In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Moscow dawn
The Levada Center recently polled Russians on their attitudes toward Russia’s general standing in the international community, as well as their attitudes toward strategic competitors and countries within the post-Soviet neighborhood. Polling shows an improvement in attitudes toward the U.S., EU and Ukraine following unfavorable public opinion trends in the spring of 2021. Likewise, positive attitudes toward Georgia have been making steady improvements since 2018. However, Russian attitudes toward China have worsened since the beginning of 2021.

When asked about Russia’s presence on the global stage, respondents feel that Russia is isolated and viewed as a competitor by developed nations. Nevertheless, a majority of Russians want a more positive relationship with the West.
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SCO leaders
If geopolitics abhors vacuums, then who will fill the void created by the U.S. departure from Afghanistan? One player that may be in a position to fill some of that void is the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO), in my view. Since its prototype was established in 1996, the SCO has evolved into a viable organization for regional security and defense cooperation, and there is no doubt that most, if not all, of its members, share an urgent interest in keeping instability from spilling over from Afghanistan. However, while the SCO should be expected to try to act on that collective interest, it is doubtful that any of its members, even leading giants Russia and China, will be able to fully fill the shoes left by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.  

The change of power in Kabul has been quite abrupt, catching many regional watchers off guard, as evidenced, for instance, by a commentary published by the Diplomat in mid-July arguing that it was time for the SCO to accommodate the Ashraf Ghani government’s requests for Afghanistan to join the organization. In the wake of the subsequent demise of Ghani’s regime and the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, there is hardly a neighboring country left that would not be interested in joining forces with some of the regional powers to defend themselves from threats emanating from the (yet again) destabilized Afghanistan. Individual SCO members are no exception, and there is no doubt they will devote the lion’s share of their Sept. 16-17 summit in Dushanbe to the Afghanistan formulating a collective strategy to respond to these threats. These threats include a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, a dramatic increase in the transit of refugees, and continued drug trafficking.
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Afghan government forces in Jowzjan Province during 2021 Taliban offensive
In 2001, then-Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claims to have told the Taliban to "f--- off” in response to the group’s alleged offer to team up with Moscow against the United States. This bears contrasting with recent statements by Russian officials, such as  Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov and Russia’s ambassador in Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov. “If we compare them in terms of the ability to negotiate with colleagues and partners, the Taliban has long demonstrated a much better ability to negotiate than the puppet government,” TASS quoted Kabulov as saying.  "They made a good impression on us, adequate men, well armed,” Russia’s ambassador in Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov said in reference to members of the Taliban, which at present is designated by the Russian government as a banned terrorist organization.

The perspectives of Russia’s non-government Middle East experts on the ascent of the Taliban and its impact on Russia appear to be more varied than those of Russian diplomats and their other official counterparts. We have compiled a selection of such views, along with views on the same expressed by Western FSU watchers.
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Il-96-400M
Russia’s Voronezh Joint-Stock Aircraft Building Company has begun work on a plane designed to enable Russia’s military-political leadership to exercise nuclear command, control, and communications (N3) in the event of a nuclear war while airborne. The design of the aircraft—nicknamed “Judgement Day Plane” by the Russian media—is based on the long-range white-body airliner Il-96-400M, which was developed by the Moscow-based design bureau of the Ilyushin Aviation Complex, part of Russia's state-owned United Aircraft Corporation.

The N3 plane, which is being built as part of the so-called Zveno-3S project, which was first mentioned in the media in 2016, will carry domestically made equipment only and that equipment would allow those on board to send launch commands to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including stationary missiles in silos and mobile missiles, as well as to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried by submerged vessels up to 6,000 km away, according to a report by Russia’s state-funded RIA Novosti news agency. The plane can apparently remain airborne for days thanks to its ability to refuel in midair, which is a feature it shares with its U.S. counterpart, the E-4B. If not refueled, new plane will still have double the flight range of its predecessor, which was named Il-80 (NATO code: Maxdome) and which was based on Ilyushin’s Soviet-era Il-86 airliner.

“The plan is to replace [the IL-80] with IL-96-400M aircraft. This will significantly increase the time of airborne combat duty of command posts and increase the coverage area of command and control,” a source in Russia’s aircraft-building industry told TASS in October. The Russian Defense Ministry reportedly operates four Maxdomes at the moment.
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Cyber
Should the U.S and Russia agree on a set of cyber rules and is doing so even possible? The answer according to a recent U.S.-Russian exploratory paper we published, is yes, but not yet. The answer according to Elena Chernenko, head of Russian daily Kommersant’s international news desk, and Joe Nye, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, as provided during a July 20 event at The Center for the National Interest was also affirmative, with both speakers pointing to U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement of 1972 as a model for a bilateral cyber deal.

In their remarks at the event Chernenko and Nye both cautioned against aiming for anything as grand as a cyber treaty. Nye noted that Russia has been proposing such a treaty for the past 20 years at the United Nations, but said that in his view, this is simply unrealistic because it would be unverifiable. He also noted that a U.S.-Russian cyber agreement, even if reached, could be derailed by adverse developments in other spheres of the bilateral relationship. He went on to suggest that while it is possible that the sides would be able to reach an agreement in the cyber domain that would remain effective for a little while, the risk is it could then become increasingly ignored, particularly if bilateral relations continue to deteriorate, as was the case with the 1972 agreement. Chernenko concurred with Nye’s proposition that Moscow and Washington should aim for an agreement rather than a treaty that would need to be ratified.

Nye added that with or without an agreement, the United States should continue to focus on deterrence with respect to Russia and to other state and non-state actors. He invoked a noisy party analogy when describing how that deterrence would work.
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Kremlin walls
Vladimir Putin has just signed off on Russia’s new National Security Strategy. As with any such strategic document, it is useful to compare it to its predecessor, if only to identify key changes in the Kremlin’s vision of what constitutes Russia’s national security and how to attain it. My comparison between the 2021 document and its 2015 predecessor reveals that the Kremlin has strengthened its determination to deter the West and engage the East (Asia), which it sees, respectively, as declining and rising, while starting to pay more attention to domestic components of national security, such as human capital.

When the previous strategy was adopted in 2015, many analysts suspected that relations between the West and Russia had already hit rock bottom following the intervention in Ukraine that the Kremlin launched in 2014 with some hoping for an eventual rebound, if only a partial one. The new document shows that that bottom was false, with multiple layers underneath ripe for the further deterioration of Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies, even as Moscow’s partnership with Asia’s leading powers remained strong (India) or strengthened further (China).

While the 2015 strategy contained clauses for cooperation with the United States and the European Union, with multiple goals to be pursued jointly, and even for the development of relations with NATO, the 2021 version contains no such language when describing Russia’s interaction with what the Kremlin sees as a declining West. Moreover, the new document does not mention the European Union at all, indicating that in the Russian leadership’s view, the European Union no longer matters—at least in matters of national security (and never mind that it remains Russia’s largest trading partner).
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NK
While lessons learned from regional military conflicts accounted for our most popular reads in January through June 2021, topics ranging from climate change to cybersecurity also dominated top positions in our ranking. Read on for a look at Russia Matters' top 10 most popular stories, based on reader analytics captured during the first half of this year. 

1. A Look at the Military Lessons of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: In this analysis,  director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA examines the implications of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh which continue to reverberate well outside the region given its potential significance for regional and great powers alike, while further spurring debates on the character of modern warfare. 

2. Who ‘Defeated’ ISIS? An Analysis of US and Russian Contributions: There can be little doubt that the United States and its allies played a much bigger role that Russia did in subduing ISIS, the author, a lecturer in security and development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, asserts in this analysis; but ISIS has plenty of life in it yet and any alleged victory is fragile.

3. Five Years After Russia Declared Victory in Syria: What Has Been Won? In this cost-benefit assessment, the author—a graduate student at Harvard University and a student associate at RM—questions whether Russia's intervention in Syria has paid off, or whether then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 prediction that the operation would end in a “quagmire” for Russia has come true.
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Red Square
The United States continues to be the country that is least friendly to Russia in the eyes of this country’s population, according to a study released by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the Levada Center, one day ahead of the June 16 Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. As many as 66% of respondents to the poll—which was conducted in May and which allowed respondents to select five countries from a list—identified America as hostile toward Russia. Ukraine and the United Kingdom came in second and third in the ranking, with respectively 40% and 28% of Russians categorizing them as most unfriendly (See Table 1). At the same time, the proportion of individuals with negative attitudes towards the United States increased from 42% in March 2021 to 54% in  May 2021 while the share of individuals who had positive view towards U.S. decreased from 40% to 31% over the same period of time. Popular attitudes towards the European Union also grew increasingly negative. The share of Russians who hold positive views of the European Union fell from 40% in March to 31% in May.

When it comes to countries that Russians view as most friendly, Belarus tops the list, according to the recent poll. (See Table 2). As many as 58 percent of Russians viewed Belarus as friendly as of May 2021. China came in second, with 38 percent (a slight decrease from 49 percent in 2020), followed by Kazakhstan (34 percent), Armenia (16 percent) and India (13 percent).
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Airplane.

Nearly half of 18-24 year old Russians are ready and willing to move abroad for purposes of becoming permanent residents in a foreign country, according to a recent national poll conducted by Russia’s leading independent poll agency, the Levada Center.

The poll, which was conducted in May, showed that almost 22 percent of Russians across all age groups said they were either definitely or most likely ready to move abroad. Since Levada began measuring the trend in October 1990, the percentage of Russians leaning towards immigration has reached the current levels only twice before—in May 2011 and May 2013.

The desire to move abroad tends to skew young, according to the poll. While nearly half (48 percent) of respondents aged 18-24 stated that they were definitely or most likely ready to go abroad, that figure fell to 33 percent among individuals aged 25-39, and to 21 percent among those aged 40-45.

The spread of what Russians describe as “suitcase mood” among younger respondents should be of concern to Russian authorities as the country’s workforce is simultaneously shrinking and ageing. The number of people of working age in Russia—defined in this context as between 15 and 72 years old—was 76.5 million in mid-2015; by late 2020, that figure had fallen to 75.2 million. Meanwhile the median age of the Russian population increased from 38 in 2010 to 39.6 in 2020, according to UN estimates. The authorities’ concerns should also be fuelled by the fact that Russia’s net number of immigrants declined by about half from 1,801,000 in 2010-2015 to 912,000 in 2015-2020, according to UN estimates.

Photo by Pxhere shared under the pubic domain. 

Originally posted on March 26, 2020. Last updated on June 2, 2021.

As cases of COVID-19 rise around the globe, upending daily life and forcing much of the world into pandemic-related lockdowns or other restrictions, many are wondering when the outbreak may peak in their countries and some sort of return to normal may begin. One person who correctly predicted the peak of the virus in China is Nobel prize winner Michael Levitt.

At the end of February, Levitt correctly forecast that China’s cases would total around 80,000 with approximately 3,250 deaths. As of March 16, with its outbreak considered largely under control, China had reported 80,298 cases total and 3,245 deaths. In making his prediction, Levitt focused not on the total number of diagnosed cases, but on the rate at which the number of daily confirmed cases changed.

We have tried to follow Levitt’s approach to measure and compare the rate of daily confirmed cases in the U.S. and Russia using data from Johns Hopkins University. Please see our results below.