Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 17, 2018-Jan. 7, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Global developments over the next thirty years could erode the historical foundations of the competitive U.S.-Russian relationship, creating opportunities for strategic cooperation, writes Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates.
  • Even if it does not lead to catastrophic war like in 1914, diverting domestic discontent into external hostility toward Russia, as some of the Western nations are doing, very rarely works because the factors that created the discontent remain unchanged, Professor Anatol Lieven argues,
  • Dmitry Gorgenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, argues that Russia’s foreign policy goals have remained the same since the early 1990s, focusing on the restoration of Russia’s great power status and maintaining influence in states around its borders to guard against potential security threats.
  • As U.S. troops leave Syria, Russia and Iran aren’t left with a win, write Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program and a vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Both countries have a greater strategic stake in Syria than the U.S. has and will now struggle with the difficulties of pacifying and reconstructing the war-torn state.
  • Sanctions are increasingly shifting the Russian government’s economic path toward revenue-leasing capitalism, writes journalist Alexandra Prokopenko, with Putin’s friends now gaining control over entire industries.

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/Sabre Rattling:

“US-Russian Relations in a New Era. Washington and Moscow are on the verge of a confrontation that has not been seen since the early 1980s,” Thomas Graham Jr., The National Interest, 01.06.19The author, managing director at Kissinger Associates, writes:

  • “The post–Cold War period in U.S.-Russian relations ended abruptly in March 2014 with the eruption of the Ukraine crisis. This does not mean … that a new cold war has broken out.”
  • “The distribution of power in the world is no longer bipolar as it was during the Cold War. Rather, the contours of an inchoate multipolar system are emerging. … As in the Cold War, however, relations will remain troubled for a considerable period … That has been their prevailing character since the United States emerged as a global power at the end of the nineteenth century. … The reasons for this troubled history are many.”
  • “For the near term … U.S.-Russian relations will remain troubled, and they will matter. … This troubled relationship will continue to matter for obvious reasons. … Russia and the United States control some 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world. … They each have vast natural resources … and a proven talent for developing the military applications of advanced technologies. … They each wield vetos on the U.N. Security Council. … The United States has acknowledged global reach, while Russia has demonstrated capability to project power along its entire periphery.”
  • “Whether the United States remains at the top of the global hierarchy and Russia a key player—and by extension whether U.S.-Russian relations will matter in the global context—will be determined in large part by the relative power potential and political will of both countries.”
  • “Global developments during the next three decades could slowly erode the historical foundations of the competitive relationship and create opportunities for strategic cooperation. … Indeed, some U.S.-Russian geopolitical cooperation would be needed to maintain a balance of power, the prerequisite for order and stability in a multipolar world.”

“Western Nations Are Repeating the Mistakes of 1914,” Anatol Lieven, The National Interest, 12.22.18The author, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, writes:

  • “I fear that in their enthusiasm for a new cold war against China and Russia, the Western establishments of today are making a mistake comparable to that of their forebears of 1914. … [T]his new cold war is serving … as a distraction from vastly graver threats … Existing Western political elites … are desperately unwilling to address these threats because that would require radical changes to their existing ideological positions.”
  • “The historians of the future may also note the multiple ironies involved in … the United States leading a new ‘league of democracies’ against an ‘authoritarian alliance.’”
  • “Even if they do not lead to catastrophic war, diverting domestic discontent into external hostility very rarely works because the factors that created the discontent remain unchanged. … [There is an] important link between developments in Russia and the United States, and a far more important contribution to the rise of Putin and Trump: the rising death rate among working class males in Russia in the 1990s and the United States in recent years. This death rate has increased for the same reasons: diseases and addictions fueled by economic, social and cultural insecurity and despair.”
  • “This is not to say that there are not real threats from Russia and China … None of them justifies trying once again to restructure the national strategies and institutions of the United States and Europe around the principle of a cold war.”
  • “The one [factor] that actually led to war [in 1914], however, was Serbian nationalist claims to Austrian-ruled Bosnia, leading to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. It seems highly probable that not one in a hundred of the British soldiers who died in World War I had previously ever heard of Serbia’s claims, or of Sarajevo. In the name of God, let us not make this mistake again.”

“The Eroding Balance of Terror. The Decline of Deterrence,” Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019 issueThe author, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, writes:

  • “The era of unprecedented U.S. military dominance that followed the Cold War has ended, leading to renewed competition between the United States and two great revisionist powers, China and Russia. Today the United States confronts an international system with not one, or two, but multiple centers of gravity.”
  • “Cold War nuclear deterrence was founded, as the nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter famously noted, on … ‘mutual assured destruction.’ … To keep this delicate balance, both sides sought to maintain a rough parity in their nuclear forces, a goal that endures to this day in the New START agreement. The emergence of China as a major nuclear power threatens to throw this balance of terror off-kilter.”
  • “Deterrence is ailing not just on account of new powers. New weapons have also done their part. … The firebreak between conventional and nuclear war is slowly disappearing … Both Beijing and Moscow may see conventional aggression as less risky.”
  • “Recent insights into the nature of human decision-making raise questions about the very logic of deterrence. … Given all these theoretical and practical limitations, it may appear as if deterrence should be discarded altogether … But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, deterrence may be the worst form of defense, except for all the others.”
  • “Yet policymakers must rethink their countries’ deterrence strategies to account for changing conditions … Any attempt to buttress deterrence must address these factors rather than wish them away. … A new major-power war could still exact a horrific human and material toll, and U.S. policymakers are right to look for strategies to deter such a conflict. But doing so will require, above all, that they not take deterrence for granted.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Is There a Glimmer of Hope for the INF Treaty?” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 12.27.18The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “On Dec. 14, Reuters reported that a Russian foreign ministry official had said Moscow envisaged the possibility of mutual inspections to resolve the sides’ compliance concerns. The next day, the Associated Press and TASS said Defense Minister Shoygu had sent Secretary of Defense Mattis a message proposing ‘open and specific’ talks on compliance issues.”
  • “There is a small chance that the Russians seek a settlement. U.S. officials should explore this … a failure to do so would increase the prospects that Washington bears the responsibility for the agreement’s collapse in the eyes of publics and allies.”

“The Fourth Wave,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 01.07.18The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “We are now being carried forward and lending propulsion to a fourth wave of popular and expert opposition to rising nuclear dangers. This wave has gained strength from the Trump administration’s announcement of its intent to withdraw from a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles.”
  • “The Fourth Wave is different in other important respects. Eminent persons from … [previous] administrations who were instrumental in validating previous waves are now mostly gone now. The shoes of outsized figures on Capitol Hill that helped greatly to realize previous achievements will be hard to fill, but incoming House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith and others will do their level best.”
  • “This wave unlike previous ones, is focused on opposition without the likelihood of meaningful gains. … No matter: It’s time to man and woman up. Even small victories can still be important if they prolong existing constraints and cooperative verification measures while a new strategy and better outcomes can be achieved. Two big questions remain unanswered: What are we for? And what do we call it? The strength of the fourth wave depends, in part, on finding persuasive answers to these questions.”

“Arms Control and the Aging Process,” Michael Krepon Arms Control Wonk, 12.24.18The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Nuclear arms control hasn’t aged gracefully … and it will be up to younger hands to find prescriptions. … John Bolton enjoys meeting with Russian leaders to clarify presidential decisions to withdraw from arms control treaties. … [H]e relished being back in Moscow … to hammer nails in the coffin of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Next up on the chopping block is the 2010 “New” Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”
  • “The odds of injuring ourselves badly in the fall grow with every treaty that is trashed by Moscow and Washington. These treaties are the strongest strands of the nuclear safety net; cutting one weakens others.”
  • “Bolton has one thing right: ‘Arms control’ no longer fits the temper of the times. The organizing principles behind nuclear arms control in the early 1960s — rough equality and national vulnerability — no longer resonate. … A new central organizing principle to replace “arms control” hasn’t been developed, let alone agreed upon. There isn’t much time to do so. The goal of ‘abolition’ doesn’t work as a substitute for ‘arms control.’ Yes, it’s the right idealistic goal, but the current state of major power relations stands in the way.”


“The New Face of Terrorism in 2019. Forget the Middle East—it’s time to prepare for attacks from the former Soviet Union,” Vera Mironova, Foreign Policy, 01.01.19The author, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s economics department, writes:

  • “The way Westerners think about Islamist terrorism has grown dangerously outdated. … Today … the real threat increasingly comes from further east. In the former Soviet states and beyond, militants … are turning their attention to the West.”
  • “In the coming years, the terrorist threat from Russia and beyond will only increase. With the fall of the Islamic State, Russian-speaking terrorists were mostly able to flee Iraq and Syria with more ease than Middle Eastern foreign fighters and are now back in hiding in the former Soviet sphere or in Europe.”
  • “Government neglect and outright repression have made religious Muslims in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan attractive targets for radicals looking for new recruits. … The United States and its allies need to recognize that future attacks are more likely to come from the East than the Middle East and that there is no other option than to cooperate with Russia and its neighbors to stop them. If the United States fails to do so, it could soon see the effects in either a surge of attacks on the United States or the rise of a new post-Soviet-dominated terrorist group in one of the world’s many war zones.”

Conflict in Syria:

“5 Reasons Why Trump is Right About Getting America Out of Syria,” Richard Sokolsky,  Aaron David Miller, Los Angeles Times/Carnegie Endowment, 01.03.18The authors, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program and a vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson Center, write:

  • “1. The Islamic State ‘caliphate’ isn’t going to return. … 2. Israel and the Kurds can survive without U.S. troops in Syria. … 3. Vital U.S. interests won’t be sacrificed when the troops are withdrawn. The United States doesn’t have vital interests in Syria.
  • “4. As U.S. troops depart, Russia and Iran aren’t left with a win. Iran and Russia will dominate Syria as they have done for years. Both countries have always had a greater strategic stake in Syria than the U.S. and thus were more willing to accept a high price to protect their interests there. Now both will struggle with the difficulties of pacifying and reconstructing a war-torn state.”
  • “5. American credibility hasn’t been destroyed. Any damage to the U.S. stems from our own reckless rhetoric and confused policy in Syria.”
  • “Keeping U.S. military forces in place with no serious, long-term strategy or attainable objectives to guide them would not make the situation significantly better. Syria was never America’s to win or lose, and getting out now is not a catastrophe.”

“Trump abandons a mission that was working,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 12.19.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes:

  • “President Trump's abrupt decision to pull American troops from Syria is riskier than it looks. It ends a low-cost, high-impact mission and creates a vacuum that will be filled by one of a series of bad actors—Iran, Russia, Turkey, Islamic extremists, the Syrian regime—take your pick, they're all dangerous for U.S. interests in the Middle East.”

“What Trump's Syria decision means on the front lines,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 12.23.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes:

  • “The Kurdish people have been abandoned by the United States before, when they became politically expendable. I asked Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, if he had ever thought … that the same thing might happen again. ‘If you want the truth, no,’ he said. Now, after Trump's announcement, he's scrambling to open channels with Russia and the Syrian regime, ‘to fill this vacuum left by America.’”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Mueller's Report Will Be a Bore,” Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal, 01.01.19The author, a member of the media outlet’s editorial board, writes:

  • “A handful of U.S. intelligence officials, with Mr. Comey out front, meddled in the presidential race, potentially altering its outcome. They did so on grounds that they were somehow protecting America from Russia. … Even Adam Schiff, lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, now acknowledges that if Mr. Comey's latest account of his actions is true, it represents the most ‘measurable’ and ‘significant’ Russian influence on the race.”
  • “Mr. Mueller might well issue a report in 2019 that concocts a confection of guilt by innuendo based on the Russia-related dealings and statements of Mr. Trump and the people around him. Alternatively, he could clear the air: Mr. Trump's election was the doing of the American voter and nobody else.”
  • “But it's already pretty obvious that he's not going to tell us anything that will greatly shift our understanding of the 2016 race. Whereas … Mr. Comey's actions are the beginnings of an untold and important story: how U.S. intelligence agencies, using Russia as an excuse, fiddled ineptly and improperly in our election and quite conceivably undermined the Hillary victory they were so obviously trying to secure.”

“Russia's Information Warfare,” Renee DiResta, New York Times, 12.17.18The author, director of research at a cybersecurity company that monitors disinformation, writes:

  • “The Russian disinformation operations that affected the 2016 United States presidential election are by no means over. Indeed, as two new reports produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee make clear, Russian interference through social media … is a chronic, widespread and identifiable condition that we must now aggressively manage.”
  • “The Senate committee asked two research teams, one of which I led, to investigate the full scope of the recent multiyear Russian operation to influence American opinion executed by … the Internet Research Agency. … Our report … concludes that Russia was able to masquerade successfully as a collection of American media entities, managing fake personas and developing communities of hundreds of thousands, building influence over a period of years and using it to manipulate and exploit existing political and societal divisions.”
  • “[T]he biggest lesson … is the troubling absence of adequate structures for collaboration among multiple stakeholders, private and public alike, to establish solutions and appropriate oversight. … With discipline, rigor and broad collaboration, we can meet this challenge, establishing standards, protocols and governance that will defend the integrity of our information.”

“Why Russia sees the NRA as key to manipulating American politics,” Laura Ellyn Smith, The Washington Post, 12.18.18The author, a graduate instructor at the University of Mississippi, writes:

  • “Russia's infiltration of the NRA represents an ingenious maneuver to sow greater disunity among U.S. voters. It's also instructive to Americans about the danger of the NRA. The group exacerbates fault lines in the ongoing culture wars … The power wielded by the organization distinguishes it as a special interest that contorts democracy, making it the perfect tool for Russia.”
  • “Russia understands that the NRA's ability to polarize Americans are part of a self-destructive tendency within American political debates. …While checks and balances protect U.S. democracy, there are only limited checks on accessibility to guns. The proliferation of mass shootings and increasing gun violence … exposes how the greatest threat to American peace and prosperity is sometimes divisions among Americans themselves. The Russians understand that. It's past time Americans understand it, as well.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“A better approach to 'America First',” Antony J. Blinken and Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, 01.01.19The authors, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write:

  • “Trump's recent decision to withdraw all troops from Syria and 7,000 from Afghanistan has been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington. But it is not at all clear that Americans beyond the Beltway are equally outraged.”
  • “[W]hatever tolerance most Americans had for the global role the United States embraced after World War II began to fade with the collapse of the Soviet Union and was shattered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis.”
  • “Can we find a foreign policy of responsible global engagement that most Americans support, that draws the right lessons from our past mistakes, that steers between the equally dangerous shoals of confrontation and abdication, and that understands the difference between self-interest and selfishness?”
  • “Such a policy would rest on four pillars: Preventive diplomacy and deterrence: As geopolitical competition intensifies, we must supplement diplomacy with deterrence. Words alone will not dissuade the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world. … Trade and technology … Allies and institutions … Immigration and refugees.”
  • “If the United States abdicates its leading role in shaping international rules and institutions … then one of two things will happen: Some other power or powers will step in and move the world in ways that advance their interests and values, not ours. Or, more likely, the world will descend into chaos and conflict, and the jungle will overtake us, as it did in the 1930s.”

“Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” Robert Kaplan, New York Times, 01.01.19The author, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at Eurasia Group, writes:

  • “The decision by President Trump to withdraw 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan … has raised new concerns about his impulsive behavior … But the downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether.”
  • “No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy.”
  • “The Chinese, Pakistanis, Russians, Indians and Iranians, meanwhile, may all be benefiting more from America's military operations in Afghanistan than the United States is. Our presence may provide just enough security to allow their energy and transport corridors to take shape, while also helping the Russians guard against Islamic terrorism on their southern border. Thus, our rivals build their own empires on the back of our declining one.”

“A look into the crystal ball for Jan. 1, 2020,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 01.01.19The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes:

  • “[P]erhaps readers will enjoy speculating about what might animate the President’s Daily Brief a year hence, on Jan. 1, 2020. Remember, your guesses [on this quiz] are as good as mine (and those of any sources who may have wandered my way).”
  • “2. By the end of 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will: (a) take the additional title of prime minister and declare elections for a Saudi parliament; (b) hand over day-to-day power to Minister of State Musaed al-Aiban, who promises to rescue collapsing investment in Saudi Arabia; (c) go into exile at a Seychelles Islands resort owned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi; (d) hold a secret meeting with Iranian leaders in Oman—with Russian sponsorship—to discuss terms for regional stability.”
  • “5. By 2020, the United States will be locked in a global arms race featuring: (a) hypersonic missiles that can travel more than five times the speed of sound and turn aircraft carriers into sitting ducks; (b) maneuverable ‘killer satellites’ that can destroy communications, surveillance and command-and-control systems in space; (c) autonomous submarines, surface ships, drones, land vehicles and missiles that can be hidden in peacetime and activated for surprise attacks as combat begins; (d) lasers that can disable or destroy satellites, planes, surface ships and other weapons; (e) all of the above.”
  • “6. As a result of the continuing Brexit mess, in 2019: (a) Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal, triggering chaotic border conditions and a recession in Britain and Europe; (b) Parliament calls a second referendum, which brings victory for ‘Remain’ but also continued policy paralysis and growing domestic unrest; (c) Russia exploits European chaos by attacking Ukraine and creating a breakaway ministate in the east; (d) France and Germany lead a new European military alliance under a French ‘nuclear umbrella.’”
  • “My answers: … (2) d; … (5) e; (6) b and d.”

“How Russian Money Helped Save Trump’s Business. After his financial disasters two decades ago, no U.S. bank would touch him. Then foreign money began flowing in,” Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy, 12.21.18The author, a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy, writes:

  • “In the fall of 1992, after he cut a deal with U.S. banks to work off nearly a billion dollars in personal debt, Donald Trump put on a big gala for himself in Atlantic City to announce his comeback. … One of his casino executives announced that his boss had returned as a ‘winner,’ according to Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio. But it was mainly an act, D’Antonio told Foreign Policy. In truth Trump was all but finished as a major real-estate developer, in the eyes of many in the business, and that’s because the U.S. banking industry was pretty much finished with him.”
  • “But Trump eventually made a comeback, and according to several sources with knowledge of Trump’s business, foreign money played a large role in reviving his fortunes, in particular investment by wealthy people from Russia and the former Soviet republics. This conclusion is buttressed by a growing body of evidence amassed by news organizations, as well as what is reportedly being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York.”

“How to Hit Russia Where It Hurts. A Long-Term Strategy to Ramp Up Economic Pressure,” Peter Harrell, Foreign Affairs, 01.03.19The author, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes:

  • “Targeted sanctions remain useful in punishing individual officials, oligarchs, and companies … But simply imposing such measures from time to time in response to Russian provocations will never change Russia’s behavior.”
  • “Instead, a more ambitious long-term approach is needed that focuses not only on specific officials and oligarchs but on Russian government revenues and the Russian economy as a whole. … [E]ven in the more likely scenario where economic pressure fails to alter Putin’s strategic calculus, an ambitious strategy is key to undercutting Russia’s ability to achieve Putin’s objectives.”
  • “Reagan’s economic campaign against the Soviet Union still provides a useful template for a modern approach to containing Russia. … Any economic pressure campaign likely to affect Russia’s outlook has to starve the country’s military-industrial complex. … The goal of new sanctions should [be] to deter new investments in Russia with the goal of reducing the long-term volume and value of these exports and other major sources of Russian revenue over time. … To increase the discomfort, U.S. and European officials should continue to try to drive a wedge between Putin and a Russian oligarch class.
  • “Ultimately, an economically weakened Russia is a Russia with less leverage over other nations … [T]he Trump administration can use the recently reformed Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) review process to restrict Russia’s ability to acquire stakes in technology firms.”
  • “Containment through economic pressure is a long game, just as it was during the Cold War. … [A] strategy designed to gradually weaken the Russian economy and bring about growing internal divisions and tradeoffs is necessary to limit the Kremlin’s ability to advance its foreign policy.”

“Trump's Cracked Afghan History; His falsehoods about allies and the Soviets reach a new low,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 01.03.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Mr. Trump's utterly false narrative of the Soviet Union's involvement there in the 1980s was reprehensible. He said: ‘The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.’”
  • “Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government. The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world.”
  • “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin's threat. Mr. Trump's cracked history can't alter that reality.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Circumstances Have Changed Since 1991, but Russia’s Core Foreign Policy Goals Have Not,” Dmitry Gorenburg, PONARS Eurasia, January 2019The author, a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, writes:

  • “Since the Ukraine crisis, the dominant Western perspective on Russian foreign policy has come to emphasize its increasingly confrontational, even revanchist, nature. Experts have focused on discontinuities in Russian foreign policy either between the ostensibly more pro-Western Yeltsin presidency and the anti-Western Putin presidency or between the more cooperatively inclined early Putin period (2000-2008) and the more confrontational late Putin period (2012-present).”
  • “I argue that Russian foreign policy preferences and activities have been largely continuous since the early 1990s. These preferences have focused on the quest to restore Russia’s great power status and maintain a zone of influence in states around its borders as a buffer against potential security threats.”
  • “Russian foreign policy has been neither revanchist nor expansionist in nature. Instead, it has been focused on first stopping and then reversing the decline of Russian power in the late 1980s and the 1990s and on ensuring that Russia was protected against encroachment by the Western alliance … However, perceptions of Russian foreign policy during the post-Soviet period among other powers and outside observers have changed markedly as a consequence of a gradual increase in the extent of Russian relative power vis-à-vis its neighbors and especially vis-à-vis Western powers.”

“Europe Should Woo Russia When Putin's Gone,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 12.28.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “The question to ask as a bad political year ends for Putin is to what degree his militaristic worldview should survive his leadership. That doesn’t only depend on Russians; once Putin is gone, the West—but largely Europe—will have another chance to tempt Russia with different prospects. … Whenever and however Putin may leave, any successor will need to revise Russia’s geopolitical choice.”
  • “Drawing Russia in could solve some of the European Union’s fundamental problems. With its massive natural-gas reserves, Russia could propel Europe faster toward hard-to-reach environmental goals. With its untapped economic potential and need for immigrants to develop its vast territory, it could be a big help in resolving migration issues. With its recent investment in agile, modern military power … it could provide a backbone for a joint European military. Establishing a vast European common market including Russia wouldn’t be impossible.”
  • “In the absence of such interest from Europe, any Putin successor will be tempted to continue the superpower game to the bitter economic end, with China waiting to get access to Russia’s natural resources on the most favorable terms it can get. The option of continuing as China’s junior partner, the least preferable for Russia, could end up choosing itself.”

“Russia sees opportunity in ailing Venezuela.” Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 12.25.18The authors, correspondents for the news outlet, write:

  • “As allies go, Venezuela is a relatively cheap one for Russia. But the potential returns on Moscow's investment there could be priceless. In exchange for modest loans and bailouts over the past decade, Russia now owns significant parts of at least five oil fields in Venezuela, which holds the world's largest reserves, along with 30 years' worth of future output from two Caribbean natural-gas fields.”
  • “Venezuela also has signed over 49.9 percent of Citgo, its wholly owned company in the United States … as collateral to Russia's state-owned Rosneft oil behemoth for a reported $1.5 billion in desperately needed cash. … With assumptions that Citgo, if sold, could be worth between $6 billion and $9 billion, the arrangement amounted to a sweetheart deal—and, in addition, the Russians had managed to lay claim to almost half of a major U.S. oil giant.”
  • “Russian advisers are inside the Venezuelan government, helping direct the course of President Nicolàs Maduro's attempts to bring his failing government back from bankruptcy. They helped orchestrate this year's introduction of a new digital currency … to keep oil payments flowing while avoiding U.S. sanctions on the country's dollar transactions.”
  • “Venezuela's still-formidable defense force … is now equipped with Russian guns, tanks and planes, financed with prepaid oil deliveries to Russian clients. … Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has reestablished itself as a major player in the Middle East, a power broker in Asia and a global supplier of increasingly sophisticated weaponry.”


“US-China-Russia ties will shape the future,” Hu Yumin, The Straits Times 01.04.19The author, vice-secretary general and a senior research fellow at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, writes:

  • “The U.S.' national strategic objective is to prevent any country or group of countries across Eurasia to challenge its supremacy. The U.S. target now seems to be China, although Russia remains very much on its radar. And the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy is still the promotion of collective defense and regional security through cooperation with its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.”
  • “China … is entering a period of adjustments, not economic recession or geopolitical concessions … China has made it clear time and again that it is not a major threat to the U.S. Instead, as a beneficiary of the existing world order, China prefers to be a cooperative partner or stakeholder in regional and international affairs.”
  • “There should be no doubt that Russia remains a big global power because of its unique strategic and military capability. But despite that, Russia doesn't believe in a confrontation with the West, because its fundamental national objective in the foreseeable future is to remain a respected power in Europe and beyond.”
  • “The possibility of a ‘new Cold War’ seems remote. It is more likely that the new period will be one ‘Cold Peace’ between the U.S. and Russia, and between the U.S. and China … The spectrum of cooperation between or among the U.S., Russia and China will be driven by their common interests as well as parallel interests … Therefore, protecting the nonproliferation regime, fighting terrorism and combating drugs and arms trafficking will remain significant parts of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, as global and regional governance seem to worsen.”


“Is a Russian military operation against Ukraine likely in the near future?” Michael Kofman, Russia Military Analysis blog, 12.26.18The author, a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation, writes:

  • “Following the Nov. 25 Kerch Strait naval skirmish … Ukrainian leadership has issued warnings of a Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders. … The more problematic element in all of this has been senior official Russian statements, which suggest a change in Moscow’s stance on dealing with Ukraine is afoot. Sergey Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, and Sergey Naryshkin, have issued statements expecting a possible Ukrainian ‘provocation’ and or ‘attack’ which could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow … setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks. … The Russian narrative offers cause for concern, because it is a form of signaling not dissimilar from official statements in the run up to the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008.”
  • “Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce … and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January, but there is no evidence of Russian preparations for a major assault in Ukraine, certainly not in Crimea. It is possible, but highly improbable.”
  • “Most of the information available reflects planned modernization, expected force structure changes and troop movements on the Russian side not indicative of unusual activity or preparations for an assault.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“‘Old Armenia’ Meets the ‘Armenia of the Future’: The Old Ruling Elite Under Pashinyan,” Hayk Khalatyan and Kirill Krivosheev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.20.18The authors, a political analyst based in Yerevan and a journalist with Kommersant, write:

  • “In post-revolutionary Armenia, the old ruling elite has had to come to terms with new realities. Chief among these is the power of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose electoral bloc and allies now control parliament. Those who deny or challenge Pashinyan’s dominance risk having their companies audited and their homes searched, and even being arrested … Hence the decision of many Republican Party figures to acquiesce to or join Pashinyan.”
  • “Pashinyan is a hostage of his extreme popularity and the public’s inflated expectations. For now, the crowd that worships him protects him from the vestiges of what he calls ‘old Armenia.’ However, if Pashinyan fails to realize his vision of the ‘Armenia of the future’—one with no corruption, a thriving middle class and good relations with both Russia and the West—he risks being left at the mercy of none other than the old ruling elite.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin’s Courtiers: How Sanctions Have Changed Russia’s Economic Policy,” Alexandra Prokopenko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.20.18The author, an independent journalist, writes:

  • “At an official level, Russia denies that sanctions are impacting its domestic economic policy in any way. But in reality, the external restrictions are increasingly shifting the government’s economic path toward revenue-leasing capitalism: … the president’s cronies … are now gaining control over entire industries.”
  • “The move to consolidate state spending announced in 2016 is now yielding results, and the treasury is bursting at the seams. The first budget surplus since 2011 was 4.4 times higher than the projected amount … Inflation and unemployment are at historic lows, as is the national debt … The government has announced ambitious plans to develop social and digital infrastructure.”
  • “[A]ll the necessary conditions are in place for an investment boom of the capital that is supposedly returning to Russia. But that boom isn’t happening. Foreign investors fear follow-up sanctions, and Russian companies … are not rushing to invest.”
  • “[O]ther factors that encourage loyalty and affect group cohesion … are financial resources handed out by the government, or the president’s attention. The economic crisis and sanctions have significantly reduced the former, while Putin’s focus on geopolitical issues has curtailed the latter. As a result, Putin’s courtiers have been forced to carve out institutional status for themselves … This allows them to gain control over the resource distribution process.”
  • “Perhaps the reluctance of investors to spend surplus revenues inside the country comes … from the fear … that their money will ultimately end up in the pockets of state capitalists.”

“Putin’s Public Enemy. The Kremlin is going after Russian rappers, but the government can't control a culture it doesn't understand,” Georgy Birger, Foreign Policy, 01.03.19The author, digital director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The Kremlin’s crackdown on Russian rappers was already in full swing when President Vladimir Putin decided to weigh in. ‘If [rap music] is impossible to stop, then we need to lead and direct it,’ Putin said on Dec. 15. While Putin may have thought he could ease tensions between Russian officialdom and disgruntled hip-hop fans, his unfortunate choice of words backfired.”
  • “When Putin uttered his infamous words about ‘directing’ the music scene, he probably had in mind the way the KGB controlled the Soviet rock scene in the early 1980s. Back then, rock music was becoming an important part of youth culture and could not be banned outright. So the KGB helped set up the Leningrad Rock Club. … The fact that Putin and his advisors believe that such a scheme might work again almost 40 years later only reveals how out of touch with reality they are.”
  • “The rappers do not pose any direct threat to Putin’s regime. Rather, they already exist outside of that regime. It seems doubtful that they’ll have anything to do with trying to push Putin from power. Instead, their culture will merely outlive the president and all of the official culture promoted during his reign.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, intelligence, law-enforcement and justice:

“3 big questions about the curious Paul Whelan ‘spy’ case,” Samuel Greene, The Washington Post, 01.06.18The author, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, writes:

  • “When we see Whelan’s arrest from a Russian vantage point … three big questions emerge: 1. Why is Moscow being so quiet about the arrest? Whelan hardly made the television news in Russia … and what information has leaked out has been mostly through Rosbalt, a marginal if well-connected news website. None of this suggests a well-prepared operation.”
  • “2. Is a spy swap in keeping with past Russian behavior? Moscow has steadfastly denied the charges against Butina, who in any case did not go on trial for espionage. A Whelan-for-Butina swap, then, would be heavily out of whack.
  • “3. Or are Russian security services settling domestic scores? What we seem to be seeing is a much more haphazard process than the conventional wisdom would suggest. … [M]ost of the domestic evidence points to a political machine caught off guard by events on the ground.”

“Putin’s Keystone Spies,” Yulia Latynina , New York Times, 12.17.18The author, a Russian journalist, writes:

  • “In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this grandiose image of the Great Evil was forever destroyed in a Chernobyl-scale meltdown experienced by the GRU in the wake of the British indictment of two GRU hit men … who bungled an attempt to poison their former colleague Sergei Skripal and his daughter.”
  • “The two intended killers were no James Bonds. They were clowns. … And earlier this year, some 305 supersecret James Bond wannabes were outed by a shared blunder: They all registered their vehicles to the address of their supersecret operating base.”
  • “‘Spying is one of the most important jobs in the world,’ President Putin proclaimed recently. But if he really thinks it’s so important, why does he put up with such sloppy spycraft? The easy answer is: because there’s no efficient state machinery. The state apparatus is customized for graft, ineptitude and corruption. Spies are no exception.”
  • “Then why doesn’t he clean up the apparatus? The blunt answer is: because he is afraid to. An efficient military could stage a coup against him. So inefficiency is a price Mr. Putin will pay.”

“How Russia’s military intelligence agency became the covert muscle in Putin’s duels with the West,” Anton Troianovski and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 12.28.18The authors, the news outlet’s Moscow bureau chief and national security reporter, write:

  • “[The GRU’s] rise reflects the Kremlin's tactics in its confrontation with the West, analysts say. … Former U.S. intelligence officials say the GRU has always been seen as the more brutish cousin of Russia's main intelligence agency, previously known as the KGB. Gennady Gudkov, a Russian opposition politician who served in the KGB and then in its FSB successor agency, said GRU officers referred to themselves as the ‘badass guys who act.’"
  • “In the United States, the GRU is perhaps best known as the agency that led the way in Russia's interference in the 2016 election … But interviews and public records in Russia show that its reach extends to the battlefields of Ukraine and Syria and to school classrooms in Moscow”
  • “New details uncovered by The Washington Post show that a GRU unit has been at the forefront of Russia's psychological-warfare efforts, including an attempt to influence Ukraine policy in Congress in 2015. … In February 2015 … a dozen U.S. senators received an email from someone purporting to belong to a group called the ‘Patriots of Ukraine.’ The petition implored the senators … to send ‘high-experienced U.S. and NATO specialists’ to substitute for Ukrainian commanding officers.”
  • “The email apparently gained no traction on Capitol Hill. … It was the first known, if somewhat crude, effort by the GRU's main psychological-operations division to influence U.S. politicians.”