In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Patrushev shaking hands with Putin, 2015
This week, the powerful secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said that Poland is poised to seize Ukrainian land—part of the West’s pursuit of its “selfish interests” in the region. The comments fit into Patrushev’s steady portrayal of an “aggressive” U.S.-led West bent on destroying Russia and build on his recent claims about other nefarious Western plots. Patrushev’s accusations against Warsaw came after Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to Kyiv, where he said that “the Polish-Ukrainian border should unite, not divide,” and flagged three new bilateral initiatives.
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Mikhail Khodarenok
This week, retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok appeared on prime-time national TV in Russia to offer a bleak assessment of the prospects for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. In his appearance in the May 16 episode of the Rossiya channel’s “60 Minutes” talk show, the former senior officer of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces urged his compatriots not to believe that the Ukrainian army is crumbling and predicted a deterioration of the situation for the Russian military. Khodarenok’s grim warnings grabbed the attention of multiple Western media, primarily because they were made on state TV, whose news and analysis coverage Putin’s administration relentlessly micro-manages. What some of this reporting on Khodarenok’s remarks is missing, however, is that his predictions of a difficult war in Ukraine are not exactly new. Khodarenok can be commended for being one of the few Russian experts to publicly warn in the weeks before the war that the invasion would not be a walk in the park for his country’s armed forces, to put it mildly.
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In a Foreign Affairs essay published online in December 2017, Joe Biden—then a former vice president—accused Russia of weaponizing corruption, among other things. “Russia has invaded neighboring countries… More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy and corruption,” he wrote together with his co-author, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. Biden’s observation made us wonder what else Russia has been accused of weaponizing in recent years. Here’s the list we have come up with:

A Beluga whale (The Washington Post, 04.29.19)

Bigotry (The Daily Beast, 10.19.18)

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s gas dependence (RUSI, 04.29.21)

Corruption (Eurasianet, 07.12.21, Foreign Affairs, 06.09.20)

Cyber security products (The Washington Post, 12.16.20)

Charlie Sheen (Foreign Policy, 09.23.20)

Diplomatic expulsions (CNN, 06.10.21)

Disability (Euromaidan Press, 03.28.17)

Dolphins (AFP, 03.09.16)
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China PLA
As Taiwanese defense officials fret over delays in shipments of American weaponry, likely linked to U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine, a retired U.S. general hesitated to predict whether Russia’s war against its neighbor would impact Chinese decision-making about Taiwan. But Harvard professor Graham Allison—a former assistant secretary of defense and author of a 2017 book on avoiding war with China—hazarded a guess: Even though “Xi Jinping and China will have Russia’s back through this,” he said last week, Moscow’s military campaign has likely reduced Beijing’s appetite for an invasion of the island democracy.
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EU and US flags
Russians’ favorable views of China have hit historic highs since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, while attitudes toward the West have sunk to lows not seen since 2015, according to a recent poll by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center. Negative sentiments toward Ukraine itself grew slightly more widespread over the past month, but 43% more respondents hold positive views of the country—Russia’s putative enemy in the current war—than of the U.S. and 30% more view Ukraine favorably than the EU.  

The record warming of Russians toward China can be at least in part explained by China’s not-so-tacit support for Russia in the latter’s stand off with the West over Ukraine. The worsening of Russians’ attitudes toward the West reflect the partial success of efforts by Kremlin propagandists to frame Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “self-defense" while also portraying the subsequent avalanche of Western sanctions, which contributed to a decline in Russians’ living standards, as “illegitimate.” That the Kremlin has won many common Russians’ support for its actions in Ukraine follows from the fact that the share of Russians who support the “actions of Russian armed forces in Ukraine” totaled 74% in April, compared to 81% in March, according to Levada. Moreover, the share of Russians who think the country is heading in the right direction hovered above 65% in April, according to Levada. 
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The words in the news: Speaking about the war in Ukraine to Russian lawmakers on April 27, President Vladimir Putin again raised the specter of nuclear war, warning that, “if anyone decides to interfere … and creates risks of a strategic nature for Russia that are unacceptable to us, they must know that our retaliatory-offensive strikes will be lightning fast.” Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also sent ominous signals this week, saying the risk of nuclear war is “very substantial” and that “the danger is … real” and “must not be underestimated.”

Putin’s Plan A has failed: Despite deploying up to 150,000 troops to attack Ukraine at once from north, east and south on Feb. 24, the Kremlin has failed to topple the government in Kyiv, capture the capital or take over left-bank Ukraine. This has prompted President Vladimir Putin to reorganize the command of his “special military operation” and narrow its focus to a potential pincer maneuver from the east and south. A key goal of this Plan B, as described by some Russian commanders and political insiders, is to maximize land grabs in Ukraine’s southeast. As of April 28, however, Russian forces remained far from achieving this, recent advances in eastern Ukraine notwithstanding.
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Moskva cruiser
The sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship this month has been hailed as a symbolic victory for Ukrainian forces deeply in need of a morale boost, but commentators diverge on whether the loss has practical implications that could alter the course of the war. Some, such as Ukraine’s Arkady Babchenko, claim that the sinking of the Moskva leaves warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which are involved in the blockade of Ukraine, without most of their air defense and makes a renewed assault on the city of Odesa problematic. Others, such as Russia’s Alexander Khramchikhin (perhaps predictably) downplay the military significance of the loss, arguing that it will have no effect on the course of war. Below, find these and other informed views on whether the sinking of the Moskva matters and why.  
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Anti-tank hedgehogs on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kyiv
In a recorded event hosted by IISS, the Harvard professor explores the relationship between the current war in Ukraine, the emerging alignment between Russia and China and the rivalry between Beijing and Washington. 
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Russian crowd
The latest survey results from Russia’s premier independent pollster show a Russian public largely supportive of the war in Ukraine, more worried about Western sanctions than before and split on why some Russians might be protesting the Kremlin’s “special operation” against Kyiv. The Levada Center’s most recent polling data also show that the share of Russians wanting to emigrate has dropped by half since just before the war, perhaps because so many have already left.

As usual with polls in Russia, at least two mitigating factors are important to note: the power of state-run propaganda and respondents’ wariness about speaking with pollsters, both heightened by increasingly harsh laws restricting freedom of speech and punishing dissent. In 2016, for example, the Levada Center found that 26% of respondents do not want to answer pollsters’ questions about the country’s state of affairs for fear of negative consequences. Last month, when a group of researchers commissioned a poll on Russians’ attitudes toward the war in Ukraine, 29,400 of the 31,000 people they called “ended the conversation as soon as they heard the topic,” one of the organizers told The New Yorker.  
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Government meeting
As Russia’s new laws on freedom of expression become increasingly draconian, analysts have questioned how reliable any polling on Russians’ attitudes can possibly be. Denis Volkov, director of Russia’s go-to independent pollster, the Levada Center, told The New Yorker recently that “surveys don’t show what people think, but what they are ready to say … in public,” and that matters even more, according to Volkov's predecessor, Lev Gudkov. Russians are also “looking to confirm an us-versus-them worldview that was locked in place a long time ago,” Volkov told the magazine: “Russia is on the side of good and the West is against it.”
These caveats are helpful to keep in mind as we review the results of Levada’s latest government approval ratings, which have risen sharply in the month since Moscow launched its brutal war in Ukraine.

Key takeaways from the poll, conducted March 24-30 among a representative nationwide sample of 1,632 people:
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