Russia Analytical Report, June 22-29, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • While Russia has at times cooperated with the United States and appeared interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to American national interests, a former senior Trump White House official told the New York Times in reference to the suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan. Revenge is also a factor in Russia’s support for the Taliban, the official said. In reference to the suspected plot, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible.” Russia and the Taliban have denied the plot.
  • Even if Russia is cheating on some arms control agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working, write Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. Russia has a clear interest in limiting U.S. nuclear forces, they argue, just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.
  • Any conflict with Russia will always be implicitly nuclear in nature. If it is not managed, then the logic of such a war is to escalate to nuclear use, argue Michael Kofman and Anya Loukianova Fink of CNA Corporation. The United States needs to develop its own strategy for escalation management, and a stronger comfort level with the realities of nuclear war, they write.
  • David Shimer argues that what Vladimir Putin accomplished in 2016 was little different from what his predecessors attempted for decades, writes The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada in his review of Shimer’s book “Rigged.” Russia's interference four years ago was "the evolution of a practice rather than its creation," Shimer writes. In keeping with the goals of Soviet premiers and intelligence chiefs long before, Putin wanted to subvert threatening candidates, promote friendlier ones and deepen America's divides to discredit U.S. democracy. The difference, according to Shimer, was not the strategy the Russians used, but the power and efficacy of the tools at their disposal.
  • On one level, the present Sino-Russian axis makes perfect sense, writes Philip Stephens of the Financial Times. Both nations reject the American-designed postwar global order and repudiate the notion of a rules-based system rooted in Western values. Both favor a Westphalian order in which the strong carve out spheres of influence. But, Stephens argues, a leader planning to hold on to power for another 15 years might take the time for a strategic stock-take. The challenges and risks lie to Russia's east.
  • The list of amendments to the Russian constitution sends mixed messages regarding future political transformations: it marks a potential strengthening of representative institutions while at the same time reinforcing the “vertical of power,” writes Prof. Marlene Laruelle. The amendments, therefore, open two different futures for Russia: one that is more parliamentary and therefore potentially more plural; and one that is more centralized, and so, one can assume, is likely to be operated by security agencies, according to Laruelle.


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

Nuclear security and safety:

“The Nuclearization of the Russian Arctic: New Reactors, New Risks,” Sherri Goodman and Katarina Ketysova, European Leadership Network (ELN), 06.26.20The authors, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and a policy fellow at ELN, write:

  • “[H]and in hand with the country’s [Russia’s] development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a new generation of nuclear reactors is coming to the Arctic. The number of nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers is growing, the first floating nuclear power plant was deployed in the Chukotka region last year, and the Arctic waters continue to be used as a testing site, most recently for Russia’s new nuclear-powered cruise-missile and underwater drones. According to some estimates, the Russian Arctic will constitute the most nuclearized waters on the planet by 2035.”
  • “Russia’s poor record on nuclear management, combined with its growing Arctic ambitions, could lead to dangerous outcomes. A potential incident involving nuclear contamination could severely harm the Arctic marine environment and population alike and poses a serious threat to Russia, Europe and potentially the United States. … There are a number of measures that can help mitigate both civilian and military dangers involving nuclear reactors.”
  • “First, the Arctic states, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have a responsibility to anticipate and adequately prepare for intersecting climate and nuclear risks. … Second, existing agreements need to be strengthened or supplemented. Russia is party to the IAEA Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident.”
  • “Third, there is a need for strategic engagement with Russia to minimize nuclear risks in the Arctic. … Fourth, to address the risks of unintended military incidents involving nuclear weapons, it is important to define what is deemed tolerable and acceptable military practice in the region and what is not. Creating a military Code of Conduct for the Arctic, and including Russia, is the best way forward.”
  • “Fifth, in addition to information and knowledge sharing, it is important for Arctic states to identify preparedness and response arrangements and capabilities that are needed in the Arctic.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on US Troops,” Eric Schmitt, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos, New York Times, 06.28.20The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write:

  • “United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. They believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties.”
  • “The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.”
  • “Mr. Trump defended himself by denying the Times report that he had been briefed on the intelligence, expanding on a similar White House rebuttal a day earlier. But leading congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that, according to officials, the administration has yet to authorize. … But another official said there was broad agreement that the intelligence assessment was accurate, with some complexities because different aspects of the … resulted in some differences among agencies in how much confidence to put in each type.
  • “While Russia has at times cooperated with the United States and appeared interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to American national interests, said a former senior Trump White House official … Revenge is also a factor in Russia’s support for the Taliban, the official said. Russia has been keen to even the scales after a bloody confrontation in 2018 in Syria, when a massive U.S. counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin. … Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the American intelligence assessment.”

“Escalation Management and Nuclear Employment in Russian Military Strategy,” Michael Kofman and Anya Loukianova Fink, War on the Rocks, 06.23.20The authors, the director and a research analyst at CNA Corporation, write:

  • “Academics and arms control wonks are poring over the painfully worded text of a new Russian policy … But don’t mistake this new policy document for revelations of plans, or a disclosure on the nuances of Russian nuclear strategy.”
  • “The challenge posed by Russian nuclear strategy is not just a capability gap, but a cognitive gap. The Russian military establishment has spent decades thinking and arguing about escalation management … In the United States, precious little attention has been paid to the question … which is overshadowed by planning for warfighting. Thinking on escalation management and limited nuclear war should take priority, because the political leadership of any state entering a crisis with a nuclear peer will inevitably wish to be assured that a plausible strategy for escalation management and war termination exists.”
  • “Simply adding flexibility to the force structure … will not make for a credible strategy, nor will boisterous policy language deter U.S. adversaries. Seeking to dissuade Russian planners by telling them their strategy won’t work will only reinforce their belief that the United States is deeply concerned about Russian limited nuclear employment, and validate the thinking behind it.”
  • “There is a general sense in U.S. military circles that it is dangerous for Russia to believe that nuclear escalation can be controlled. Yet by imagining that the United States can have conventional-only wars with nuclear powers, where the stakes for them are likely to become existential, there is an implicit assumption in U.S. defense strategy that Washington can somehow control escalation and dissuade nuclear use on the part of others, without any discernible plan for accomplishing this feat.”
  • “Any conflict with Russia will always be implicitly nuclear in nature. If it is not managed, then the logic of such a war is to escalate to nuclear use. The United States needs to develop its own strategy for escalation management, and a stronger comfort level with the realities of nuclear war.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

“Who Can We Trust With the Nuclear Button? No One,” William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina, New York Times, 06.22.20: The authors, a former U.S. secretary of defense and the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, write:

  • “The whole concept of sole authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. The Cold War ended 30 years ago, and we now know that Russia never seriously considered a first strike against the United States, for the same reason that we never seriously considered a first strike against Russia: it would be national suicide. Both sides have to assume that an attack would provoke an unacceptable nuclear retaliation.”
  • “With this harrowing reality in mind, President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev … declared in 1985 that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’ They were right.”
  • “By focusing on an unlikely surprise attack, we are making it more likely that we will blunder into Armageddon. In a crisis situation, the last thing we should want is for the president to feel under pressure to make a quick decision. Maintaining an effective deterrent does not require us to rush into a nuclear war; rather, we need to increase the decision time from minutes to hours.”
  • “First: the president should not have sole authority for first use but should share that decision with a select group in Congress. There is no need to make this decision quickly. … Second: The United States should declare that it will never start a nuclear war, and would only use the bomb in retaliation. … Third: The United States should retire land-based ballistic missiles that could force a president into a quick ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ decision. These missiles are not needed for deterrence, which is ensured by survivable submarine-based weapons.”
  • “It is time to retire the nuclear button. No one should have the unchecked power to destroy the world.”

“The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence,” Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 06.24.20The authors, a research associate and the director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, write:

  • “The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance released its annual ‘Compliance Report,’ which provides a detailed overview of U.S. (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.”
  • “Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting U.S. nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.”
  • “And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will ‘at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile’ over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the U.S. or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.”
  • “In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it.”

“Forget the Book. Bolton’s Legacy Is a Nuclear Arms Race,” Jon B. Wolfsthal, Foreign Policy, 06.25.20The author, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, writes:

  • “Many of Bolton’s ideas remain the basis for the Trump administration’s foreign policy, especially in the area of nuclear security and arms control. Much like after his stint in the George W. Bush administration, where he was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Bolton leaves behind a wake of destruction that will undermine U.S. security for many years to come.”
  • “Every nuclear challenge facing the United States today has gotten worse since Trump took office. The failure to deal with them effectively (on Iran, with North Korea and with Russia) is in large part the result of Bolton’s ideas. And, in fact, many of the risks Trump inherited stem from actions Bolton took or championed when he served under Bush.”
  • “Bolton’s continued role in aiding Trump’s carpet-bombing campaign against both U.S. leadership and nuclear agreements, however, will cement Bolton’s legacy as one of the most consequential and negative influences on U.S. security policy for decades to come. Regardless of how many books Bolton sells and barbs he trades with Trump, it is the United States, its allies and global stability that will suffer the most.”

“The Scam of Sacrificing New START for Visionary Goals,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 06.28.20The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Verifiably counting every Russian warhead is a worthwhile goal. Counting every Russian tactical nuclear warhead is a worthwhile goal. Counting every Chinese warhead is also a worthwhile goal. Conditioning the future of New START to progress on achieving these worthy goals is a scam. … [B]ecause a serious effort would not sacrifice something useful for something that is out of reach.”
  • “John Bolton and Tim Morrison, the officers who used to be on board and who helped to conceive of this scam, have already left the ship. Marshall Billingslea, not Paul Nitze or James Baker, is at the helm. His definition of success is failure.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Syria’s Brutal Dictatorship Suffers a Severe Setback,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 06.23.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “While the demise of the Middle East's most brutal dictatorship does not appear imminent, its prospects of stabilizing the country under its rule or reconstructing the economy have suffered a severe setback—as have the strategic ambitions of Russia and Iran. For that, some credit is due to Congress, which mandated the new economic sanctions in last year's defense bill, and to the Syrian military police defector who inspired them.”
  • “The mere prospect of those ‘Caesar’ measures already helped crash the Syrian currency, which has lost two-thirds of its value since the beginning of the year.”
  • “If the Trump administration scrupulously follows the law, that should lead to sanctions against Russian officials and companies backing the Syrian war effort, as well as any foreign companies that buy Syrian oil or help with construction projects.”
  • “At best, the effect could be to force Russia and Iran to abandon the Assad regime rather than remain mired in an unwinnable conflict with mounting costs. Those in Congress who backed the legislation, including the chairmen of the House and Senate foreign relations committees, now should ensure that the administration fully follows through on Mr. Pompeo's promise.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

“Could Obama Have Stopped Putin’s Election Interference? A New Book Argues He Didn’t Think He Needed to,” Carlos Lozada’s review of David Shimer’s book “Rigged: America, Russia and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference,” The Washington Post, 06.25.20The author, a book critic for the news outlet, writes:

  • “In his absorbing new book, ‘Rigged,’ David Shimer argues that the Russia story is far older, and the risks to U.S. electoral security far greater, than we imagined, particularly as a new election approaches. Even more, he assembles a damning oral history of the Obama administration's failure to deter or combat Moscow's interference in 2016 … as told by some of the top officials responsible for it.”
  • “Shimer … begins with Moscow's attempts early in the 20th century to spread Soviet ideology and influence, first by financing like-minded groups around the globe and, after World War II, by manipulating elections throughout Eastern Europe. … As for Washington's efforts, Shimer notes that the first formal authorization for postwar covert action involved interference in Italy's 1948 election. … It was classic Cold War strategizing. The two sides battled for influence, and elections were how they kept score.”
  • “Shimer's key point [is that] [w]hat Vladimir Putin accomplished in 2016 was little different from what his predecessors attempted for decades. … In keeping with the goals of Soviet premiers and intelligence chiefs long before, Putin wanted to subvert threatening candidates, promote friendlier ones and deepen America's divides to discredit U.S. democracy. The difference was not the strategy the Russians used, but the power and efficacy of the tools at their disposal.”
  • “Just as vital was Russia's assessment of Washington's potential response. … [Obama] settled for a policy of ‘managed interference,’ the author concludes: As long as Putin didn't mess with our election infrastructure, Russia's social media campaign was tolerable; Obama and president-elect Clinton could deal with Putin later.”
  • “Favorable results encourage the interfering party to keep going. And this time, the man in the Oval Office is solicitous of Russia's president and unconcerned, even welcoming, about foreign influence.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“How Russians Are Reading Bolton and Trump,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.25.20The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “For Russians, John Bolton’s apparently new revelations will need to be cross-checked with the Kremlin’s accounts, if those ever come to light. These include Bolton’s accounts of his conversations with Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s revelations that in 2014 Barack Obama allegedly promised to limit the damage to U.S.-Russian relations if the Kremlin didn’t advance beyond Crimea.”
  • “Russian readers will also note … that while there is a strong consensus within the administration—and indeed within the U.S. body politic as a whole—that Russia is an adversary alongside China, Iran and North Korea, Trump’s main obsession is with China. So his outreach to Russia … stems from his ambition to create an anti-Beijing coalition.”
  • “Russia is of course not taking the bait … In reality, all Trump has done is sign American sanctions against Russia into law, which has made them virtually eternal; seek to derail the North Stream 2 project; and dismantle the last surviving elements of arms control. America’s current focus on China has not eased the pressure on Russia; it is practicing dual containment.”
  • “Bolton, recognizing Putin’s competence, ruthlessness and sense of purpose, says that he was afraid to leave Trump one-on-one with the Russian leader when the two met in Helsinki in 2018. … [B]y Bolton’s own account, Trump had a weird view of Europe, in which Germany was ‘totally controlled by Russia,’ and Finland was either part of Russia or its satellite. … Bolton also suggests that Putin can play Trump like a fiddle. This may or may not be true in their personal contacts, but the truth is that under the forty-fifth U.S. president, the bilateral relationship with Russia is now as bad as at any time since the early 1980s.”
  • “Much is made in the United States of Trump’s reluctance to blame Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Bolton explains this reticence by the president’s fear of exposing himself as a beneficiary. This may or may not be plausible.”

“The Imperial Presidency Will Outlast Trump,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 06.22.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The portrait of Mr. Trump drawn by Mr. Bolton is a familiar figure: unconventional, undisciplined, undiplomatic, impulsive, ignorant, strong-willed, focused on personal and political interests, convinced of his intuitive genius, transactional and unscrupulous. … [H]e is as cynical as any of the foreign despots with whom he deals.”
  • “Drawn to neo-isolationism, he resents foreigners who defy him and never wants his base to see him looking weak. He is less interested in solving intractable problems than in using U.S. foreign relations to create conditions that favor his re-election. He is his own worst enemy, and foreign leaders find him less impressive as they learn more.”
  • “It isn't only that countries will promote the interests of their big companies, or that industrial technologies like 5G have strategic and economic importance. Russia and China aren't democracies, but Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have domestic economic constituencies that they need to keep happy. Discussions about Gazprom and Huawei aren't solely about economics and trade; they are about Russian and Chinese internal politics.”
  • “This means that sometimes—frequently, even—American presidents will be making decisions that either help foreign leaders stay in power or create political problems for them at home. Those leaders will reciprocate: Mr. Xi can either buy or not buy goods from U.S. farm states in the same way that Mr. Trump can either help or hinder Huawei.”
  • “It is inevitable that some presidents will be tempted to abuse this authority; it is undeniable that all presidents will need it. The so-called imperial presidency, developed in the 1960s as the Cold War necessities of global engagement, concentrated decision-making power in the Oval Office. Even as Mr. Trump's erratic approach to the presidency illustrates the dangers of executive power, the new shape of world politics is conspiring to make the U.S. presidency more powerful still.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Russia’s Constitutional Amendments Keep Several Futures Open for Putin,” Marlene Laruelle, Russia Matters, 06.25.20The author, the director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, writes:

  • “That the Russian regime in its current form needs to be transformed in order to remain legitimate is recognized by most political actors, but such transformation is systematically postponed to an indeterminate ‘after’—namely, after Putin. And, indeed, the list of amendments to the constitution sends mixed messages regarding future political transformations: it marks a potential strengthening of representative institutions while at the same time reinforcing the ‘vertical of power.’”
  • “For instance, the amendments provide for reducing the authority of the presidency in favor of the parliament. … However, other amendments consolidate the famous ‘vertical of power’ and accentuate the centralization of decision-making.”
  • “Paradoxes, no doubt, constitute one of the driving forces of the regime’s longevity. Far from being an immobile structure, the regime continues to show an impressive capacity to adapt to new contexts and take on new and challenging geopolitical environments. … The amendments open two different futures for Russia: one that is more parliamentary and therefore potentially more plural; and one that is more centralized, and so, one can assume, is likely to be operated by security agencies.”
  • “On some other aspects, the amendments are less diffident. For instance, two other important additions to the constitution are directly linked to reinforcing Russia’s sovereignty against the so-called liberal world order. First, the amendments would give precedence to Russian law over international treaties and obligations. … Second, the revised constitution would forbid any action in favor of the ‘separation of a territory’ … including calls for separatism.”
  • “Among all the measures announced by the amendments, the social package is the key selling point to the wider population. … The revised constitution will likely have no tangible repercussions on Russia’s foreign policy, only reinforcing already existing trends by inscribing them into the country’s highest law. Traditional values, patriotism, religion, sovereignty/isolation, centralization—all the ideological grammar of Putin’s regime finds itself consolidated.”

“Putin Has Already Decided the Outcome of Russia's Sham Plebiscite,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 06.25.20The author, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes:

  • “Russians began voting [June 25] in a week-long plebiscite intended to ratify a series of constitutional amendments, the most important of which would waive presidential term limits and allow Vladimir Putin⁠—in power for 20 years and already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin⁠—to extend his rule until 2036. After considering more sophisticated options, such as becoming chairman of the newly constituted State Council or creating a new country through a merger with Belarus, Putin took a simpler road traveled by dictators all over the map, from Egypt to Venezuela.”
  • “There will be no independent observation, either domestic or international [of voting]. Journalists won't be allowed to cover the vote count. Poll monitors will be limited to those appointed by the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-controlled body. There will be no universal video surveillance at polling places, which was a concession after the 2011 protests. The week-long early voting in the run-up to the polling day of July 1 means that ballots will be stored in electoral commissions every night, with no independent oversight.”
  • “No one is even really pretending. Last week, bookstores in Moscow began selling booklets with the constitution as amended by Putin, before the vote had even begun. … In the system created by Putin, Russia's political future will be decided on the streets, not at the ballot box. It won't be this week or the next. But it will certainly be much sooner than 2036.”

“How a Tech Company Prevailed Against the State in Putin's Russia,” Alexander Baunov, The Washington Post, 06.23.20: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “In Vladimir Putin's Russia, is it possible for a private technology company to defy the state and win an unequal battle? It seems unlikely, but that is what happened [June 18] when the Roskomnadzor, the state communications watchdog better known for blocking sites and social media, announced it was lifting a ban on the popular Telegram messaging app.”
  • “Unlike in China or Turkey, Russia's leaders are reluctant to block major international platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia. Ordinary Russians are used to them, and blocking them would cause a public backlash. The relatively young Telegram seemed an easier target to demonstrate to others that they needed to obey.”
  • “Over time, the attempt to show the state's strength and decisiveness in the face of a defiant private company turned into exactly the opposite. It became a teaching example of the state's weakness. The final victory was won during the pandemic. The Moscow city government and other government bodies used the officially blocked … Telegram as the most convenient and rapid tool to share information with the media and public about the virus, restrictive measures and other developments.”
  • “Now, with the government's announcement last week, the battle with Telegram is over. The head of the Roskomnadzor was dismissed but landed a comfortable position with one of Russia's state corporations. Telegram agreed to disclose the IP addresses and phone numbers of suspected terrorists after having received a court decision, but has not handed over the encryption keys or the messages of the suspects. Still, the legislation aimed at subduing the Internet and the tech industry continues to exist, as does the wish of the state to make it more submissive. … Can state bodies ever be in advance of market tech companies? And can the Russian state ever succeed in this domain so long as it maintains its present views on the Internet, shaped by the current occupant of the Kremlin?”

“Russian Federalism: Informal Elite Games Against Formal Democratic Institutions,” Irina Busygina and Mikhail Filippov, PONARS Eurasia, June 2020The authors, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and an associate professor at Binghamton University, write:

  • “In Russia, formal constitutional principles of federalism cannot be abolished without putting the country’s political stability at significant risk. Even the Soviet leadership could not afford to take such chances. The size of the Russian territory, its diversity, the importance of its historical memory (both the Russian Empire and the Soviet federal construction) and the presence of ethnic regions all make abolishing formal constitutional principles unpractical. Thus, federalism as a constitutional principle is invariably maintained by the Russian leadership. Yet many scholars say that federal institutions do not work in Russia, or that a genuine federal principle is simply inconsistent with authoritarian rule.”
  • “In the specific Russian context, regional politicians have little incentive to demand institutional changes. They are de-facto nonelected, appointed politicians and their political survival depends largely on the approval of the presidential administration. Furthermore, regional authorities have no incentive to challenge Moscow collectively (in any organized or institutionalized form, such as via the lower house of parliament or Federation Council). Instead, regional politicians prefer to seek benefits for their regions in exchange for political obedience and loyalty. Thus, in the Russian authoritarian setting, the prevailing incentives of electorally unpopular incumbents in combination with the nation-wide recession may lead to only a temporary shift of administrative responsibilities to the regions. Afterward, we will likely see an increase in economic and political centralization.”

“Russia and the Woolly Mammoth Trade: How Climate Change Drives Illegal Tusk Trafficking,” Emily Ferris and Joanna Hosa, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 06.24.20The authors, a research fellow at RUSI and the deputy director of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, write:

  • “Thawing permafrost in these Far Eastern regions has for the past few decades begun to expose the bones of prehistoric mammoth tusks, which have been buried in the ice for thousands of years. Although prospecting for the tusks without a license is illegal, increasing numbers of hunters are searching for them, which are then illegally trafficked across the border and on to Asian markets, particularly China. It is a potentially lucrative enterprise, with profits that far exceed locals’ salaries.”
  • “Without clear domestic and international legislation to regulate this industry, and as climate change continues to warm many of Russia’s permafrost regions, prospecting and the illegal trafficking of mammoth tusks is only likely to increase.”
  • “As virtually all mammoth ivory originates from Siberian and Far Eastern parts of Russia, if a solution to regulating the market is to be found, Russia must be prepared to be at forefront of those efforts.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia's New Nuclear Strategy: Unanswered Questions,” Maxim Starchak, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 06.26.20The author, a research fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University in Canada, writes:

  • “Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence.”
  • “In general, the Basic Principles name no specific countries or military alliances that Russia considers a potential threat. … It is interesting to speculate whether China, with its nuclear capabilities, is a potential adversary in this context.”
  • “How does one define which countries consider Russia as an adversary? Is a statement made by a country’s leadership which explicitly considers Russia a hostile state required?”
  • “Threats posed by unrecognized or undeclared nuclear states are not mentioned either. Is Russian nuclear policy dismissive of these challenges?”  
  • “The latest Basic Principles document includes concepts which are too nebulous, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Sadly, therefore, its publication has not made Russia's nuclear policy any clearer, safer or more predictable. All it has done is leave us with many questions.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia-Serbia Special Relationship Is on Borrowed Time,” Maxim Samorukov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.24.20The author, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of, writes:

  • “Serbian elections have long been dominated by pro-Russian politicians. There are few who would dare criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is popular among Serbs. Still, the outcome of the June 21 parliamentary election broke all the records: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Moscow’s closest ally in the Balkans, gained control of nearly all the seats. His faction, together with its junior coalition partners, now has more than 230 of the 250 seats.”
  • “A parliament in which all the deputies vote unanimously is perfect for resolving the main problem in Serbian foreign policy: Kosovo. Whatever that resolution may be, it will mean an end to the previous ‘special relationship’ between Russia and Serbia. … It looks highly likely that Vucic will sign an agreement with Kosovo in the next few months.”
  • “The Trump administration, which is mediating the talks, is gunning for a diplomatic victory ahead of the presidential election in November, and is prepared to ignore European objections and consider the most controversial solutions to the conflict, including a Kosovo-Serbia land swap.”
  • “The imminent agreement between Serbia and Kosovo—or rather, between Vucic and Thaci—will put Russia in a very difficult position in the Balkans. Essentially, Russia will no longer be needed. Its main partner in the region is Serbia, and its trump card in that relationship is Russia’s right to veto Kosovo’s accession to the U.N. When the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is signed, that will all disappear overnight, and Russia has nothing to offer as a substitute.”
  • “If Vucic wants to, he will use his control of Serbian politics and media to lavish praise on cooperation with Russia. If he changes his mind, he can play on the West’s fears of the Russian threat, as he has done in the past. There are hardly any pro-Russian organizations left in Serbia that have not come under Vucic’s control, and that means that Russian influence in the country will only be as widespread as the Serbian leader allows it to be.”

“Russia Wants to Keep Mongolia in Its Place,” Sergey Radchenko, Foreign Policy, 06.26.20The author, a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, writes:

  • “On June 24, Russia held a massive military parade, technically to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. … The latest row [between Mongolia and Russia] erupted when the Mongolian National Broadcaster (MNB) scrapped plans to air the Russian parade in a live broadcast. It had originally planned to show the parade, partly because the Mongolian government resolved to send a small detachment of soldiers to march in the spectacle in a gesture of respect for Russia. But realizing that the rescheduled parade would coincide with the Mongolian election, MNB decided to pull the broadcast, citing concerns over perceptions of election day bias.”
  • “The Russian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar lashed out against this decision in a mean-tempered public post on its Facebook page, accusing MNB of an ‘aberration of vision’ and even subservience to Western interests: ‘Perhaps the MNB board of directors inadvertently joined … a whole campaign of accusing Russia of electoral interference nearly everywhere in the world?’”
  • “Unfortunately, unlike the European countries that can laugh off Russia’s trolling or perhaps take it seriously and rally in defiance of Putin’s regime, Mongolia has limited options. Moscow senses this vulnerability and will, of course, exploit it. In the long term, the very existence of an open, democratic Mongolia poses a challenge to China and Russia, and for this reason the survival of democracy in the country is an open question.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Russia Cannot Afford Another 15 Years at War With The West: Vladimir Putin should brush off the Cold War cobwebs in pursuit of a hard-headed look at national interests,” Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 06.25.20The author, associate editor of the news outlet, writes:

  • “One more heave, Mr. Putin may be thinking, and Mr. Trump will destroy NATO from within. … Whether he [Trump] enjoys defeat or victory in November, NATO will outlast this president. The question a strategically-minded leader in Moscow should be asking is why Russia continues to view the alliance as such a threat. Mr. Putin would do better to look eastward to the ever more assertive foreign policy of Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
  • “On one level, the present Sino-Russian axis makes perfect sense. Both nations reject the American-designed postwar global order and repudiate the notion of a rules-based system rooted in western values. Both favor a Westphalian order in which the strong carve out spheres of influence.”
  • “For. Mr Xi the gains speak for themselves. Moscow offers secure supplies of oil and gas to sustain the growth of the Chinese economy. The relationship provides strategic reassurance as Beijing confronts the U.S. in pursuit of maritime hegemony in the western Pacific. Looking ahead, depopulated swaths of Russian Siberia offer an opportunity for economic expansion. Mr. Putin’s forays in Ukraine and the Middle East are a bonus, distracting U.S. attention from Chinese expansionism in east Asia.”
  • “The advantages for Russia of such an unequal partnership are not so obvious. Yes, Mr Putin gets a comrade-in-arms for his denunciations of Western liberalism but at the expense of watching Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative undercutting Russian power in central Asia. Mr. Xi’s plan to open the Northern Sea route to Europe threatens to undercut Russian interests in the Arctic. An expansive view of China’s influence-building in eastern and central Europe would raise fears of strategic encirclement. … Mr. Putin is a creature of the Soviet KGB. It may well be that it is too late for him to escape his own nostalgia. But a leader planning to hold on to power for another 15 years might take the time for a strategic stock-take. The challenges and risks lie to Russia's east.”


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“People Are Finally Fed Up With Belarus’s Leader. Will They Be Heard?,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 06.24.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is a fabled fence-walker, balancing between East and West. He is a recidivist election fixer, rigging presidential contests, and a notorious strongman who tolerates little dissent. All this has kept him in power for a quarter of a century. But as he seeks a sixth term in a presidential election set for Aug. 9, he confronts signs of discontent.”
  • “A popular YouTuber, Sergei Tikhanovsky, summoned thousands of people to sign ballot petitions under an anti-corruption slogan of ‘Stop the cockroach,’ and supporters brought slippers, the preferred way to squash household pests. He drove around in a car with a giant slipper tied to the roof.”
  • “Then, a longtime Minsk banker, Viktor Babariko, set out to challenge Mr. Lukashenko and collected what he says are 400,000 signatures, far more than the 100,000 required to get on the ballot. Mr. Babariko, who led a bank closely tied to Russia's national gas giant, Gazprom, has called for democracy, separation of powers and presidential term limits, and says he wants a country ‘where the people are respected.’”
  • “Mr. Lukashenko has survived past challenges, by portraying himself as the only choice for stability, rigging the election and jailing foes. But this time he faces unhappiness not only over economic stagnation but also over his lackluster pandemic response, which consisted of ridiculing concerns about the virus and advising people to head to the sauna and drink more vodka.”
  • “The recent developments suggest that Mr. Lukashenko's grip at home is less sure. People are fed up with his antics and exhausted by economic stagnation. The question is whether they can be heard on Aug. 9, or whether Mr. Lukashenko will resort to fraud and force to hang on once more.”

“Political Upheaval in Belarus? Lukashenko Scrambles to Keep Power,” Vitaly Shkliarov, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 06.25.20: The author, a Harvard University fellow, writes:

  • “The truth is that Belarus is on its own in this [August presidential] election. The West hasn’t been able to move the needle in Belarus despite years of pressure on Lukashenko to loosen his authoritarian grip on the people and improve his human rights record. And Russia knows that Belarus is at the mercy of its cheap oil and will use its economic leverage as much as it can to prevent another color revolution in the region. The people of Belarus need to change their fate themselves. The upcoming weeks will determine whether they will be able to seize this moment in time to move their country in a different direction.”
  • “Lukashenko is a shrewd politician who has survived in a tough region for a long time. He may just have a few more pages in his playbook to keep himself in power.”

“Ex-Soviet Bioweapons Labs Are Fighting COVID-19. Moscow Doesn’t Like It,” Paul Stronski, Foreign Policy, 06.25.20The author, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:

  • “Back in an era of U.S. global leadership—before Washington turned its back on international cooperation—the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative in 1991 created a series of U.S. taxpayer-funded laboratories in former Soviet republics including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The purpose of these labs, most of which started out as Soviet-era facilities, was to help scientists in former Soviet republics secure and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons stocks and biowarfare capabilities.”
  • “Today, this artifact of U.S. multilateral benevolence is leading the way in enhanced disease monitoring, public health initiatives and the training of biosecurity experts who are on the front lines of their nation’s coronavirus responses. … The Russian government has repeatedly asked for and received information about the laboratories, and Russian media have been given access to them”
  • “None of this has stopped Russian disinformation about the labs’ alleged sinister activities. In 2019, a prominent Russian television talk-show host called on the Russian military to launch airstrikes on the Kazakhstan facility. In January, Russian television began insinuating that Georgia’s lab was somehow involved in the creation of the coronavirus, while Russian trolls have peddled similarly false stories on social media that the Kazakh lab also leaked the virus. In June, a Russian newspaper attacked the Uzbek Institute of Virology with wildly false claims that American and British researchers at the facility leaked brucellosis into the general population. Beijing has now joined the mix … These disinformation campaigns have prompted harsh rebukes from governments of the region.”
  • “The benefits of U.S. foreign-policy programs are rarely felt in the daily life of Americans. … But these laboratories that have their origins in a broad bipartisan effort in the U.S. Congress—another rarity today—are a reminder of the positive power of U.S. leadership and its capacity to improve so many lives around the world.”