Russia Analytical Report, June 24-July 1, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The latest meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin might mark the beginning of a new stage in U.S.-Russian relations, one of more intensive dialogue. Even if it does, rapid progress on any of the many issues of world order, regional conflicts and values that divide the two countries is unlikely, according to Dr. Thomas Graham. Moreover, there is also the danger that the Trump administration is grievously overestimating what it can accomplish with Russia on Iran and China, setting the stage for a sharp deterioration in relations once Russia has disappointed Trump’s expectations, Graham warns.
  • Putin’s assertion that liberalism has “outlived its usefulness” is less an expression of deeply held convictions than a tactical device, argues Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. What Putin believes has become obsolete is the liberal world order—he wants to keep any talk of values out of international politics and forge pragmatic relationships based on specific interests, Bershidsky writes.
  • Crimea remains annexed to Russian, with no sign that Moscow will ever return the peninsula to Ukraine, yet Russia’s voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were restored a little more than five years after the annexation, writes FPRI senior fellow Nikolas K. Gvosdev. This step makes it easier to later restore other aspects of the pre-2014 Russia-Europe relationship, he writes, and Crimea may end up joining Abkhazia, South Ossetia and North Cyprus as unrecognized territorial changes in Europe that have been set aside in the grand scheme of things. 
  • During the snap parliamentary elections set to take place in Ukraine on July 21, several major parties are set to be wiped out electorally after failing to clear the 5 percent threshold necessary to join parliament, writes Vladislav Davidzon, chief editor of The Odessa Review. The ranks of liberal lawmakers who had been the backbone of the reform process over the last five years will be especially hard-hit, according to Davidzon.
  • Recent protests in Tbilisi have made clear the boundaries for rapprochement between Georgia and Russia, yet they have also increased the security and economic risks the country faces, write Kornely Kakachia and Bidzina Lebanidze of the Georgian Institute of Politics. They argue the Kremlin has now realized that its soft power, including access to the Russian market, interpersonal contacts and shared Orthodox Christianity, has failed.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • See section on “U.S.-Russia relations in general.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

“Trump Says War With Iran Wouldn’t Last Very Long. He Hasn’t Read Enough History,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 06.27.19: The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes:

  • “The U.S.-Iran showdown is a classic test between a strong nation and a much weaker one. An embattled Tehran has seemingly tried to goad the United States … Trump hasn’t retaliated militarily, but his loose talk Tuesday [June 25] of the ‘obliteration’ of Iran keeps the pot boiling, as Tehran probably wants. … On Wednesday [June 26], Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, again spurned Trump’s call for diplomacy. … Its defiance moved into a higher gear Thursday when, by its own account, Iran said it would break the cap on uranium enrichment set by the 2015 nuclear agreement.”
  • “History teaches us that ruinous wars often begin when powerful nations misjudge weaker ones or think that they can determine political outcomes by force. … Trump … insisted that any war with Iran ‘wouldn’t last very long’ and that combat would be limited … If Trump read more history, he might see another recurring weakness in his foreign policy. Disastrous wars often begin because powerful nations ignore weaker nations’ need to maintain the appearance of dignity.”
  • “Watching Trump’s nasty tirades and tiffs, other nations are learning how to play the disruption game, too. … Israel’s response as this crisis escalates, interestingly, is to reach for diplomatic help from its new friends in Moscow. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week hosted the national security advisers of Russia, the United States and Israel to talk about removing Iranian forces from Syria.”
  • “The Iran confrontation now carries a genuine risk of military conflict. … Skirmishes and shoot-downs are not the same as all-out war; an Iranian attack should not trigger an instant spasm of “obliteration” that would take decades to repair.”
  • “Trump must realize that he’s entering dangerous territory, politically as well as militarily. Perhaps it’s dawning on him that a needless war with Iran would be the most likely path to his defeat in 2020.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“INF Treaty Defenders Raise the Risk of Nuclear War,” Elbridge Colby and Mike Gallagher, Wall Street Journal, 07.01.19: The authors, the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security and a U.S. Representative, write:

  • “The best way to reduce the chance of nuclear confrontation with great-power competitors is by having conventional forces able to repel any invasion of U.S. allies, and conventional ground-based missile systems would help. Nor would they undermine any efforts to manage nuclear risks. The original INF pact was essentially about nuclear weapons; conventional missiles were included largely for verification reasons. The R&D funding the House zeroed out wasn't even prohibited under the treaty.”
  • “For Moscow or Beijing, the best strategy for victory in attacking a U.S. ally is the fait accompli. If Russia can seize the Baltics, or China seize Taiwan, and harden its position, the U.S. would be forced to mount a massive counterassault to liberate them. In that scenario, the adversary's threat to use nuclear weapons would be more credible. The U.S. should therefore focus on making sure neither Moscow nor Beijing sees this as a plausible option.”
  • “In Europe, shorter-range conventional ground-based missile systems could help degrade, or ideally deny, a Russian attempt at a fait accompli in the Baltics without threatening a deep strike into Russia.”
  • “When House and Senate negotiators meet in conference, senators should demand a 2020 defense spending bill that genuinely reduces the risk of nuclear war by funding such conventional ground-based missiles.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Turkey Between NATO and Russia: The Failed Balance,” Mehmet Yegin, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, June 2019: The author, a visiting fellow at German Institute for International and Security Affairs, writes:

  • “Unless there is a sudden change in Turkey’s position, the negotiations seem likely to move forward on the delivery of the S-400s in July by Russia and the implementation of sanctions by the United States. The latter may create a path dependency for Turkey, which may become more reliant on the Russian defense industry. Having no access to NATO’s supply of crucial weapons, Turkey may be forced to buy more Russian-produced arms.”
  • “U.S. sanctions will not only affect Turkey’s economy negatively but also provide a scapegoat [the United States and NATO] for the Turkish economic crisis. Such a situation may cause an irreparable rise in anti-Western sentiment among the Turkish people. Public opposition in Turkey may bring limitations to future collaboration—even those based on mutual interest—between Ankara and other NATO allies.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Trump Is Quietly Leading Us Closer to Nuclear Disaster,” Steven Andreasen, The Washington Post, 06.27.19: The author, a national security consultant who teaches at the University of Minnesota, writes:

  • “Quietly and under a shadow of unease at home and abroad, the Trump administration is opening the door to U.S. resumption of underground nuclear explosive testing.
  • Why would the Trump administration seek to restart nuclear testing? In March, four Republican senators wrote the president asking whether he would consider ‘unsigning’ the CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty] … In late May, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency stated Russia ‘probably’ is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium. The word ‘probably’ prompted more queries and a new DIA statement: ‘The U.S. government, including the Intelligence Community, has assessed that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield.’”
  • “Are the Russians cheating? Russia's nuclear test site has been under close scrutiny for years. But in the absence of more public information … we have little choice but to assess the administration's charge based on its motivations and methods.”
  • “National security adviser John Bolton and other administration officials are fervent test-ban treaty opponents. … The seemingly out-of-the-blue letter from Republican senators and the DIA director's public remarks had the look of an orchestrated campaign—significantly with no apparent effort to engage with Moscow. … More suspicious, someone in the Trump administration is leaking portions of the classified Clinton directive on activities not prohibited by the treaty, arguing the language ‘not all-inclusive, but illustrative’ suggests uncertainty over the treaty's ban.”
  • “The move to ‘unsign’ the CTBT could lead to more destructive nuclear capabilities in the hands of potential U.S. adversaries and be perceived by non-nuclear-weapon states as the ultimate ‘bait and switch’ … It would fuel uncertainty bordering on chaos for the future of nuclear nonproliferation. … It would be a high price to pay for fulfilling the dreams of those who seek to destroy another treaty.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

"The Osaka Meeting: Is the Tide Turning in US-Russian Relations?" Thomas Graham, Russia Matters, 07.01.19: The author, managing director at Kissinger Associates, writes: 

  • "To the consternation of his bitterest opponents and to the surprise, and relief, of many, U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Osaka on June 28 turned out to be almost routine. The two presidents, along with their senior advisers, exchanged views on a number of top issues, including arms control, Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela—the same ones their national security chiefs had foreshadowed earlier in the week in Jerusalem. As was to be expected, there were no breakthroughs on any of these contentious matters, only agreement to continue the dialogue."
  • "With calamity averted, the question is whether this meeting will help put relations on a more constructive path. It is difficult to say at this point. ... The main task now, as it has been since Trump assumed office, is to rebuild a sustained dialogue after the Obama administration severed most channels of communication in reaction to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine in 2014."
  • "Only two people can conduct that dialogue for the United States: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. ... The Osaka meeting might thus mark the beginning of a new stage in U.S.-Russian relations, one of more intensive dialogue. Even if it does, rapid progress on any of the many issues of world order, regional conflicts and values that divide the two countries is unlikely. The differences are simply too profound, and the issue of strategic stability is particularly complex. Congress’s anti-Russian animus and pressure for further sanctions will also continue to restrict Trump’s latitude in cooperating with Russia. Lurking in the background, moreover, is the danger that the administration is grievously overestimating what it can accomplish with Russia on Iran and China, setting the stage for a sharp deterioration in relations once Russia has disappointed Trump’s expectations. That said, the manner of U.S.-Russian relations is shifting. For better or worse remains to be seen."

“Trump’s Confused Russia Policy Is a Boon for Putin,” Andrew S. Weiss, Politico, 06.25.19: The author, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, writes:

  • “There is still no overarching Russia strategy in place, let alone the discipline to implement it. The administration’s actual day to day policy on Russia is mostly reactive, bordering on incoherent.”
  • “Making matters worse is the propensity of powerful figures to pursue pet policies even if doing so doesn’t obviously align with the president’s stated priorities. For national security adviser John Bolton, that means trying to dismantle what’s left of the U.S.-Russian arms control edifice.”
  • “Then there are thinly disguised tensions between top players at the NSC, State Department and the Pentagon on whether it’s even useful to engage with the Russians. … For his part, Bolton is actively courting Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, including via an unusual three-way conversation in Jerusalem June 25 with their Israeli counterpart.”
  • “The blowback from Trump’s past encounters with Putin have even prompted jokes that the best way to avoid further deterioration to the U.S.-Russian relationship is simply to prevent the two leaders from ever meeting again. … The U.S.-Russian relationship is likely to stay stuck regardless of any grand gestures aimed at turning Putin into his ‘new best friend.’” 

"Geopolitics, Sanctions and Russian Sovereign Debt Since the Annexation of Crimea,” Maximilian Hess, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 06.25.19: The author, a fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “[Western] sanctions, both real and threatened, on Russia’s government, state-owned enterprises and other major enterprises have induced Russia’s government to adjust borrowing practices, currency management and reserves allocation.”
  • “Russia’s Eurobonds, the primary instrument through which the Russian state borrows in foreign currency, have been altered to allow repayment in various currencies, including—in some cases—the ruble.”
  • “The return on sovereign debt establishes a baseline rate for lending, so barring Russia from issuing new debt on Western markets will make it difficult to establish financing rates for all Russian firms. At their most extreme, sovereign debt sanctions could sever Russian-Western financial flows, as seen in Venezuela.”
  • “If the U.S. were to sanction Russian sovereign debt, however, then Russia could turn to such debts to replace Eurobonds. Should the U.S. and Britain proceed with sovereign debt bans, it may cement Russia and China’s geopolitical partnership.”

“G20 Meets a Low Bar for International Cooperation,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 06.30.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “G20 summits are falling into a pattern. Osaka this weekend looked much like a rerun of Buenos Aires seven months ago. U.S. President Donald Trump ratchets up his tariff war with China as the meeting approaches, then agrees with … Xi Jinping to a truce and a resumption of talks. Leaders just about agree on a communiqué restating commitments to the Paris climate change accord, but a separate paragraph lays out U.S. objections.”
  • “The U.S. president’s warm words for Mr. Xi might be explained as tactful diplomacy. Yet Mr. Trump seemed worryingly less interested in meeting allies in Osaka than in hanging out with autocrats. He bantered with Russia’s Vladimir Putin about meddling in U.S. elections. He contradicted his own intelligence services by suggesting ‘nobody . . . has pointed directly’ at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He capped his trip with an all-smiles photo-op with Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula.”
  • “It fell once again to Emmanuel Macron to play the anti-Trump. The French president corralled G20 leaders into endorsing a communiqué calling the Paris agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions irreversible. Despite U.S. dissent, the risk of Turkey and Brazil joining Mr. Trump in rejecting the Paris deal was averted.”
  • “The most notable success was the trade agreement, 20 years in the making, between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trading bloc. … Along with a trade agreement reached with Vietnam … the deal confirmed EU leadership on trade liberalization. It showed, too, that despite the retreat from multilateralism of the U.S., long its main pillar and proponent, international cooperation is still functioning—even if only just.”

“The Trump Foreign Policy Is All Hat and No Cattle,” Daniel W. Drezner, The Washington Post, 07.01.19: The author, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, writes:

  • “As he returned [from G-20 in Japan], Trump claimed a successful trip. He had one-on-one meetings with many of the G-20 leaders. … [T]his appeared to be Trump's principal accomplishment at Osaka: ‘After meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman, Turkey's Recep Tayyep Erdogan and China's Xi Jinping, all of whom have authoritarian tendencies, the president invoked the imperative of strong relationships nine times in a closing news conference at the G-20.”
  • “Trump upped the ante on personal relationships on his next stop. Before flying to Seoul, he tweeted that he'd be visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and asked … Kim Jong Un to meet him there. Kim showed up, Trump became the first U.S. president to set foot in North Korea and they talked for about an hour.”
  • “When you look at action items, you realize just how little Trump achieved on this trip. … On China, the president agreed to a temporary truce. … As for North Korea, both sides agreed to the resumption of working group-level meetings. This is good! But it is also worth remembering that despite Trump's three meetings with Kim, not much has been accomplished in the way of denuclearization.”

“Who Is the Biggest Threat to American National Security?” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 07.01.19: The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Of all of the individuals capable of doing great harm to the United States and sowing chaos … who deserves top billing? … One measurement of account is the possession of nuclear weapons. … Another … is whether a leader disregards the national sovereignty of others. … A third is the application of disruptive information technologies to accentuate division and discord in the United States and allied countries.”
  • “By these measures, Vladimir Putin certainly deserves a high ranking. But does he belong at the very top of our list? He has a history of carving out estuaries of Russian control … but he has been leery of using military power elsewhere … He has interfered in democratic elections … But he doesn’t seem inclined to carry out aggressive wars … [H]e’s clearly Top Five material … but he seems to lack the high degree of recklessness needed to be a chart-topper.”
  • “Kim Jong Un is also Top-Five material. … How about Xi Jinpin? A most worthy competitor, to be sure. … The Caliphate was an idea whose time has passed (again).”
  • “The top two slots in our list of those who can do the most damage to U.S. national security and global standing are owned by Donald Trump and John Bolton. They have already done severe damage and more is in store. U.S. relations with every problematic country except one (North Korea) are in far worse shape … Trump’s pummeling of alliances and strategic partnerships … has been severe and is only partially recoupable. Ditto for America’s international standing.”
  • “It’s been a busy season for Trump and Bolton. Lots of travel and summitry. A meeting with Putin in which Trump grins and tells his fellow disruptor to be on his best behavior during the upcoming U.S. election. There are treaties to undermine and dispense with. In addition to claiming probable Russian violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty … Bolton has forecast that New START’s days are numbered because China isn’t included.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Why Putin Sounds Alt-Right Though He Really Isn’t,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 06.28.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that liberalism has ‘outlived its usefulness’ is less an expression of his deeply held convictions than a tactical device. … In an interview with the Financial Times ahead of the G20 … Putin objected to two aspects of what he calls liberalism: the embrace of immigration and the rejection of rigid, traditional values.”
  • “Putin’s cultural conservatism is consistent and sincere. … On immigration, however, Putin is, in practice, more liberal than most European leaders. He has consistently resisted calls to impose visa requirements on Central Asian countries, an important source of migrant labor. Given Russia’s shrinking working-age population and shortage of manual workers, Putin isn’t about to stem that flow, even though Central Asians are Muslims—the kind of immigrants Merkel’s opponents, including Trump, distrust and fear the most.”
  • “Putin is an imperialist of the old Soviet school, rather than a nationalist or a racist, and he has cooperated with, and promoted, people who are known to be gay. He’s certainly not a liberal … but he’s not far right or alt-right. So why is he saying things that, in the U.S. and especially in Europe, would put him in those camps? One can conclude from the rest of the interview that this is transactional signaling. Putin clearly hasn’t given up on building a relationship with Trump.”
  • “Putin sees Trump, Brexiters, the European far right and alt-right as his natural allies against the established global order … He told the FT interviewers that he considers that world to be dead.”
  • “In other words, what Putin believes has outlived its usefulness isn’t the liberal approach to migration or gender, nor is it liberal economics … It is the liberal world order. Putin wants to keep any talk of values out of international politics and forge pragmatic relationships based on specific interests.”

"No, Mr. Putin, Western Liberalism Is Not Obsolete,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 06.28.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “There is an air of triumphalism in Vladimir Putin’s claim … that liberalism is obsolete … Mr. Putin’s triumphalism is misplaced. Not all of liberalism is under threat. … What is at risk is open borders, and values such as social tolerance, individual rights, democracy and rule of law. The most successful fusion of a market economy with an illiberal political system is not Russia but China.”
  • “The Putin system’s recent record is weak. Thanks to the failure to diversify away from natural resources, coupled with Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, annual growth since Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin has averaged a meagre 1.1 percent. Real household incomes have fallen five years in a row. … [T]he Russian president is finding it harder to contain popular disgruntlement. Few foreign leaders name Russia as a model.”
  • “While America is no longer the shining city on the hill it once seemed, the world’s poor and oppressed still head overwhelmingly for the U.S. and Western Europe … Russia is a magnet neither for the poor, the wealthy nor much recent foreign investment.”
  • “To roll back populism, mainstream parties must take voters’ grievances seriously and find innovative ways to address them. Western governments must ensure the rich, and multinational corporations, are taxed fairly and curb excessive executive pay. They need to invest in services and infrastructure, and in educating workforces to cope with a world of robots and artificial intelligence. They must also accept they are immeasurably stronger and more influential when they pool sovereignty in rules- and values-based institutions.”

“Ukraine Protests as Russia Returns to the Council of Europe,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 06.26.19: The author, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “Russia was suspended from the Council of Europe in 2014 after its seizure of Crimea. … [There is] no sign that Moscow will ever return the peninsula to Ukrainian control, yet its voting rights were restored, a little more than five years later. … [E]ither the exercise of Russian authority over territory that the rest of Europe still recognizes to be sovereign Ukrainian territory is no longer a violation of European standards—or that key European players have decided that this is no longer a central organizing principle of their relationship with Russia.”
  • “[T]his act followed the routine six-month extension of European sanctions against Russia, so the signal being sent from Europe is quite confused. Yet this decision comes right after new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had met with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and asked them to prevent Russia's reinstatement.”
  • “The position taken by Germany and France is that the decision does not constitute approval of Russia's annexations … but is a necessary step to restore channels of dialogue … Having taken this step, it becomes easier, down the line, to restore other aspects of the pre-2014 Russia-Europe relationship. Crimea may end up joining Abkhazia, South Ossetia and North Cyprus as unrecognized territorial changes in Europe that have been set aside in the grand scheme of things.”
  • “It also suggests that the last-minute U.S. effort to try and sanction Russia's energy lines that bypass Ukraine to directly connect Moscow to its European customers will not gain sufficient support … Ukraine needs to keep its concerns about Crimea and Donbass directly linked to the European (and American) relationship with Russia in order to retain any leverage over Moscow.”
  • “The trans-Atlantic consensus that Barack Obama and Angela Merkel forged on Ukraine has held for five years … Whether the decision to reinstate Russia in the Council of Europe represents an exception or an opening wedge remains to be seen.”

“Russia Rejoins PACE—But the Battle Isn’t Over in Europe,” Andrey Kortunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.27.19: The author, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes:

  • “In a late-night debate on June 24, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) … passed a resolution reforming the mechanism for applying sanctions against its member countries, and restoring the full rights of the Russian delegation, which had been curbed in 2014 over events in Ukraine. The resolution was voted for by 118 deputies, while sixty-two voted against it and ten abstained.”
  • “For now, the European pragmatists have won. But this is not the end of the standoff between them and their skeptic rivals. The pragmatists will now face heightened political risk for a long time … Any actions or even statements by Russia that could directly or indirectly confirm the skeptics’ fears will now unleash a barrage of criticism not only of Moscow, but also of those who allowed the Russian delegation to return.”
  • “It’s in Russia’s interests to do everything possible not only to retain the support of the pragmatists, but to convince the skeptics that their fears are unfounded. This will require long and painstaking work, as well as superhuman diplomatic mastery. But first of all, it will require a sincere desire not only to get Russia’s position across to its partners, but also to identify areas of common interest on the most sensitive issues dividing Europe along an east-west axis.” 

“What Does Putin Really Want?” Sarah A. Topol, New York Times Magazine, 06.25.19: The author, a contributing writer for the magazine, writes:

  • “It didn’t seem to me that Russia was pushing a grand strategy so much as responding to opportunities in order to do exactly what Andrey Baykov, vice rector of  the Moscow State Institute of International Relations said the country would: ‘to be an autonomous player, to uphold its identity of a great power which is strategically independent.’”
  • “If we look at the world through Russian eyes, the plan is working, but it isn’t the plan we thought it was. Russia did not break the back of the international world order, as much as it recognized the opportunities created by American withdrawal and the new era of global bardak (bardak technically means “mess” but is also used colloquially to describe utter chaos).”


“How to Address the Greater Russia-China Alignment,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, The National Interest, 06.26.19: The authors, a senior fellow and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, write:

  • “Tensions between the United States and both Russia and China continue to run high; meanwhile, Xi and Putin are drawing closer. The two leaders have been strengthening ties in ways that will make it more difficult for Washington to compete with either country. In this great-power triangle, Trump increasingly looks like the odd man out. … At the heart of the alignment between China and Russia is their shared interest in undermining U.S. influence globally.”
  • “The implications of increasing alignment … are already apparent. Russia and China are in virtual lockstep in their approach to North Korea and they are cooperating to support Iran … Moscow and Beijing also share interests in propping up Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. … [T]hey coordinated their positions in the United Nations to block a statement condemning the Sudanese military government’s killing of civilians.”
  • “As cooperation between them grows, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to protect its interests around the world. … Perhaps nowhere would the impact of greater collaboration between China and Russia be more significant than in the realm of democratic norms and practices.”
  • “Washington must look for opportunities to strain the seams in the Russia-China relationship. Russia and China compete in the Middle East, for example, for military sales and nuclear energy deals. … [T]heir very different approaches to Europe could be a source of strain. … In communicating with Beijing, Washington should underscore how Russian interference in these countries could generate instability that threatens China’s growing economic interests.”
  • “Pushing back against the illiberal influence of an aligned Russia and China will require the collective heft of allies and partners. … The prosperity, security and legitimacy of the United States and its European allies as democracies governed by the will of their citizens represent a rebuke to the Chinese and Russian regimes and, united, will stymie their bid for global leadership.”


“The Death of Ukraine’s Liberals: Western-oriented reformers are about to get completely wiped out in parliamentary elections—and they have nobody to blame but themselves,” Vladislav Davidzon, Foreign Policy, 06.28.19: The author, chief editor of The Odessa Review, writes:

  • “According to polls, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party … stands ready to receive up to half of all cast ballots during the snap parliamentary elections … set to take place on July 21. … Several major parties are set to be wiped out electorally after failing to clear the 5 percent threshold necessary to join parliament. The ranks of liberal lawmakers who had been the backbone of the reform process over the last five years will be especially hard-hit.”
  • “Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, and the western Ukraine-based Samopomich (‘Self-reliance’) party are two major parties with distinct platforms formed in the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution, but even their critics acknowledge that both have been home to many of the most creative and reform-oriented members of parliament. Both parties are currently represented by dozens of MPs; both seem set be eliminated entirely from representation in the next parliament.”
  • “There are many reasons for Ukrainians’ dissatisfaction with the reformers they entrusted in 2014 to help change the country, but the irony is that the liberals inadvertently contributed to the atmosphere that has led to their own political demise.”
  • “The reformists’ harsh criticism of the corruption of former President Poroshenko’s government didn’t just create an atmosphere of impatience for gains that by any objective measure would take decades to take hold. It also helped produce public disenchantment with the entire political class … Ukrainians are in no longer in any mood to make nuanced distinctions between insiders and the principled opposition.”
  • “The Ukrainian Maidan reformers also did not help their case with their incessant infighting.”

“Understanding Volodymyr Zelensky’s Foreign Policy Priorities for Ukraine,” Mathieu Boulègue and Leo Litra, Chatham House, 06.25.19: The authors, a research fellow and a senior research fellow with Chatham House, write:

  • “Volodymyr Zelensky’s priority is domestic, not foreign policy, so his approach to international relations is only starting to take shape. … Zelensky’s likely to pay less attention to international affairs than his predecessor … It appears from the outset that he is focusing on continued balanced relations with Ukraine’s Western partners.”
  • “Growing ‘Ukraine fatigue’ across the EU and pressing internal issues in Brussels constrain Zelensky’s foreign policy. … Another concern is the increasing number of EU member states who are skeptical towards sanctions against Russia. Kiev may find that unconditional European support for Ukraine can no longer be taken for granted, it will have to be won.”
  • “Zelensky’s priority in Donbass is the human dimension of the conflict, but regaining the sympathy of compatriots in the occupied territories requires tools Ukraine does not possess: access to the media in the occupied territories and freedom of movement … Despite Zelenskyi's more moderate line on Russia compared to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin has given him no room for maneuver.”
  • “Relations with Washington will be high on Zelensky’s agenda. However, in the last months of Poroshenko’s mandate, bilateral relations were affected by statements from Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who mentioned the possible role of Ukraine in influencing the result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as in an investigation into Joe Biden’s son. This could have an unpredictable impact on the domestic agenda in Washington in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections.”

“Ukraine’s Counterintuitive Democratic Stoicism: Supporting Democracy-Building in a War-Torn State,” Mikhail Alexseev, PONARS Eurasia, June 2019: The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “Persistent support [in Ukraine] for democratic values and institutions and Western orientation is testimony to a unique combination of geopolitical and societal conditions that have shaped responses to the Donbass war.”
  • “It is still a hard act to pull through. In policy terms, it points to the importance of a coordinated multipronged strategy, if Ukraine is to develop and improve its democratic governance. It has to defy the venerable Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, who concluded that it is impossible to build a state and fight a war at the same time.”
  • “Ukraine needs utmost external support—military and diplomatic—to hold the line and contain Russian expansionism to minimize shocks to the system. It also needs to sustain all basic democracy components beyond ensuring free and fair elections—particularly those that deal with checks and balances. And a significantly stronger effort needs to be invested in public education promoting understanding of the strength and weaknesses of democratic governance.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Georgian Dream Meets Georgia’s Nightmare: The party tried to improve ties with Russia. Then the public intervened,” Kornely Kakachia and Bidzina Lebanidze, Foreign Policy, 06.25.19: The authors, the director and a senior analyst of the Georgian Institute of Politics, write:

  • “For the last several days, Georgia’s capital has been rocked by anti-government rallies. The protesters are infuriated by the ruling Georgian Dream party’s increasingly close relationship with Russia, signaled most recently by its decision to invite a Russian legislator to address the Georgian Parliament. Georgian Dream responded to the protests by directing the police to fire on the 10,000 people who had gathered with rubber bullets and tear gas.”
  • “The incident has both tarnished Georgian Dream’s already stained image … and revealed the radical aims of the main opposition United National Movement (UNM), which attempted to storm Parliament.”
  • “A negative attitude toward Russia is among the few commonalities that unites Georgia’s otherwise polarized society. … [A]ccording to a 2018 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research, 85 percent of Georgians consider Russia to be a ‘political threat.’”
  • “The recent protests have made clear the boundaries for rapprochement between Georgia and Russia. Yet they have also increased the security and economic risks the country faces. The Kremlin has now realized that its soft power … has failed.”
  • “If history has taught us anything, Moscow may well respond to that failure with coercion. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cancellation of direct flights by Russian airlines between Georgia and Russia could be the first step. And the Georgian government may soon discover that heightening the country’s economic dependence on Russia was shortsighted.”

“Georgian Dream Is Dealt a Double Blow,” Dimitri Avaliani, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.25.19: The author, an editor of JAMnews, writes:

  • “The political crisis that erupted suddenly in Georgia on June 20 destroyed two big ideas that had sustained the authority of the Georgian Dream coalition: that it was mild and tolerant toward the public, and that it had delivered a successful normalization of relations with Moscow.”
  • “The violent suppression of an opposition protest, followed by Russia’s canceling of commercial flights to Georgia on alleged grounds of national security, makes it hard for Georgian Dream to stay in power next year.”

“Wait—Why Are the US, Russia and the EU Suddenly Cooperating in Moldova?” Mitchell A. Orenstein and Ecaterina Locoman, The Washington Post, 06.27.19: The authors, a professor and a scholar in political science, write:

  • “Why are Russia, the United States and the European Union suddenly cooperating in Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, to support a new government led by a pro-EU prime minister? The alliance hardly seems likely, considering the political warfare that has included economic sanctions, disinformation campaigns and sharp competition for supremacy in the lands between Russia and the European Union. And yet even the pro-Russian president of Moldova called the new government ‘a success of East-West diplomacy and ... probably a bridge between the West and the Russian Federation.’
  • “Moldova held parliamentary elections in February—but until June 8, none of the parties could either rule on its own or form a coalition government with the others. The pro-EU ACUM bloc … refused to cooperate with the corrupt and nominally pro-EU Democratic Party of Moldova … The pro-Russian Socialist Party, by contrast, appeared to welcome a coalition with the ruling Democrats.”
  • “But this outcome was vetoed by the Kremlin … [which] supported an improbable anti-Plahotniuc coalition between the pro-EU ACUM bloc and the pro-Russian Socialists. … It took a spate of international diplomacy to force a compromise. … [O]n June 8, the Socialists and the ACUM bloc announced that they were forming a “partnership” — not a coalition — with the goal of ousting the ruling Democratic Party and curtailing corruption and oligarchic influence in the country. The West and Russia agreed to support a government coalition between ACUM and the Socialists.”
  • “Russian and Western leaders [then] closely cooperated on wresting Moldova from the control of its leading oligarch. … For now, the pro-EU parties will rule in partnership with the pro-Russian Socialists. But despite this fragile alliance of convenience, the competition between Russia and the EU for power over this small country remains as fierce and dynamic as ever.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin’s Big Bet on Gold Is Paying Off,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 06.25.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “For years, Russia has been the world’s biggest sovereign gold bug: even while gold prices were in the doldrums, it doggedly kept increasing its reserves. Now that gold is at the highest level since 2013, the tactic appears to be paying off.”
  • “The U.S. dollar’s dominance as a global reserve currency is commonly thought to result from the dearth of safe assets. Russia, however, recently has provided an example of how a sizable economy with the world’s fifth biggest international reserves can minimize dollar assets and still do well.”
  • “Since being hit by sanctions for its aggression against Ukraine in 2014, Russia has had good reasons to rethink the composition of its international reserve. While the European Union hasn’t toughened its sanctions for almost five years, the U.S. has been doing it all the time.”
  • “The Kremlin and the Bank of Russia consider the risk of further restrictions unpredictable and dependent more on U.S. domestic politics than on anything Russia does. In the 12 months since the end of September 2017, the central bank has more than halved the dollar’s share in its international assets and sharply increased the shares of the euro and the renminbi. These data, the latest available from the central bank, show the share of gold slightly dropping, even though Russia added 274 metric tons of the metal to its reserves in 2018, bringing its total reserves to 2,113 tons.”
  • “Putin’s regime moved first among big reserve holders to phase out the dollar because it had the biggest reasons to fear the U.S. The current and future U.S. administrations should tread carefully to avoid giving others similar incentives … While Russia’s economic management in general leaves much to be desired, the country’s approach to building international reserves is looking more and more prescient.”

“What Is the State’s Share in Russia’s Economy?” Nini Arshakuni and Natasha Yefimova-Trilling, RM, 06.29.19: The authors, a former graduate assistant and the editor of Russia Matters, write:

  • “Earlier this year, … Oleg Deripaska told the Financial Times that the Russian state holds 70 percent of the country’s economy in its hands; this figure has been bandied about since at least May 2014, when an International Monetary Fund paper made the claim. Russia’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Service gave a similar estimate for 2017-2018, although without citing specific sources and using indefinitive language.”
  • “At the same time, respected international organizations and researchers have offered plenty of competing assessments, mostly in a range from 25 to 55 percent … and several experts queried by Russia Matters agree that the most realistic numbers they’ve seen in the past two years fall between 33 and 46 percent.”
  • “Despite this smaller share, the experts have seen a trend of strategic nationalization under Russian President Vladimir Putin and they doubt the coming years will bring greater efficiency or competition to Russia’s economy.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia’s Military Posture in the Arctic: Managing Hard Power in a ‘Low Tension’ Environment,” Mathieu Boulègue, Chatham House, 06.28.19: The author, a research fellow with Chatham House, writes:

  • “Russia’s military posture in the Arctic is informed by the changing geopolitical environment, and can no longer be considered in isolation from the country’s growing tensions with the West. In this sense, the period of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’—in which … the region has been treated as a zone of depoliticized cooperation—is coming to an end.”
  • “Certainly, the Russian Arctic is not exceptional for Moscow in military-operational terms. Russia’s leadership has accorded the same threat perception to the Arctic as it has to other theatres of operation … Russia’s military build-up in the [region] … primarily aims to ensure perimeter defense of the Kola Peninsula for the survivability of second-strike nuclear assets. … Another Russian priority is to ensure the Northern Fleet’s access to, and passage along, the Northern Sea Route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.”
  • “Russia acts as a status quo power and a reluctant rule-follower in the Arctic, partly because international law there plays in its favor, and partly because it is in Russia’s interest to do so. Despite growing tension, cooperation between Russia and other Arctic nations is likely to endure.”
  • “Russia’s military leadership rules out starting a conflict in the Arctic, and would push any Arctic-based conflict towards sea lines of communication between the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. However, the risk exists of escalation and miscalculation around incidents at sea.”
  • “Western military and policy planners should seek to maintain the convention of treating the Arctic as a ‘low tension’ area. However, planners must also acknowledge the existence of pressing military security issues in the wider Arctic. … Innovative efforts can be made to strengthen military security and domain awareness in the region, without militarizing the issue. This should start with the creation of a military code of conduct for the High North.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Russia’s Resilient Legal Powerhouse: The Procuracy Enters the 21st Century,” William Pomeranz, Wilson Center, 06.24.19: The author, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, writes:

  • “On March 18, 2019, President Vladimir Putin signed into law two new restrictions on freedom of speech. One law levied administrative fines on so-called ‘fake news’ while the other imposed penalties for information deemed insulting to human dignity, public morality or otherwise expressing disrespect to state symbols and institutions.”
  • “The above laws lacked precise standards, thereby requiring interpretation. What was particularly revealing, however, was that the law on fake news empowered the prokuratura (procuracy), and not the courts, to make the initial ruling to block any offending materials. …  Such recognition underscores the procuracy’s incremental yet steady resurgence in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.”
  • “[The procuracy] continues to defend traditional state powers and practices even as it confronts new 21st century problems. Attempts to upgrade the procuracy’s image as human rights defender, protector of private business, and anti-corruption leader have not fundamentally transformed the institution, especially given its fealty to an increasingly illiberal and punitive regime.”
  • “Any future attempt at legal reform depends not only on promoting judicial independence but also re-conceptualizing and reining in the procuracy.”