Russia Analytical Report, March 16-23, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • Alexey Arbatov of Russia, David Santoro of the U.S. and Tong Zhao of China have teamed up to offer trilateral perspectives on trilateral arms control. Any future trilateral arms control arrangement should, according to the authors, take into account the asymmetric nature of the nuclear balance between the U.S. and China as well as between Russia and China. Regarding the scope of such an arrangement, the authors suggest  approaches that could involve forces considered “strategic” under New START, those of INF-range under the now defunct INF Treaty and sea- and air-based systems, according to editor Ulrich Kuhn’s summary of the report.
  • The world’s democracies are not faring better in the pandemic crisis than non-democracies, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The efforts of states with greater capacity for mobilization, such as China, South Korea and Japan, are proving to be much more effective than those initiated by states with a looser social organization—like the United States, Trenin argues. Overall, he writes, the Kremlin sees some of the outbreak’s impacts as validating its worldview as the state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. The Asia Group’s Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi of Brookings believe the coronavirus could reshape global order, noting that Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes in handling the crisis. In contrast, Prof. Timofey Bordachev posits that the pandemic is quite possibly the factor that was needed to recognize that the “liberal world order” is collapsing rather than being reshaped. 
  • Thanks to sanctions, Russia is cushioned from the virus’s economic shocks, according to Andrew E. Kramer of the New York Times.“Russia will be a bit better off than other countries because of its experience, because of sanctions and because of reserves,” Kramer quotes Vladimir V. Tikhomirov, chief economist for BCS Global Markets, as saying. The Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski argues that the pandemics is a test for the security state Putin has built, as the coming weeks will be critical for him as he prepares for the April 22 national vote on the constitutional amendments that would allow him to serve as president until 2036.
  • There is no evidence that Putin is preparing to choose a successor, writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Tatiana Stanovaya. Even if Putin were choosing a successor, however, it would be unwise for the U.S. to base its Russia policy around hopes that a more liberal post-Putin leadership will evolve in the foreseeable future, according to George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest. However, the rise of personalist rulers like Vladimir Putin may have a silver lining for the future of democracy, according to the University of Toronto’s Adam E. Casey and Seva Gunitsky. Personalist regimes are more fragile than other types of autocracies, and they tend to end badly for their leaders. Most important, unlike single-party regimes, personalist regimes do not offer an easily exportable model of autocratic rule that other governments can imitate, according to Case and Gunitsky.


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

Nuclear security:

Conference report: Budapest Memorandum at 25: Between Past and Future,” Mariana Budjeryn and Matthew Bunn, Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 2020The authors, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center and a professor of practice at Harvard’s Kennedy School, write:

  • “On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the memorandum’s signature, the Project on Managing the Atom … with the support of the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, hosted a conference to revisit the history of the Budapest Memorandum, consider the repercussions of its violation for international security and the broader nonproliferation regime and draw lessons for the future.”
  • “The December 2019 conference brought together academics, practitioners and experts who have contributed to developing U.S. policy toward post-Soviet nuclear disarmament, participated in the negotiations of the Budapest Memorandum and dealt with the repercussions of its breach in 2014. The conference highlighted five key lessons learned from the experience of Ukraine’s disarmament.”
  • “1. Individual initiative and creativity are critical in uncertain times … 2. Arms control and nonproliferation institutions matter … 3. The significance of the Budapest Memorandum goes beyond its letter … 4. Nuclear weapons would likely have become a security liability, not an asset, for Ukraine … 5. Written agreements are only the beginning.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments

New Cold War/saber rattling:

"The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order,” Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, Foreign Affairs, 03.18.20The authors, the CEO of The Asia Group and the director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative, write:

  • “The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.”
  • “As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening … filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries and even organize other governments.”
  • “Beijing’s edge in material assistance is enhanced by the simple fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China. … While the United States isn’t currently able to meet the urgent material demands of the pandemic, its continuing global edge in the life sciences and biotechnology can be instrumental in finding a real solution to the crisis: a vaccine.”
  • “Washington cannot simply ignore the need for a coordinated global response. Only strong leadership can solve global coordination problems related to travel restrictions, information sharing and the flow of critical goods. The United States has successfully provided such leadership for decades, and it must do so again. … That leadership will also require effectively cooperating with China, rather than getting consumed by a war of narratives about who responded better.”

“Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.20.20The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “After Russia insulated itself physically [over COVID-19] and Chinese visitors had departed, Moscow began to extol China’s response to the virus. Russia has further sided with China in its coronavirus messaging war with the United States, perpetuating Beijing’s claims that the virus is a U.S. biological weapon deployed to stop China’s rise. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping spoke on the phone and agreed to cooperate more closely on medical research.”
  • “Russia has had to distance itself from other neighbors as well. Moscow led the way in reestablishing border controls within what is formally called a union state with Belarus … After Ukraine closed all its borders, Russia suspended rail service between the two countries, severing their last remaining transport link. … Finally, Russia placed a ban on most foreign visitors.”
  • “Another destabilizing by-product … is heightened doubt about U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects … the outcome of the election is seen as wide open, with the possibility of Democrat and former vice president Joe Biden winning the White House. … Other major concerns for Russia stem from the steep plunge in the price of oil and the fall of the Russian ruble.”
  • “Nevertheless, the Kremlin sees some effects of the outbreak as validating the correctness of its worldview. The fragility of globalism has been underscored as the international community grows more fractious and the liberal order recedes. The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. … The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies. The efforts of states with greater capacity for mobilization, such as China, South Korea and Japan, are proving to be much more effective than those initiated by states with a looser social organization—like the United States.”
  • “Above all, Russia may interpret recent events as confirming the wisdom of self-reliance in a globalized world driven by individual countries’ self-interests.”

“Coronavirus and the Collapse of the Liberal Order: Europe’s Fate Called Into Question,” Timofey V. Bordachev, Russia in Global Affairs, 03.19.20The author, an associate professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, writes:

  • “Massive restrictive measures related to the need to respond properly to the challenge of the pandemic spread of coronavirus infections is quite possibly the factor that was needed to recognize that the ‘liberal world order’ has completely disintegrated.”
  • “Among all the global players, the main blow falls on Europe. It was very powerful in a world where military power did not matter, and its welfare states reached unprecedented heights in terms of development. Now we are taken aback as we observe the European countries close their borders even to each other, displaying examples of national egoism on a scale that previously could not be imagined.”
  • “The ‘liberal world order’ is living its last days, and it will be good if this demise is not accompanied by a world war. It is unlikely that any new order will turn out to be better or fairer—the strong states, which now include China and Russia, address problems that are so great in scale that their solution does not leave many opportunities for attendance to the rights and feelings of the weak states. Europe, which, alas, was never able to build a humanitarian paradise, is living out its last days, months and even years, having served as an example that at least it’s possible to pantomime progress towards a multinational order that marries utopia and reality.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“The Effect of COVID-19 on the NATO Alliance,” Nicholas Gvosdev, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 03.23.20The author, a senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI, writes:

  • “It is not accidental that some leading commentators in the Euro-Atlantic community are calling for the virus to be designated, in essence, as an ‘armed attack’ against NATO members, necessitating joint and effective action on the part of all the allies to craft a collective response.”
  • “The spread of the virus has also recast the migration issue. No longer is the threat of refugee flows depicted as a problem that could exacerbate terrorism and economic pressure—migrants are now seen as potential carriers of coronavirus and other diseases.” 
  • “In the past month, as the virus spreads throughout the world, NATO (and EU) allies have seen their partners hoarding equipment and medical supplies. Moreover, intra-alliance borders have been closed down … Beyond the political perception that NATO has failed the solidarity test, the practical realities of the pandemic call into question the operational basis of NATO’s deterrent mission.”
  • “Signs of discord in NATO are always carefully monitored by Russia. The 2015 Russian national security strategy categorizes the alliance as a threat to Russian strategic interests, even if some of its member … are, at a bilateral level, important strategic partners. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Kremlin, even if it has not explicitly commissioned a disinformation campaign, sees value in having its news and information outlets push narratives that seek to accelerate discord and disunity among NATO members.”
  • “The Russian decision to dispatch military medical specialists and equipment to Italy is also being contrasted with the initially lackluster EU/NATO response. … The focus of NATO—and indeed of ‘European Defender’— [should shift] from waiting for the United States to arrive in force to an alliance where states possess sufficient ‘porcupine’ capabilities to fend off attacks, assaults and challenges.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

“Trilateral Arms Control? Perspectives from Washington, Moscow and Beijing,” written by Alexey Arbatov, David Santoro and Tong Zhao, edited by Ulrich Kuhn, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (ISFH), March 2020The authors of the report, nuclear policy experts from Russia, the U.S. and China, respectively, write:

  • “None of the three authors deems trilateral arms control … impossible or pointless … Though, they also agree that under current conditions, many trilateral arms control options will most likely have to wait and would only be possible over the mid to long term. … None of the three authors excludes the possibility that the next round of nuclear arms control would still, initially, be only between the United States and Russia or that Washington and Beijing might agree on a bilateral framework before arms control goes trilateral.”
  • “All three authors recommend their governments to engage further in nuclear arms control … In particular, all three agree that the New START agreement … should be extended for another five years. … Against the background of great power competition between the United States, Russia and China, the authors see a heightened potential for arms race and crisis instability.”
  • “Any future trilateral arms control arrangement should … take into account the asymmetric nature of the nuclear balance between the United States and China as well as between Russia and China. … [T]he three countries should publicly acknowledge that they are mutually vulnerable in order to help strengthen strategic stability. … [A]ll authors identify U.S. ballistic missile defense systems as a serious obstacle to progress on arms control.”
  • “In the near term … all sides should engage in confidence-building measures, capacity-building efforts and increased track 1.5 exchanges. … All three authors agree that a future trilateral arrangement or a bilateral Chinese-American arrangement cannot be based on the idea of exclusively constraining China’s capabilities.”
  • “As regards the scope of a potential trilateral arms control arrangement, the three authors suggest and discuss different though also similar approaches that could involve forces considered ‘strategic’ under New START, those of INF-range under the now defunct INF Treaty and sea- and air-based systems outside of the INF Treaty’s original land-focused scope.”

“As US-Russian Arms Control Faces Expiration, Sides Face Tough Choices,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 03.23.20The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “The Trump administration’s proposal for trilateral arms control negotiations appears to be gaining little traction in Moscow and Beijing, and the era of traditional nuclear arms control may be coming to an end just as new challenges emerge. … [Arms control] provides a tool that, along with the right combination of deterrence and defense forces and proper doctrine, can enhance U.S. and allied security and promote stability.”
  • “Some appear to believe that holding back on agreeing to the extension of New START and/or starting from scratch in a new negotiation might increase U.S. leverage to include all nuclear arms … It is more likely that the end of New START’s constraints on deployed strategic weapons would make bringing non-strategic or non-deployed nuclear weapons under control more difficult.”
  • “Washington faces a fundamental choice: Is it prepared to countenance some constraints on missile defense and possibly long-range precision-guided conventional strike systems in order to get Russia to agree to further reduce and limit nuclear arms, including non-strategic nuclear weapons? Moscow faces something of the reverse choice.”
  • “There remains the question of China, and Russia almost certainly would seek to include Britain and France. … It would make sense for U.S. and Russian officials to conduct regular, intense bilateral strategic stability talks on the full range of issues—nuclear arms, missile defense, conventional strike systems, hypersonic weapons, third-country nuclear forces, cyber, and space—and their various interactions.”
  • “None of these questions will be easy, and sorting them out will take time. That bolsters the already strong argument for extending New START. Doing so would give Washington and Moscow five more years to figure out what role, if any, arms control should play in managing their nuclear relationship with one another and, perhaps, with third countries.”

“Making Nukes Weapons of Last Resort,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 03.22.20The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “I continue to support the ‘weapons of last resort’ formulation. I’m convinced that the best way to get there is to strengthen the norm of non-battlefield use—now three-quarters of a century strong. Every day, every month and every year that passes without battlefield use, we are closer to success. Success requires back-up from both arms control and deterrence. … Success also requires clarification that the next person contemplating a mushroom cloud will become a figure that will live in infamy for the rest of recorded history.”
  • “Way too slow? Not as appealing as changing nuclear doctrine? We’ve managed to avoid battlefield use one crisis at a time for 75 years despite nuclear doctrines poised toward use. Why not 25 more, until the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“EU Inaction on Syrian Refugees Is a Stain on Human Conscience,” Mevlut Cavusoglu, Financial Times, 03.22.20The author, Turkey’s foreign minister, writes:

  • “Nine years into the conflict, the province of Idlib has become a ‘new Gaza,’ where 3.5 million people are sequestered. The de-escalation zone created in 2018 has suffered a massive military offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran.”
  • “Only last year, our security forces apprehended almost 455,000 people trying to migrate illegally. We cannot continue to protect the borders of NATO and Europe alone.”
  • “Building fortresses does not stop people running for their lives. … Turkey, the U.K. and the EU must come together to stabilize our common neighborhood, while the EU also expedites Turkey’s membership process.”

“Coronavirus Means America Is Really Broke. Trump Should Get the Hell Out of Syria,” Doug Bandow, The National Interest, 03.22.20The author, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, writes:

  • “The U.S. is broke. Before the coronavirus made its malign appearance, Washington was set to run trillion-dollar annual deficits this year and as far as we can see beyond. Now revenues will fall and expenses rise this year, at least, as a result of the sharply contracting economy. And Congress is preparing to pass a $1 trillion ‘stimulus’ package on top. Why are we still in Syria?”
  • “Washington’s promiscuous war-making is discretionary: the Mideast has lost its strategic significance. No one threatens to conquer the oil upon which the West depends. No one threatens the survival of Israel, a regional superpower. What justification is there for Americans to continue attempting to socially engineer one of the world’s most fractious, unstable regions?”
  • “Syria has been a tragedy for nine years. But it was not within America’s power, at least at a reasonable cost in American lives and wealth, to fix that country. The U.S. has even less ability to do so today. President Trump should act on his instincts and bring home America’s troops. Doing so would be an important step toward halting Washington’s endless wars.”

Cyber security:

“As the West Panics, Putin Is Watching,” Elisabeth Braw, Foreign Policy, 03.23.20The author, director of the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute, writes:

  • “The coronavirus is a perfect opportunity for the West’s adversaries to watch how countries cope—or don’t cope—with a major crisis. After all, an adversary can exploit a crisis by adding a second one. The United States could, for example, exacerbate Iran’s coronavirus misery by imposing even more sanctions—as it did last week—or by staging cyberstrikes against power plants. And Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or proxies operating on their behalf could use this opportunity to conduct massive cyberattacks against Western targets.”
  • “Regardless of whether they opt for biological viruses or computer ones, new forms of disinformation campaigns, supercharged espionage or another not-yet-seen form of aggression, the West’s adversaries can bide their time. They can wait until they have exhaustively documented the West’s failures in responding to the coronavirus. Those lessons can then be used when another—potentially even worse—crisis hits.” 

Elections interference:

“Can Russia Use the Coronavirus to Sow Discord Among Americans?” Thomas Rid, New York Times, 03.20.20The author, a professors at Johns Hopkins University, writes:

  • “The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States has three features beyond fear that make it highly attractive raw material for disinformation: The coronavirus is sweeping right into campaign season, it is already flanked by polarizing conspiracy theories and the president’s response to the emergency is hotly contested.”
  • “The virus is exposing a range of contradictions ready for sharpening—for example, a simmering generational conflict spurred by skewed fatality rates. To reach their disruptive goal, Russian planners may well calculate, as they did in 2016, that helping Mr. Trump weakens America.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:   

“Russia's Ties With the West Rhyme,” William Courtney, The Hill, 03.22.20The author, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, writes:

  • “Mark Twain may have said, ‘history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ This may describe Moscow’s ties with the West. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were frozen until a liberalizing leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, shook the pillars of Soviet power. Today relations with Russia are again frigid, but it is unclear whether breaking the ice will require regime change.”
  • “In the early 1980s NATO fielded new land-based nuclear-armed INF missiles to bolster deterrence. The U.S. trained Afghan guerillas and gave them advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles … The West employed public diplomacy and covert aid to oppose martial law in Poland. The West publicly embarrassed the USSR over the KAL-007 shootdown. By comparison, the West’s response to the current Russian challenge is less potent.”
  • “Does this weaker response diminish Western leverage to change Moscow’s behavior? Perhaps, but this may not be the most important factor. In the 1980s internal weakness was the main driver for Gorbachev’s campaign to upgrade ties with the West. The economy he inherited could not even feed its people. … Kremlin leaders today have a richer set of choices to overcome stasis. Russia has elements of a market economy with substantial private property. It is upper middle income as defined by the World Bank. Russians have far more valued links with the West … After independence Russia gained years of democratic experience. Reformers and reforms that could revitalize the country and its economy are well known.”
  • “As in the 1980s, the future course of relations with the West may depend less on its leverage and more on whether Russia improves its own fortunes. The current leadership has the capacity to do this. However, if instead stasis akin to the late Soviet era persists, in time reform pressures could build and thrust Russia onto a higher path.”

Book review of “The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War” by Archie Brown, review by Tony Barber, Financial Times, 03.20.20The reviewer, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “[Archie Brown] was one of the Soviet specialists whom Thatcher summoned to Chequers, the weekend residence of U.K. prime ministers, in September 1983 for a seminar on East-West relations. Like other academics present, Brown argued that Western isolation of Russia did not promote internal change, whereas contacts at all levels of the political system and society tended over time to bring results. … Reagan once startled Gorbachev by remarking that if aliens from another planet threatened Earth, the U.S. and the USSR would surely work together.”
  • “There is much to admire in Brown’s book—but what is especially valuable is the attention he devotes to the closest advisers of Reagan and Gorbachev. Sharp internal disagreements marked the first term of the Reagan administration, but then progress on U.S.-Soviet relations came quickly thanks to people such as Shultz and Jack Matlock … As for Gorbachev, he surrounded himself from early on with high-caliber, trustworthy aides such as Anatoly Chernyaev, Georgy Shakhnazarov, Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev. Brown correctly notes that Gorbachev failed to include serious economic reformers in his top team and—even worse—ended up, in late 1990 and early 1991, appointing a clutch of diehard conservative communists who launched the August coup against him. The failure of that putsch triggered the Soviet Union’s collapse.”
  • “The overarching theme of The Human Factor is not that individual leaders are the driving force behind historical change, but that some leaders can make a big difference. In his final chapter, Brown makes another excellent point—namely, that insofar as Western countries won the Cold War through efforts of their own, it was not only because of their military strength but because they set good examples of democracy, liberty, law, prosperity and soft power. This is a lesson that needs relearning for the 21st century.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Thanks to Sanctions, Russia Is Cushioned From Virus’s Economic Shocks,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 03.20.20The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Six years ago, the United States and the European Union slammed the door on Western bank loans for Russian companies … Paradoxically, however, those sanctions and the policies Russia enacted in response prepared the Kremlin for what came this month: a universal dislocation of the global economy from the coronavirus pandemic and an oil price war that led to a collapse in oil prices and the revenues that Russia relies upon to support social spending.”
  • “Far from being a basket case, Russia enters the crisis with bulging financial reserves, its big companies nearly free of debt and all but self-sufficient in agriculture. After Russia was hit with the sanctions, President Vladimir V. Putin’s government and companies adapted to isolation and were virtually forced to prepare for economic shocks like the one hammering the global economy today.”
  • “To be sure, Russia has taken a hard hit from the collapse of oil prices, with the national currency, the ruble, losing about 20 percent of its value in recent weeks. Oil and natural gas account for about 60 percent of Russia’s exports.”
  • “It is still too early to predict how outbreaks of the virus will spread and how various governments will respond. Given the state of Russia’s ramshackle and underfunded health care system, the coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic. With the state’s tight grip on the news media, many Russians suspect that the Kremlin could be hiding the scale of the problem or the extent of preparedness, hampering an effective response. Still, some countries, Russia among them, seem better positioned than others. For Russia, that is linked to the Western sanctions.”

“Not Just a Crisis: Coronavirus Is a Test for Putin’s Security State,” Anton Troianovski, The Washington Post, 03.19.20The author, a Moscow correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “To fight the virus, Russia is taking steps to limit personal freedoms that in many ways mirror those taken recently by Western democracies. Schools, museums and theaters were closed nationwide, and gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned in Moscow and other cities. Anyone arriving from abroad is now required to enter quarantine. But for Russia, those steps carry an additional significance: they are an opportunity for Mr. Putin to show an uneasy public the effectiveness of rigid top-down governance and of a strong, centralized state.”
  • “‘A state of emergency is a happy time for any law enforcement authorities,’ said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and former member of Mr. Putin’s human rights council. Referring to the stakes for the Kremlin as it navigates the crisis, she added: ‘On the one hand, you are viewed as a protector and a savior. On the other, you can become the focus of discontent.’”
  • “The coming weeks are shaping up to be critical for Mr. Putin as he tries to cement his power. A national vote to approve constitutional amendments that would allow him to serve as president until 2036 is scheduled for late April. For now, he has avoided much public blowback against the move to hold on to power, but the government’s ability to control the coronavirus outbreak will test his argument that Russia needs his steady leadership in a time of crisis.”
  •  “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Oh, it’s Chernobyl again,’’ Anna Filippova, a 26-year-old freelance journalist, said … ‘We know the government’s going to lie again, and we’re not going to get any of the truth to come out, so we feel very lost, because maybe they’re underestimating it, maybe they’re overestimating—nobody knows.’”

“‘The Return of the Russian Leviathan’ Review: A Lust for Suffering,” Leon Aron’s review of Sergei Medvedev’s new book, Wall Street Journal, 03.17.20The reviewer, a resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writes:

  • “The original Russian title of this dazzling collection of essays by Sergei Medvedev, a social-science professor in Moscow and one of Russia's leading political commentators, was ‘The Crimean Period Park’ (Park krymskogo perioda). The echo of ‘Jurassic Park’ was surely intended. Mr. Medvedev sees Russia's annexation of Crimea and its war on Ukraine … as marking a new geologic era in Russian politics and foreign policy.” 
  • “According to Mr. Medvedev, a key part of what might be called the Putin restoration is a state creed in which mythology has replaced the facts of history. The Kremlin denies, distorts or whitewashes the Soviet past … It is out of this toxic mix that the Kremlin's foreign policy arises.”
  • “Mr. Medvedev dismisses ‘realpolitik’ and ‘national interests’ as its key engines. What drove Mr. Putin into Crimea and southeastern Ukraine—and, some years before, into Georgia—is to be found not outside Russia but within: in the ‘ideology that justifies imperial ambitions and the state's priority over the individual in the allegedly eternal clash between Russia and the West.’ Mr. Putin's ‘messianic’ foreign policy, he says, aims at revenge and glory, making fear Russia's main export, next to oil. To explain the motives at work, one needs to turn, Mr. Medvedev observes, not to the speculations of foreign-policy ‘realists’ like Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski but to Dostoyevsky's novels.”
  • “Russia today is like a Russian village at night, when, as folklore has it, roosters crow three times: at midnight, then around four in the morning and then at sunrise to celebrate the departure of the evil spirits that prowl in the night. We must wait for the ‘third roosters,’ Mr. Medvedev tells us.”

“The Weakness of the Strongman. Power Grabs by Putin and Xi Bode Well for Democracy’s Future,” Adam E. Casey and Seva Gunitsky, Foreign Affairs, 03.23.20The authors, a Ph.D. candidate and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, write:

  • “The rise of personalist rulers, despite the problems they pose, may have a silver lining for the future of democracy. Personalist regimes are more fragile than other types of autocracies, and they tend to end badly for their leaders. By concentrating power in private hands, personalism breeds corruption and undermines state capacity. Most important, unlike single-party regimes, personalist regimes do not offer an easily exportable model of autocratic rule that other governments can imitate.”

“Putin’s Coup: Cunning Plan, or Improvisation?” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.18.20The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “From the very beginning, there were two key elements to the reform that were personally important to Putin. The first was resetting the clock on presidential terms. There is at least one thing that points to that: eight years ago, Putin stated with confidence that any amendments to the constitution would not apply retrospectively.”
  • “If Putin had announced a reset straight away, however, it would have prompted immediate accusations of usurpation of power from the opposition and the West, which would have ruined the dream of a new ‘Putin’s constitution’ for a new Russia.”
  • “The implementation of the reset plan was improvised and hurried, since Putin had left it until the last moment, giving his team no time to prepare. According to one source, Tereshkova received the amendments that she suggested in parliament that same morning, and the people who briefed her on the mission did not know themselves what the outcome would be. Putin asked for several options to be put forward, and promised to respond to them.”
  • “The second key element prioritized in the reform from its very beginning was a strong presidential role. Strengthening the presidency was the main topic of the president’s state of the nation address in January.”
  • “Whether Putin wanted to be persuaded to stay on, was testing his entourage for their readiness for a power transition, or was simply waiting for the right moment, we may never know. But there is no evidence that he was preparing to choose a successor.”

“What Are Putin’s Real Presidential Plans?” George Beebe, The National Interest, 03.13.20The author, vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “Why did [Putin] openly accede to the Duma’s “request” that it pass a law enabling him to remain president until 2036 if voters approve? Many observers believe that this had been his plan all along, that his earlier coyness was simply a clever means of testing how much support he might have for end-running constitutional restrictions on his time in office. … But the emergence of dangerous new international factors probably played a more important role in Putin’s decision to tip his hand more directly.”
  • “In the past few weeks, Russia has walked up to and back from the brink of direct military conflict with Turkey—a NATO member—over Syria. … The coronavirus threat has quickly transitioned from specter into a reality that could overwhelm Russia’s healthcare capabilities and its energy export-dependent economy. … Saudi Arabia and Russia have gone to the battlements over oil production as a global recession looms and competition for energy markets intensifies.”
  • “The natural reaction in times of heightened fear is to seek safety in the familiar, rather than to venture toward the untested and unknown. Rulers are no more immune to this impulse than are the ruled.”
  • “The are several takeaways in all this for the United States. First, it would be unwise to base our Russia policy around hopes that a more liberal post-Putin leadership will evolve in the foreseeable future. More importantly, we should be aware that the Kremlin is increasingly concerned that a confluence of internal and external dangers is posing genuine threats to Russian interests, and perhaps even to its own hold on power. And as Putin himself cautioned in his memoirs, a rat is most prone to strike when it feels cornered.”

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:

“Russia and Turkey: Flexible Rivals,” Maxim Suchkov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.20.20The author, editor of Al-Monitor, writes:

  • “The reasons for the crisis [in Russian-Turkish relations over Syria] remain unaddressed. Russia continues to blame Turkey’s inability to fulfill its responsibility and drive out the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group from the Idlib de-escalation zone. The Russian side is unhappy that the Turks are helping to keep Idlib under the control of dubious groups and organizations. Moscow still has an interest in developing a multifaceted relationship with Ankara, but is not prepared to relinquish its own interests in Syria for the sake of Turkish ambition.”
  • “It’s not easy to sum up the two countries’ relationship. If it is a tactical union over Syria, then Moscow has largely achieved its goals within that union. The de-escalation zones that Turkey helped to create have enabled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to capture a lot of territory.”
  • “If the relationship between Russia and Turkey is a marriage of convenience, then right now the two sides are staying in it purely for the sake of the children: i.e., the political investments that Putin and Erdogan have made in developing bilateral relations when not everyone approved.”
  • “The greater the disconnect between the rosy picture presented to (and by) the media and the real discord, the more fragile and unstable the Russia-Turkey relationship. This is noticeable even among the public opinion in the two countries, where every time there is another crisis in relations, the leap from ‘strategic partner’ to ‘historical enemy’ is made in a matter of days.  On the other hand, this makes it possible to keep the relationship very flexible. At the heart of that flexibility is cynical pragmatism on both sides, and the conviction that grudging cooperation is more beneficial to Russia and Turkey than conflict.”

“How Turkey Lost Russia and the West,” Can Dundar, The Washington Post, 03.16.20The author, former editor in chief of Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, now living in exile, writes:

  • “As Turkey weakened its ties to the West, Putin started insisting that Erdogan give up on his animosity to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and demanded that he stop supporting radical Islamist militias. Last month's attack on Turkish soldiers was the logical consequence. Putin saw that Erdogan was left with no options other than Russia.”
  • “For quite some time now, Erdogan has been playing a dangerous game of balancing the West and Moscow against each other. In the end, he seems to have lost both. Perhaps now he will have a fresh appreciation of a famous adage of Turkish diplomacy: ‘In the Middle East, if you're not on the invitation list for an important dinner, you should check the menu. Your name might be on it.’”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant developments.


“Six Years and $20 Billion in Russian Investment Later, Crimeans Are Happy With Russian Annexation,” Gerard Toal, John O'Loughlin and Kristin M. Bakke, The Washington Post, 03.18.20The authors, professors of government and political science, write:

  • “Support for joining Russia remains very high (86 percent in 2014 and 82 percent in 2019)—and is especially high among ethnic Russians and Ukrainians [according to Levada’s polling in Crimea]. A key change since 2014 has been a significant increase in support by Tatars, a Turkic Muslim population that makes up about 12 percent of the Crimean population. In 2014, only 39 percent of this group viewed joining Russia as a positive move, but this figure rose to 58 percent in 2019.”
  • “Even Russia's fiercest critics recognize, though they rarely express it publicly, that Crimea is not going to return to Ukraine any time soon. The analogy these critics use is that of the Baltic States, whose occupation and incorporation into the Soviet Union was something the U.S. government never formally recognized. While this analogy resonates with the U.S.'s deep story of the Cold War as nations held captive by an evil empire, its vision of Crimea as ‘occupied territory’ is out-of-sync with the material and attitudinal realities of contemporary Crimea.”

“Crimea: Six Years After Illegal Annexation,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution/ Stanford CISAC's, 03.17.20The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Crimea has undergone significant changes over the past six years. … A large number of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars—some put the total at 140,000—have left the peninsula since 2014. Crimean Tatars complain of intimidation and oppression as one reason for moving. During the same period, some 250,000 people have moved from Russia to Crimea … The inflow has included troops and sailors.”
  • “The economic picture is mixed. Trying to create a success story, Moscow has poured in more than $10 billion in direct subsidies as well as funding major construction and infrastructure projects … On the other hand, small business has suffered, particularly with the decline in tourism, which once accounted for about one quarter of Crimea’s economy. Crimea also remains subject to a variety of Western economic and other sanctions.”
  • “The Ukrainian government maintains that it will get Crimea back. Analytically, it is difficult to see how Kyiv can muster the political, diplomatic, economic and military leverage needed to do so.”
  • “Even if Crimea’s return appears implausible in the near term, the United States and Europe should continue to support Kyiv’s position, maintain Crimea-related sanctions on Russia and hold to the policy of non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation.”

“How Ukraine's Zelenskiy Lost the Anti-Corruption Movement,” David L. Stern and Robyn Dixon, The Washington Post, 03.17.20: The authors, the Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet and an independent journalist, write:

  • “Anti-corruption activists [in Ukraine] see a travesty [in] the dismissal of Ruslan Ryaboshapka, the prosecutor general who instigated the anti-corruption drive, replaced [March 17] by Iryna Venediktova, a former adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and lawmaker from his party. Ryaboshapka was fired by parliament on March 5 after six months on the job. He was pushed out by a faction in Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party that anti-corruption crusaders and political analysts say is close to the powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. (Kolomoisky and the lawmakers deny any links.)”
  • “Zelenskiy said Ryaboshapka had failed to produce results. But the sacking shocked observers. His attack on corruption in the prosecution service was seen by good-governance advocates as a seismic reform. … Ryaboshapka's firing came just after Zelenskiy removed the young reformist prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and most of his government, after less than a year on the job.”
  • “‘Shame is the only word I can use to describe what has happened in parliament,’ the journalist Kristina Berdynskykh tweeted. ‘Zelenskiy has made a sharp turn in what is obviously the wrong direction.’ Daria Kaleniuk, head of Ukraine's Anti-corruption Action Center, said the moves send the message that Zelenskiy ‘can fire a person who takes a risk, for doing the right things, and blame this person for inefficiency.’”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.