In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
At this point, it is unclear what Vladimir Putin's end game will be after launching a full-scale, combined-arms invasion of Ukraine. However, what we can be reasonably sure of is that Putin, who has, for the last two decades, been reasonably consistent in his vision for Russia's role in world affairs, came to the conclusion that his aims were no longer served by continuing with diplomacy, and has chosen to "let the cannon decide." In making that choice, however, he is also foreclosing on Western, especially European, assistance in pursuing his vision of Arctic development which he has stated is the basis for securing Russia's economic future—and is gambling that a closer partnership with China can safeguard his priorities without subordinating Russia to Beijing's preferences.

Putin believes that Russia has no choice but to remain as one of the agenda-setting powers of the world. His view of "sovereign democracy" is that a Russia that lacks the wherewithal to defend itself from outside pressure will find itself forced to adopt Western standards or a Chinese diktat. Russia's position as a great power is defined, in part, by being able to maintain an independent Eurasian pole of power—more or less coterminous with the old Soviet Union. Over the course of his career as prime minister and president, Putin has changed his tactics and approaches in pursuit of these aims. In his first years, he hoped that a post-9/11 partnership with the United States and collaboration with the European Union to create a wider European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok would lead to Western recognition of Russian pre-eminence in this region—essentially a division where the Euro-Atlantic world would voluntarily cease its eastward enlargement at the Vistula and Baltic littoral. When it became clear that, in pursuit of partnership with Russia, the West was not prepared to accede to any Russian sphere of influence, Putin's approach became more controversial—as reflected in his 2007 Munich speech and his 2008 tête-à-tête with George W. Bush in Bucharest—and culminated in the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia.
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Crowd in Red Square
In spite of escalating tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the latest poll conducted by the Levada Center shows that two-thirds of Russians say they’re not too worried about Western sanctions. At the same time, the share of respondents who believe current sanctions are impacting a wide swath of the population, rather than just elites, has nearly doubled from what it was following Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014.

The poll conducted by Levada, Russia’s leading independent pollster, in December 2021 shows that 66% of Russians are either “not worried at all” or “not very worried” about the West’s political and economic sanctions against Russia. This share is about 8% higher than it was in the months after Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, triggering multiple waves of U.S. and European sanctions. Then, the share of non-worriers averaged 57.8% over five surveys conducted in April-December 2014. One explanation for the lower level of concern may be that Russia and the West are still pursuing diplomacy, and Western countries have threatened harsh sanctions—such as targeting Russia’s largest financial institutions and energy exports to Europe—only if Russia were to use force against Ukraine.
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Blinken and Lavrov

Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats, are set to meet in Geneva on Jan. 21 to see whether they can move beyond the impasse of the previous week’s intense talks on European security. As this round of negotiations progresses, here are four points to consider from a recent talk by Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff:

1. In the U.S., people think of Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine as “the Ukraine crisis”; Russia, on the contrary, sees it as a means of amending the European security order, damaged, in its view, by 20+ years of NATO expansion that has eroded Moscow’s “strategic depth.”

2. Russia is looking for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Although Moscow is keeping open multiple military options, the least likely of these is a large-scale invasion.

3. Russia is in a fairly strong position, in part because of disarray in the West.

4. The U.S. is in an unsustainable position in terms of both process and substance. Washington must accept that (a) bilateral deal-making with Russia will play a decisive role in resolving the crisis and (b) the talks will have to cover a much broader array of issues than just Ukraine—chief among these, NATO expansion, military activity along the Russian-NATO frontier and conflicts current and frozen.

To read Graham’s recommendations for breaking the impasse between Russia and the West over European security, click here.

Photo courtesy of Russia's Foreign Ministry.

dead end
Near the end of this week’s marathon talks between Russia and the U.S., NATO and the OSCE on Russia’s three main security demands (and the West’s counter-demands), Russian negotiators said the talks had reached a “dead end” but simultaneously suggested that the American side has until Jan. 20 or so (one week from Jan. 13) to tell Moscow in writing what Western officials have already told their Russian counterparts face to face—namely, that the U.S. and its allies are rejecting the first two of the three main demands made by President Vladimir Putin.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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