Russia Analytical Report, Oct. 1-9, 2018
This Week’s Highlights:
- Aggressive Soviet behavior during 1973’s Yom Kippur War may not have been all it seemed. New documents show that Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev had developed an addiction to sleeping pills that, combined with alcohol, was undermining his ability to think straight at the time of the conflict, writes international relations professor Sergei Radchenko. Careful management by then-head of the KGB Yuri Andropov and possibly other senior leaders evidently quietly kept Brezhnev from sleepwalking into a world war, Radchenko writes.
- Newly declassified memos of conversations between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin show that the White House believed that only Yeltsin’s continued leadership could guarantee Russian cooperation on U.S. priorities, write researchers Svetlana Savranskaya and Mary Sarotte. This perception of Yeltsin as irreplaceable gradually led to the difficult situation where U.S. backing for the Russian democratic transition consisted largely of promoting its favorite “democrat,” Yeltsin, even as he was quickly becoming an autocrat in reality, they write.
- Allegations of elections interference appear to blend the purported goals of the perpetrators with their alleged actions, Chatham House senior fellow Micah Zenko writes. For example, the 2017 assessment from the U.S. intelligence community warns of Russia’s “desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” as if that, in itself, is a crime.
- Max Seddon and David Bond of the Financial Times write that today’s Russian military intelligence officers are no longer the omnipotent Kremlin spies of legend. “The GRU didn’t really change after the USSR collapsed. They basically missed the whole digital revolution. Lots of people left in the 1990s,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Professionalism in general has become rare in Russia,” writes Leonid Bershidsky in his assessment of the recent GRU operations.
- When Russia’s opposition candidates started winning mayoral elections in 2013 and 2014, the Kremlin dispatched local legislatures to scrap mayoral elections altogether, writes Andrey Pertsev, a journalist with Kommersant. Now, following the victories of non-Kremlin gubernatorial candidates in Russia’s Far East, a similar fate may await gubernatorial elections, Pertsev warns.
- Russia’s crony-capitalist economic model requires an ever-increasing volume of funds to be burned on lavish mega-projects that generate huge profits for a dozen families close to the Kremlin, argues Andrey Movchan of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Now it seems to be pensioners’ turn to make the sacrifices needed to finance the appetites of Russia’s new aristocracy, he writes.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant commentary.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant commentary.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant commentary.
New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:
“Stumbling Toward Armageddon,” Sergei Radchenko, New York Times, 10.09.18: The author, a professor of international relations, writes: “For many years we thought the aggressive Soviet behavior during the [Yom Kippur] [W]ar was a ploy to undercut American influence … [N]ew evidence suggests it was simply a case of bad crisis management. On the morning of Oct. 6, 1973 … Egypt and Syria began a coordinated assault on Israel in a bid to retake the territories lost in the Arab-Israeli War … Late in the evening of Oct. 24, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received an alarming letter from the Soviet general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, addressed to the president. The situation in the Middle East had reached a dangerous point … [I]f the Americans demurred, the Soviets might act unilaterally and send in troops. When Mr. Brezhnev's message arrived, Mr. Nixon was reported to be indisposed … Mr. Kissinger called together a meeting of principals to consider America's response. They moved the nuclear alert level to Defcon 3 … [O]n Oct. 29, the head of the KGB … Yuri Andropov sent his boss a curious letter, warning him that the Americans and Mr. Sadat had conspired to overwork him by constantly keeping him engaged in difficult decision-making. … Mr. Andropov knew what Mr. Kissinger did not: Mr. Brezhnev had developed an addiction to sleeping pills that, combined with alcohol, was undermining his ability to think straight. … Mr. Andropov and possibly other senior leaders evidently played a quiet role in keeping their country's leader from sleepwalking into a world war. … [T]he United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a war. Some of that was thanks to intervention by Mr. Andropov and others, but at least some, undoubtedly, was pure luck for the Soviets. If there is a lesson today's leaders should heed, it is that in the end, luck always runs out.”
“No, the US Didn't Just Threaten a Preventive Nuclear Strike. 5 Things You Need to Know,” James J. Cameron, The Washington Post, 10.04.18: The author, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, writes: “U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, raised eyebrows with comments that suggested the United States is preparing to ‘take out’ Russian missiles deployed in violation of the … [INF] Treaty. No, this wasn't a threat of a preventive strike … Russia has deployed a ground-based cruise missile, the 9M729, designated by NATO as the SSC-8 ‘Screwdriver.’ With an estimated range of more than 1,000 km, the missile violates the [INF Treaty] … Hutchison's comments follow a well-established pattern in U.S. targeting policy. … the United States has consistently sought to improve its ability to limit the damage the country would sustain in the event of a nuclear war by attacking the offensive systems of its nuclear rivals, a doctrine known as counterforce. … But Hutchison's comments depart from the established style of U.S. declaratory policy … While officials have referred to counterforce capabilities in the past, they have generally done so in ways designed to downplay anxieties … The Nuclear Posture Review refers to ‘targeting mobile systems.’ Hutchison threatened to ‘take [them] out.’ While the NPR references unnamed ‘regional adversaries,’ Hutchison not only singled out Russia, but specified a particular Russian missile. … These differences may appear subtle, but the global reaction to Hutchison's statement shows that they matter. … [W]hat officials say about U.S. nuclear policy can be less important than how they say it.”
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
“New START Numbers Show Importance of Extending Treaty,” Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, 10.05.18: The author, director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, writes: “The latest New START treaty aggregate numbers … show a slight increase in U.S. deployed strategic forces and a slight decrease in Russian deployed strategic forces over the past six months. The data shows that the United States and Russia as of September 1, 2018 combined deployed a total of 1,176 strategic launchers with 2,818 attributed warheads. … [T]he two countries also had a total of 399 non-deployed launchers for a total of 1,576 strategic launchers. Combined, the two countries have reduced their deployed strategic forces by 227 launchers and 519 warheads since 2011. The warheads counted by the New START treaty are only a portion of the total warhead numbers possessed by the two countries. The Russian military stockpile includes an estimated 4,350 warheads while the United States has about 3,800. … [T]he United States and Russia are considering whether to extend the New START treaty for another five years beyond 2021 when it expires. … The data reaffirms that Russia, despite its modernization program, is not increasing its strategic nuclear forces … The combined effects of limiting deployed strategic forces and the verification activities requiring professional collaboration between U.S. and Russian officials, mean that the New START treaty has become a beacon of light in the otherwise troubled relations between Russia and the United States.”
“For Treaty Trashers, Nothing Is Better Than Something,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 10.08.18: The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes: “Something certainly is better than nothing when it comes to diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers and reaffirm ties with friends and allies. … But not according to Sen. Tom Cotton and others, who argue that treaties need to be ditched, even when they do not adversely affect U.S. military firepower and even when they are deemed important by friends and allies. … The nothing-is-better-than-something crowd has trained its fire at the Open Skies Treaty … the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty … and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) … In each case, ditching treaties would further shred alliance ties and the nuclear safety net. The ostensible reasoning for walking away, which applies to the Open Skies and INF treaties, but not New START, is that Vladimir Putin has violated some of their provisions. … But is nullification a good strategy to express opposition to Russian misbehavior? … When it comes to the nuclear safety net and alliances, something is definitely better than nothing—until something better can be built. This ought to be a hallmark principle of conservatism and bipartisanship. Those who argue otherwise have stopped making sense.”
“Reports of the Death of Arms Control Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” Alexandra Bell and Andrew Futter, War on the Rocks, 10.04.18: The authors, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and an associate professor of international politics at the University of Leicester, write: “It took decades to put together the nuclear arms control structures of the Cold War, and no matter the focus, we should not assume that the next generation of arms control agreements will be created quickly or easily. But we are not doomed to repeat the expensive and destabilizing arms competition of the Cold War. … The people who say arms control is dead largely fall into two categories: those who have never supported arms control and those who have simply run out of ideas or energy. When it comes to the 21st century’s unique nuclear challenges, the answer is not to abandon arms control, but to allow a new generation of thinkers to have a go.”
- No significant commentary.
Conflict in Syria:
“Does the Russia-Turkey Deal on Idlib Signal a New Era of Relations in the Middle East?” Peter S. Henne, The Washingotn Post, 10.05.18: The author, an assistant professor of political science, writes: “For weeks, the world watched anxiously as Syrian government troops prepared a bloody offensive against the rebel stronghold of Idlib. At the last minute, however, Russia and Turkey—meeting in Iran—announced a deal to create a demilitarized zone in the area and demand that ‘extremist’ rebels leave. … [T]he deal highlights the shifting international relations of the region. … Does this deal between Russia and Turkey represent the new normal for the region: great-power management? The potential spread of great-power management provides opportunities for a specific kind of regional stability. … Sometimes—as with Idlib—states are attempting to craft guidelines to structure regional relations, albeit guidelines that benefit those crafting them. If states view crises as opportunities for great-power management, compromise may be more likely … However, ‘stability’ here refers only to harmony among states. The rules that regional great powers craft as part of their management of the Middle East will not necessarily be in the best interests of the people within those states.”
“Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age: Report of the Cyber-Nuclear Weapons,” Page O. Stoutland and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, NTI, September 2018: The authors, NTI’s vice president for scientific and technical affairs and the senior director of NTI’s global nuclear policy program, write: “Nuclear weapons and related systems are increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated cyberattacks, and nuclear-armed states must cooperate and accelerate efforts to prevent an attack that could have catastrophic consequences. … Cyber threats to nuclear weapons and related systems—including nuclear planning systems, early warning systems, communication systems and delivery systems—increase the risk of unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon, increase the risk of nuclear use as a result of false warnings and could undermine confidence in the nuclear deterrent. This is because the speed, stealth, unpredictability and challenges of attribution of any particular cyberattack make it increasingly difficult to anticipate, deter and defend against all cyber threats.”
“Why Cyber Attack Is the Biggest Risk for Energy Companies: The integrity of computer systems is more of a vulnerability than shortage of supply,” Nick Butler, Financial Times, 10.08.18: The author, a visiting professor and chair of the King’s Policy Institute at King’s College London, writes: “The key issue [in energy security] now is the integrity of the computer systems through which supply, processing and distribution are managed. … [T]he energy business is mainly run by private companies, [and] their systems are prime targets for both criminals and hostile governments. … Energy systems are particularly at risk because of their economic and social importance. … The U.S. has already used cyber force in the dispute with Iran: in 2010 it and Israel deployed the Stuxnet virus to damage Tehran’s nuclear program. Both China and Russia have developed high levels of cyber capability … and allowed or encouraged hackers to operate from their territory. … Energy companies are an obvious target because of the importance of the products and services they provide. The risks are high, but the danger is unlikely to be widely appreciated until a full-scale attack has taken place.”
“What Clausewitz Can Teach Us About War on Social Media: Military Tactics in the Age of Facebook,” P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Foreign Affairs, 10.04.18: The authors, a strategist at New America and a former research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, write: “With the rise of social media over the last decade, the Internet has changed to allow all of us to become individual collectors and sharers of information. As a result, it has also become something else: a battlefield where information itself is weaponized. … Perhaps no country has better mastered this than Russia … In many ways, Russia’s far-reaching campaign to poison its foes’ domestic politics through social media is a form of exported censorship. Russia’s actions … help to flood the digital and political ecosystem with division, dissension and distrust. … As we examined the tactics of everyone from ISIS’ top recruiter to Taylor Swift to U.S. President Donald Trump to neo-Nazi trolls, we found consistent patterns. For all the seeming complexity, there are rules governing whether and how something goes viral. The most successful information warriors are masters of its new rules to driving your message viral: narrative, emotion, authenticity, community, inundation and experimentation. … Everyone is part of this new kind of fighting. If you are online, your attention is like a piece of contested territory. Those who can direct the flow of this swirling tide can accomplish incredible good. … But they can also accomplish astonishing evil. … Which side succeeds will depend above all on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this LikeWar for what it is.”
“The Problem Isn’t Fake News From Russia. It’s Us: Propaganda has long affected elections around the world because publics have an appetite for it,” Micah Zenko, Foreign Policy, 10.03.18: The author, Whitehead Senior Fellow at Chatham House, writes: “The role of disinformation in electoral campaigns … [has] appropriately been a matter of national debate since the 2016 presidential election. … When one dives into these allegations, what stands out is the lack of precision in identifying exactly what activities are troubling and thus should be prohibited. Indeed, there is a blending of adversaries’ purported goals with their alleged actions. For example, the assessment from the U.S. intelligence community warns of Russia’s ‘desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order’ as if that, in itself, is a crime. … The issue that Americans have chosen to ignore over the past 20 months is why the public has so deeply embraced and then spread alleged misinformation from China, Iran or Russia. Politicians and pundits have chosen to blame the United States’ divides on its adversaries … Whether for ideological, tribal, partisan, financial or other reasons, Americans may simply not be interested in truly understanding and critiquing the information that they receive through their phones and computers … Because of that, they will be increasingly the targets of ‘like wars’ by aggressors foreign and domestic.”
“How Russia and China Undermine Democracy: Can the West Counter the Threat?” Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, Foreign Affairs, 10.02.18: The authors, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, write: “Russia and China view efforts to support democracy—especially U.S. efforts—as thinly veiled attempts to expand U.S. influence and undermine their regimes … Because Moscow and Beijing gauge their power in relation to the United States, they view weakening Western democracy as a means of enhancing their own standing. … Efforts to directly confront China and Russia … are unlikely to yield results and may further bolster their collaboration. … In addition to upholding positive models of democratic governance, the United States and its partners should double down on bolstering the democratic resiliency of countries most at risk … The stronger a country’s regulatory environment, civil society, political parties and independent media, the less effective authoritarian powers’ attacks on democratic institutions will be, and the less appeal the authoritarian narrative and model will have. Working with U.S. allies and partners to empower domestic constituencies to stand up against foreign subversion of their own democracies will be the most effective weapon against Chinese and Russian influence.”
“The Origins of Russia’s Broad Political Assault on the United States,” James Lamond, Center for American Progress, 10.03.18: The author, a senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress, writes: “In 2014, Russia launched a distinct and multifaceted campaign to undermine and influence the American democratic process. The goals of this campaign are … To sow political and social discord in the United States; [t]o undermine and challenge the American and Western democratic system … and [t]o foster ties and support among powerful voices within the party that Russian hawks have traditionally dominated, with the aim to soften that party’s stance. This campaign, which is still ongoing, consists of five mutually reinforcing lines of effort … The deployment of information warfare … The use of cyberoperations … The courting of influential voices within the American conservative movement … The support for extreme and destabilizing political movements; and … The direct targeting of voters. … The U.S. government should pursue a two-pronged strategy consisting of an offense that places more pressure on the Kremlin to discontinue its malign behavior and a defense that better protects from asymmetric responses coming out of Moscow.”
“Trump Sees Enemies Everywhere. He Should Look in the Mirror,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 10.03.18: The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes: “He [Trump] turned little problems into big ones; he thought he could misstate, manipulate and escape detection. But, again and again, he failed. Did Russia have a hand in shaping this unlikely story? [In his new book, author Greg] Miller wisely leaves that judgment to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. … When Trump visits The Post in March 2016, he's eager to disclose his hastily assembled team of foreign policy advisers. All were virtually unknown, but two later became very famous indeed: Carter Page … and George Papadopoulos … Miller describes Trump as ‘oddly obsequious in person,’ even when his intelligence chiefs briefed him in January 2017 about Russian election meddling. … The wall of denial is shaken when Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, is shown to have lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. … When Trump fires Comey in May 2017, the White House pretends at first it was all the idea of Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, upsetting Rosenstein in ways that shake the administration to this very day. … Why does Trump behave so often like a trapped prey, whose every move seems to snare him deeper in the web? That's the central puzzle that emerges from Miller's fine narrative.”
Energy exports from CIS:
“In a Prize for Big Oil Firms, Caspian Deal Eases Access,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 10.08.18: The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes: “The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed on Aug. 12, potentially cleared the way for new pipelines … The agreement treats the surface of the Caspian as international water and divides the seabed into territorial zones. Importantly from the point of view of Eurasian energy politics, it allows undersea pipelines. … Russia had for most of the post-Soviet period objected to east-west energy trade through new subsea pipelines … The European Union and the United States, in contrast, support what they call a southern corridor for energy. This strategy seeks to keep open a window in the south Caucasus region, between Russia and Iran, for energy exports. … The treaty allows Western energy companies, in theory, to push the southern gas corridor farther east, across the sea to tap Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves and alleviate dependence on Russian gas. Analysts see most of the benefit for oil companies in areas that might be freed from Iranian claims under the treaty, and where the United States Geological Survey estimates most of the undiscovered oil and natural gas lies. … Oil and natural gas production from the Caspian is estimated at two million barrels of oil equivalent per day, depending on how the region is defined. The Caspian’s output, for example, is about equal to what disappeared from global markets during the Libyan civil war.”
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“The Clinton-Yeltsin Relationship in Their Own Words,” Svetlana Savranskaya and Mary Sarotte, National Security Archive, 10.02.18: The authors, a research fellow at The George Washington University’s National Security Archive and the Kravis Chair in Historical Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Study, write: “In July 2018 … the Clinton Presidential Library released almost all memoranda of Clinton-Yeltsin conversations in response to requests by historian Mary Sarotte in 2015. … [These documents] shed new light on the most important issues in U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s. They show Clinton as an empathetic and committed champion of the new Russia, willing to use his political capital to help his friend Boris in tough times … However, the documents show that Clinton understood the need to balance his relationship with Yeltsin against other priorities of U.S. foreign policy. … Only Yeltsin’s continued leadership, the White House believed, could guarantee Russian cooperation on U.S. priorities. The perception of Yeltsin as irreplaceable gradually led to the difficult situation where U.S. backing for the Russian democratic transition consisted largely of promoting its favorite ‘democrat,’ Yeltsin, as the only game in town – even as he was quickly becoming an autocrat in reality. … This is not to say that Yeltsin was passive … Yeltsin genuinely tried to promote Russian interests. But he was doing so at a time when, simultaneously, Russia fell into steep economic and political decline and the U.S. rose to the heights of its ‘unipolar moment.’ The interactions of these two world leaders at this crucial juncture … have a legacy that shapes U.S.-Russian relations to this day.”
“How Europe and Russia Are Fighting US Sanctions. Will it undermine American financial dominance in the long-run?” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 10.06.18: The author, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, writes: “Federica Mogherini announced this past week that the EU, working in conjunction with Russia and China, would create a mechanism to allow Iran to continue trade with the other nuclear deal signatories despite the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran. … Moscow is watching Iran’s experience quite closely—and seeing whether the proposed special payments vehicle might not be expanded to become another tool for Moscow to lessen the blow of American economic sanctions. … Moscow, in conjunction with some of its European economic partners, has already tested some creative workarounds for existing sanctions on its energy industry. … No one thinks that these workarounds are ideal. … But Moscow can continue to muddle through—while its economy returns to modest growth levels. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Russians are keenly interested in whether a special payments vehicle for Iran gets off the ground. … The special payments vehicle proposal may fail. … But this first foray will not be the last—and the United States must be prepared to address this risk to its financial leadership head-on.”
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Russia’s Low-Cost Influence Strategy Finds Success in Serbia,” Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post, 10.03.18: The author, Brussels bureau chief for the news outlet, writes: “Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic looked giddy as he … accept[ed] a newly arrived gift from the Kremlin: Soviet-era fighter jets … Never mind that the gift of a half-dozen MiG-29 jets came with a steep price tag for required repairs: $209 million, payable to Russia. The Serbian president heaped praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin. The gift … encapsulates Russian strategy in Serbia—and much of the world. The Kremlin has built a methodical but low-cost influence campaign that is reaping rocketing returns. The thrifty approach helps explain how a country with a faltering economy … has been able to wield outsize influence and confound its adversaries. … Russia and the West are engaged in a pitched battle for the allegiance of Serbia … While the West is spending far more cash … Russia's presence is far more penetrating. … And by appealing to ordinary Serbs, it has gained a more deeply rooted hold than if it had pursued its push solely among Serbian leaders. … Brussels officials … say the country's [Serbia’s] Western course is hardly guaranteed. Some have even raised the question of whether to suspend [EU] membership talks with Belgrade … The result, for Russia, would be a diplomatic coup—on the cheap.”
- No significant commentary.
“Strait to War? Russia and Ukraine Clash in the Sea of Azov,” Andrew Wilson, European Council on Foreign Relations, 10.02.18: The author, a professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London, writes: “Azov may be little known, but this sizeable north-eastern offshoot of the Black Sea … could soon be the new frontline in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. The Sea of Azov plays host to the key Donbass ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. … Mariupol is the key to maintaining the imports and exports that serve the heavy industry on both sides of the fighting line in Donbass. … Russian ships could bombard Ukrainian positions from offshore; they could use long-range Kalibr missiles to strike more or less anywhere within Ukraine; either an amphibious landing or the recent expansion of Russian air-drop facilities could insert troops near or behind the current frontline. It is further possible that Russia may be treating this new operation as a dry run for blockading Ukraine’s other ports … The most dramatic scenario would be an outflanking operation that surrounded the Ukrainian army in east Ukraine by landing behind it to the west. … The rapid deployment of a U.N. Maritime Peacekeeping Operation mission would defuse the situation and maintain the freedom of maritime movement in the region and help to avert any further escalation.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“Russia’s Neighbors Want Alternatives,” William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz, The National Interest, 10.03.18: The authors, both former ambassadors and presently an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and a global fellow at the Wilson Center, write: “Moscow’s neighbors—and the West—would do well to keep watch for any signs of new Russian intimidation. With the Kremlin under pressure from a fall in living standards and unpopular pension reforms, Putin might be tempted to mount ‘patriotic’ diversions to boost his popularity. … Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbors will continue to diversify international ties. Western and Chinese companies are expanding energy development in the Caspian region. Ukraine and Georgia are reorienting their economies more toward Europe and markets to the south … Central Asian states are receiving more investments from China than Russia. Kazakhstan and others are pursuing ‘multi-vector’ foreign policies. The longer Russia delays in improving relations with its neighbors, then the more likely it is that they will pursue alternative options. It is also likely that tensions will persist between those neighbors and Russia—and in Russia's relationship with the West. Therefore, efforts to ease that tension should be high on the list of Western priorities with Russia.”
“Kazakhstan’s Next Political Crisis,” Wil Mackey, The National Interest, 10.03.18: The author, a researcher at the Congressional Research Service, writes: “It is not clear if and when [Nursultan] Nazarbayev will step down, but he seems to be preparing for some sort of political transition. He has worked to deconsolidate power—likely in an attempt to handicap his successor’s authority—and to get the country’s elites invested in maintaining the status quo. However … as Nazarbayev increasingly tries to engineer the system to ensure a stable political transition, the more questions arise about how that system will function in his absence.”
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“Putin’s Botched Pension Reform,” Andrey Movchan, Project Syndicate, 10.09.18: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “Modern Russia has never had a proper pension system. It inherited from the Soviet Union both very low retirement ages … and paltry resources to fund state pensions. But the recent decision … to raise the retirement age … may create more serious problems than it solves. With Russian male life expectancy averaging just 67 years, increasing the pension age to 65 is akin to issuing men an actuarial death sentence. … The reform is meant to ease strain on the public budget … But, while Russia’s pension fund does have a massive shortfall, state subsidies to it amount to less than 10 percent of the total consolidated budget … Russia’s leaders should recognize that the real challenge their country faces is an aging population … After all, if the pension fund were to remain sustainable using this approach alone, the retirement age would have to increase by another five years in 2028. If the Russian economy remains stagnant, as expected, the pension tax (already 22% of income) will also have to rise in five years … A more sustainable approach … would focus on improving the management of Russia’s pension fund … Russia’s approach to governance … still emphasizes Soviet-style centralized control. … Russia’s crony-capitalist economic model requires an ever-increasing volume of funds to be burned on lavish mega-projects that generate huge profits for a dozen families close to the Kremlin. … And, because raising the retirement age won’t save the pension fund, it is only a matter of time before the government demands more cuts to keep Putin’s cronies happy.”
“System Failure in Russia: The Elections That Didn’t Go as Planned,” Andrey Pertsev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.02.18: The author, a journalist with Kommersant, writes: “It had seemed that in the six years since gubernatorial elections were reintroduced in Russia, the Kremlin had come up with the perfect formula for holding them. … But this year’s regional elections, in which the authorities failed to secure their candidates’ victories in as many as four regions, have demonstrated that the established scheme no longer works. It’s no longer true that the candidate backed by the regime is guaranteed to triumph over a symbolic opponent. … Weak candidates who didn’t even campaign properly—with the exception of [Valentin] Konovalov [in Khakassia]—have managed to cause problems for the regime. … The Kremlin obviously understands that elections held under the old rules will result in more defeats. The rules, therefore, will have to change. Just like in 2013–2014, when opposition candidates started winning mayoral elections, the Kremlin first welcomed their victory, but then dispatched local legislatures to scrap mayoral elections altogether. They remain in just seven out of 83 regional centers. A similar fate may now await gubernatorial elections.”
“A Tactical Retreat: The Kremlin Reins in a War on Online Extremism,” Lincoln Pigman, Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.05.18: The author, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, writes: “The crackdown [on online ‘extremists’] dates back to 2014, when Article 282 of the Criminal Code was amended, enabling the prosecution of Internet users who ‘incite hatred against individuals or groups on the basis of gender, race, nationality, language, origin, religion or membership in a social group.’ Since then, the law’s application has grown steadily … [A]nyone charged with extremism is automatically added to an official registry of extremists and terrorists. … The law’s most egregious abuses have occurred in places far from Moscow, such as Barnaul … Russia’s ‘extremism capital’ because of the proliferation of online extremism cases there. Most of them involve young defendants whose plight—being prosecuted for sharing Internet memes—has outraged Russian parents. … Now, Putin has personally submitted amendments to Article 282 that would reserve criminal charges—and prison sentences—for repeat offenders and those who call for violence or justify its use. … The Kremlin’s decision to amend rather than repeal Article 282 suggests that it still views the law as a valuable—and viable—instrument of repression.”
“Remembering Anna Politkovskaya, Who Was Killed for Telling the Truth,” Svetlana Alexievich, The Washington Post, 10.08.18: The author, a Belarusian investigative journalist, writes: “This is what we've learned since you left. We really need you, Anna! We've learned from you that there can be no compromises in a war; even the smallest compromise makes one an accomplice. It would be much harder for all of us without everything you had managed to say and do — without your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity that will save us. Thank you for having been here and still being here.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant commentary.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
“Putin Gets the Spies He Deserves. Bad things happen when you value loyalty over competence,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 10.08.18: The author, a journalist and veteran Russia watcher, writes that “it’s possible that 18 years of Putin’s rule have affected the Russian intelligence community in the same way as other areas of Russian life: They’ve made it less intelligent and emptied it of competent professionals. … The extent of the carelessness [exhibited in recent intelligence operations] is mind-blowing. But then, professionalism in general has become rare in Russia, especially in the government sector outside a tiny technocratic elite that deals with sophisticated economic policy. … Russia has had difficulty retaining its intellectuals, especially in recent years. According to a recent paper from the Gaidar Economic Policy Institute, about 2.7 million people born in Russia now live outside the country … On average, these emigres are far better educated than Russia’s general population. … Putin may be so strangely passive in the face of the intelligence failures because there’s not much he can do to limit the fallout and stop the chain of failures: There simply isn’t anyone on his team who is both loyal and capable of the difficult damage-control job.”
“Bungling Russian Spies Will Not Worry the Kremlin,” Max Seddon and David Bond, Financial Times, 10.06.18: The authors, a correspondent and a security and defense editor for the news outlet, write: “When Dutch intelligence released details … of how it foiled a Russian hacking operation on its soil … the four agents it expelled looked more like the Keystone Kops than the omnipotent Kremlin spies of legend. The Russians … had neglected to wipe their computers, allowing investigators to trace their hacking activities around the globe. One was caught with a signed, stamped receipt for a taxi from GRU offices to the airport. The agents also apparently travelled under their real names, allowing open-source investigators Bellingcat to unearth more details online. … Why did the alleged Salisbury attackers arrive and leave on the same flight to the U.K.? Why did they not dispose of the fake perfume bottle used to spray Novichok … with greater care? … ‘The GRU didn’t really change after the USSR collapsed. They basically missed the whole digital revolution. Lots of people left in the 1990s,’ said Alexander Gabuev, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘And it seems like the mystification of them in the western media after the election hacking has gone to their heads. They feel untouchable.’ … ‘The outcome is likely to be that such missions in future will be conducted in more careful ways,’ said a former senior U.K. security official. ‘But will they stop trying to eliminate their ‘traitors’? I doubt it.’”