Russia Analytical Report, March 15-22, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • Even Russia’s increasingly close strategic alignment with China has seemingly done nothing to raise its profile with the new administration. Indeed, no senior official has spoken of this alignment as a factor in internal deliberations, writes Yale’s Thomas Graham. That suggests that the administration is likely to continue the practice of formulating China and Russia policy in separate silos. By ignoring the ways in which each country bolsters the other’s challenge to the United States and overlooking areas, such as strategic stability and climate change, where trilateral U.S.-Russia-China cooperation could yield outsized benefits, Graham argues, such an approach will undermine the effectiveness of policy toward each country. 
  • Although Biden did not know which questions he would be asked before the ABC interview, he seemed to know what he was doing when he paused to think about it [when asked if he considered Vladimir Putin to be a killer] before nodding in the affirmative, writes Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov. That being the case, the question is: What signal was Biden trying to sendFirst, it is unlikely the two leaders will meet in person anytime soon. They might cross paths at the G20 summit, if it is held in person rather than online, but there will be no summit of the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council, as Putin had sought. Nor will there be a bilateral summit such as Trump held with Putin in Helsinki. It is also a signal, Frolov argues, to other G7 leaders and NATO countries that they should minimize their personal contacts with the Russian leader.  
  • The Director of National Intelligence report detailing how Russia and Iran conducted covert influence operations in the United States is not a story about Russia and its capabilities, argues analyst Anna Arutunyan. It’s a story about America and its vulnerabilities. America is so easily triggered by what is in effect Russian trolling, she writes, because Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the threats within. 
  • Five years after Russia declared victory in Syria, thousands of Russian military personnel remain in the country, conducting daily operations, flying sorties and expanding their permanent bases there, writes Harvard graduate student Thomas Schaffner. It is, therefore, worth asking whether the intervention has paid off or U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 prediction that the operation would end in a ‘quagmire’ for Russia has come true.
  • By quoting the bible in his defense, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is joining the Russian intelligentsia tradition of using the gospels to resist autocracy, following in the footsteps of the persecuted Soviet writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov. This is entirely at odds with the atheist Bolsheviks, with whom opponents of revolution like to compare Navalny. By deciding to return to Russia and going through the ordeal of prison, Navalny is earning himself the right to exclusive legitimacy in any sudden regime change, Baunov argues. After all, who is more worthy of replacing Putin than someone who has suffered so much at his hands? 


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

Nuclear security and safety:

“Chernobyl: A nuclear accident that changed the course of history. Then came Fukushima,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mariana Budjeryn, 03.11.21. The author, a research associate with the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom, writes:

  • “Thirty-five years on, we are still grappling with the full extent of Chernobyl’s impact on the world. Yet in a very real sense, we live in a world shaped by Chernobyl. As Chernobyl’s radioactive plumes blew over the Soviet border across much of Europe, they brought with them one simple and daunting truth: A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.”
  • “Chernobyl was a global-scale nuclear event before the world was global … It jolted the nuclear community into action and much of today’s international regulatory framework on nuclear security emerged in its wake.”
  • “Today, the nuclear community attributes the Chernobyl accident to a faulty reactor design and an abysmal safety culture. At the time, however, for many Soviet citizens from the leadership to the masses, Chernobyl became symptomatic of the entire Soviet system’s dysfunction … And if the Soviet system brought about Chernobyl, Chernobyl brought down the Soviet system. Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev … considered Chernobyl one of the major causes that led to its demise.”
  • “Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was struck by an earthquake and a tsunami … Safety culture was once again at the heart of the accident, this time in not in a ‘backward’ Soviet Union but in an industrialized, technologically-savvy, wealthy nation with what had been regarded until that point as strong institutional infrastructures.”
  • “With 440 nuclear reactors in operation globally, over 50 under construction, and close to 200 planned, the nuclear community [today] agrees that the question is not whether another nuclear accident will happen, but rather when it does, how prepared are we to minimize the damage and respond quickly and effectively. The main lesson of Chernobyl and Fukushima is that they will continue to offer lessons to those willing to learn.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Can the Biden Administration Get Russia Policy Right?” Thomas Graham, Russia Matters, 03.18.21. The author, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “In its first two months, the Biden administration has made two central planks of its Russia policy crystal clear: It has no interest in a reset, and Russia is not a priority.”
  • “Even Russia’s increasingly close strategic alignment with China has seemingly done nothing to raise its profile with the new administration. … That suggests that the administration is likely to continue the practice of formulating China and Russia policy in separate silos. By ignoring the ways in which each country bolsters the other’s challenge to the United States and overlooking areas … where trilateral U.S.-Russia-China cooperation could yield outsized benefits, such an approach will undermine the effectiveness of policy toward each country.”
  • “The administration will likely find itself compelled to engage more often with Russia than it anticipates or wants to. For, as was true for past administrations, Russia is a player on many issues the Biden administration will soon have to confront.”
  • “At the same time, the administration will find that countering Russia’s aggressive conduct is not as straightforward a proposition as it has suggested. That effort will have to be balanced against other administration goals.”
  • “In the end, the administration might achieve what it has set out to do—no reset, no escalation in relations with Russia—but only because its actual policy, while still firm, will be less tough, and its engagement with Russia more frequent, than its rhetoric suggests. That would bring a welcome halt to the dangerous deterioration that relations have suffered during the past several years without compromising any vital interests. This stabilization would count as a major success for Biden, even if it is not now an avowed goal.”

“Biden and Putin’s War of Words,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.22.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “As Biden was one of the architects of the unsuccessful ‘reset’ with Russia during Barack Obama’s first presidential term, it’s important for him to make it clear that no amount of common interest or work on specific policy areas means a new reset is in the offing. It’s key for President Biden to distance himself not only from ex-president Trump, but also from his own vice presidency of a decade ago.”
  • “Ever since Putin’s infamous speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007—and perhaps even before then—escalation has been one of the most important weapons in Putin’s arsenal. Time and again, he has wrong-footed the West with unexpectedly fierce statements or aggressive actions, and served up home truths in big dollops, presenting Western leaders with one fait accompli after another. And now Biden has acted in the same spirit: dishing out harsh truths without getting bogged down in diplomatic niceties. The ball is now firmly in Moscow’s court.”

“Biden Called Putin a Killer. Will That Change Anything?” Vladimir Frolov, The Moscow Times/Republic, 03.22.21. The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:

  • “U.S. President Joe Biden unexpectedly answered in the affirmative to ABC TV host George Stephanopoulus’ question as to whether he considered Russian President Vladimir Putin a killer. … Moscow summoned its ambassador to Washington home for consultations ‘in order to analyze what to do and in which direction to move in the context of relations with the United States,’ as well as ‘to determine ways to correct the critical condition of Russian-U.S. relations.’”
  • “In diplomatic practice, this is called a ‘demarche,’ a demonstration of strong dissatisfaction with a political partner’s actions and statements, but without any concrete negative consequences—yet. Russia has not formally recalled its U.S. ambassador, but if the situation deteriorates further, he might remain in Moscow indefinitely. In fact, this is one of the scenarios by which the second stage of U.S. sanctions over Russia’s use of chemical weapons … would ‘lower the status of diplomatic relations’ with Moscow.” 
  • “Although Biden did not know which questions he would be asked beforehand, he seemed to know what he was doing when he paused to think about it before nodding in the affirmative. That being the case, the question is: What signal was Biden trying to send?”
  • “First, it is unlikely the two leaders will meet in person anytime soon. They might cross paths at the G20 summit, if it is held in person rather than online, but there will be no summit of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council, as Putin had sought. … Nor will there be a bilateral summit … It is also a signal to other G7 leaders and NATO countries that they should minimize their personal contacts with the Russian leader.”
  • “For now, Moscow will pursue a restrained foreign policy response to ‘Biden’s slam’ because it has not yet given up hope of establishing a stable dialogue on, at least, arms control and, possibly, countermeasures in cyberspace.”

“Biden's foreign policy team can't handle new threats with old strategies,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, 03.16.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Biden comes to office with the United States engaging in military action in several countries, confronting Russia on its borders and China in the South China Sea, and maintaining an estimated 800 bases across the world, the largest collection for a country in world history.”
  • “Biden is ratcheting up the dangerous faceoff with Russia and China. In the next few weeks, the administration reportedly plans to retaliate for last year's SolarWinds hack of U.S. cyber infrastructure—for which Russia was allegedly responsible—with more sanctions on Russia and clandestine cyber actions against Russian state institutions. As Anatol Lieven writes, this will probably foster escalating cyberattacks by both sides. Meanwhile, Blinken has called relations with China ‘the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,’ with the administration gearing up not simply to confront the Chinese economically and ideologically, but also militarily, in the South China Sea.”
  • “How can the United States focus on new threats—the climate crisis, global pandemics, staggering inequality—while sustaining endless wars, interventionist stances and obsolete Cold War postures? Biden has barely been in office for 50 days, and his foreign policy staffers are still settling into their offices. But Americans are ready for change. The inertial weight of the old foreign policy priorities is already apparent. It remains to be seen whether the Biden people have the desire or the will to extricate us from the mire.”

“Biden's global, muscular liberalism is an indefensible foreign policy in 2021,” Elbridge Colby, The Washington Post, 03.21.21. The author, a principal at the Marathon Initiative and former deputy assistant secretary of defense, writes:

  • “The central theme of President Biden's foreign policy is a global, muscular liberalism. Ensuring that democracy ‘will and must prevail,’ Biden told the Munich Security Conference, is ‘our galvanizing mission.’ This appears to mean taking on threats to democracy wherever they lie—challenging both China and Russia.”
  • “This might have been a defensible policy decades ago, when U.S. wealth dwarfed that of the Soviet Union and China. Or in 1999, before China's rise, the sapping wars in the Middle East or the profound effects of the financial crisis had all been felt. But it is not a sensible policy today.”
  • “Strong constituencies on both the left and right are tired of and frustrated by the proposition that U.S. foreign policy should entail safeguarding the success of democracy and development around the globe. Global, muscular liberalism of both parties has manifestly failed to deliver the strength and broad-based prosperity to allow us to shape our future on our own terms. Americans deserve better.”
  • “‘Realpolitik’ has a cynical, old-world overtone. Yet it means focusing on what matters and working with others who share our interests. To start, this involves concentrating on China, which is by far the most important entity in the international system other than the United States. If Beijing dominates Asia, the world's largest market, China will be globally preeminent—and is likely to use its power to coerce and weaken the United States. … No other global threat—not Russia, Iran or North Korea—can do this.”
  • “We cannot afford to be profligate with our power, wealth and resolve. Rather, we must manage the threats we face—above all China—in ways that promote U.S. power and well-being, rather than vainly expending them in a global ideological struggle or retreating in hopes that the world will favorably stabilize on its own.” 

“The battle the Pentagon really knows how to win,” Fareed Zakaria, The Washington Post, 03.19.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “On the eve of his visit … to Asia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined his key concern. ‘China is our pacing threat,’ he said. He explained that for the past 20 years, the United States had been focused on the Middle East while China had been modernizing its military. ‘We still maintain the edge,’ he noted, ‘and we're going to increase the edge going forward.’ Welcome to the new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.”
  • “What Austin calls America's ‘edge’ over China is more like a chasm. … The United States has about 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. … It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers compared with China's two carriers … Washington has more than 2,000 modern fighter jets compared with Beijing's roughly 600.
  • “China spends around $250 billion on its military, a third as much as the United States. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution notes that, ‘if China were in NATO, we would berate it for inadequate burden-sharing, since its military outlays fall well below NATO's 2 percent minimum.’ … The United States' intelligence budget alone—around $85 billion—is larger than Russia's total defense spending. … And yet the United States never imagines that this kind of spending could ever be seen by other countries as threatening.”
  • “In any case, the size of military spending is a misleading indicator of strength. Far more important are the objectives sought and the political-military strategy used to achieve those objectives.”
  • “Of course, there might be budget wars in Washington—but those are the battles that the Pentagon knows how to win!”

“The Mythical War Scare of 1983,” Simon Miles, War on the Rocks, 03.16.21. The author, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, writes:

  • “Those who present [the 1983] Able Archer [exercise] as a near miss with nuclear war zero in on a passage in a 1989 memorandum by Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, assistant chief of staff for intelligence at U.S. Air Forces Europe during the 1983 exercise. In the opinion of Perroots’ analytical team, some Soviet aircraft in East Germany and Poland went on alert with a self-protection electronic jamming pod mounted. Some have read this passage in the document to mean that these aircraft were loaded for nuclear war. This incomplete information is not proof that live nuclear weapons, ready for use, were loaded onto these aircraft, spooled up on the flight line at high readiness.”
  • “Jack Matlock, the National Security Council’s senior Soviet hand … : ‘the Soviet leadership is not overly nervous about the immediate prospect of armed confrontation with the [United States].’ … Gen. Viktor Esin, a former chief of staff of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces, for example recounted that Soviet commanders ‘knew that NATO were doing an exercise, [but were] not really planning for the nuclear blow.’”
  • “Anatoly Cherniaev of the Central Committee’s International Department similarly insisted that ‘we can rule out that there was real fear of a nuclear attack’ during the exercise. … Gen. Andrian Danilevich, when asked about Able Archer, ‘acknowledged that there was a ‘period of great tension’ of which he had vivid personal memories, especially in 1983, but [stated] that there was never a ‘war scare.’”
  • “These new sources on Able Archer are no smoking gun. … Nuclear weapons are not without danger, to be sure. An overinflation of the risk of Able Archer should not be necessary to remind policymakers of that point: of the importance of frank dialogue between leaders, or of the need to take seriously the responsibility of being a nuclear-armed state … The risks of our nuclear world are real, even if they were not as dangerous as they might have been in this particular case.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Five Years After Russia Declared Victory in Syria: What Has Been Won?” Thomas Schaffner, Russia Matters, 03.18.21. The author, a graduate student with Harvard’s Davis Center and a student associate with Russia Matters, writes:

  • “On March 14, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian armed forces had achieved their main goals in Syria. … However, five years on—and 10 years since the beginning of the civil war in Syria—thousands of Russian military personnel remain in the country, conducting daily operations, flying sorties and expanding their permanent bases there. It is, therefore, worth asking whether the intervention has paid off or U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 prediction that the operation would end in a ‘quagmire’ for Russia has come true.”
  • “Moscow’s military campaign in Syria has had a mostly positive impact on the country's vital interests as seen from the Kremlin. The intervention has significantly increased the chance of survival for the Assad regime, which remains one of Russia’s few staunch allies, while not proving overly costly for Russia. The intervention, alongside the U.S. anti-IS campaign, has degraded IS’s and other jihadists groups’ ability not only to conduct operations in Syria but to establish a base for striking Russia. At the same time, Russia’s relationship with Western powers has become increasingly strained because of the intervention, not improving as Putin had hoped.”
  • “It remains unclear whether Russia can convert its military successes in Syria into a favorable political resolution of the conflict. Large pockets of resistance to Assad remain in Idlib and other northern parts of Syria, where Turkish forces have been deployed alongside the local opposition, as well as in the southeast, where Kurdish-led groups control swathes of land. American forces also remain with their Kurdish allies in northern Syria. Stabilizing Syria to the point that it can rebuild its economy … may require Russia to make a deal with Turkey and the United States; however, at this point, it seems more likely that Syria will remain in a state of de facto partition, and the Russian operation may become an indefinite deployment.”

Cyber security:

“Biden’s retaliatory cyberattacks against Russia are folly,” Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 03.11.21. The author, a professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, writes:

  • “The Biden administration is reportedly planning a ‘retaliation’ against Russia in the next three weeks or so for last year’s massive ‘SolarWinds’ hack … The New York Times has written that U.S. plans include both new sanctions against Russia and U.S. cyber hacking of Russian state institutions.”
  • “We hope that wiser counsels can still prevail, and in particular, that someone in the administration will notice both the logical incompatibility of these two responses, and the fact that they could set a precedent that will be used against America itself in future. … The threat of U.S. retaliation in kind declares out in the open that the United States also plans to engage in these supposedly illegitimate actions, and is an implicit acknowledgement that Washington has indeed repeatedly engaged in similar actions in recent years.”
  • “More importantly, the planned action reflects two very serious errors in judgement … The first is a tendency, amplified by much of the U.S. media, to attribute blame to Russia for negative developments based on inadequate evidence … The second error … is the use of the phrase ‘cyberattack,’ reflecting an extremely dangerous confusion between cyber espionage and cyber sabotage. … The SolarWinds hack was an act of espionage by contemporary means. … [I]f it [the hack] had not been voluntarily reported to the U.S. government by a private security firm, then—as with all the most successful espionage operations—nobody in America would ever have known that it had happened.”
  • “All states conduct espionage, including most notably the United States itself. … Moreover, the United States is a global leader in cyber sabotage. … The planned response to the SolarWinds hack reflects a much deeper problem in the Washington establishment’s attitudes and policy: the belief that the United States can unilaterally set the rules of the international system, and yet set different rules for itself whenever it feels an urgent need to do so. … In the area of cybersecurity it makes even less sense, for the internet really is (in many bad ways, alas) a great leveler.”

“Want to tell Russia to stop hacking U.S. systems? Here's what works—and what doesn't,” Erica Borghard and Jacquelyn Schneider, The Washington Post, 03.16.21. The authors, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Hoover Fellow at Stanford University, write:

  • “With nine U.S. federal agencies reportedly still cleaning up after last year's SolarWinds hack, the Biden administration's plans to shore up security include $650 million in the recent coronavirus relief bill earmarked for cybersecurity defenses. A recent article suggested that the Biden administration reportedly considered cyber ‘counterstrikes’—language the White House subsequently distanced itself from—as a form of signaling to Russia that the recent SolarWinds attack was unacceptable.”
  • “This spate of ostensible cyber signals raises an important question: Do cyber operations actually act as signals? Not really.”
  • “Cyber operations are difficult signaling tools at best—prone to be lost in the noise or, worse, misperceived. Countries may get better use out of cyber operations that focus less on altering another country's behavior and more on tackling malicious cyber campaigns through better intelligence and improved defense and resilience, complemented by counter-cyber operations that target the infrastructure and capabilities countries use to conduct cyber operations in the first place. For signaling, sometimes old-school methods work best: hotlines, diplomacy or even big weapons systems get more bang for your signaling buck than cyber operations.”

“Warfighting in Cyberspace,” Joshua Rovner, War on the Rocks, 03.17.21. The author, an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University, writes:

  • “Since the Gulf War, the U.S. military has followed an operational script that exploits technological advantages to fight and win quickly. … Information attacks leave U.S. enemies bewildered and ineffective. Rapid low-cost victories follow. For better or worse, this is the modern American way of war.”
  • “Cyberspace operations are naturally suited to such an approach, given the fact that adversary military forces are growing dependent on the domain. There is nothing extraordinary about using cyber attacks against adversary communications. … [T]he technological peculiarities of cyberspace make it especially attractive: the large number of attack surfaces, the ability to preposition malware long in advance and the possibility of sabotaging weapons systems that rely on elaborate software and increasingly complex supply chains. Should great-power competition become a great-power conflict, no one will be shocked if the United States opens the fighting in cyberspace.”
  • “Russia has … moved toward integrating cyberspace operations into conventional offensives, albeit with mixed results in Georgia and Ukraine. For Russian strategists, cyberspace operations disorient and demoralize adversaries before conflict begins and help to neutralize enemy command and control systems afterward.”

Elections interference:

“What a U.S. Intelligence Report on Russia Really Tells Us About America,” Anna Arutunyan, The Moscow Times, 03.21.21. The author, a Russian American writer and analyst, writes:

  • “The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report detailing how Russia and Iran conducted covert influence operations in the United States is not a story about Russia and its capabilities. It’s a story about America and its vulnerabilities.”
  • “Amid rising economic inequality, decaying infrastructure, broken healthcare, where the middle class finds itself increasingly hard pressed to afford a lifestyle the previous generation had taken for granted, someone has got to take the blame.”
  • “One half of the political spectrum blames immigrants and a government brainwashed, as they see it, by wokeness. … The other half takes turns blaming everything on racism and canceling Dr. Seuss—a convenient tactic of deflection, given that if we convince ourselves that it’s enough to keep condemning the racism lurking within us all then we absolve ourselves of the need to actually do anything about it.”
  • “America is so easily triggered by what is in effect Russian trolling because Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the threats within.”

“Russia's endless disinformation campaign,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 03.18.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Russian meddling on behalf of Donald Trump is an intelligence version of a perpetual-motion machine. It never stops spinning, from the 2016 campaign to the 2020 race to right now, as the former president peddles his fraud claims in the post- election wilderness. That's the message that emerges from a report released this week by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines about ‘foreign threats’ to the 2020 election.”
  • “Haines warned in a second report also released this week that ‘narratives of fraud in the recent general election" (which the Russians amplified) are among the factors that ‘will almost certainly spur some [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence this year.’”
  • “The most startling conclusion that emerges from the intelligence reports is that Republicans close to Trump continued to peddle Moscow's line even after they were warned about the Russian disinformation campaign. They eagerly took the bait.”
  • “What's the lesson? A Kremlin disinformation campaign just keeps on rolling, as long as there are people gullible or cynical enough to believe it.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Europe is rebelling against American power,” Stephen Kinzer, The Boston Globe, 03.16.21. The author, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, writes:

  • “The project that threatens to cause this crackup [between Europe and the U.S.] is a gas pipeline. … It would bring natural gas from rich fields in Russia to energy-hungry Germany. Both countries consider it a good deal. The United States disagrees. A pipeline connecting Russia and Germany would indeed benefit both countries. There's the rub: Many in Washington bitterly oppose anything that would benefit Russia.”
  • “Our official argument against the 765-mile pipeline is that control over Germany's gas supply would allow Russia to influence German politics. Gas, however, is not Washington's true concern. What we really fear is that Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, may one day make its peace with Russia.”
  • “Biden has called the pipeline ‘a bad deal for Europe,’ but he may be seeking a compromise to avert a Berlin-Washington collision. Congress has given him leeway in imposing sanctions, and none were included in a list of new sanctions issued in February. That set off a wave of outrage.”
  • “Biden should resist that misguided clamor. He should recognize that when two foreign countries make a deal—especially when one is governed by his old friend Merkel—that's their business and we should not interfere. Beyond that, he should not reflexively oppose every project that promises some benefit to Russia. On the contrary, we should seek avenues for cooperation even while pressing our own concerns.”
  • “That, however, is nearly a heretical view in today's Washington. We want Europeans to make no compromise with Russia—and to build no pipeline. Germany seems determined to proceed anyway. It is Europe's boldest-ever rebellion against American power.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Is sanctioning Russian sovereign debt such a big deal?” Timothy Ash, bne IntelliNews, 03.18.21. The author, a senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, writes:

  • “It’s kind of interesting but when the question comes up about sanctioning Russian sovereign debt, the Russian influence lobby always comes out with the view that this is such a terrible idea, and a big hurdle to cross. I absolutely disagree with this point of view (only 20+ years of experience investing in Russian fixed income markets) and for a number of reasons.”
  • “First, usually the argument is put that this is the nuclear option, and that the U.S. Treasury needs to hold this in reserve to be used in the future against new Russian malign actions.  This kind of ignores the point that there are gears within the gears when we think of the sanctions regime: first sanctioning primary ruble debt, then sanctioning secondary dollar and then ruble debt.”
  • “Second, I don’t think sanctioning primary ruble at the next step particularly hurts or disadvantages U.S. institutions. … Third, it’s hardly nuclear, as the U.S. has already sanctioned dollar primary. The expectation surely is that ruble primary is next. If investors don’t get this, where have they been for the past five years or more?”
  • “Fourth, the argument that sanctioning sovereign debt somehow undermines the dollar’s position as a reserve currency surely no longer holds, as the U.S. Treasury has already sanctioned primary dollar issuance. … Fifth, in many respects sanctioning ruble primary debt would be an easier/simpler but more headline-grabbing action than going down the route of sanctioning oligarchs or corporates and financial entities which, as with the Rusal designation, can have unexpected consequences.”
  • “Sixth, and perhaps just laboring the point, but why are U.S. public sector pension funds still allowed to invest in Russian sovereign debt?”

“In Russia, it's not Navalny vs. Putin. It's democracy vs. authoritarianism,” Alexander Vindman and Garry Kasparov, The Washington Post, 03.22.21. The authors, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council and the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative, write:

  • “On Feb. 25, Amnesty International stripped away the status of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience. By singling him out, the move was a blunder, one that undermines the Russian people's fight against Putinism. If international attention remains focused only on the person rather than the protest movement, this will hinder the development of an opposition movement in Russia and inhibit the democratic world's response to Putin's authoritarianism.”
  • “There should be no cult of personality around Navalny as the democratic heir apparent to Putin. This point is vital, given that protests without a leader attract more sympathy from the average Russian. Rather than being portrayed as a power struggle between two individuals, the attempted assassination and unjust imprisonment of an opposition leader must be framed within the confines of an anti-authoritarian movement.”
  • “U.S. and British officials are already reportedly weighing additional sanctions ranging from measures against oligarchs to targeting Russia's sovereign debt and Nord Stream 2. The measures must be part of a concerted effort to punish the Kremlin for its blatant violations of human rights and unrestrained repression of opponents both at home and abroad. If we in the circle of democratic nations fail, Putin, his oligarchs, his enablers and the mafia-state structure built around them will know that they can snuff out the stirrings of democracy with beatings, arrests and murders—and we will be complicit. The moment demands action, not debate.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Navalny Joins the Ranks of Russia’s Religious Dissidents,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.16.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The mass protests that followed Navalny’s arrest have been put on hold by their organizers until the State Duma elections this fall, which looks like a bit of a cop-out. There will be hardly any of his supporters running in those elections, and Navalny’s strategy of smart (tactical) voting will at best simply result in a non-regime-backed candidate winning: there’s no guarantee that that person is necessarily the best candidate. It will be hard to turn that into any kind of nationwide action.”
  • “Does this mean that Navalny overestimated his potential when he returned to Russia in January, after months of treatment in Germany following his near-fatal poisoning last year? Partly: it’s not just the political leadership that can live in an information bubble, but the political opposition too. Both rulers and their opponents want to believe that they are doing good, and that they are telling the truth.”
  • “By quoting the bible in his defense, Navalny is joining the Russian intelligentsia tradition of using the gospels to resist autocracy, following in the footsteps of the persecuted Soviet writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. This is entirely at odds with the atheist Bolsheviks, with whom opponents of revolution like to compare Navalny.”
  • “There is one other crucial aspect of Navalny’s renewed bid for the presidency. Announcing a halt to the protests, the opposition leader’s supporters pledged to concentrate on ‘diplomatic work.’ By this, they clearly don’t just mean international demands to free Navalny, or attempts to play a role in formulating new sanctions against the Russian elite. They intend to make his name synonymous in the West with the democratization of Russia.”
  • “By deciding to return to Russia and going through the ordeal of prison, Navalny is earning himself the right to exclusive legitimacy in any sudden regime change. After all, who is more worthy of replacing Putin than someone who has suffered so much at his hands?”

“Russian Authorities Just Arrested an Entire Conference Hall Full of People. I Was One of Them,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 03.18.21. The author, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and Washington Post contributor, writes:

  • “On Saturday [March 13], some 150 lawmakers representing 56 regions and tens of thousands of voters across Russia gathered in Moscow for the first-ever national Forum of Municipal Deputies. The goal was to spend two days networking and sharing experience about local elections and grass-roots campaigning. I was among those scheduled to address the meeting.”
  • “As the forum was getting underway, several dozen police officers marched into the conference room. The commanding officer seized the floor from former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who had just begun his opening remarks, and announced that our meeting was ‘illegal’ and that all its participants were being taken into police custody.”
  • “Discussions planned at the forum continued in prisoner vans and later at police stations around Moscow, where we were charged with the administrative offense of ‘carrying out the activities of a foreign undesirable organization.’ The organization in question was Open Russia, an opposition group founded by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.”
  • “Fear, is a limited instrument. It can work for a time—but not forever. The police colonel who prevented me from making a reference to the Zemstvo Congresses at Saturday's forum has unwittingly completed the historical parallel. Those gatherings, at first, were also held clandestinely, in private residences; their participants were also arrested, cautioned, and banned from public life. But when public demands for change became unstoppable, it was the zemstvo leaders who rightfully took leading roles in the new Russian parliament. History, as Mark Twain said, does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. One day, Putin will find out just how true this statement is.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

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:

“Japan-Russia Reality Check: From Abe to Suga,” Michito Tsuruoka, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.17.21. The author, an associate professor at Keio University, writes:

  • “Since the relationship between Japan and China will inevitably remain competitive and confrontational in the long term, the strategic importance of progress in Japan’s relationship with Russia will grow. This stems from the principle that Japan should avoid simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia … [F]or Russia, the relationship with China is more important than the relationship with Japan. This means that Russia can’t risk sacrificing its relationship with China to strengthen its relationship with Japan.”
  • “The Suga administration needs to learn a lesson from Abe’s experiences in order to restructure Japan’s Russia strategy. There are three key points here. The first point relates to Japan’s approach to Russia … Abe’s team avoided talking about issues that were problematic for Russia … The second point concerns Japan’s relationship with the United States. Tokyo needs Washington to be on its side in improving Japan-Russia relations, concluding a peace treaty, and resolving the territorial dispute. [The third point] has to do with Japan’s domestic efforts to build a new consensus. When the Abe administration negotiated with Russia, its objectives and talking points were not made clear to the public, which was left to wonder whether Abe’s team was insisting on the return of all four contested islands, or had changed its position to calling for the return of two islands as the media reported.”
  • “The question is where to set the goals and focus of Japan-Russia relations. If Russia can’t return the territories for a long time, it’s natural for people to say that Japan should not put too many resources into its relationship with Russia. The discussion must begin with open talks. Precisely because he does not appear to have as strong a personal commitment to the Japan-Russia relationship as his predecessor Abe, Prime Minister Suga may be able to carry out this important task.”

“Can Russia and Japan Contribute to Indo-Pacific Stability?” Vasily Kashin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.19.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, writes:

  • “The desire for a regional security dialogue is natural for two large, neighboring states. Furthermore, gradual destabilization and growing military tensions in East Asia increase the importance of such dialogue, despite existing complications and limitations.”
  • “However, the new Russian constitution that went into effect following the summer 2020 nationwide vote put additional stress on bilateral relations with its impact on the long-running territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories). The constitution now prohibits actions aimed at relinquishing any Russian territory except in cases of delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation.”
  • “East Asia has become center stage for great power competition. Countries with interests in the region—China, Russia, the United States, Japan, and South Korea—are the main participants in today’s advanced military technologies race. In these conditions, it is vital for Moscow and Tokyo to minimize the potential damage to bilateral relations from any actions that Russia might take to ensure its security with respect to the United States, or Japan—with respect to China and North Korea.”
  • “As the destabilization of the Indo-Pacific region continues and disagreements between key players escalate, the Russo-Japanese security dialogue may acquire growing significance. Its development could advance overall bilateral relations, making up for the stagnation and disappointment resulting from lack of progress on a peace treaty.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“What Does China’s Latest Five-Year Plan Mean for Russia?” Vita Spivak, The Moscow Times/Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.22.21. The author, an analytical project lead at “Expert RA,” writes:

  • “China recently unveiled its fourteenth five-year development plan, covering the period 2021–2025. In the next five years, Beijing plans to pave the way for attaining two strategic goals: doubling GDP by 2035 (compared with 2020), and achieving the status of a high-income economy. In addition, by 2027–2028, there is every chance that China will overtake the United States and become the world’s biggest economy in terms of nominal GDP.”
  • “For Russia, the priorities outlined in the next five-year plan open up new opportunities on the one hand, while increasing the risks of an asymmetrical dependence on China on the other … It’s likely that Russia will be able to sell more gas to China … The future also looks bright for suppliers of oil to China … The fourteenth five-year plan is good news for Russian agriculture, in addition to the usual Russian exports to China such as hydrocarbons, metals, and fertilizers.”
  • “Given its escalating confrontation with the West, Russia will become increasingly integrated into China’s tech orbit. The Rubicon in this respect will be the Kremlin’s final decision on whether to use Chinese or Western technology to develop 5G networks in Russia.”


“Merge and Rule: What’s In Store for the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics,” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.16.21. The author, an independent journalist, writes:

  • “The reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine—in Moscow’s understanding—is now on hold until some hypothetical pro-Russian government comes to power in Kyiv. This explains Medvedchuk’s newfound strength in the region (his party is the frontrunner in the parts of Donbas still controlled by Ukraine).”
  • “The Kremlin continues to optimistically believe that such a turn of events is possible. But despite the Opposition Platform’s triumphant ratings, Ukrainians agree that a pro-Russian party cannot win, and the West supports that position. The lightning-fast decimation of Medvedchuk’s media empire is confirmation of that notion.”
  • “Accordingly, Donbas should brace itself for a long time in the role of a Russian military protectorate like Transnistria or South Ossetia. Local elites will have to deal with Moscow’s efforts to optimize the region’s administration, while the people there will see creeping integration of the republics with Russia. From the inside, these changes will be interpreted as restoring order and normalcy.”
  • “Strengthening Russia’s positions in the region will allow Moscow to use the DNR and the LNR to exert pressure on Kyiv. Donbas is turning into something of an armored train that the Kremlin is for now keeping in reserve, but which it won’t hesitate to launch on its way should the foreign policy situation require it.”


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.