Russia Analytical Report, May 24-June 2, 2021
This Week’s Highlights
The lack of serious analysis of great power competition within Russia is due in large part to the baggage that Russian officials bring to any discussion of the country’s place in the post-Cold War world, write Paul Stronski and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. All too often, debate in both policy and analytical circles is guided by long-standing grievances, as well as a fixation on the United States as an existential threat to the survival of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, they assert.
As a first step to restore some trust in the bilateral relationship, Russia and the United States should commit to publicly explaining the role of missile defenses in their nuclear deterrent strategy, and emphasizing that their missile defense systems do not target the other, write John Tierney and Samuel M. Hickey, respectively a former nine-term Massachusetts congressman, and a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The United States might be able to get Russia to discuss nonstrategic nuclear forces without bringing up missile defenses—but it’s highly unlikely; the Biden administration should not give Russia an excuse to walk away from the negotiating table by refusing to discuss missile defense, the authors argue.
If Russian banks are disconnected from the Visa and MasterCard payment systems, all domestic transactions could be done through the National Payment Card System, writes Maria Shagina, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Zurich. In the medium term, SWIFT could be replaced for domestic purposes with the Russian equivalent System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), she writes, but notes that due to the constraints of the Russian SPFS, the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) has often been suggested as a more realistic alternative for Russian banks in the event of disconnection. Another option advocated for by Oleg Deripaska is for the Russian government to speed up the introduction of the digital ruble to ensure cross-border transactions, the author says. Finally, Russia’s drive to reduce reliance on U.S.-centered payment systems could profit from Europe’s latest efforts to push back against U.S. dominance on the financial markets, she argues.
In Russia, the strategic direction of foreign policy lies exclusively with the President and a small decision-making elite within the Kremlin, whose members, for the most part, are personal friends and long-term [confidants] of Vladimir Putin, often with intelligence backgrounds, writes Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. Russian foreign policy think tanks lack personal relations to this inner circle, but they still provide important platforms for intellectual exchange and also assume functions that otherwise would be left to political parties, the author writes. As the conflict with the West has intensified in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, it is primarily the demand for public legitimation of state policy rather than expert analysis which has increased, Graef argues.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sees his growing popularity as proof that he chose the right course when he gave up trying to please all the disparate groups that voted for him in 2019, writes independent journalist Konstantin Skorkin for Carnegie Moscow Center. Zelensky’s penchant for extraordinary measures may help resolve some tactical problems, but is unlikely to end well, Skorkin argues, asserting that the presidential team is still not working on developing state institutions or conducting judicial reform. Focused on improving his ratings, Zelensky is constantly seeking miraculous improvisations that might bring together different parts of the country or mobilize it to stand up to an external enemy, the author writes.
In Belarus, above all, the West must avoid repeating the outcome of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine: civil war, Russian intervention, steep and prolonged economic decline, a bitterly divided society, and a country stuck in permanent suspension and semi-paralysis between Russia and the West, writes Anatol Lieven is senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. The Russian government has made clear this is an absolute red line, with the clear implication that, in the last resort, Russia is willing to resort to armed force to prevent Belarus following Ukraine into military, economic and geopolitical dependence on the West, the author writes.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
“Iran Needs the Nuclear Deal to Keep Russia and China at Bay,” Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy, Foreign Affairs, 05.25.21. The authors, respectively a professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian Studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and a senior lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering—both at Indiana University—write:
- “Why does Iran’s government still require a nuclear deal? Because in the long term, Tehran stands to gain much economically and geopolitically while giving up little tactically.”
- “During the period of heightened pressure from Washington, Tehran had little recourse but to seek diplomatic and defensive protection from the other two great powers. Russia, close at hand, has emerged as Iran’s primary security guarantor, military collaborator, and materiel supplier. China has also rapidly expanded its cooperation in those sectors. Both Russia and China have exercised their UN Security Council vetoes and persuasive abilities to protect Iran from American demands. Most recently, Moscow and Beijing have publicly opposed Washington’s insistence that Iran accept enhancements to the nuclear deal as a condition for U.S. reentry.”
- “Diplomacy can realistically achieve quite a lot: not just the reimplementation of the deal but even upgrades, such as plugging enrichment and monitoring loopholes, managing advanced centrifuges, extending the ballistic missile embargo, and stretching out timelines. Economic and geopolitical gains outweigh military concessions, because tactical advancements can be resumed in the future, within the Iranian calculus. But to reach these goals, the United States needs to stop speaking through its partners and rivals, such as the European Union and Russia, and rejoin the Vienna negotiations to negotiate directly with Iran.”
- “The United States must emphasize that significant enhancements to the nuclear deal will reduce the risk of future sanctions. Through tough but fair negotiations, the Biden administration can indeed achieve its stated objectives of not only forging a ‘longer and stronger’ agreement but also opening the way for further constructive engagement.
Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:
“To Face Russia and Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden Needs a Smart Strategy,” Michael E. O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution/USA Today, 05.28.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:
- “It is time to envision a new security architecture for eastern Europe. The core concept should be one of permanent non-alignment for countries of eastern Europe. Ideally, the zone would include Finland and Sweden; Ukraine and Moldova and Belarus; Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan; and finally Cyprus plus Serbia. Under such a new construct, these non-aligned countries’ existing security affiliations with NATO and/or Russia could be continued, but formal security commitments would not be extended or expanded by Brussels or Moscow.”
- “The new security architecture would require that Russia, like NATO, commit to help uphold the security of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other states in the region. Crimea, however, might need to be finessed, and autonomy arrangements developed for parts of eastern Ukraine and northern Georgia.”
- “This kind of new architecture would not turn Putin into a nice guy or the West’s relationship with Russia into a friendly one. But it would likely produce a very substantial lowering of tensions and risk of war. That is the greatest purpose that U.S. grand strategy toward Russia and Europe can serve in the years ahead — and it is a very worthy purpose. Seeking a broad new understanding with Moscow, in consultation with allies and partners, makes much more sense than granting piecemeal unilateral concessions to Putin and his cronies, or giving Ukrainians and Georgians false and dangerous hopes about further NATO expansion.”
“Why Isn’t Russia Talking About Great Power Competition?” Paul Stronski, Andrew S. Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 05.27.21. The authors, respectively a senior fellow and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, write:
- “The lack of serious analysis of great power competition within Russia is due in large part to the baggage that Russian officials bring to any discussion of the country’s place in the post–Cold War world. All too often, debate in both policy and analytical circles is guided by long-standing grievances, as well as a fixation on the United States as an existential threat to the survival of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.”
- “This desire to spur the emergence of a non-U.S.-led world remains central to how Putin and other Russian leaders talk about their strategic priorities and their diagnosis of the sources of the most acute problems between Russia and the West. There is far less analysis in Russia about how the broader international system is shifting, the impact of China’s rise on longer-term Russian interests, or how to fortify Russia’s economy and geopolitical clout amid shifting energy markets.”
- “In the Kremlin’s telling, it is precisely the U.S. unwillingness to give up its ability to dictate to other powers or to abide by the principles of international law that causes much of the tension in the international system.”
- “It just so happens that Russian leaders have a ready-made solution to this problem—the international system should be governed by a select grouping of great powers. Working under the aegis of the UN Security Council (UNSC), these states should negotiate the rules by which all countries would live by. Central to this vision is the principle of non-interference in each other’s—read: Russia’s—internal affairs and respect for designated spheres of influence. Despite professing undying support for the principles of international law, the Kremlin does little to disguise its overriding goal: ensuring that the United States cannot launch military action without Moscow’s consent enforced by its veto in the UNSC.”
- “Russia’s discussion of international competition appears stuck on the United States, which is just one of the challenges that modern Russia faces today.”
“Russia in the Mediterranean: Here to Stay,” Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 05.27.21. The authors, respectively the director and a non-resident senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia Program, write:
- “Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is an integral part of its strategy for the wider European theater, which has long been the principal arena of its foreign policy triumphs and setbacks. Europe’s dominant position on Russia’s foreign policy agenda is a product of its strategic culture, which is in turn shaped by geography, historical legacy, and an elite worldview that considers the West a threat to the domestic political order. It is impossible to understand Russia’s current posture in the Mediterranean without viewing it within this larger context and against the backdrop of the country’s centuries-old involvement in the region and retreat from it during the quarter century that followed the end of the Cold War.”
- “This assessment of Russia in the Mediterranean has drawn three central conclusions:
- First, Russia’s capabilities in the region are modest, and it faces formidable obstacles in realizing its ambitions.
- Second, the principal rationale for Russia’s return to the Mediterranean has been the prospect of a military confrontation in the European theater rather than the desire to regain great power status; the region is therefore a subordinate arena to the principal confrontation between Russia and the West.
- Finally, Russia’s return to the Mediterranean is intended to regain, albeit with diminished resources, its old Cold War footing, driven by enduring objectives of its confrontation with the West.”
- “Russia’s return to the Mediterranean continues a long legacy of involvement there, driven by ambitions, interests, and threat perceptions that have endured for centuries. There is no reason to expect this posture to change in the near or distant future. Russia is in the Mediterranean to stay, and its determination to expand its naval, air, and land presence there will continue.”
“Has Biden Lost His Nerve With Putin?” Garry Kasparov, The Wall Street Journal, 06.02.21. The author, chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation, writes:
- “When Mr. Biden was elected, I hoped he would … carve out a more muscular policy toward Moscow than his two feeble predecessors did. So far, my hopes and advice have done about as well as Mr. Biden's advice to Mr. Putin in 2011. I condemned the idea of a summit between the leader of the free world and the dictator of a terrorist mafia state, a meeting now scheduled for June 16 in Geneva.”
- “What we don't know is what the U.S. gets out of the summit. History has demonstrated time and again that appeasing a dictator only convinces him you're too weak to oppose him, provoking further aggression.”
- “Ten years ago in Moscow, Mr. Biden had the nerve to talk tough to Putin, but he lacked authority. Now he commands the full power of the presidency and must prove he hasn't lost his nerve.”
“Biden Can’t Take Peace in Europe for Granted. After punishing Belarus, Washington Should Support the Three Seas Initiative to Win the Region Back from Russia, Chris Miller, Foreign Policy, 05.27.21. The author, an assistant professor at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Democracy, writes:
- “The Belarusian government’s hijacking of a flight from Greece to Lithuania is a reminder that Europe’s peace is precarious. … Part of the response must be to punish Belarus for the hijacking. But the United States can do more to support stability in Central Europe.”
- “There’s an easy way to help. Twelve countries in Central Europe have banded together to create the Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to improve its members’ infrastructure and connectivity, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black Seas in the south. All Three Seas participants are members of the EU, and all but Austria are members of NATO. Their Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund is already raising private sector funds to build infrastructure in the region.”
- “Criticism of Russian and Chinese investment in Central Europe isn’t enough. There’s been plenty of noise from Washington about wanting to push back against Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence in the region. But impassioned speech isn’t a policy. China and Russia are offering loans and investments. Washington has been right to criticize some of these projects, but it should also offer some alternative. The region needs more bridges and broadband initiatives.”
- “The Three Seas Initiative provides a framework the United States can easily plug into. The group is already active, raising public and private sector funds to invest in infrastructure projects. The region’s leaders are already thinking strategically about Three Seas infrastructure plans. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who chaired the last summit of the Three Seas countries, has noted they could deepen links to countries like Ukraine that face ongoing Kremlin pressure. As the Biden administration looks for a framework to bolster allies while pushing back against Russia and China, working with the Three Seas Initiative is an obvious place to start.”
China-Russia: Allied or aligned?
“Why does everyone assume that Russia and China are friends?” Isaac Stone Fish, The Washington Post, 05.26.21. The author, a contributing columnist for the news outlet’s Global Opinions section and founder of the firm Strategy Risks, writes:
- “Moscow has more to fear from Beijing than Washington.”
- “The biggest reason for Moscow's fear is territorial. While there is no good polling in both countries on sensitive issues such as territorial integrity, some Russians fear the Chinese want to invade Siberia, while some Chinese feel that parts of eastern Russia actually belong to China.”
- “Chinese frustrations with Russia—most Chinese alive today came of age in an era of frosty relations between the two nations, from the Sino-Soviet split in the mid-1950s to the 2001 Sino-Russian strategic and economic treaty—could easily push China's foreign policy to be more aggressive toward its northern neighbor.”
- “These tensions are becoming especially visible in Central Asia, an area that has long been within Moscow's sphere of influence — and now finds itself more firmly within China's. Xi first announced his vision for the global strategy now called the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in September 2013, an important symbol of Beijing's designs to further enmesh the region in Chinese trading patterns.”
- “Russia is inescapably the junior partner in the relationship. China is Russia's largest trading partner, while Russia isn't even in China's top 10.”
- “Where does this leave Moscow? Putin knows perfectly well that Xi is not his ‘best friend.’ Some Russian analysts have suggested adopting a stance like India's, which resists being tied into alliances. A closer relationship with the United States is possible.”
“Missile Defense Is Not a Substitute for Arms Control,” John Tierney and Samuel M. Hickey, War on the Rocks , 05.25.21. The authors, respectively a former nine-term Massachusetts congressman, and a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, write:
- “Demonstrating an openness to including missile defense in strategic stability talks is actually a point of leverage for the United States. Russia has evinced little interest in further arms control in recent years, except where controls would apply to technologies it does not possess, and an openness to dialogue on something Moscow cares about may provide a way to unlock the door to progress. As the Biden team prepares for a proposed summit with Russia in the coming months, signaling that the United States could be willing to discuss missile defense would put the United States on the front foot going into talks.”
- “As a first step to restore some trust in the bilateral relationship, Russia and the United States should commit to publicly explaining the role of missile defenses in their nuclear deterrent strategy, and emphasizing that their missile defense systems do not target the other.”
- “The United States might be able to get Russia to discuss nonstrategic nuclear forces without bringing up missile defenses—but it’s highly unlikely.”
- “The Biden administration should not give Russia an excuse to walk away from the negotiating table by refusing to discuss missile defense. There’s no time to lose—the White House has a few years to try to negotiate an extremely complex arms control agreement and figure out how to verify it. By demonstrating an openness to addressing missile defenses in strategic stability talks, the United States will remove one of Putin’s pretexts to evade serious negotiations with the Biden administration. This posture will put the United States in the driver’s seat.”
"Advice to President Biden on Arms Control With Russia,” John Erath, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 05.27.21. The author, the organization’s senior policy director, writes:
- “[W]e should avoid basing the entire arms control agenda on what the Russians want, but what do we want? We should go into the discussion with a set of proposals that bear reasonable expectations of making progress. The Russians will expect us to go in needing to make a deal or giving them our bottom line up front … Instead, we should stick to items where we can find common interests and find ways to move forward. Such an approach should consist of four elements:”
- “A reaffirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.’ This could be amplified by three principles to guide further efforts: 1) an arms race is in no one’s interests and should not be run; 2) the world will be safer with fewer nuclear weapons; and 3) proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated technologies risks undermining the progress we have made since the end of the Cold War.”
- “A decision to launch a series of formal arms control talks in which all issues, including missile defense and non-strategic weapons could be raised. These talks would be the ‘new start’ promised by the treaty and would be aimed at finding new directions for ultimately reducing numbers of nuclear weapons. They should avoid attempting to recreate the past, for example, reviving the INF Treaty when Russia has no interest in doing so.”
- “An acknowledgment that arms control and nonproliferation increasingly need a global context and should be approached globally. If more nations are building more nuclear weapons and others are considering doing so, it will ultimately impact decisions to proceed with disarmament, even if U.S. and Russian numbers are far larger.”
- “Openness to new avenues for dialogue. … [M]aking real progress on arms control will require progress on related security issues. The United States and Russia could discuss such areas as nuclear security, terrorism, network security and climate change.”
- No significant developments
Conflict in Syria:
"Russia’s Competing Policy Interests in Syria and the Middle East," Mark N. Katz, Russia Matters, 05.25.2021. The author, a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes:
- [Amid the] presidential “elections” in Syria, it is worth exploring what interests continue to drive Russia’s ongoing military intervention in that country, which has helped the Assad regime to not just avoid being overthrown … but also to regain control over much of the territory it had previously lost to its various opponents.
- Whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will be able to regain control over more or even all Syrian territory remains unclear. But even if this dictator … fails to regain control over all of Syria, his opponents do not seem likely either to seriously threaten his regime’s survival or retake territory from it.
- While this represents a success for Russian policy, the situation in and around Syria remains complex for Moscow due to so many other actors pursuing conflicting policy goals there.
- So far, Moscow has been able to balance between contending actors in Syria, thus giving most of them an incentive to cooperate with Moscow. The risk for Moscow, though, is that when one of the many balances it wishes to maintain breaks down, it may be unable to restore it and a greater conflict than it can control breaks out.
- How should the U.S. respond to what Russia might do going forward? The first step is to recognize that even though concern for Russia has become a high priority in Washington, several of its Middle Eastern allies are less concerned about thwarting Russian ambitions than Iranian or Turkish ones they see as more threatening. … The second step is to recognize that Washington cannot achieve all the disparate goals it has been pursuing … but recognize the need to prioritize among them both in terms of achievability and importance. The third may be the need to be mindful about whether American success in reducing Russia’s role in Syria and the Middle East might result in increased influence there for Iran and ISIS. … Russia is not the only country that faces trade-offs.
“The Intent Behind Russia’s New Cyber Hacking Against America,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 05.28.21. The author, a contributing editor at the news outlet, writes:
- “What are we to make of reports that hackers affiliated with the Russian special services have targeted groups and organizations that receive support from the U.S. Agency for International Development? ... Having been in enough Track-II dialogues where the Russian side routinely disavows any knowledge of or support for such actions, I'd like to dispense with the forensic accounting and posit that we assume, for purposes of this essay, that the cyber intrusions came from Russian sources so that we can move to an assessment of Kremlin decision-making.”
- “The fact that the latest set of hacks seem to be to gather information about NGOs engaged in democracy promotion is taking place alongside a concerted effort to dismantle the activist network created by the imprisoned Alexei Navalny. As we have seen over the past year, the Russian government has been willing to risk its political and even business relations with the West in order to neutralize potential domestic political challengers.”
“Secret Chats Show How Cybergang Became a Ransomware Powerhouse,” Anton Troianovski, Michael Schwirtz, Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, 05.31.21. The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write:
- “Where once criminals had to play psychological games to trick people into handing over bank passwords and have the technical know-how to siphon money out of secure personal accounts, now virtually anyone can obtain ransomware off the shelf and load it into a compromised computer system using tricks picked up from YouTube tutorials or with the help of groups like DarkSide.”
- “‘Any doofus can be a cybercriminal now,’ said Sergei A. Pavlovich, a former hacker who served 10 years in prison in his native Belarus for cybercrimes. ‘The intellectual barrier to entry has gotten extremely low.’”
- “A glimpse into DarkSide’s secret communications in the months leading up to the Colonial Pipeline attack reveals a criminal operation on the rise, pulling in millions of dollars in ransom payments each month. DarkSide offers what is known as ‘ransomware as a service,’ in which a malware developer charges a user fee to affiliates, who may not have the technical skills to actually create ransomware but are still capable of breaking into a victim’s computer systems.”
- “In many ways, the organizational structure of the Russian ransomware industry mimics franchises, like McDonald’s or Hertz, that lower barriers to entry and allow for easy duplication of proven business practices and techniques.”
- “The Russian authorities have made it clear they will rarely prosecute cybercriminals for ransomware attacks and other cybercrimes outside Russia. As a result, Russia has become a global hub for ransomware attacks, experts say. The cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, based outside Boston, tracks about 25 ransomware groups, of which about 15—including the five biggest—are believed to be based in Russia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, said a threat intelligence expert, Dmitry Smilyanets.”
“Russia isn't listening,” The Washington Post Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 05.30.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “Russia is not stopping. This is the only conclusion to draw from news that hackers linked to the country's main intelligence service compromised an email system used by the U.S. Agency for International Development within the State Department. The attack targeted the computer networks of human rights groups and other organizations critical of President Vladimir Putin - and it continues even now.”
- “One lesson from this mess should have been learned already, which is that sensitive digital supply chains must be shored up. The White House issued an executive order earlier this month to build baseline standards with which all commercial suppliers to the federal government must comply. That should provide some more protection, but efforts to hunt for threats and defeat what's found must also improve.”
- “Another lesson, however, remains: Mr. Putin will not respond to the traditional playbook of sanctions and expulsions by backing down, but rather by stepping up to the boundaries of Internet-age espionage and pushing them. Mr. Biden must make very clear what the United States is and is not willing to tolerate. He must also have a plan for how to respond when an adversary refuses to listen.”
“Russia’s Surveillance State Struggles to Wean Itself Off the West,” Amy Mackinnon, Foreign Policy, 05.24.21. The author, a national security and intelligence reporter at the publication, writes:
- “As advanced surveillance technology increasingly becomes part of the toolkit for authoritarian governments, they are often quietly reliant on components made by Western technology companies. Although Moscow’s facial recognition cameras are not subject to export controls or sanctions, their use underscores the ethical and logistical challenges for companies and governments seeking to prevent Western technology from enabling human rights abuses as policy struggles to keep pace with technological development.”
- “‘On the one hand, Western politicians talk about human rights abuses in Russia and China, but Western companies are involved in building these systems, particularly in Russia,’ said Leonid Kovachich, a Moscow-based China watcher and technology specialist.”
- “While Russia has increasingly sought to wean itself off Western technology, particularly when it comes to sensitive systems involved in national security, domestic companies aren’t yet able to fully substitute for their European and American counterparts. This is particularly true when it comes to the tools required to store and process the colossal quantities of data gathered by Moscow’s expanding dragnet of facial recognition cameras.”
- “It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which Western products have been used and in what quantities. Two procurement contracts published in late 2019 for computing equipment to support Moscow’s video analytics system list multiple products from the California-based companies Intel and Nvidia in the technical requirements that accompany the contracts. Russian media reported that these contracts were to support the city’s network of facial recognition cameras.”
- “The facial recognition cameras could help preemptively suppress protests without the need for heavy-handed riot police and embarrassing images of brutality. Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the way the cameras were used to target people days after demonstrations in support of Navalny was intended to send a signal to anyone considering attending a protest in the future.
Energy exports from CIS:
“Angela Merkel has dealt Europe’s authoritarian leaders a trump card,” Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 05.27.21. The author, associate editor of the newspaper and director of its editorial board, writes:
- “With Russia, the test for Merkel is the pipeline under the Baltic to bring Russian gas to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is nearing completion. It promises at once to undercut the EU’s joint energy policy, to offer strategic economic security to the Kremlin and to weaken Ukraine. Scrapping the project would show serious intent on the part of the west to uphold a law-based order. It would also impose significant cost on German businesses.”
- “By ignoring the entreaties of the US and many European governments to call a halt, Merkel is setting a clear limit on Europe’s response to Kremlin lawlessness. Putin can do as he pleases in the knowledge the EU’s reaction will be constrained by Berlin. Sanctions may sting, but they will not wound. Merkel cannot complain if others see her as the autocrats’ ally.”
U.S.-Russian economic and financial ties:
“How Disastrous Would Disconnection From SWIFT Be for Russia?” Maria Shagina, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.28.21. The author, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Zurich, writes:
- “The April 29 resolution passed by the European Parliament on excluding Russia from the SWIFT international payment system should its troops invade Ukraine may be legally nonbinding, but it did not go unnoticed by the Kremlin. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a potential cutoff was a serious threat, and that its implementation could not be ruled out.”
- “Russia’s high level of interconnectedness with the West has worked as a shield. The United States and Germany would stand to lose the most if Russia were disconnected, because U.S. and German banks are the most frequent SWIFT users to communicate with Russian banks. Still, Moscow has taken steps to secure its domestic financial system…since 2014.”
- “If Russian banks are disconnected from the Visa and MasterCard payment systems, all domestic transactions could be done through the National Payment Card System.”
- “In the medium term, SWIFT could be replaced for domestic purposes with the Russian equivalent System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), which was set up by the central bank in 2014 and which aims to replicate the functions of the Brussels-based interbank transfer system.”
- “Due to the constraints of the Russian SPFS, the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) has often been suggested as a more realistic alternative for Russian banks in the event of disconnection.”
- “Another option advocated for by Oleg Deripaska—one of the Russian businessmen hit by U.S. sanctions—is for the Russian government to speed up the introduction of the digital ruble to ensure cross-border transactions.”
- “Finally, Russia’s drive to reduce reliance on U.S.-centered payment systems could profit from Europe’s latest efforts to push back against U.S. dominance on the financial markets. Dissatisfied with Washington’s reimposition of sanctions on Iran, the EU launched the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) as an alternative to SWIFT. INSTEX is currently confined to humanitarian trade, which is permissible under U.S. sanctions.”
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- No significant developments.
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“In Declaring Navalny Extremist, Russia Has Crossed a New Rubicon,” Andrey Pertsev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.25.21. The author, a journalist with the Meduza website, writes:
- “The Russian state is apparently determined to outlaw all organizations linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny as ‘extremist.’”
- “Having declared Navalny’s organizations extremist, the Russian state has elected to fight them using the simplest method: brute force.”
- “The real opposition in Russia was pushed outside of the system long ago, but previously that just meant that certain figures and organizations didn’t have access to appear on federal TV channels, for example, or to take part in most electoral campaigns. The line between the “in-system” and “non-system” opposition was monitored by the presidential administration, which thought up barriers, stopped in-system and non-system politicians from getting too friendly, and led the fight against the opposition in the information arena. The presidential administration has conceded key ground to the siloviki for several reasons.”
- “Support for the ruling regime is becoming the only legal political action. Even pro-Putin figures who are not considered sufficiently manageable are experiencing pressure from above, and the in-system parties are turning irrevocably into bureaucratic branches of the Kremlin’s political bloc. More importantly still, declaring the opposition enemies of the state and illegal entities precludes any chance of dialogue: there might be a place at the table for a non-system opposition activist, but not for an extremist. The Russian power system is becoming incontrovertibly monolithic, and any voices not entirely in tune with the chorus are automatically declared to be enemy.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant developments.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant developments.
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Influential or Irrelevant? The Role of Foreign Policy Think Tanks in Russia” by Alexander Graef in “Russia’s Foreign Policy: The Internal-International Link,” Institute for International Political Studies, May 2021. The author, a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, writes:
- “Russian foreign policy think tanks, with the exception of the CSR under Kudrin, who also used to work with Putin in the St. Petersburg City Administration, lack personal relations to this inner circle, but they still provide important platforms for intellectual exchange and also assume functions that otherwise would be left to political parties. Thus, expert debates sometimes set the limits of what is politically possible and serve the Kremlin as an information channel for the semi-publicly testing of policy proposals.”
- “As the conflict with the West has intensified in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, it is primarily the demand for public legitimation of state policy rather than expert analysis which has increased.”
“Conclusions” by Aldo Ferrari and Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti in “Russia’s Foreign Policy: The Internal-International Link,” Institute for International Political Studies, May 2021. The authors, a lecturer of Eurasian history at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and a research fellow at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Center at ISPI, write:
- “[T]he consolidation of Putin’s autocratic tendencies and his apparent stability despite the many challenges posed by international sanctions, economic stagnation and the COVID-19 pandemic, have contributed – at least in the Western literature – to an excessive “Putin-centrism” and the relative neglect of other agents of domestic politics when explaining Russia’s foreign policy.”
- “We asked ourselves the question: Who decides what in Moscow? The answer, unsurprisingly, is not always “Vladimir Putin.” Our primary goal was to show the complexity of Russia’s decision-making process beneath the surface of a monolithic, increasingly authoritarian and personalistic government.”
- “We acknowledge the weakened position of Russian liberals, who often face a difficult choice: either to compromise and integrate with the system of power or to disappear from the political scene. On the other hand, it is the religious lobby from the Russian Orthodox Church and, particularly, Putin’s circle of oligarchs who keep the upper hand and can advance their particular economic and political interests through Russia’s aussenpolitik.”
- “We also noticed a certain lack of ideological considerations in determining these actors’ choices. Profit and individual influence seem to be their major driver, as the case of leading non-Kremlin Russian players in Sub-Saharan Africa shows.”
- “This volume clearly highlights the need to avoid simplistic visions of Russian politics; on the contrary, it invites us to deal with its complexity. As a matter of fact, a country can be authoritarian and complex at the same time. This rule of thumb also applies to Russia and its foreign policy, whose outcomes often stem from heterogeneous conflicting forces and interests rather than the exclusive expression of the will of an autocrat and his narrow circle.”
“Donbas Escalation Has Given Zelensky a Boost—But for How Long?” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.26.21. The author, an independent journalist based in Moscow, writes
- “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sees his growing popularity as proof that he chose the right course when he gave up trying to please all the disparate groups that voted for him in 2019. He is likely to continue his anti-Russian rhetoric and sanctions against domestic enemies.”
- “This spring’s escalation in the Donbas has helped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky escape the political doldrums. He started the year with plummeting ratings, disarray in the ruling party, and growing pressure from the opposition. Against this backdrop, his sanctions campaign against “enemies of the state” has proven politically expedient.”
- “Decisions that initially appeared rash have gained domestic political value and inspired trust among many in Ukraine, while broad support from Western leaders has also bolstered Zelensky’s position. Yet his reliance on extraordinary measures may solve some problems while creating others. Zelensky’s team is still failing to offer a long-term strategy and strengthen institutions, and instead seeks miraculous improvisations to revive the president’s popularity.”
- “Zelensky’s penchant for extraordinary measures may help resolve some tactical problems, but is unlikely to end well. The presidential team is still not working on developing state institutions or conducting judicial reform. Focused on improving his ratings, Zelensky is constantly seeking miraculous improvisations that might bring together different parts of the country or mobilize it to stand up to an external enemy.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
How to Avoid a Conflict in Belarus,” Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 05.25.21. The author, a senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, writes
- “Above all, the West must avoid repeating the outcome of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine: civil war, Russian intervention, steep and prolonged economic decline, a bitterly divided society, and a country stuck in permanent suspension and semi-paralysis between Russia and the West. So, if the proposed summit between Presidents Biden and Putin goes ahead next month, establishing mutual ground rules for managing the Belarusian crisis should be high on the agenda.”
- “A glance at the map and the slightest knowledge of history should make the reasons for Russia’s stance obvious. The Belarusian border is only 300 miles from Moscow, and Belarus has been the principal route for Western invasions of Russia since the 16th century. It would be as if Canada were to threaten to join an anti-American military alliance.”
- “The Russian government has made clear this is an absolute red line, with the clear implication that, in the last resort, Russia is willing to resort to armed force to prevent Belarus following Ukraine into military, economic and geopolitical dependence on the West.”
- “The final factor that should incline Washington toward caution ought to be awareness of the economic consequences of a rapid and radical economic break with Russia, of the kind that has occurred in Ukraine. Russia is the market for 42 percent of Belarusian exports and the source of 48.4 percent of its foreign investment.”
“EU Needs to Formulate Clear Belarus Policy in Wake of Plane Arrest,” Michael Kimmage, The Moscow Times, 05.25.21. The author, a professor of history at Catholic University and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes:
- “The EU should take advantage of this fraught moment to work on several long-term objectives. It should think through the terms of its adversarial relationship with Belarus. More effort should be put into deterring Belarus from damaging EU interests than into engineering political outcomes within Belarus, an uncertain enterprise at best.”
- “This does not mean reticence from the EU about human rights and democracy, but it does mean that support for human rights and democracy resides mostly in the power of the EU’s example — which is considerable within Belarus — and in the practical assistance the EU can give to independent Belarusian thinking, writing and political action within the EU.”
- “Those EU member states that aspire to regime change – tacitly perhaps but regime change nevertheless – should be persuaded that this cannot be EU policy. It carries too many risks, and it is not the majority point of view within the EU. The EU has a talent for consensus. Only with true consensus behind it will the EU’s foreign policy have traction.”
- “The trick of EU policy should be to uphold its interest and its principles, which cannot be done without confrontation, while not punishing and isolating too radically a country that will benefit over time from its proximity to the European Union.”
“Lukashenko’s Air Piracy Must be Punished,” Financial Times Editorial Board, Financial Times, 05.24.21. The publication's editorial board writes:
- “Stopping flights through Belarusian airspace and banning national flag carrier Belavia from serving European destinations—a decision for national capitals—would be a suitable response to Lukashenko’s flagrant breach of aviation law.”
- “Sanctions against Belarusian oligarchs who are helping to prop up Lukashenko’s regime would send a more powerful message of disapproval.”
- “In the past, the argument against sectoral sanctions was that it would drive Belarus further away from the west and into Russia’s orbit. That argument no longer applies. Lukashenko survives at Putin’s whim. He is now entirely dependent on the Kremlin. That makes it unlikely Moscow had no knowledge of Lukashenko’s hijacking plot; suspiciously, several Russian nationals left the Ryanair flight in Minsk. If Russian involvement is demonstrated, retaliation will be needed against Moscow as well. Lukashenko’s rogue regime belongs to Putin too.”
“Why Lukashenko Is Winning In Belarus,” Melinda Haring, The National Interest, 05.24.21. The author, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, writes:
- “It’s almost game over for the opposition in Belarus. On May 23, a fake bomb threat and a Belarusian MiG-29 jet forced Ryan Air to land a commercial jet in Minsk, Belarus. The plane was carrying Raman Pratasevich, an administrator of the NEXTA-Live Telegram channel. In a country without independent media, NEXTA-Live functions as the nerve center of the democratic movement in Belarus that reaches millions daily. Without it, the street protest movement that has roiled the streets and unnerved Alexander Lukashenko, who stole the August 2020 presidential election, cannot function.”
- “The international kidnapping comes on top of another crackdown. Last week, authorities blocked access to the most popular news site in the country, Tut.by, and activist Vitold Ashurak died in prison.”
- “So far, the West has done little other than to bluster impotently. Policymakers will suggest the inutile instruments they always turn employ: sanctions. Further sanctions aren’t likely to alter Lukashenko’s behavior. The measures that Europeans are proposing, including a ban on flights from Belavia, the country’s national carrier, will simply serve to further isolate Belarus, which received a $1 billion loan from Russia in December. Incremental policies may provide a moral salve, but they will not lead to fundamental change. Quite the contrary.”
“A State-Sponsored Skyjacking Can’t Go Unanswered,” The New York Times Editorial Board, NYT, 05.25.21. The editorial board writes:
- “Forcing down a jetliner may not be in the same category as extraterritorial assassination. But in asserting that overflights are fair game for his war on dissidents, Mr. Lukashenko has effectively extended his repressive ways into the realm of aviation hijacking. As Ireland's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, declared, this was an attack on ‘an Irish airline, a plane that's registered in Poland, full of E.U. nationals, traveling between two E.U. capitals.’”
- “Mr. Lukashenko has gone too far, and the response should be swift. But the episode also underscores a troubling reality: Autocrats looking to extend their repressive ways across international borders are increasingly emboldened to do so. Deterrence, in far too many instances, has failed.
“Criticizing and sanctioning Lukashenko is no substitute for an actual strategy on Belarus,” John R. Bolton, The Washington Post, 05.31.21. The author, former national security adviser under President Donald Trump, writes:
- “What is the future for Belarus as a whole? Will it be encouraged to follow the path of former Warsaw Pact states and at least some former Soviet republics into the West? Or will it be allowed to suffer full annexation into Russia?”
- “Simply looking at the borders Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine share with Belarus, Western Europeans would see that Minsk's future is intimately tied to their own.”
- “Supporting Belarus's political opposition is thus not simply about deploring the thwarting of human rights through corrupted elections or the kidnapping of dissidents, unpalatable as those transgressions are. The potential freedom of all 9.5 million Belarusian citizens is at stake, since integrating Belarus into Russia would all but extinguish the chance for real liberty.”
- “One approach, undoubtedly distasteful to the high-minded, would be to develop a way out for Lukashenko. Secure exile for himself and a select few followers in some well-appointed venue might be attractive to him at the right moment.”
- “We cannot underestimate how difficult are the prospects facing Belarus. It is certain, however, that sanctions and one-off expressions of displeasure with Lukashenko will not change his behavior or regime. Merely driving him deeper into Putin's embrace risks losing all of Belarus, essentially forever. Time was growing short after last summer's rigged elections. It is even shorter today.”