Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 9-16, 2019
This Week’s Highlights
- For now, attempts to lure Russia away from China are unlikely to succeed, so the United States will have to settle for deterrence and wait for a more propitious opening, write former high-level U.S. officials Elbridge Colby and A. Wess Mitchell. They argue that because the U.S. cannot balance China and Russia by itself, it must ask more of its allies and new partners. Meanwhile, Michael O’Hanlon and Adam Twardowski of Brookings write that the relationship between Russia and China will continue to evolve largely as a function of U.S. foreign policy, a fact Washington needs to keep firmly in mind going forward.
- For the Trump administration and many of its Republican allies, Russia comes after Beijing on America's list of geopolitical concerns—an important disagreement with the liberal Atlanticist foreign-policy establishment, writes Prof. Walter Russell Mead. According to him, it is natural that Trump and some of his Senate defenders don't believe Ukraine matters much to the U.S., or that a few weeks or months of delay in military aid would have a discernible impact on world events.
- Putin was in the strongest position during the Normandy Summit in Paris, argues analyst Vladimir Frolov. If Zelenskiy accepted the Russian sequence for the Minsk Agreement, then the conflict would be settled on Russian terms and sanctions could be lifted; if Kyiv did not accept the Russian conditions, then they could blame Ukraine for the failure of negotiations, freeze the conflict and eventually attempt to normalize relations with Ukraine, Frolov writes. This “Georgian Variant,” he argues, prevents Ukrainian entry into NATO while improving economic relations for Russia.
- Lukashenko has survived several changes of the guard in the Kremlin, and even the potential departure of Putin in 2024 may fail to become a game changer in his relations with Moscow, writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Maxim Samorukov. As long as Russia has the ambition of preserving its influence over the post-Soviet states, any Russian leader will need Lukashenko as a showcase ally.
- Keeping the enforcement apparatus well-funded and devising a way to cling to power after his term ends appear to be Putin’s best option if Russia is to continue down the path on which he set it—and if he, his family and friends are to live happily beyond 2024, argues Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. Putin would no doubt prefer being loved for his successful economic policies, but if this year is any indication, that’s the least likely scenario of all.
- Based on the annual average dollar-to-ruble exchange rates, Russia is typically depicted as spending in the region of $60 billion per year on its military, write CNA’s Michael Kofman and Richard Connolly of the University of Birmingham. However, using PPP, one finds that Russia’s effective military expenditure actually ranged between $150 billion and $180 billion annually over the last five years.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant commentary.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant commentary.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant commentary.
New Cold War/saber rattling:
“The Age of Great-Power Competition. How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy,” Elbridge Colby and A. Wess Mitchell, Foreign Affairs, 12.10.19: The authors, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, write:
- “The United States is gearing up for a new era—one marked … by a rising China and a vindictive Russia seeking to undermine U.S. leadership and refashion global politics in their favor.”
- “Russia may fall short of being a peer competitor but has proved capable of projecting power in ways few anticipated at the close of the Cold War. … Its disruptive potential lies in part in its ability, through self-interested moves, to bring about systemic crises that will benefit Chinese power in the long term. … Because the United States can hardly pretend to be able to balance both China and Russia by itself, it must ask more of its allies and new partners, with insistence and real pressure if need be.”
- “Washington should try to create some distance between Beijing and Moscow. … For now, attempts to lure Russia away from China are unlikely to succeed, so the United States will have to settle for deterrence and wait for a more propitious opening. The United States should strengthen NATO’s deterrent against Russia in the Baltics and central Europe while using sanctions to punish Russian aggressive actions in places such as Syria and Ukraine. To the extent that a future interests-based détente with Russia is possible, it will be because Moscow concludes that resurrecting its Soviet-era influence by force is too costly to be worthwhile.”
- “Even with allied help, however, the United States will not be able to achieve the kind of military dominance over China and Russia that it once had over its opponents in the unipolar era. … What Washington truly needs is the capacity to resist successful assaults on its allies and partners.”
“Why the Normandy Summit Was Not a Waste of Time,” Sergei Utkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.12.19: The author, a head of strategic assessments at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, writes:
- “In the concluding communiqué of the Normandy summit on the Ukraine conflict, the four leaders moved away a little from the topic of the Donbas to note their ‘shared aspiration to a sustainable and comprehensive architecture of trust and security in Europe, based on the OSCE principles, for which the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine is one of several important steps.’”
- “This is not just a platitude, but recognition that the architecture of regional security in Europe needs improving. This approach is far from being shared in every European capital. Some EU and NATO countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, still believe that these Western organizations ensure the functioning in the region of security structures that suit practically everyone—except Russia.”
- “Behind the differing views on regional architecture looms the unspoken issue of NATO expansion. If Europe manages to build a ‘sustainable and comprehensive’ architecture, NATO expansion could be struck from the agenda as no longer relevant. The previous enthusiasm seen for the alliance’s expansion is on the wane in NATO countries, so the issue of more balanced security guarantees would be entirely natural.”
- “It’s unlikely that a consensus will be reached in Europe in the next ten years in support of reforming regional security structures. But if interesting solutions begin to appear, drawing on the support of the four Normandy countries … then this could become an interesting investment in a more stable future on the continent.”
- No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
“Sound the alarm on deadly US-Russia nuclear threat,” Jill Dougherty, CNN, 12.12.19: The author, a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief, writes:
- “The New START agreement—the last remaining arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia—hangs in the balance. It went into force in 2011 and will expire in February 2021. If it dies, there will be nothing to stop either country from developing or deploying nuclear weapons, including the most lethal and technologically advanced weapons.”
- “And this is happening at a moment that relations between Moscow and Washington are virtually at rock bottom despite the friendly relationship between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. There is almost no discussion right now between our countries on strategic security. Most of that ended in 2014 when the conflict in Ukraine began.”
- “It could get worse, both I and other Dartmouth Conference members believe. … In their appeal, Dartmouth members say the dialogue on strategic stability should be broadened to include other nuclear powers. But that doesn't mean that, in the interim, New START can't be extended for another five years, as the treaty provides. Extending it beyond 2021 would provide some breathing space to work on future global security agreements. We can do both.”
- No significant commentary.
Conflict in Syria:
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
Energy exports from CIS:
“A New Gas War in Europe?” Andrian Prokip, Wilson Center, 12.09.19: The author, an energy expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, writes:
- “The current gas transit contract between the Ukrainian state-controlled Naftogaz and the Russian national gas supplier Gazprom expires on Jan. 1, 2020. The parties are in negotiations but cannot agree on the terms of a new contract; their interests seem too far apart.”
- “Russia wants only a short-term contract, as a bridge to when its newest pipelines—which will bypass Ukraine—will be up and running. Ukraine … cannot afford the near-term economic hit should it deny access to its system. Hence the stalemate.”
- “If there is no new contract … by Jan. 1, winter gas delivery to Europe will be disrupted.”
- “There is no win-win solution to the problem. Someone will definitely lose. Ukraine may lose if it signs a short-term deal. Signing a direct agreement under nontransparent conditions, even with a discount, would be expected to complicate Ukraine’s attempts to get Russian troops out of its territories. Russia wants only a short-term deal because it anticipates its new pipelines, bypassing Ukraine, will be ready shortly. The EU will experience a gas shortage if no deal is struck. The winter of 2020 may turn out to be very hot politically.”
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- No significant commentary.
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Nuclear Enrichment: Russia’s Ill-Fated Influence Campaign in South Africa,” Andrew S. Weiss and Eugene Rumer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12.16.19: The authors, the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, write:
- “Amid the widespread attention the Kremlin’s recent inroads in Africa have attracted, there has been surprisingly little discussion of South Africa, a country which, for nearly a decade, unquestionably represented Russia’s biggest foreign policy success story on the continent. As relations soared during the ill-starred presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–2018), the Kremlin sought to wrest a geopolitically significant state out of the West’s orbit and to create a partnership that could serve as a springboard for expanded influence elsewhere in Africa.”
- “Moscow’s strategy was multifaceted, capitalizing on well-established close ties with Zuma, a former African National Congress senior intelligence official with extensive Soviet bloc connections. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials pursued a series of initiatives, such as the inclusion of South Africa in the BRIC … grouping and the launch of ambitious forms of cooperation between state-backed energy interests primarily in the nuclear sector.”
- “The controversy arising from a massive $76 billion nuclear power plant construction deal triggered strong pushback and legal challenges from South Africa’s institutional checks and balances, civil society groups and independent media.”
- “Ongoing investigations of high-level corruption during the period of so-called state capture under Zuma shed remarkable light on how the Kremlin operates in Africa and other parts of the world. … [T]he sustainability of Moscow’s embrace of South Africa was highly questionable due to its paltry tool kit. Russian involvement in the South African economy is miniscule compared to that of other trading partners … While the Soviet Union was an important patron during the anti-apartheid struggle, modern-day Russia offers little in the way of practical assistance for helping South Africa.”
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
“An alliance between Russia and China is the next military threat,” Michael O'Hanlon and Adam Twardowski, The Hill, 12.16.19: The authors, a senior fellow and a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution, write:
- “The United States appears to be settling in for a protracted period of great power military competition. Ever since Russia seized Crimea … and as China moved onto islands across the South China Sea … American defense officials determined that rogue states and terrorist organizations should no longer be the epicenter of war planning and military resource allocation.”
- “China and Russia no longer share a common expansionist ideology, but realpolitik considerations are driving them together. … Some look at this and conclude that China and Russia will become natural allies as time goes on. Others say such an assessment is nonsense given their mutual mistrust and indeed the very proximity that could help them work together. How can Washington resolve this contradiction?”
- “We would propose that much of the answer is in unpacking what an alliance means. There are at least four ways to look at the term. The first is transactional cooperation where economic and other critical interests coincide. …The second adds largely symbolic cooperation on minor military exercises or collaborative military training. … The third further adds a willingness to share intelligence, posture forces and conduct peaceful exercises and provocations against mutual adversaries. … The fourth includes formal defense pacts centered on mutual defense pledges that promise more or less unconditional military assistance with combat forces in the event that either finds itself at war.”
- “The real task for American policymakers, therefore, is to conduct United States foreign policy in a way that the security relationship between Russia and China will remain limited in these domains [first and second], without progressing very far into the third way. Unfortunately, there are already examples that Russia and China have done considerably more. … The relationship between Russia and China is not a given. It will continue to evolve largely as a function of United States foreign policy. Washington needs to keep that fact firmly in mind.”
“Ukraine Gives the Georgian Variant a Chance: The Results of the ‘Normandy Four’ Summit,” Vladimir Frolov, Republic.ru, 12.10.19: The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:
- “The ‘Normandy four’ summit in Paris concluded on a positive note, but without resolutions on the main questions for a settlement of the conflict in Donbas. On some issues, enough progress was exhibited that all participants could make announcements about the success of the format and their determination to continue diplomatic contact. The practical outcome of the summit was the agreement to meet again in four months.”
- “The main intrigue of the negotiation was whether Russia would allow flexibility in its stance and if it would accept Kyiv’s wishes for an upgrade to the Minsk Agreements. However, President Putin’s statements indicate that Moscow’s position has not changed. The western negotiators agreed with Zelenskiy’s ideas for the modernization of the Minsk Agreements, such as handing borders over to international peacekeepers, but recognized that pushing them on Putin would be impossible.”
- “Putin was in the strongest position in Paris. If Zelenskiy accepted the Russian sequence for the Minsk Agreement, then the conflict would be settled on Russian terms and sanctions could be lifted. If Kyiv did not accept the Russian conditions, then they could blame Ukraine for the failure of negotiations, freeze the conflict, and eventually attempt to normalize relations with Ukraine. This ‘Georgian Variant’ prevents Ukrainian entry into NATO while improving economic relations for Russia.”
- “The results of the summit are rather modest. An agreement for wide scale prisoner exchanges was announced, but had been in preparation before the summit. Russia was quick to demand a special status for all Donetsk and Lugansk, not only the territory occupied by the LNR and DNR, letting Zelenskiy know that Moscow could be creative with the text of the agreements. At this rate, Novorossiya does not seem that far off.”
“'Ukrainegate'—Treason or Common Sense? Beneath the circus lies a real conflict of foreign-policy visions,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 12.09.19: The author, a professor and columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “Much of the American foreign-policy establishment … is liberal internationalist and Atlanticist. They believe that America's chief task is to build a world order on liberal principles and that America's chief allies are the NATO and European Union countries … They see Russia as the primary opponent of this effort and therefore of the U.S. Moscow's efforts to interfere in European and American domestic politics threaten the cohesion of the EU and the liberal democratic principles for which the West stands. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea are direct attacks on liberal order and the Atlantic world. From this perspective, the war in Ukraine matters to the whole world.
- “It isn't that Republicans don't care if Mr. Trump is a Russian agent. They approach Ukrainegate differently because many of them … see some much-needed changes taking shape. Among the administration's most consistent features is a belief that the U.S. should change the priority it gives to the different theaters in world politics. From this perspective, the center of gravity of American policy must move from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.”
- “Europe, America's highest priority for much of the Cold War, has fallen to fourth place. For the Trump administration and many of its Republican allies, Russia, because it is weaker and poorer than China, comes after Beijing on America's list of geopolitical concerns—an important disagreement with the liberal Atlanticist foreign-policy establishment and not the only one.”
- “A ‘realist’ in the jargon of international relations, Mr. Trump thinks that national power matters much more than international law. Given these views, it is natural that Mr. Trump and some of his Senate defenders don't believe Ukraine matters much to the U.S., or that a few weeks or months of delay in military aid would have a discernible impact on world events.”
“Results of the Normandy Format Talks for Ukraine: Hope, with Reservations,” Mykhailo Minakov, Wilson Center, 12.11.19: The author, the Kennan Institute’s senior advisor on Ukraine, writes:
- “After a three-year break, the Normandy Format was once more activated. … A meeting of the four leaders (with documented conclusions), along with separate talks between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents and delegations, produced the following key results.”
- “First, political communication between Kyiv and Moscow has been revived, after being dormant since November 2016. … Second, … even though President Putin said at the meeting that there are ‘no alternatives’ to the Minsk agreements, Zelenskiy's and, to some extent, Angela Merkel’s statements at the press conference suggest that these agreements may be reviewed for the sake of conflict resolution.”
- “Third, the participants in the Paris talks reached some important decisions with regard to demilitarization and addressing humanitarian needs in the Donbas. Both Moscow and Kyiv agreed to implement a lasting cease-fire.”
- “The Normandy Format has had new life breathed into it, and the two nations have restarted peace and trade negotiations [but] a stable peace in Ukraine and Eastern Europe remains a distant goal for all parties in Europe.”
“Why Nothing Happened for Ukraine,” Leon Aron and Lance Kokonos, New York Times, 12.12.19: The authors, the director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a foreign and defense policy researcher at the institute, write:
- “The France-Germany-Russia-Ukraine summit meeting in Paris on [Dec. 9], seeking ways to end the war ravaging eastern Ukraine, ended with a few promising words but no progress in reality. Russia, the aggressor, continues to keep the Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, and Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, showed he can't easily be pressured into surrender.”
- “The tallest obstacle to a just, fair and lasting peace in Ukraine is that Mr. Putin cannot abide a stable, prosperous, democratic and West-oriented Ukraine. Russians would do well to ask: If Ukrainians (whom Russians consider 'fraternal,' if lesser, Russians) can live well in a law-abiding and truly European state, why can't we?”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“Is the Kremlin Finally Ready to Play Hardball With Belarus?” Maxim Samorukov, The Moscow Times, 12.11.19: The author, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “Speculation has been mounting … that the road for Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend his reign past 2024 … runs through Minsk … Many expected last weekend’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Russian-Belarusian Union State to provide a convenient launchpad … for the further integration of the two countries … The long-awaited summit, however, turned out to be a non-event. … [Putin] eventually acquiesced to substituting real integration with another set of hazy road maps and distant deadlines.”
- “[O]ver the last two decades, Russia has extended and repackaged ostensibly temporary concessions on oil and gas for Belarus so many times that they now amount to almost permanent ones. By tightening its grip on Belarus so slowly, the Kremlin has inadvertently facilitated the country’s emancipation from Russia.”
- “During this period, a burgeoning and relatively prosperous private sector has emerged in Belarus. … This new economy is much more competitive and far less dependent on the Russian market … The proportion of Belarusian exports destined for Russia … is still close to an impressive 40%. But the real story is the growth of Belarus’s export of services, nearly three-quarters of which are geared to non-Russian markets. This type of activity … is developing rapidly and earned the country $9 billion in 2018.”
- “Even Lukashenko’s resistance to long-overdue domestic reform is struggling to contend with the impact of generational change inside Belarus. … For example, two decades ago, almost a third of Belarusians supported an all-out merger with Russia. By 2016, support had fallen to a mere 10 percent. … Lukashenko has survived several changes of the guard in the Kremlin, and even the potential departure of Putin in 2024 may fail to become a game changer in his relations with Moscow. As long as Russia has the ambition of preserving its influence over the post-Soviet states, any Russian leader will need Lukashenko as a showcase ally.”
“What will Belarus gain from the proposed merger with Russia?” Ben Aris, bne Intellinews, 12.12.19: The author, editor in chief and co-founder of bne Intellinews, writes:
- “Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko on Dec. 7 to try and bring their two countries closer together into a single market modeled on the EU. The two strongmen could not finalize a deal after five hours of talks and they agreed to meet again on Dec. 20, but some sort of deal is very likely to be agreed. What does Belarus stand to gain from the tie-up?”
- “The trade advantages for Belarus are pretty clear. Russia is already its largest trade partner … and removing the border can only improve both the volume of trade and its profitability. … But trade is not the key issue as Minsk receives billions of dollars of hidden subsidies from Moscow that have allowed Lukashenko to more or less preserve the better and more popular parts of the cradle to grave support the Soviet Union offered. And that has made Lukashenko genuinely popular as Belarus managed to avoid most of the pain and economic chaos of the 1990s … Over the years, Russian support has accounted for between 11 percent and 27 percent of Belarusian GDP.”
- “The difficulty the two partners are now facing is that Moscow is proposing to wean Minsk off these subsidies completely … Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia … As of June 1, 2019, Belarus owed Russia a total of $7.52 billion.”
- “The unification talks will be crucial for Belarus’ outlook in 2020. In the short-term Lukashenko has to find some way of replacing the subsides that Russia is proposing to remove but in the medium to long-term he clearly has to change his economic model and open the country up to reforms to encourage business.”
“Amid Rumors of Aliyev’s Succession, a New Generation Comes of Age in Azerbaijan,” Paul Stronski, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12.10.19: The author, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment, writes:
- “While the country will not become a Western-style liberal democracy anytime soon, recent trends point to a society that is changing—and a government that may now recognize the need to change along with it. Azerbaijan’s median age is 31.7 years, and about 37 percent of the population is under the age of 24, which means that the vast majority of Azerbaijanis have experienced only two leaders in their lifetimes. The country is underperforming economically, as many people have yet to recover from the effects of a currency devaluation in 2015, which led to painful fiscal belt-tightening and high inflation.”
- “Azerbaijan is changing, and its leaders recognize the government needs to change too. A new and more innovative generation of technocrats is entering positions of influence. Next month’s snap parliamentary elections, however carefully managed they will be, may bring in a similar cohort of younger lawmakers. These changes may result in marginal improvements to people’s lives, or they could simply replicate previous patterns of unaccountable governance under fresh faces.”
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“Upcoming Elections Mean New Economic Policy in Russia,” Konstantin Gaaze and Alexandra Prokopenko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.16.19: The authors, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and an independent journalist, write:
- “There is no point in hoping that an improved economic situation on global markets will help to lift the Russian economy out of its stagnation in the next few years: on the contrary, external markets are where the main economic risks are coming from. Heightened trade and geopolitical tensions … will lead to a slowdown in global economic growth. For Russia, this will mean reduced demand for its exports, and a consequent impact on its economy.”
- “Creeping regulation and the actions of the siloviki (the security services) are constricting private investment. The effectiveness of budget spending is also in doubt: the implementation of the national projects … is proceeding extremely slowly … An economic spurt is, accordingly, impossible.”
- “The Kremlin’s plan to tackle the negative consequences of economic stagnation consists of tightening control over the media. … The president’s withdrawal from economic issues … leaves politicians of a certain type with room to maneuver. Their hope is to formulate a new economic path that they may be allowed to put into practice.”
- “[Economic Development Minister Maxim] Oreshkin’s latest proposal for “managing composite demand” is an attempt to put forward his own economic path. Under his vision, the financial authorities … would operate under the supervision of the Economic Development Ministry. … [First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei] Kiriyenko has his own plan … His task is to build a machine that will use technology such as artificial intelligence, smart targeting and manipulation of big data to manage the behavior of economic agents and voters simultaneously.”
- “The 2021 State Duma elections can be considered a rehearsal—not so much for the presidential election as a model for building a new majority coalition. In some ways, the choice looks familiar: propaganda or helicopter money. That means that if the economy ends up in decent shape, Putin might agree to both of those options.”
“Russia’s Stock Market Rallies But Still Not a Source of Long-Term Capital,” Ben Aris, Russia Matters, 12.12.19: The author, editor in chief and co-founder of bne Intellinews, writes:
- “Western and Russian press reports have lauded Russia’s stock market as one of the best performing globally this year … Indeed, the country’s leading indices broke free of the range they’d been trapped in since Western sanctions befell the country after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. This uptick is part of a rerating that has been going on for about two years, but it is not rooted in any fundamental change in the market’s potential, in my view.”
- “[T]he factors driving the most recent upward trend in Russia are largely one-off: receding fears of harsh new U.S. sanctions; big, consolidation-driven gains in large Russian companies; and new rules about dividends for state-run firms. None of these can address the long-term lack of confidence that has stymied Russian economic development for years.”
- “Three major Russian stock indices have shown impressive growth this year, with at least one outpacing both emerging markets and developed countries in terms of return on investment. … One factor that has spurred investors to turn back to Russian stocks is the easing of Western political pressure on Moscow, in part at least because Russia’s integration into global markets has made it difficult to impose targeted sanctions without inflicting collateral damage on U.S. businesses.”
- “[A]nother factor driving up the Russian stock market indices has been the growing attractiveness to investors of Russia’s leading companies … another driver has pushed up Russian stocks even more than the increasing monopolization by big companies: new dividend rules for Russia’s sprawling public sector.”
- “The fortress mentality now pervades Russia. The government has forgone fast growth for security. … But the market will remain a stock pickers’ story. And without an improvement in the investment climate, the economy will continue to stagnate unless Russia can be made attractive to Russian businessmen again, let alone to foreign investors.”
“In 2019, Putin Couldn’t Win Back Russia’s Love,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 12.14.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:
- “Though Putin’s approval rating technically is near 70 percent, Russian poll data are distorted by the unwillingness of ordinary people to criticize the authorities to strangers; the current approval rating is nonetheless near historic lows.”
- “If Putin understands that … his persistent inability to improve his ratings must be an important factor in his thinking ahead to 2024. Should he try to stick around by some trick, or should he try to hand over power to a trusted successor, as he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008?”
- “The former scenario is complicated by a dearth of options. For example, the Kremlin has put pressure all year on neighboring Belarus to move toward a merger with Russia—a scheme that could install Putin as leader of the new combined entity … But Putin’s meeting earlier this month with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko ended without any progress. … The handover scenario, for its part, looks iffy if Putin risks becoming less popular than the successor.”
- “Keeping the enforcement apparatus well-funded and devising a way to cling to power after his term ends appear to be Putin’s best option if Russia is to continue down the path on which he set it—and if he, his family and friends are to live happily beyond 2024. Putin would no doubt prefer being loved for his successful economic policies, but if this year is any indication, that’s the least likely scenario of all.”
“‘The Return of the Russian Leviathan,’ by Sergei Medvedev: A striking study of corrupt and complacent elites,” review by Stefan Wagstyl, Financial Times, 12.09.19: The author, wealth editor for the news outlet, writes:
- “Professor of Moscow's Higher School of Economics Medvedev writes that it [Putin’s Russia] resembles Tsarist Russia's feudal table of ranks, which recorded grades of the nobility.”
- “Medvedev argues that since his third term began in 2012, Putin has turned the Russian state into an authoritarian force that no longer takes account of the economic or human cost of its policies.”
- “Medvedev explains that Putin and co have built their malevolent power on the foundations of Russians' deep-rooted faith in the mighty state and the country's imperial mission. While other European powers long ago threw off the shackles of authoritarianism, curbed the personal excesses of the rulers and rejected the lure of empire, Russia has not. There is a direct line, says Medvedev, from Ivan the Terrible, to Stalin and Mr. Putin. A ‘racketeer with rockets’ is the result.”
“United Russia is Dead,” Vitali Shkliarov, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 12.09.19: The author, an associate with Harvard’s Davis Center, writes:
- “On Nov. 23 in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the 19th annual Congress of the United Russia Party, which the organizers declared as the kickoff to Russia’s parliamentary campaign season.”
- “The largest party in Russia, which holds 335 (or roughly 75 percent) of the 450 seats in the State Duma and is chaired by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, has suffered record losses. Not only were a third of seats in the Moscow election lost, but support for the party also has dropped to a 10-year low.”
- “I compared Putin’s speech at the 19th Congress with his own speech at the previous one. They are not just similar; they are interchangeable. If one of the presidential aides mixed up the texts and let him read last year’s speech, no one would have noticed.”
- “The way United Russia exists today has no political future, no other instruments for electoral victory or sustainability, just as there is no need for them in the current political climate in Russia. … For years, there have been no new faces, no new content and no change either at the Congress itself or in United Russia. People are tired of the same faces and the same lies.”
- “The disconnect between the Russian government and the people is growing ever larger.”
Defense and aerospace:
“Why Russian Military Expenditure Is Much Higher Than Commonly Understood (As Is China’s),” Michael Kofman and Richard Connolly, War on the Rocks, 12.16.19: The authors, the director of the Russia studies program at CNA Corporation and the director of the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham, write:
- “Based on the annual average dollar-to-ruble exchange rates, Russia is typically depicted as spending in the region of $60 billion per year on its military.”
- “However, anybody familiar with Russia’s military modernization program over the past decade will see the illogic: how can a military budget the size of the United Kingdom’s be used to maintain over a million personnel while simultaneously procuring vast quantities of capable military equipment? Russian procurement dwarfs that of most European powers combined.”
- “The reason for this apparent contradiction is that the use of market exchange rates grossly understates the real volume of Russian military expenditure (and that of other countries with smaller per-capita incomes, like China). Instead, any analysis of comparative military expenditure should be based on the use of purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates rather than market exchange rates.”
- “Using PPP, one finds that Russia’s effective military expenditure actually ranged between $150 billion and $180 billion annually over the last five years. That figure is conservative; taking into account hidden or obfuscated military expenditure, Russia may well come in at around $200 billion.”
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant commentary.