Russia Analytical Report, June 15-22, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • It’s true that inflating the threat of American interference in local politics can have domestic benefits. But, argues Benjamin Denison of the Fletcher School, the ways in which Russia and China have operated at the United Nations, how their militaries have written about threats to regime security in their military strategies and actions taken over the last decade show they take American threats to their regime security seriously. When every tool of U.S. policy becomes associated with regime change, Denison writes, there is a real threat to the efficacy of any tools available for pursuing American interests abroad.
  • With the coronavirus’s spread escalating the conflict between Washington and Beijing, Moscow faces a tough challenge: how to preserve its Chinese economic lifeline without getting dragged into the superpowers' looming clash, write Yaroslav Trofimov and Thomas Grove of the Wall Street Journal. Two Russian academics advising the Kremlin, Sergey Dubinin and Yevgeni Savostyanov, have described any movement toward a closer alliance with China as a "strategic miscalculation" and urged Moscow to become equidistant from China and the U.S., according to Trofimov and Grove.
  • Russia’s new nuclear deterrence document, Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence, could structure future strategic stability talks, Prof. Cynthia Roberts writes. Given misconceptions about doctrines, policy directives and intentions, Roberts argues, there is an advantage in seeking improved explanations and airing disagreements, especially in the nuclear realm where miscalculations can have catastrophic consequences.
  • Today’s meeting in Vienna between U.S. Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov should herald the start of a new arms control process, and every small step counts, writes Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček. First, Petříček writes, all efforts should be made by the U.S. and Russia to agree on extending the most conventional yet effective arms control arrangement: New START. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s editorial board writes that it might be possible to link an extension of New START to Russia’s willingness to negotiate an expanded treaty later, and to work with the U.S. to bring in China then. If that fails, though, the U.S. shouldn’t make things worse by letting the pretty good deal it has die in hopes of signing a perfect one.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing for The National Interest, says the agenda for the proposed summit of Russia, China, France, the United States and the U.K. should include discussion of “steps to develop collective principles in world affairs” as well as “issues of preserving peace, strengthening global and regional security, strategic arms control, as well as joint efforts in countering terrorism, extremism and other major challenges and threats.”
  • Unlike Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer, or Konstantin Yaroshenko, found guilty of conspiring to deliver tons of Colombian cocaine to Africa for transshipment to the United States, Paul Whelan lacks a plausible profile as either a criminal or a spy, The Washington Post’s editorial board writes. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board asserts that the Whelan conviction is a Russian thumb in the eye of America and Donald Trump.
  • Recurrent speculation that Moscow would engineer a palace coup in Damascus to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with a more pliable client has proved fanciful, writes David Gardner of the Financial Times. Yet Russia’s grumbling is getting louder. The most acute problem facing both Syria and Russia is that the Syrian economy has imploded, Gardner writes. So dire is this situation, as one staunch opponent of the Assad regime explains it, that Russia is now addressing itself to the U.S., while the mainstream Syrian opposition is addressing itself to Moscow.


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:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant developments.

NATO-Russia relations:

“Why the US Is Moving Troops out of Germany,” Robert C. O'Brien, Wall Street Journal, 06.21.20: The author, the U.S. national security adviser, writes:

  • “To counter China and Russia, two great-power competitors, U.S. forces must be deployed abroad in a more forward and expeditionary manner than they have been in recent years. This is the main reason the U.S. will reduce its permanently stationed force in Germany from 34,500 troops to 25,000.”
  • “Modern warfare is increasingly expeditionary and requires platforms with extended range, flexibility and endurance. … [T]he Cold War-style garrisoning of troops makes less military and fiscal sense than it did in the 1970s.”
  • “Several thousand troops currently assigned to Germany may be reassigned to other countries in Europe. Thousands may expect to redeploy to the Indo-Pacific … In that theater, Americans and allies face the most significant geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War.”
  • “After these redeployments, America will still maintain 25,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Germany. The U.S. relationship with Germany will remain strong, as will American commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is time, however, for all European nations to contribute their fair share in defending their homelands. Germany has the world's fourth-largest economy yet spends only 1.4 percent of gross domestic product on its own defense—despite NATO member countries' longstanding commitment to a 2 percent target. American taxpayers contribute 3.4 percent of GDP toward defense.”
  • “Berlin still has time to step up and show leadership. The Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline isn't complete; a German decision to stop the project would strengthen Europe's energy security. Berlin hasn't yet selected its 5G telecommunications provider. A trusted European company, such as Nokia or Ericsson, would be safer for this role than China's Huawei. And Germany can accelerate its plan to harden its defenses, which would more than offset U.S. troop redeployment.”

“Biden Will Not Revive the Atlantic Alliance,” Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, 06.16.20: The author, a columnist and associate editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Thirty years after the fall of the Soviets … the U.S. continues to garrison a Germany that is not just rich but, on recent form, more internally stable than its nominal protector. One explanation is that Russia is still a force that needs discouraging. Another is that Europe is a lily-pad for U.S. actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The first reason does not say why Americans, an ocean away, should form a large part of the discouragement. The trouble with the second is its open-endedness.”
  • “No doubt, a Biden White House would collaborate with Europe over climate change and de-escalate the trade schism. It would not undermine the EU as a heresy against the nation state. Beyond this welcome defrosting, however, the two sides are not going to be much closer. Their relationship is reverting to its late-19th century phase, when the U.S. and Europe had little to do with each other outside the flow of people and goods. As soothing as it is to blame Mr. Trump for the divergence, he just gives an existing process a malicious nudge.”

“NATO 2030: Difficult Times Ahead,” Peter Roberts, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 06.15.20: The author, director of military sciences at RUSI, writes:

  • “A NATO threat-based model of force design and employment is realistic and desirable in the current competition against Russia, but cannot be achieved unless member states also adopt the same concept. A divergence in the philosophy of force designs between member states and NATO will mean that the Alliance can generate neither a capability-based force, nor one that matches the threat, leaving the organization in a worse position than it is already.”
  • “If Stoltenberg is serious about making these military changes, as well as the political and economic ones, he will need to make a more convincing argument to major contributors (the U.S., France, the U.K. and Germany) that their defense budgets and procurement plans need to be NATO-centric, and not merely where national defense plans conveniently coincide with NATO’s.”

Impact of the pandemic:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Arms control:

“Strengthening Arms Control Through Multilateralism, and Multilateralism Through Arms,” Tomáš Petříček, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 06.19.20: The author, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, writes:

  • “The … [June 22] meeting in Vienna between U.S. Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov should herald the start of a new arms control process, and every small step counts.”
  • “Yet the crisis of arms control is a global one, and any solution must be global in scope. New ideas about effective arms control instruments must be explored given contemporary trends … But first, all efforts … should be made by the U.S. and Russia to agree on extending the most conventional yet effective arms control arrangement. That is, the New START, the only remaining agreement that limits the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenal.”
  • “If breathing space is gained, it should then be used for devising creative—albeit informal at first—arms control architectures or environments that would incorporate new actors. Non-nuclear states should be involved, since they share responsibility for disarmament, as should global civil society that can provide increasingly important means of societal verification. China’s participation is ultimately a must … and Beijing’s hitherto notorious reticence to engage in transparency measures must also be dispelled.”
  • “The building blocks of this new framework should be as follows. First, start with political declarations, including on doctrine or moratoria … Second, the framework should include enhanced confidence-building measures (CBMs) that can have binding power even if not formalized or enshrined in operational treaties … Third, the CBMs could be followed by reduction-cum-freeze arrangements, coordinated arms control talks in parallel bilateral “chess games” or discussions over innovative and robust tracing and verification measures.”

“Don’t Let New START Come to a Stop: It wouldn’t be smart to abandon the last remaining U.S.-Russia treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons,” Editorial Board, Bloomberg, 06.21.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “American and Russian arms-control negotiators are scheduled to meet in Vienna on June 22, a month after the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies, which had allowed the two sides to overfly each other’s territory to monitor military activities. On nuclear weapons, the only bilateral agreement left is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Next February it’s due to expire. The U.S. shouldn’t let this happen.”
  • “It might be possible to link an extension of New START to Russia’s willingness to negotiate an expanded treaty later, and to work with the U.S. to bring in China then. If that fails, though, the U.S. shouldn’t make things worse by letting the pretty good deal it has die in hopes of signing a perfect one.”

“A Farewell to the Open Skies Treaty, and an Era of Imaginative Thinking,” Bonnie Jenkins, Brookings Institution, 06.16.20: The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Last month, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty (OST). The OST allows for members … to conduct unarmed surveillance flights in each others’ air space. The treaty was designed to enhance mutual understanding, build confidence and promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”
  • “Withdrawing from treaties, like the Trump administration is doing with the OST, should only be done after careful discussions and consideration across the U.S. government, with our allies and with relevant voices outside government. Unfortunately, U.S. treaty withdrawals under Trump are piling up: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia and now the OST. The 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, which expires next year, is in question.”
  • “We are not working with our allies in a way that would help strengthen consensus on issues of both arms control and deterrence. U.S. alliances … are severely strained. The Trump administration has spent the last few years destroying agreements and relationships without doing any re-building. Washington appears to have little vision or imagination for what could replace what we have damaged, ensuring instead that we remain unprepared for future global challenges when we cannot go it alone. We need ways to build trust and avenues to work together, using the tools at our disposal. We need, again, the type of imagination we had when we negotiated the OST.”

“Revelations About Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy,” Cynthia Roberts, War on the Rocks, 06.19.20: The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “On June 2, the Kremlin published an unprecedented six-page document entitled Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence.”
  • “Debate over Russian nuclear intentions will not end with the publication of Russia’s new statement about its deterrence policy—nor should it since both the United States and Russia consider the nuclear deterrence mission as the bedrock of their national security. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers and analysts should read Russian statements and publications more carefully to avoid succumbing to confirmation bias. A better understanding of Russian intentions and perspectives would help advance critical analyses of the nuclear policy challenges facing the United States and its allies.”
  • “It’s doubtful that Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence will impact the current stalemate in nuclear arms control, although that may be one of its motivations. The document mentions that Russia’s principles for nuclear deterrence are in compliance with arms control obligations and universally recognized norms of international law. However, there is little in Principles that will likely energize the Trump administration to negotiate an extension of the New START Treaty or settle on a concrete plan to build on it.”
  • “What this new document could do is structure future strategic stability talks, which Moscow and Washington agreed to resume in May. Given misconceptions about doctrines, policy directives and intentions, there is an advantage in seeking improved explanations and airing disagreements, especially in the nuclear realm where miscalculations can have catastrophic consequences.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Sanctions Against the Assad Regime Are Unlikely to Help Syrians,” David Gardner, Financial Times, 06.17.20The author, international affairs editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “A new round of U.S. sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, and those who aid it, comes into force this week. The Caesar Act can punish anyone, anywhere, who in any way helps the Assads, their government, army and institutions, their support networks and allies or their business interests. … [T]he act’s main targets are Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s external patrons, and the Iran-backed paramilitaries that spearhead its strike forces: Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Iraqi Shia militia. It seems most unlikely to protect civilians. These targets are already under sanctions.”
  • “Assad has become obdurate as Russia has salvaged his rule and rolled back the rebellion. Although the Syrian leader is a Russian ward of state, a senior diplomat … describes his attitude as: ‘I did not win this war at the battle front only to allow them victory on the political and economic front.’”
  • “Recurrent speculation that Moscow would engineer a palace coup in Damascus to replace Mr. Assad with a more pliable client has proved fanciful. Yet Russia’s grumbling is getting louder. The most acute problem facing both Syria and Russia is that the Syrian economy has imploded. … The U.N. reckons more than 80 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty line … The country is becoming a Somalia or Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. Syria has also lost its extra lung—neighboring Lebanon, where the economy is nosediving at much the same velocity.”
  • “So dire is this situation … that Russia is now addressing itself to the U.S., while the mainstream Syrian opposition is addressing itself to Moscow. Might diplomacy result? … The problem is that U.S. President Donald Trump prefers photo-ops or transactions to real diplomacy. Mr. Assad has nothing to offer him, but maybe Russia has.”

“The Caesar Act and a Pathway out of Conflict in Syria,” Steven Heydemann, Brookings Institution, 06.19.20The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Syrian civilians are indeed suffering, but to blame the yet-to-be-implemented The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act for their fate is to ignore the culpability of the Assad regime in the destruction of Syria’s economy and the impoverishment of the population he holds in contempt.”
  • “Russia and Iran, battered by falling oil prices, sanctions and the economic effects of the pandemic can no longer be counted on to bail Assad out.”
  • “Popular anger at the regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement is growing. In recent weeks, Syria has witnessed economic protests in towns like Suweida, the Druze capital of southern Syria, that remained largely neutral during the conflict.”
  • “From the triumphalist celebratory outlook that the regime expressed only a year ago, it now confronts the very real prospect of that it will be left on its own to contend with economic collapse and the resurgence of mass popular upheaval. The Caesar Act may be the straw that forces the regime to accept that if it wishes to survive, it will have to change.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

“When the CIA Interferes in Foreign Elections: A Modern-Day History of American Covert Action,” David Shimer, Foreign Affairs, 06.21.20: The author, an associate fellow of Yale University and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin tends to respond to questions about his government’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with a mix of denials and countercharges. It is the United States, he alleged in June 2017, that ‘all over the world is actively interfering in electoral campaigns in other countries.’”
  • “This perception is understandable: for decades, it was true. … Then, the Cold War ended, and the opposing objectives of Moscow’s and Washington’s electoral operations—to spread or to contain communism—became obsolete. Since then, Russian intelligence has interfered in many foreign elections … to promote divisive and authoritarian-minded candidates, sow chaos and confusion and delegitimize the democratic model. But what of the CIA?”
  • “I learned that in the twenty-first century, Washington’s senior-most national security officials have considered using the CIA to interfere in foreign elections at least twice. In one instance—in Serbia in 2000—debate turned into action, as the CIA spent millions of dollars working against the tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. … In the other—in Iraq in 2005—the CIA stood down.”  
  • “In interviews about the CIA’s modern covert action programs, the United States’ former spy chiefs fall into two groups. The first insists that the agency no longer engages in covert electoral interference. … The second group of officials does not speak in absolutes, suggesting instead that the CIA has moved away from, but not necessarily stopped, influencing elections overseas. … Every interview pointed to the same conclusion: for the CIA, covert electoral interference has become the exception rather than the rule.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Central Asian Gas Exports to China: Beijing’s Latest Bargaining Chip?” Maximilian Hess, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 06.16.20The author, a Central Asia fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI, writes:

  • “Natural gas supplies to the People’s Republic of China have helped drive Central Asia’s economic growth for the last decade. For no country is this more true than for Turkmenistan: over 90 percent of Turkmenistan’s total exports is natural gas exports to China. This figure is up from near zero before the Central Asia-China gas pipeline opened in December 2009. In 2019, Turkmenistan sold Beijing just over 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan each selling 10 bcm. The initial outbreak of COVID-19 in China caused significant disruption to these supplies.”
  • “China’s sheer size and Central Asia’s geographic isolation mean that over the medium term Beijing remains the sole major option for Central Asian economic development. Though the United States is set to withdraw from Afghanistan, the country is unlikely to be sufficiently pacified to open up a true southern trade route.”
  • “For other Central Asian states, exporting via Turkmenistan and Iran is not a serious option given the Berdymukhamedov regime’s poor record as a trade partner and the sanctions environment around Iran. Chinese demand may be impacted in the short term, but if the most serious potential political consequences of the economic downturn in the region can be avoided, Beijing’s long-term push to move towards gas-powered energy sources should see sales growth resume. Yet, this is unlikely to provide a sufficient economic boost to the region.”
  • “With significant LNG resources due to come online, growing competition from Russian gas supplies, and dreary global demand outlooks, China may be able to secure even lower prices from its Central Asian suppliers. Chinese natural gas will remain at the core of Central Asia’s economic development over the long term, but it is unlikely to drive significant growth.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Stay Out of the Regime Change Business,” Benjamin Denison, War on the Rocks, 06.16.20. The author, a postdoctoral fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, writes:

  • “While covert regime change is sometimes perceived to be a cost-effective tool that produces policy benefits, it is usually unsuccessful. More problematically, attempting covert regime change is not a costless tool, with both supposed successes and failures producing worse outcomes for American interests in both the short and long term.”
  • “Cases where the United States tried to use covert action to replace governments not aligned with the United States were much more likely to fail … In addition to worsening relations with the United States, covert regime change operations also produce a greater probability of civil war, more human rights violations and an increased chance of instigating international conflict.” 
  • “Even more problematic for broader American statecraft, the pursuit of regime change has led to consistent accusations that democracy promotion, humanitarian aid and civil-society support programs are merely Trojan horses. These programs have been targeted for restriction or thrown out of Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela, Hungary and elsewhere over fears that they are organizing regime change.”
  • “It’s true that inflating the threat of American interference in local politics can have domestic benefits. But the ways in which Russia and China have operated at the United Nations, how their militaries have written about threats to regime security in their military strategies and actions taken over the last decade show they take American threats to their regime security seriously. When every tool of U.S. policy becomes associated with regime change, there is a real threat to the efficacy of any tools available for pursuing American interests abroad.”
  • “Now there is concern that China might also be interested in trying to gain more influence through covert action, as the United States and Russia have in the past. … However, returning to the Cold War strategy of dueling attempts at covert regime change is not the answer to this challenge. … The United States should instead refrain from sponsoring foreign coups, and commit to not use tools of statecraft … for regime change purposes.”

“The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II,” Vladimir Putin, The National Interest, 06.18.20The Russian president writes:

  • “Our colleagues—Mr. Xi Jinping, Mr. Macron, Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson—supported the Russian initiative to hold a meeting of the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states, permanent members of the Security Council. We thank them for this and hope that such a face-to-face meeting could take place as soon as possible.”
  • “What is our vision of the agenda …? First of all … it would be useful to discuss steps to develop collective principles in world affairs. To speak frankly about the issues of preserving peace, strengthening global and regional security, strategic arms control, as well as joint efforts in countering terrorism, extremism and other major challenges and threats.”
  • “A special item on the agenda of the meeting is the situation in the global economy. And above all, overcoming the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Our countries are taking unprecedented measures to protect the health and lives of people and to support citizens who have found themselves in difficult living situations. Our ability to work together and in concert, as real partners, will show how severe the impact of the pandemic will be, and how quickly the global economy will emerge from the recession. Moreover, it is unacceptable to turn the economy into an instrument of pressure and confrontation.”
  • “There can be no doubt that the summit of Russia, China, France, the United States and the U.K. can play an important role in finding common answers to modern challenges and threats, and will demonstrate a common commitment to the spirit of alliance, to those high humanist ideals and values for which our fathers and grandfathers were fighting shoulder to shoulder. Drawing on a shared historical memory, we can trust each other and must do so. That will serve as a solid basis for successful negotiations and concerted action for the sake of enhancing the stability and security on the planet and for the sake of prosperity and well-being of all states.”

“The Kremlin Fears American Disorder More Than It Celebrates It,” Anna Arutunyan, Foreign Affairs, 06.17.20The author, a Russian-American writer, writes:

  • “Recent events in the United States have ignited the worst fears of many Russians close to the Kremlin. These fears, in turn, stem from cynical conceptions about state building: that the only way to maintain order is to hold onto power at any cost, that there are always forces seeking to wrest that power away, and that the most one can do is to calculate who is behind what plot in order to preempt such machinations from succeeding. That calculus is, in essence, the problem Russian talk show discussions are dedicated to working through.”
  • “If even a superpower such as the United States is succumbing to disorder, Russian pundits seem to worry, where does that leave us? Speaking on Bolshaya Igra, the prominent senator Alexei Pushkov underlined, in part to preempt speculation that Moscow was gloating, that Russia favors stability. ‘Instability is contagious,’ he added. This concern is genuine, and I have often heard it from insiders and officials here in Moscow.”
  • “The Kremlin calculates that an unstable United States will be harder to deal with.  There is a certain circularity to the logic and a double standard, at least on the Russian side. … The current disarray in the United States doesn’t seem to be something that Moscow would wish on its friend, frenemy or adversary.”
  • “Recently, Putin chalked the American unrest up to ‘deep internal crises,’ adding that ‘the interests of party groups were placed above the interests of the people,’ such that the government had lost control. The images he now sees on television from the United States and the news he reads in his press briefings must seem to him exactly like the kind of disorder he warned against. He certainly doesn’t seem to be smiling.”

“In 2016, Putin Didn’t Expect Trump to Win. Now, He Needs Him to,” Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post, 06.21.20: The author, deputy editorial page editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Vladimir Putin is suffering through his worst year in two decades in power. The coronavirus is raging across Russia, which has reported more than half a million cases and 8,100 deaths and is suspected of hiding many more. The economy is crashing so steeply that the government failed to issue a monthly gross domestic product report in May for the first time in 15 years. Putin's foolish launching of an oil price war with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a bad recession worse.”
  • “Forced to postpone a referendum that would allow him to remain in office until 2036, Putin is now going ahead with it on July 1, and no doubt it will be rigged to produce the right result. But his poll ratings are the lowest they have been since he was installed as Boris Yeltsin's prime minister and successor in 1999.”
  • “Putin needs help. He badly needs a win. He needs, specifically, the reelection of President Trump. In ways both more blatant and more subtle than in 2016, he is trying to make it happen.”
  • “A reelected Trump could be expected to continue his campaign to restore Russia as a member of the Group of Seven nations, providing Putin with an enhanced global platform. He could pull the United States out of NATO once and for all. And he could advance Putin's most important geopolitical goal, returning Ukraine to Russia's sphere of influence, while opening the way for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions on the Russian economy.”
  • “So yes, Putin will do what he can to help Trump. … In 2016, he didn't expect Trump to win. Now, he needs him to.”

“The Rise and Fall of North America,” Stephen Kinzer, The Boston Globe, 06.21.20: The author, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, writes:

  • “Where is the geographic center of global power? It has shifted over the centuries. Persia, Greece and Rome created the first empires. After they declined, China emerged to replace them. Around 1500, Europe began the spectacular rise that led it to dominate much of the world. Finally, in the 20th century, power shifted to North America. That brief era may now be ending.”
  • “One of the main reasons is the declining level of political leadership in North America's three large countries: Mexico, the United States and Canada.”
  • “Leaders of Canada, the United States, and Mexico should be inspiring the world and providing new paradigms for social and political life in the 21st century. Instead their missteps have robbed North America of much of its moral authority and strategic power. The vacuum they have created cannot be filled by Africa or Latin America. Europe has the resources to do it but is racked by upheaval and self-doubt. That leaves China and Russia, plus ambitious second-tier powers like Turkey, Iran and India. The decline of North America fuels their rise.”

“Revolutions Happen. This Might Be Ours,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 06.16.20The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “If enough people conclude that the current order is incapable of meaningful change, there is literally no telling where their anger and their actions might lead. I’ve studied enough revolutions to be wary of what can happen when a political order collapses completely, and it is rarely a pretty sight.”
  • “Familiar elements of our political order are now under siege—some of them for very good reasons—but radical change is an inherently unpredictable process. In the end, political institutions are not permanent phenomena … They are artificial human creations, and they’re only as enduring, adaptive and effective as we make them.”
  • “I hold out my hopes for a serious and sustained process of democratic change, one that respects the nobler features of the U.S. constitutional order yet takes dead aim at all the ways in which America has failed to live up to its own professed ideals. The alternative, I fear, will be something much more dangerous.”

“From Russia With Malice,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 06.15.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “President Trump has sought warmer ties with Russia since taking office, but the relationship hasn't improved much. A reminder of why came on [June 15] when a Moscow judge found Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine from Michigan, guilty of spying and sentenced him to 16 years in a high-security prison.”
  • “The president's Russia policy has been uneven at best. His plan to withdraw some U.S. forces from Germany is an undeserved gift to Mr. Putin, as was his declaration that he wants the Russian to join the G-7 despite the opposition of other democratic leaders. Yet he has confronted the country over its violation of arms-control treaties and, despite recent controversies, provided Ukraine with critical assistance in its fight against Moscow.”
  • “Mr. Trump has made returning Americans held hostage abroad a priority—to the point of imposing sanctions on NATO ally Turkey in 2018 over its detention of an American pastor. The Whelan conviction is a Russian thumb in the eye of America and Mr. Trump.”

“Putin Takes an American Hostage. Trump Seems Fine With That,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 06.16.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Unlike Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer convicted in U.S. federal court of seeking to supply weapons to Colombian narcoterrorists, or Konstantin Yaroshenko, found guilty of conspiring to deliver tons of Colombian cocaine to Africa for transshipment to the United States, Mr. Whelan lacks a plausible profile as either a criminal or a spy. An employee of a Michigan auto parts manufacturer, he was in Moscow for a friend's wedding in December 2018 when a Russian acquaintance handed him a flash drive he thought contained tourist photos. Soon after, he was arrested and charged with receiving classified documents.”
  • “Mr. Whelan's attorney said [June 15] that an exchange for his client already is being discussed. If so, Russia stands to obtain the same benefit from Washington recently extracted by Iran: the release of criminals convicted of serious offenses in exchange for innocent Americans, who were seized precisely for that purpose. Perhaps that's the most humane response to the case of Mr. Whelan, who certainly does not deserve to spend years in a Russian labor camp. But perhaps also Mr. Trump could, at least, stop lobbying to include Mr. Putin in summit meetings of the world's leading democracies.”

“What Fiona Hill Learned in the White House,” Adam Entous, The New Yorker, 06.29.20: The author, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes:

  • “She was wary of Obama’s efforts to downplay Russia’s importance in the world—he called the country a ‘regional power’—convinced that doing so only provoked Putin to assert himself more forcefully. … Many of Hill’s colleagues were disturbed that Trump had praised Putin as a ‘strong leader’ and took seriously the growing speculation that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians to sway the election. Hill was skeptical of this theory, thinking it more likely that the campaign and Russia were working in parallel to discredit Clinton.”
  • “The President-elect’s overtures to Putin presented an opportunity: ‘Trump has certainly laid the ground for saying, ‘O.K., I’m going to give you a chance to explain yourself.’ ’ ”
  • “Trump had rejected the CIA’s assessment that Russia had sought to help his campaign. … Hill respected the analysts who evaluated Russia’s activities, and she was alarmed by Trump’s denigration of their work.” 
  • “Ultimately, she will be remembered not for safeguarding the country but for the unvarnished testimony that she delivered in the impeachment proceedings against Trump, in October and November of 2019, which revealed how U.S. foreign policy was subverted for domestic political purposes.”
  • “The [coronavirus] death toll in the U.S., the highest in the world, and the response to the pandemic had deepened doubts, at home and abroad, about the government’s competence. On June 3, Mattis … criticized the administration’s heavy-handed response to the protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd. … For Hill, the government’s handling of these crises provides the Russians with yet another propaganda windfall.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin’s Majority 3.0,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.22.20The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The public vote on approving amendments to the constitution on July 1 is a key moment in Russia for many reasons.  It is intended to legalize the resetting of the clock on presidential terms, allowing Vladimir Putin to remain in power, and mobilizing the masses to stabilize the president’s falling ratings. It’s also meant to enshrine the values of the ‘Putin majority,’ such as defining the ‘family’ exclusively as the union of a man and a woman, in the constitution.”
  • “Enshrining any state ideology in law runs counter to the current Boris Yeltsin-era constitution, which forbids the dominance of any ideology. But that doesn’t matter, because what is really emerging here is a brand new Putin-era constitution that just happens to share the same cover as the Yeltsin-era one.”
  • “The ‘Putin majority’ was an ad hoc construction built less on ideology than political spin. … Yet the basis for a Putin majority 3.0 (if the Crimea majority was version 2.0) is weak. … To stay in charge, Putin needs the support of the majority, even if it’s a formality. This is why the question ‘Why does Putin need a public vote, if the amendments have already been passed by parliament?’ is incorrectly formulated. He needs the vote to convince both himself and the public that the ‘majority 3.0’ really does exist.”
  • “Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology.”
  • “Programmed into the upcoming vote on approving the constitutional amendments are a national divide, the demobilization of the Putin majority 3.0 and its fragmentation. Not even impressive statistics in terms of turnout and votes in favor of the amendments, obtained with the help of public sector voters, will help. This strange mix of deception and self-deception is unlikely to stabilize the president and government’s ratings.”

“Team Navalny and the Dynamics of Coercion: The Kremlin’s Reaction to Alexei Navalny’s 2018 Presidential Campaign,” Andrei Semenov, PONARS Eurasia, June 2020: The author, an assistant professor of political science at Perm State University, writes:

  • “Authoritarian regimes frequently employ strategic coercion and repression to prevent or halt mobilization. Russia under Vladimir Putin is not an exception. As the regime became more repressive after the 2011-12 mobilization wave, Alexei Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign faced familiar obstacles: no authorization for public rallies, detentions, administrative fines and criminal charges.”
  • “How consistent was the reaction of the authorities to his campaign? I address this question by looking at data on interactions between protesters and authorities before, during, and after key events of the Navalny campaign: the ‘He is not Dimon to you!’ rallies on March 26 and June 12 in 2017 and the ‘Electoral Strike’ protest on Jan. 28, 2018. These data uncover patterns in state responses to one of the most significant political challenges Putin’s regime has faced.”
  • “Looking at how reactions varied across 160 locations in Russia, I show that in the course of the campaign, the coercion increasingly concentrated on the activists instead of rank-and-file participants.”
  • “Preventive tactics seem to play a key role in the overall strategy. Arguably, the authorities prefer to freeze mass actions at their embryonic state, even at the risk of running into an unauthorized rally.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Spy Cases Map Contours of Kremlin Geopolitics,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 06.16.20: The author, a senior associate fellow at RUSI, writes:

  • “Suddenly, spies are in the news again. Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan has been convicted of receiving classified information. A Russian scientist has been accused of passing secrets to China. A Russian diplomat in Prague was, for a while, wrongly identified as an assassin. Taken together, these cases tell us something about Russia’s place in the world and, more to the point, its mindset.”
  • “Moscow handles its spy war with China very differently from that with the West. When the latter’s spies are caught, this becomes a media circus. Chinese agents, though, are often quietly expelled after a word with the ambassador, their local assets arrested on different charges or discretely handled some other way. In other words, there is a degree of conscious theatricality to how espionage cases are handled. They become fodder for the intertwined narratives that the West is an aggressive threat and China a trusty partner.”
  • “This has, however, its own problems. It certainly does nothing to deter Beijing’s increasingly active espionage operations, which parallel the sustained upsurge experienced in the West. It is also exasperating elements within the security apparatus, who feel they are being held back from addressing the threat.”


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant developments.

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Weary Russia Tries to Avoid Entanglement in US-China Spat,” Yaroslav Trofimov and Thomas Grove, Wall Street Journal, 06.20.20: The authors, the chief foreign-affairs correspondent and a reporter for the news outlet, write:

  • “The coronavirus pandemic and sagging oil prices have made Russia's unequal partnership with China even more lopsided. With the disease's spread escalating the conflict between Washington and Beijing, Moscow faces a tough challenge: how to preserve its Chinese economic lifeline without getting dragged into the superpowers' looming clash.”
  • “Instead of quickly implementing a China-style strict lockdown once the coronavirus hit Moscow, Mr. Putin wavered for weeks, denting his image and resulting in Russia running up the world's third-highest number of infections. Parts of northeast China had to reimpose lockdowns in May because the virus was brought in by travelers returning from Russia.”
  • “Chinese officials were also irked by what they interpreted as Russia's flirtation with the U.S. just as Beijing came under pressure from Washington. They cited Moscow's support for an international inquiry into the pandemic's origin, and the April 25 joint declaration by Messrs. Putin and Trump that hailed the meeting of allied U.S. and Soviet forces in Germany in 1945.”
  • “Russia remains a military superpower and has been assisting China in its ambition to develop a more global military capability. The countries plan to sign a new defense agreement this year. … Beijing has long wanted to sign a free trade deal with Moscow that would give Russian industry a bigger place in the Chinese market, but would also likely flood Russia with Chinese goods. That prospect might seem sweeter for Moscow as it faces a prolonged economic downturn.”
  • “A policy paper presented to Russian leadership by academic Sergei Karaganov and other foreign-policy luminaries urged Moscow to champion a ‘new nonalignment’ approach between China and the U.S. According to an unclassified version of the paper, Russia should try to lead ‘a community of nations unwilling to side with any of the pretenders for global or regional hegemony.’ Two other academics advising the Kremlin … described any movement toward a closer alliance with China as a ‘strategic miscalculation’ and urged Moscow to become equidistant from the two superpowers.”

“Donald Trump Should Talk to Russia to Thwart China ,” Christian Whiton, The National Interest, 06.22.20The author, a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin is thinking about his country’s place in the world. We in America should be thinking about that too, especially as the long-term conflict with China intensifies. This is a chance to focus more on what we might have in common.”
  • “Putin published a remarkable 9,000-word article in The National Interest ahead of this week’s delayed celebration in Moscow of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. … The dialogue that Putin proposes suggests limited rather than expansive foreign policy objectives. … Unfortunately, the West has given Russia scant reason to explore cooperation and would be hard-pressed to design a better program to push Moscow into Beijing’s arms. Washington maintains a complicated patchwork of sanctions on various Russian business sectors, officials and private individuals. Restrictions on energy-related entities in particular seem designed to promote Russia’s cooperation with China.”
  • “It is worth initiating a serious dialogue with Moscow. Putin wrote that Russia is willing to discuss arms control. Even if a breakthrough is unlikely, the conversation itself would give Moscow a diplomatic outlet that doesn’t run through Beijing.”
  • “The goal of engagement need not be a dramatic breakthrough, just a reasonable hope that Russia will have some incentive to remain neutral and not aid our adversaries. … This situation would be very attractive to Russia because from its perspective it would be in the balancing position, closer to both Washington and Beijing than we are to one another, and therefore able to get more out of us and China as we compete for their support.”
  • “Based on his article, Putin may grasp the utility of pragmatic cooperation in a similar manner. As America finally recognizes the magnitude of the fight it has with China, it is crucial to approach Russia with realistic expectations and outcomes that serve both of our interests.”

“Huawei’s Courtship of Moscow Leaves West in the Cold,” Alexander Gabuev, Financial Times, 06.21.20The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “There are four factors playing into Huawei’s hands in Russia. The first is money. Russian mobile operators have long been attracted by Huawei’s technology, which is on a par with European vendors but offered at lower cost, thanks to Beijing’s financial support.”
  • “It is also about national security. The Kremlin acknowledges that Russia is unable to produce quality 5G hardware on its own, and therefore needs to buy it from either Huawei or the West. … Russian security fears that the Pentagon might force Western vendors to knock out Russian 5G networks, potentially unleashing political and economic chaos, and even regime change. Again, China appears to be the lesser evil.”
  • “Huawei is also building alliances with local power brokers. In March, the company dropped a $30 million investment that would have marketed cloud solutions under Huawei’s own brand in Russia, and instead partnered with a cloud platform run by Sberbank, Russia’s biggest state-owned bank. … Lastly, there is the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has sharpened Kremlin interest in Chinese digital surveillance as a tool of political control. Huawei products such as Safe City have impressed the security establishment.”
  • “France’s Emmanuel Macron has argued that ‘Chinese hegemony is not compatible with the Russian sense of pride.’ But the Kremlin will never abandon Huawei completely. Recent experience shows that Russia’s relationship with the West is broken, and stable ties with Beijing are a must.”
  • “A more honest conversation in the West about the collateral damage from U.S.-EU sanctions, and the incentives they create for Sino-Russian cooperation, is overdue. Failure to act will help Beijing embed Russia in a China-centered technological order, a digital Pax Sinica with worrying, global ramifications.”


“What Does COVID-19 Mean for Ukraine’s Frontlines?,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution/ Europe's World, 06.18.20The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “As COVID-19 hit both Ukraine and Russia in March, some (this author included) hoped it might change some of the calculations in the Kremlin.”
  • “As of June, however, Moscow’s policy appears unchanged. Russian and Russian proxy forces continue low-intensity fighting in Donbass. The appointment of a new Kremlin point-person on Ukraine did not visibly affect policy, which is determined by Vladimir Putin.”
  • “The sad reality is the likely near-term scenario for Donbass is continuing simmering conflict. … If stalemated by Russia on Donbass, Zelenskiy can still take action on anti-corruption measures and other reforms to position the Ukrainian economy for strong growth as the pandemic eases.”
  • “To do so would deliver on the promises made to Ukrainian voters last year and solidify his reform credentials with his Western partners. Moreover, a more robust economy would bolster Zelenskiy’s position vis-à-vis the Kremlin, which hopes that domestic weakness will force him to compromise key Ukrainian principles and settle the Donbass conflict on Moscow’s terms.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Prepare For a Belarus Without Lukashenko?” Ryhor Astapenia, Chatham House, 06.16.20: The author, the Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, writes:

  • “An essentially sham presidential election in Belarus will take place on Aug. 9 but, despite the expected extension of Lukashenko’s already 26-year rule, what is becoming clear is that this electoral campaign is significantly different from previous ones.”
  • “From the outside, the ruling class may look like a monolith but clear divisions exist, especially between those who want economic reform and those who want to preserve the status quo. The former may appear more competent but the latter constitute the majority. Some elite also believe the regime could relax its more repressive measures, but others consider repression to be the only tool to preserve power.”
  • “In terms of foreign policy there is more of a consensus. Everyone wants to decrease dependence on Russia but none of them can be called ‘pro-Western,’ and the extent to which Russia infiltrated the Belarusian ruling class with its agents is hard to ascertain.”

“Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Season of Symbolic Offensives,” Laurence Broers, Chatham House, 06.18.20The author, an associate fellow at Chatham House, writes:

  • “Eighteen months on from a reported agreement by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers to prepare their populations for peace, both states have in reality remained largely preoccupied with consolidating domestic power due to enduring socio-economic frustration and populations radicalized by the ‘four-day war’ back in 2016.”
  • “Little progress can be expected on the core political issues dividing Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the prolonged reduction of violence on the Nagorny Karabakh Line of Contact does mean that discussion of ‘low-cost’ confidence building is still possible. Small-scale positive-sum measures that do not imply new structures or mandates could enable Baku and Yerevan to step away from symbolic battlegrounds and stop feeding the cycle of cynicism.”