Russia Analytical Report, Feb. 16-22, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • Russia will not be interested in helping Washington by pressing Tehran on missiles and regional proxies, issues it has always considered extraneous to the nuclear deal, write Hanna Notte of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Hamidreza Azizi of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Moscow will also be reluctant to push Iran to agree to more onerous nuclear requirements, they write, such as longer sunset provisions or stronger verifications. That said, if Iran ceases implementation of the Additional Protocol—compliance with which Russia considers Iran’s obligation—or takes further escalatory steps, it will likely test Russia’s patience  
  • Although the United States and Russia have nowhere near the number of nuclear weapons they possessed at the height of the Cold War, both countries are again in the midst of an arms race, argues Prof. Jeffrey Lewis. If Biden wants to slow this arms race, he will need to accept limits on the U.S. missile defense systems that drive it. An arms control agreement limiting missile defenses would most likely need to be a formal treaty, subject to review by the Senate, Lewis writes. The Biden administration would therefore need to expend considerable political capital negotiating such an agreement and getting it through the Senate.   
  • U.S.-Russian relations are worthy of another attempt at a deeper relationship—one that breaks the cycle of offense and revenge that has characterized U.S.-Russian relations over the past three decades, writes Bruce Allyn, director of the Russia Negotiation Initiative at the Harvard Negotiation Project. Surely, Biden and Putin today recognize that U.S.-Russian animosity is good for neither Russians nor Americans. Both must rise above their own church tower to find the place where we all can meet, Allyn writes.
  • American policymakers will need to abandon unrealistic expectations about their ability to change Russia’s political culture and accept that real change will come gradually, from within, and at its own pace, writes the Wilson Center’s Anna Arutunyan. Accepting that it no longer has—nor can lay claim to—an exceptional moral position in the eyes of Russia will allow Washington to recalibrate its dealings with Moscow, change the tone of the dialogue and improve the effectiveness of its policy, she argues.
  • Europe and Russia will continue to live in a common information space, so reciprocal criticisms will be freely shared, writes director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin. However, influencing each other across borders, whether with a view to converting the target public to one’s worldview or subverting a regime or government or a person that one doesn’t like, will not be permitted, according to Trenin.
  • Ultimately, what opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team is trying to do is persuade Russians and foreigners alike that he is the only legitimate opponent of Putin and that his success is the best guarantee of the future democratization of Russia, writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov. Under this logic, the transfer of power to any other person except Navalny would not be enough. It’s too early to say, however, whether all of Russian civil society is prepared to throw its support behind that suggestion, Baunov writes.


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

“Where Are Russia’s Red Lines on Iran’s Nuclear Brinkmanship?” Hanna Notte and Hamidreza  Azizi, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.19.21. The authors, a senior non-resident scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, write:

  • “Russian nonproliferation policies vis-à-vis Iran have occasionally clashed with Washington’s approach over the appropriate means—such as the suitability of sanctions to pressure Iran—but never over the desired end: that the Islamic Republic should not come into possession of a nuclear weapon.”
  • “As Biden’s top diplomats … devise their diplomatic choreography toward a ‘longer and stronger’ nuclear deal with Iran, Russia will not be interested in helping Washington by pressing Tehran on missiles and regional proxies … Moscow will also be reluctant to push Iran to agree to more onerous nuclear requirements, such as longer sunset provisions or stronger verifications.”
  • “The Russians considered the original JCPOA to be ‘balanced’ and never agreed with the maximalist position … that Iran should be denied the right to enrich. Russian resistance to seeking further concessions from Tehran is also sustained by broader grievances over what Moscow has viewed as a tendency by the IAEA and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons watchdogs to single out U.S. adversaries (Iran and Syria) for special treatment, bowing to what Russian diplomats mockingly call a ‘rules-based international order’—in which the United States invents the rules as it sees fit.”
  • “That said, if Iran ceases implementation of the Additional Protocol—compliance with which Russia considers Iran’s obligation—or takes further escalatory steps, it will likely test Russia’s patience. As was the case in 2006 and 2010, perceptions of Iranian intransigence in the face of constructive Western overtures—which may well be forthcoming under the Biden administration—could lead to a hardening of Russia’s stance, which is ultimately underpinned by concerns of nonproliferation and the integrity of the P5+1 process. Even if the Iranians do feel like a ‘cornered cat,’ escalatory action and heated rhetoric could unduly antagonize their closest friends on the U.N. Security Council.”

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

“How to Stave Off the Rising Tide of Global Disorder,” Thomas Graham, Valdai Discussion Club, 02.22.21. The author, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “The system of global governance that was founded in the years after the end of the Second World War is straining under the accumulating weight of a shifting balance of power, a crisis of legitimacy and rapid technological advance. … With the end of the Cold War … the United States sought to universalize this order.”
  • “Global developments have shaken the two pillars necessary for any stable international system: a shared sense of legitimacy and a stable balance of power. … China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence pose the most severe challenge, but they are not the only disruptors of the global order. For years, disarray in Europe has strained its capability to support liberal values abroad. … Turmoil in the Middle East, rising populism and the reinvigoration of nationalism have all further eroded the foundations of the U.S.-led world order.”
  • “President Biden has made it plain that he wants to revitalize this order. … If there is to be leadership, it will have to be joint … there is no straightforward path to the revitalization of a U.S.-led liberal international order—and there might not be one at all.”
  • “Without a common sense of legitimacy or a robust balance of power, what has encouraged restraint in global affairs for the past 30 years has been the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of annihilation they bear. But this last element of restraint is breaking down … in the face of new technologies and policy choices in Moscow and Washington that have lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.”
  • “What then needs to be done to arrest the growing global disorder and construct a new durable order? To start, global structures in three critical areas—security, the economy and strategic stability—need to be reformed or replaced.”

“Risky Encounters with Russia: Time to Talk About Real Deconfliction,” Ralph Clem, War on the Rocks, 02.18.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University, writes:

  • “Dangerously close encounters between U.S. and NATO militaries and the Russian armed services occur more frequently now … Nowhere does this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation manifest more intensely and dramatically than in the immediate contact zone in Europe between NATO member states and Russia, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.” 
  • “The problem … is that traditional deconfliction planning assumes a priori that everybody has a collective interest in assuring its success. But, when it comes to operational dealings with the Russian armed forces as manifested in the Syrian-Iraqi hot war zone, that has usually not been true.”
  • “Now calls for ‘deconfliction hotlines’ from senior U.S. military commanders suggest the term has morphed into attempting to coordinate in real time between red and blue military forces to deal with unanticipated and potentially lethal encounters of the kinds discussed above. This is not deconfliction in the strict sense—coordinating in advance—and, anyway, using a hotline failed in many cases in the Syria-Iraq theater to resolve unfolding critical incidents involving Russian forces.”
  • “[H]ow should the United States and NATO proceed with the Russian military if the goal is to minimize situations where the only recourse now is a problematic hotline system?  Back to basics might be one way to begin.”
  • “Biden suggested that constructively engaging Moscow when it suits U.S. national security interests should be seen as a possible win for both sides. The scale and scope of the dangerous encounters problem should be viewed in that light and with a sense of urgency. Otherwise, the risks of a disastrous accident increase, and the escalation consequences thereof will be very difficult to contain.”

“Why the West's attempts to reset relations with Russia have failed again and again,” Carl Bildt, The Washington Post, 02.18.21. The author, former prime minister of Sweden, writes:

  • “There are of course important areas of selective engagement and cooperation with Russia that have survived this gradual deterioration. The Biden administration has revived the dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear issues, and Europe is keen to talk to Russia on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran, climate change and other multilateral issues.”
  • “But a few swallows don't make a summer. And time after time, other events—the Novichok attack in Britain; the recurring cyberattacks against, among others, parliaments in Germany and Norway; the refusal to engage on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; or, most recently, the attempt to poison Alexei Navalny and subsequently deflect blame—have derailed attempts to bring the relationship on a more constructive path.”
  • “The lessons to be learned from the multitude of reset failures is that it's only by firmly resisting these attempts that we can over time get Russia to reset its own policies. That is the only credible path to a more constructive relationship.”
  • “We might have to wait for Russia to undertake the domestic reset that is probably a necessary precondition for its external reset. As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it, the EU and the United States might have to ‘prepare for years of frustration in their relationship with a regime in Moscow that is slowly decaying, unable to renew itself, and fears for its survival.’”

“An Unsentimental China Policy. The Case for Putting Vital Interests First,” Graham Allison and Fred Hu, Foreign Affairs, 02.18.21. The authors, founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and the founder and chair of Primavera Capital Group, write:

  • “Fifty years ago this July, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced what would become his signature foreign policy achievement: the opening to China. … Judged by its own standards, U.S. engagement with China succeeded.”
  • “Its chief aim, widening the fissure between Moscow and Beijing, bore fruit quickly. … The opening also prompted a broader shift in Chinese foreign policy toward greater geopolitical realism. … What about the second goal of engagement, to bring China into the world order? That, too, was a success. … As for the third goal of engagement, to lift the Chinese out of poverty, the result has been nothing short of miraculous.”
  • “China was never going to become a democracy and follow in the footsteps of Japan and Germany, taking its assigned place in a U.S.-led international order. … Looking at this record of dealing with China, the Biden administration should find four lessons instructive.”
  • “First, when pursuing geopolitical objectives, engagement has succeeded more often than failed. … Second, those who advocate regime change in China to promote democracy are as misguided as those who pushed wars in the Middle East in pursuit of the same objective. … The third lesson for Biden is that policies of openness and integration have been engines of economic growth for the world, and they will remain essential for a successful future. … Finally, as happens often in history, success in addressing the grand challenge of one generation creates a new, more formidable challenge for those who follow.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“America believes in NATO,” Lloyd J. Austin III, The Washington Post, 02.16.21. The author, the U.S. Defense Secretary, writes:

  • “We cannot meet our responsibilities alone, nor should we try. This is the message I will deliver Wednesday [Feb. 17] to my counterparts at the NATO defense ministers' meeting. We must consult together, decide together and act together.”
  • “Global crises, such as the pandemic, climate change and economic downturns, present significant dangers that span our borders. In many countries, internal strife, brought on by corruption, inequality and polarization, and transnational threats, such as violent extremism and criminal organizations, threaten stability around the alliance's rim. We still work toward a political settlement in Afghanistan as we try to prevent that country from again being a haven for terrorists. Meanwhile, aggressive and coercive behaviors from emboldened strategic competitors such as China and Russia reinforce our belief in collective security.”
  • “Teams succeed only when every player is trusted and respected. And our alliance teammates haven't always felt that respect. … No. 1, for us and for the NATO alliance, is to deter conflict. Should that deterrence fail, we must be prepared to fight and win. We shouldn't shy away from the tough but necessary discussions and negotiations to advance our shared security interests.  For NATO, presenting a credible deterrence and defense requires all of us to invest in the forces and capabilities our nations pledged during the 2014 Wales Summit—or, as Stoltenberg puts it, ‘the cash, capabilities, and contributions’ necessary for alliance readiness.”
  • “We are not withdrawing from Europe. Indeed, we have already halted previously announced drawdowns of U.S. forces in Germany. And any decisions we make as a result of our review will be made in close consultation with our allies and partners. … Alliances are not a burden; they are a benefit to both our individual and our collective security.”
  • “We are ready to consult together, decide together and act together. We are ready to revitalize our alliances. We are ready to lead.”

Missile defense:

“The Nuclear Option. Slowing a New Arms Race Means Compromising on Missile Defenses,” Jeffrey Lewis, Foreign Affairs, 02.22.21. The author, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, writes:

  • “The welcome extension of New START comes at a worrying moment. Although the United States and Russia … are again in the midst of an arms race. … If Biden wants to slow this arms race, he will need to accept limits on the U.S. missile defense systems that drive it.”
  • “Limiting missile defense systems will be unpopular in the United States, especially among Republicans in Congress. The argument against such restrictions has always been that to accept them is to acquiesce to vulnerability. Without defenses, there is no prospect of victory in a nuclear exchange and no U.S. military superiority—only a common mortal danger shared with Russia, China and even North Korea. … But the simple fact is that the existence of nuclear weapons entails the risk of nuclear danger.”
  • “The Biden administration would do well to level with the American public about what it means to base U.S. security on nuclear deterrence. An arms control agreement limiting missile defenses would most likely need to be a formal treaty, subject to review by the Senate. The Biden administration would therefore need to expend considerable political capital negotiating such an agreement and getting it through the Senate. Even then, a future president could demolish that work.”
  • “In the end, a successful nuclear policy … may be simply too difficult for the U.S. political system to handle. … But addressing the Cold War arms race felt impossible, too. After the Berlin and Cuban nuclear crises, few observers would have imagined that generals, senators and presidents would ever come to see defenses as dangerous and work with the Soviets, of all people, to change tack.”
  • “Eventually, however, both governments came to see that building tens of thousands of nuclear weapons was an unsustainable means of deterrence, and a different approach became possible. To get there, leaders had to be wise enough to see the opportunity—and brave enough to seize it.”

Nuclear arms control:

“Sole Purpose Is Not No First Use: Nuclear Weapons and Declaratory Policy,” Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang, War on the Rocks, 02.22.21. The authors, the Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an associate professor of political science at MIT, write:

  • “[W]hy do states bother declaring why they have nuclear weapons or when they might use them? … [W]hen U.S. government officials issue statements about … the country’s nuclear arsenal … they are attempting to signal to adversaries, allies and the rest of the world the role that nuclear weapons play in American security policy, and when they may potentially be employed.”
  • “Rather than simply relying on an unstated threat that leaves something to chance, the United States broadly outlines when it might consider making such threats, and to what ends … Although declaratory policy may sometimes be derided as irrelevant … the fact is that allies care a lot about what the United States says about its nuclear weapons, because their very existence may depend on the American pledge to use nuclear weapons in their defense. Given this, it is important to get declaratory policy right.”
  • “By declaring simply that ‘the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies and partners,’ the United States can meaningfully de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy without undermining the robustness of its extended deterrence commitments. It is not a no-first-use declaration … but it declares and states the reality that the United States currently possesses nuclear weapons solely—not primarily or fundamentally, but solely—to broadly deter nuclear attack on itself and its allies. And it leaves just enough ambiguity … to avoid eroding primary or extended deterrence.”
  • “This formulation does not constrain U.S. nuclear employment options, but it assures the world … that the United States would only ever use nuclear weapons in the most extreme of circumstances. Advocates of American alliances, extended deterrence and a more restrained U.S. nuclear posture alike should welcome such a declaration. And now-President Biden should deliver on the vision he sketched out first as vice president, and later as a presidential candidate: The sole purpose for American possession of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“What Biden and Putin Can Agree On. Both sides should take the long view if they are ever to reconcile,” Bruce Allyn, Foreign Policy, 02.19.21. The author, director of the Russia Negotiation Initiative at the Harvard Negotiation Project, writes:

  • “U.S.-Russian relations are worthy of another attempt at a deeper relationship—one that breaks the cycle of offense and revenge that has characterized U.S.-Russian relations over the past three decades … To do that, there are some clear policy steps that both sides might take to realize their shared interests.”
  • “First … It is helpful to understand that it is not only Putin, but also his predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, who felt aggrieved by U.S. actions. … So the problems in U.S.-Russian relations … existed before and will continue long after.”
  • “Second, to begin a reconciliation process, negotiators must see the whole picture, the whole action-reaction conflict system. The view that Russia was dangerous and had to be contained while it was weak became in large part a self-fulfilling prophecy. … More productive will be looking at the world with ‘strategic empathy.’ … For the Biden administration in the immediate term, one option may well be a speech like President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 ‘Strategy of Peace’ commencement address at American University.”
  • “Today, Biden could not only denounce authoritarianism in Russia and repeat that the United States will not be rolling over in the face of Russian aggression, but also acknowledge, as Kennedy did, that both sides contributed to the tragic action-reaction cycle of conflict in the two countries’ relationship. The Biden administration might further look for opportunities for cooperation on the pandemic, climate change, space, cyberdiplomacy, Arctic transit and beyond.”
  • “When leaders personally recognize what is at stake, agreements get done. U.S. President Ronald Reagan … recognized the nuclear danger. He and Gorbachev signed the greatest arms reductions agreements in history. Surely, Biden and Putin today recognize that U.S.-Russian animosity is good for neither Russians nor Americans. Both must rise above their own church tower to find the place where we all can meet.”

“Russia Will Never See the United States the Same Way Again. After Trump, Washington Must Work Through Allies to Influence Moscow,” Anna Arutunyan, Foreign Affairs, 02.17.21. The author, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, writes:

  • “Russia might invade its neighbors and poison its political opponents, but from Moscow’s perspective American denunciations are rendered meaningless by the United States’ own brutality toward Black Americans. The Kremlin does not think Washington has a right to preach, nor does it think American leaders actually believe what they say.”
  • “A better approach would be for Washington to accept a greater degree of multipolarity and dial back the public criticism of Putin in favor of private diplomacy. … There are many U.S. allies that would receive a more sympathetic hearing in Russia. Rather than insisting that it has to lead, Washington can partner with and even simply support these allies as they seek to influence Moscow on areas of mutual interest.”
  • “American policymakers will need to abandon unrealistic expectations about their ability to change Russia’s political culture and accept that real change will come gradually, from within, and at its own pace.”
  • “U.S. policymakers should ask themselves whether sanctions, pressure or moral grandstanding will help or hurt Navalny or his supporters. Very often, such initiatives are more about signaling American virtue than about actually helping Russians stand up for themselves. The Biden administration should do what works best, not what feels best.”
  • “Rising political unrest and waning influence can make the Russian and American pictures look similar. But the difference is that Russia looks after its interests alone, while the United States—under Biden, if not under his predecessor—still believes that it can do good in the world. Washington wants to counter Moscow’s meddling abroad and halt its abuse of political opponents at home. It is by no means impotent on these issues. But accepting that it no longer has—nor can lay claim to—an exceptional moral position in the eyes of Russia will allow Washington to recalibrate its dealings with Moscow, change the tone of the dialogue, and improve the effectiveness of its policy.”

“Biden’s Russia Policy Will Be Shaped by His Priorities, Not Just His People,” Paul Saunders, Russia Matters, 02.18.21. The author, chairman and president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “[N]otwithstanding some fundamental truth in the adage that personnel is policy, and isolated individual officials who have had outsized impact, the policy process is more than an amalgamation of personnel decisions. How the new president defines his priorities—which are likely to skew heavily toward domestic affairs—and how effective he proves to be in organizing his administration to advance them will also be decisive.”
  • “In America’s current political climate, it is hardly surprising that Biden’s key subordinates have spoken skeptically about Russia and the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations. Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asserted that a potential Biden administration ‘would look to impose real, meaningful costs [on Russia] with coordinated sanctions, exposing corruption.’ His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has said Biden ‘knows the dangerous path that Russia has decided to pursue and he will be robust and rigorous to fight back.’”
  • “Another outstanding question is the extent to which Vice President Kamala Harris will play a role in Russia policy. Her immediate predecessors … were highly visible in speaking about Russia and European security and in visiting U.S. allies and other countries in Russia’s neighborhood. … Many of Harris’ past statements on Russia have more to do with election security or partisan opposition to Donald Trump than with substantive issues in U.S. foreign policy.”
  • “Thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that U.S.-Russian relations will be a top priority for Biden … [T]he administration has made clear that its foreign policy will be domestically driven and linked to the American middle class. Setting aside renewal of the New START arms control agreement—already accomplished—Russia’s role in this is primarily as a threat to American democracy or a source of foreign policy challenges. Notably, however, Biden’s campaign plans referred to neither Ukraine nor Syria—the two greatest regional collisions between Washington and Moscow—and emphasized ending ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have been key grievances for Russia.”

“Unstable Foundations: Prospects are Dim for Any Renewal of US–Russia Security Cooperation," Nick Reynolds and Sarah Martin, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 02.17.21. The authors, the research analyst for land warfare at RUSI and a specialist on human rights in Eurasia, write:

  • “Although it is a positive step, the fact that the New START agreement is one of the few surviving treaties between the nuclear powers also highlights how almost all of the mechanisms to foster U.S.–Russia dialogue are badly damaged.”
  • “Even if the Biden administration is able to convince other states that the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ approach has been conclusively relegated to history, the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement still stands, and, despite speculation about U.S. and Russian intentions, both countries also continue to adhere to their prior withdrawal from the multilateral Open Skies Treaty.”
  • “A selection of institutional mechanisms, such as treaties and confidence-building organizations, are essential for good relations, as they allow the U.S., Russia and other states to address a host of minor issues that combine to shape the international security environment. Through the provision of forums where members can explore issues at lower institutional levels, they also allow focused top-level decision-making.”
  • “There are also signs that the Biden administration is leaning toward hard power to address political instability in Europe, most notably with Ukraine. ...This will be a source of contention with Russia and will erode what little incentive there is for it to cooperate with the U.S. on updating the Vienna Document or other confidence-building measures.”
  • “As few useful mechanisms exist and there is unlikely to be the international will to establish new ones, it is critical for the U.S. to provide robust encouragement to other countries to take surviving security cooperation forums and treaties seriously again. Whether the deeper structural problems that have developed will undermine these efforts remains to be seen.”

“US Sanctions Against Russia May Be Recalibrated, But Overhaul Unlikely,” Ingrid Burke, Russia Matters, 02.19.21. The author, a fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center, writes:

  • “[President Joe Biden] has filled the upper echelons of his new administration with officials who have vocally supported sanctions against Russia. While it is difficult to predict specific changes to the existing sanctions regime, now targeting more than 700 Russian individuals and organizations, it is reasonable to assume that Washington will continue using these economic tools to pressure Moscow, even while conducting a review of the measures currently in place. … [F]or now, near-term changes to the U.S. sanctions policy toward Russia seem more likely to be tweaks than overhauls, and they will be shaped by a mix of foreign-policy considerations, domestic political pressures and lessons learned.”
  • “Whatever changes the Biden administration will want to make to Russia sanctions, whether to weaken or enhance them, will inevitably involve U.S. domestic politics. … [C]ongressional skepticism toward Moscow has long been a constant among Democrats and Republicans alike. The group of senators demanding Navalny sanctions, for example, was bipartisan. Public opinion, too, could play a role in the new administration’s decisions.”
  • “In the coming months, we can expect Biden to unveil his own brand of sanctions. While the measures will likely be more streamlined than Trump’s, and crafted to protect U.S. financial interests, the question of their potential effectiveness remains wide open.”

“How to Chart a New Course for Russia,” David Keane and Dan Negrea, The National Interest, 02.18.21. The authors, a member of the board of directors of the Center of National Interest and the former U.S. Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, write:

  • “Rapprochement may be difficult with Putin in control, but he won’t be around forever, and the United States should prepare now for the day when Moscow’s leaders will realize that Russia’s national interests require a rebalance.”
  • “This doesn’t mean that America should abandon its continuing effort to discourage Russia’s dictatorial and expansionist actions through sanctions imposed with Europe and the rest of the Free World. Moscow must continue to realize that its behavior toward its neighbors matters and that bullies have few friends. That does mean America should make clear that it would welcome a friendlier Russia into the Western family of nations. Additionally, America should avoid knee-jerk hostility to Russia.”
  • “At the same time, America should develop stronger ties with a new generation of more openly democratic Russian politicians who will be the ones who will eventually chart a new course for Russia. Talking about ‘regime change’ in Russia is counterproductive. Real reform there will come from new leaders within the existing establishment who recognize the need to change. This includes lifting sanctions once an agreement and commitment can be made on a proper course of trade.”
  • “This can be furthered through greater people-to-people contacts with Russia. In recent years as U.S. politicians demonized Putin’s Russia, such contacts diminished. It is time to reverse course. … The United States has always polled well in Russia, but its image has been damaged by internal politics, by blaming ‘Russian interference’ for the shortcomings in America. Making Russia a scapegoat for domestic political purposes is counterproductive to the geopolitical wedge America needs between China and Russia. Ordinary Russians as well as its leaders need to know that a democratic Russia will be treated as a friend rather than demonized for the perceived sins of the past.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Investigative Journalism Is Flourishing in Russia,” Ben Smith, New York Times, 02.21.21. The author, media columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The Russian language has introduced a few words that in recent years have been widely used and misused in English: disinformation, kompromat, Novichok. But the one that blows my mind is 'probiv.' It's drawn from the word that means 'to pierce'—or to enter something into a search bar. Today, it refers to the practice by which anyone can buy, for a couple of dollars on the social media app Telegram or hundreds on a dark web marketplace, the call records, cellphone geolocation or air travel records of anyone in Russia you want to track.”
  • “Probiv is only one of the factors that have made Russia, of all places, the most exciting place in the world for investigative journalism. There is a new wave of outlets … And there is a growing online audience for their work in a country where the state controls, directly or indirectly, all of the major television networks.”
  • “The boom in independent journalism and criticism of the government has reached a level 'unseen in our country since the end of the 1990s,' Denis Volkov, the deputy director of the Levada Center … wrote recently. Probiv has been a crucial part of that revival. The practice was at the heart of a stunning revelation late last year by … Bellingcat, working with the Russian site The Insider and other partners, identifying the agents from a secret Russian spy unit who poisoned Mr. Navalny.”
  • “Many of the new outlets, along with BBC Russia, have drawn talent from a previous wave of independent voices that the government effectively put out of the investigations business. Some of the new outlets, like the Latvia-based Meduza, have their operations abroad. But many are incorporated overseas, even as their journalists live and work in Moscow. Some subsist on grants whose sources they keep confidential—a vulnerability the Russian government appears likely to exploit under a new law broadening restrictions on what it considers 'foreign agents.'”

“Why the Kremlin’s Anti-Navalny Strategy Just Might Work,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.17.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “[Navalny] and his team are brilliant at generating media attention, viral content and huge numbers of viewers of his anti-corruption videos. But this popularity may not necessarily translate into active support offline. The reasons for this are numerous. There is huge inertia within Russian society. Most people sense that the regime is not, in fact, on the verge of collapse, and that mass street protests are unlikely to facilitate or accelerate the end of the Putin era.”
  • “Navalny is very successful at reaching out to and inspiring young Russians. But Russia’s population is ageing, and the youth segment is pretty small. Navalny doesn’t have much of a track record of attracting support from the majority of the voting-age population, which consists of people of middle and advanced age.”
  • “Another factor working against Navalny right now is that the Russian government steered most of its COVID relief to its core electorate, not to the kind of people who came out onto the streets in support of Navalny. For Putin’s supporters, the paternal embrace of the Russian state is still very desirable.”
  • “Navalny’s team understands … they cannot beat Putin in elections. That may be part of the reason why they have said that they will switch from street protests to diplomatic efforts to release Navalny. There are signs that this goal is more ambitious than advertised, and that those diplomatic efforts won’t be limited to Navalny’s release.”
  • “Ultimately, what Navalny’s team is trying to do is persuade Russians and foreigners alike that he is the only legitimate opponent of Putin and that his success is the best guarantee of the future democratization of Russia. Under this logic, the transfer of power to any other person except Navalny would not be enough. It’s too early to say, however, whether all of Russian civil society is prepared to throw its support behind that suggestion.”

“China Censors the Internet. So Why Doesn’t Russia?” Anton Troianovski, New York Times, 02.21.21. The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the Kremlin-controlled RT television network, recently called on the government to block access to Western social media. … Her choice of social network for sending that message: Twitter.”
  • “While the Kremlin fears an open internet shaped by American companies, it just can’t quit it. Russia’s winter of discontent, waves of nationwide protests set off by the return of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, has been enabled by the country’s free and open internet. The state controls the television airwaves, but online Mr. Navalny’s dramatic arrest upon arrival in Moscow, his investigation into President Vladimir V. Putin’s purported secret palace and his supporters’ calls for protest were all broadcast to an audience of many millions.”
  • “For years, the Russian government has been putting in place the technological and legal infrastructure to clamp down on freedom of speech online … But even as Mr. Putin faced the biggest protests in years last month, his government appeared unwilling—and, to some degree, unable—to block websites or take other drastic measures to limit the spread of digital dissent.”
  • “The hesitation has underscored the challenge Mr. Putin faces as he tries to blunt the political implications of cheap high-speed internet access reaching into the remote corners of the vast country while avoiding angering a populace that has fallen in love with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.”
  • “A law signed by Mr. Putin in December gives his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks, but it has yet to use them. … Instead, officials are trying to lure Russians onto social networks like VKontakte that are closely tied to the government. … Even more effective, some activists say, is the acceleration of Mr. Putin’s machine of selective repression. A new law makes online libel punishable by up to five years in prison, and the editor of a popular news website served 15 days in jail for retweeting a joke that included a reference to a January pro-Navalny protest.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Russia’s rubber-stamp courts play starring role in Kremlin crackdown,” Max Seddon, Financial Times, 02.22.21. The author, Moscow correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Russia’s rubber-stamp courts have played a starring role in the Kremlin’s crackdown on a protest movement led by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s pre-eminent challenger.”
  • “At least 90 protesters face criminal prosecution, according to Russia’s interior ministry. Hundreds of the more than 10,000 arrested at protests in January and early February were sentenced to short jail sentences … Though many defendants argued that police forged evidence against them, almost none were acquitted, according to independent watchdog OVD-Info. A court in St Petersburg even fined Evgeny Agafonov 5,000 rubles for ‘chanting slogans’—even though he is deaf-mute and testified he could not hear the police while on the way to the shop.”
  • “The rush to prosecute the Kremlin’s political opponents has highlighted what experts say are longstanding problems in Russia’s court system. Convictions are all but guaranteed; prosecutions become tools in business disputes; and the phenomenon of ‘telephone justice’ is so widespread that pranksters have passed themselves off as bosses from Moscow to convince lower-level officials to issue the required rulings.”


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“2021: Another Sad Year for EU-Russia Relations,” Sabine Fischer, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.19.21. The author, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, writes:

  • “In Russia, the COVID-19 pandemic once again reinforced a world view in which supranational formations like the EU have no place. The message that the Russian authorities and state-controlled media have been delivering since last year is that authoritarian great powers like China and Russia have responded more effectively to the virus than the West.”
  • “Premature and contrary proclamations of success with regard to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine underpin the impression of politicization. Independent media, activists and health workers face severe punishment for the spreading of ‘fake news’ about the pandemic. Under such circumstances, it remains difficult to get a clear picture about the real situation in Russia.”
  • “Instead of jointly addressing a common threat, the sides [Russia and EU] drifted apart even faster in 2020. … Navalny’s return to Russia on January 17 has created a prominent link between Germany/the EU and Russian domestic politics—the geopoliticization of domestic politics—which neither side will be able to ignore in the future. Navalny could hardly be called a pro-European or pro-Western politician in the past. His agenda is predominantly domestic.”
  • “Russia’s recent actions vis-à-vis Brussels and Washington suggest that isolationist ideas are gaining some traction in foreign policy decision circles, which are increasingly dominated by the security services.”
  • “Moscow’s rough handling of Borrell’s visit and of ties with the EU more generally will shape the discussions about the EU’s approach toward Russia at the Foreign Ministers Council on February 22 and at the European Council on March 25-26. … The gloomy predictions currently doing the rounds in Moscow about the breaking off of relations and increasing mutual isolation might partly become true. … But the EU’s perspective is and must be broader than that.”

“Russia and Europe: the Current Impasse and the Way Out,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.18.21. The author, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “For the Europeans, since the end of the Cold War, the goal of their Russia policy was something like a ‘European Russia.’ … In contrast, once the Russian leaders got over their initial yearning to join the Western community and began to rediscover their country’s national interest, their preference became a ‘Greater Europe.’ … Neither of those visions has become a reality.”
  • “Borrell’s trip [to Moscow] was seen in Europe as a diplomatic disaster, but … takeaways can be summarized as follows. … Russia and Europe are as far apart as they have been since the end of the Cold War. … EU sanctions against Russia in place since 2014 have not been able to change the Kremlin’s foreign or domestic policies. … European criticisms are now meeting an in-your-face response from Russia. … For the foreseeable future, there will only be space in EU-Russian relations for transactional relations. … Russia’s interactions with the EU institutions … will be defined very narrowly.”
  • “Looking further ahead, Russia and the European Union need to imagine a more realistic goal for their relationship: a model of neighborliness. … The neighborliness model would need to rest on several pillars. One is a degree of reciprocal respect for diversity. … Two is decent fences: clarity with respect to the lines—including in cyberspace—between what is acceptable and what is not, and sufficient security to provide self-confidence. … Three is building and managing relations essentially on the basis of reciprocal interests: values diverge rather than converge. … Four is cooperation on transborder issues. … Five is economic interdependence.”
  • “Europe and Russia will continue to live in a common information space, so reciprocal criticisms will be freely shared. However, influencing each other across borders … will not be permitted.”

“Sputnik V Vaccine Gives Russia a Whopping Soft-Power Boost,” Konstantin Sonin, The Moscow Times/ VTimes, 02.17.21. The author, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and visiting professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, writes:

  • “Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19 has become world famous. Dozens of states are considering using it while such major countries as India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Uzbekistan have pre-ordered many millions of doses. Leading international medical journals have published studies on the vaccine’s efficacy that, after being administered to more than two million Russians, seems to be on a par with the initial results from Western vaccines.  Although scientists will repeatedly reevaluate Sputnik’s efficacy as data accumulates, the vaccine has already boosted Russians’ immunity at home as well as the country’s image abroad.”
  • “The main reason the Russian vaccine is getting so much positive press is that it works and is so inexpensive any country can afford it. The Gamaleya Research Institute and other institutions developed it, the Russian Direct Investment Fund handles distribution, and various government agencies also play a role in its success.”
  • “In fact, Russia’s greatest soft power arguably lies in its outstanding history of science. The theorems of Kovalevskaya and Kolmogorov, the experiments of Semenov and Cherenkov, the experiments of Zilber and Yermolyeva, the models of Slutsky and Kantorovich, the books of Vygotsky and Bakhtin, and many other names and milestones stand out.  Like many others, Ilya Mechnikov, the 1908 Nobel Laureate, and his student Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, the creator of the first vaccines against plague and cholera, contributed to Russia’s soft power even after emigrating. The world immediately hailed the appearance of Sputnik V because its creators stood on the reputational shoulders of these giants, then went on to make their own powerful contribution to Russia’s soft power.”
  • “The more effort leaders invest in ensuring its quality, transparency in verification and efficiency in distribution, the greater will be its contribution to Russia’s soft power. And the less propaganda chatter we hear, the better.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“China and Russia: Vaccine Competitors or Partners?” Elizabeth Wishnick, China’s Resource Risks, 02.20.21. The author, a political science professor at Montclair State University, writes: 

  • “The most valuable resource to the average person today is a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. For China … providing vaccines to other countries is a key component of its efforts to reshape the narrative about the pandemic. Chinese officials want their country to be remembered for Silk Road health diplomacy and successful vaccine development, not China's role in the pandemic's origin and spread. Russia has a similar agenda for vaccine diplomacy … Kremlin officials see Sputnik V enhancing its soft power overseas and raising the profile of Russian science.” 
  • “While many of China's immediate neighbors have opted for Sputnik V, China has successfully leveraged vaccine supplies in exchange for other benefits from other countries … While the focus has been on great power competition, vaccine nationalism is more than a race to inoculate the world between the U.S. and Europe on one side and China and Russia on the other. Chinese and Russian vaccines are in direct competition with one another, especially farther afield in the post-Soviet space and the Balkans. Belarus embraced Sputnik V but, not surprisingly, Ukraine opted for Sinovac.” 
  • “As they compete to provide vaccines to their foreign partners, China and Russia are in danger of losing hold of their joint messaging on the pandemic's origins. China now seeks to blame the introduction of COVID-19 into the country on frozen food, including fish from Russia, potentially crippling its exports.” 
  • “China's eagerness to uncover a foreign origin for the pandemic now threatens its message of collaboration with Russia in pursuit of Silk Road health diplomacy and creates a new irritant in Sino-Russian regional relations, always the weakest link in their partnership.” 


  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.