Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 23, 2019-Jan. 6, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • While Russia does not want or need a U.S.-Iran conflict, the crisis touched off by the assassination of Soleimani has some benefits for Moscow, writes Jeffrey Mankoff of CSIS. Not only is a distracted U.S. government going to be less focused on Russian activities in Europe, growing tension between Washington and Tehran could bolster Moscow’s objective of reducing U.S. influence in the Middle East, Mankoff writes. Former U.S. official Susan Rice writes that it’s hard to envision how U.S.-Iranian tensions can end short of war, while Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security argues that if the Trump administration is smart, it will harden U.S. facilities and protect Americans while absorbing some of the inevitable blows to come. It should also reach out to Iran through U.S. partners to try to de-escalate, he writes.
  • A report based on the results of a situational analysis directed by Sergei Karaganov and held at the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2019 argues that it would be advisable to give up the previous, largely hypocritical, approach adopted by the nuclear powers and shift the emphasizing common policy towards the strengthening of mutual nuclear strategic deterrence, which, regardless of its flaws, was the main factor of peace in the past and will be even more so in the foreseeable future. Future joint actions of nuclear powers should seek to enhance multilateral mutual deterrence as the main foundation upon which multilateral strategic stability could be built.
  • U.S. policy toward Russia remains confrontational and counterproductive, writes Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt. Russia and China continue to move closer together, in part because Washington has given them every incentive to cooperate more, according to Walt. Apparently, Walt writes, nobody in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has ever heard of the phrase “divide and rule.”
  • America’s approach to Ukraine is failing because the interagency consensus rests on assumptions that crumble upon contact with the hard realities of Ukraine and Russia, argues George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest. We could certainly entertain a more modest approach that assures Moscow that Ukraine is not and will not be a candidate for NATO membership, while also preserving Kyiv’s freedom to seek its preferred economic and political associations. This would not only facilitate détente in the broader U.S.-Russian relationship, Beebe writes, but it would also expand the space for liberalization inside Ukraine.


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:

“How Will Russia React to the Killing of Soleimani?” Jeffrey Mankoff, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 01.06.20: The author, a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, writes:

  • “While Russia does not want or need a U.S.-Iran conflict, the crisis touched off by the assassination does have some benefits for Moscow. As long as the impact of a U.S.-Iranian quarrel on Russian equities in Syria (or elsewhere) remains limited, Moscow has little reason for direct involvement at this stage of the crisis.”
  • “Since its intervention in Syria … Russia’s message to Middle Eastern governments has been that the United States is an unreliable partner … The departure of U.S. forces from Iraq and the region more broadly would not only support that argument but could accelerate Middle Eastern states’ search for alternatives, which could create opportunities for Moscow.”
  • “The post-Soleimani vacuum could … create an opportunity for Russia to push for an agreement among the various pro-government forces on the ground and either sideline the pro-Iranian militias or at least establish more influence over them. Russia … benefits from a distracted Iran as well as a distracted United States … Syria would likely also be an arena for any U.S.-Iran clashes—a potentially dangerous flashpoint given the presence of Russian forces in the country.”
  • “Russia absolutely does not want another large-scale war in the Middle East, particularly one that could destabilize Iran … Nor … does Moscow want a crisis that leads Iran to further ramp up its nuclear program. … Yes, a conflict would likely cause oil prices to rise, but … whatever economic benefits Russia might gain would not offset the larger costs.”
  • “If … a conflict between the United States and Iran breaks out, it would be possible for Moscow to remain largely neutral. Indeed, its aspiration to take on a larger role as a regional balancer might benefit from such a stance. However, it is also possible that Moscow could decide that a conflict in the Middle East led by an unpopular U.S. administration presents an opportunity for strategic gains at U.S. expense. Ukraine, Georgia and other vulnerable Russian neighbors could be big losers in a U.S.-Iran war if Moscow took advantage of U.S. distraction to press for further concessions.”

“Putin Can Cautiously Enjoy the Iran Drama From the Audience,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 01.03.20The author, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), writes:

  • “The U.S. drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has opened a new and potentially bloody act in the ongoing Middle Eastern drama.”
  • “This strike does not look like part of a Middle East strategy so much as an admission of its absence, a quick fix of fire and fury and Fox-friendly optics. … There will no doubt be some form of Iranian retaliation, but so long as the conflict does not escalate out of control, while it is hard to know for sure whether Tehran or Washington will ultimately gain the most, Moscow may be quietly satisfied.”
  • “While he [Putin] may or may not be personally angry about the death … he must be satisfied that this plays to his narrative, that America is essentially an arrogant, imperial power. … It also allows him to play the sober statesman. … Likewise, although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal was on life-support … Russia can safely present itself as on the side of the angels, as Soleimani’s death pushes Iran further towards renuclearization.”
  • “There is also a direct benefit from seeing Iran directly challenged. Tehran and Moscow have certain interests in common, especially in minimizing U.S. influence in the Middle East, but they are at best frenemies. … There is also a more direct financial gain. Oil prices jumped more than $2 to over $69 a barrel after Soleimani’s death, out of fears of escalation in the region.”

“Will Iran’s Response to the Soleimani Strike Lead to War? What Tehran Is Likely to Do Next,” Ilan Goldenberg, Foreign Affairs, 01.03.20The author, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, writes:

  • “The United States must, at a minimum, expect to find itself in conflict with Shiite militias in Iraq that will target U.S. forces, diplomats and civilians. … Lebanese Hezbollah, which enjoys a close relationship with Iran and is likely to be responsive to Iranian requests, could attack American targets in Lebanon.”
  • “Even if Iran decides to avoid a major escalation in Lebanon, Hezbollah operatives are distributed throughout the Middle East and could attack the United States elsewhere in the region. … Iran could conduct missile strikes against U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates or against oil facilities in the Gulf.”
  • “We should also expect Iran to significantly accelerate its nuclear program. … At a minimum, Iran will restart enriching uranium to 19.75 percent, a significant step toward weapons-grade uranium. It has recently threatened to go even further by walking away from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or kicking out inspectors. … [U]ntil this week most analysts believed Tehran was unlikely to actually make [these moves]. Now they may well be on the table.”
  • “Perhaps the most provocative thing Iran could do is carry out a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or attempt to kill a senior U.S. official of Soleimani’s stature.”
  • “If the Trump administration is smart, it will do all that it can to harden U.S. facilities and protect Americans while absorbing some of the inevitable blows to come. It should also reach out to Iran through U.S. partners that have good relations with the country, such as Oman, to try to de-escalate while also setting clear redlines in private to avoid an Iranian miscalculation.”

“The Dire Consequences of Trump's Soleimani Decision,” Susan E. Rice, New York Times, 01.04.20The author, a former national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, writes:

  • “Despite President Trump’s oft-professed desire to avoid war with Iran and withdraw from military entanglements in the Middle East, his decision to order the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s second most important official, as well as Iraqi leaders of an Iranian-backed militia, now locks our two countries in a dangerous escalatory cycle that will likely lead to wider warfare.”
  • “In the face of Iranian reprisals, it will be difficult for the United States to de-escalate tensions and avoid a larger conflict. Iran gets the next move. The United States has failed to deter Tehran thus far, even with the deployment of 14,000 additional American troops to the Gulf region since May. The announcement this week that the Pentagon was sending 3,500 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division seems unlikely to change things.”
  • “When Iran does respond, its response will likely be multifaceted and occur at unpredictable times and in multiple places. President Trump will then face what may yet be the most consequential national security decision of his presidency. If he reacts with additional force, the risk is great that the confrontation will spiral into a wider military conflict. If he fails to react in kind, he will likely invite escalating Iranian aggression. It’s hard to envision how this ends short of war.”

“Ambassador Chas Freeman on Soleimani Assassination,” Charles W. “Chas” Freeman Jr., Ambassador Jack Matlock’s blog, 01.03.20The author, an American diplomat, writes:

  • “This was not a retaliation, as claimed, but the pre-planned exploitation of a pretext to assassinate a foreign official designated as an enemy as well as the commander of an Iraqi militia hostile to the United States. It was an act of war that will inevitably evoke reprisal.”
  • “The Iranian government seldom makes decisions in haste. It is the heir to one of the world’s longest and greatest traditions of politico-military statecraft. It will make considered judgments as it calculates the appropriate asymmetric responses. If Tehran miscalculates, which is a very real possibility, the now open but low-intensity warfare between the United States and Iran will escalate.”
  • “The assassinations seem intended to appease neoconservative critics of President Trump as vacillating and weak in his response to Iranian ripostes to his policy of maximum pressure on Iran. They provide a welcome distraction from the pending impeachment proceedings and appeal to the bloodthirsty instincts of the president’s most ardent supporters.”
  • “In foreign policy terms, this attack makes no sense at all. It is not a deterrent to Iran so much as a provocation. It pushes Iraq further into the arms of Iran and invites the humiliating expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. It makes every American in Iraq a target for murder or hostage taking. It demonstrates to the world the overt amorality of U.S. policy and the indifference of the United States to the constraints of international law and comity, especially when the object of American hostility is Muslim.”
  • “It is a strategy-free move, equivalent to beginning a game of chess with only an opening move in mind. It is thus a reminder to the word of the witless hubris and violence with which the United States now conducts its international relations. Americans, once the most prominent proponents of international law as the regulator of relations between nations, have now fully validated the law of the jungle.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“War Between Russia and America Could End the World,” Robert Farley, The National Interest, 12.23.19The author, a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, writes:

  • “Given how the Cold War ended, and given how well NATO forces performed in Desert Storm in 1991, a kind of background assumption has taken hold that NATO could have stopped a Warsaw Pact advance in the 1980s.”
  • “It’s interesting, however, that soldiers and analysts at the time had little confidence of this. It’s hardly obvious that NATO forces could have won; the Warsaw Pact had massive material advantages, and a well-conceived planning apparatus that welded all of the alliance partners (that is, Soviet satellites) into a cohesive whole. Fortunately, the Soviet Union decided to fade away instead of burn out, and we never learned whether NATO’s plan for defeating a Communist invasion would have worked.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Arms control:

“What Kissinger Teaches Us About Negotiating With Russia,” Bruce Allyn, The National Interest, 12.29.19The author, a senior fellow and affiliated faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, writes:

  • “What can we learn about reducing the unprecedented nuclear danger today from those who backed us away from the brink in the past—Kissinger in the early 1970s and Reagan in the 1980s?  The authors of ‘Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons From Dealmaking at the Highest Level,’ the first book to examine Kissinger’s record as a negotiator, distill fifteen lessons on dealmaking at the highest level of international negotiations, summarizing three overarching objectives that Kissinger set for the United States in the 1970s.”
  • “If you understand the gravity of the real nuclear danger—and we cannot afford to get this wrong—Kissinger has argued it should be a critical U.S. national interest to work to integrate Russia, to repair the hostility, to exhibit ‘strategic restraint.’ … From a negotiation point of view, it is critical in such a high-stakes situation, as stated again and again in ‘Kissinger the Negotiator,’ to ‘evaluate and reevaluate your fundamental premises.’”
  • “Drawing from these lessons provided by Kissinger and Reagan, and from the field of negotiation theory and practice, there are three recommendations on how to improve the current nuclear situation.”
  • “First, we can adopt certain key nuclear risk reduction measures. There are several nuclear risk-reduction policies that the United States could once again prioritize to avoid ‘the great evil of nuclear war.’ … Second, we drive toward rebuilding a long-term U.S.-Russian working relationship that allows the cooperation on nuclear risk reduction.”
  • “Third, we must take the right approach when pursuing strategic negotiation on nuclear risk reduction with President Vladimir Putin. Kissinger’s success in his breakthrough agreement on détente in 1972 was achieved with a clearly defined strategy and prioritization of U.S. national interests. … The challenge today is, first, to formulate an executable strategy toward Russia and keep that in focus while negotiating with Putin. Putin, Kissinger argues, operates ‘on the premises of Russian history,’ and is focused on advancing Russian national interests. He is not going to integrate on U.S. terms.”

“Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us? Why We May Look Back on 2019 as the Point of No Return,” Nicholas L. Miller and Vipin Narang, Foreign Affairs, 12.30.19The authors, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College and an associate professor at MIT, write:

  • “At the top of a long list of worrying developments is the heightened risk of a nuclear arms race between Washington and its most powerful rivals. The demise, earlier this year, of the … INF Treaty, was an early sign of trouble. … A similar fate may soon befall the most important remaining guardrail on U.S.-Russian nuclear policy. The New START treaty, which … the Trump administration has signaled that it will not renew.”
  • “With all three countries [U.S., Russia, China] modernizing their nuclear programs, and dim prospects for arms control, the risk of a great-power nuclear arms race is growing by the day. And unlike U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition in the Cold War, today’s would be a three-way nuclear arms race.”
  • “Washington fared no better in thwarting the nuclear ambitions of smaller rivals. … If progress with North Korea has stalled, it has gone into reverse with Iran. … Add to this another flashpoint, often overlooked by observers: South Asia. Tensions between India and Pakistan, … escalated in February, when Pakistani militants attacked an Indian security convoy.”
  • “The year 2019 has been an inflection point for three key features of a new nuclear age: renewed nuclear competition among several great powers; the emergence of new nuclear powers, both adversaries and allies; and a greater tolerance for escalation among existing nuclear powers, with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
  • “Washington could still avert, or at least mitigate, some of these outcomes. It could, for example, work to repair the damage done to its alliances, extend New START, and pursue more realistic diplomacy with North Korea and Iran. But other trends—such as the return to great-power competition, the relative decline of the United States, and a rising and increasingly assertive India—are likely to persist and reinforce the dangerous nuclear dynamics already playing out.”

“A Decade of Regression and Dismantlement,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 12.30.19The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Nuclear historians will have little choice but to characterize the decade of the 2010s as one of regression and dismantlement. … While the Bomb hasn’t changed, our thinking about the Bomb has. We’ve regressed.”
  • “The latest scary ‘new thing’ about nuclear weapons—hypervelocity/glide weapons that travel intercontinental distances—is less meaningful than advertised. ICBMs and SLBMs also travel at hyper-speeds, and they’ve been around for many decades. The ‘old-fashioned’ way of delivering warheads is more accurate and still effective, since missile defenses have yet to solve the problem of intercepting warheads accompanied by penetration aids. Because they are likely to be less accurate, hypervelocity/glide weapons will probably become a niche weapon used as city killers.”
  • “It was also a year of dismantlement. The INF Treaty died. Another year when the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and its related confidence- and security measures were in limbo. A year when Donald Trump and his revolving team of advisers teed up the Open Skies Treaty for withdrawal. A year when the last remnant of nuclear arms control—New START—a waits execution or extension.”
  • “Washington’s contributions to the unraveling of the post-Cold War order came via NATO’s expansion and the use of force in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. … While Moscow was licking its wounds, Washington was busy creating new ones by misusing U.S. power and dissipating its international standing.”
  • “Once the ABM Treaty was off the boards, other nuclear and conventional arms control treaties fell like dominoes. … Tough fights lie ahead, along with a monumentally important U.S. national election.”

“The New Understanding and Ways to Strengthen Multilateral Strategic Stability,” Sergei A. Karaganov and Dmitry V. Suslov, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, December 2019: In this report based on the results of a situational analysis held at the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2019, the authors, the dean of the faculty of world economy and international affairs and the deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, write:

  • “Changes in the politico-psychological and military-technical spheres objectively increase the risk of war, and this risk will tend to grow further in the short and medium terms. In order to overcome it and save mankind from a catastrophe, a new policy will be needed.”
  • “There should be a new philosophy of strategic stability policy. In the past this policy rested on three key pillars: unilateral measures to strengthen deterrence (the U.S. tried and apparently continues to try to restore its supremacy); measures to strengthen channels of communication; and measures to limit (and reduce) nuclear weapons. The latter was based on the postulated need to build a nuclear-free world and overcome nuclear deterrence. However, this philosophy, even if it was appropriate in the past, will apparently become obsolete in the new and future world.”
  • “As the overcoming competition between great powers within the ‘liberal international order’ (which in reality was nothing but the U.S. hegemony) utopia failed and this competition returned as a normal state of international relations, overcoming nuclear deterrence would strengthen, not weaken the threat of great power war, and even make it inevitable.”
  • “In this situation, it would be advisable to give up the previous, largely hypocritical, approach adopted by the nuclear powers and shift the emphasis in common policy towards the strengthening of mutual nuclear strategic deterrence, which, regardless of its flaws, was the main factor of peace in the past and will be even more so in the foreseeable future. Future joint actions of nuclear powers should seek to enhance multilateral mutual deterrence as the main foundation upon which multilateral strategic stability could be built.”

“2020: The End of New START, or the Start of Something New?” Michael Moran, Foreign Policy, 12.20.19The author, CEO of a political risk and content strategy firm, writes:

  • “In the coming year, serious progress toward a more stable, transparent U.S.-Russian relationship appears to be out of the question. … In the meantime, enormous sums are being mustered in both countries to develop and deploy a new generation of nuclear weaponry, together with new generation of missile and radar capabilities that may well lead to a new arms race.”
  • “The coming year will be the time to either stop the spiral or let things spin out of control. Left to their own devices, the military and security bureaucracies of both nations invariably prefer to fight fire with fire, even when the fire is nuclear-powered. It is up to other bureaucracies to intervene, but no serious effort to open talks aimed at limiting this new arms race has been undertaken.”
  • “‘Reagan and Gorbachev put it best when they said a nuclear war cannot be won, therefore a nuclear war cannot be fought,’ Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, told me. Today, he noted, the United States forestalls arms control talks by insisting other nuclear powers be involved—a demand almost certain to prevent talks from getting started. And Russians surely have their own demands, including talks on conventional forces, on missile defense and the militarization of space. ‘We don’t quite know how to deal with that. What it requires is getting back together and saying, ‘Let’s talk about strategic stability,’ not just talk about ‘What’s the next reduction in nuclear weapons?’”
  • “Doing that requires leaders willing to expend political capital on peace rather than tough guy posturing. Reagan and Gorbachev had that capital in spades. Putin and Trump lack it entirely.”

“Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer,” Steven Simon, New York Times, 01.02.20The author, an analyst at the Quincy Institute, writes:

  • “President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced the deployment of the Avangard, among the first in a new class of missiles capable of reaching hypersonic velocity—something no missile can currently achieve, aside from an ICBM during reentry.”
  • “Such weapons have long been an object of desire by Russian, Chinese and American military leaders, for obvious reasons: Launched from any of these countries, they could reach any other within minutes. No existing defenses, in the United States or elsewhere, can intercept a missile that can move so fast while maneuvering unpredictably.”
  • “Hypersonics represent an apotheosis of sorts for many warfare theorists and practitioners, who have long contended that air power alone can have a decisive effect in a conflict. They have always been wrong.”
  • “Hypersonic weapons … appear poised to fulfill the promise of air power. In an era when the use of ground troops has proved costly, unpopular and generally ineffective … they are a godsend: missiles whose accuracy minimizes the risk of collateral damage, pose no risk to aircrews, are unstoppable and phenomenally accurate, can yield an impact equal to five to ten tons of high explosive with no warhead at all yet be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb, and can reach nearly every coordinate on the surface of the earth within 30 minutes. Death from the air, guaranteed on-time delivery.”
  • “As at the dawn of the nuclear era, when the advent of nuclear weapons became intertwined with an emerging Cold War, a new and radical development in military technology is emerging just as post-Cold War realities give way to new ones. We need to channel the wisdom of the prudent arms controllers of the Cold War, who understood the urgent need to control weapons with terrifying implications.”

“Pentagon Missile Test Trolls Russia and China With a Weapon the US Can't Actually Use,” Sébastien Roblin, NBC, 01.03.20The author, an expert on the technical and historical aspects of international security and conflict, writes:

  • “At 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 12, a new type of U.S. ballistic missile shot off from its launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, rocketing into the exosphere before arcing down into the Pacific Ocean over 310 miles away.”
  • “The test may have been dramatic, but it was essentially a very costly troll of the weapon's potential targets, Russia and China, because the United States can't actually use the weapon (which hasn't been publicly named) for reasons of geography and international politics.”
  • “Curtailing investments in weapons the United States can't even use is a smart move both for maintaining U.S. military power and for managing relations with China and Russia. There's little benefit to throwing fuel onto the fire of an arms race the United States is literally in no geographic position to win.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Assad and Putin Are Responsible for Syria's Latest Wave of Suffering,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 12.26.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Syrian and Russian forces began a new offensive in the northern province of Idlib, once again targeting civilians and, according to humanitarian aid groups, driving more than 100,000 people toward the border with Turkey. The attack is the resumption of a push into the province that began last April and displaced more than 500,000 people before an August cease-fire. Humanitarian aid groups say the current offensive could soon double that number, leaving tens of thousands of people living in the open in harsh winter conditions. Turkey long ago sealed its border with Syria, meaning the refugees have no safe place to go.”
  • “It should be clear who is responsible for the latest wave of Syrian suffering: the Assad regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Congress recently approved new legislation sanctioning the Syrian government and all who do business with it, including Russia; legislators should insist that it be rigorously enforced.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

“Putin’s Grand Gas Project Makes Sense Now. But Not Exactly in the Way the Kremlin Wanted,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 12.26.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “In the space of just a few momentous weeks, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ambitious projects—a Russian natural gas export system to match the new geopolitical reality rather than the Cold War-era one—has taken its final shape. It will probably last, without major change, until the end of Russia’s run as a top energy exporter.”
  • “The finishing touches to the project, begun in 2001 with the construction of the Blue Stream pipeline to Turkey, include the launch of the Power of Siberia pipeline to China on Dec. 2, last week’s U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, a new gas transit deal with Ukraine and the commissioning of the TurkStream pipeline, planned for January.”
  • “External pressure and market circumstances have helped shape the new Russian gas export system so that it can’t really be used as a sinister tool of Putin’s rogue foreign policy. Meanwhile, it’s structured in a such a way that post-Putin Russia will still be able to maintain its energy market share and use it as a basis for useful trade partnerships. That makes it a positive part of Putin’s legacy, if not entirely thanks to Putin.”
  • “Russia's export partners, of course, eventually move to phase out fossil fuels. That, however, won’t be happening anytime soon, as both Europe and China will need more gas as they replace coal. Russia is projected to account for around a third of the EU’s gas supply at least until 2040. Putin will be gone by then, but Russia’s energy trade will be more diversified than when he came to power. … More benign Russian governments will be able to use it as a basis for good neighborly relations rather than as an instrument of pressure.”

“Gas Deal With Ukraine Is a Boon for Russia. Details of the Agreement Show That Vladimir Putin Understands the Energy Market,” Nick Butler, Financial Times, 01.06.20The author, an energy commentator for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The [new Russian-Ukrainian] agreement includes a new five-year contract for gas to be traded between Russia and central Europe via the existing lines running through Ukraine. The volumes involved start at 65 billion cubic meters [bcm] in 2020 and then fall to 40 bcm a year. The prospect of a further deal is left open. The transit fees involved have not been published but are reported to be higher than the current ones.”
  • “Given that transit fees provide 5 percent of Ukraine’s national budget this is a significant victory for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In return, Ukraine is dropping $12.2 billion in additional claims it has made in the international courts against Russian gas group Gazprom for previous failures to meet contractual terms.”
  • “Direct purchases of gas from Russia by Ukraine have been suspended since 2015, leaving Ukraine to buy gas from the European market, and the agreement does not confirm that they will be resumed. But many analysts believe they will be and that new tariff levels have been agreed.”
  • “In energy terms the balance of the current agreement favors Moscow. Russian gas will keep flowing into Europe through Ukraine, while the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline … is almost complete and constrained only by the imposition of sanctions by U.S. Congress. … The rapprochement between Russia and Ukraine will make it harder to maintain the argument for sanctions in the face of strong opposition from the German government. … The chances of gas flowing into Europe through Nord Stream 2 within the next 12 months have certainly improved. If that happens, Russia will have multiple lines supplying the European gas market.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“What Stops US and Russia From Stumbling Into War?” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, 12.24.19: The author, founding director of Russia Matters, writes:

  • “[T]he original Cold War … featured a number of close calls that almost turned it into a hot war. … More recently, however, respected statesmen have again begun to sound alarms. … [W]hat it is—other than the fear of mutually assured destruction—that keeps the U.S. and Russia from stumbling into a war today or tomorrow[?] Part of the answer lies in the bilateral and multilateral agreements specifically designed to prevent incidents that could escalate into a war.”
  • “[T]here are at least half a dozen bilateral agreements between Moscow and Washington that have been concluded for the purposes of preventing dangerous military incidents. These deals include the 1972 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities. Some other NATO members … have agreements with Russia on prevention of incidents on the high seas … However, almost a dozen NATO members have no such agreements … Nor are there any multilateral NATO-Russia (or NATO-Collective Security Treaty Organization) agreements on prevention of dangerous military incidents.”
  • “The U.S. and its NATO allies should consider forming a unified position and approach Russia about formal negotiations on how some of the existing U.S.-Russian agreements on avoiding incidents could be multilaterized … In addition … Russian and Western leaders should also make sure their military commanders do not take unauthorized actions that increase the risk of an accident that could unintentionally lead to a conflict.”
  • “Last but not least, the sides should discuss how to prevent incidents in one domain that did not exist during the original Cold War. That domain is cyber and it is essential that the U.S. and Russia, which both now have cyber troops, and their allies discuss how to prevent incidents in that domain that could ultimately lead to an accidental war.”

“Russia’s Response to Sanctions: Reciprocal, Asymmetrical or Orthogonal?” Adam Stulberg and Jonathan Darsey, PONARS Eurasia, January 2020The authors, the Sam Nunn Professor and a PhD candidate in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, write:

  • “Western sanctions on Russia have failed demonstratively to secure Moscow’s formal compliance with stated objectives. Both sides seem worlds apart in their expectations and approaches … This reinforces asymmetrical preferences, muddles threats, rationalizes costs, and thwarts tailored initiatives, while affirming each side’s parochial assessments of its leverage over the other, stoking escalation.”
  • “The events and text analyses reveal that the West and Russia may be on very different planes when it comes to sanctions, with implications for refining U.S. policy. The events analyses suggest that Russia's response to U.S. sanctions may be more broad-based and cross-domain than reciprocal, resulting in an opportunistic … and multifaceted reactive posture. This, in turn, may be suggestive of a tactical, ad hoc approach to sanctions that is nevertheless part of a more strategic approach to cross-domain, dynamic coercion in response to United States/EU sanctions.”
  • “More fundamentally, our text analyses underscore how the two strategic communities are ‘worlds apart’ in understanding and assessing sanctions-related activity. … For Washington, this means that efforts at signaling greater commitment by escalating pain on select Russian sectoral and individual targets are likely falling on deaf ears.”
  • “Furthermore, contending worldviews on sanctions suggest that the risky status quo derives from neither deadlock nor uncertainty. … [T]he most productive course may lie with engaging Moscow on multilateral tactical applications of sanctions (and possibly inducements) directed at common third-party targets … that avoid core contradictory interpretations associated with bilateral sanctions.”
  • “Beyond that, given the risks associated with the escalation of direct sanctions, Western allies should close ranks either to fashion a coherent cross-domain counter-strategy to buffer Moscow’s broad-based coercive responses or offer dramatic gestures for re-setting the strategic agenda with Russia.”

“The World Didn’t Change Much in 2019. That’s Bad News for 2020. Several important events occurred this year, but few did anything to significantly alter global trends,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 12.31.19The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “Although Trump may sometimes talk and act like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poodle, U.S. policy toward Russia remains confrontational and counterproductive. Ukraine is getting the support it was promised (now that Trump’s effort to blackmail it into digging up false dirt on his political rivals has backfired), and Moscow is still facing an array of Western sanctions. Not surprisingly, Russia and China continue to move closer together, in part because Washington has given them every incentive to cooperate more.  Apparently, nobody in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has ever heard of the phrase ‘divide and rule.’”
  • “Nothing much changed in 2019, which does not augur well for 2020.”


II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“The World at a Crossroads and a System of International Relations for the Future,” Sergei Lavrov, Russia in Global Affairs, 12.29.19The author, Russia’s foreign minister, writes:

  • “First of all, it is necessary to keep abreast of the times and recognize the obvious: the emergence of a polycentric world architecture is an irreversible process, no matter how hard anyone tries to artificially hold it back (let alone reverse it).”
  • “Attempts to invent one’s own ‘rules’ and impose them on all others as the absolute truth should be stopped. From now on, all parties should strictly comply with the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter, starting with respect for the sovereign equality of states regardless of their size, system of government or development model.”
  • “While taking good care of the post-WWII system of international relations that relies on the United Nations, it is also necessary to cautiously, though gradually, adjust it to the realities of the current geopolitical landscape. This is completely relevant for the U.N. Security Council, where … the West is unfairly overrepresented. We are confident that reforming the Security Council should take into account the interests of Asian, African and Latin American nations.”
  • “It is time we come to consensus on a uniform interpretation of the principles and norms of international law … It is more difficult to reach accord than to put forward demands, but patiently negotiated trade-offs will be a much more reliable vehicle for predictable handling of international affairs. Such an approach is badly needed for launching substantive talks on the terms and conditions of a reliable and just system of equal and indivisible security in the Euro-Atlantic region and Eurasia.”
  • “It is especially important today to counter religious and ethnic intolerance. … Will the multipolar world continue to take shape through cooperation and harmonization of interests or through confrontation and rivalry? This depends on all of us. … It is now much more important to start a strategic dialogue on concrete threats and risks and to seek consensus on a commonly acceptable agenda.”

“Ambivalence About Moscow Is a French Tradition,” Robert Zaretsky, The National Interest, 12.30.19: The author, a professor at the University of Houston, writes:

  • “Last August, while preparing for the G-7 summit in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron opened the doors of his summer residence … to Russian President Vladimir Putin. … [T]he French leader praised the cultural role in France of Russian artists such as Ivan Turgenev and Igor Stravinsky. These artists served as a reminder, Macron announced, that Russia is très profondément European.”
  • “Macron’s declaration was not improvised. Not only did it throw important light on recent French diplomatic activity but it also reflected an older source of light—namely, le siècle des Lumières, or the Enlightenment. It was fitting that a président philosophe … reaffirmed Russia’s ties to Europe. Who could be better qualified? After all, the eighteenth-century French philosophes were the ones to both inspire and thwart Russia’s long effort to be counted as a European nation.”
  • “With the United Kingdom distracted by the question of Brexit and Germany divided over the question of immigration, the French president has taken it on himself to hit the reset button with Russia. Some of Macron’s European allies have seen his extended hand to Moscow as a back of the hand to them. … Even within France, the Franco-Russian specialist Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean warned against being too fast or too eager in pulling Russia closer, lest Putin see Macron not as ‘a new de Gaulle, but instead interpret the French overtures as an avowal of weakness and inconsistency.’”
  • “Given the brutal nature of Putin’s rule, much rides for the West on the danger of such an interpretation.” 

“Russia Is Once Again Rewriting History. Putin’s Recent Defense of the Nazi-Soviet Pact Is a Worrying Distortion,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 01.05.20: The author, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The manipulation of history for political ends is returning with a vengeance. In the closing days of 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin defended the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 and blamed the outbreak of the second world war on alleged collusion between Adolf Hitler and European governments, including that of Poland.”
  • “Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, accused Mr. Putin of telling deliberate lies about Poland ‘on numerous occasions . . . It usually happens in a situation when the authorities in Moscow feel international pressure caused by their actions.’”
  • “There is, however, a larger context to Mr. Putin’s weaponizing of history. … First off, as the 75th anniversary of the end of the European part of the second world war approaches in May, Mr. Putin wants nothing to tarnish celebrations of the Soviet victory. … Second, Russia is concerned about the impact of historical truth-telling on the stability of political systems, especially those which curb freedom.”
  • “Historical scholarship that serves such a goal deserves applause. But lies and distortions in the name of state power must be exposed, generation after generation, for what they are.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant commentary.


“Zelenskiy's Ukraine Is Thriving,” Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post, 01.05.20: The author, deputy editorial page editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Despite all the abuse from the White House, and the fact that he took office as an utter political neophyte in one of Europe's most dysfunctional nations, Zelenskiy's government so far has been an extraordinary—and, under the circumstances, almost miraculous—success.”
  • “The economy is soaring: Exports and domestic growth have spiked, inflation has plunged and Ukrainians' salaries have grown by nearly 10 percent in a year. … The International Monetary Fund has given preliminary agreement to a new loan package that could spur foreign investment.”
  • “Key anti-corruption measures have passed parliament, and big economic reforms, including the privatization of 500 state companies and the liberalization of land sales, are pending.”
  • “Last week, Ukrainian television was full of tearful reunions as prisoners of war held by Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine came home after years in detention. Troops on both sides of the front lines have pulled back. Meanwhile, Russia has just agreed to pay Ukraine $7 billion over the next five years to pump natural gas across its territory, along with $2.9 billion to settle previous disputes.”
  • “Meanwhile, Zelenskiy, who still wants the legitimization of a White House visit, has yet to be given a date. It's hard not to conclude that the Trump administration isn't happy that Ukraine finally has a competent president.”

“Groupthink Resurgent,” George Beebe, The National Interest, 12.22.19: The author, vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “The lack of any significant contention [in the U.S.] about Ukraine is reflected in the term groupthink. … Seldom has contemporary evidence of groupthink been on such stark public display as during the House impeachment hearings regarding Ukraine. … America’s approach to Ukraine is failing because the interagency consensus that the witnesses so unquestioningly proclaim rests on several critical assumptions that crumble upon contact with the hard realities of Ukraine and Russia.”
  • “The first and most important assumption is that Ukraine can be integrated into a NATO-dominated trans-Atlantic community and still remain intact and at peace with itself. … [T]here is little support for Ukraine’s NATO membership among Europeans, many of whom correctly fear that such membership would court military conflict with Russia. Even more fundamentally, however, there are cleavages within Ukrainian society itself regarding Russia and the West.”
  • “The corollary to this assumption is the belief that U.S. military support for Ukraine deters Russian aggression and increases the likelihood of peace. … The third assumption is one that has been central to American foreign policy thinking since the collapse of the Soviet Union—the notion that U.S. security can and must be based on a transformational agenda abroad.”
  • “We could certainly entertain a more modest approach that assures Moscow that Ukraine is not and will not be a candidate for NATO membership, while also preserving Kyiv’s freedom to seek its preferred economic and political associations. This would not only facilitate détente in the broader U.S.-Russian relationship, but it would also expand the space for liberalization inside Ukraine, because it would reduce the geopolitical stakes of Ukraine’s internal reforms.”
  • “For our broader national interests, groupthink can undermine security. It did in Vietnam. It did in Iraq. It did in Georgia in 2008. And it is doing it again today, in Ukraine.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“To Keep Putin Out, Belarus Invites the US and China In,” Reid Standish, Foreign Policy, 01.01.20: The author, an Alfa fellow and a special correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Alexander Lukashenko … is ratcheting up the geopolitical high-wire act he’s been conducting with Russian President Vladimir Putin by inviting China and the United States to exercise influence in his country as a way of forestalling political union with the Kremlin.”
  • “‘We’re not going to cut off our ties with Russia, they are our neighbor and largest economic partner, but surrendering our sovereignty and independence is out of the discussion,’ Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy … ‘There are already three or four generations of people born in the new, independent state of Belarus, and they will never agree with giving up any independence.’”
  • “Lukashenko’s new tactic is a response both to ramped-up pressure from Moscow and rising public sentiment in Belarus. … Putin recently tied further energy discounts for Belarus to the condition that integration talks progress, while Lukashenko warned during an interview last month that any attempt to force Belarus to become part of Russia could trigger a war with the West.”
  • “In the face of this growing challenge, the Belarusian leader has inserted new variables into his tried formula of strategic hedging and in the process turned Belarus into an important front amid deepening rivalries and growing competition among Russia, the United States and China. … China has become a growing patron for Belarus … Relations with the United States have also begun to thaw.”
  • “While Russia’s deep ties are in many ways unshakable, the Belarusian leader will likely continue to find ways to stall negotiations with Moscow in 2020 and find new avenues for leverage from external players such as the United States and China.”


III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“The Future of Putin’s Information Autocracy,” Sergey Guriyev, The Moscow Times, 01.02.20: The author, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, writes:

  • “Though Putin’s approval ratings have declined considerably in recent years, they remain high, with polls indicating that 61 percent of Russians evaluate his performance positively. If a presidential election were held today, 44 percent would vote for Putin. No other candidate would receive double-digit support. … Putin certainly does not owe his popularity to his economic leadership. Since recapturing the presidency in 2012, he has consistently failed to deliver on promises of reform, higher productivity and investment and improvements in Russians’ standard of living.”
  • “So what explains Putin’s enduring popularity? As Daniel Treisman and I argue in a recent paper, the answer … lies in the ability to control the information people receive, which enables a leader to convince most of the population that, despite the regime’s imperfections, it is the country’s best option.”
  • “Repression plays an important role here. But far from the widely publicized mass repression of the past … today’s repression is targeted and, critically, deniable. … Modern informational autocrats also make extensive use of censorship … With Russia’s constitution explicitly outlawing censorship, one of the most important jobs of the Kremlin’s censors is to conceal information about their own activities from the public. … A third key tool for silencing the informed elites is co-optation. … Russian elites who choose to support [the regime] are rewarded handsomely.”
  • “[T]he challenge of controlling information is only intensifying … The majority of Russia’s population will not become well-informed overnight. But, as the regime is forced to dedicate more resources to silencing the informed, the majority will suffer economically. Eventually, the reality of their empty refrigerators will overwhelm the eternally optimistic messages coming from their televisions and computers, and the foundations of Putin’s informational autocracy will begin to crumble.”

“Invisible Hand: Putin’s Economic Breakthrough That Never Was,” Liam Halligan, Intellinews, 12.24.19: The author, a columnist for The Telegraph, writes:

  • “‘We need an economic breakthrough,’ declared Vladimir Putin back in December 2018 … Twelve months on, during this year’s annual Question and Answer Session, the economy was again part of Putin’s presentation. But the headline growth numbers barely featured.”
  • “Russian GDP growth of just 1.3 percent that is officially forecast for 2019 is 0.5 percentage points short of last year’s presidential prediction. The World Bank … estimates just 1 percent growth this year, having downgraded its forecast four times since January.”
  • “The Russian economy has suffered a double blow, resulting in five years of falling incomes, which have dragged down Putin’s popularity ratings and fueled a succession of public protests. Oil prices have fallen sharply over the last half-decade … Western sanctions related to hostilities in Southern and Eastern Ukraine have also stymied growth.”
  • “There are signs of a growth uptick, as Putin was keen to highlight. Real wages grew 3.8 percent during the year to October … Russia’s services sector also remains buoyant, with the PMI Services index registering 55.6 in November … The ruble rallied during the first half of December … Russia has lately seen capital inflows, partly because government bond yields remain high, despite successive rate cuts.”
  • “The RTS index of leading Russian shares boasted a year-to-date gain of 40.5 percent up until mid-December, placing this dollar-denominated composite among the world’s best-performing stock market benchmarks during 2019. … The ruble-based MICEX put on 26.5 percent over the same period … Russia will this year run a current account and fiscal surpluses equal to 4.6 percent and 1.6 percent of GDP respectively—demonstrating this ‘safety first’ approach. … State debt is equivalent to 13 percent of GDP—among the lowest in the world.”
  • “‘How do we kick-start growth—that is the biggest question the government faces,’ declares Russian Deputy Finance Minister Alexei Moiseev.”

“The Kremlin’s Creative Director: How the television producer Konstantin Ernst went from discerning auteur to Putin’s unofficial minister of propaganda,” Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker 12.16.19: The author, a Moscow correspondent for the magazine, writes:

  • “In the final days of 1999, Konstantin Ernst prepared to film the Russian president’s annual New Year’s address, just as he had every December for several years. … As the Channel One staff was packing up, Yeltsin told Ernst that he wasn’t satisfied … and asked if they might record a new version in the coming days. Ernst agreed to go back on New Year’s Eve at five in the morning.”
  • “When he returned, he was handed a copy of the new address, and tried to contain his shock: Yeltsin was about to resign, voluntarily giving up power before his term was over, an unprecedented gesture in Russian history. His chosen successor was Vladimir Putin, a politician whom most Russians were just getting to know.”
  • “Soon after, Channel One filmed a New Year’s address from Putin, which would air after Yeltsin’s. ‘The powers of the head of state have been turned over to me today,’ Putin said, his tone calming and businesslike. ‘I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute.’”
  • “Putin’s wife at the time, Lyudmila, was at home, and didn’t see the broadcast, so she was confused when a friend called to congratulate her; she assumed that the friend was offering a standard New Year’s greeting. Later in the day, a news segment showed Yeltsin and Putin standing side by side in the presidential office. ‘Take care of Russia,’ Yeltsin told Putin as they left the room.”
  • “According to Arina Borodina, a journalist and media critic in Moscow, Ernst has no equal in creating the spectacles that the country’s rulers covet.”

“Putin Predictions of Yore: What the Pundits Thought 20 Years Ago,” Thomas Schaffner, Russia Matters, 12.24.19: The author, a student web assistant with Russia Matters and a graduate of American University, writes:

  • “Twenty years ago … resigning Russian President Boris Yeltsin tapped Vladimir Putin to be his successor. Unlike Yeltsin, who’d been a prominent political figure in Moscow for about a decade, Putin was still relatively unknown outside of Russia, having been appointed prime minister from obscurity in August 1999.”
  • “There was one big question on the minds of Westerners trying to figure out where Russia was going and one of the first to ask it was former U.S. diplomat Thomas Graham: ‘Who is Vladimir Putin, and what does he believe in?’ A few weeks later, American journalist Trudy Rubin famously put it more bluntly, asking a panel of Russian officials and businesspeople almost the same thing: ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ Instead of an answer, several journalists wrote later, ‘there was a pause.’”
  • “The new acting president’s opaqueness stirred up a storm of expert and press speculation about what a Putin presidency would mean for Russia. This is a sampling of some of that discussion. Where possible, the predictions are paired with later statements on Putin to show the evolution or accuracy of the commentators’ thinking.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.