In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
From Russia's new national security strategy and its implications for Russia's relations with other global powers, to American and Russian takes on the prospects for a cyber rules of the road agreement, Russia Matters' most popular reads of 2021 address a variety of complicated geopolitical subjects.
Read More
Jake Sullivan and Joe Biden
The Dec. 30 phone conversation between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the second in less than a month, produced no major breakthroughs, at least judging by the information publicly available in its immediate wake. But it did preserve hope that of three upcoming dialogues on Russia’s demands for security guarantees—U.S.-Russian, NATO-Russian and intra-OSCE, set to begin in mid-January—at least the U.S.-Russian talks may eventually produce enough compromises to ease the dangerously high tensions between the two nuclear superpowers.
Read More
Russia Matters won't resume publication of its weekly news and analytical digests until Jan. 3, 2022, due to Harvard’s winter recess. In the meantime, we will be posting summaries of notable commentaries in our blog section.
Read More
soviet symbol
Thirty years ago this month, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. The 15 republics which had made up the Soviet Union were confronted with uncertain paths as they endeavored to establish political structures and reform economic systems. They faced unresolved territorial questions, socio-economic crises and an ambiguity about which direction to take in the future. Thirty years on, quantitative indicators show that despite turbulence, the residents of most individual republics are now better off in some measures than they were at independence. Of the 15 republics, all 15 have seen life expectancy improve since 1991, and 14 of the 15 have seen a decrease in poverty levels since the mid-1990s. However, gains have not been equal, and our ability to draw comparisons with Soviet days were limited for some indicators due to lack of data, forcing us to draw comparisons with the mid-1990s instead. As important, a recent poll shows that adults in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia are overwhelmingly nostalgic for Soviet days.
Read More
biden and putin
One of the few things America’s Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had agreed upon prior to their first summit almost half a year ago was that they would not hold a joint press conference after their June 16 huddle at an 18th century villa in Geneva. The two presidents’ decision to talk to press separately came as no surprise, given how many major issues they publicly disagreed on at the time. Moreover, while Biden reportedly acted to delay a missile test that could have raised tensions with Russia prior to the summit, the U.S. president asserted publicly that he did not view the meeting as an end in itself: Whatever he and his Russian counterpart agreed on during the four-hour sit-down had to be implemented if U.S.-Russian relations were to move away from hyper-tension during his presidency, Biden said. He even set a deadline for taking stock of progress: “What is going to happen next is we’re going to be able to look back … in three to six months and say, ‘Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work?  … [A]re we closer to a major strategic stability talks and progress? Are we further along in terms of…’—and go down the line. That’s going to be the test,” Biden told his post-summit press conference. “This is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest,” he added.
Read More
While U.S.-Russian relations continue to deteriorate in many spheres, the Arctic provides an arena for possible cooperation. In particular, Russian wariness of China’s Arctic ambitions could provide novel opportunities for warming ties between Moscow and Washington.  

Washington on edge as relationship between Russia and China continues to strengthen
Moscow-Beijing ties are flourishing. Evidence of this abounds in areas ranging from military and aerospace cooperation to booming bilateral trade. In March of this year, the two powers agreed to join forces to build a research station on the Moon. In August, some 10,000 troops participated in Zapad/Interaction 2021—a series of joint strategic military exercises, which, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, aimed to demonstrate the "determination and ability of the two countries to fight terrorism and jointly protect peace and stability in the region." And in October, the Russian and Chinese navies conducted the latest in a series of joint maritime exercises in the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile, bilateral trade reached upwards of $40 billion in the first quarter of 2021—a 20% increase compared to the same period of 2020. And a representative of China's Commerce Ministry has announced plans to increase trade with Russia to some $200 billion, effectively doubling 2020's bilateral trade volume.
Read More
On Nov. 19, the Center for the National Interest hosted a webinar, “Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?” All speakers agreed that the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border does not look like a bluff, however, the panelists disagreed about Russia’s intention. George Beebe, the vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, and Dimitry Suslov see Russia’s objective as an agreement on Ukraine’s status with NATO. Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, believes Russia wants Ukraine firmly in its sphere of influence, and will not accept Ukraine as an independent entity with its own identity. Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, emphasized that Russia does not desire a large-scale conflict in Ukraine, and would accept a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, cautions that Russia may not be backing down, and would be capable of launching a large-scale operation against Ukraine if a favorable agreement is not reached.
Read More
Putin, Lukyanov Valdai 2021
This year’s session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club was organized in hybrid fashion, with most participants attending in person but some (myself included) choosing to participate remotely. Indeed, the pictures from the conference hotel in Krasnaya Polyana, high in the mountains above Sochi, provided a sharp contrast with what was happening in the rest of Russia: While the participants sat unmasked next to each other in a crowded auditorium, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country was rising dramatically—so much so that President Vladimir Putin ordered Russians to take a week of paid leave and stay home in the hope that the pandemic would subside.

The Valdai Discussion Club began in 2004 as a project to bring foreign Russia experts to Russia to meet with Russian counterparts and also meet with senior officials, including Putin (and Dimitry Medvedev when he was president). It has evolved from a small group of international Russia experts discussing Russian affairs, into a large gathering in which Russia features as one of many global actors and whose format now resembles Davos more than the earlier, more intimate meetings. In the early years, Russian participants included politicians and journalists from the democratic opposition, but they are no longer invited, with the exception of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Novaya Gazeta editor Dimitry Muratov, who attended this year’s session.
Read More
Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin meeting in 1971 with representatives of Canada's indigenous population in Edmonton.
The discord of American politics, U.S. military engagements abroad, the English-language dark web—all these offer myriad opportunities for criticism. And Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of them with gusto after his June 16 Geneva summit with U.S. counterpart Joe Biden. One journalist called Putin’s deft deflection of tough questions from reporters “a masterclass in whataboutism”—which might be defined as the strategic practice of deflecting criticism with counter-accusations against the criticizer, while implying hypocrisy and/or ignoring circumstances that could weaken one's argument but not addressing the original criticism.

This tactic was frequently employed by the Soviet Union in response to Western criticism of its domestic and foreign policies, with America most often in the crosshairs. One early use of whataboutism—a term coined much later in the West—followed a speech made by then U.S. Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman in 1947, in which he warned that Soviet totalitarianism was “a new and more threatening imperialism.” In response to Harriman’s remarks, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg published a commentary in Pravda that the Christian Science Monitor described as saying that Americans wanted “to drop atom bombs on the Soviet Union because they do not like its social order” but that the Soviet people, “though they consider racial laws and slavery in the southern states of the United States insulting to human dignity, do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.” Ehrenburg also asked how the United States could be disgusted by Nazi atrocities when it has, in the Monitor’s rendition, “ghettoes for Negroes and lynch courts?” By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, accusations of America “lynching Negroes” had become a punchline for irreverent jokes about Soviet officialdom’s own hypocrisy and, as an Economist correspondent wrote in 2008, “a synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.”
Read More
plombir ice cream in a factory
Speakers of every language have their verbal tics, but one Russian phrase seems to resurface constantly in official or semi-official speech and writing—particularly when it comes to comparisons with the West: “no worse and even better than.” Some of these “no worse” propositions go back as far as the 18th century, to the reign of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great, who was also, perhaps, the first Russian ruler to prioritize adopting Western know-how to make the Russian state more capable of competing with Europe’s leading powers. As early as 1724, Ivan Pososhkov, Peter I’s contemporary and a supporter of his reforms, wrote in his critique of mercantilism: “God has blessed us Russians with grain and honey and all matter of drinks. We have a countless plentitude of vodkas; our beers are top-notch and our honeys superb … no worse than from the Rhine, and much better than bad ones from the Rhine.”1

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the use of “no worse” persisted as the emergent Soviet state continued to compete with the West. With its people short on personal freedoms and high-quality consumer goods, the Bolshevik leadership emphasized all the ways in which the Soviet state was “no worse and even better than” the West as the two wrangled in global competition. The dissolution of the USSR 30 years ago did not end the “no worse” habit. In recent years, Russian officials, business leaders and journalists have applied this convention to everything from missile technologies and special forces to wine and tornadoes. Their counterparts in other former Soviet countries have retained a similar taste for the “no worse” trope.
Read More