Russia Analytical Report, March 5-12, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Leonid Bershidsky believes Sergei Skripal’s continued work for British intelligence may have prompted Russia to try poisoning him. If so, it would represent a major departure from Cold War era practices because Skripal’s daughter was targeted, too. Financial Times calls for the expulsion of Russian diplomats and stripping Kremlin-linked businesspeople and officials of their unexplained wealth in the U.K., if “Russian involvement is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.”
  • Just because Putin proposes renewed discussions with the United States, that doesn’t mean it is a bad idea, writes David Ignatius. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan and India all have serious dialogue with Russia about key foreign-policy issues, but the United States does not. That’s a mistake, especially now. U.S. and Russian militaries continue to have daily “deconfliction” consultations in the Middle East, but the dialogue should be broader, he argues. Ignoring Russia may be good politics, but it is bad policy.
  • Russia’s elites want a president smart enough to keep the masses satisfied, but tough enough to crack down on protests, argues George Beebe. But Russia’s upcoming presidential election isn’t only important to Russian elites. The elections matter for the U.S., too, because if Putin is weakened by a poor electoral showing, he may be less willing to compromise in the event of an accidental clash between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, Ukraine or the cyber sphere.
  • At the December 2017 session of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission, the United States revealed the serial number of the Russian missile, which Washington believes to have violated this treaty, along with the date and place of its launch, writes Victor Mizin.

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/Sabre Rattling:

“The Rules of the Spy Game Are No Longer Clear: Some suspect the Kremlin is behind the attempted poisoning of an ex-spy. If so, it's a sign of a new and dangerous era,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.07.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes that knowing what nerve agent was used to attack former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter “isn't the same as understanding who did it. … Having resumed the Cold War-era practice of swaps, why would Putin or his spy chiefs want to ruin it … ? One answer could be that Skripal perhaps continued working for British intelligence … . But … we'll likely never know if this is what happened—and because of this, the unwritten rules of spy swaps have still been put in doubt … . It was never Soviet or Russian practice to attack traitors' relatives. … Whether or not the attack was sanctioned by the Kremlin … the assassination attempt sends a clear signal to Russians who work, or who have worked, for Western intelligence services: There is no arrangement they can make to stop looking over their shoulder. … anyone working clandestinely for Russia can also expect harsher treatment … . Would the Kremlin risk such reciprocation … just to take out a retired spy? … Putin's stated goal is to be heard by the West and to force negotiations on security issues. Showing that there are no rules of engagement for this iteration of the Cold War … would be one way of trying to force a discussion.”

“The UK Must Act Robustly Over Poisoning of Russian Ex-Double Agent,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 03.11.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “Though circumstantial evidence in terms of means and motive points strongly at Moscow, there is as yet no solid proof that Russians … were behind the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. … If Russian involvement is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, the U.K. should not flinch from the ‘robust’ response … . The need for a stern response remains even if Kremlin involvement cannot be proved. … Senior Russian officials … and Kremlin-linked businesspeople who own U.K. property should be subject to much greater scrutiny. In some cases, property could even be stripped by using the unexplained wealth orders created by last year’s Criminal Finances Act.”

“America Ignores Russia At Its Peril” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 03.06.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes that Putin’s address to the Russian parliament “was obviously a message to Washington … . On its face, it was meant to frighten and intimidate … . On a deeper level, Putin’s speech was a plea for attention by a leader who sees himself avenging his nation’s humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. … The crux of Putin’s argument is that Russia was ignored during its years of weakness and is only taken seriously now because it looks threatening. … He has been advertising his desire to restore Russia’s lost glory since he became president in 2000. … Just because Putin proposes renewed discussions with the United States, that doesn’t mean it is a bad idea. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan and India all have serious dialogue with Russia about key foreign-policy issues, but the United States does not. That’s a mistake, especially now. … The two countries’ militaries continue to have daily ‘deconfliction’ consultations in the congested battlespace of the Middle East, but the dialogue should be broader. … This barren Russian-American landscape is a perverse consequence of Putin’s attempts to meddle in U.S. politics … . The U.S. military will counter Putin’s death-star weapons, but in the meantime, American diplomacy needs to open better channels. Ignoring Russia may be good politics, but it is bad policy.”

“Putin's Video Superweapons Are Just His Virtual Reality: Many of the weapons the Russian president bragged about are fantasy, but his chilling tone was a new reality,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 03.06.18The author, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University compares Russian President Vladimir Putin’s display of new weaponry to a scene from “a twisted James Bond movie. … [Putin’s] motivation in hyping these systems is threefold. First … he has an election coming up on March 18. … Second, Putin is communicating with his circle of dictatorial allies and partners around the world. His message … is one of reassurance that someone can stand up to the U.S. in terms of global deterrence and high-end military technology. … Finally, Putin is sending a very direct signal to Washington. … The intent here is simple and brutal: We are a nuclear power and can destroy your nation. The fact that the U.S. can do the same to Russia is not lost on Putin, but he will never miss a chance to remind the U.S. that Russia has an equally lethal nuclear arsenal. … [The speech] screams of a man desperate for respect, and such men can be very dangerous over time—especially if they hold a relatively weak overall hand of cards. … For the U.S., the best move with Russia remains simple and transactional: confront where we must (Ukraine, Syria, cyber-intrusions); but cooperate where we can. … We are not quite yet in a new Cold War, but it isn’t hard to see one shimmering in the near distance.”

“Strategic Warning on NATO's Eastern Flank: Pitfalls, Prospects and Limits,” Mark R. Cozad, RAND Corporation, March 2018The author, a senior international defense research analyst at RAND, writes that “Russian military forces are in the midst of a major modernization effort, and the demand for intelligence on Russia continues to grow at a pace unparalleled since the end of the Cold War. Russia's emergence as a national security priority presents new challenges … . Achieving timely warning has proven extremely difficult, largely because of a lack of insight into Russian leadership intentions. … It is necessary to ensure that warning indicators … have diagnostic value and are related to some critical function in the peace-to-war transition. … Failure to address the fundamental area of denial and deception can lead to additional challenges … bolstering U.S. and NATO posture will remain the best option for deterring future Russian aggression in the Baltics.” The author’s recommendations include: “To support improvements in warning, research should be focused on immediate issues that will illuminate key problems that Russian political and military leaders believe they will have to address in a crisis or wartime situation. Renewed emphasis must be placed on rebuilding expertise on Russia, improving collection and analysis capabilities and emphasizing key elements of analytic tradecraft that might improve warning.”

“Russia Is Offering an Olive Branch, Not Flaunting Nuclear Weapons,” Igor Ivanov, Russia in Global Affairs/The Moscow Times, 03.06.18The author, president of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs and a former Russian Foreign Minister, writes that “for a long time, Russia did everything it could to avoid a costly and absolutely unnecessary arms race with the West. … I remember quite well the truly titanic efforts that Russia channeled into its attempt to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. … When Moscow rejected Washington’s proposal that the two countries jointly withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the United States used the relevant article to withdraw unilaterally. … the United States stepped up its efforts to create its own global missile defense system and announced that it would deploy elements of this system in Europe. … if there is no chance of a political agreement with partners, then we need to take adequate military-technical steps. Yet these are forced measures, something that Russia has long tried to avoid. … Achieving political agreements on international security today is infinitely more complex than it was ten to fifteen years ago. But this path is still open. … having ensured its own security, Russia does not intend to threaten anyone. Moreover, Russia is open to talks on the full range of international security issues, including, naturally, the issue of arms control. … It is important that the world clearly hears and properly understands the signal coming from Moscow.”

“How Do We Get Out of the Chelyabinsk Disco?” Andrey Kortunov, Russia in Global Affairs/Russian International Affairs Council, 03.05.18The author, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes: “never before [in U.S.-Russian relations] have I seen … such an explosion of emotions, such mutual intolerance and such unwavering conviction in the correctness of one’s actions. This atmosphere … is, of course, present in Moscow. But nowhere is it more pervasive than in Washington … . The timid voices of those calling for dialogue … with Moscow are drowning in the … chorus of those who favor confrontation … Donald Trump is not a fan of this approach towards Russia, and he is still the president of the United States … . [if] the hawks in Washington manage … to push Moscow into a corner … Russian leadership will have two main options … . The first would be to further strengthen cooperation with China in all dimensions. … The second option is to embrace isolation and even increase it, gradually turning Russia into a ‘besieged fortress’—a kind of very large North Korea, but with its global capabilities and its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council intact. Either of these scenarios would be a nightmare for U.S. foreign and military policy. … We all know that the Americans will accuse Russia of meddling in the [midterm] elections … . But we can, and must, eliminate the grounds for making such accusations possible. … it is vital to reverse the negative dynamics in eastern Ukraine as well. … the matter would be helped greatly by a demonstration on Moscow’s part of its flexibility regarding the deployment of international peacekeepers in the Donbas region.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Saving the INF Treaty,” Victor Mizin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.07.18The author, a deputy director at Independent Institute for Strategic Evaluation, writes: “The latest session of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission … did not result in any breakthroughs … . According to available information, at the session the United States revealed the serial number of the disputed Russian missile, along with the date and place of its launch. … Russia said that these tests were in line with the treaty, citing Article VII, Paragraph 11. … However, with sufficient political will and an understanding of the situation’s complexity, a rational compromise should be possible. Russia and the United States could make the political commitment to resolve mutual grievances regarding INF Treaty compliance. Then, they could supplement diplomatic talks with technical studies or set up a special bilateral group of duly authorized technical experts to review all substantive claims. … A U.S.-Russian group of technical experts could analyze the problems in detail and formulate specific recommendations with parameters and technical characteristics for resolving the disputes. … And Europe would undoubtedly welcome such measures for strengthening regional security.”

“The US and Russia Must Stop the Race to Nuclear War,” Mikhail Gorbachev, Time, 03.09.18The author, former president of the Soviet Union, writes: “The National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review published by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration … orients U.S. foreign policy toward ‘political, economic, and military competitions around the world’ and calls for the development of new, ‘more flexible’ nuclear weapons. … Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his recent address to the Federal Assembly, announced the development in Russia of several new types of weapons … . Above all, we must not give up; we must demand that world leaders return to the path of dialogue and negotiations. The primary responsibility for ending the current dangerous deadlock lies with the leaders of the United States and Russia. … But we should not place all our hopes on the presidents. … We need dialog at all levels, including mobilization of the efforts of both nations’ expert communities. … Things have come to a point where we must ask: Where is the United Nations? Where is its Security Council, its Secretary General? Isn’t it time to convene an emergency session of the General Assembly or a meeting of the Security Council at the level of heads of state? … we must act to prevent the ultimate catastrophe. What we need is not the race to the abyss but a common victory over the demons of war.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Russia’s Greatest Problem in Syria: Its Ally, President Assad,” Neil Macfarquhar, New York Times, 03.08.18The author, Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, writes: “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia finds himself stuck in Syria, not quite able to find a solution despite having declared ‘mission accomplished’ on at least three occasions. While Mr. Putin’s military intervention established the Kremlin as a major player in the Middle East … extricating Russia from Syria is proving far more difficult than he envisaged. … Moscow has effectively tied its fortunes to those of Mr. Assad … . Putin can neither withdraw nor push real political change in Syria without risking the collapse of the Assad government, which would jeopardize both the effort to diminish American influence in the region and Mr. Putin’s own prestige. Mr. Assad … resists Russian attempts toward compromise with the Syrian opposition. … divisions within the Russian government, particularly within the Ministry of Defense, contribute to the gap between Russia and Syria. … the Kremlin will have to deal with Washington, whose coalition forces control about one-third of the country, including most of the oil wealth. Many experts believe that some form of Russian-American dialogue that ropes in the rest of the outside players is the only hope to end the conflict.”

“To Save Syrians, Let Assad Win,” Max Boot, The Washington Post, 03.08.18The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes: “Thanks to Russian and Iranian aid, Assad is no longer on the verge of defeat. His position is more secure than ever, and it’s only a matter of time before he reconquers most of Syria. … Using U.S. airpower to aid the embattled people of Ghouta might make us feel good, but it would not save lives. … The way to save lives … is to let Assad win as quickly as possible. … I once would have been sympathetic to the plan … to aid Syrian rebel groups to bleed the Iranians and Russians. No longer. … It’s not right … to use Syrians as cannon fodder in a great power rivalry when they have no hope of winning. That’s not to suggest that there is nothing the United States can do. We can try to bargain with Moscow to restrain Assad’s brutality in return for an end to U.S. opposition to his regime, and we can maintain the taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction. … the United States can … stand with our Kurdish and Arab partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces … Leaving Assad in control of three-quarters of Syria will be a bitter pill to swallow. He is not only a war criminal but also a threat to Israel … . But Israel can defend itself, and we missed our best opportunity under Obama to oust Assad.”

“What Happened to Trump’s Red Line on Chemical Weapons?” Editorial Board, New York Times, 03.08.18The editorial board of the news outlet writes: “Early in his presidency, Donald Trump knew exactly whom to blame for the chemical weapons used in Syria, and what to do about it. … Mr. Trump ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield where the April chemical attack originated. … At least, in choosing to hold off rather than strike in response to the gas attack, Mr. Obama decided instead to work with Russia to get Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. That approach deprived Mr. Assad of much of his arsenal … . Whatever America’s shortcomings, the real culprits in the slaughter are Mr. Assad and Russia … . In January, France and 25 other countries began to publicize and impose sanctions on those who help Syria get and use chemical weapons. … Yet Mr. Trump remains silent. He has claimed that his close relations with Russia … were part of a new approach to work with President Vladimir Putin on national security. There is no evidence this has yielded any benefit. Given the poisoned nature of American-Russian relations, maybe the best Mr. Trump can do is to ask Arab leaders who are expected at the White House this month to use their growing leverage with Moscow to push for an end to the carnage.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Is the US Hypocritical to Criticize Russian Election Meddling? What ‘Whataboutism’ Gets Wrong,” Thomas Carothers, Foreign Affairs, 03.12.18The author, senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes: “The U.S. response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election has been extraordinarily weak … [and] accompanied by an attitude of ‘whataboutism’ on the part of some Americans—the relativistic view that the United States has little ground to complain about Russia’s actions given its own history of meddling in other countries’ political campaigns and elections. … the contrast between Russia and the United States in this domain is certainly not black and white. Yet neither is it one of indistinguishable shades of gray. The United States is simply not engaging in electoral meddling in a manner comparable to Russia’s approach. Two key flaws underlie relativist accounts. First, such a position fails to distinguish adequately between the pattern of U.S. interventionism during the Cold War … and U.S. activity since the end of the Cold War … . Since the end of the Cold War … such interventionism has decreased significantly … . A second problematic element … is the charge that U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad … are just another, more covert form of electoral meddling akin to what the Russians are doing. … It is not yet clear what it will take for the United States to move forward in putting together an effective response to Russian electoral meddling, but dispensing with the argument that Washington has no moral standing for objecting to such actions is certainly one necessary step. … although the domain of U.S. democracy promotion is hardly free of flaws and serious past mistakes, it is not the dark twin of the illicit, covert election meddling that Russia seems intent on making one of its defining signatures abroad.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant commentary.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant commentary.


“Putin and Xi Are Dreaming of a Polar Silk Road. The Northern Sea Route might not be the next Suez Canal, but it’s at the heart of Moscow and Beijing’s play for the high north,” Keith Johnson and Reid Standish, Foreign Policy, 03.08.18The authors, Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent and a former associate editor for the media outlet, write: “China is dreamy-eyed about the prospects of shipping goods from Asia to Europe across the top of Russia. And Russia is convinced that the melting Arctic will open up a new economic frontier rich in oil, natural gas and lucrative transport routes … . Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government plans to invest tens of billions of dollars by 2030 to develop ships, shipbuilders, navigational aids and ports along the Northern Sea Route, last week reiterated his conviction that polar shipping is the next big thing. … The Northern Sea Route, which stretches roughly from Murmansk in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, has become the focal point of both Russia and China’s Arctic strategy. … The burgeoning fleet of icebreaking natural gas tankers that are plying the route highlights one crucial way the Northern Sea Route will be important: getting Russia’s far-northern oil and gas resources to market. … That energy trade across the Arctic is cementing closer ties between Russia and China.”


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Why We Need to Pay Attention to Russia's Elections,” George Beebe, The National Interest, 03.07.18The author, director of the Intelligence and National Security Program at the Center for the National Interest, writes: “In Russia, elections do not determine who will occupy the Kremlin; that is decided in advance by Russia’s political heavyweights. … Elections play a big role in determining how much power the president can wield as he navigates among Russia’s leading political and business elites. … Many of them [Russia’s elites] achieved their wealth and power through illegitimate means. … As a result, they want a strong ruler in the Kremlin who can referee elite in-fighting and protect them from each other. … these elites tend to fear and disdain the Russian people, who represent a perpetual threat to their power and perquisites. They want a president smart enough to keep the masses satisfied … . And they want someone tough enough to crack down on protests when his efforts to keep pace with popular expectations fall short. … The election will help Russia’s elites to gauge how much power Putin really can draw upon … . Thus, the Kremlin’s sweet spot for the election is said to be 70 percent of the vote with a turnout of 70 percent. … The election … will also serve as a referendum on the relative strengths of the four primary political winds blowing in Russia: nationalism, Communism, liberalism and populism. … If Putin were weakened by a poor electoral showing, he might be less willing to compromise in the event of an accidental clash between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, Ukraine or the cyber sphere.”

“Is Putin Repeating the Mistakes of Brezhnev? Like his Soviet predecessor, Putin presides over a stagnant economy and has no clear successor. His eventual exit could bring chaos,” Chris Miller, Wall Street Journal, 03.09.18The author, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, writes: “During Brezhnev’s final years, the Soviet Union dozed into a decade of stagnation from which it never recovered. Mr. Putin’s Russia is on a similar economic track. … Mr. Putin has no succession plan. Some in Moscow speculate that he might amend the constitution to create a new role, letting him retain ultimate power while leaving the details of governing to someone else. … Instead of stepping back, could Mr. Putin perhaps step down? Several of his historical predecessors have had a quiet retirement after leaving the Kremlin. Others were banished to the margins of Russian society, or worse. … For two decades, Mr. Putin has expanded his personal power on the theory that the only alternative to his iron grip is chaos. Polls say that many Russians think their country must choose between autocracy and instability. All signs suggest that Mr. Putin believes this too. … Russia’s rulers also know that delaying change is like putting a lid on a boiling pot. … As economic stagnation grinds on, social pressure will only increase. … The real question is: What comes next?”

“Why Authoritarian Rule Is Not Russia’s History—or Destiny,” Daniel Rowland, The Washington Post, 03.06.18The author, professor emeritus of Russian history at the University of Kentucky, writes: “Contemporary historians have looked at new evidence about the notion of early modern Russia as a totalitarian state. They’ve asked different questions and have come up with some startling conclusions. Here are three examples: 1) Royal weddings kept the balance of power. … The aim was for the new bride, almost always chosen from women from middling families, not to disrupt the delicate balance of power among the handful of great clans that dominated court life. … The appearance of royal omnipotence masked real control by oligarchs. 2) Local populations had access to effective dispute settlement mechanisms. … 3) There were ample checks on the czar’s power. … Virtually all of the surviving evidence of early modern Russian political thought … suggests Russians had strong moral expectations. Their ruler certainly was given great power, but he also had to be merciful and just. … these newer studies reveal modern Russia … is much like the United States—an outlier with admittedly dramatic differences from her Western neighbors but with a great deal in common.”

Defense and aerospace:

“I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ I was the first to write about Russia’s infamous high-tech military strategy. One small problem: it doesn't exist,” Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, 03.05.18The author, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague, writes: “Everywhere, you’ll find scholars, pundits and policymakers talking about the threat the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’—named after Russia’s chief of the general staff—poses to the West. … There’s one small problem. It doesn’t exist. … To my immense chagrin, I created this term.” In a February 2013 speech, Gen. Valery Gerasimov talked about “how in the modern world, the use of propaganda and subversion means that ‘a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and civil war.’ … Robert Coalson of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty picked up on it and translated it. He sent it to me and, with his permission, I published the translation on my blog, with my own comments. … for a snappy title, I coined the term ‘Gerasimov doctrine,’ though even then I noted … ‘it certainly isn’t a doctrine.’ … Western mainstream opinion swung from ignoring Gerasimov’s pronouncements to enshrining them as some kind of bleeding-edge blueprint for a new way of war. … Gerasimov was actually talking about how the … Russians honestly—however wrongly—believe that these [the Arab Spring and the color revolutions] were not genuine protests against brutal and corrupt governments, but regime changes orchestrated in Washington, or rather, Langley. … Gerasimov was trying to work out how to fight, not promote, such uprisings at home.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.