Russia Analytical Report, Oct. 5-13, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • The United States needs a new approach to nuclear weapons, writes former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For starters, it should not be deploying low-yield nuclear warheads on submarines or nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Instead, she writes, it should significantly reduce its reliance on old intercontinental ballistic missiles, pursue a “newer and fewer” approach to modernization and extend the New START treaty with Russia. It will also be important to persuade China to join nuclear negotiations, according to Clinton.
  • At present, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, Moscow’s policy on North Korea rests on three main objectives, which have a clear hierarchical order, writes Prof. Andrei Lankov. The first and most important is maintaining domestic stability in North Korea, and the second is preventing the unification of the Korean Peninsula, while solving the nuclear problem is only in third place. Since Russia and China have similar interests vis-à-vis North Korea, Lankov writes, and the country is not geopolitically important for Russia, Moscow prefers to take Beijing’s lead in determining its North Korea policy.  
  • For the time being, a collective NATO response to Arctic security challenges is inadvisable, writes Prof. David Auerswald. Instead, individual member states should pursue and increase rotational presence operations and regional exercises. These would help to alleviate immediate security threats and, because they involve NATO members, would prepare the alliance for a greater Arctic role in the future, should that be necessary.   
  • “Exit strategy” doesn’t translate into Russian strategic thinking about the Middle East, writes Prof. Chris Miller. The point was never to win and to leave. The goal was to stay—to make Russia a major player in the region, and then to defend this new role. The Kremlin sees the fifth anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria not as time for reflection about a war without end, Miller argues, but as an opportunity to toast success, and to hope that it continues well into its second half-decade.
  • Moscow’s operatives did not invent America’s crude tribal politics; they just exploited them, writes Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Truth is, the idea that Russia determined the 2016 election is overstated, Hill argues. It would never have resonated so loudly without our deep polarization. By overplaying Russia’s ability to influence the vote, American politicians and pundits conceded victory to Russia and its intelligence agencies. Instead, Hill writes, we should have focused on fixing our own faults. The biggest risk to this election is not the Russians, it’s us. 
  • Reports that Ankara has been providing military support to Azerbaijan’s Aliyev over the past months, including sending Syrian mercenaries, clearly indicate that Ankara had a stake in a military resolution of the dispute, writes Domitilla Sagramoso of Kings College London. This new predicament makes a peaceful resolution of the conflict much more difficult to achieve, according to Sagramoso. Additionally, Neil Melvin of RUSI writes that Russia appears to have been caught unprepared for Turkey’s new assertiveness and is struggling to find a meaningful response. The shifting regional security dynamics around the Karabakh conflict now pose a direct challenge to Russia’s regional position, Melvin argues.


I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Behind the Hype: Russia’s Stance on North Korea,” Andrei Lankov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.06.20: The author, a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, writes:

  • “[T]he Russian and North Korean economies are structurally incompatible. … Russian consumers are only interested in one thing that North Korea can competitively offer on the global market, and that is highly skilled and disciplined North Korean laborers.”
  • “Another possible area of Russian-North Korean cooperation is joint infrastructure projects, of which there are currently three: the construction of the Trans-Korean Railway …; building a gas pipeline through North Korean territory to supply Russian natural gas to the South Korean market; and, finally, an electrical grid through North Korean territory, which would benefit energy consumers in South Korea. … Yet no concrete action has been taken on these projects: everything stops at project surveys and various symbolic events.”
  • “The Russian government views all the North Korean issues as secondary. At present, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, Moscow’s policy on North Korea rests on three main objectives … The first and most important is maintaining domestic stability in North Korea, and the second is preventing the unification of the Korean Peninsula, while solving the nuclear problem is only in third place.”
  • “Since Russia and China have similar interests vis-à-vis North Korea, and the country is not geopolitically important for Russia, Moscow prefers to take Beijing’s lead in determining its North Korea policy. This makes sense, given that Moscow and Beijing’s interests overlap, but the stakes are immeasurably higher for Beijing.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant developments.

NATO-Russia relations:

“These NATO Nuances Create National Security Issues,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 10.11.20: The author, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, writes:

  • “It is understandable that for countries, which border Russia, Moscow’s efforts to extend its influence would be of concern to the general public, not just the strategic elite. However, combating Russian revisionism, as a tag line, carries less emotive weight for Americans.”
  • “What ails the Atlantic alliance is not a lack of capabilities or resources … but the political commitment to use them. Rejuvenating the Atlantic community requires recasting the alliance away from Lord Hastings Ismay’s classic formulation (keeping the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down) in favor of a positive agenda that makes the continuation of the Euro-Atlantic bond worthwhile to the average citizen—and, increasingly, to citizens who have no memory of the Cold War.”
  • “First, we should build on concerns that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic about overdependence on China for medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and protective equipment.  … The second focus should be to recast the Atlantic community as a technological and biological sciences partnership. … Finally … I cannot overemphasize the importance of shifting the focus of the NATO alliance towards the Article 3 commitments that each member undertakes for self-help in terms of defense, and to continue to encourage partners to develop and strengthen the resilience of the different flanks.”
  • “Vague platitudes about American leadership are no longer sufficient to sustain public support. If, however, Americans see the trans-Atlantic community as vital to their personal health, then their paychecks, even the security of their smartphones, can build a new foundation for the Euro-Atlantic community to endure to the mid-twenty-first century.”

“NATO in the Arctic: Keep Its Role Limited, For Now,” David Auerswald, War on the Rocks, 10.12.20: The author, a professor of security studies at the U.S. National War College, writes:

  • “When considering NATO’s role in the Arctic, four primary options merit consideration: Accelerate Non-NATO Training and Exercises … Russia is sensitive to NATO training and exercises in the Arctic. By avoiding an alliance moniker, informal activities by individual NATO states or groups of states will be less likely to trigger a counterproductive Russian response. … Establish a NATO Arctic Command … Invite Sweden and Finland to Join NATO … This option would risk creating a major crisis with Russia. … The final NATO option considered here would be to create a new NATO-Russia forum to discuss Arctic security issues.”
  • “For the time being, a collective NATO response to Arctic security challenges is inadvisable. Instead, individual member states should pursue and increase rotational presence operations and regional exercises. These would help to alleviate immediate security threats and, because they involve NATO members, would prepare the alliance for a greater Arctic role in the future, should that be necessary.” 

“Understanding Russian Black Sea Power Dynamics Through National Security Gaming,” Anika Binnendijk, RAND Corporation, October 2020The author, a political scientist at RAND, writes:

  • “Russia has successfully altered the military status quo in the Black Sea to its advantage … Russia's control of Crimea, recent investment in the modernization of its Black Sea Fleet, and deployments of assets to the region have shifted the military balance in the Black Sea.
  • “Turkey's support would be critical to any response because of its naval capabilities and responsibility for the straits under the Montreux Convention … Turkish security interests in Syria and the need to maintain cooperation with Russia to address them, as well as Turkey's dependence on Russian natural gas imports … could make Turkey reluctant to counter Russian aggression.”
  • “Romania would likely have the will and the capability to contribute to a regional military initiative in the Black Sea. … Bulgaria remains vulnerable to Russian incentives and coercion. … Georgian and Ukrainian military capabilities were significantly eroded in their respective conflicts with Russia. … However, both countries would likely seek a role in a regional initiative and would welcome U.S. and other Western presences for expanded exercises and training programs.”
  • “Recommendations: Measures designed to strengthen regional allies and partners and reduce Russia's military advantage would serve to enhance both deterrence and the prospects of regional cooperation during a confrontation. … Robust energy dialogues with Turkey and Bulgaria … could identify options to maximize regional interconnectors and alternative sources of gas … An open-source initiative to highlight streams of Russian government investment in the region could complement existing public analyses of Russian military power … Targeted senior-level political discussions could seek to encourage a regionally driven approach.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“After Five Years of Fighting in Syria, Putin Has Gotten What He Wants: With Russia’s influence in the region solidified, peace will not come without its assent,” Chris Miller, Foreign Policy, 10.08.20The author, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School, writes:

  • “What, exactly, has Russia succeeded at? Certainly not at forging peace. Russian-brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and various opposition groups have gone nowhere, despite years of effort. Nor even at ending the fighting, which continues—notably in Syria’s northeast. Putin has very publicly declared that Russia was withdrawing from Syria, first in 2016 and again in 2017. But Russia has made no signs of departing.”
  • “Compare that to the U.S. position in Syria, which like Russia’s involves a small ground contingent but relies on local forces to bear the brunt of the fighting. Washington has been debating its exit strategy since the day the Syrian war began, stuck between a desire to draw down from a forever war and concern that doing so would further destabilize the country.”
  • “The Kremlin has no such ambivalence about its war in Syria. ‘Exit strategy’ doesn’t translate into  Russian strategic thinking about the Middle East. The point was never to win and to leave. The goal was to stay—to make Russia a major player in the region, and then to defend this new role. The Kremlin sees the fifth anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria not as time for reflection about a war without end but as an opportunity to toast success, and to hope that it continues well into its second half-decade.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

“Russia Can Interfere Only if We Let It,” Fiona Hill, New York Times, 10.07.20: The author, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, writes:

  • “Moscow’s operatives did not invent our crude tribal politics; they just exploited them. Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, revealed this week that he had recently met his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Geneva and warned him that ‘there would be absolutely no tolerance for any interference’ in the November election. This was a pointless exchange. It misrepresents how Russia actually interferes in our affairs. The Russian state does not meddle directly. It delegates to proxies, who amplify our divisions and exploit our political polarization.”
  • “Americans must recognize that the United States is ripe for manipulation. With a month to go before Election Day, we are ripping ourselves apart. … [T]he idea that Russia determined the [2016] election is overstated. It would never have resonated so loudly without our deep polarization—and our structural issues … These issues were rooted in our system and had already played out in 2000. By overplaying Russia’s ability to influence the vote, American politicians and pundits conceded victory to Russia and its intelligence agencies. Instead, we should have focused on fixing our own faults.”
  • “Today, we are even more fractured than in 2016. What was then a vulnerability is now a full-blown national security crisis. Our partisan strife has contributed to the botched handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has eroded our international reputation. It has made us susceptible to manipulation by any foreign or nonstate actor that wants to weaken us. Our own political actors are undermining our democracy in a gambit to sway the election.”
  • “The United States has set international standards for free and fair elections for decades. But President Trump, not President Putin, has repeatedly declared our electoral system ‘rigged’ and questioned the integrity of the ballot. … The biggest risk to this election is not the Russians, it’s us.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Rest of the World Is Taking Advantage of a Distracted America,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 10.06.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Unfortunately, the international order is not on autopilot. Leaders around the world see that the United States is enfeebled, at least temporarily, and they are aggressively pursuing their interests.”
  • “A bloody war erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and both sides look to Russia for a solution. … Iranian militias destabilize Iraq, and the State Department prepares to close our embassy there for self-protection. … China draws ‘red lines’ to assert dominance over Taiwan, and U.S. military experts privately concede that Chinese power in the area outmatches that of the United States. … The structure of U.S. alliances, perhaps our greatest national asset, has become wobbly.”
  • “The global power vacuum invites mischief. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has escalated over 10 days of fighting. Armenian leaders initially hoped that U.S. diplomacy could produce a cease-fire; now, they look to Moscow. Turkey has been pressing for regional dominance through allies in Libya, Syria, Iraq and now Azerbaijan. The U.S. response has been late and muddled, and Turkey has taken full advantage.”
  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin presses ahead with his campaign to avenge past reversals. Even as Russia conducts aggressive cyberattacks, Moscow shamelessly proposes to write new rules for cyberspace. Thankfully, U.S. companies such as Microsoft still try to enforce global norms, independent of Russian and Chinese attempts to set the framework. The Trump administration is mostly missing in action.”
  • “The United States' self-isolating diplomacy has been on display with Iran, too. … The greatest potential beneficiary of the United States' turn inward is China. … If America were a stock, would you buy it or sell it? I would be a buyer, especially when our stock is trading so far below its real value. But any sensible analyst would say that this underperforming asset badly needs a change in management and a thorough restructuring to regain its competitive position.”

“The Dilemma of America’s Strategy for Europe,” Russell A. Berman, The National Interest, 10.11.20The author, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes:

  • “Europeans legitimately wonder if Russia-hawks in Washington will always have the upper hand. At least since the beginning of this century, American administrations have displayed unpredictable inconsistencies in their attitudes toward Russia.”
  • “The Europeans are much more hesitant to confront Moscow. To date, neither Berlin nor Paris has attributed the Navalny assassination attempt to the Russian government, and the European Union has yet to adopt a sanctions tool comparable to the Magnitsky Act. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron, in his efforts to burnish his own foreign policy credentials, has pursued an unconditional reengagement with Russia. It is, however, surely not coincidental that Russian and French interests appear to overlap in Libya, Armenia and with regard to Turkey.”
  • “As far as Germany goes, Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves credit for pushing through the Crimea sanctions, despite the protests of a significant pro-Russia lobby, the so-called Putinversteher. Nonetheless, a Moscow-linked assassination in the streets of Berlin elicited only a tepid diplomatic response.”
  • “The point is that both Germany and France prefer to minimize damage to their relations with Russia. Any American proposals to confront Moscow more forcefully will therefore contribute to a deterioration of relations with our trans-Atlantic allies. The wrong steps by Washington could even push them toward Moscow and into what used to be called ‘Finlandization’ during the Cold War, a de facto subordination to Russian hegemony.”
  • “America can rebuild its trans-Atlantic ties to Germany and France through alignments of shared diplomatic and security goals. Such alignments can serve to contain America’s great-power competitors, Russia and China. For the foreseeable future, however, the European leadership faces political limits as to the extent that it can confront Russia directly.”

“A National Security Reckoning. How Washington Should Think About Power,” Hillary Clinton, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2020The author, former U.S. secretary of state, writes:

  • “The country is dangerously unprepared for a range of threats, not just future pandemics but also an escalating climate crisis and multidimensional challenges from China and Russia. Its industrial and technological strength has atrophied, its vital supply chains are vulnerable, its alliances are frayed and its government is hollowed out.”
  • “The Trump administration has deprioritized cyber-espionage in its trade negotiations with China and failed to confront Russia over its interference in U.S. elections. Unsurprisingly, both countries are at it again. … Dusting off the Cold War playbook will do little to prepare the United States for adversaries that use new tools to fight in the gray zone between war and peace … Meanwhile, the United States’ deep domestic fractures have hamstrung its ability to protect itself and its allies.”
  • “Perhaps most important, the United States needs a new approach to nuclear weapons. … [I]t should significantly reduce its reliance on old intercontinental ballistic missiles, pursue a ‘newer and fewer’ approach to modernization and revive the arms control diplomacy that the Trump administration scrapped. A top priority should be to extend the New START treaty with Russia … It will also be important to persuade China to join nuclear negotiations.”
  • “The two agendas—military modernization and domestic renewal—should be integrated. … As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson recounted in his memoirs, when George Marshall led the State Department, he urged his team to look ahead, ‘not into the distant future, but beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battle; far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come.’ The United States should endeavor to do the same today. To look beyond the current battle and prepare to lead the post-COVID world, it must broaden its approach to national security and renew the foundations of its national power.”

“A Bipartisan Foreign Policy Is Still Possible. America Is Strongest When It Keeps the Home Front in Focus Abroad,” Chris Coons, Foreign Affairs, 10.07.20The author, a Democratic U.S. senator, writes:

  • “U.S. foreign policy is stronger when it enjoys bipartisan support. For the United States to play a steady, stabilizing role in world affairs, its allies and adversaries must know that its government speaks with one voice and that its policies won’t shift dramatically with changing domestic political winds. The best way to ensure that clarity and consistency is to pursue policies that are guided by American values of freedom, openness, opportunity, and inclusivity—and that have the support of policymakers and ordinary Americans across the political spectrum.”
  • “After Trump attempted to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Congress passed new sanctions against Moscow and Pyongyang by veto-proof margins.”
  • “Members of both parties believe that the United States should work with NATO and its European partners to deter Russian aggression. There is long-standing bipartisan support for sanctioning Russia for its brazen attempts to undermine democracy in the United States and abroad; for an ironclad U.S. commitment to Article V of NATO’s founding treaty, which obliges member states to come to one another’s defense in the event of an attack; and for working with NATO and the EU to develop standards for cyberspace, artificial intelligence and 5G telecommunications that are consistent with democratic values.”

“The Honest Spy,” William Tobey, Russia Matters, 10.07.20: In this review of Rolf Mowatt-Larssen’s “A State of Mind: Faith and the CIA,” Tobey writes:

  • “[The book] offers an engaging, if eccentric, memoir from a man who battled some of America’s greatest post-World War II enemies, from the Soviet Union to al-Qaida, and who also knew and worked with many of the important figures of our time.”
  • “Again and again, Mowatt-Larssen finds himself at the hinges of history. He was in Moscow in October 1993, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian Army to shell and storm the parliament.”
  • “A surprising leitmotif of the book is honesty, and how often it works. … Arriving in one of the ‘Stans’ after the break-up of the Soviet Union, to set up a CIA station, he called the local leader’s office and announced, ‘Hello. My name is Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. I’m a CIA officer. I’d like to place a courtesy call to introduce myself to the President.’ A meeting with hard-faced, but ultimately friendly men followed.”
  • “In response to Russian FSB Lt. Gen. Valentin Klimenko’s urgent question about why U.S. intelligence officers had met with rebels opposing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Mowatt-Larssen did not dissemble, but rather replied, ‘The sole purpose of the CIA’s contact with the armed opposition is to gather information to keep Washington apprised of developments.’”
  • “Sadly, this cooperation [between the U.S. and Russia] did not last long. In Mowatt-Larssen’s telling, ‘the arrest of CIA traitor Aldrich Ames in March 1994 created a tsunami in U.S.-Russian relations.’ As a result, ‘All hopes of productive liaison cooperation were dashed. The Cold War came back with a vengeance. It was a relief of sorts, for the warriors on both sides. Now we could all act on our malevolent intent without feeling any pangs of guilt for the higher interests of our two countries.’”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“What It Would Take for Russia’s Millennials to Topple Putin: Younger Russians are dissatisfied with the regime but are generally apolitical. Here’s how to change that,” Maria Snegovaya, Denis Volkov and Stepan Goncharov, Foreign Policy, 10.06.20The authors, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a deputy director at the Levada Center and a senior research fellow for the Levada Center, write:

  • “From Belarus to Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine, the popular uprisings that have swept the post-Soviet world in the last two decades have had one feature in common: high levels of participation among millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (1997 and 2012). In some ways, it appears that Russia’s young people may be next. According to polling, in the last couple of years, younger Russians have become the group most dissatisfied with Russia’s political system. But the obstacles that have so far kept the country’s millennials and Gen Zers from reforming the system remain.”
  • “First, younger Russians are a minority within the Russian population, and their share keeps declining. … Compounding the challenge of size, young Russians also have low rates of political participation. … Lower interest in politics may explain the fact that, despite their growing dissatisfaction with the authorities, younger people have not increased as a share of all opposition protesters over the last decade.”
  • “Still, although Russian millennials and Gen Zers are somewhat apolitical at the moment, in Russia, interest in politics and in political participation tends to awaken later in life, closer to the age of 25-30.”
  • “Our research shows that indicators of civic and political engagement are higher among those Russians between 16 and 34 who speak foreign languages and travel abroad. … The exposure to different values, norms and ideas from other countries changes people’s perception of the way things should work domestically. This suggests that fostering educational exchange programs in the United States may be one way to spur political activity among young Russians.”

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:

“Three Strongmen and Their Battle for the Middle East,” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 10.12.20: The author, chief foreign affairs columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman have a lot in common. The Russian, Turkish and Saudi leaders are all nationalists with regional ambitions. They are autocrats who have centralized power and have been ruthless with domestic political opposition. And they are all risk-takers, who are happy to use military force. These three strongmen are also believers in the diplomacy of personal relations.”
  • “The relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan is particularly peculiar. The presidents of Russia and Turkey have backed conflicting sides in three regional conflicts—Syria, Libya and now Nagorno-Karabakh. … The reason that the two presidents instinctively understand each other is linked to why they clash with each other. Both are anti-U.S. autocrats, seeking to expand their influence into the power vacuum created by a reduced U.S. role in the Middle East.”
  • “By and large the three leaders have been able to manage their conflicts. Russia and Turkey may be on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war—but their most urgent priorities are compatible. For Mr. Erdogan, it is stopping the establishment of a secure Kurdish enclave within Syria. For Russia, it is preventing the fall of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But these carefully balanced accommodations can easily come unstuck. After two weeks of fighting, the Russians brokered a ceasefire in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. But the peace is fragile, there are already reports of fresh fighting and, while Turkey is wholeheartedly behind Azerbaijan, Russia has a defense treaty with Armenia. Moscow is unlikely to tolerate the long-term expansion of Turkish influence on former Soviet Union territory.”
  • “As their economies struggle, all three leaders need more than ever to demonstrate strength overseas. The danger of clashes between them is rising.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“The Return of Great-Power War,” Christopher Layne, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2020: The author, professor of international affairs and Robert M. Gates Chair in national security at Texas A&M University, writes:

  • “Despite attempts by academics and politicians to write off great-power war as a real threat, the conditions that make it possible still exist. Tensions persist among today’s great powers—above all the United States and China—and any number of flash points could trigger a conflict between them. These two countries are on a collision course fueled by the dynamics of a power transition and their competition for status and prestige, and without a change in direction, war between them in the coming decades is not only possible but probable.”
  • “Over the past few years, multiple observers … have suggested that the United States and China might be, like the United Kingdom and Germany in 1914, ‘sleepwalking’ into war. Although the march toward conflict continues, everyone’s eyes are now wide open.”
  • “Distinguished realist scholar John Mearsheimer—now claim(s) that the United States must oppose China’s drive for regional hegemony. But this argument is based on the geopolitical nightmare that obsessed the British strategic thinker Sir Halford Mackinder at the beginning of the twentieth century: if a single power dominated the Eurasian heartland, it could attain global hegemony. Mackinder’s argument has many weaknesses. It is the product of an era that equated military power with population size and coal and steel production. The Eurasian threat was overhyped in Mackinder’s day, and it still is. Chinese regional hegemony is not something worth going to war over.”
  • “Whether the United States can, or will, peacefully cede its dominance in East Asia and acknowledge China’s standing as its great-power equal is an open question. If Washington does not do so, however, it is on the fast track to war—one that might make the military disasters of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison.”

War over Karabakh:

“Why the Stakes in the Nagorno-Karabakh War Are So Much Higher This Time Round,” Domitilla Sagramoso, The Moscow Times, 10.05.20: The author, a lecturer at the department of war studies at King’s College London, writes:

  • “The use of force does give Baku a stronger hand in any upcoming negotiations on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the neighboring occupied territories.  From now on, even if a ceasefire is reached, Armenia will have to consider the possibility that Azerbaijan may once again resort to the use of force if the talks reach an impasse. Yerevan may feel the pressure to make some meaningful concessions if it wants to avoid a resumption of large-scale violence and risk losing additional occupied territory.”
  • “Reports that Ankara has been providing military support to Aliyev over the past months, including sending Syrian mercenaries, clearly indicate that Ankara had a stake in a military resolution of the dispute. … While the three Minsk co-chairs—and Iran—are in unison calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, Azerbaijan’s closest ally Turkey has given its support to Baku’s military actions. … This new predicament makes a peaceful resolution of the conflict much more difficult to achieve.”
  • “Within this negative predicament, Russia has a hard task—ensuring a rapid end to hostilities while trying to play a balancing act between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two of its close partners across its borders in the southern Caucasus.”
  • “The Kremlin would much prefer to have two antagonistic partners allied to itself, albeit in perennial tension. That might be a difficult goal to reach this time. Moscow now has to contend not only with increased, large-scale violence, but also with a much more assertive regional actor on the scene—Erdogan and Ankara’s new regional geopolitical ambitions.”

“When the Chips Are Down: Russia’s Stance in the Current Azeri–Armenian Confrontation, Neil Melvin, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 10.06.20: The author, director of international security studies at RUSI, writes:

  • “While Russia has taken the lead on regional diplomacy over the Karabakh conflict and developed its security relationship with Armenia, the strength of its regional position has rested on its ability to position itself as a pivotal power that balances between the various sides. Central to this position has been Moscow’s ability to enjoy positive relations with Azerbaijan at the same time as maintaining its key ties to Armenia. … Alongside its approach to Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia has sought to keep Turkey at a distance from regional affairs.”
  • “Moscow’s Karabakh policy has worked well for almost three decades. However, the geopolitics of the Caucasus have begun to shift. … Russia appears to have been caught unprepared for Turkey’s new assertiveness and is struggling to find a meaningful response.”
  • “The shifting regional security dynamics around the Karabakh conflict now pose a direct challenge to Russia’s regional position. Turkey’s new attitude has unsettled Russia’s balancing approach by giving Azerbaijan an alternative to Moscow. … Russia is now confronted with an unpalatable choice. Moscow could accept Turkey as an equal partner in a new regional settlement, which would mean that the South Caucasus will likely become another zone for Turkey–Russia proxy competition (alongside Libya and Syria), which could destabilize the South Caucasus further.”
  • “Moscow is clinging to the trusted approach of presenting itself as a mediator that enjoys good relations with both sides and waiting for the current round of fighting to subside so that it can play its traditional role.”
  • “However, with Russia’s leverage weakened on Azerbaijan as a result of Turkey’s support, the conflict risks escalating to a full-out regional war that could ultimately raise the question of the extent to which Russia is willing to honor its security commitment to Armenia and abandon its stated position of balance, or risk losing credibility as a security actor. … Increasingly, Moscow’s traditional play is no longer capable of ensuring its leading regional role and the Kremlin faces a strategic juncture in its post-Soviet policy for the South Caucasus.”

“Trouble in the South Caucasus,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 10.08.20The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose authoritarian ambitions at home have been matched by his growing aggressiveness in the region, has taken sides with Azerbaijan, whose Muslim majority is of the same Turkic ethnic group as the Turks.”
  • “In normal times, a strong United States working with Russia and France might have had the clout to pull Turkey back, as they did after an outbreak of violence in 2016. In this crisis, President Trump actually has a chance to put his curious affinity for both Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan to a good use.”
  • “But the Trump administration is not one likely to care about the fighting, even if it were not deeply embroiled in the pandemic and the election campaign. France alone can do little. Moscow, too, probably has little stomach for another foreign crisis, or for a confrontation with Turkey, at a time it is facing a popular uprising in Belarus and a continuing war in Syria, along with the economic ravages of the coronavirus.”
  • “But doing nothing is not an option for dealing with a wildfire that, left unchecked, can rapidly spread. Whether Mr. Putin likes it or not, he has the greatest responsibility and the most effective levers to restrain his former empire-mates and dissuade Mr. Erdogan from a dangerous adventure.”

“Why Russia Is Biding Its Time on Nagorno-Karabakh,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.09.20: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “Many observers have expressed surprise that in the new war that has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia is not in a hurry to help its official Collective Security Treaty Organization ally, Armenia. The issue clearly isn’t just that the fighting is not taking place inside Armenia itself but on land that is controlled by it, while not officially recognized as belonging to it. Russia is not charging in to help its ally because it doesn’t just matter who is under attack, but who they are under attack from.”
  • “A harbinger of possible Russian military intervention are the reports that Syrian rebels are fighting for Azerbaijan in Karabakh, having been sent there by Turkey. Russia has no reason to punish Azerbaijan’s army, but sees Islamist fighters from the Middle East as a legitimate target. After all, it waged war on them in Syria, so why not do the same now that they are in the Caucasus, much closer to home?”
  • “Depending on the positions of the armies in the field and on the tractability of both Putin and Erdogan, the war could end in something close to the status quo, with symbolic losses and acquisitions, or in a new power balance resembling that toward which Russia previously urged Armenia. Only it will be agreed on the battlefield rather than at the negotiating table.”
  • “In that case, some uncontested and currently deserted parcels of Azerbaijani land will be returned to Azerbaijan, while others, populated by Armenians, will be kept by Armenia, and their status will once again be the subject of negotiations. In this respect, Russia has an advantage over Turkey, since it has access to both Yerevan and Baku. A new power balance won’t relieve Armenia entirely of the need for an alliance with Russia, but it could make it somewhat more free.”

“What Negotiations Over Nagorno-Karabakh Could Look Like,” Lara Setrakian, Foreign Policy, 10.09.20The author, CEO and executive editor of News Deeply, writes:

  • “Azerbaijan, with more than three times the population and vast petroleum wealth, has more troops and better weapons than the Armenian forces. But Armenia holds mountainous terrain that’s nearly impenetrable in winter. It also has significant firepower, including Russian-made Iskander missiles that can reach strategic targets, including the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.”
  • “As fighting intensifies, the potential for Armenian strikes on Azerbaijan’s energy production facilities, met by retaliatory strikes on Armenian soil, cannot be ruled out. And a strike by Azerbaijan on Armenia proper would trigger the Collective Security Treaty Organization, forcing Russia into the fight on the Armenian side.”
  • “With both sides touting their progress on the battlefield, the details of who’s ahead are difficult to follow and nearly impossible to verify. Western diplomats say that while major ground has not changed hands, Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Israeli drone technology is taking a deep and deadly toll on Armenian soldiers. Yet to actually win territory, Azerbaijani troops would need to push forward on foot, up the difficult mountainous terrain into Nagorno-Karabakh. … [A stalemate between aerial attrition and territorial control] would come with devastating human losses, but the alternative … could be a catastrophic escalation.”
  • “To avoid bloodshed and appease all sides, Nagorno-Karabakh may need to come under something like a U.N. trusteeship, a shared territory with strong security guarantees. The lands adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, currently held by Armenian forces, may have to be given back to Azerbaijan or handed over to a custodian, like Russia, for a transition period. A referendum of all residents, including the displaced, had been on the table in negotiations past. None of these options will sound appealing to the warring parties, which have hardened their views and attitudes over time. But the alternative of a larger war, with all its regional fallout, may be horrific enough to move new pieces into place.”


  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Russia’s Neighborhood in Flames,” Henry Foy, Financial Times, 10.07.20The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “For those in the Kremlin who have watched in concern as hundreds of thousands of Belarusians demanded the removal of the country’s longtime president this autumn, videos of Kyrgyz protesters breaking into the office of their country’s leader, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, on Monday night and stamping on his official portrait would not have made for comfortable viewing.”
  • “The uprising in Kyrgyzstan, as in Belarus a response to claims of rigged elections, joins war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in an explosion of political risk across the former Soviet sphere in recent weeks. This has plunged Moscow’s primary economic and defense alliances into turmoil and raises questions about Russia’s role as the region’s provider of stability.”
  • “While not directly linked to each other, the disparate crises in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Belarus all bear the scars left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, from authoritarianism and threats to electoral freedom to disputed territories and ethnic divisions.”
  • “Each of the three crises raises distinctive concerns for Russia. … ‘Putin’s neighborhood is suddenly in flames,’ a senior western diplomat in Moscow told the Financial Times. ‘It is hard to see how he will handle this all at once.’”

“Russian Hegemony Over the Former Soviet Space Can No Longer Be Assured,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 10.11.20The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Vladimir Putin went to extraordinary lengths to secure a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, invading Georgia and Ukraine to try to bring them to heel. So the trouble Mr. Putin is suddenly facing in his own neighborhood is all the more remarkable. Rarely has the Russian president had to contend with so many fires in his backyard all at once.”
  • “In the space of two months, three of Moscow’s closest allies among the former Soviet republics have been thrown into turmoil, albeit for different reasons. In each instance, the Kremlin has been in the uncomfortable position of responding to events rather than instigating them.”
  • “Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are all members of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Moscow-led trade and military blocs. Mr. Putin has pushed hard to expand and deepen the trade bloc but there have been few takers. The fighting in the south Caucasus will test the credibility of his security club. It is ironic that after all Russia’s efforts to weaken Western multilateralism, its own structures look so brittle.”
  • “It is becoming increasingly difficult for Russia to preserve its hegemony in the ex-Soviet space. Other powers are increasing their gravitational pull on Moscow’s satellites—China in Central Asia, Turkey in the Caucasus and the EU for Belarusians tired of autocracy and underdevelopment.”

“The Scramble for Power in Kyrgyzstan,” Alexander Gabuev and Temur Umarov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.08.20: The authors, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program and a consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center, write:

  • “In just one night, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov lost much of his authority, though formally he retains his position. Meanwhile, his bitter enemy, former president Almazbek Atambayev, is out of prison and back in the game, as are many other players.”
  • “The day after he effectively lost his grip on the country, the electoral commission annulled the results of the vote, but protests against a wide range of problems, from electoral fraud to local corruption, continue to take place in many cities. … Kyrgyzstan may officially have political parties, but in reality, each party is a facade for a particular group formed around influential leaders and united by regional and family ties … These groups can roughly be divided into those representing the north and those representing the south.”
  • “President Atambayev, who represented the north and was in charge in 2011-2017, tried to strike a balance between the regional groups, and appointed a southerner—Jeenbekov—as his successor. But when his protege turned out to be far less compliant than Atambayev had expected, the two fell out.”
  • “The current situation is in many ways similar to the last two revolutions, but there are important differences. … One of those is the reluctance of world and regional powers to get involved. … Just as telling is the caution being shown by China, which many observers have prematurely chalked up as the main external power in Central Asia. … The United States, caught up in its pre-election drama, has far too much else to deal with to pay any attention, as does Europe.”
  • “The previous two revolutions have shown that power vacuums don’t last long in Kyrgyzstan, but they can cause any local incidents to escalate into widespread bloodshed.”