Matthew Rojansky

Matthew Rojansky on Russia

April 15, 2021
Aleksandra Srdanovic

This compilation of observations and policy ideas related to Russia by Matthew Rojansky is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ takes on issues pertaining to Russia, U.S.-Russian relations and broader U.S. policies affecting Russia.

Matthew Rojansky serves as the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a member of the OSCE Cooperative Security Initiative and the Euro-Atlantic Security Leaders Group. Previously, Rojansky served as deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as embassy policy specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and as the executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America. Rojansky, who is a proponent of de-escalating tensions between Russia and the United States and identifying mutual areas of interest for cooperation, is reportedly being considered by U.S. President Joe Biden for the position of Russia director on the National Security Council as of the date of this publication.

This compilation is meant as a sampling of Rojansky’s views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another.


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

Nuclear security:

  • Russia is the pivotal player on global nuclear security issues, whether it is preventing nuclear proliferation, promoting safety and security of nuclear materials or taking sensible steps to reduce bloated nuclear arsenals and avoid the prospect of a future arms race.  Yet Russia is a prickly partner, and without reassurance that current plans for ballistic missile defenses in Europe will not undermine its deterrent, the decades-old legacy of nuclear de-escalation started by Reagan could come to a tragic and bitter end. (CNN, 03.28.12)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • To be updated.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • On Iran no longer complying with certain elements of the JCPOA: Russia does not particularly want to see the agreement fall apart, not least because it has a stake in the diplomatic achievement of which it was part. Moscow was a pivotal player in negotiating the original agreement, for which it enjoyed quite a lot of credit… Now that the U.S. pulled out, Moscow can blame Washington for its impending failure, part of its broader critical narrative about the U.S. in the Middle East and globally. (The Washington Post, 05.08.19)

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • On Russia’s alleged bounty program against U.S. troops in Afghanistan: If you assume that the simplest description of what Russia is alleged to have done is the correct one, which is they are paying Afghan fighters specifically for killing American soldiers, then that is a departure from anything we’ve seen, certainly in the last 30 years. (WAMU, 07.10.20) 
  • The atmosphere surrounding Russia-U.S. ties even has attributes of a 1950’s-style Red Scare on one side, and a Stalinist hunt for foreign agents and saboteurs on the other. In addition to the U.S. Justice Department’s documented charges against Russian intelligence operatives, dozens if not hundreds of cases of alleged Russian influence operations have been uncovered amid a feeding frenzy of congressional, press and social media alarm ringing. These have generated lists upon lists of potential sanctions targets, provoking a predictable panic among US and international banks and businesses with exposure to Russian money. Putin’s own crusade to repatriate Russian wealth and expunge foreign backing for Russian NGOs has been underway for years but has hardened to diamond strength under the relentless pressure of U.S. sanctions. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russia poses a non-negligible military threat to NATO allies in Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic States, and so the enhanced forward posture of U.S. and Allied forces in that region is justified as a signal of Alliance solidarity. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)
  • For better or worse, Moscow retains sufficient power to shape the security environment in Europe. In this realm, the task for the next president in shaping U.S. policy will be to insulate European allies against Russian action in the short term while laying the groundwork for a more durable European security framework, with Russian participation, in the long term. The next administration’s most urgent and immediate goal should be to maintain the integrity of NATO as the guarantor of European security. In light of Russia’s threatening behavior, many of its neighbors look to the transatlantic alliance, and the United States in particular, for the necessary commitment of manpower, hardware and political will. (Foreign Policy, 10.13.16)
  • Almost no one in the senior levels of NATO or the U.S. defense community expects a traditional military invasion of any NATO country by Russian forces. Instead, the concern is about a Russian hybrid threat, so-called little green men that Moscow deployed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or nefarious Russian influence via economic pressure and incessant propaganda. Rather than actually fighting the Russians across the landmass of Eastern Europe or on the high seas, NATO’s purpose might be better understood as reassuring nervous Eastern allies, so that they can undertake the far harder diplomatic, domestic political and economic development work needed to reduce their own vulnerabilities. That makes sense as far as it goes. The problem is that NATO’s reassurance efforts don’t take place in a vacuum. For each NATO deployment in its immediate neighborhood, Russia has promised responses of its own. (World Politics Review, 07.25.16)
  • On the consequences of Turkish jets shooting down a Russian Su-24 warplane in 2015: It's still very early, but just to put this in perspective let me say this: For the first time in modern history, a NATO country has directly fired upon and brought down a Russian warplane. We are in uncharted territory in terms of crisis. Even if this doesn't spiral into a NATO-Russia issue, it is certainly the sharp end of a crisis in Russia-Turkey relations that has been brewing now for months or years. It's clear that Russia and Turkey have incompatible goals in Syria and that leadership on both sides have huge political capital invested such that it will not be easy to back down. I do expect this to be spun as NATO aggression combined with the argument that this is America's fault for blocking better coordination. (RFE/RL, 11.25.15)

Missile defense:

  • The Russians really have invested and frontloaded future technologies like, for example, hypersonic missile systems. And this is because the United States, in the Russian worldview, is the vaunted juggernaut. We can build missile defenses, our Patriot system, our ballistic missile defense... They want to have a way of beating that. For 20 years, they have been building these missiles that go faster than the speed of sound but are maneuverable. And just now, they have begun to deploy them. Putin announced them a couple of years ago in a big speech. And Americans are in a tizzy, like, “Oh my God, what happened?” Well, what happened was we were so dominant 20 years ago, that a rational adversary said, “We need some asymmetric way of responding.” (Washington Journal, 01.18.20)

Arms control:

  • The greatest threat from Russia comes from its nuclear capability—it is the only force able to threaten the total destruction of the United States and Europe, and the risk of nuclear escalation grows with each saber-rattling gesture on each side. President Trump was thus right to call for renewed arms control negotiations to put a stop to the current arms race. Nuclear arms control efforts between the U.S. and Russia have the added benefit of rebuilding institutionalized channels of communication, giving the Russians a positive stake in more stable overall relations and signaling to third countries that the world’s two big nuclear powers are serious about risk reduction. This last point is especially important given Washington hopes to build wider international support for its approaches to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)
  • Despite the end of the Cold War superpower rivalry, Russia and the U.S. still maintain large nuclear arsenals with the capability to completely destroy one another. In addition to direct deterrence against one another, Russia and the U.S. have both employed the doctrine of “extended deterrence,” threatening to use their nuclear weapons to retaliate against any state that might attack a non-nuclear ally. This concept serves the important purpose of reducing other states’ incentives to develop or acquire nuclear weapons of their own, but it has also created a strategic posture of direct opposition between the U.S. and its NATO allies on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other. (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, June 2011)

Counter-terrorism:

  • On areas of potential cooperation to be discussed during a U.S.-Russia summit: In terms of the agenda items, doing a counter-terrorism operation, it’s desirable. It’s going to be very, very hard. We define terrorism differently. Obviously, we would say [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is a terrorist murdering his own people. The Russians don’t see it that way. (For the Record with Greta, 04.11.17)
  • On counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, the U.S. should seek to benefit from Moscow’s considerable global and regional intelligence and interdiction capabilities. While Russians and Americans may not agree on a common definition of the terror threat, we can agree to work together against at least some groups that target innocent civilians, espouse extremist ideologies and/or seek to acquire WMD. (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Russia is far from indifferent to the risks of a terror group getting hold of sufficient fissionable material to construct a rudimentary nuclear device or a dirty bomb. After all, Russia has suffered terror attacks with overall civilian casualties comparable to those from the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing or the San Bernardino attack. The problem is that Russia perceives an even greater threat to its national security and vital geopolitical interests from the United States. (Newsweek, 10.30.16)

Conflict in Syria:

  • In Syria, Russia has effectively ended U.S. aspirations for a transition from Assad’s bloody regime to electoral democracy, while empowering Iran and its proxies on the border with U.S. ally, Israel. This military intervention has upended the politics and security relations of the Middle East, reviving the half-century-old prospect of “superpower rivalries” in that crucial, explosive and energy-rich region. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)
  • Although hemmed in by tactical necessities, Moscow’s entry into the Syrian fray was also strategically ambitious. A successful intervention could offer victory on three fronts: preventing U.S.-backed regime change in Syria, breaking out of political isolation and forcing Washington to deal with Russia as an equal and demonstrating at home that Russia is a great power on the main stage of international politics. Moscow hoped Syria would offer a new and more favorable front, where the United States could be outmaneuvered in the broader confrontation, which up to 2015 centered almost entirely on Russian actions in Ukraine. (Military Review Journal, March/April 2018)
  • When it comes to Syria, ISIS and the wider Middle East, President Trump has an opportunity to follow through on an important campaign promise by inviting renewed U.S.-Russian cooperation against terrorism. Although Moscow and Washington will remain at odds over the future of the Assad regime in Syria and other regional issues, the presidents can direct their security officials to reopen channels for sharing threat assessments, early warnings and keeping the Syria de-confliction agreement on track as ISIS is pushed out of the de facto “buffer zone” between the U.S.-led coalition and the Assad regime. (Russia Matters, 07.03.17)

Cyber security:

  • A second vital U.S. national interest is protecting the critical infrastructure—political, financial and digital—enabling the development of our economy and society. Coordinated state-sponsored cyberattacks on these systems pose a particular threat to U.S. national interests. To manage and contain that threat, Washington should initiate discussions with Moscow on cyber conflict in the context of overall strategic stability, with the ultimate objective of confirming a mutually acceptable code of conduct for cyber operations that excludes damaging attacks on critical infrastructure. (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • U.S. sanctions are unlikely to deter future Russian cyber attacks not only because of Washington’s limited ability to impose adequate costs on the senior Russian officials it believes have ordered the hacking, but because neither side appears prepared to accept mutual deterrence in the cyber domain. In the early 2000s, the Russian side proposed negotiations towards a cyber arms control treaty, but at the time U.S. officials had little interest in constraining capabilities in which they expected to enjoy unrivaled dominance. Now, the Kremlin may view cyber attacks as an indispensable counterweight to U.S. and NATO dominance in the conventional military sphere, and thus the Russians may be less inclined to negotiate. The simple truth is that if either side believes it can gain more by using cyber weapons than by preventing their use, deterrence will fail. (The National Interest, 12.29.16)

Elections interference:

  • On President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin: The relationship can go nowhere as long as Washington is threatened and preoccupied by Russian cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, including our elections and political parties. President Trump should deliver a tough message to President Putin, laying out what we know the Russians have done, and what will be the consequences for any further hostile acts. An official, public statement from the U.S. government, providing maximum possible transparency on these attacks, minus distractions such as allegations about RT and other Russian state-sponsored media, would go a long way toward focusing the political debate in Congress and the press. This will, in turn, strengthen Washington’s collective capacity to deter Russia, China or any other future cyber attacker. (Russia Matters, 07.03.17)
  • On Russia’s intensions in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election: It is not a stretch to think Putin would have wanted to send the message to Americans that the shoe is now on the other foot—our vaunted American democracy is just as vulnerable to foreign meddling… What is harder to believe is that Vladimir Putin is specifically picking sides, or that he actually thinks that a blatant external intervention of this type can have a predictable effect on U.S. voters that would necessarily be good for Russia. (War on the Rocks, 07.26.16)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • To be updated.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • On the capacity for trade relations with Russia: There is a lot of potential. When political relations have been relatively stable, U.S.-Russia trade has grown very quickly, and very much to the benefit of U.S. companies. True, it has usually been very big international US companies, versus say Germany or Finland, which send many small and medium sized businesses to Russia with great success. But for those big U.S. companies that can deal with the Russian market, it is usually one of the most profitable global markets for them--and it's not just the energy sector: think of any number of U.S. legal, accounting, banking and other services companies, consumer products, machinery, agriculture and much more. (Reddit, 05.06.20)

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • Bilateral relations are in a deep and likely enduring crisis, arguably their worst since the early 1980s, if not 1960s. The reflexive postures of Moscow and Washington are adversarial and distrustful on nearly every major international issue, and poisonous domestic politics on both sides appear to exclude any possibility of repairing ties. Most worrying is the return to de facto military confrontation, from Northern Europe to the Middle East, with the very real risk of escalation to an unintended but catastrophic nuclear exchange. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)
  • Current U.S. and European sanctions on Russia have undoubtedly had a punishing impact on the Russian economy, but at the same time, opportunities to engage the private sector and technical experts from both countries in solving shared problems have been too often overlooked. For example, Russian and U.S. negotiators have so far tip-toed around vital but difficult topics like setting rules for interstate cyber conflict, countering the rise of radicalization via cyberspace and increasing transparency and accountability around advanced biotechnology. Private sector actors on both sides would have considerable interest in advancing these dialogues, which might take place within what Trump and Putin called in Helsinki a “working group” of Russian and American business leaders. The surrounding domestic politics are atrocious and sanctions cast a pall over discussions generally, but Washington has enough additional positive and negative arrows in its quiver to seek much more from U.S.-Russia dialogue. (European Leadership Network, 10.17.18)
  • On the domestic political environments in the United States and Russia: President Trump faces the ongoing Justice Department “Russia investigation” led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, while partisan attacks invoking Russia are at a fever pitch ahead of November’s mid-term elections, and leaders from both parties are warning about the risks of further “Russian meddling,” setting the stage for what could be another bitterly divisive vote, whatever the outcome. On the Russian side, years of relentless anti-American propaganda has borne fruit, and the public is hardly ready to see its leaders offer even the barest of concessions to Washington. Russian national pride has come to embrace and even revel in the U.S.-led attempts to exclude and isolate Russia from the international system and to punish it economically. (Russia Matters, 07.12.18)
  • The U.S. has never had a more dysfunctional or less effective relationship with post-Soviet Russia than it does today. While it is more than fair to blame that dysfunction on Putin—and on Trump, Medvedev, Obama and other heads of state past and present—I am afraid it now has far deeper causes than just state policies. On the Russian side, the dysfunction builds on insecurities and grievances fanned by widely embraced conspiracy theories and historical narratives, all of which amount to branding the United States as public enemy number one. It also draws on ordinary Russians' tolerance of consolidated authoritarianism … On the American side, the dysfunction is different but arguably just as deep. It begins from a national mood that combines Cold War style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman with a zero-sum, "us versus them" view of everything from taxes to public safety. These disturbing trends find welcome resonance in a media, political and civic culture in which any sense that there are rules of decency has been long since trampled. (Newsweek, 11.28.17)
  • The U.S. depends on stable security alliances and partnerships to sustain a global trading and financial system favorable to free-market competition. By using force against and seizing territory from Ukraine and Georgia, Russia has challenged the post-Cold War European security order, yet the West’s punitive sanctions also help Russia further justify its challenge to the Western-led global economic order. (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Vital U.S. national interests depend on finding common ground with other countries on shared global problems. For example, growing megacities and fast-paced international travel help disease spread faster and farther than ever before, raising the risk of global pandemics that may overwhelm any single country’s public health system. Extreme weather and natural disasters will also force states to cooperate in developing responses that protect people, industry, agriculture and other vital resources. As the world’s largest country, home to a huge proportion of global forest, mineral and fresh water resources, and as a scientifically advanced society with extensive public health expertise, Russia is well positioned to contribute to coordinated international responses. The U.S. should seek to incentivize and encourage Russia to play such a role. (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Although remote, the prospect of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States is still all too real. Both countries maintain arsenals of thousands of weapons, some deployed on hair-trigger alert, any one of which, if detonated, would surely change (and possibly destroy) the world as we know it. That is reason enough to take Russia seriously—and to maintain a strong working dialogue on strategic stability and security regardless of other disagreements. Yet Russia matters for so many more vital U.S. interests, ranging from its unique ambitions and capabilities to combat 21st-century threats such as terrorism, piracy and pandemic disease, to its pivotal role in the institutions that shape our global political and economic order, as well as its indispensable role in managing regional conflicts in the Middle East, East Asia and the post-Soviet space. (Russia Matters, 10.24.16)
  • Three decades of U.S. predominance has bred complacency, and Americans are not in the habit of dealing with peer rivals of the sort Russia aspires to be. Rather, Washington is largely convinced that Russia is a power in structural decline, with little or no ability to challenge U.S. prerogatives in the long term. Russian leaders, for their part, see an overstretched and overbearing American hegemon that can hardly muster the resources or attention to manage the challenges that strike closest to home, let alone those half a world away. Some wait hopefully for the gust of wind that will collapse the house of cards of U.S. power. Either or both sides might be right in the long term. But in the here and now, both are running unacceptable risks that their increasingly adversarial postures across an arc of conflict from the Baltic to the Middle East will result in unintended escalation. Mitigating this risk does not mean abandoning allies or compromising cherished principles; it simply means learning the lessons of history. For every action, there is a reaction, and preventing that cycle from spinning out of control requires clear channels for dialogue, with leaders on both sides who are prepared to use them. (World Politics Review, 07.25.16)
  • On the Russian government ending USAID activities in Russia: From the Kremlin’s perspective, the very notion of Russians receiving foreign assistance is unacceptable – an affront to Russia’s national dignity. As the world’s largest country, a nuclear superpower and the hub of one of history’s great civilizations, Russia finds it hard to accept any kind of assistance from abroad, no matter how necessary or useful it might be. While the high cost of the post-Communist transition permitted Russian officialdom to swallow its pride for a time, with a fast-growing Russian economy now buoyed by high global energy prices, there is no such excuse for accepting handouts, especially from the West. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.20.12)
  • As much as national pride, insecurity about the political motives of U.S. assistance makes the Kremlin bristle at the notion of a USAID mission committed to “supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” To many Russians, Washington has no special claim on any of these values. After all, during the Cold War both sides routinely disguised proxy battles to install compliant strongmen in the Third World as interventions to protect human rights, freedom and social welfare. It is not a stretch for some Russians to believe that U.S.-funded NGO’s, such as the election monitoring group GOLOS, are actually part of a strategy to overthrow the Russian government. That is why Russian politicians and official media have linked the Kremlin’s recent crackdown on NGO activity to the allegedly nefarious influence of “foreign agents.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.20.12)
  • In an Aug. 18, 2010 Foreign Policy article titled “Why Russia Matters,” Rojansky argues Russia is an indispensable partner to the United States on global issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, environmental conservation and counterterrorism. This is due to Russia’s power within international organizations (as one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members), its large role in the global economy, its status as a petrostate and its relationships with U.S. adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • On the institution of a new Russian law targeting “fake news” and “offensive information”: [The new laws in Russia are] politically significant [because the internet] remained a relatively free space for political expression, including opposition to the regime, even as the state media, and all other forms of media, be it print, or television or radio, were largely shut down by the state, over the last 20 years…the idea that there should be a Russian internet is very convenient for those whose main goal is control, and that’s where you come back to the siloviki, the security apparatus of Russia, including the legacy organizations of the KGB which were uncomfortable to begin with, with the idea that Russians were fully connected to a global information space that was in their view a tool of the United States. (NPR, 03.18.19)
  • Russians are deeply frustrated with what passes for politics at the close of the second decade of Putin’s rule. For the first time since he annexed Crimea, Putin has suffered a decline in his popularity that is approaching crisis levels, according to the available polling data. Nominally, he still enjoys over 60 percent support—far less than the 86 percent high in 2015. But adjusting for the idiosyncrasies of opinion polling in Russia, it is likely that actual support for Putin is well below 50 percent, and even that may be quite fragile. The proximate cause of this popular discontent is Putin’s recent endorsement of a major pension “reform” scheme. For almost a century, Russian women have been able to retire at age 55 and men at 60, relying on a meager but steady government pension to pay for their living expenses. But with the pension fund headed for bankruptcy and other state reserves needed to reinforce military expenditures and protect the Kremlin from Western economic pressure, Russia’s bean counters forced an unpleasant move on Putin and his political retainers: Raise the pension ages by five years respectively, to 60 for women and 65 for men. (World Politics Review, 10.11.18)

Defense and aerospace:

  • To be updated.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • To be updated.

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • On what constituencies have to be taken into consideration when crafting foreign policy: The parties at interest in formulating Russian foreign policy are essentially the various rings and layers of influencers around Putin in the first place. That includes but is not limited to his formal cabinet (PM, foreign minister, defense Minister, deputy ministers, etc.), his own advisors (the presidential administration has a foreign policy and security team), the top figures in the legislative bodies (the Duma and the Federation Council) and, to a much lesser extent, the relevant committees of those bodies, the intelligence services (especially the SVR, successor to the part of the KGB where Putin himself worked, plus the military spy agency GRU), and finally the oligarchs (more so Putin’s oligarchic retainers, those who came to power with him and converted that power to massive wealth, rather than the older Yeltsin-era oligarchs, who maintain cordial relations with the Kremlin but should not be thought of as policy influencers on big issues). (Reddit, 05.06.20)
  • On Russia’s dispute with Japan over the Kuril archipelago: During the Cold War, the Kremlin considered the Kuril Islands vital to its Pacific fleet in case of a U.S. blockade. Any talk of territorial and political settlement with Japan presented unacceptable implications for the military balance with the United States. At the same time, Japanese leaders were reluctant to concede the permanent loss of the Kurils because they have lost so much territory in other areas. (Reuters, 10.05.16)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • On the Russia-China relationship: This is already a deeply unequal partnership. Russians and Chinese both know that… Russia and China have all the reasons in the world to distrust one another, compete with one another for influence over a shared border region in Northeast Asia, Central Asia and even the Northeast Pacific and the Arctic. And there is no shortage of racism, difficult history and domestic politics at play. Yet there is one incredibly powerful factor that continues to drive unity between the two powers: Washington. As long as the United States is determined to pursue isolation/sanctions against Russia and rebalancing/trade pressure against China at the same time, with a war of words aimed at both countries’ leaderships, Moscow and Beijing are natural partners. (Reddit, 05.06.20)
  • Despite its attempts in the wake of Western sanctions to reduce its dependence on European energy markets by building up ties with China, Russia remains deeply concerned about Beijing’s growing influence along its borders. Moreover, the economic promise of Moscow’s own “pivot to Asia,” particularly in penetrating the Chinese market, has so far failed to unfold as the Kremlin had hoped, with trade and investment slow to materialize. In East Asia, Moscow has sought to diversify its commercial relations, including with South Korea and Japan, two major U.S. allies, to reduce the risks that the development of Russia’s far eastern provinces will become hostage to Chinese markets. South Korea and Japan also view Russia as a potential economic and security partner in managing their concerns about China. This leaves an opening where American and Russian interests can align in forging new coalitions that give each party more leverage in relations with China. (Foreign Policy, 10.13.16)
  • Russia is unsettled by the rapidly growing Chinese presence within what the Kremlin considers its own backyard. Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive network of roads, railways and pipelines, has brought billions of dollars’ worth of investment into the region and dwarfed Russia’s projects, like the Eurasian Union. The Kremlin has so far welcomed the emergence of other regional players, such as India and Japan, to counterbalance China. The United States could play a role here if it reversed its policy since the end of the Cold War of seeking to reduce Russian influence in Central Asia. (Foreign Policy, 10.13.16)

Ukraine:

  • President Trump should be explicit about linkage between current U.S. sanctions and Russia’s ongoing interference in Ukraine. The point is to remind Moscow that the way out of U.S. and European sanctions is not an imaginary “grand bargain” involving Syria or other unrelated issues, but implementation of commitments by the Russian-backed separatists under the Minsk agreements. Pending Congressional sanctions legislation appears intended to tie the president’s hands; however, it can also serve as leverage to push for Russian compliance, to which the administration and Europe can respond positively, shifting the political burden back to Congress. (Russia Matters, 07.03.17)
  • Russians pay close attention to Ukraine’s domestic politics, since longstanding ties to various Ukrainian political and oligarchic factions often yield inside information about plans and vulnerabilities relevant to Kyiv’s capabilities and policies. Yet the Moscow elite’s conclusions about Ukrainian politics remain lopsided. The majority actually seems to agree with the thrust of allegations broadcast on Russian television that the Ukrainian state has fallen victim to a cabal of neo-fascists, backed by sinister Western business interests and special services. At the same time, they cannot fully appreciate the degree to which the basic worldview of millions of ordinary Ukrainians has shifted in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatism in Eastern Ukraine. (World Politics Review, 02.28.17)
  • The growing gulf between Ukraine’s national cultural and historical narrative and that promoted by Moscow promises to continue diminishing and dividing the region’s social capital. Kyiv has been wise to resist pressure from nationalist politicians to denigrate the Russian language, but there has been increasing and troubling evidence of revisionism in state-sanctioned reforms of Ukraine’s national archives and teaching curriculum. Anti-Ukrainian propaganda has been absolutely rife in state-supported Russian-language media, and must be stopped. No matter how the Donbass conflict evolves, Russia and Ukraine will remain neighbors for eternity, and it can be in neither side’s long-term interest to erode mutual understanding and foster intolerance. (The National Interest, 02.01.17)
  • Up to now, the United States has played an important but secondary role in managing the Ukraine-Russia conflict, preferring to negotiate and apply pressure jointly with European countries with far greater economic leverage on both Russia and Ukraine. Yet Washington cannot overlook its own vital interests at stake in this ongoing conflict, nor continue the contradictory and occasionally damaging role of its uncertain engagement in the process so far. The transition to a new U.S. administration provides a useful inflection point for a revised and reinvigorated U.S. approach to conflict management and support for long-term resolution. (The National Interest, 02.01.17)
  • Putin’s actions in Ukraine, however, may have sufficiently cemented his reputation as a conqueror, so that he can afford to make a limited territorial concession in exchange for much needed financial and political benefits. (Reuters, 10.05.16)
  • We should try to avoid confrontations with Russians on [Ukraine], because we can’t devote the resources that Russia will deploy to maintain its interests in Ukraine. (NPR, 03.03.14)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • On what role the countries on Russia’s periphery play in Putin’s strategic mindset: Take any of the crises throughout Eurasia, whether they’re part of the greater Middle East—which, arguably the South Caucasus is—or whether they’re about Europe and the kind of geopolitical push-pull of East versus West in Central and Eastern Europe, in Belarus or Ukraine. It could also be about China’s rising power in Asia, or the generally underappreciated and underattended space of Central Asia, of which Kyrgyzstan is a small but very dynamic part. There’s also Afghanistan. All of these things are arguably within the immediate neighboring zone around Russia. It’s a zone that past Russian leaders, including Dimitri Medvedev, and I think Putin himself, have talked about as a sphere of privileged interests, or what international relations scholars would call a sphere of influence. Americans and Western Europeans often reject that characterization of the former Soviet space. But here’s where I come down: Russia has for two decades under Vladimir Putin quite actively asserted its privileges, or veto rights, if you will, over outcomes that it doesn’t like in this part of the world, in the former Soviet republics, especially the ones that are on its borders. (World Politics Review, 10.23.20)
  • If you look at Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, if you look at Vladimir Putin and his closest foreign policy and national security advisers, they seldom appear to be taken by surprise by developments in the post-Soviet space, because they always seem ready, in a sense, to engage with any new leadership in former Soviet republics, as long as that leadership doesn’t cross their red line, which is to aspire to join the American camp or align with NATO and the European Union—basically adopt a kind of pro-Western and, in their view, anti-Russian mentality. That’s why, when Armenia had its revolution two years ago, and the very reformist Nikol Pashinyan came in to replace the outgoing Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, it wasn’t a problem for Moscow. This totally new figure was not a guy, as far as anyone could tell, who’d been cultivated by the Kremlin. And yet, because he stopped short of rejecting close ties with Russia—Armenia is, in fact, a treaty ally of Russia—the Russians seemed fine with that change and figured, “We’ll find a way to work with him.” Similarly, this has happened multiple times in Kyrgyzstan, where as long as Kyrgyzstan doesn’t go too far in departing from the Russia-oriented sphere, the Russians seem perfectly comfortable to let the Kyrgyz sort things out domestically. (World Politics Review, 10.23.20)
  • Russia has both broad and deep ties with the Baltic States, especially with the region’s commercial hubs, such as Latvia’s capital Riga, and with heavily ethnic Russian enclaves, such as Narva in Estonia. Russian experts describe their interests in the Baltic States as diverse and varied, but they identify three common elements. First, they acknowledge fears about U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region—fears which have been magnified by the increased U.S. and NATO attention to the region. Second, they seek to maintain a stable status quo in political and economic relations, including clearly demarcated borders, unimpeded access to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and restoration of modest but important trade ties with each of the Baltic States, which have been constrained by EU sanctions following the Ukraine crisis and Russian counter-sanctions. The third significant Russian interest in the Baltic States—asserting the right to protect Russian speakers abroad—is a source of acute concern. In 2008, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed a sphere of “privileged” influence around Russia’s borders, which many understood to include the Baltic region, while a major theme of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, since 2012, has been championing the interests of the so-called “Russian World,” including his assertion that some 25 million ethnic Russians were left outside Russia’s borders when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and afterward, Russian officials have talked of the need to protect Russian speakers outside Russia, including in the Baltic States. (Testimony to U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, 03.22.17)

Photo is a still from a video by The Wilson Center. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.