Russia Analytical Report, July 22-29, 2019
This Week’s Highlights:
- Two voices dominated in the run-up to the Mueller report: True believers filled in the blanks between each bit of tantalizing evidence to create a conspiracy dating back to 1987, while true skeptics downplayed the extent of Russian involvement in the campaign, writes Columbia professor Timothy Frye. These are the normal failures of our hyper-partisan politics, he argues, but the deeper failure is the silence of expert communities who failed to ask hard questions of both groups.
- Democratic presidential candidates do not give revealing answers to provocative questions about world affairs because moderators do not ask such questions, writes Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute. These questions, he writes, could include: Would you end military maneuvers near Russia's borders and seek ways to cooperate, or is Russia our irreconcilable enemy? Is it possible to pay for national health insurance and other sweeping programs that most Democrats support without major cuts in our military budget?
- Russia’s adventurism abroad is a bid to collect bargaining chips that the Kremlin could one day exchange for Western concessions, writes Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal. "I think Putin would like to trade. He always hints he is ready to trade," the author quotes Konstantin Zatulin, a prominent member of the Russian parliament from the ruling party, as saying. "I personally thought that we went to Syria to trade it for Ukraine. But the West doesn't hear it, doesn't want to hear it, and doesn't even accept that he has the right to frame the issue this way."
- Though frequently dismissed in the United States, the case for a more tangible alignment between Russia and China grows stronger every year, writes Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation. One of the signs of a strengthening alignment is when both sides take actions that are decidedly inconvenient for their other interests or relationships, particularly in the region, and show willingness to take some risk on behalf of their cooperation, Kofman writes.
- President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s outright victory poses risks to Ukraine’s democracy, but that democracy was based on competition among oligarchs, writes Balázs Jarábik, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The biggest risk for Ukraine is that the president will fail to change the way the government works, Jarábik writes.
- Since Putin has no rosy vision to offer and no means to speed up growth in an economy dominated by corrupt, inefficient state-run companies, he has focused on showing Russians that protest won’t work and that his regime commands overwhelming force, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. The flip side of such action, of course, is that it can also fuel the vague irritation many Russians feel; Putin is playing with fire, as suppression is never a long-term answer, Bershidsky writes.
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:
- No significant commentary.
“How to Enlarge NATO: The Debate inside the Clinton Administration, 1993–95,” Mary Elise Sarotte, International Security, Summer 2019: The author, a professor of historical studies, writes:
- “Newly available sources show how the 1993–95 debate over the best means of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization unfolded inside the Clinton administration. … The sources make apparent that, during a critical decision-making period twenty-five years ago, supporters of a relatively swift conferral of full membership to a narrow range of countries outmaneuvered proponents of a slower, phased conferral of limited membership to a wide range of states.”
- “At first, advocates of PfP gained the upper hand by drawing both on the desire for a peacekeeping organization to aid in the Balkans … and, more significantly, on worry about the potential impact on U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control implied by immediate full Article 5 expansion. By the end of 1994, however, opponents of this phased approach had triumphed, thanks [to] … above all success by the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections on the basis of a platform that endorsed swifter expansion.”
- “Two major geopolitical transitions under way in 1994 additionally helped the opponents of a phased approach … the final withdrawal of all remaining former Soviet troops from Germany … [and] a promising start to the transfer of nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia.”
- “In the wake of the Republican Party's 1994 midterm election victory, CEE states were set on the road to Article 5 guarantees sooner than they would have been under PfP; but they also became the new front line in Europe.”
- “Rather than asking yet again whether enlargement was right or wrong, it is more illuminating to ask whether the chosen strategy of enlargement … suited the goal of maximizing long-term security gains for the United States and its allies. Viewed from twenty-five years on … there is room for doubt. … NATO must make the best of the status quo; for the foreseeable future, confrontation with Russia is once again the order of the day.”
“What Turkey's Purchase of a Russian Air Defense System Means for the US and NATO,” Jennifer Spindel, The Washington Post, 07.23.19: The author, an assistant professor of international security, writes:
- “The S-400 isn't compatible with NATO's arsenal and could be used to collect sensitive data. … The S-400 purchase could foreshadow Turkey's break with NATO … Dropping Turkey from the F-35 program could push Turkey closer to Russia.”
- No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
“Need for Novel Arms-Control Approaches: Increasing transparency, mutual understanding among China, Russia and the US on nuclear arms control—with and without formal treaties—is essential,” Richard Weitz, YaleGlobal Online, 07.16.19: The author, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, writes:
- “At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum … Putin warned that Moscow’s patience regarding a U.S. decision on New START was finite. … While continuing to pursue more comprehensive limits, the Trump administration should agree to the extension to give U.S. defense planners more predictability and transparency, avoid alarming key U.S. and foreign audiences, obviate the need to allocate additional scarce U.S. intelligence resources to replace the lost data flows under the treaty and provide more time for formal Russian-U.S. talks on encompassing new countries and weapons in future treaties.”
- “To address the imminent end of the INF Treaty, Moscow and Washington could consider amending New START or negotiating a new treaty to include both INF-range and longer-range missiles under a common ceiling.”
- “The history of strategic arms control demonstrates that eliminating capabilities is more challenging than averting their development. … [A]dditional initiatives to increase great power transparency and mutual understanding without formal treaties have become essential.”
- “Profitable steps could include the holding of regular strategic stability dialogues among representatives of Russia, China and the United States aimed at developing concrete measures to address the destabilizing potential of new weapons, limiting the proliferation of nuclear and other strategic offensive arms, identifying and averting dangerous operational practices and developing joint initiatives toward the non-nuclear weapons states.
- “Although multilateral arms control regimes are much more attractive in terms of their comprehensiveness, they are much more difficult to maintain over time. Washington should consider this when negotiating new arms control limits.”
- No significant commentary.
Conflict in Syria:
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
“The Mueller Report and the Silence of the Experts,” Timothy Frye, The Moscow Times, 07.24.19: The author, a professor at Columbia University and co-director of the International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development at the Higher School of Economics, writes:
- “Two voices dominated in the run-up to the Mueller report. True believers filled in the dots between each bit of tantalizing evidence to create a conspiracy of daunting proportions dating back to 1987. … True skeptics were on far weaker ground by downplaying the extent of Russian involvement in the campaign. … These are, however, the normal failures of our hyper-partisan politics. The deeper failure is the silence of expert communities who failed to ask hard questions of the true believers and true skeptics. With some important exceptions, they were drowned out by shriller voices.”
- “Academic Russia watchers could have countered common depictions of Russian politics as a one-man show. President Putin’s powers are vast, but he cannot design or implement foreign influence operations on his own. … Nor does Putin have ‘close ties’ with every businessperson in Russia. To understand why and how the Kremlin hacks other countries, Russia hands could have provided a better appreciation of how policy is actually made and implemented in Moscow.”
- “Experts on elections could have brought perspective about the impact of social media on voting. Most academic studies find social media to be a far less powerful tool for turning out the vote or changing voter’s minds than the average viewer believes.”
- “National security experts could have provided crucial context to give viewers a more realistic assessment of Moscow’s goals and capacities. While recognizing the sophistication of Russian hackers, they also could have countered frequent portrayals of them as all-powerful.”
- “Most importantly, the expert community should have been injecting the hard-edged skepticism, demand for evidence and appreciation of what we can and cannot know that marks the best academic interventions into policy issues. But these are hardly the first words that spring to mind when thinking of commentary in the run-up to the Mueller report.”
“US Elections Are Still Not Safe From Attack. Congress Can Change That If It Acts Fast,” Lawrence Norden and Daniel I. Weiner, Foreign Affairs, 07.23.19: The authors, the director of the Election Reform Program and the senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, write:
- “With a vast, decentralized election infrastructure … the United States still has a long way to go if it means to secure its polls. The machinery by which the country records and counts votes varies by county and even town … Voting equipment in many precincts urgently needs to be upgraded if it is to be protected from outside interference.”
- “Not all election interference involves direct manipulation at the polls. Russia’s most successful gambit in 2016 was probably the hacking and release of embarrassing emails from Democratic Party servers and private accounts. … The only way to effectively guard against digital blackmail is to invest in protecting politically sensitive targets.”
- “Congress should also require campaigns to report credible offers of free assistance or collaboration from foreign governments and political parties and all payments to foreign vendors.”
- “So-called dark money groups like the NRA are not required to disclose any of their donors, making them easy conduits for foreign cash. Internet campaign ads can also fall into a regulatory gray area: transparency rules and the ban on ads from foreign nationals apply only to communications containing specific words that ‘expressly advocate’ for or against candidates … Congress can close many of these gaps.”
- “Effectively securing the next election will require not just passing new laws but also enforcing the laws that currently exist. … Safeguarding American sovereignty must be balanced against fundamental principles like the free flow of information and the decentralization of power.”
“Mueller Gave a Warning on Russian Meddling. Congress—and America—Should Listen,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 07.24.19: The news outlet's editorial board writes:
- “If there is one thing former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III made clear in his congressional testimony, it is that his investigation was not an ‘illegal and treasonous attack on our Country,’ as President Trump characterized it in a tweet shortly before Mr. Mueller's appearance. … Mueller underscored that it was Russia that attacked the country's democracy in the 2016 presidential election through a cyber-campaign designed to help Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump, the former special counsel confirmed, welcomed that assistance. A number of his top aides lied in the ensuing investigation. Those lies, Mr. Mueller said, impeded his probe.”
- “Near the end of his testimony, Mr. Mueller declared that his report should be ‘a signal, a flag to those of us who have responsibility to exercise that responsibility, not to let this kind of thing happen again.’ This was a call for members of Congress to do more to protect the nation's democracy. Yet all Americans should listen. The Mueller report lays out for those ultimately responsible in a democracy—the voters—what a sick presidency looks like.”
“It’s Time to Move On From Robert Mueller,” Doug Collins, New York Times, 07.24.19: The author, a Republican congressman, writes:
- “The special counsel conducted a supersize investigation that included about 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, 500 witnesses and 13 formal requests to foreign governments. It wasn't curtailed in any way. Moreover, Mr. Mueller's team was full of seasoned investigators with experience in finding and revealing wrongdoing. Yet these investigators didn't conclude that the president conspired or obstructed justice.”
- “The Mueller report has been public since April, and it's time to accept it and let Americans live again with confidence that their elected officials aren't playing Fortnite against one another.”
- “The Russians tried to turn our democratic government into a circular firing squad, and we can't let them succeed any longer. When Democrats fail to prove collusion or obstruction, they will have made their case for closure, and Republicans will be happy to let them move on so our country can move forward.”
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“Restraint Isn’t Isolationism—and It Won’t Endanger America,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 07.22.19: The author, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:
- “My purpose here is to consider the critics—and the arguments that have been advanced against a more realistic and restrained foreign policy.”
- “Myth 1. Offshore balancers are crypto-isolationists. … Today, most restrainers believe the United States should be militarily present in Asia to counter a rising China … Because no country could dominate either Europe or the Middle East today, however, there is little need for the United States to deploy significant forces in either place. … Myth 2. Offshore balancing requires anticipating threats perfectly. … First, spotting potential hegemons is often pretty easy … Second … the risk of underreaction must be weighed against the opposite danger of overcommitment.”
- “Myth 3. If the United States retreats, rivals will fill the void. … You see this warning … every time people get the vapors over Russia’s supposed influence in Syria … [S]ome parts of the world are of modest to zero strategic importance, so it doesn’t really matter if other states gain influence there or not. … The United States won the Cold War in part by letting the less prosperous Soviet Union squander resources in places like Afghanistan and Angola.”
- “Myth 4. Offshore balancers don’t care about values. … [T]he best way to promote liberal values is by setting a good example … Myth 5. Offshore balancing will encourage nuclear proliferation. … Some states will probably get the bomb no matter what strategy the United States pursues, … U.S. foreign policy must be decided on other grounds.”
- “Myth 6. There’s no need for restraint when ‘deep engagement’ is easily affordable. … Defense spending … is still nearly 60 percent of federal discretionary spending. … Myth 7. Offshore balancing will bring back Hitler, Stalin, or worse. … Stationing U.S. troops somewhere in Europe would not have removed Adolf Hitler’s murderous desire for Lebensraum, Joseph Stalin’s paranoid fears, Benito Mussolini’s imperial pretensions.”
“US Foreign Policy Is Life-and-Death. Don't Expect Any Meaningful Questions About It in the Debates,” Stephen Kinzer, The Boston Globe, 07.25.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, writes:
- “If you're looking for bold ideas about America's future role in the world, don't tune in to this week's debates among Democratic presidential candidates. … Candidates are part of the problem. The only one who is focused mainly on foreign policy, Tulsi Gabbard, has struggled to break into voters' consciousness. … The only top-tier presidential candidate who seems eager to talk about foreign policy is also the only one with a consistent view: Bernie Sanders. He steadfastly opposes American military intervention and regime-change projects, and promises to end our foreign wars.”
- “Candidates do not give revealing answers to provocative questions about world affairs because moderators do not ask such questions. What would those questions be?”
- “President Jimmy Carter has asserted that the United States is ‘the most warlike nation in the history of the world.’ Is that true? If not, why do so many people around the world believe it? … How can we avoid conflict with China? … The United States maintains nearly 800 foreign military bases. Britain, France and Russia have a total of about 30. China has one. Does the U.S. need 25 times more foreign bases than these other powers combined, or could we cut the number in half?”
- “If we believe that the government of another country is brutalizing its people and acting against American interests, should we seek to weaken or overthrow that government? … Would you end military maneuvers near Russia's borders and seek ways to cooperate, or is Russia our irreconcilable enemy?
- “Our military forces now control one-third of Syria, including much of its arable land and energy resources. Should we continue this occupation, or withdraw and allow the reunification of Syria? … Is eternal war our destiny? Is peace possible? If so, what will you do to bring it closer?”
“The Case for a New US Relationship With Afghanistan,” Kelly Magsamen and Michael Fuchs, Center for American Progress, 07.29.19: The authors, the vice president for National Security and International Policy and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, write:
- “The array of threats confronting the United States has changed since 2001. Afghanistan is no longer the most urgent or important national security challenge facing the United States. America faces a wide array of other threats—including the rise of China, an aggressive Russia and climate change—that require serious investments of U.S. resources and attention in the coming years.”
- “It is time to end this [Afghan] war responsibly and make a strategic transition to more pressing national challenges. To do so, the United States must: Pursue more aggressive multilateral diplomacy. Pursue multipronged diplomacy with the Taliban, Afghan government and regional neighbors to strike a peace deal that can stabilize the political and security situation in Afghanistan.”
- “Begin a phased military withdrawal from Afghanistan. While this process should not be tied explicitly to progress in negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban … part of this goal should be to spark progress in talks with the Taliban … and to incentivize regional actors to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan.”
- “Secure a long-term peace dividend for the Afghan people. Ending the war should not end America’s commitment to Afghanistan. In fact, in some ways, it may require greater U.S. financial and diplomatic commitments. The United States—together with international partners—must remain the leading financial supporter of the Afghan government and security forces.”
“Gap Between Russia's Dreams and Means Feeds Adventurism Abroad,” Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, 07.28.19: The author, chief foreign-affairs correspondent for the news outlet, writes:
- “Russia's elites think of themselves as heirs to the Soviet Union's imperial glory. Problem is, they only possess the resources of a second-tier power.”
- “A key reason for Russia's new activism in faraway lands, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America, is the desire to gain a seat at the adult table by collecting bargaining chips that the Kremlin could one day exchange for Western concessions on matters that it sees as core national interests, first and foremost Ukraine, Russian officials and experts say.”
- “So far, however, Russia hasn't been able to cash in. ‘I think Putin would like to trade. He always hints he is ready to trade,’ said Konstantin Zatulin, a prominent member of the Russian parliament from the ruling party. ‘I personally thought that we went to Syria to trade it for Ukraine. But the West doesn't hear it, doesn't want to hear it, and doesn't even accept that he has the right to frame the issue this way.’”
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Boris Johnson’s Russian Oligarch Problem,” Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, 07.24.19: The author, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, writes:
- “Amid the elevation of Boris Johnson to the premiership this week and the seemingly inexorable countdown to a potential hard Brexit—a withdrawal from the European Union without a negotiated deal—Britain’s efforts to get tough with Russian political-business figures may be about to take a big step backward.”
- “It is not so much that there is a belief Johnson will be soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin … He is certainly no admirer or crony of Putin’s. Rather, the concern is whether Johnson, having already made campaign pledges that would cost tens of billions pounds and promising to be ‘the most pro-business prime minister’ ever, would be as enthusiastic about choking off the flow of Russian money into London.”
“Russia-China Bomber Patrol Shows Stronger Alignment Between the Two,” Mikhail Kofman, Russia Matters, 07.26.19: The author, a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute, writes:
- “This week Russia and China conducted their first joint long-range military aviation patrol, an event of strategic significance as part of a pattern of growing military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. Moscow showed it was willing to take on greater geopolitical risk in the region for the sake of this relationship: As has been widely reported, the flight involved a dangerous altercation between Russian aircraft and scrambled South Korean fighters over disputed territory in the Sea of Japan.”
- “The most interesting part of the incident with South Korea is how intentional Russia’s actions seemed to be. The plane Seoul accuses of violating its airspace … could have chosen a different route. … Over the course of the patrol, the A-50 flew close to a Korean-controlled island, also claimed by Japan, straying into what South Korea considers to be its national airspace—twice. First it drew warning shots from Korean fighters as it went southward toward the East China Sea, and then again returning north.”
- “Despite the fireworks … the incident was not as dramatic as media reports made out. … There are lasting implications from what at first glance may appear a one-off air-to-air encounter. … There is a stronger argument to be made that an alignment, however fitful, is forming at the political level and has been strengthened by an institutionalized military relationship. … The intended audience for Russia’s broader messaging, beyond countries in the region, is the United States.”
- “Russia’s actions can also be interpreted as a reminder to neighboring Asian countries that while Russia may not be an Asian power, it remains a military power in Asia. … [T]he case for a more tangible alignment between Russia and China grows stronger every year.”
“As the Chinese Cut Down Siberia’s Forests, Tensions With Russians Rise,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 07.27.19: The author, a Moscow-based reporter for the news outlet, writes:
- “During the long summer days in Siberia, logging trucks rumble out of the forest heaped with Siberian larch, Scots pine and birch bound for sawmills run by Chinese who can barely believe their good fortune. ‘Everything here is Chinese,’ said one lumberyard foreman, Wang Yiren, pointing to some of the hundreds of sawmills that in the past few years have popped up along the Trans-Siberian Railway.”
- “Feeding China’s colossal appetite for wood has brought jobs and cash to the region, but has also helped to make Russia the global leader in forest depletion, fueling fears that Siberian logging towns will eventually be left without a livelihood. Not only that, all the manufacturing of consumer wood products is done in China, which has sharply restricted logging to preserve its remaining forests. The arrangement would seem to smell of exploitation, but it has been embraced by a Russian government that, facing Western economic sanctions … has sought closer economic ties with Beijing.”
- “Russian timber exports to China grew to $3.5 billion last year, from $2.2 billion in 2013, the year before the Ukraine crisis, according to Russian trade statistics. The Chinese, in turn, re-export some Russian wood as furniture, doors, flooring, cladding and other finished goods for sale around the world.”
- “[W]hile the Chinese timber rush has stimulated local economies in Siberia, it has also stirred resentment, underscoring the promise and pitfalls of an economic experiment with implications far beyond one remote region.”
“Ukraine’s balancing act,” Balázs Jarábik, Centre for East European and International Studies, 07.24.19: The author, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:
- “Volodymyr Zelenskiy, once a comedian and actor and now president of Ukraine, is writing a new script: the future of his country. After he scored a stunning victory in April’s presidential election as a newcomer to politics, his Servant of the People party has now achieved an outright majority in Ukraine’s parliament in the snap parliamentary election held on 21 July.”
- “This election is Ukraine’s rebalancing act. … Ukrainian voters’ number-one priority is peace in the Donbass … Zelenskiy’s emerging Donbass policy will face resistance from nationalist circles at home and from Russia, and will depend on Western support. He will have a strong political mandate to deliver change as far as Kiev can, although any agreement on the future status of the Donbass will require an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution.”
- “Other focal areas will be the economy and society where balancing and more pragmatism over patriotic stand will be needed. Ukrainians expect Zelenskiy to reduce the price Ukraine pays for imports, via Europe, of Russian gas. … The fight against corruption needs its own rebalancing. … Similarly, Zelenskiy will need to find a balanced approach to the role of the state.”
- “Constraints will remain as well. The first challenge is the cohesion of Ukraine’s biggest-ever parliamentary group. Key state-reform plans … would require a two-thirds majority in the parliament. … Zelenskiy is also no darling of Ukraine’s independent media … Zelenskiy’s outright victory poses risks to Ukraine’s democracy, but that democracy was based on competition among oligarchs. The biggest risk for Ukraine is that the president will fail to change the way the government works. At this stage, the West should also be pragmatic, give Zelenskiy all the support he needs, with the necessary accountability, and put aside concerns from patriotically minded political forces.”
“Landslide Victory for Zelenskiy’s Party in Ukraine: What Next?” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.23.19: The author, an independent journalist, writes:
- “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has once again triumphed over the country’s old elites in the parliamentary elections held on July 21 … Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party turned out to be the unrivaled favorite in the campaign, and its candidates resolutely defeated representatives of local elites in the single-member districts.”
- “Zelenskiy won’t just have a parliament that is under his control; he’ll also have a weak opposition in the form of the parties of Kremlin associate Viktor Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform and militantly anti-Russia former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party, which are highly unlikely to be able to come to any agreement between themselves, thereby giving the president free rein.”
- “In this new reality, a ‘velvet usurpation’ with the consent of most of the population no longer seems like an impossible outcome, nor does the expression ‘comic dictator’ seem like such an oxymoron.”
“Ukraine's Reform Opportunity,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 07.22.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “[Zelenskiy will] have to keep a steady spine as Mr. Putin tests him ahead of possible negotiations. … Mr. Zelensky will also have to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund, but domestic reform is more consequential.”
- “The new political elite will have to move quickly to improve the rule of law, privatize more state-owned enterprises, and liberalize property law. Corruption retards growth more than the war does.”
- “One challenge is that few in Mr. Zelenskiy's party have much policy experience. He may prefer ruling alone, but the country would be better off with veteran reformers and the Voice party, another insurgent political force, helping to run the government.”
- “The U.S. should keep standing with the country as its unconventional leader tries to make good on his promises.”
“Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections,” Jeffrey Mankoff and Roksana Gabidullina, Center for Strategic and International Security, 07.24.19: The authors, the deputy director and program manager of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program, write:
- “Zelenskiy has already sought to moderate tensions over the issue of language, which has been a source of great sensitivity among Russian-speaking Ukrainians who felt marginalized by Poroshenko’s push to increase the use of Ukrainian in public life. During a visit to Brussels in June, Zelenskiy indicated that he is open to peace talks with Moscow, suggesting he will take a more flexible line on the conflict than Poroshenko did.”
- “Still, the obstacles to a peace agreement are significant. Ukraine continues to accuse Russia of violating the Minsk ceasefire agreement, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea continues to lurk in the background even if Kiev and Moscow make some progress toward implementing the Minsk agreement. Russia will also have many levers—including gas transit, trade restrictions, and military provocations—to pressure Zelensky should negotiations fail.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- No significant commentary.
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“Putin Reminds Russians He Can Do Suppression,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 07.29.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:
- “July 27 saw a new post-Soviet era record set in Moscow: 1,373 people were taken into custody following a day of protests. Meanwhile, jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny suffered a strange ‘allergic reaction’ after calling for the demonstrations. … These developments were set in motion by something seemingly trivial: An election to Moscow’s city council. One of Russia’s weakest regional legislatures, it can’t even hold the capital’s mayor responsible for doing whatever he wants with the city budget.”
- “The disproportionate violence unleashed on the protesters … shows how deep the Kremlin’s paranoia runs. With the patriotic fervor inspired by the annexation of Crimea and other foreign adventures exhausted, President Vladimir Putin and his entourage have little to offer voters and clearly fear the largely directionless anger prevalent in Russian society.”
- “The president appears worried that a random spark could ignite a bigger fire. The country’s economy is projected to grow by just 1.2% this year, according to the Bloomberg consensus forecast. In June, Russians’ disposable incomes were down 0.2% on a year ago. … In June, Levada Center … reported that 27% would be willing to participate in protests against falling living standards … and 22% would join protests with political demands.”
- “Since Putin has no rosy vision to offer and no means to speed up growth in an economy dominated by corrupt, inefficient state-run companies, he has focused on showing Russians that protest won’t work and that his regime commands overwhelming force.”
- “The flip side of such action, of course, is that it can also fuel the vague irritation many Russians feel. Even if they don’t rise up at the sight of some young people being beaten up … the Kremlin’s message that protesting is pointless is a dangerous one in Russia, too. There won’t a revolution over a rigged city council election, but Putin is playing with fire. Suppression is never a long-term answer.”
“Moscow Protests: A Crisis of the Authorities’ Own Making,” Andrey Pertsev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.27.19: The author, a journalist with Kommersant, writes:
- “By minimizing the risks of opposition candidates running for the Moscow city parliament, the Moscow mayor’s office and the Kremlin have brought about a political crisis. The decision to refuse to register opposition candidates has turned into a symbolic event and joined the ranks of controversial plans to build a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg and a landfill site in Russia’s north, which also elicited fierce protest.”
- “Ultimately, the power vertical’s inflexibility in Moscow has turned routine elections into a source of political problems that could end in a crowd of thousands holding an unsanctioned rally outside the mayor’s office, or in mass voting for any candidate except the one backed by the mayor’s office. In that eventuality, the risk of ending up with a Moscow city parliament that is hard to control doesn’t look so remote. The city parliament doesn’t have that much authority, but it is capable of blocking the passing of a budget, and even of expressing a lack of confidence in the mayor.”
“What Does Putin Fear?” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 07.22.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “In September, the city of Moscow will hold elections for its 45-member Duma, or city council. Many of those seeking seats are from the existing power structure, dominated by Mr. Putin and his much-disliked United Russia party. For those not connected to a party—the independent candidates—the rules require them to collect about 5,000 signatures within a three-week period to get on the ballot. Nonetheless, several dozen independent candidates hustled, managing to collect the signatures. Then the authorities decided to disqualify them.”
- “Why did Mr. Putin do this? What does he fear? If elected, the independents would gain legitimacy on a major political body in Russia, and they would have rights to question city policy and seek documents.”
- “Mr. Putin, while creating and maintaining an authoritarian system that has largely blocked methods for dissent and political competition, has not managed to completely extinguish the voice of the people—especially when they are angry. Let's hope they are heard.”
“Putin’s Not Ready to Call It Quits,’ Chris Miller, Foreign Policy, 07.22.19: The author, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School, writes:
- “The problem is not really that Russia’s constitution is too aged but that Russia’s president is too young. Vladimir Putin’s current term ends in 2024, and per his country’s pesky constitution, he is not supposed to be president again, having just served two consecutive terms. Yet Putin is only 66, so he will barely be in his early 70s when his current term ends—younger than U.S. President Donald Trump and his rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are today.”
- “Few in Russia think that Putin plans to leave in 2024. But how will he manage to stay? There are lots of theories.”
- “Several months ago, the rumor in Moscow was that Putin planned to leave the presidency of Russia for something even grander: the presidency of a union state of Russia and Belarus. The two countries share a customs union, and Russia regularly conducts vast military exercises on Belarusian territory. So the infrastructure for a union is already partially in place. But Belarus’s leaders, notably the country’s long-ruling president, Alexander Lukashenko, are not keen on giving up control. Moscow certainly has the tools to oust Lukashenko, but is it worth the cost?”
- “Rather than creating a new country, why not simply create a new or improved constitution? … Here, there are two basic options. One is to ditch term limits altogether and let Putin run for another term. … Rejig the constitution to create a new position in parliament that Putin could take over in 2024.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant commentary.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant commentary.