In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
A Soviet soldier on watch in Afghanistan, 1988.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump offered his take on Soviet Russia’s experiences in Afghanistan as he argued in favor of a huge U.S. troop withdrawal and a larger contribution by Moscow to stabilize the war-racked country. The U.S. president put forward two basic propositions: that the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union and led to its collapse and that the reason Moscow (rightly, according to Trump) invaded Afghanistan “was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Both claims rightly drew a barrage of criticism in the U.S., Europe and Afghanistan. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers, normally measured in their criticism of Trump’s conduct and policies, said of his contention about terrorists that they “cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”

Among the rebukes leveled at Trump was, in the words of one Republican commentator, that he was repeating “Soviet-Putinist propaganda.” But was he? While Russian diplomats had cautiously welcomed earlier reports of a planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Kremlin supported Trump’s two propositions. The state-owned RT media conglomerate, known to toe the Kremlin line, also chose to withhold support in its coverage of Trump’s Jan. 3 remarks, including a story on its Russian-language website titled “‘An Argument for Ignoramuses’: Why Trump Blamed Afghanistan for the Soviet Collapse.” Instead, the report quoted at length from critical responses in U.S. newspapers, including political scientist Barnett Rubin’s comment to The Washington Post that, “The most shameless Soviet propagandist never claimed that Afghan terrorists were attacking Russia.”

Russian officials’ and propagandists’ decision to refrain from endorsing Trump’s claims—especially that Moscow was right to send troops into Afghanistan because otherwise terrorists would have invaded the Soviet Union—is all the more notable given that Moscow has been casting its Soviet-era Afghan war in a more favorable light than before. Indeed, Russia’s State Duma plans to adopt an official document next month, stressing the long-ago military campaign’s legitimacy in terms of international law and overturning a 1989 Soviet parliamentary resolution condemning the invasion.

However, looking beyond the immediate Russian reaction to Trump’s remarks, one finds that both his propositions echo some earlier assessments of the Soviet-era Afghan war (see below). For example, while the official Russian statements, documents and textbooks reviewed for this blog post do not support Trump’s claim that the Soviet Union “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” and ceased to exist as a result, at least one of them does acknowledge that the campaign put a significant drain on Soviet finances. More importantly, while none of the sources claimed, as Trump did, that “terrorists were going into Russia” at the time of the Soviet invasion, some prominent ones—most notably President Vladimir Putin—have said or implied that concerns about a spillover of the Islamist insurgency from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union across their shared border did contribute to Moscow’s decision to send troops.

Proposition I as formulated by Trump:

“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. … The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. … A lot [of] these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”

Russians’ take on Proposition I in chronological order:

  • Analytical memo from Moscow-based Institute of the Economy of the Global Socialist System to Central Committee of CPSU: “With the sending of troops to Afghanistan our policy … has crossed the permissible boundaries of confrontation in the ‘third world.’ The benefits of this action turned out to be insignificant in comparison with the damage that was inflicted on our interests.” (1980)

  • Economist and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, in his book explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union, cited the war in Afghanistan as an example of disproportionate geopolitical ambition, but did not identify it among the major drivers of collapse. Gaidar identified about a dozen structural, longer-term factors and several more immediate triggers whose confluence led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The predominant factor was the inefficiency of the Soviet economy, which could not cope with a sharp drop in revenues from oil exports. (2007)

  • 11th-grade textbook "History, Late 19th - Early 21st Century" (N.V. Zagladin and Yu.A. Petrov): “Economic losses were estimated to have totaled tens of billions of rubles.1 … [S]pending allocated through the Defense Ministry alone exceeded 12 billion rubles and 8 billion hard-currency-equivalent rubles on various aid… These expenditures had a significant impact on the state of the Soviet economy.” (2004)

  • Boris Gromov, army commander who led withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989: “The collapse of the Soviet Union had been approaching even before the campaign in Afghanistan began. These were complex processes, and they had begun long before that. They were underway, gaining momentum. It would be more correct to say that the war in Afghanistan gave one of the impulses for the collapse of the USSR.” (2016)

  • The online version of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential library notes that the Soviet decision to send troops had “an extremely negative impact on the international standing of the USSR. The country, in fact, found itself in partial international isolation.” (Undated)

Proposition II as formulated by Trump:

“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. … They [the Soviets] were right to be there.”

Russians’ take on Proposition II in chronological order:

  • Official reason for sending troops as formulated by the Soviet Politburo on Dec. 12, 1979: "In order to provide international assistance to the friendly Afghan people, as well as to create favorable conditions for preventing anti-Afghan actions by neighboring states." A secret appendix to the Politburo’s resolution on how to spin the deployment of troops said it should be portrayed as “rendering help and assistance to the people and government of Afghanistan in fighting against external aggression,” which, as Leonid Brezhnev described in his Dec. 12, 1979, draft letter to Jimmy Carter, “had been occurring for a long period of time and now has acquired yet a wider scale.” (A classified Nov. 29, 1979, document co-authored by three Politburo members and the secretary of the Central Committee makes it clear that the Soviet leadership’s primary geopolitical concern was the possibility of a friendlier stance toward Washington by Afghan President Hafizullah Amin.)

  • “History of Soviet Russia” textbook (I.S. Ratkovsky and M.V. Khodyakov): “The coup in the leadership of the PDPA [People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan] (October 1979), the death of head of state [Nur Muhammad] Taraki, the rise to power of Amin, who carried out repressions in the party, and the strengthening of the Islamic opposition all forced the Soviet Union to resort to the use of force.” (2001)

  • President Vladimir Putin:  “Of course, one of the motives was the wish of the Soviet Government to secure our southern borders. Afghanistan was an extremely volatile and unpredictable neighbor. And we see what is happening there today. I must say that the Soviet military commanders … were against the operation, citing the difficulty of conducting military operations on that particular terrain. This is attested to by the documents and the testimony of the veterans who were engaged in these processes. But the superpowers and their allies had been engaged in a global confrontation for decades, and they proceeded in accordance with the logic of confrontation and their own vision of their geopolitical interests of the time.” (2004)

  • Russian historian and retired general Alexander Lyakhovsky wrote in his 2009 book “The Tragedy and Valor of Afghanistan” that the key trigger behind the Kremlin’s decision to send Soviet troops was the failure of the local Communist leadership’s armed forces to repel the onslaught of the mujahedeen.

  • 11th-grade textbook "History, Late 19th - Early 21st Century" (Zagladin and Petrov): The Soviet leadership’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan was dictated by the desire to attain “full political control over the territory of Afghanistan, protection of own borders, [and] countering attempts by the other superpower to gain a foothold in the region.” (2014)

  • Vladimir Putin: “Of course, there were a lot of mistakes, but there were also real threats that at that time the Soviet leadership tried to stop by sending troops into Afghanistan. … At that time our country encountered what is today called political Islam in Afghanistan. The extremist organizations were only getting born at the time, and they were being artificially fed from the outside.” (2015)

  • Senator Franz Klintsevich, leader of the Russian Union of Afghan Veterans, said (when he was a State Duma deputy from the Kremlin’s United Russia party) that, “The presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan ‘froze’ the threat of terrorism, which has now become problem No. 1 for all mankind. The Soviet Union was the first to take on the brunt of ‘jihad,’ whose theoreticians and implementers were ideologically and financially fostered by the secret services of Western countries, first and foremost the U.S.” (2015)

  • Russian Defense Ministry encyclopedia: “The DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] leadership viewed third countries’ support of the armed opposition [in Afghanistan] as these countries’ participation in a war against Afghanistan and repeatedly appealed to the USSR for direct military assistance. By the end of 1979, the situation in the country had deteriorated dramatically, [and] a threat that the left regime would fall had emerged in what the Soviet leadership believed could lead to an increase in the influence of Western countries on the southern borders of the USSR, as well as to a transfer of the armed struggle to the territory of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics.” (Undated)

  • The online version of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential library notes that the March 1979 mutiny of some DRA forces in Herat province, where the rebellious soldiers allied with the mujahedeen, was one of the more notable precipitants of the Soviet decision to send troops because that province bordered the Soviet Union’s Turkmen Republic. (Undated)

1Contrast that sum with the Soviet defense budget, which, according to SIPRI, totaled 138 billion rubles in the last full year of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan alone (1988). Official Soviet rate was 1 Soviet ruble = $1.51 as of January 1979.

Photo: A Soviet soldier on watch in Afghanistan, 1988. RIA Novosti archive image by A. Solomonov shared under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. 

Haymarket riot

Russia Matters’ weekly analytical digest did not come out Dec. 24 or Dec. 31 because of the winter holidays in the U.S., but here is a roundup of notable Russia-related commentary published since our last edition of the Russia Analytical Report—beginning with Anatol Lieven’s compelling argument that Western leaders must address the causes of domestic discontent instead of demonizing Russia and China in a new cold war.

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

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Western Nations Are Repeating the Mistakes of 1914,” Anatol Lieven, The National Interest, 12.22.18

Nuclear arms control:

“Is there a glimmer of hope for the INF Treaty?” Steven Pifer, Brookings, 12.27.18

“Arms Control and the Aging Process,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 12.24.18


“The New Face of Terrorism in 2019. Forget the Middle East—it’s time to prepare for attacks from the former Soviet Union,” Vera Mironova, Foreign Policy, 01.01.19

Conflict in Syria:

“Trump abandons a mission that was working,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 12.19.18

“What Trump's Syria decision means on the front lines,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 12.23.18

Elections interference:

“Mueller's Report Will Be a Bore,” Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Jenkins, 01.01.19

“Russia's Information Warfare,” Renee DiResta, New York Times, 12.17.18.

“Why Russia sees the NRA as key to manipulating American politics,” Laura Ellyn Smith, The Washington Post, 12.18.18

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“A better approach to 'America First',” Antony J. Blinken and Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, 01.01.19

“Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” Robert Kaplan, New York Times, 01.01.19

“A look into the crystal ball for Jan. 1, 2020,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 01.01.19

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Europe Should Woo Russia When Putin's Gone,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 12.28.18

“The End of Europe?” Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 12.18.18

“Russia sees opportunity in ailing Venezuela.” Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 12.25.18


“Is a Russian military operation against Ukraine likely in the near future?” Michael Kofman, Russia Military Analysis blog, 12.26.18

“Is Russia about to invade Ukraine again? That may depend on Trump,” The Washington Post editorial, 12.30.18

Fact-check of Petro Poroshenko’s claim that 54 percent of Ukrainians support joining NATO, Russia Matters, 12.31.18

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin’s Courtiers: How Sanctions Have Changed Russia’s Economic Policy,” Alexandra

Prokopenko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.20.18

Security and intelligence:

“Putin’s Keystone Spies,” Yulia Latynina, New York Times, 12.17.18

“How Russia’s military intelligence agency became the covert muscle in Putin’s duels with the West,” Anton Troianovski and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 12.28.18


Illustration: "The Haymarket Riot" by Harper's Weekly, in the public domain.

Image of the Kerch Strait from space

Looking to make sense of the events between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and their implications? RM recommends the following articles:

Photo shared by NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eschatological talk of nuclear Armageddon at this year’s Valdai forum has stirred up heated debates on how well his description of Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons matches the country’s official military doctrine. One commentator concluded that “Putin clearly doesn’t put much stock even in rules that he wrote himself,” while another accused him of lying that the Russian military doctrine does not provide for the possibility of a first nuclear strike. However, a close look at Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks and Russia’s 2014 military doctrine reveals that, while Putin deviated from the language in the doctrine, he did not lie on the first use issue. Nor did he seem to be hinting at a shift in Russia’s nuclear posture. More likely, he was signaling to Washington that the existing nuclear arms control treaties need to remain in place for the sake of ensuring strategic stability in the U.S.-Russian nuclear dyad and avoiding an accidental war between the two countries.

First, about the supposed lie: In her Oct. 19 take on Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks, New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen claimed that the Russian leader supposedly insisted at the Valdai forum that Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not...

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Davis Center timeline
This fall, Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies celebrated its 70th anniversary with a weekend of panels that brought together alumni, current students, faculty and others associated with the center for discussions on a wide range of topics concerning Russia and Eurasia. Below are some highlights. An exhibit featuring the timeline of U.S.-Russian interaction shown above is on view at Harvard until Dec. 14, 2018.

Present-Day Russian Politics

Harvard’s own Alexandra Vacroux chaired a panel on the connections between Russian foreign and domestic policy, with speakers discussing political networks, xenophobia and sanctions. Henry Hale of George Washington University argued that Russian politics are largely defined by extended networks of personal acquaintance and that the Putin regime is not as stable as it may appear, since it is vulnerable to interruptions in these networks, among other problems. Yoshiko Herrera from the University of Wisconsin-Madison approached the topic from a different angle, focusing on Russian nationalism. She noted that while xenophobic violence in Russia has decreased, it has been refocused toward a dislike of the West, although not toward a rejection of European identity. Other panelists focused more on economics. Oksana Antonenko, an analyst with the global consultancy Control Risks, addressed Russia’s continued resource reliance and lack of presence in many global supply chains. Antonenko also discussed sanctions, arguing that they have in fact served to benefit state-run industry to the detriment of the private sector. Christopher Jarmas, a recent Davis grad now working as an analyst at the Sayari consultancy, also addressed sanctions, emphasizing that they are meant to have a long-term impact and are more effective when states are closely tied together economically, and that their impact on Russia will really be felt once oil prices fall.
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VOTE sign
What impact will this week’s midterm elections have on the U.S. policies most relevant to U.S.-Russian relations? Russia Matters has scanned publications by some of the West’s leading media and think-tanks for initial insights. Most commentators seem to agree that a Democratic-led House of Representatives is likely to revive or intensify some of the investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and to expand sanctions against Russia, but that President Donald Trump’s executive powers are deep and broad enough to let him continue pursuing a Russia policy of his own choice. (Though it’s worth noting that even with a Republican-led Congress, the Trump administration has hardly been dovish on Moscow.)

The center of decision making on Russia sanctions and policy, according to former Obama administration official Peter Harrell, will likely shift from the Republican-majority Senate to the House. In fact, new sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of the election’s winners, according to Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. They note that under a Democratic House, the Kremlin...
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2018 midterm election interference
This week’s midterms offer a good opportunity for a status update on the latest evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Over the past six months, there has been no shortage of alarming warnings. In August, five of the country’s top national security officials spoke to reporters at the White House about the threat posed by Moscow and efforts to combat it. “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” FBI director Christopher Wray said then. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, added that “the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that “our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”

At the same time, the officials noted that Russian interference efforts seem far less intense than during the 2016 presidential race. “It is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” Coats said of alleged Russian efforts to meddle in the midterms. “We know that, through decades, Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America. However, they stepped up their game big-time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.” Wray likewise said that, “in the context of 2018, we are not yet seeing the same kind of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure—voter registration databases, in particular.” In July, Nielsen delivered a similar message, as reported by CNN, saying there are "no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016."

Senior Russian officials have denied accusations of election interference, calling them “baseless.” Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company indicted in February for allegedly funding a “troll farm” that meddled in the 2016 election, pleaded not guilty in May and has tried to fight the charges in a U.S. court since then, arguing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was unlawfully appointed and lacks the legal authority to push the case forward.

Some U.S. commentators have been skeptical about “the supposed Russian threat to the midterms,” with an analysis in The Nation arguing recently that “given what we actually know about Russian disinformation [so far], its most significant impact appears to be as fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.”

Nonetheless, U.S. officials, political operatives and tech executives have made a concerted effort to remain vigilant about meddling efforts. The Washington Post reported this month that “DHS has created round-the-clock communications channels with election officials in all 50 states, run national tabletop exercises with state and local officials to game out how to respond to possible crises and, at the states’ request, is monitoring election system network traffic for cyberthreats. Social media companies and political organizations have also strengthened their defenses.” In May, according to the New York Times, “eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies … met with United States intelligence officials … to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.” A number of think-tanks have been contributing expertise as well. Harvard’s Belfer Center has been training state election officials through its Defending Digital Democracy initiative, for instance, while the Atlantic Council has tried to track Russian disinformation efforts through two projects, the Disinfo Portal and DFR Lab.

For some security analysts, the seeming lull in Russian activity is cold comfort. “The Russians are too smart to run the same play a second time,” Dmitri Alperovich, a founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told the New York Times. “If they were going to do anything in today’s environment, they certainly wouldn’t want to act until the very last moment.” As two examples of last-minute efforts that could be used “to convince voters that their ballots might not be counted, or [not be] counted correctly,” the paper mentioned an “attack on county or state voter-registration systems, just to knock them off-line, [which] would create an uproar from voters who might show up at the polls and find they could not vote,” and a “strike at power grids, turning out the lights at polling places, or just disrupting transportation systems [that] could suppress turnout and lead to charges of manipulation.” (Unnamed intelligence officials and technology company executives reportedly told the Times in July that they have seen “surprisingly far more effort [by Russian hackers] directed at implanting malware in the electrical grid” than interfering with elections.)

Moreover, as with the 2016 polls, new specifics about attempts at interference are likely to become public well after the voting is over and done—and Russia’s role is unclear thus far. In August, the Times cited unnamed officials as saying that “vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections.” The Times also reported that last weekend “cybersecurity firms and some election officials reported seeing an increase in cyberattacks on websites and infrastructure surrounding the vote,” but “it is unclear where the attacks are coming from; … the sources appear to be a mix, everything from other countries to lone hackers looking to make a name for themselves, investigators say.” Cloudflare’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, told the paper that “the incursions were not an effort to disrupt the vote, but merely to bolster rumors of election fraud and interference. ‘They are going after anything that can undermine the process itself,’ he said. ‘Their aim is to put the outcome in doubt.’” This, the paper noted, could give losing candidates and their supporters a chance to claim elections were rigged. Earlier, too, the Times had reported that disinformation campaigns used to influence public opinion “are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.”

On Nov. 5, the Boston Globe reported that government documents reviewed by the newspaper show that “federal agencies have logged more than 160 reports of suspected meddling in U.S. elections since Aug. 1” and the “pace of suspicious activity has picked up in recent weeks—up to 10 incidents each day,” with officials “on high alert.” The previously unreported incidents, mostly documented in DHS election-threat reports reviewed by the Globe, range from “injections of malicious computer code to a massive number of bogus requests for voter registration forms.” The reports “make no conclusions about who is behind the attacks,” but “describe most of the recent incidents as ‘foreign-based.’” A DHS cybersecurity official, speaking anonymously, told the paper: “‘We’re seeing the same thing [as in 2016]; the only difference is now we aren’t saying Russia… It’s nuanced. We haven’t attributed the attacks to anyone yet.’”

Earlier this year, Russia Matters tried to lay out the publicly available evidence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (That was published before July’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, charged with “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.”) Here we have tried to do the same thing for evidence related to the 2018 midterms, divided into two categories: the cyber domain and the information domain. Like our earlier attempt, this is not an investigation, merely a stock-taking of evidence about meddling in the U.S. midterm elections. In compiling this evidence we have limited ourselves to using information that is publicly available at the time of writing, such as media reports and public statements or documents from government officials and company representatives. The list is not exhaustive and we welcome suggestions for ways to improve it (please use the comments section below).
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Putin at Valdai 2018
In contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.
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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev
As Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms-control treaty, one of its original signers, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has said the decision is not the work of “a great mind.” We will never know the opinion of the other signer of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, because he died in 2004. But 32 years ago this month the two leaders met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit that helped pave the way to the INF Treaty. And the discussions weren’t limited to serious matters of global security and “trust but verify.”

Here we share three moments of levity and camaraderie from Oct. 12, 1986, recorded in two U.S. memoranda on the day’s meetings, which have been made available through the efforts of the National Security Archive at George Washington University...
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Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine
The festering conflict in eastern Ukraine has been a central cause of tensions between Russia and the West for over four years. In July 2017 diplomat Kurt Volker was appointed as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations. This month, Volker—a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who now wears different hats in academe and the private sector in addition to his government service—spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs about the crisis in the transatlantic relationship.

While Russia and Ukraine were not the event’s main focus, Volker made the following points about the standoff between the two and its ripple effect in the West...
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