regarding [presidential] terms is the clause about ‘consecutive’ [terms].’ … [The clause] troubles some of our political analysts and public figures.’ The majority of observers took this as a signal that Putin would be unwilling to run again in 2024. However, his statement was worded in such a way that it is not possible to be 100 percent sure.”
  • “It would be misguided to suggest Putin supported the idea of broadening the State Duma’s powers. … The most intriguing moment came when Putin suggested changes be subject to public discussion. This is the first time the president has included society in the decision-making process regarding long-term, fundamental change—and it is not Putin’s style.”
  • “In foreign affairs, Putin confirmed Russia would stand by the Minsk Agreements, claimed that Russia is not building a military alliance with China, backed Donald Trump once again and pushed Russia-Belarus integration by repeating comments about Russians and Belarusians being the same people. Overall, his tone in the press conference was less aggressive, except when the issue of Ukraine was broached.”

“Russian Economic Policy and the Russian Economic System: Stability Versus Growth,” Philip Hanson, Chatham House, 12.17.19: The author, an associate fellow at Chatham House, writes:

  • “Russia’s economic management is currently praised for its achievement of macroeconomic stability. Inflation has been brought down; the budget is in surplus; national debt is low; and the reserves are ample. At the same time, there is much criticism of the failure at present to secure more than very slow economic growth.”
  • “The macro-stabilization of 2014–18 was of a conventional, ‘liberal’ kind. Public spending was cut, and a budget rule was introduced that (so far) has weakened the link between increases in oil prices and increases in budgetary expenditure. The austerity campaign was harsh … [and] facilitated by the autocratic nature of the regime.”
  • “The growth slowdown dates from 2012, and cannot simply be blamed on falls in the oil price and sanctions. Rapid growth in 1999–2008 consisted in large part of recovery from the deep recession of the 1990s and the initial development of a services sector. These sources of growth are no longer available; investment is low; and the labor force is declining. … If the rule of law were in place, the economy would perform better in the long run. That would require a profound reform of formal and informal institutions.”
  • “The leadership wants faster growth, but has powerful incentives not to embark on systemic reform. Even the pragmatic ministers of the ‘economic bloc’ of government, who understand the problem, share this interest in maintaining the status quo. Growth is thus being sought through a highly ambitious program, in 2018–24, of ‘national projects,’ state-led and largely state-financed. This is already running into difficulties.”
  • “The contrast between successful stabilization and a (so far) unsuccessful growth strategy illustrates the difference between policymaking within a given system and reform of that system. … In the case of Russia, movement towards a rule of law could destabilize the social and political system. It is therefore unlikely to be attempted.”

"Russian Markets Rally as Investors Look Past US Sanctions," Avantika Chilkoti, Wall Street Journal, 12.22.19: The author, a markets reporter in London for the news outlet, writes:

  • "Russian markets have soared this year as the threat of U.S. sanctions has waned and investors have turned their attention to signs of an improving economy. Equities in Moscow are poised for their best annual performance in three years: The MOEX Russia Index, the main ruble-denominated stocks benchmark, has rallied over 27% so far, while the dollar-denominated RTS Index is up over 40%. The benchmarks have outstripped most other emerging markets and kept pace with the S&P 500. ... Investors are getting back into Russian assets—drawn by the rich dividends paid by state-run companies and the high yields generated by government bonds—as fears of the impact of U.S. sanctions ebb."
  • "The country is playing catch-up with other emerging markets, analysts said, following a five-year period in which its economy has been impaired by a sharp drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export, and Western sanctions starting in 2014. The setbacks of 2014 pushed Russia’s economy into a two-year recession and led to the currency losing about half its value against the dollar. ... Russia has since been on a long road to recovery: Economic growth is expected to climb next year to 1.7%, a pace that will trail most other major emerging markets."
  • "But the sanctions also forced the biggest Russian companies to pay off Western creditors, helping shrink foreign debt. Policy makers also channeled a portion of oil revenue into a special fund, boosting foreign-exchange reserves to about $436.1 billion at the end of November. Meanwhile, inflation has dropped below 4 percent. That allowed the Bank of Russia earlier this month to ease interest rates for the fifth time this year, taking the benchmark to 6.25 percent, and signal it may reduce rates further."
  • "Much of the stock market rally has also been fueled by international investors ... Generous dividends from Russia’s state-owned firms are a big part of the draw. Energy giant Gazprom ... has rallied almost 67 percent this year, while state-backed lender Sberbank ... has advanced 31 percent on the back of promised payouts.
  • "Despite the recent rally, the equities remain relatively cheap compared with emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil. Still, many investors remain cautious about the risks facing Russia’s economy and its markets. Wealthy Russians increased their overseas cash holdings to about $118 billion in the first half of the year, underscoring their concerns about the economy. Oil prices have also remained stubbornly low, despite production cuts. And then there are the vagaries of U.S. politics."

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.