Russia Analytical Report, March 4-11, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • While European and American politicians and pundits wring their hands about the Russian military threat, European governments and militaries practice business as usual, argues Prof. Barry Posen. Europeans are capable of defending themselves now, he writes, as Germany and France alone match Russia’s population, outweigh it economically and outspend it militarily.
  • Any post-New START arms control regime will have to be more inclusive, as even “mid-sized” nuclear powers possess large and growing arsenals, writes Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center. Additionally, he argues, widely shared obligations will lead to a more effective arms control regime.
  • “The last vestige of a millenarian caliphate that once held a third of Syria and Iraq is crumbling” and “ISIS fighters have melted away to revert to terror tactics or to carry the jihad back to their homes,” writes the Financial Times editorial board. The West should use what leverage they have—such as sanctions relief—to secure Russia’s cooperation on confronting the global threat still posed ISIS, according to this board.
  • “[William] Burns has few illusions about Vladimir Putin,” writes Financial Times’ Lionel Barber in his review of the U.S. diplomat’s new book. The Russian president was determined to restore Russia’s state power and influence, “[a]nd, as Burns admits: ‘Russia was never ours to lose,’” Barber writes.
  • For Moscow, the results of the European Parliament elections in May will signal both Europe’s political direction and its stability as a political actor, writes Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at ECFR. For Moscow, Liik writes, a united Europe has value as one bloc in a multipolar world no longer subject to Western hegemony.
  • The Kremlin has a new development plan for Russia’s vast territory, writes Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky. The plan would direct Russia’s population and economic activity to a limited number of urban areas linked by new transportation projects, while the rest of the country would be treated as “flyover country” with some high-speed transport corridors and a number of regions that are important for “geostrategic” purposes.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“House Armed Services Committee Members Show Alarmingly Poor Knowledge On Nuclear Weapons,” Hans Kristensen, Forbes, 03.06.19The author, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, writes:

  • “The House Armed Services Committee held a long-awaited hearing Wednesday [March 6] on U.S. nuclear policy and posture. This was the first hearing under the new leadership of Rep. Adam Smith, who has repeatedly stated the current U.S. modernization plan is unaffordable and needs adjustment to protect the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the decades ahead.”
  • “The hearing soon descended into partisan posturing, cheerleading of panelist responses and surprisingly uninformed questions that demonstrated a worrisome lack of basic knowledge about nuclear forces. … Several committee members who vote on requirements for U.S. nuclear weapons … asked questions that demonstrated they were unaware that the United States already has nuclear weapons with low-yield options … As a result, their questions and conclusions about what Russia might believe or do, and how the United States should respond, were off base.
  • “Another unfortunate example of nuclear illiteracy resulted from a series of yes-or-no questions from the former chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee … [who claimed that] all [the panelists] admitted the U.S. had reduced its arsenal over the past 20 years while the number of weapons on the planet had increased in the same period. … Another mischaracterization … was the notion that Russia and China had modernized their nuclear forces while the United States had been standing still.”
  • “If this hearing is any indication, Congress will be challenged to make the informed and important decisions needed to steer the U.S. nuclear modernization program during the next decades and avoid what will otherwise be a series of emergency decisions to correct the program.”

“Allies Worry Over US Public Opinion,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 03.04.19The author, a columnist and professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, writes:

  • “While a strong majority of Americans support membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, just over half … would support military action in response to a hypothetical Russian invasion of Estonia, according to a recent Eurasia Group Foundation survey. The Kremlin studies such poll results carefully, and so do NATO allies on Russia's borders.”
  • “Perspectives on defense are especially schizophrenic when partisanship comes into play. While 52 percent of Democrats believe that limiting Russian power should be a top national priority, most Democrats also say defense spending should be reduced. … Voters in their 20s and 30s are significantly less likely than older Americans to think that the U.S. is an exceptional nation, to support humanitarian interventions abroad or to think the U.S. should seek to limit the power of countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.”
  • “Another trend that should concern internationalists is the growing gap between the foreign-policy views of elites and nonelites. … The Eurasia Group Foundation … found that 47 percent of experts (using a selection of Foreign Affairs contributors as a stand-in) identified with the view that ‘American leadership is necessary for global stability and therefore American peace and prosperity.’ Among the general public, only 9.5 percent identified with this view.”
  • “A plurality (44%) of ordinary voters identify with … an ‘Independent America’ foreign policy—that ‘America must focus more on its own domestic challenges than on the challenges that come with international leadership.’ A mere 9 percent of experts agreed.”

“The End of Great Power Peace,” Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The National Interest, 03.06.19The authors, a professor of global affairs and a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, write:

  • “If great-power war has not returned, the era of deep great-power peace is over. Relations between the world’s strongest states are increasingly defined by undisguised rivalry and even conflict; there is ever-sharper jostling for power and ever-greater contestation of global norms and principles.”
  • “If China represents the greatest long-term challenge to the American-led system, the resurgence of great-power competition is even more acute in Europe. … As Russia has regained a degree of strength, then, it has sought to reassert primacy along its periphery and restore lost influence further abroad, often through measures less subtle and more overtly aggressive than China’s.”
  • “The revival of great-power competition entails higher international tensions than the world has known for decades, and the revival of arms races, security dilemmas and other artifacts of a more dangerous past. … Both Beijing and Moscow are, after all, optimizing their forces and exercising aggressively in preparation for potential conflicts with the United States and its allies; Russian doctrine explicitly emphasizes the limited use of nuclear weapons to achieve escalation dominance in a war with Washington.”  
  • “As China’s power continues to grow, or if it is successful in dominating the Western Pacific, it will surely move on to grander endeavors. If Russia reconsolidates control over the former Soviet space, it may seek to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel.”

“Don’t Believe the Russian Hype. Moscow’s missile capabilities in the Baltic Sea region are not nearly as dangerous as they seem.” Robert Dalsjo, Michael Jonsson and Christofer Berglund, Foreign Policy, 03.07.19The authors, the deputy research director and the head of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the Swedish Defense Research Agency and an assistant professor at Malmo University, write:

  • “Since the annexation of Crimea … Russia’s potential to seize territory in its near abroad and prevent NATO from reinforcing the victim … has become a source of alarm. If there is ever such a land-grab operation against one of the Baltic States, it is feared, Russia could use its military might and geographic position to create a ‘no-go zone’ and keep NATO reinforcements from reaching the annexed territory in time.”
  • “Despite these dangers, the threat emanating from Russia’s long-range missiles has been overblown since the war in Ukraine … We find that Russia’s long-range missile systems, though capable, fall notably short of the Kremlin’s maximalist claims. The technological limitations of the Russian missile systems, vulnerabilities apparent from their field operations in Syria and the range of possible countermeasures available to NATO, suggest that Russia’s no-go ‘bubbles’ are smaller than claimed, more penetrable and arguably also burstable.”
  • “Russia’s A2/AD capabilities are less formidable than is frequently claimed, and an extensive set of countermeasures is readily available. … NATO and its allies will need to undertake concerted political and military efforts … [C]ontinuous development of NATO capabilities will be necessary … [and] it is vital that nonspecialist security professionals critically examine Russian A2/AD capabilities. … [N]o one should accept Russia’s stated capabilities at face value at a time when Moscow has every incentive to exaggerate, both to gain political influence and boost export sales.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“What's the US Role in NATO?” Barry Posen, New York Times, 03.10.19The author, a professor of political science and director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, writes:

  • “President Trump has many bad ideas. Reconsidering America's role in NATO isn't one of them. … Russia's annexation of Crimea and its violent machinations in Eastern Ukraine … have placed Mr. Putin in the penalty box. The European Union, like America, reacted appropriately by imposing punishing sanctions on Russia. The whole misadventure has diminished Russian power.”
  • “NATO’s expansion now requires the United States to defend all the new member states from both conventional and nuclear threats—a tall order given their proximity to Russia and a strategically unnecessary project since they can contribute nothing to American national security. … Europeans are able to defend themselves. France and Germany together equal Russia's population, enormously outweigh the country economically and outspend it militarily.
  • “From an organization that could succeed simply by deterring a major military threat, NATO turned into an expansive project to make all of Western Eurasia safe, liberal and democratic—goals that are much more complicated.”
  • “While European and American politicians and pundits wring their hands about the Russian military threat, European governments and militaries practice business as usual. … NATO's founding mission has been achieved and replaced with unsuccessful misadventures. The United States has urgent business at home, and arguably in Asia. Though President Trump has no strategy for returning the European allies to full responsibility for their own futures, the American foreign policy establishment could better spend its time devising such a strategy than defending the counterproductive trans-Atlantic status quo. A reappraisal is long overdue.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“After New START, What?” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 03.04.19The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Since New START might not be extended, it makes sense to start brainstorming now about our nuclear future. … As I see it, there are four options. One is a continuation of a numbers-based arms control and reduction regime. A second option is a combined numbers and norms based regime. A third option would be a norms-without-numbers based regime. The fourth option is to have no replacement for New START.”
  • “Why is it likely that any post-New START regime might have to be more inclusive? … Even ‘mid-sized’ nuclear powers now possess three-digit-sized arsenals—and some of these arsenals are growing. … Both the Kremlin and the Senate have said they want a more inclusive regime.”
  • “Another reason is that the more widely shared obligations are, the more effective a post New START regime will be. It’s high time to extend restraints to the nuclear arms competition in Asia. … Reducing nuclear dangers in Asia as well as Europe demands a formula that covers all seven of the largest nuclear arsenals—the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, India and Pakistan.”
  • “If agreements are reachable, they would likely take the form of political compacts rather than treaties, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. Even if agreements are not reachable or inclusive, preliminary discussions with free riders could still be useful.”
  • “My view is that comprehensive is better than partial constraints and that complexity invites workarounds, allegations of cheating and erosion of trust in any compacts reached. In other words, the simpler and broader the better.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“A Caliphate Ends but the Specter of ISIS Lives On. Europe and the US need to push Russia hard into cooperating on Syria,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 03.08.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The last vestige of a millenarian caliphate that once held a third of Syria and Iraq is crumbling. US-backed forces are dislodging ISIS … from Baghouz, its final Syrian enclave … Signal achievement though this is, it is too early to emulate U.S. President Donald Trump’s posture: declare victory and leave. … ISIS survives as an idea.”
  • “President Vladimir Putin of Russia … claims Moscow can facilitate the return of some 6 million Syrian refugees, if the EU and U.S. reconcile with Assad rule and cough up funds to resurrect Syria from the rubble. … The Assads will not allow the re-creation of prewar demography with a big Sunni majority that almost brought them down.”
  • “But Europe and America have things Mr. Putin wants, including the lifting of Ukraine-related sanctions … Post-caliphate Syria is going to be a big problem. Russia is holding the ring, very uncomfortably. Western powers should be ready to use what leverage they have with the Kremlin, if they want to secure cooperation on confronting a global threat.”

“Idlib: Russia and Turkey Dig In for a Final Syria Battle,” Henry Foy, Chloe Cornish, Asser Khattab and Laura Pitel, Financial Times, 03.06.19The authors, the news outlet’s Moscow bureau chief and regional correspondents, write:

  • “After eight years of bloodshed … Idlib, in the northwest of the country [Syria] is the last bastion of opposition … to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is also the site of a geopolitical showdown … between powerful foreign militaries with opposing ambitions.”
  • “For Mr. Putin, who supports the Assad regime, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed those seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, what happens in Idlib could determine the fate of their marriage of convenience.”
  • “Last September, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan struck an agreement that was credited with avoiding a Syrian massacre. As part of that deal, Russia agreed to halt a planned assault on Idlib by Syrian forces … In return, Turkey promised to remove the extremists … from the area bordering regime-held territory—effectively creating a demilitarized zone. That deal is now in tatters.”
  • “[T]he Kremlin is growing impatient with Ankara’s approach to Idlib. What Moscow intended as a swift and efficient military intervention in September 2015 to prop up Mr. Assad and protect Russia’s naval assets on the country’s Mediterranean coast has turned into a three-and-a-half year campaign that has become increasingly unpopular at home.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Our elections are still vulnerable to Russian interference,” Max Boot and Max Bergmann, The Washington Post, 03.06.19The authors, a columnist and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, write:

  • “More than two years after the 2016 election, the United States still does not have a comprehensive policy to counter and deter foreign interference in our elections. Indeed, the Trump administration is gutting the task forces established to do just that.”
  • “To get serious about protecting the political process, Washington needs to ensure the technical integrity of the voting system and that voters are not subjected to foreign influence operations. A two-pronged approach is needed. First, the United States should improve its defenses against election interference. … Second, the United States should impose costs on countries that meddle in democratic elections.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Fallen Superpower: US Foreign Policy From Triumph to Hubris. Veteran diplomat William Burns details shifts under five presidents in ‘The Back Channel,’” Lionel Barber, Financial Times, 03.05.19In this book review, the news outlet’s editor writes:

  • “[A]s [William] Burns recognizes, the U.S. stood at the pinnacle of power in 1991. One year later … Burns warned in a prescient memo that victory in the Cold War masked more malign developments.”
  • “Other memos from the state department, helpfully declassified, show Burns fretting about premature enlargement of NATO, especially given Baker and Bush’s informal commitments to Mikhail Gorbachev … The risk was a new stab-in-the-back conspiracy theory gaining ground in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. In fact, maintaining ‘the lands between’ such as Poland in a cordon sanitaire between Europe and Russia was never tenable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, as Burns admits: ‘Russia was never ours to lose.’”
  • “The mistake was to push NATO enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine. Two train wrecks ensued, in 2008 and 2014, when Russia invaded its neighbors. ‘It was another lesson in the complexities of diplomacy and the risks of wishful thinking,’ says Burns.”
  • “Burns has a gift for the pithy insight. Putin is ‘an apostle of payback.’ Newly installed President Bashar al-Assad is ‘pleasant but cocksure,’ a study in ‘the banality of evil.’ James Baker was a superb negotiator, ‘unchained by ideology and open to alternative views and challenges to convention.’”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Europe, Russia and the Laws of Nature: Importance of the EP Election,” Kadri Liik, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 03.11.19The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:

  • “Moscow will take the result of May's European Parliament elections as a sign of not just Europe’s political direction but … [also] Europe’s ability to remain a political actor of any kind. Moscow’s conclusions … will directly translate into its willingness to engage with Europe, and Europe’s ability to achieve anything vis-à-vis Russia.”
  • “Europe sees Russia as clumsily clinging to old-fashioned concepts … Russia views Europe as reaching for an illusion that the world is busy dispelling. … It [the upcoming European election] is the first such vote with a truly pan-European agenda. European insurgent parties are messengers of the problems the EU must address.”
  • “If the EU does so successfully … Moscow will need to accept that the union is here to stay, and that it is a force to be reckoned with. … Conversely, if insurgent parties paralyze the EU as a united force, Moscow might sometimes come to regret it: some manifestations of a fragmented union would not be to its liking. But Moscow would take comfort in the vindication of its traditional worldview.”
  • “Given the stakes … should Europe worry about Russian meddling in the vote? As a precaution, it should—but there are also several reasons to believe that Moscow will not interfere on a large scale. … For Moscow, a united Europe has value as one bloc in a multipolar world that is no longer subject to Western hegemony.”

“Russia Stands With Maduro (While Hedging Its Bets),” Anatoly Kurmanaev, New York Times, 03.08.19The author, a reporter with the news outlet, writes:

  • “Behind the official show of unity, Russia’s economic and political elites are becoming increasingly divided on how best to preserve their interests. As Mr. Maduro and the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, settle into a war of attrition, the Kremlin faces a stark choice: to double down on its ally or to be among those who choose his successor. The path Mr. Putin takes will help determine whether Venezuela peacefully changes government, slides into civil war or consolidates as a repressive pariah under Mr. Maduro.”
  • “In public statements, Russian Foreign Ministry officials have gone in the past few weeks from unequivocally supporting Mr. Maduro to offering to mediate negotiations with the opposition or hold talks on Venezuela with the United States. … This contrasts with the hard-line position taken by Russia’s defense and security establishment.”
  • “Venezuela’s opposition has repeatedly said that Russia’s investments would be respected by a new government. … Beyond Rosneft’s opportunistic oil buying, the Kremlin’s effective support of Mr. Maduro is checked by Russia’s economic realities. … The threat of American sanctions has scared away most Russian corporations still doing business in Venezuela.”
  • “A $1.5 billion Kalashnikov machine gun plant built by the state-run RosTec in Maracay, meant to symbolize Russia and Venezuela’s military cooperation, remains an empty shell 12 years after the start of construction. … Conditions in Venezuela are terrible and the government has to change, said a person involved in the RosTec project, who spoke on condition of anonymity. What Russia wants, he added, is to have a say in who comes next.”

“Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Asia,” Dmitry Gorenburg and Paul Schwartz, PONARS Eurasia, March 2019The authors, a senior research analyst and a research analyst at CNA, write:

  • “At the regional level, the Kremlin will continue to do just enough to maintain its role in regional politics through regional organizations such as APEC and ASEAN.”
  • “At the bilateral level, Moscow will try to play to its economic strengths—oil and gas exploration, nuclear energy, transportation and most importantly arms sales—to carve out a niche for itself in the region’s growing economies.”
  • “Bilateral relations will continue to be hindered by the superficial nature of Russia’s engagement in the region … Bilateral economic ties will also suffer from Russia’s lack of competitive products outside of its traditional areas of strength.”


  • No significant commentary.


“A Comedian Tops Ukraine Polls. No Joke.” Anton Troianovski, The Washington Post, 03.09.19The author, the news outlet’s Moscow bureau chief, writes:

  • “In the second season of the Ukrainian hit TV show ‘Servant of the People,’ comedian Volodymyr Zelensky plays a schoolteacher turned presidential candidate who shoots to the top of the polls amid voter disgust with the political establishment. Zelensky is now running for president in real life. With just weeks to go until Ukraine's March 31 election, he has shot to the top of the polls … And just to blur the lines even more: His party is called Servant of the People.”
  • “The most prominent candidates heading into the election campaign represented the old guard: the incumbent Poroshenko … and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. For them, things have not gone according to plan. Zelensky, who declared his candidacy on national television on the New Year's Eve edition of his variety show, has led Tymoshenko and Poroshenko in almost every published poll since early February.”
  • “Zelensky's true politics are a mystery. He says he's in favor of Ukraine seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, but that those moves should be endorsed by the public in a referendum. He says he's ready to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in eastern Ukraine, but he's offered few specifics on how he would accomplish that without ceding any territory to Russia. He insists all of Ukraine's powerful oligarchs will be equal before the courts. But critics doubt the same will hold for Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the billionaire … who owns the channel that aired Zelensky's show.”

“Ukraine and the Shifting Balance of Power. The presidential election and Russia’s new gas pipeline could change the landscape,” Nick Butler, Financial Times, 03.11.19The author, an energy commentator for the news outlet and chair of the King’s Policy Institute at King’s College London, writes:

  • “The presidential election at the end of March … could lead to an unexpected shift in the European gas market. … On the latest published opinion polls President Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are trailing comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. But there are 44 candidates in the field and everything will depend on who reaches the final run-off.”
  • “Neither Donald Trump nor … U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have met Mr. Poroshenko ahead of the election and Ukraine does not seem to be a matter of concern in Washington. … In the face of the West’s lack of concern, the chances of Ukraine being edged back into the Russian sphere of influence are high. And that raises the possibility that one of the fundamental assumptions about the European gas market will be proved wrong.”
  • “By the end of this year, construction of Nord Stream 2 … will be complete … The expectation has been that with this in place, the existing Russian gas pipelines to Europe that run through Ukraine will be largely closed off. As a result, Ukraine would lose transit fees, which amount to some $3 billion a year. Now, however, a very different outcome is possible.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Turns Swathes of Russia Into Flyover Country,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.07.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “As President Vladimir Putin attempts to pivot from foreign adventures to domestic affairs, his government has adopted a development plan for Russia’s vast territory. The idea is to direct the country’s population and economic activity to a limited number of urban areas linked by new transportation projects. … The rest of the country would be treated as a social liability with some high-speed transport corridors and a number of regions that are important for ‘geostrategic’ purposes.”
  • “So last month, the Russian government approved a ‘Spatial Development Strategy Until 2025.’ The 115-page document names the ‘prospective economic growth centers’ that should ensure growth of about 4 percent by 2025. Of these, 20, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also other large cities … are meant to deliver 1 percentage point of GDP, and 19 cities, almost all from this list, are designated as possible future ‘world class education and science centers.’ … 44 other urban areas should add between 0.2 and 1 percentage points to growth, and yet another 0.4 percentage point should come from a number of areas with large mineral and agricultural resources.”
  • “For the rest of Russian territory, the government is largely concerned with the speed of cargo transit on north-south and east-west routes
  • “As always, I hesitate to take such Russian government plans seriously. Infrastructure improvements traditionally have taken a back seat to other priorities, such as security and defense. … Another important factor will be how much of the money gets stolen. But $96 billion is a major investment. Change will be noticeable even if much of the outlay is wasted, as long as the government has the will to push ahead with the plan.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.