Russia Analytical Report, March 29-April 5, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • Russia’s military movements near Ukraine are being made in a decidedly visible manner, writes Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA. In other words, they are intended to be seen, and are less indicative of preparation for a covert attack. Nor do they appear to be of the size commensurate with a major military operation. The most logical explanation, Kofman argues, is that the ceasefire broke down because Russia seeks to pressure Ukraine, and Western counterparts, over the lack of progress in implementing Minsk II. 
  • Tempting as it may be to view the Arctic through the prism of great-power competition—which undoubtedly would fit with Russia’s quest for recognition as a great power—there is little to suggest that Russia’s military posture in the Arctic is a fundamentally new undertaking, write Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • In the wake of the SolarWinds hack, rather than prioritizing either offense or defense in the cyber domain, the United States needs to first do a better job of clarifying different categories of behavior in cyberspace and figuring out the optimal mix of offensive and defensive investments to address these at different thresholds, argues the Atlantic Council’s Erica Borghard.
  • If saying a foreign leader is a “thug” is not conducive to improving foreign relations, Biden’s recent statement calling Putin a “killer” is even worse, writes Prof. William Jeynes, who gives Biden’s Russia policy a D-. Meanwhile, Brookings’ Steven Pifer argues that while Biden could and should have used more diplomatic language, when Putin sees that engagement with Biden can advance his goals, he will engage. 
  • Prominent Russia experts Thomas Graham, George Beebe, Steven Pifer and Michael McFaul debate Russia’s future and the drivers of possible change. Both Graham and Beebe agree that rapid advancements in technology will influence Russia’s future. Pifer adds that another possible driver of change is a future Russian leadership that doesn’t exploit the country's past for political reasons, while McFaul argues that the idea of Putinism’s continued survival is a more radical one than that of a new form of government emerging.


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Russia in the Arctic—A Critical Examination,” Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Paul Stronski, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.29.21. The authors of the paper write:

  • “Modern-day Russian posture in the Arctic is integral to its overall confrontation with the West, in which Europe is the principal theater. The saber-rattling in the Arctic and threatening rhetoric are driven by several factors: preparations for the unlikely, but potentially catastrophic contingency of war in Europe, the need to secure its second-strike nuclear capabilities … and the quest for resources to pay for the proverbial guns and butter as the competition with the West shows no sign of abating. Great-power ambitions and the interests of powerful bureaucratic elites and business interests also play a role.”
  • “In responding to Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic, it is important for the United States and NATO to base their plans on a realistic assessment of its posture there, its drivers and its capabilities. Tempting as it may be to view the Arctic through the prism of great-power competition … there is little to suggest that its military posture in the Arctic is a fundamentally new undertaking. Rather, it signals the return to a version of its Cold War–era posture centered around long-standing missions of protecting the sanctuaries of its ballistic missile submarine fleet and operations in the North Atlantic in the event of a war in Europe.”
  • “Some hedging against a greater-than-anticipated Russian threat should be one element of the United States’ and NATO’s overall approach to the Arctic Region. … The alliance should act with prudence, realism and restraint in protecting its core interests in the Arctic and carefully manage competition with Russia to avoid destabilizing consequences.”
  • “Even though their tense standoff is likely to continue, some cooperation between Russia and other Arctic nations, in practical areas that are largely depoliticized, is probably possible. These include climate change, search and rescue operations and scientific research. Other opportunities for cooperation should be explored on issues of common concern … In addition, it is essential for NATO allies to find potential diplomatic avenues for managing the standoff—that is, rules of the road to mitigate the risks of crises or incidents with the potential for escalation.”

“It’s Time to Fold America’s Nuclear Umbrella: Using Washington’s nuclear arsenal to protect its allies no longer makes any sense,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 03.23.21. The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “Extending a protective umbrella over allies in Europe and Asia may have made good sense during the Cold War, both to protect them and to discourage proliferation. But the nuclear weapons environment has changed: The number of nuclear-armed states has crept upward, and several countries … are increasing the size of their own arsenals … Moreover, the United States is not as tightly coupled to some of its traditional allies as it was during the Cold War, and serious rifts may continue to grow.”
  • “Which raises the obvious question: Does it still make sense to shield allies under the U.S. nuclear umbrella? Using the threat of nuclear use to protect other countries is not cost- or risk-free, and it may even be more dangerous than letting some other states acquire arsenals of their own and encouraging them to rely on ‘Type I’ deterrence provided by their own national capabilities.”
  • “This view has been advanced before—most notably by Kenneth Waltz in a controversial Adelphi Paper 40 years ago. … [H]is central point was that trying to prevent the slow spread of these weapons was not without costs of its own and that in some cases, as he put it, ‘more may be better.’ The question is: Is that becoming the case today?”
  • “To be sure, folding the nuclear umbrella might well have some negative effects. … It might make states long accustomed to U.S. protection question its commitment … It could also reduce U.S. influence or leverage if certain allies were no longer as dependent on U.S. protection … Removing the U.S. nuclear guarantee might encourage a few states to pursue nuclear arms of their own.”
  • “Nuclear weapons are extremely useful for deterring direct and all-out attacks on one’s own homeland but not much else. For that purpose, a great power doesn’t need an enormous arsenal or some hypothetical capability to “fight and win” a nuclear exchange. … Fetishizing the bomb and using it to try to protect others isn’t just expensive; it may also be dangerous.”

“An incomplete thesis on the cancellation of war,” Marvin Kalb’s review of John Mueller’s book, “American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency,” The Washington Post, 04.02.21. The reviewer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “For many years, John Mueller, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has devoted himself to two intellectual passions, one in the arts, the other in public policy.”
  • “Mueller's … passion, dating back roughly to the 9/11 attacks, has been to trumpet his core belief that, since the end of World War II, despite booming evidence to the contrary, an ‘ardent quest for international peace’ has supplanted war as the fundamental condition of global relations. Not that ‘perfect harmony or justice has been achieved,’ he stresses. Conflicts may persist, but war as a key instrument of state policy has ‘substantially been abandoned’ and ought no longer to be considered ‘inevitable or necessary.’ He seems to be saying we've entered a new age of stability and nobility.”
  • “Mueller's only good example for his theory about the ascendancy of peace over war is post-WWII Europe.”
  • “He has focused in this book on his problematic belief that peace has replaced war as a signature feature of global relations. I hope that in his next book he'll devote his considerable talents to explaining why this has not yet happened.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Putin’s Mediterranean Gambit,” Mark N. Katz, Atlantic Council, March 2021. The author, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes:

  • “How should the Biden administration respond to Moscow’s Mediterranean policies?  Perhaps it is best to start by warning that the United States should avoid pursuing either a complacent policy on the one hand or a counterproductive one on the other. … A complacent policy would be one … [in which] Washington really does not need to actively counter Moscow here since Putin’s efforts to expand Russian influence in the Mediterranean are likely to come to grief anyway. … [A] counterproductive policy would be one in which the United States determines that Russia is so great a threat that Washington must impose sanctions on its allies for their own good until they see the light about Russia and stop cooperating with Moscow in ways generating U.S. disapproval.”
  • “What is needed instead is a U.S. effort to show all states in the Mediterranean and the outside powers active there, especially Russia, that the United States is not leaving the region and remains strongly committed to it. A particularly strong message to this end would be a continued U.S. military presence in the Mediterranean.”
  • “In addition, the United States should engage in a regular dialogue with each of its Mediterranean allies about Russian behavior in the region as well as how their interactions with Moscow affect other U.S. allies as well as the United States itself.”
  • “The most effective way, though, for the United States to contain or even reverse the more harmful aspects of Russian behavior in the Mediterranean would be for Washington to do the one thing that Moscow has been unable or unwilling to accomplish so far: help resolve or reduce the regional conflicts and disputes whose continuation often benefits Moscow.”
  • “A concerted U.S. attempt to resolve and reduce conflict and tension in the Mediterranean also would show states there that the United States is not withdrawing from the region but is committed to remaining in it as a positive force instead.”

Cyber security:

“Punitive Response to SolarWinds Would Be Misplaced, But Cyber Deterrence Still Matters,” Erica D. Borghard, Russia Matters, 03.31.21. The author, a senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, writes:

  • “In a recent Russia Matters article, Paul Kolbe argues that the United States should respond to the SolarWinds breach by focusing on improving defenses, rather than on conducting a retaliatory response such as some government officials have been advocating. Kolbe claims that prior U.S. responses to Russian cyber behavior—which have involved imposing sanctions, issuing indictments or conducting cyber operations—have failed to deter Russian operations or meaningfully change Moscow’s calculus.”
  • “Kolbe is right that, when it comes to SolarWinds, it is unlikely that retaliatory measures aiming to impose costs against Russia (inside or outside of cyberspace) will work to shift the Russian government’s risk-benefit assessment—but he’s right for the wrong reasons. It is also important to note that Russia continues to deny responsibility for the SolarWinds incident. Regardless, a punitive response to SolarWinds is unwise because the available evidence indicates that the objective of the operation was national security espionage. However, this does not mean that the pursuit of deterrence strategies to address other types of malicious behavior in cyberspace, beyond espionage, is a fool’s errand. Deterrence is not a one-size-fits-all concept in cyberspace—or in any other domain.”
  • “Rather than prioritizing either offense or defense in the cyber domain, the United States needs to first do a better job of clarifying different categories of behavior in cyberspace and figuring out the optimal mix of offensive and defensive investments to address these at different thresholds.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“No Emotions or Illusions: The Future of U.S.-Russian Relations,” Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.30.21. The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Setting aside emotions and illusions, there are at least ten realistic objectives for Russia’s foreign policy. … First, continue to ensure that any incidents involving Russian and U.S. or NATO troops, aircraft or ships are avoided or quickly resolved.”
  • “Second, reinforce the combined nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence of the United States as the cornerstone of Moscow’s independent position with respect to Washington. … Third, begin talks on strategic stability, bearing in mind that the subject of these talks is extremely complicated, and that Washington will try to negotiate from a position of strength.”
  • “Fourth, approach the Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems based on Russia’s own assessment of the situation instead of trying to ‘sell’ its assistance to Washington in promoting the U.S. agenda. … Fifth, develop cooperation on climate change and environmental protection, security in the Arctic, and the fights against pandemics and terrorism in a manner guided by Russian national interests and U.S. willingness to work together.”
  • “Sixth, cultivate relations with China in all sectors while maintaining an independent policy and avoiding getting drawn into the U.S.-China conflict, in the same way that Beijing steers clear of the conflict between Moscow and Washington. … Seventh, regard U.S. sanctions as a stimulus to work toward further economic, financial, technological, informational, and cultural independence amid global competition.”
  • “Eighth, give up as futile any attempts to influence U.S. domestic policy. … Ninth, differentiate between the U.S. political class and media on the one hand, which hold a consistently adversarial position toward Russia overall, and other groups of U.S. society, such as the business, research, and technology communities; local governments; and public organizations. … Finally, shift away from the U.S.-centric nature of foreign policy.”

“Joe Biden’s Killer Comment: Undiplomatic, but the End of U.S.-Russia Relations?” Steven Pifer, The National Interest, 03.30.21. The author, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden affirmatively responded to George Stephanopoulos’s question, ‘Vladimir Putin. You think he’s a killer?’ Russian commentators voiced outrage, while some American observers foresee a new or intensified ice age in U.S.-Russia relations. The Russian president is a big boy though. He surely did not like Biden’s answer, but it is difficult to imagine that he would refuse to engage when he sees doing so in his or Russia’s interest.”
  • “Biden could and should have used more diplomatic language in replying to Stephanopoulos: ‘Look, there is a tightly controlled system over there. Certain things do not happen without the approval of the guy at the top.’ Still, was his assessment incorrect?”
  • “In contrast to his predecessor, Biden is a serious interlocutor. Putin may not like being called a killer—who would? However, when he sees engagement with Biden can advance his goals, he will engage.”

“Grading Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy on China, North Korea, and Russia,” William Jeynes, The National Interest, 04.02.21. The author, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, writes:

  • Joe Biden's Russia policy: "Grade: D-.”
  • “If saying a foreign leader is a ‘thug’ is not conducive to improving foreign relations, Biden’s recent statement calling Putin a ‘killer’ is even worse. While President Obama was in office, in 2014 Mikhail Gorbachev warned that the American president had reignited the Cold War. Gorbachev asserted that, ‘Plainly speaking, the U.S. has already dragged us into a new Cold War.’ President Obama infuriated Vladimir Putin in May, 2014 by, in the midst of Russia’s seizure of part of the Ukraine, calling Russia a ‘regional power.’ For the remainder of Obama’s term, Putin attempted to remind Obama of Russia’s prodigious nuclearized military. Putin angered Americans when he stated that the United States was interested in Russia simply because it was the only nation that could ‘destroy America in half an hour or less.’”
  • “Democrats have continued to attack Russia. For example, both Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter asserted that President Trump’s election was illegitimate, largely because they claim it was the result of Russian interference. However, these claims are not consistent with the conclusions of the Senate Intelligence report.”
  • “It is a disservice to the United States, Russia and the global community to return to Cold War vitriol. Both Biden and Putin should know from their decades of political experience that the consequences from the use of harsh words are difficult to undo.”
  • “It might seem that President Biden’s Grade Point Average (GPA) for these key international relationships may not be high. However, his weighted GPA may be somewhat better, because his stance on China may be the most important. Nevertheless, one can only hope he will use more prudent words and strategies in the days ahead.”

“How Nancy Reagan helped end the Cold War,” Karen Tumulty, The Washington Post, 04.01.21. The author, a columnist covering national politics, writes: 

  • “For any first lady to become involved in major questions of foreign policy was unconventional and politically tricky …  [Former Secretary of Defense Casper] Weinberger noted that Nancy [Reagan] ‘was more receptive to the idea of forming a working relationship with the then-Soviets than some of the rest of us were, and more willing to trust them.”’ 
  • “Hers was a multi-front campaign … Nancy was not a fan of her husband’s far-fetched scheme to build a space-based missile defense system, which became a major sticking point in U.S.-Soviet relations … She became especially disturbed when the president made a speech … in which he branded the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.”’   
  • “Nancy encouraged her husband to meet with Gorbachev as soon as possible, though some on his national security team opposed it … She was keen for Reagan to get to know Gorbachev personally, without teams of diplomats and arms-control experts.” 
  • “In May 1987 Nancy had an opportunity to explain her role as first lady … Nancy started with a joke … ‘You know how busy I am—between staffing the White House and overseeing the arms talks. In fact, this morning I had planned to clear up U.S.-Soviet differences on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. But I decided to clean out Ronnie’s sock drawer instead … There are those who think first ladies should be kept in attics … and then be put away again … Although I don’t get involved in policy, it’s silly to suggest my opinion should not carry some weight with a man I’ve been married to for 35 years.”’ 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“The Future of Russia,” discussion with Thomas Graham, George Beebe, Steven Pifer and Michael McFaul, Pairagraph, March 2021.

  • Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:
    • “Predicting Russia’s future is the bane of Russia watchers. … One prediction, though, we can make with complete confidence: A post-Putin Russia will eventually emerge. We just don’t know when or what it will look like. … Observers fall into two broad camps, what we might call the Historians, who stress the enduring patterns of history, and the Sociologists, who are more attuned to the logic of change and development.”
    • “One thing history teaches is that states rise and fall, and some disappear, as the surrounding political, economic and technological context creates new requirements for viability. That is a critical lesson for today, as technology rapidly and dramatically changes the way we govern and wage wars. In these circumstances, whether the historical Russian state will remain viable is an open question.”
  • George Beebe, Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest, in response to “What then are the key drivers of change?”:
    • “One of the biggest is technology. … Modern military technology … is eroding the defensive benefits of geographical distance, while information technology is making it more difficult prevent news and ideas from crossing Russian borders.”
    • “Russia’s economy is based on its extractive industries, but competitiveness in the world’s 21st-century knowledge-based economy rests much more on data, innovation, advanced education and networking … Russian mathematicians and scientists[‘s] … ability to turn scientific advances into commercial technology depends to a great extent on freedoms that the Kremlin has been loath to grant and protect. … A third factor … is nature. Climate change is bound to be disruptive even for cold-weather countries such as Russia.”
    • “Putin is attempting to balance the forces of change with the weight of Russia’s culture and historic traditions, in the hope that he can buy time for orderly evolution rather than destabilizing disruption. As a result, Russia has become the political equivalent of Schroedinger’s Cat … The Putinist present embraces many incompatible forces, any or none of which might become dominant in the future.”
  • Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:
    • “[I]s the security challenge that Putin faces … really the same as that with which so many of his predecessors had to contend? Strategic depth and buffer zones mattered greatly to Russia in the past, and it resorted to expansion to solve its security dilemmas. Today, however, Russia holds the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in addition to formidable conventional and unconventional military capabilities.”
    • “Can Russia change in the future? George has outlined factors that could—could, not necessarily will—bring change. I would add that another factor might be a future Russian leadership that stops exploiting the country's past for political reasons. Russians are not going to forget their history. But some compartmentalization might facilitate change.”
  • Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia:
    • “Two big factors—one sociological and one related to contingency and leaders—suggest caution in predicting the longevity of Russian autocratic continuity. First, over centuries, we know there is a strong relationship between wealth and democracy. … 18 of the world’s 20 richest countries today in GDP per capita terms are democracies. Russians are some of the richest people in the world living under autocracy. Is that stable? I doubt it.”
    • “Second, even in Russia’s recent history, there have been several leaders who did not think or behave according to Russia’s traditional ‘political DNA.’ Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and even Dmitry Medvedev were much less autocratic and far more pro-Western … Even today, not all Russians think alike. Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza are just as Russian as Putin. So was Boris Nemtsov. … The prediction that Putinism will survive another two decades seems more radical than the suggestion of a new form of government emerging in that same time period.”

“Russians Aren’t Buying Putin’s PR Stunts Anymore,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Foreign Policy, 04.02.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “For Putin, it’s all gone downhill since 2018, when he tanked his approval rating by making an unpopular reform to Russia’s pension system. … Today, around 49 percent of Russians approve of the government, personalized by Putin, and only 32 percent say they trust him. These are numbers on par with before the Crimea annexation.”
  • “The average Russian is an indifferent spectator to the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda … Crimea is no longer a tool for mobilizing support for the authorities. … The same is true of relations with the West. Every schoolchild in Russia knows that the European Union and United States don’t like their country. But Russia’s perceived victories over the West … are no longer enough to rouse public opinion.”
  • “For Putin, this fall from grace was totally avoidable. His ratings nosedive can be traced directly back to June 2018, when the Russian government announced a proposal to raise the retirement age … It was a violation of the core, unwritten social contract of Putin’s Russia: We vote for you, and you don’t touch our social benefits. … Meanwhile, anti-American sentiment among Russians has also been decreasing since about 2018, according to research carried out in January and February of this year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.”
  • “Attitudes in Russia toward the United States—independent of its leaders—are far better than they were several years ago: In 2016, 28 percent of Russians had a positive view of the United States … By the start of 2021 … 40 percent of Russians view[ed] the United States favorably. As with other political matters, age is a key factor informing attitudes. Younger Russians are more likely to have a positive view of the United States than those aged over 55.” 
  • “Russian authorities can no longer attribute all of Russia’s misfortunes to Western intrigues. It was once said that ‘never have Russians lived as badly as they did under Barack Obama.’ That’s definitely not true anymore.”

“Russia’s Weak Strongman. The Perilous Bargains That Keep Putin in Power,” Timothy Frye, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2021. The author, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University, writes:

  • “If Putin is unrivaled at home, he is not omnipotent. Like all autocrats, he faces the dual threats of a coup from elites around him and a popular revolt from below. And because of the compromises he has had to make to consolidate his personal control over the state, Putin’s tools for balancing the competing goals of rewarding elites … and appeasing the public are becoming less and less effective.”
  • “He has weakened institutions such as courts, bureaucracies, elections, parties and legislatures so that they cannot constrain him, meaning that he cannot rely on them to generate economic growth, resolve social conflicts or even facilitate his peaceful exit from office. This leaves Putin dependent on the fleeting commodity of personal popularity and the hazardous methods of repression and propaganda.”
  • “A future spike in energy prices that increased rent streams to the elite and delivered prosperity to the broader public would offer Putin some respite. If energy prices stay where they are, however, his future looks rocky. … The parliamentary elections slated for September are likely to be fraught. Approval ratings for the ruling United Russia party are lower than ever, and so the Kremlin will need to clamp down on the opposition while also keeping the regime-friendly Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party in the fold.”
  • “Looking further down the road, the expectation that Putin will stay on as president past 2024 will only reinforce Russia’s economic stagnation and heighten popular frustration over the Kremlin’s inability to raise living standards or improve governance.”
  • “Russia remains a great power, albeit a diminished one. … Those who dismiss Russia as a regional power are mistaken. … Putin faces no immediate threat to his rule. … Yet no amount of shrewdness can overcome the agonizing trade-offs of running Russia the way he does. … How the Kremlin balances these tradeoffs will determine Russia’s immediate future. But the trend toward greater repression over the last four years, and its likely continuation, does not bode well for Russia or its leader.”

“Can the Next Generation of Russians Modernize Their Country?” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.31.21. The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian domestic politics and political institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “A good litmus test for political views is what Russians think of President Vladimir Putin, the symbol of the regime. Half of the respondents (48 percent) in a February survey by the Levada Center would like to see Putin stay on as president after his current term expires in 2024. That figure has not changed significantly since it dropped in 2018, returning to what it was immediately prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.”
  • “The results among those aged eighteen to twenty-four and those aged fifty-five and over are almost exactly reversed. In the younger group, 57 percent do not want to see Putin as president after 2024, while 31 percent do. Among those fifty-five and older, 59 percent would like Putin to stay on, compared with 31 percent who would not.”
  • “Other political issues reveal a similar picture. In the eighteen-to-twenty-four age group, 38 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the opposition protests held in January, whereas among those fifty-five and older, the rallies have the support of just 16 percent of people. A total of 36 percent of young people approve of the activities of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, compared with 12 percent of those aged fifty-five and over.”
  • “Analysis showed that more often than not, young people get involved in civic activism because they are better informed (with access to more varied sources of information), and more engaged with the world (they know foreign languages, travel abroad and are interested in politics).”
  • “A generational shift will take place if young Russians decide to break with the values of an antiquated state. This process could take a very long time and include periods of regression, but it could also happen much quicker than expected. The battle for the young generations and a new pantheon of values continues apace.”

“Why Alexei Navalny’s hunger strike should raise alarms worldwide,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 04.01.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Alexei Navalny has been forced into a grim theater of the absurd, tormented by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the sprawling security state he commands. Mr. Navalny, Russia's leading opposition voice and critic of the Putin kleptocracy, has been sentenced on phony charges to more than two years in a notorious prison 62 miles east of Moscow, where his health is deteriorating. His decision to go on a hunger strike is risky and should raise alarms far and wide.”
  • “The hunger strike is a desperate signal from Mr. Navalny of a worsening plight. He should not be in prison, he should not be sick and he must not be silenced like so many other critics of Mr. Putin who were felled by poisoned tea, bullets in the night or untreated ailments in prison.”

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:

“UK Security Review: Implications for Russia,” Dimitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.02.21. The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy published by the British government at the end of March is a most remarkable document: innovative, forward-looking, and comprehensive … As a template for modern strategizing, it is a useful model for structuring a country’s interactions within the globalized world.”
  • “The Integrated Review names the “state threats” as the most relevant ones, and though it calls China the principal systemic challenger, it reserves for Russia the position of “the most acute threat to our security.” Russia is placed in the same category as Iran and North Korea as a most hostile nation.”
  • “Nowhere in the paper is there a word about possible cooperation with Russia on any issue … This has prompted the Russian ambassador to London, Andrei Kelin, to conclude that the political relationship between the UK and Russia is now de facto nonexistent. The Integrated Review implies that there can be no cooperation with Moscow until the Russian government either changes its policies in a fundamental way or is replaced by a government with a very different policy agenda.”
  • “Moscow is probably taking these statements and proposed actions seriously, but without much alarm: relations have been going from bad to worse for years … Yet though bilateral political contacts are unlikely to be frequent or productive, Russia and the UK could and even should engage each other in bilateral and multilateral settings on a range of global issues, in particular climate change … public health … nonproliferation [and] strategic stability. There is potential room for discussing some regional issues, including in the Middle East. Other nonpolitical, nongovernmental contacts, whether in business, science and technology, education, or other fields should be allowed to proceed, albeit within the constraints of the ongoing confrontation.”

“The Latest Spy Scandal Won't Sour Moscow-Rome Relations, But Italian Public Opinion Is Shifting,” Eleonora Tafuro, The Moscow Times, 04.05.21. The author, a Russia expert at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan, writes:

  • “Despite being grounded in and substantially dependent on the general state of EU-Russia relations, ties between Moscow and Rome have so far managed to navigate the numerous crises characterizing the last decade, especially after the Ukraine conflict.”
  • “But will this “special relationship” stand the test of the latest spy scandal that has been making headlines for days now? The scandal involved Walter Biot, an Italian navy captain … caught selling classified documents to Russian official Dmitry Ostroukhov for 5,000 euros.”
  • “Russia is still Italy’s first source of gas — making Italy the second largest consumer of Russian gas in the EU after Germany — and a major oil source … Russia is also an essential diplomatic interlocutor for Italy, especially in light of Russia's increased influence in the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, Moscow is playing an increasingly important role in Libya, which is at the center of Italy's foreign policy … Italy is also a key EU member in Russia's effort to promote the Sputnik V vaccine's local production.”
  • “These factors make it unlikely that Russia and Italy will break or severely limit their ties in the near future.”

“Russia strides into diplomatic void after Myanmar coup,” John Reed and Henry Foy, Financial Times, 04.01.21. The authors, Bangkok and Moscow correspondents for the Financial Times, write:

  • “Myanmar’s military junta marked Armed Forces Day last week in the capital Naypyidaw with a parade featuring tanks, missiles and a flyover of military aircraft, including Russian-made MiG-29 combat jets.  Seven Asian countries sent low-profile delegations to the event hosted by coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing last week. But the highest-ranking official to attend was from further afield: Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defense minister.”
  • “Russia is striding into a diplomatic void left by the world’s other leading powers, as they deliberate whether—and to what extent—to engage with the junta that on February 1 seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. Moscow’s attitude has echoes of its 2015 decision to lend military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s pariah regime in Syria, helping turn the tide of the civil war in the dictator’s favor.”
  • ‘“Myanmar is not on Russia’s doorstep, so they don’t have to worry about the fallout, and don’t have to deal with the refugee crisis,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Power and Diplomacy Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.”
  • ‘“Russia is gambling that the army will prevail,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and author “It’s a low-risk gamble as Russia has little to lose if Myanmar descends into civil war, but if the army holds on to power Moscow will have a new friend on the Indian Ocean.”’

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant developments.


“Russia's Military Buildup Near Ukraine Is an Intimidation Tactic,” Michael Kofman, The Moscow Times, 04.03.21. The author, a senior research scientist in the Russia Studies program at CNA, writes:

  • “[Russia’s military] movements are being made in a decidedly visible manner … [T]hey are intended to be seen, and are less indicative of preparation for a covert attack. The Russian military could be doing far more to conceal preparations or troop movements were this their objective. Nor do they appear to be of the size commensurate with a major military operation … [T]hese overt shifts in military posture and readiness appear to be primarily coercive and demonstrative in nature.”
  • “The standing hypothesis for why Russia might conduct offensive operations are not especially explanative. Almost annually, a theory has been floated that Russia intends to seize Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast because of the water crisis in Crimea … This notion has superficial appeal, but the operation … would then generate a new set of dilemmas in supplying and managing another fragmented region. Despite its low likelihood, this idea has been trotted out with some frequency, just like the supposed “land bridge to Crimea” operation that Russia never executed (instead building an actual bridge).”
  • “The most logical explanation is that the ceasefire broke down because Russia seeks to pressure Ukraine, and Western counterparts, over the lack of progress in implementing Minsk II. Moscow’s goal is not only to intimidate, but to illustrate that the conflict cannot be frozen without significant political concessions … They may be similarly aimed as a signal to the new Biden administration that Russia retains strong coercive power.”
  • “Leaders use force when they believe it is necessary for them to achieve political aims. There’s not much evidence this is currently the case for Russia’s position vis-a-vis Ukraine … When intentions are unclear, reactions are often driven by the military capabilities observed, and the worst-case thinking that they engender.”

“Is Russia Getting Ready to Invade Ukraine? “Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 04.02.21. The author, a national security reporter for The National Interest, writes:

  • “Since the signing of the Minsk Protocol agreement that laid out a political process for the reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics into Ukraine, the Kremlin has supported the Donbass separatists indirectly whilst threatening an powerful military response if Ukrainian forces try to retake the breakaway regions by force. Whichever side first launches a major offensive could then be blamed for tearing up the Minsk agreement—a diplomatic liability that neither Moscow or Kyiv have been willing to accept.”
  • “Russia’s Donbass strategy has been to wait for Ukraine to make the first major military move; as of the time of writing, there is no indication that this core geopolitical calculus has changed. Fully aware of the grave international consequences of preemptively moving its army westward, it appears that the Kremlin continues to adhere to a retaliatory doctrine as the Donbass crisis enters a new escalatory phase.”

“Again, Washington Jumps to Conclusions over Ukraine-Russia Skirmish,” Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 04.02.21. The author, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, writes:

  • “The initial reaction of Biden administration officials to the latest clash between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militia (or Russian soldiers serving as militia) in eastern Ukraine exemplifies a very dangerous pattern in U.S. and Western behavior: to believe whatever “our” side in a given crisis tells us, automatically, and without checking facts.”
  • “If the latest clash in the Donbas was in fact started by Moscow in a deliberate attempt to provoke Ukraine into starting a wider conflict to serve Russia’s interests, then it is obviously the responsibility of the Ukrainian government not to allow itself to be provoked.”
  • “To repeat the vital point that I made in an article for Responsible Statecraft last month, if Ukraine goes to war with Russia, Ukraine will lose, and the United States and NATO will not fight to save her. The consequences for Washington will be deep humiliation, and Russia will be driven into the arms of China. So the duty of the Biden administration, the CIA, the State Department and the media is clear: find out what is really happening in the Donbas and then use that knowledge to help craft a strategy for preventing a new conflict, not inflaming one.”

“Is Putin About to Launch a New Offensive in Ukraine?” Peter Dickinson, Atlantic Council, 04.01.21. The author, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service, writes:

  • “Taras Kuzio, Professor, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy: Russia is unlikely to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because this would lead to a long war and the complete breakdown of Russia’s relations with the West. Vladimir Putin is more likely to be aiming for a repeat of the trap he laid for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, when provocations from South Ossetia led to Georgia’s intervention in the separatist region. This gave Russia the excuse to militarily intervene “in defense of its citizens” and humiliate Saakashvili. …However, there are a number of major differences between Georgia and Ukraine which raise doubts over the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s tactics.  Saakashvili was eventually followed in Georgia by the more Russia-friendly Bidzina Ivanishvili. In Ukraine, there is no pro-Russian leader waiting in the wings who could conceivably win a parliamentary or presidential majority. Ukraine is also many times larger and more populous than Georgia. A conventional Russian invasion and occupation would require half of Russia’s entire armed forces and would face serious resistance, both from the Ukrainian military and from partisan-style operations.  Russia would no longer be able to deny waging war against Ukraine and would become bogged down in a major conflict on its own doorstep. The cost in terms of lives, money, and international isolation would be disastrous.”’

“Is Russia testing the waters or just testing Biden?” Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, 04.02.21. The authors, reporters for Foreign Policy, write:

  • “Even as tensions have increased in the last few days, former U.S. officials said Kyiv remains wary of escalating any conflict, potentially taking the bait from Moscow and allowing Russia-backed forces to further consolidate their gains in the east. Instead, Zelensky is likely to lean on the West, the person said.”
  • “‘The Ukrainians are better off with a stalemate than escalating and getting their clock cleaned,” the former senior U.S. defense official said. [Their] best play in the Donbass is international pressure and to wait Putin out. Plinking a few tanks with Javelins isn’t going to do much,” the official said, referring to Ukraine’s U.S.-supplied anti-tank Javelin missiles.”

“How Russia’s military activity near Ukraine is poised to test the Biden administration,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 04.02.21. The author, a columnist for The Washington Post, writes:

  • “The Biden administration’s stern messaging about Russia this week is the latest example of how the White House and State Department are trying to bolster U.S. foreign policy after the disruption and disorganization of the Trump years. The centerpiece of that strategy has been rebuilding alliances — with NATO countries when it comes to confronting Russia, and with key Asian allies such as Japan, India and Australia (known collectively, with the United States, as the Quad) in competing with China.”
  • “Biden has tried to signal a firmer stance toward Russia since taking office. The day after his inauguration, he ordered a review of Russia’s role in the aggressive SolarWinds hack that affected thousands of companies and government agencies. On Feb. 4, following Navalny’s arrest, Sullivan warned: “Unlike the previous administration, we will be taking steps to hold Russia accountable for the range of malign activities that it has undertaken.”
  • “What makes the Ukraine situation different is that it potentially involves force. Russia has augmented its troops, at least temporarily, near the border of a country to which the United States provides military assistance. Perhaps the best thing about this week’s signaling is that it reduces the likelihood that either side will miscalculate its actions.”

“The Shadow of a New Cold War Hangs over Europe,” Lyle J. Goldstein, The National Interest, 03.30.21. The author, a research professor at the U.S. Naval War College, writes:

  • “Temperatures are rising again in eastern Ukraine with informed commentators suggesting that intensive military action might start when the “mud season” passes … Indeed, even as Ukraine-Russia tensions are at the root of almost all of the most acute problems in European security, this tortured bilateral relationship also points the way toward common-sense solutions too.”
  • “The pervasive lack of historical knowledge in the American capital is, unfortunately, feeding escalating tensions in Eastern Europe … American strategists should consider how it was that Americans were highly sympathetic to Tsarist Russia during the Crimean War when Russia faced off against perceived French and British imperialism … [T]hey should reflect on the fact that … the Kremlin’s stubborn hold on Crimea in the face of Nazi aggression proved exceedingly important to the Allied victory in 1945. Finally, there is no understanding in the American foreign policy establishment that Soviet internal borders were of little importance, so their impact on post-Soviet politics is also limited … [T]he Crimea situation and that of Ukraine generally is much grayer, and less black and white than most Americans appreciate.”
  • “So, what is to be done ultimately, besides dusting off some history books? First, the United States should take overt and obvious steps to uproot the militarized rivalries now in full bloom from the Arctic to the Caucasus to see if such steps aimed at de-escalation might be reciprocated by the Kremlin. Second, Washington should seek to re-energize the so-called “Normandy process” that brings Russia and Ukraine into a negotiating format with the leaders of Germany and France to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine. Finally, American diplomats should consider a “grand bargain” that accords full NATO membership to Ukraine in exchange for complete diplomatic recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea.”


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Biden Can Help Armenia and Azerbaijan Make Peace. Here’s How.” Daniel Baer, Foreign Policy, 03.30.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, writes:

  • “First, press for implementation of the cease-fire, addressing issues of accountability and remediation. The Nov. 9 agreement between the two parties, co-signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not ideal. But for now, there is no near-term alternative framework for sustaining the cease-fire … Credible reporting suggests that prisoners remain, and their return should be a priority. Washington should also support reporting by the OSCE team on the ground—hopefully augmented from its current size of just a handful of people—on complaints about cease-fire violations, human rights abuses, and alleged war crimes.”
  • “Second, support humanitarian work and resettlement activities. Too often, when the guns go silent, attention shifts elsewhere … The practical work of supporting ordinary people as they adapt to a new political geography is less sexy than the negotiation of military cease-fires or political agreements, but it is the foundation for peace”
  • “Third, drive a regionwide economic development strategy. The most plausible lever to drive future cross-border cooperation is a new regional economic strategy, including infrastructure development, that can attract international investment to strengthen the economies of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and neighboring Georgia.”
  • “Fourth, reinvigorate diplomacy. The U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group should have ambassadorial rank. Washington should energetically push the co-chairs to meet regularly along with the OSCE team on the ground … In addition, Washington should begin talks with Moscow about a United Nations Security Council resolution to ratify the Nov. 9 cease-fire and call for a full peace agreement.”
  • “A foreign policy centered on human rights cannot focus only on geopolitics and the biggest players … The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is seen by many as intractable. An earnest U.S. effort to push for progress is an opportunity to demonstrate what a values-driven foreign policy looks like.”

“With Armenian Captives at Issue, Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh Continues to Rankle,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 03.29.21. The author, a columnist for The Washington Post, writes:

  • “Despite a nudge from a senior State Department official, Azerbaijan has so far refused to return more than four dozen Armenian prisoners who were captured after a bloody war for control of the disputed enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  • U.S. officials say that 52 Armenians are still held by Azerbaijan, despite earlier exchanges of prisoners. (An Armenian official said his government estimates that the number of captives is much higher, around 200.) The government in Baku claims that these detainees were not combatants in the war but entered the disputed territory in late November after the cease-fire and are terrorism suspects, an allegation that Armenia denies.”
  • “Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for Europe, raised the issue of the captives with Azerbaijan's foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov… and requested that the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed to visit the prisoners. The ICRC was promptly granted access. U.S. officials continued in the following weeks to advocate the release of detainees.”
  • “Members of Congress have begun to press Azerbaijan on the issue. A group led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) … introduced a bill March 16 calling on Azerbaijan to immediately release all Armenian POWs and captured civilians. The measure has 42 co-sponsors in the House … The prisoner issue will gain additional emotional significance in April, the month when Armenians annually commemorate the mass killings that took place in 1915. Ian Bremmer, a prominent international commentator, tweeted recently that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "will be incensed by the Biden administration's move to acknowledge the Armenian genocide."’
  • “An administration official said a final decision about formal presidential recognition of the massacre hasn't been made yet. This year's commemoration will be especially poignant because of Armenia's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year, and the anguish that followed.”

“The U.S. Army Goes to School on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,” Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy, 03.03.21. The author, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, writes:

  • “When Azerbaijan took over the skies in its fight with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh last fall, winning the air war with commercial Turkish and kamikaze drones, one thing started to become clear to U.S. Army strategists: It’s becoming easier to hunt and kill troops than ever before—and to do so on the cheap.”
  • ‘“Basically they’re telling themselves a story through convergence and military shock and awe that they’re going to be able to create effects on an opponent that we know through history simply does not happen,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, referring to the U.S. Army’s current operating concept for future wars.”
  • “What has become apparent after Azerbaijan routed Armenia last fall, he said, is that not only will the U.S. military no longer enjoy uncontested air superiority against peer rivals like China … but that poorer nations can buy themselves a respectable air force mostly off the shelf. “What’s clear in that conflict is that a less funded nation can do combined arms warfare,” Shaw said. “You don’t have to be the United States or Russia. The price point to entry into combined arms warfare is lower than initially thought. You don’t need something like the United States Air Force, a superbly trained, spectacular capability, in order to conduct potentially a local air-to-ground or air-to-air activity.”’
  • “Shaw is busy briefing other service leaders, such as Army Training and Doctrine Command chief Gen. Paul Funk, on what he and his soldiers have learned from hours of poring over footage from the Nagorno-Karabakh fight. He has brought on a historian to write a full study of the group’s history.”

Turkey’s Return to Central Asia,” Emil Avdaliani, Royal United Services Institute, 04.01.21. The author, a professor at the European University (Tbilisi, Georgia) and director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think tank, Geocase, writes:

  • “Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in its latest war with Armenia could have much greater ramifications, with Turkey using Azerbaijan’s geographic position as a springboard to reach out to Central Asia. Although China and Russia loom large in the region, Turkey could tap into the significant cultural leverage it has, along with Central Asian states’ willingness to diversify their foreign relations away from Moscow and Beijing.”
  • “Turkey’s power projection into Central Asia will continue to be overshadowed by Chinese and Russian efforts. Nevertheless, Ankara’s recent moves signal a more robust Turkish policy towards the region that has been lacking until recently. Anchoring its approach to Central Asia on Azerbaijan will be critical, as the country’s geographic position could allow Turkey to push eastward across the Caspian.”