Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 12-18, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Brian Clark, a foreign policy analyst, argues that a Russian-Chinese alliance would arguably be the most dangerous concentration of power imaginable. Preventing such an alliance should therefore be a priority for the U.S., Clark argues, and considering the current power distribution, it would be wiser for America to address Russian interests than those of the Chinese.
  • Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon believes Trump has been right about one thing in relation to Ukraine: attempting to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit through NATO membership has been counterproductive. The U.S. certainly needs to rethink its policy on the issue, which has gotten stuck, he writes.
  • Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and former U.S. Army officer Kyle Ropp disagree on whether the U.S. should provide military aid to Ukraine. According to Ignatius, people in Ukraine who depended on U.S. military aid were being killed and wounded while Trump withheld this aid. Ropp, however, argues that the combat value of the U.S. military aid to Ukraine appears to be largely symbolic. This aid should cease and instead the U.S. policy in Ukraine should focus on facilitating the negotiation process, according to Ropp.
  • Political analyst Vladimir Frolov argues that Russia could in theory benefit from playing along with Macron, who apparently told a close circle of associates two weeks ago that “NATO will cease to exist in five years.” However, that is unlikely because the Kremlin views the French leader as a political lightweight who cannot back up his eloquent words with actions and because Moscow believes Russia would gain more from a weaker EU.

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:

“How to Force Tehran Back to the Table,” Michael Singh, Foreign Affairs, 11.15.19The author, managing director and Lane-Swig Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes:

  • “In the wake of Iran’s latest nuclear announcement, the United States should attempt to form a common diplomatic front with its European partners and rally additional support from partners in Asia and elsewhere. Together, they should offer Iran new nuclear and missile talks, beginning not with a summit but with discussions among lower-level envoys.”
  • “They should offer to temporarily freeze some sanctions if Iran constructively engages and halts its nuclear escalation, and threaten to ratchet them up if Tehran refuses. Such an approach would offer the clearest path to the new agreement the Trump administration desires. It would also begin to heal a rift between the United States and its allies that Iran has exploited and that has distracted from greater strategic priorities such as Russia and China.”
  • “To actually produce a nuclear weapon, Iran would need to do so clandestinely, which would require using more advanced centrifuges, barring inspections at the sites involved, advancing its missile technology and keeping its weaponization activities off-limits entirely. … Any new deal should be designed to detect and prevent a clandestine program.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

“Macron is 'Ours' — but Does Russia Need Him? Russian observers are struck by how closely Macron’s views on European security and world order coincide with those of Putin,” Vladimir Frolov, The Moscow Times, 11.14.19The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:

  • “Last week, Macron gave an interview … that had experts all aflutter over his remark that ‘what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.’ … According to famed French political scientist Bruno Tetre, this marks an escalation in the rhetoric of the French leader, who told a close circle of associates two weeks ago that ‘NATO will cease to exist in five years.’”
  • “Russian observers are struck by how closely Macron’s views on European security and world order coincide with those that Putin has espoused ever since his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007.”
  • “Russia would in theory benefit from playing along with Macron and working with him to squeeze the U.S. out of Europe, strengthening Europe as a center of power independent of the U.S., and strengthening Europe’s military and technological sovereignty from the United States and China. Three things stand in the way, however.”
  • “First, the Kremlin is skeptical of Macron himself, whom it views as a political lightweight who cannot back up his eloquent words with actions. Secondly Russia believes it would gain less from a stronger EU that Macron seeks and more from the EU’s further weakening or even disintegration … And third, there is a new consideration: China. Macron and others would present any rapprochement between Russia and Europe as Moscow’s ‘cunning ruse’ to withdraw from its alliance with Beijing. That could put Russia in an uncomfortable position with its strategic neighbor.”
  • “Of course, Macron is ‘ours,’ but is that enough for Russia’s policies to triumph in Europe?”

“NATO at 70: Positioning Itself in an Illiberal World,” Henrik B. L. Larsen, European Leadership Network, 11.18.19The author, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the ETH Zürich, writes:

  • “The Summit in London in December is a timely opportunity for NATO to position itself as a regional alliance of democracies in a mostly illiberal environment. Allies need to come to agreement on how to contain Russian subversion campaigns, how to transform the neighboring countries aspiring to join NATO and how to contain the instability from NATO’s southern periphery. These are the three most important challenges that NATO faces at 70 and the basis on which leaders should discuss the alliance’s future.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“SALT I, Fifty Years On,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 11.18.19The author, the co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “This is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the SALT I negotiations. These talks produced an Interim Agreement that was riddled with loopholes and that failed to prevent MIRVs. These talks also produced the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty that mandated the obvious—national vulnerability to sophisticated ballistic missile attacks.”
  • “Despite the serious deficiencies of the Interim Agreement, it was still an historic accomplishment. For the first time ever during the Nuclear Age, Washington and Moscow began to codify and set limits on their nuclear competition. They began to discuss what were state secrets in the Soviet Union.”
  • “Only one treaty—New START—remains in place, reflecting decades of hard labor to control, reduce and monitor strategic offensive forces. Its fate now lies in the hands of Donald Trump.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“On the Syria Debate, Reductio Ad Trumpium Gets Us Nowhere,” Jeremy Shapiro and Aaron Stein, War on the Rocks, 11.18.19: The authors, the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, write:

  • “Once you clear aside all of that brush, it becomes clear that, regardless of whether Trump agrees, the U.S. position in Syria made little sense. It took a lot of mistakes from two administrations to arrive at such an untenable place. Recovering from those mistakes will not be pretty, particularly if American policy is guided by an incompetent president. But doubling down on them and remaining in Syria would be worse.”
  • “The essence of the problem is that the United States had, from the beginning, few interests at stake, little commitment to the mission in Syria, and deep domestic divides about whether it was a good idea at all, as both Obama[’s] and Trump’s persistent skepticism implied.”
  • “[The] low-cost, low-risk approach has gotten the United States the worst of both worlds. It is involved enough to inspire its adversaries and rivals to escalate their efforts but not so involved as to be able to do anything about it. So, the United States had enough forces in Syria to convince Russia that it intended to pursue regime change against Assad and defeat the Islamic State at the same time, but not enough to deter Russian escalation.”
  • “The United States, despite its many remaining advantages, is not so powerful that it can win such wars without even really trying. And it remains unable to properly try. It is simply too politically costly to deploy an adequate number of troops to do everything the U.S. government wants to do in Syria, ranging from holding territory taken from Islamic State to countering Iran, all while defending against encroachment from Russia and the Syrian state.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Here's how Russia will attack the 2020 election. We're still not ready,” Renee DiResta, Michael McFaul and Alex Stamos, The Washington Post, 11.15.19The authors, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, write:

  • “During the 2016 election campaign, Russian intelligence used the … technique, known as ‘narrative laundering,’ to inject its preferred stories into mainstream American media. In the 2016 disinformation operation, Russian intelligence officers and their proxies supercharged their misleading stories with real documents: emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.”
  • “Our research, published in a report appearing this week, describes and analyzes the Russian narrative laundering playbook. It is quite possible that these exact techniques will be used again. And why shouldn't they? We've done almost nothing to counter the threat.”
  • “Most of the attention in the battle against foreign disinformation has focused on bots, trolls and other digital actors on social media, but it must also include traditional media organizations. Editors and reporters should consider how they will react to these situations now, rather than improvising reactions to the wave of disinformation we know is on the way. Newsrooms should carefully consider how the volume of their coverage might be manipulated by strategic leaks. Most importantly, they need to break the cycle of amplifying disinformation by ‘covering the controversy.’”
  • “Many Americans are counting on journalism to help lead our country out of an age of democratic erosion and fake news. Journalists only can succeed in that mission if they avoid becoming unwitting accomplices of disinformation themselves. We hope that our findings will raise awareness of the threat among media professionals and help them to prepare for adversarial action in 2020.”

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:

“We Should Exempt Africa from the UK-Russia Geopolitical Confrontation,” Andrey Kortunov, Royal United Services Institute, 11.15.19The author, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes:

  • “Today both Russia and the U.K. have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa compared to some other parts of the world, such as Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as ‘toxic’ for Russia-U.K. relations as some other regions do.”
  • “Many current trends suggest Africa’s place in the international system will continue to grow over time … If today, everybody’s attention seems to focus on the Middle East, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. The stakes for both Russia and the U.K. in Africa may grow, and the price of an uncontrolled confrontation would increase. Moscow and London must start working on how to contain risks and cut the costs of this confrontation.”
  • “In the security domain, we can talk about fighting international terrorism and political extremism, handling failed states and separatism, restricting arms transfers to conflict areas, managing forced migration and refugee flows. … In the development field, the continent confronts epic challenges of urban infrastructure and transportation development, waste management, agriculture modernization and so on.”
  • “Africa is one of the most obvious cases in which an exemption to this geopolitical (U.K.-RF) contest would not be viewed as a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and strategic foresight.”

“The Future of Iraq’s Oil Is Russian. With ongoing protests making other investors nervous, Moscow is charging ahead,” Vera Mironova and Mohammed Hussein, Foreign Policy, 11.15.19The authors, a visiting fellow at Harvard University and the policy director at the Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis and Research, write:

  • “Despite ongoing protests in Baghdad, which have seen the departure of many foreign diplomats for security concerns, Russia has doubled down. Not only has its embassy stayed open in the recent weeks of turmoil, but its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also paid a visit last month, first touring Baghdad and then Erbil. His tour did not look like a regular diplomatic mission. … In fact, the majority of the participants were businesspeople, including representatives of such Russian oil and gas companies as Gazprom Neft, Rosneft, Soyuzneftegaz and Lukoil.”
  • “It should come as no surprise that, after investing more than $10 billion into Iraq’s energy sector over the past nine years, Russia’s interest in the country mostly centers on commercial concerns.”
  • “Russia is not only interested in the oil fields themselves. Rosneft owns 60 percent of the Kurdistan Oil Pipeline, which is Iraq’s main operational export line.”
  • “Russian influence over the oil in Iraq and Syria is not only a long-term economic blow to the United States, but a political one, too. Oil is the main currency in those two countries, so whoever controls it also has a major say in the region’s geopolitics.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Blame American Ineptitude for Russian-Chinese Bonding. Thanks to our self-defeating foreign policy, these two mismatched powers are now strengthening relations on a global scale,” Brian Clark, American Conservative, 11.16.19The author, a foreign policy analyst, writes:

  • “While Xi Jinping was correct to claim that relations between Russia and China ‘were at their best ever,’ it is also true that the current Sino-Russian partnership is shallow. For most of their history, Russia and China have been geopolitical rivals. … Yet in the era of American hegemony, Russia and China have largely overcome their complicated history as well as structural pressures to compete in order to balance against American power.
  • Despite one being a rising power and the other a declining, China and Russia share remarkably similar outlooks regarding security. When either country looks beyond its borders, it sees a series of hazards that largely emanate from American foreign policy.”
  • “It is China’s dream to become the hegemon of Eurasia. What motivates it is a combination of security and status, but the fundamental reason Beijing is pursuing a new empire is because it can. … It is inevitable that China’s expansion will conflict with Russian interests. Regardless of who is in power, the central goal of the Russian security strategy has been to control the near abroad.”
  • There is no reason to think that Russia would be any more comfortable with Chinese influence in its neighborhood than it is with American influence. … This is bad news for the long-term prospects of Russian-Chinese cooperation, but is welcome news for the U.S., as it is in America’s interest to ensure that a great power does not accumulate in any part of the world. And a Russian-Chinese alliance would arguably be the most dangerous concentration of power imaginable.”  
  • “Preventing such an alliance should therefore be a priority, and considering the current power distribution, it would be wiser for America to address Russian interests than those of the Chinese. The most obvious place to start would be in Eastern Europe … Once Russia has been relieved of American pressure in Eastern Europe, it would have no choice but to divert its attention to the rising hegemon to its rear.”


“President Trump's instincts on Ukraine have been bad, but he's right about one thing U.S. policy for years has been to add key adversaries of Russia to NATO and the Western political stage. But is that wise?” Michael O'Hanlon, USA Today, 11.14.19The author, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “[T]here is one element of Trump's thinking that should not be associated with the falsehoods he perpetrates, because it usefully challenges what has become a stalemated American policy toward Ukraine. According to Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, President Trump realizes that attempting to seek to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit through NATO membership has been counterproductive. Indeed, that American policy … has managed to help inflame U.S.-Russia and Ukraine-Russia ties without making life better for the people of Ukraine.”
  • “At a moral level, the poor state of relations is the fault of Putin. His petulance and brutality have led to more than 13,000 Ukrainian deaths since 2014 in the civil war in the country's eastern Donbas region … But at a practical level, we share part of the blame—and we certainly need to rethink a policy that has gotten stuck.”
  • “It is something else altogether to bring into NATO a former core part of the Soviet Union whose history is so closely intertwined with Russia's own. What's worse, NATO promised eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia with no timetable or action plan for how that might happen and no interim security guarantee. Completing the package of perverse incentives, NATO has also maintained its longstanding policy that, to be eligible for alliance membership, a country must have resolved territorial disputes with neighbors—no matter whose fault those disputes might be.”
  • “Taken together, this set of pronouncements has provided Russia a clear incentive to continue to stoke unrest and conflict within both Ukraine and Georgia—not to mention to seize chunks of each country, as has happened in 2008 in Georgia and since 2014 in Ukraine.”

“People died while Trump played games with Ukraine's military aid,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 11.12.19The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes:

  • “As the House opens public impeachment hearings into the Ukraine scandal, the bottom-line question is dead simple: Did President Trump, for political reasons, manipulate military aid to an ally in a war that has cost 13,000 lives?”
  • “When you think about the Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines of this nasty proxy battle against Russia, the debate becomes more visceral and perhaps less confusing. As Ukrainians were struggling with near-daily shellfire, Trump appeared to treat military aid appropriated by Congress as a personal political tool.”
  • “What's outrageous about the Ukraine story isn't that it's a unique example of Trump's fecklessness in foreign policy, but that it's so typical. In dealing with Ukraine, Trump has behaved the same erratic, unreliable way he has with the Syrian Kurds, and the South Koreans, and America's NATO partners in Europe. Trump's Ukraine machinations have yielded something like what we've seen in these other theaters: the diminution of U.S. power and a corresponding increase in Russia's military and diplomatic leverage.”
  • “As you watch the impeachment hearings, remember this basic fact: While Trump was playing politics on Ukraine, people who depended on U.S. military aid were getting killed and wounded.”

“Dressed to Kill: Arming Ukraine Could Put It on a Path Towards War,” Kyle Ropp, The National Interest, 11.14.19The author, a former U.S. Army officer, writes:

  • “The lethal aid policy’s greatest flaw is that it completely fails to address these resentments [in Donbas], and in doing so, artificially simplifies the conflict to a proxy war with Russia. In 2017, the United States began supplying Javelin missile launchers and sniper systems to Ukraine. This equipment, in addition to nonlethal aid (since 2014), is intended to help fight off Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region.”
  • “Yet the aid policy has a number of fundamental shortcomings: its effectiveness at the tactical level is limited; it will likely encourage, not deter, Russia’s engagement in the conflict; and it fails to address the root causes of the Donetsk and Luhansk (collectively—Donbas) rebellions. … The aid’s value appears to be largely symbolic. Javelin missile launchers are primarily useful against tanks, which have been deployed only sparingly by the Russian military, and the sniper systems. Reportedly, Barrett .50 BMG rifles, are flashy but too large to be relied upon in maneuver warfare, which is what will be needed to recapture separatist territory.”
  • “Weapons aid should cease. Instead, the U.S. policy in Ukraine should focus on facilitating the negotiation process.”

“Congress, Nord Stream II and Ukraine,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 11.12.19The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Congress has long weighed sanctions as a tool to block the Nord Stream II gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Unfortunately, it has mulled the question too long, and time has run out. With some 85% of the pipeline already laid, new congressional sanctions aimed at companies participating in the pipeline’s construction will not stop it. Instead, they will become a new bone of contention between the United States and Europe.”
  • “Congress could [still] help protect gas transit through Ukraine. It could amend the legislation, perhaps by adding provisions to provide for waiving the Nord Stream II-related sanctions if a long-term gas transit contract were agreed on between Kyiv and Moscow, a contract that entailed a significant flow of gas through Ukraine. That would give EU negotiators and Merkel an additional incentive to broker an agreement sustaining significant gas transit revenues for Kyiv.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Why Russia Is Struggling to Build Putin’s Grand Dream. It has the money, but bureaucrats are too scared to spend it on the 12 ‘national projects,’” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 11.14.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called national projects … appear to be stuck. … The projects envisage a total outlay of 25.7 trillion rubles ($400 billion) until 2024. They aim to boost Russian quality of life in the broadest sense, from providing better health care and schooling to making Soviet-built cities more livable.”
  • “But the program, first announced last year, has gotten off to a slow start.  Earlier this month, the Accounting Chamber, Russia’s budget watchdog, published a report on the state of federal spending in the first nine months of 2019. According to the document, while total budget spending reached 62.9 percent of annual allocations (the lowest at this time of year since at least 2010), spending on the 12 national projects, plus a related plan to modernize Russia’s ‘backbone infrastructure’ such as ports and railroads, only reached 52.1 percent of what’s been earmarked for the year.”
  • “Russia regularly fails to spend its entire budget in a given year. At the end of 2018, 778 billion rubles ($12.1 billion) was left over. … Why aren’t we spending 1 trillion rubles, or 1 percent of GDP? Of course one can’t say we have too much money and that’s why we can’t spend it. I think it’s because of low-quality government.”
  • “The creeping nationalization of Russia under Putin, and the accompanying empowerment of enforcement agencies, has created a dilemma. There’s not enough private initiative and private investment to boost growth beyond 1 percent to 2 percent a year, but not even Putin believes in the efficiency of government spending because of endemic corruption. As a result, government money still goes to players with good enough connections to avoid prosecution, but it’s being withheld elsewhere. Russia’s unique mixture of a grasping state, a graft culture and excessive centralized control continues to keep it from realizing its economic potential.”

“Investment in Russia Remains a Lottery, Despite Government Promises,” Alexandra Prokopenko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.14.19The author, an independent journalist, writes:

  • “Conditions for investment in Russia are good right now, the government insists: inflation is at historic lows, there is a budget surplus, the ruble is stable, and the country’s position in the international Doing Business rating is improving.”
  • “Organizations have amassed more than 20 trillion rubles ($311 billion) on their books, according to estimates by the Accounts Chamber and the State Statistics Service. Growth in profits should mean companies are more willing to invest, but in recent years, the proportion of profit used for capital investment has declined. In the first half of this year, investment in capital assets grew by just 0.6 percent. Most major businesses preferred to pay interim dividends than to invest in projects.”
  • “Investors are worried about whether the siloviki will make trouble for them, whether tax rates will change and when the rules and conditions will finally stop changing. So long as these questions remain unanswered, investment in Russian projects remains a lottery with dubious prospects of winning for those who do not enjoy a special relationship with the state.”

“Putin Underestimates Russia's Youth,” Lincoln Pigman, The Moscow Times, 11.14.19The author, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Center in London, writes:

  • “Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin quietly issued a decree on the subject of youth and the internet. It requires the government to study the online behavior of Russia’s youth, who rely on the internet for news and use it much more than any other age cohort in Russia. Additionally, it calls for the creation of a body that will produce online content ‘aimed at the spiritual-moral education of youth.’”
  • “The problem with Putin’s stated interest in clarifying the internet’s appeal and function for Russia’s youth is that the Kremlin’s views on that age cohort, on digital media and on that age cohort’s use of digital media, are more or less fixed. Putin’s certainly are.”
  • “For a boogeyman of the Kremlin, Russia’s youth is utterly lacking in agency and merely the hapless victim and unwitting agent of ‘an evil force from abroad or the influence of an alien culture,’ a narrative adding insult to injury and highlighting a depth of ignorance that no Kremlin-commissioned research … can correct. The reality is that, in the words of Novaya Gazeta columnist Kirill Martynov, ‘the authorities do not know and do not understand young people … and through their ignorance are turning Russia’s future against itself.’”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.