In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

The Russian defense ministry has just launched a multi-phase exercise near Ukraine meant to prepare its forces for using non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs). In addition to the obvious purpose of preparing Russian troops to use tactical nuclear weapons in battle, the multi-stage exercise is also meant to signal to the West that it should refrain from escalating assistance to Ukraine, as well as to warn the U.S. and its allies that Russia may liberalize its conditions for using nuclear weapons. Finally, the exercise may be evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to retain Valery Gerasimov as head of the General Staff, at least for now.

That the Russian armed forces are planning a NSNW wargame became publicly known on May 6, when the country’s defense ministry (MoD) issued a statement disclosing that Putin—who is the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces—had ordered an exercise in the Southern Military District (SMD) to have MoD units practice using tactical nuclear weapons. The wargame is supposed to prepare these units for what the ministry described as “unconditionally ensuring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation,” according to the statement.1 The defense agency’s rather curt announcement was followed by a longer statement from the country’s foreign ministry (MFA), which said that the planned wargame “should be considered in the context of recent bellicose statements by Western officials and sharply destabilizing actions taken by a number of NATO countries that are aimed at building forceful pressure on the Russian Federation and at creating additional threats to the security of our country in connection with the conflict in and around Ukraine.”  

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Sworn in for yet another presidential term, Vladimir Putin is firmly on the path to becoming Russia’s longest ruler, surpassing even Josef Stalin, who governed Soviet Russia for almost 31 years. For many, a future Russia without Putin remains a black box. Some fear a civil war, perhaps triggered by a coup attempt and followed by chaos. Others believe there will be a more or less orderly changing of the guard. 

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and its Russia Matters project have recently hosted a conversation to discuss these and other scenarios. Entitled “Post Putin Russia: What Comes Next?”, the discussion featured Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Leon Aron, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It was moderated by the Belfer Center’s Ambassador Paula Dobriansky.

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Putin and Xi

"Is the Russia-China relationship truly an alliance?" This pivotal question framed a recent seminar hosted by the Belfer Center and Russia Matters, entitled "Russia-China: A Long-Term Alliance?" as part of the series "Russia's Past, Present, and Future." Moderated by Paula Dobriansky, a senior fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the seminar featured insights from Harvard’s S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations Rana Mitter and senior research scientist at the China and Indo-Pacific Studies Division at CNA, Dr. Elizabeth Wishnick. Both Wishnick and Mitter agreed that alignment defines the current Sino-Russian relationship, not alliance. Over the course of the ensuing discussion, the nuances of this alignment were explored in detail; Mitter and Wishnick delved into the essence of the Russia-China relationship, probing whether this partnership signifies a long-standing alliance, the potential role of China in a post-Putin Russia, the prospects for cooperation or discord and the broader implications of this relationship for the Indo-Pacific region.

In her opening remarks, Wishnick underlined that while she dislikes the term “marriage of convenience” to describe the Sino-Russian relationship, the relationship between the two countries, which have not entered any official military pacts with each other, falls short of an alliance. She then explained which features of this relationship make it an alignment. Among these, she pointed to deepening military and aerospace cooperation, mutual support in international venues and expanding trade. Wishnick also emphasized two distinct aligning factors in the relationship: a shared animosity for the United States and both countries’ search for regime security as authoritarian states. These factors are the prevailing glue that anchors their alignment rather than the “non-insignificant” personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Wishnick also emphasized that while Russian public opinion vis-à-vis China has improved, Russians remain concerned about becoming an energy appendage of China. In addition, deeper integration faces challenges, including complicated border relations in Russia’s east and China’s northeast, as evidenced by agreements of cooperation between non-contiguous border regions. 

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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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