In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Russian passports

The share of Russians who would like to leave Russia for permanent residence in another country has reached a record low, according to the results of a national poll conducted by Russia’s Levada Center on March 21-27, 2024. 

This center has been measuring Russians’ attitudes toward emigration since 1990, registering peaks in the share of Russians who would like to leave for greener pastures in May 2011, May 2013 and May 2021. In all three instances, the share of Russians who answered “definitely yes” or “likely yes” when asked “Would you like to move abroad for permanent residence?” totaled 22% (see Figure 1). In comparison, Levada’s more recent measurements show that right after Vladimir Putin sent troops to re-invade Ukraine in February 2022, this share was 10% (March 2022), which then increased to 11% in February 2023, before declining again in March 2024 to an all-time record low of 9%. At the same time, in the period since Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, the share of those who would not want to move abroad increased from 79% to a record high of 90% (see Figure 1). These measurements by Levada, which is the most renowned of Russia’s independent pollsters in spite of increasing constraints on the activities of such pollsters, aligns with the findings of the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), which claims that its March 2024 poll revealed that the share of Russians who want to leave Russia for permanent residency abroad and the share of Russians who don’t reached a record low (5%) and a record high (93%), respectively, since 1991.

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Fiona Hill

“Does Russia still matter?” That was the central question of a recent discussion with leading American national security expert Fiona Hill, hosted by Russia Matters and moderated by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, and former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Hill’s answer to that question was in the affirmative, rooted in what she described as Russia’s perennial significance in global affairs, ranging from climate change to European insecurity and from Middle Eastern power dynamics to nuclear security. 

Russia's Enduring Significance 

It was Allison, a renowned expert on U.S. national security and defense policy, who opened the Feb. 6 discussion by observing that at the very least, Russia has a primary claim to global importance because of its nuclear arsenal. Agreeing with Allison’s opening remarks, Hill elaborated: “Russia is not going anywhere, and it will always matter … Russia will continue to matter and so will Putin.” She noted that while the state of relations with Russia is a “tragedy,” Russia’s intrinsic attributes, including its size and resources, allow Russia to significantly impact U.S. security. Despite facing international scrutiny and sanctions, Russia maintains an "incredible cultural impact" globally and remains an "influential player on the Eurasian landmass," according to Hill. 

She went on to advocate for a 360-degree view to understand the Kremlin's comprehensive strategy, which spans beyond mere energy politics to include nuclear power and technological advancements and combating climate change. Hill warned against underestimating Russia's capabilities and intentions, emphasizing the need for the United States to create a cohesive Russian strategy instead of reinventing its approach with each administration. Hill added that while U.S. presidents have come and gone, Vladimir Putin has been in power for nearly 25 years and remains “very predictable in certain aspects.”

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Putin interview

On March 13, President Vladimir Putin granted an interview, in which he again delved into the conditions under which he says he would initiate the use of nuclear weapons. His remarks were so ambiguous that it caused mainstream Western media organizations—which tend to agree on what to emphasize in news out of the Kremlin—to put divergent headlines on the news stories that they ran about this particular interview. “Putin, in Pre-Election Messaging, Is Less Strident on Nuclear War. The Russian leader struck a softer tone about nuclear weapons in an interview with state television,” was the NYT’s headline. In contrast, the FT’s headline was “Russia ‘prepared’ for nuclear war, warns Vladimir Putin. President resumes bullish rhetoric over use of atomic arsenal if west threatens Moscow’s sovereignty,” while CBS News ran with “Putin again threatens to use nuclear weapons, claims Russia's arsenal ‘much more’ advanced than America's” and WSJ led with “Putin Rattles Nuclear Saber Ahead of Presidential Elections; Raising specter of nuclear confrontation.”

So, which is it? Has Putin just struck a softer tone about nuclear weapons or has he rattled his nuclear saber yet again? The answer is both.

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UDCG January 2023

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was quoted on Jan. 17, 2024, as saying that every member of the so-called Ramstein group should give the equivalent of 0.25% of their gross domestic product to Kyiv annually, which “would raise at least €120 billion ($131 billion) and swing the conflict in Ukraine’s favor,” according to Bloomberg.

In her claim, Kallas did not list members of this group, which is officially known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG), only noting that the group comprised more than 50 countries, including all 31 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Thus, we contacted Kallas’ staff to ask for the list of members. The prime minister’s office referred us to the Wikipedia page, and advised contacting the press service of the U.S. Department of Defense, which typically hosts the group’s meetings at the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein air base in Germany (thus, the informal name of the group), for an official list. In response to the RM inquiry, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz identified 43 countries (44 including Ukraine) as members of UDCG, listed below in Table 1.

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Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defense in Brussels, Belgium

The past few months have been awash with forecasts by European and NATO officials and commanders that Russia may attack NATO in the not-so-distant future. Some of these high-ranking forecasters, such as NATO military committee chairman Rob Bauer, Belgian army chief Michel Hofman, Latvian General Valdemaras Rupsys, Estonia's Foreign Intelligence Service chief Kaupo Rosin and his colleagues, explicitly condition such aggression against Europe on Russia’s victory in Ukraine, while others in their public comments just forecast the time range for aggression without explicitly the aggression on the victory. These include Britain’s defense secretary Grant Shapps, Germany's Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Bulgarian PM Nikolai Denkov. There are also those who claim Russia is not interested in initiating an attack on NATO at all. These include Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov. The problem with these assurances that NATO will not be a target for a Russian military attack, however, is that is what the Russian leadership had said about Ukraine before Feb. 24, 2022. So, will Russia attack NATO once ‘done’ in Ukraine? If so, when? The short answer, according to Europeans, who believe such an attack is probable, is anytime between 3 and 20 years (if you exclude, as we don, the German military’s exercise scenario which asks its participants to imagine Russia will attack within 2025).  The longer answer is below with most of the forecasters predicting an aggression in less than 10 years, which is alarming, given that people – who are familiar with European members of NATO’s preparations to defend themselves unaided by U.S.— do not expect these members to acquire such a capability at least in the next decade, according to  Bloomberg.

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Blinken, Donfried, Kuleba

As the U.S. Congress wrestles with a legislative package to  provide continued assistance to Ukraine, a series of discussions on the Russian-Ukrainian war held by a study group, which I recently led at Harvard’s Kennedy School, seems highly relevant. Over multiple meetings during the fall semester, approximately 30 students debated the key issues confronting Americans as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Students were assigned to one side of each debate, meaning that many of them were not representing their personal views. One of those debates considered whether the United States should continue to provide the substantial level of military assistance to Ukraine that it had since the start of the war in February 2022. The arguments the two sides deployed in making their case are directly relevant to the current debate on Capitol Hill. 

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Ukraine military insignia

Since December, my colleagues at Russia Matters and I have been monitoring how Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and its commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi have sparred over who should assume prime responsibility for the plan to conscript up to 500,000 Ukrainians. As we watched the two employ what Sun Tzu would have described as “indirect methods” to avoid becoming the person publicly associated with the unpopular plan, we could not help wondering whether the Ukrainian authorities actually have the capacity to add (and keep) half a million to the fighting force, if the government and parliament eventually agree on a bill that would authorize such an addition. Here’s what I have found out in my effort to answer that question.

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Russia war report card

January 2 update: No significant territorial change. Russia fired several large missile attacks at Ukrainian cities, and claimed Ukraine attacked Belgorod killing over 20 people. Net territorial change in the past month: Russia +46 square miles.

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Russia war report card

December 19 update: Territorial stalemate. Zelensky said peace talks with Russia are not currently feasible but Ukraine is not losing and US and Europe will pass aid. Net territorial change in the past month: Russia +20 square miles.

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putin Dec 8

A cross-section of views on Putin's revelation that he plans to seek yet another presidential term.

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