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Analysis | September 13, 2019

Russian Population Decline in Spotlight Again

Last week, in a meeting with top advisors, Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented the population decline in the country’s Far East, saying it falls in an “alarming, red zone.” While this sparsely populated region, which shares a border with far more densely populated Chinese provinces, may raise particularly acute demographic concerns for the Kremlin, the country’s population decline more broadly—in both absolute and relative terms—is once again vexing the Russian leadership. Earlier this year the U.N. Commission on Population and Development concluded that the world’s population will grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of some 26 percent; Russia, meanwhile, was projected to lose a little over 10 million people, shrinking by about 7 percent from 145.9 million in 2019 to 135.8 million in 2050, according to the U.N.’s World Population Prospects. Indeed, Russia’s population has dropped for the first time in a decade: According to World Bank data, this happened between 2017 and 2018 and the year-on-year drop was about 19,000; according to official Russian population statistics—which have been recalculated for 2015 and beyond to include the population of Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine—the drop happened between the start of 2018 and 2019 and was close to 100,000. While estimates of the country’s population vary from source to source (official national statistics place it at 146.8 million), the current downward trend is now undisputed. Its causes include a declining birth rate, a relatively high mortality rate and a drop in inbound migration.
Analysis | August 06, 2019

How High Is Risk of Nuclear War Between Russia and US?

Is the risk of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia now higher than at the height of the Cold War? Yes, it is, according to an article former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn have penned for Foreign Affairs. “Not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today,” the co-chairs of the Nuclear Threat Initiative warn in their commentary published on Aug. 6, 2019. To back their claim, the two American statesmen describe an imaginary scenario in which Russian air defense systems shoot down a NATO aircraft that has accidentally veered into Russian airspace during a wargame in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave in 2020. This incident sets off a chain of events in which NATO rushes air squadrons to the region, while “a cyberattack of unknown origin is launched against Russian early warning systems, simulating an incoming air attack by NATO against air and naval bases in Kaliningrad.” With only minutes to confirm the authenticity of the system’s alert, the Russian military-political leadership orders conventional cruise missiles to be launched from this exclave at NATO’s Baltic airfields, according to the scenario. NATO then responds ...
Analysis | July 25, 2019

Russian Plane Draws Shots from South Korea in First Air Patrol with China: Belfer Experts Weigh In

South Korean fighter jets fired over 300 warning shots at a Russian Air Force A-50 Mainstay Airborne Early Warning aircraft on July 23 after the Russian plane twice violated South Korea’s airspace above the East Sea, according to South Korean authorities cited by The Aviationist. Earlier that day, Russian and Chinese bombers had conducted their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific. Russia’s Defense Ministry said there had been “no violations of airspaces of foreign countries” in its joint patrol with China, according to the New York Times, and Russian diplomats in Seoul reportedly complained of inaccuracies in the official comments from South Korea.

In considering the incident, it’s important to note, as The Aviationist points out, that “there’s a significant difference between territorial sky,” otherwise known as a nation’s sovereign airspace, and air defense identification zones, or ADIZs, which “are not defined in any international law” but determined by countries as “an airspace … where identification, location and control of aircraft over land or water is required in the interest of national security.” The New York Times reported that in 2013, two weeks after China unilaterally expanded its air patrol zone to disputed territory, South Korea expanded its ADIZ “for the first time in 62 years to include airspace over the East China Sea that is also claimed by China and Japan. Since that expansion, the air defense zones of all three countries have overlapped.” (Japan said it had also scrambled jets in response to the Sino-Russian patrol and had lodged formal complaints against both Moscow and Seoul, the New York Times story said.) Russia's Defense Ministry, according to Reuters, said it did not recognize South Korea's ADIZ, while “the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the area [in question] was not territorial airspace and that all countries enjoyed freedom of movement in it”; the Pentagon, meanwhile, said it supported South Korea’s and Japan’s responses.

According to South Korea’s military, the July 23 incident marked both “the first time that a foreign military plane has violated Korea's territorial sky and South Korea fired warning shots in response” and also “the first time that Russian and Chinese aircraft entered  KADIZ [Korea’s ADIZ] simultaneously,” the Yonhap news agency reported. (Separate KADIZ violations are relatively common, the agency suggested, with Chinese military aircraft entering 25 times and Russian planes 13 times just this year.)

Russia Matters asked some members of the Belfer Center’s Russia team for their take on the developments.
Analysis | July 16, 2019

Why Underestimating Russia Can Backfire

In August 2014 then-President Barack Obama claimed in an interview with The Economist that “Russia doesn’t make anything.” Two years later, in December 2016, he added a disclaimer: Russia “doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms,” he told reporters. The past week has proved that Obama was right to modify his claim. First, Russia began delivering parts of its S-400 missile defense system to NATO member Turkey, which the latter had purchased in a $2.5 billion deal. While a July 11 story in the Wall Street Journal said that the S-400 “on paper … outperforms the comparable U.S.-made Patriot system,” an earlier comparison ...
Analysis | July 02, 2019

From Foreign Policy Gambles to Gangster Geopolitics: RM's Most Popular Reads

Did Putin's gamble in Ukraine pay off? Is the Kremlin using gangsters as foreign-policy levers? How much did the Russian Orthodox Church help revive the country’s military and nuclear complex? How likely is an alliance between Moscow and Beijing? Find answers to these questions and many more in the latest crop of our most popular reads. Check them out below. 

Top 10 of 2019 (so far)

1. 5 Years Since Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine: Has Putin’s Gamble Paid Off? by Simon Saradzhyan

2. Gangster Geopolitics: The Kremlin’s Use of Criminals as Assets Abroad by Mark Galeotti 

3. How Much Did Orthodox Church Help Revive Russia’s Military and Nuclear Complex? by Dmitry Gorenburg

4. Russia’s National Projects: Economic Reboot or Mucky Bog? by Ben Aris

5. How Big a Threat Is Russia? An Interview With Graham Allison by RM Staff
Analysis | May 15, 2019

Pompeo in Russia: Key Takeaways on Bilateral Priorities

In an upbeat and conciliatory atmosphere that nonetheless could not hide all the many differences between Moscow and Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on May 14 with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and later with President Vladimir Putin in the seaside Russian resort town of Sochi. The visit, as noted by the Financial Times, “comes amid speculation over the potential for new U.S. sanctions against Russia, clashes between the two countries over the crisis in Venezuela and moves by the U.S. to isolate Iran, an ally of Moscow.” Pompeo—who was making his first trip to Russia in his current role—and Lavrov said their meeting covered an array of issues that have heightened U.S.-Russia tensions, including Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Prior to the talks, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two foreign ministers would be having a “very candid conversation” about concerns in the bilateral relationship.

Below you will find key comments related to the meetings made by Pompeo, Putin, Lavrov and other officials, as well as some analysis and recent developments that add important context. This post may be updated as more information becomes available.
Analysis | April 30, 2019

Key to Putin’s Passport Offers to Ukrainians? Russia’s Shrinking Labor Force

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decree to make it easier for residents of some separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine to get Russian citizenship has drawn criticism not only from Kiev but from key partners of the Ukrainian government, such as the U.S., EU and individual EU states. His subsequent statement that this liberalization may be extended to all citizens of Ukraine drew even greater fire, with both the Ukrainian government and its partners accusing the Russian leadership of seeking to assault Ukraine’s territorial integrity, test its newly elected leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy and even engage in banal trolling. The first two of these accusations are not groundless, but they ignore what I think could be the most important among the many factors that have shaped Putin’s decision: Russia needs more working hands and the best way to get them, in the Russian leader’s view, short of an instant demographic miracle would be to stimulate labor migration from countries where workers are (a) skilled, (b) speak Russian and (c) are culturally close enough that Russian authorities and companies do not have to spend undue money and time trying to train or integrate them. Ukrainians fit these requirements perfectly. Seventy-two percent of its workers had post-secondary education as of 2017 compared to Russia’s 66.6 percent, according to the World Bank; most of them are Orthodox Christian and many of them speak fluent Russian.

Russia’s own labor force has declined by 3 percent in 1992-2018, totaling 73.6 million last year, according to the World Bank and is bound to keep shrinking by 800,000-900,000 a year until 2025, according to researchers at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Putin’s plan aims to change this trajectory, attracting workers from Ukraine, which as of 2018 had nearly 20.3 million individuals aged 15 and older “who supply labor,” which is how the World Bank defines the labor force.
Analysis | April 25, 2019

With North Korea, Russia Knows It Can Only Play Second Fiddle to China and US

This week’s summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un—the first between the Russian and North Korean leaders—has proved to be as underwhelming as expected. While the two spent twice as much time talking face-to-face as had been planned, they neither announced any major agreements nor appeared to have achieved any progress toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

In fact, the Kremlin had even warned before the talks that no major statements or deals were likely. And it did so for a reason: Contrary to some experts’ views, Russia is neither the key to denuclearizing North Korea nor can it “deliver” an arms control agreement covering North Korea’s arsenals, even in exchange for a softening of Western sanctions on Moscow. While Russia is an important player in both regional and international non-proliferation efforts, it has substantially less leverage vis-à-vis North Korea than either the U.S. or China; Moscow cannot single-handedly achieve a breakthrough in efforts to push Pyongyang into rolling back its nuclear weapons program, even though it shares America’s interest in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (Granted, Moscow is perhaps more skeptical that this can be achieved.)

Moscow’s lack of heft is determined by economics: Unlike the Soviet era, Moscow is no longer a top economic partner for Pyongyang.
Analysis | April 24, 2019

'Track 2' Talks Take US-Russian Relations Where Official Channels Won’t

When Russia’s Defense Ministry hosts representatives of 100 countries at its annual conference on international security this week, one group will be conspicuously absent: The U.S. and its NATO allies have reportedly decided not to delegate anyone to this year’s event. With relations between Moscow and the alliance all but frozen, “Track 2” discussions between the U.S. and Russia have become especially important. That’s where the Elbe Group comes in: The influential group of retired senior military and intelligence officers from Russia and the United States gathered in Reykjavik last month for an intimate discussion of pressing security issues affecting the U.S.-Russian relationship. They argued in a joint statement that obstacles to bilateral cooperation “should be reduced or eliminated” and that the U.S. and Russia “bear a special responsibility to negotiate and abide by agreements that ensure strategic stability.” The group also called for a “broadened dialogue on the future of U.S.-Russian relations” that takes into account new technological, military and strategic realities. The 13 delegates to the Reykjavik meeting included: from the U.S. side, former Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Maples, former defense attache to Moscow Kevin Ryan and Belfer Center Intelligence Project director Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA veteran; from the Russian side, former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, former head of military intelligence Valentin Korabelnikov and former acting head of the Federal Security Service Anatoly Safonov.

Below are the group’s conclusions on strategic stability, counterterrorism in the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, NATO-Russia relations, cyber and Arctic issues.