Russia Analytical Report, March 9-16, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • If the United States currently is indeed in a competition for influence with China and Russia, it is not at all clear that it is winning, according to a new RAND Corporation report. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggests that China is perceived as well as or more positively than the United States throughout much of the developing world, while Russia is roughly as well regarded as the United States in much of the Middle East. With the exception of survival of the regime, the report’s authors write, regional influence is the most important strategic interest of Russia.
  • If Washington is serious about engaging in an open-ended competition with Moscow, it is time to think about how to make Russia own the costs of victory by letting it win [in Syria], writes FPRI’s Aaron Stein.
  • Whether we save [New] START or not, our real efforts must be focused on creating a new paradigm for strategic arms control—one that is based not on counting weapons but on preventing their use, argues Harvard’s Kevin Ryan.
  • According to Chris Weafer of Macro Advisory, if the ruble-dollar rate hits 75, then the Russian budget will break even around $40 per barrel of oil without any cuts to current planned spending, compared to a breakeven of $115 per barrel in 2013. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reportedly needs $85 per barrel to balance its budget. According to Carnegie’s Andrey Mocvhan, in the oil price war, the Saudis are certainly in a worse position in terms of balancing their budget than Russia, but their production costs are significantly lower than Russia’s.    
  • According to editor in chief of Alexander Baunov’s take on Putin’s decision to grant himself the option to stay in the Kremlin till 2036, if Russia ever wants to return to the European model, it will have to dismantle the entire political legacy that Putin’s regime has built. Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan believes such Putin’s extended stay in the Kremlin would bode ill for Russia’s long-term stability, which requires orderly transition of power and structural reforms of the country’s governance system and economy.
  • The new line-up of the Ukrainian cabinet drew sharp criticism because it includes only one woman, no known reformers and old faces such as a former health minister in the Yanukovych administration, writes Mattia Nelles of Berlin’s Center for Liberal Modernity. This radical reshuffle of the cabinet, according to Nelles, raises questions about the pro-reform and pro-Western orientation of Ukraine.


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:

“Friends or Frenemies? How Russia and Iran Compete and Cooperate,” Nicole Grajewski, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 03.12.20The author, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, writes:

  • “Relations between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran relations are best understood as a tenuous partnership that oscillates between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ cooperation on common security issues despite long-lasting mistrust, unmet expectations and weak economic ties.”
  • “Overlapping security interests and concerns about instability have constituted a stable basis for Russia-Iran cooperation across the Middle East, South Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan.”
  • “Russia has viewed Iran as part of its international strategy to contest U.S. primacy while bolstering Russia’s regional standing and recognition as a great power. The onset of the Syrian Civil War broadened the scope of interaction and intensified diplomatic and military exchanges between Russia and Iran. However, differences have materialized over Syrian military reform and competition for economic influence in the country.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Understanding Potential Trajectories of Great-Power Ideological Competition,” Stephen Watts, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Benjamin N. Harris and Clint Reach, RAND Corporation, March 2020The authors of the report write:

  • “The United States is engaged in a new era of great-power competition, which is taking place, in part, in the realms of information, ideas and ideology. The goal of this report is to help U.S. decisionmakers better anticipate changes in the global competition of ideas and adapt policy accordingly,”
  • “If the United States currently is indeed in a competition for influence, it is not at all clear that it is winning. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggests that China is perceived as well as or more positively than the United States throughout much of the developing world, while Russia is roughly as well regarded as the United States in much of the Middle East.”
  • “With the exception of survival of the regime, regional influence is the most important strategic interest of Russia, largely to avoid exposure to political currents … that could pose a threat to the regime. … From the Russian perspective, the contest hinges on whether Russia can dictate the development of the Eurasian region without interference from abroad. Another key interest is that Russia be regarded as a ‘leading world power’ whose role is to maintain strategic stability and act as a check against the United States and the West.”
  • “The key ideas underlying [Russia’s] evolving narrative are anti-Westernism, polycentrism, antiliberalism and conservatism.”
  • “Looking ahead, the extent to which Russia will succeed in achieving its vision depends largely on the continuity of the political status quo across the Western world. How Russia’s ideas might evolve over time will depend, in part, on the perceived success of the current anti-Western, conservative narrative.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

“Arms Control Agreement With Russia Should Cover More Than Nuclear Weapons,” Kevin Ryan, The Hill, 02.23.20The author, an associate fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes:

  • “Extending [New] START won’t solve our problem. New capabilities and technologies complicate the strategic stability math. How do we integrate missile defenses into our strategic equation?  No one knows. What is the impact of cyber on our strategic stability? We aren’t sure. What is the impact of China on strategic balance? What about Russian nuclear torpedoes or American nuclear-armed drones? We don't know. New technologies such as lasers and space-based weapons are coming soon, and they are not even under discussion. Artificial intelligence is around the corner.”
  • “Whether we save START or not, our real efforts must be focused on creating a new paradigm for strategic arms control—one that is based not on counting weapons but on preventing their use. We should not refer to the agreement as a nuclear treaty because it needs to cover much more than just nuclear weapons. It should address weapons with strategic effects. And our effort must include more states than just Russia. It’s time to dedicate real brains and real money to creating a new model for preventing strategic attack on America.”

“Russian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 03.09.20The authors, director of the Nuclear Information Project and a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, write:

  • “Russia is in the middle of a decades-long modernization of its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces to replace Soviet-era weapons with newer systems. President Vladimir Putin reported in late 2019 that modern equipment now makes up 82 percent of Russia’s nuclear triad and that ‘our equipment must be better than the world’s best if we want to come out as the winners.’”
  • “He further declared that Russia is ‘ready to work out new arms control agreements. But until this process is launched we will continue to strengthen our nuclear forces.’ Moreover, he said, ‘we will continue to create other promising missile systems’ to deter Russia’s potential adversaries.”
  • “These modernizations, combined with an increase in the number and size of military exercises and occasional explicit nuclear threats against other countries, contribute to uncertainty about Russia’s long-term intentions and growing international debate about the nature of its nuclear strategy. These concerns, in turn, stimulate increased defense spending, nuclear modernization programs and political opposition to further nuclear weapons reductions in Western Europe and the United States.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“What Syria Ought to Teach America About Competition With Russia,” Aaron Stein, War on the Rocks, 03.16.20The author, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “Russia has quite the mess on its hands in Syria and any hope of a clean exit from the country is far-fetched. Moscow has achieved its top-line military objectives in Syria—the defense of the Assad regime—and has shown that it has the resources to intervene in a third-party civil war. However, it has yet to demonstrate a capability to negotiate an end to the war and it is anyone’s guess how well Russia will deal with an open-ended insurgency that will surely drag on in parts of Syria.”
  • “If Washington is serious about engaging in an open-ended competition with Moscow, it is time to think about how to make Russia own the costs of victory by letting them win.”
  • “The United States should [also] use Moscow’s regional raiding to allocate resources towards core national interests in Europe. This approach would necessarily accept that this effort will be open-ended and take time to implement, but would be part of a broader effort to effectively counter Russia’s current regional strategy. It is also contingent on taking a longer view of this competition, recognizing that in the near term, the United States has an incentive to try and effectively use resources to its own advantage, as well as try to exploit where Russia may be spending in ways that are less concerning for core American security interests.”

“Can Turkey Defeat Russia’s Army in Syria?,” Michael Peck, The National Interest, 03.10.20The author, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, writes:

  • “Experts believe that any cease-fire agreement in Idlib will be temporary at best. ‘Ultimately, the Russians will back the Syrian government’s desire to reclaim those territories,’ predicts Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. ‘But in the meanwhile, Putin is happy to kick that can down the road while Syria swallows and digests territory which the opposition had controlled.’”

“Russia's Strategy for the Middle East: Stabilize, Revitalize, Create Chaos,” Robert G. Rabil, The National Interest, 03.12.20The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “No doubt, Russia is attempting to have a say in the geopolitical realignment of the Middle East, provoked by instability, sectarianism and Iran-Saudi rivalry. It has been able to simultaneously support conflicted parties and project itself as a force of stability. In return, it has been able to exact military and political concessions.”
  • “To be sure, its attempt is integral to its global strategy to curb U.S. hegemonic power by securing for itself an indispensable global role and a sphere of influence, not in the least in the Middle East. So far, it has been successful partly because Washington has failed to pursue a comprehensive strategy harnessing the composite power of its wrangling allies. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy on Iran is a case in point.”
  • “More specifically, Washington has acted more in the capacity of a judge than as a superpower in overseeing a region analogous to a perilous playground in which the state actors have unruly behaved like children. One could safely invoke the legendary Arabic proverb: ‘The Judge of children has hung himself.’ No wonder then, Russia has made inroads in the Middle East at the expense of U.S. power.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

“America Has Been Interfering in Russia's Politics for a Century,” Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe, 03.08.20The author, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, writes:

  • “In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson, horrified at the rise of Bolshevik power, sent 13,000 American soldiers to Russia. Although Americans have largely forgotten this episode, Russians have not. … Many see that intervention as the beginning of a century during which the United States has relentlessly interfered in Russia's internal affairs. This has created a narrative of encirclement—a view that the West relentlessly threatens Russia and does whatever possible to destabilize and weaken it.”
  • “In 1996 President Boris Yeltsin … seemed headed for electoral defeat. That threatened America's influence over Russia. President Bill Clinton told his advisers, ‘I want this guy to win so bad it hurts.’ A team of American political consultants flew to Russia, took over Yeltsin's campaign and, using media techniques not previously seen there, steered him to an improbable victory. This direct intervention in Russian politics was hardly clandestine. Time magazine published a gleeful account soon afterward, with a drawing of Yeltsin on the cover waving an American flag over the headline ‘Yanks to the Rescue.’”
  • “In the years since Putin's emergence, the United States has returned to its default view of Russia as a bloodthirsty enemy. We have imposed a maze of sanctions on Russian individuals and corporations. Our military surrounds Russia just as Russians would surround us if they had bases across Canada and Mexico. We have renounced treaties that once restrained our rivalry. Depending on one's point of view, these steps are either aggressive provocations or simply measured responses to Russian threats and misdeeds. Either way, Russians may be forgiven for believing that the United States wishes their country neither prosperity nor stability.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“War With OPEC Can’t End Well for Russia,” Andrey Movchan, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.13.20The author, a nonresident scholar in the Economic Policy Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Russia depends heavily on hydrocarbon production taxes and needs the price of oil to stay above $45 per barrel to keep its budget balanced; Saudi Arabia, to support its target deficit of 7 percent, needs it to be around $47.50 to $50.”
  • “The United States will easily weather a reduction in oil production: The oil and gas industry accounts for roughly 8 percent of U.S. GDP, and the sector is responsible for only 10 percent of its growth rate. Meanwhile, hydrocarbons account for twice as much—15 percent—of Russia’s GDP, and the correlation between Russian GDP growth and oil price is almost 99 percent.”
  • “The Saudis are certainly in a worse position in terms of balancing their budget, but their production costs are significantly lower than Russia’s. They also have 2.5 times as much oil in their reserves.”
  • “Finally, unlike Russia, Saudi Arabia has influential friends (the United States, in particular) and can increase its borrowing at a very low cost. The two countries have similar budget reserves in excess of $500 billion each. But Russia is home to 144.5 million people compared with Saudi Arabia’s population of 33.7 million. Not only can Riyadh dramatically decrease its budget, but it also can afford to run a budget deficit for many years: Its reserves, loans, and friendship with the United States will see it through.”
  • “Even if the pessimistic prognoses for the spread of a pandemic do not come true, there is no chance Russia’s GDP will grow in 2020—unless the state statisticians work their magic on the figures. Right now, one thing is clear: This year will be much worse than expected, especially for ordinary people and optimistic investors.”

“Oil War: Who Will Blink First?,” Chris Weafer, bne IntelliNews, 03.10.20The author, an investment strategist, writes:

  • “Who is best positioned to fight an oil war and to live with $30 per barrel Brent, or even lower? Moscow has bigger financial reserves than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia holds the equivalent of $495 billion as of end-January while the latest figures from the Russian Central Bank show reserves at $570 billion as of end February.”
  • “Saudi’s reserves have been declining during the last several years of oil price weakness … Russia’s reserves have been growing … If the ruble-dollar rate hits 75 then the budget will breakeven around $40 per barrel without any cuts to current planned spending. This compares with a breakeven of $115 per barrel in 2013. Saudi Arabia reportedly needs $85 per barrel to balance its budget and does not gain from a currency offset.”
  • “Putin will not have to worry about any political fallout amongst Russia’s so-called elites because of this action. It has been known for some time that some of the powerful state oil executives have opposed the extension of the OPEC+ deal … The same cannot be so confidently said of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed clashed with the former long-standing oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi over production policy.”
  • “The hope in both Moscow and Riyadh is probably that either is forced to blink first and return to the negotiating table. The ideal scenario for both is that the marginal or high-cost oil producers quickly feel the pain and are forced to shutter production. … The closing shoot-out scene of the spaghetti western, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ comes to mind. But, whatever about the U.S. producers, this time round Russia and President Putin are in a better position to fight this war than is Saudi Arabia or its crown prince.”

“Crunching the Numbers: Russia Is Ready for Prolonged Oil Shock,” Ben Aris, bne Intellinews, 03.12.20The author, editor-in-chief of the news portal, writes:

  • “The oil price shock currently underway will be painful for the Russian economy, but the Kremlin has done its homework and is well prepared for the coming storm. The Russian Ministry of Energy predicts that oil prices will recover to $40-45 per barrel in the second half of 2020 and $45-50 per barrel in 2021.”
  • “Accounts Chamber head Alexei Kudrin says with oil at $35 per barrel and the ruble averaging 72 to the dollar this year, the federal budget will lose approximately 3 trillion rubles and run a deficit of just under 2 percent of GDP. The economy will experience nearly zero growth, not the 1.9 percent growth initially predicted by the economy ministry. If oil prices average $40 per barrel this year, the situation will be slightly better, Kudrin predicts, but GDP growth will still fall far short of initial expectations.”
  • “The key indicator is the non-oil deficit. Russia’s economy is still in transition and as it has failed to develop domestic institutional investors that provide a foundation of long-term money, its markets and economy remain very vulnerable to these shocks. But the non-oil deficit shows that each one of these shocks does less damage than the last one. Thanks to its huge reserves and the fact that corporate Russia has massively deleveraged since 2014, it is well placed to weather this shock with relatively little damage.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Addressing Unresolved Challenges in US-Russia Relations,” Jeffrey Mankoff and Andrey Kortunov, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 03.13.20The authors, a senior fellow at CSIS and the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, write:

  • “As U.S.-Russia relations will remain competitive and, at times, confrontational for the foreseeable future, the risk of Washington and Moscow stumbling into an unanticipated and unwanted crisis is real. Under the circumstances, the two sides should focus on mechanisms for dealing with specific challenges where both Russia and the United States play a role and where a danger that problems will worsen exists.”
  • “The 2020 elections in the United States represent a massive uncertainty and the stakes will appear much higher than in the recent past, which will impact policies, particularly with the centrality of Russia in U.S. politics. This situation may be an opportunity for more sober discussion about Russia in Washington, even if it is unlikely that the United States—under Trump or a new Democratic leader—will be able to develop a new approach to Russia that enjoys bipartisan consensus and is capable of informing U.S. policy over the longer term.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin’s Choice: What Do Russia’s Latest Constitutional Maneuvers Mean?,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.11.20The author, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “President Vladimir Putin has surprised the pundits again. On Jan. 15, many Kremlin watchers heard him announce planned changes to the constitution and a government reshuffle, understanding that the transition from Putin’s personal rule had been primed to begin in 2024. Now, after Putin’s speech in the Duma on March 10, that transition has been delayed almost indefinitely. If the latest proposed constitutional amendments go through, Putin, having served four presidential terms, will be allowed to run for two more, which could see him keep that office until 2036.”
  • “Putin evidently made the decision based on various considerations. He is known to think of the presidential job with reverence, as something akin to an unexpected gift from God. … He also had a negative experience of the four-year ‘tandemocracy’ after his first two terms, when Dmitry Medvedev took over as president and the ruling class was split down the middle. Putin may also be afraid that if he transfers power … then he will lose control, and Russia’s foreign adversaries will take advantage of the situation.”
  • “However, it’s also worth noting that Putin is a master of keeping his options open. The ‘Tereshkova amendment’ will allow Putin to seek a fifth presidential term in 2024, but does not oblige him to do so. … One thing is clear. The new decision changes the face of the Russian regime.”
  • “A new Russian state is taking shape that is unashamedly authoritarian in design. If Russia ever wants to return to the European model, it will have to dismantle the entire political legacy that this regime has built.”

“16 More Years of Putin: A Promise of Stability That Looks Like Stagnation,” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, 03.13.20The author, founding director of Russia Matters, writes:

  • “‘It would be very worrisome in my view to return to the situation of the mid-1980s when the leaders of the state, one by one, stayed in power until the end of their days,’ Putin told Russia’s WWII veterans on Jan. 18. Yet it is exactly that lifetime privilege that Putin chose to keep in his menu of options when he made his unusual, but choreographed, appearance in the State Duma on March 10. (And, ironically, it was the need for ‘stability, keeping everything the way it is, like in the 1970s and 1980s’ that a Kremlin insider cited when praising the amendment … even though to many Soviet citizens that period was known as stagnation.)”
  • “My guess is that conservatives who dominate his inner circle and who are interested in extending his rule as much as possible have convinced him to expand the number of options available to him come 2024 to include a continuation of his presidency.”
  • “Kremlin tea-leaf-reading is never an easy exercise and we are yet to see whether Putin does decide to stay on as the president beyond 2024. … [H]is continued stay in the Kremlin for two more terms, if not more, would bode ill for the long-term stable development of Russia, which saw its share of world’s gross domestic product and population shrink by 6 percent and 20 percent, respectively, on his watch.”
  • “Reversing these and other trends requires an orderly and timely transition of executive power … It requires a system in which the executive, judicial and legislative branches of power balance and check each other in reality as opposed to just on paper. And it requires deep structural reforms that Putin welcomed in his first term, helping to foster a decade of growth, but then grew averse to as many in his retinue learned to benefit from the status quo.”

“Putin’s End Game?,” Henry Hale, PONARS Eurasia, 03.11.20The author, a profesor of polticial science and international affairs and co-director of PONARS Eurasia, writes:

  • “Speaking to the lower house of parliament on March 10, Vladimir Putin seemingly affirmed what many have suspected all along: that he intends to stay in power well beyond the expiration of his current presidential term in 2024. He did this by endorsing a constitutional amendment that would effectively reset his term count if approved in an April 22 plebiscite.”
  • “At the same time, while most signs now point to ‘Putin for life,’ his moves are nevertheless consistent with other possibilities—still including a power handoff in 2024—that we would do well to keep in mind. Kremlin bosses have surprised us many times in the past. But even if current appearances are correct that Putin is bidding to stay in power for another decade, the Russian leader’s aging means the issue of succession will not completely go away.”

“Keeping His Options Open: Why Putin Decided to Stay On,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.13.20The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Putin, a man torn by conflicting impulses, has opted for stability in moving to stay on as president after 2024. In doing so, he surprised the elite and even some in the presidential administration, deceiving those around him—though not the public—with his talk of changes in leadership and overhauling Russia’s political system. His real intentions are impossible to know, but his priority is clear: keeping his options open.”
  • “It is likely that Putin does, in fact, want to step down and leave his legacy in the hands of a worthy successor. But that will have to wait. Today, in his view, he faces war, extreme circumstances, an immature political system and a vulnerable state. Stability, he believes, is more important than a change of leadership.”

“So Much for Putin's Promise He'd Abide by Term Limits. Here's What's Happening,” Samuel A. Greene and Graeme B. Robertson, The Washington Post, 03.16.20: The authors, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London and a professor of political science and director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, write:

  • “In the short term, Putin faces the challenge of making his decision to become essentially president for life stick. Decades of polling suggest that Russians like elections and the trappings of democracy, but these latest moves make the veneer of democracy appear thinner than ever before. Russians have also shown themselves willing in the past to protest in large numbers, when the violation of their electoral rights has been too obvious to ignore.”
  • “In the medium term, continuity is king—and that, in fact, may be the point. As long as he stayed in public politics, effective political power was always likely to follow Putin, whatever his formal title. On one level, making Putin president forever merely formalizes the situation.”
  • “But in other ways, last week's change is very significant. It was long a point of pride in Russia that the constitution adopted in 1993 constrained political action. Whatever faith people still had in that idea has been shattered, and the personalization of power seems virtually complete. The world of 2008—when Putin stepped away from the presidency in order to follow the guidelines in Russia's constitution—is gone. … The sense that Putin might eventually leave office made it easier for some people to tolerate the lack of progress. Now that he's staying, he actually needs to deliver.”

“The Eternal Putin,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Project Syndicate/Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.16.20The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Thanks to legislation just passed by Russia’s parliament, Vladimir Putin now looks set to remain president until 2036, when he turns 83. He may even attain the status of ‘paramount leader,’ on the model of China’s Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. But no one should expect Deng-style reforms or modernization from Putin.”
  • “Do Russians support Putin and his eternal presidency? In fact, according to polling by the independent Levada Center, only 13 percent of the population has much interest in political issues at all. … Moreover, while 39 percent of poll respondents complain that those in power are obsessed with their own privileges, the proportion of respondents who believe that Russia’s leaders have the country’s interests at heart has grown from 10 percent to almost 30 percent since 2013.”
  • “As for the Russian elite, various oligarchic clans may compete fiercely, but they all know that they can exist only in the shadow of the dictator.”
  • “This politically archaic and economically inefficient system owes its survival to mass indifference. A ‘black swan’ event could, in theory, shake the status quo; yet it is precisely because of an episode like the COVID-19 pandemic that Putin is convinced that he must remain in charge to steer Russia further through global turmoil. Russians may lose patience, but for now, the country seems doomed to live under Putin for years to come.”

“If Only Vladimir Putin Had Taken Up Woodwork Instead. Russia’s President-Forever Is a Case Study In How Not To Manage Your Career,” Henry Mance, Financial Times, 03.13.20The author, chief features writer for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Lesson one: succession planning. Mr Putin suggests that no one else is qualified to protect the country’s security and economy. In a country of 145 million people, that doesn't reflect brilliantly on his stewardship of the education system.”
  • “Lesson two: build retirement bridges. Another president would have lots of delightful offers—secretary-general of the International Olympic Committee, the ethics board of Facebook, the face of a hipster vodka brand. Mr. Putin’s best hope is a visiting winter lectureship in Belarus. So much for his long-term vision.”
  • “Lesson three: quit while ahead. The history books are not filled with leaders whose electoral mojo picked up in their sixth term.”
  • “Final lesson: keep learning. By 2036, Mr. Putin will be the longest-serving Russian leader since Peter the Great … But Peter busily imported ideas from Western Europe, while Mr. Putin knocks them back. The latter strategy doesn’t scream sustainability.”

Defense and aerospace:

“The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy,” Michael Kofman, Australian National University via Michael Kofman’s Blog, 03.12.20The author, a research scientist at CNA Corporation, writes:

  • “Russian strategic operations envision conventional strikes, single or grouped, against critical economic, military or political objects. These may be followed by nuclear demonstration, limited nuclear strikes, and theatre nuclear warfare.”
  • “Unlike the nuclear weapons of the Cold War, precise means of delivery, together with low-yield warheads, have rendered nuclear weapons more usable for warfighting purposes with a substantially reduced chance for collateral damage. Scalable employment of conventional and nuclear weapons leverage the coercive power of escalation, whereby strategic conventional strikes make the actor more credible in employing nuclear weapons in order to manage escalation. In the context of an unfolding conflict, these weapons are not necessarily meant for victory, but to break adversary resolve and terminate the conflict.”
  • “The Russian navy, although limited in the number of missiles it can bring to bear due to constrained magazine depth, retains a prominent role in the execution of these missions, particularly in the early phases of conflict.”

“The Russian Navy in 2019 (Year in Review),” Michael Kofman, USNI Proceedings, March 2020The author, a research scientist at CNA Corporation, writes:

  • “Despite ongoing delays and complications in what is Russia’s worst performing defense-industrial sector, the Ministry of Defense continued to spend on naval procurement. Russia’s total annual modernization, repair and research budget is almost 1.5 trillion rubles (almost $60 billion in PPP). Russia’s military expenditure remained flat in 2019, but its purchasing power still equals perhaps $180 billion.”
  • “The past year demonstrated that constraints on the Russian Navy remain tethered to industrial capacity, technical and operational limitations, rather than financial resources.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Medvedev’s Security Council Role Makes Him and It More Interesting,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 03.10.20The author, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), writes:

  • “In his Presidential Decree No. 175 ‘On Certain Issues of the Security Council of the Russian Federation’ of March 3, Putin outlines the roles and responsibilities of the deputy chair of the Security Council.”
  • “The crucial question was whether Medvedev would have any authority over Patrushev and the secretariat, and this has been answered, at least partially. … Medvedev will have a role in the ‘development and implementation of foreign policy,’ prepare an annual report on the state of national security and monitor the implementation of presidential instructions. Meanwhile, he will hold workshops and strategic planning meetings with other members of the council. So far so ambiguous. This could mark a real presence in foreign affairs or mask a lot of activity with little real impact.”
  • “More telling is that Medvedev acquires the right to appoint (which by extension implies also to dismiss) a range of officials, including the first deputy secretary.”
  • “Patrushev was considered the deputy chair de facto before this latest move, and even beforehand had his qualms about Medvedev who is, after all, no dove but certainly more pragmatic in his foreign policy inclinations.”


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Why We Should be Paying Attention to Russian Economic Statecraft,” Emily Holland, Jordan Center, March 2020The author, assistant professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College, writes:

  • “The cases of Ukraine and Venezuela show Russia’s use of economic means to further its geostrategic goals. For the past two decades, Moscow has increasingly relied on economic means of conducting foreign policy. The large projects outlined above are only the most prominent examples of Moscow’s long-term strategy to cultivate relationships and garner influence beyond military means.”
  • “Underlying these projects is Moscow’s most insidious form of economic statecraft: corruption. Corruption is endemic in the energy industry, as well as in many of the states where Moscow chooses to pursue new projects. The rise of corruption and kleptocracy associated with right-wing populism only gives Moscow further opportunities to use economic levers to pursue foreign policy goals.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant developments.


“A Turn to the Past: Ukraine’s Troubling Government Reshuffle,” Mattia Nelles, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 03.12.20The author, a Ukraine and Russia expert at Berlin’s Center for Liberal Modernity, writes:

  • “The Ukrainian parliament voted to dismiss Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and most of his government after they had spent only six months in office. In an extraordinary session, it also voted to remove Ruslan Ryaboshapka, a highly regarded prosecutor general who was appointed in late August 2019.”
  • “The dismissal of the prosecutor general is highly problematic for Ukraine’s effort to strengthen the rule of law, which is crucial to attracting much-needed foreign investment.”
  • “Not only was Honcharuk replaced by Vice Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal—who, between 2017 and 2019, worked as a regional manager in oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s energy firm DTEK—but most ministers were sacked.”
  • “One such minister was Oksana Makarova, a respected reformer who, as leader of the Finance Ministry, oversaw important negotiations with the IMF. The Shmyhal cabinet includes ten new ministers and six who have remained in post—with five ministries still vacant. The new line-up drew sharp criticism because it includes only one woman, no known reformers and old faces such as a former health minister in the Yanukovych administration.”
  • “This radical reshuffle raises questions about the pro-reform and pro-Western orientation of Ukraine.”

“What If Ukraine's Attempt at Peace Ended up Making Things Worse?” Stratfor Worldview in The National Interest, March 2020The geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm writes:

  • “With no end in sight to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv's desire to forge a new path to peace risks setting it back to square one. In late February, Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it was actively working on a proposal to replace the 2014 Minsk Protocol. But while the chances of permanently ending the conflict under the current Minsk agreements remain slim at best, the chances that Ukraine can successfully negotiate an entirely new framework with Russia-backed separatists in Donbass are even slimmer.”
  • “Instead, Kyiv's strategy is most likely to collapse existing diplomatic efforts—and could potentially even lead to an escalation in fighting along the region's still-active front lines—by highlighting the very constraints that have prevented progress over the past six years.”
  • “Overall, Ukraine's ability to force Russia … to comply with its demands is weak, which was recently made clear in the renegotiation of a key gas transit agreement between the two countries. And unlike Kyiv, Moscow would be perfectly capable of accepting a long-term extension of the current reality in eastern Ukraine, or even an escalation of the conflict.”
  • “Without any shifts to Kyiv's political or physical leverage, the fighting in eastern Ukraine will likely continue at the hands of separatist forces seeking to force a return to the principles outlined within the Minsk agreement.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.