Russia Analytical Report, April 1-8, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • A new U.S. policy toward NATO should involve a multi-tiered approach, writes  Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen. Allies with a shared interest “in directly combating Russian aggression could be in the first tier,” while a “second tier could involve the extension of the U.S. nuclear umbrella … but with no mutual commitment to come to one another's aid.” A country like Turkey, which does feels threatened by Russia, could choose not to sign up for either tier, according to Olsen. According to Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry of the Herzl Institute in their commentary on why America needs new alliances, “Turkey is no more an ally [to the U.S.] than Russia or China.”
  • The idea that Russians are trying to rob Americans of their “democratic birthright is dangerous” and leads to the belief that Russia is an “irredeemable enemy” with whom the U.S. “should not negotiate … about reducing tension in Europe, limiting nuclear weapons, calming the Middle East or anything else,” according to Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute.
  • George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest argues that the U.S. should be able to manage its “differences with Russia over involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries” in the wake of the Mueller investigation’s whimper-like conclusion. “Media voices that uncritically accept the prevailing narrative about Russian intentions are in danger of stepping on the same rake that caused us to stumble into the Iraq ‘weapons of mass destruction’ failure,” Bebee warns.
  • Congress should keep developing tools that will help the U.S. create leverage over Russian policies that are counter to U.S. interests, write Jarrett Blanc and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the same time, however, the Russia sanctions program in the U.S. should include a “workable plan for sanctions relief once the policy objective of the sanction has been met,” according to Blanc and Weiss.
  • The notion of a Chinese-Russian alliance is still premature, writes Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, because of historical and geographic factors that are not ideal for “build[ing] mutual trust.” “Reinforcing that barrier are very significant structural differences between the two countries’ economies,” Aron writes. China benefits more from the liberal international economic order than Russia, and is thus more wary of antagonizing the U.S. Additionally, Aron claims, “Russia and China … poach in each other’s spheres of influence, contest each other’s clients and reach for each other’s economic and geopolitical assets.”
  • One of Ukraine’s biggest problems are its oligarchs, write Vitaliy Shabunin and Olena Halushka of the Kiev-based Anti-Corruption Action Center. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is linked to one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, and incumbent Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch himself, will compete in a runoff presidential election on April 21, they write. Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen writes that the first round of the presidential elections in Ukraine suggests that the Russian-Ukrainian view of Ukrainian nationalism is still split. However, while it’s easy to fixate on the upcoming second round of presidential election, writes FPRI’s Melinda Haring, the fall parliamentary elections are even more important for Ukraine’s future, and most experts predict a fragmented and less reform-minded legislature than the current one.
  • The West should accept that Belarus’ authoritarian regime could help mediate between the West and Russia, writes Benno Zogg of the Center for Security Studies, and that its stability has certain benefits for the Belarusian people, Ukraine and the region more broadly.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Will Cold War Allies Russia and North Korea Be Reunited?” Peter Brookes, The National Interest, 04.04.19The author, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, writes:

  • “It seems almost inevitable that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin at some point in the near future, possibly in the port city of Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. … A Putin-Kim tete-a-tete could well provide an unwelcome opening for Russia to insert itself into the already-vexing state of U.S.-North Korea relations, especially the ongoing nuclear negotiations.”
  • “[A] summit also allows Moscow to signal Washington that—because it may have some, at least perceived, influence over North Korea’s policy toward the United States—Russia’s interests in places like Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela must be respected. … [It] would also give Russia new potential political leverage over the other Northeast Asian powers of South Korea, Japan and China.”
  • “Since Pyongyang has long embraced a policy of demanding some form of ‘compensation’ for high-visibility meetings such as this … Washington should prepare for a plethora of potential problems from a Putin-Kim summit.”
  • “Though ties between the former Cold War allies of Pyongyang and Moscow aren’t what they once were, both sides will be looking for a new start—one that gives them an advantage in addressing their individual and common challenges.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

“After Crimea: Does NATO Have the Means to Defend Europe?” Gustav Gressel, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 04.02.19The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:

  • “The steps taken after these three post-Crimea NATO summits are not enough to deter Russia from further use of military threats and force against other European states, even NATO members. … NATO’s eastern flank presence amounts to reassurance … not deterrence—which is what western Europeans eventually began to call it.”
  • “Five years after Crimea, Europe is not falling back into a mood of détente or even fraternization with Russia … But it has still not woken up to the challenge before it. On key strategic questions, Europe has not yet answered major questions in a complete way.”
  • “Does Russia pose a threat to Europe beyond the immediate post-Soviet neighborhood? How far should Europe hedge against Russian military assertiveness, through deterrence? And would Europe complement this deterrence with containment measures to limit Russia’s influence and leverage over Europe? What would then be the share NATO and Europe’s militaries would have to bear for both deterrence and for containment?”
  • “In future crises with Russia, NATO may look much weaker than it appears on paper. No doubt political leaders’ failure to open up a public conversation about this topic lies behind this in part; and too often they have been content to allow Donald Trump’s railings distract attention from European countries’ own—unmet—obligations to NATO. But the burden-sharing debate is not about Trump—it is about the forces, doctrines, procedures, installations, infrastructure and services needed to defend Europe. … [T]he conversation about capabilities remains even more dangerously unaddressed as that about funding.”

“NATO's Biggest Problem Is Trump,” Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute, The Washington Post, 04.02.19The authors, former U.S. ambassadors to NATO, write:

  • “[W]e interviewed alliance leaders past and present for a new Harvard Belfer Center report: ‘NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis.’ Nearly all viewed Trump as NATO's most urgent and difficult problem. Never before has NATO had a U.S. leader who didn't appear to believe deeply in NATO itself.”
  • “Fortunately, the vast majority of Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress disagree with Trump on NATO's value to the United States. … The reality is that NATO is a net plus for the United States in political, economic and military terms.”
  • “In the decade ahead, the United States will fight two battles with authoritarian powers China and Russia. The first is a battle of ideas that will center on Moscow's and Beijing's growing confidence in the superiority of their own systems. NATO allies will also be critical in a battle of technology.”
  • “NATO remains the great power differential between the United States and Russia and China, which have no real allies of their own. … NATO is not just yesterday's story but is indispensable if Americans want to reach for the elusive goal we have been chasing since World War II: a secure United States alongside a united, democratic and peaceful Europe as its closest global partner.”

“It's Time to Rethink the NATO Alliance,” Henry Olsen, The Washington Post, 04.04.19The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “[T]he United States and many European countries face separate threats and often interpret them differently. … NATO members today have different attitudes toward Russia and face threats from different regions of the world. This naturally leads to divergent emphases that, in a world of limited resources, must alter the relative value one places on the NATO alliance.”
  • “The threat to U.S. security from an increasingly aggressive China will also impact the alliance, regardless of who is in the Oval Office. …While many NATO allies want to get the band back together to fight the old fight, the United States will have to manage a two-front conflict that it would not be equipped to handle without dramatically increasing defense spending to approach Cold War levels. Since that is likely not forthcoming, it is inevitable that U.S. commitment to other alliances will lessen in the near future, regardless of the good will those involvements generate.”
  • “A wise foreign policy would stop trying to revive the old and instead try to create the new. Such a new policy would involve some form of multi-tiered approach to European countries depending on the nature of our shared interests.  Those who share our interest in directly combating Russian aggression could be in the first tier, with full U.S. commitment to defend them from all forms of attack. … A second tier could involve the extension of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to defend nations against nuclear or chemical attack, but with no mutual commitment to come to one another's aid in the event of conventional assault.
  • “A country such as Turkey, which neither feels threatened by Russia nor shares the Western heritage of liberal democracy that unites other members, might choose not to sign up for either tier.”

“Why America Needs New Alliances,” Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry, Wall Street Journal, 04.05.19The authors, the president and vice president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, write:

  • “The U.S. cannot serve as the enforcer for the Europeans' beloved ‘rules-based international order’ any more. … On paper, America has defense alliances with dozens of countries. But these are the ghosts of a rivalry with the Soviet Union … or the result of often reckless policies adopted after 9/11.”
  • “An American strategic posture aimed at minimizing the danger from rival powers needs to focus on deterring Russia and China from wars of expansion; weakening China relative to the U.S. and thereby preventing it from attaining dominance over the world economy; and keeping smaller hostile powers such as North Korea and Iran from obtaining the capacity to attack America or other democracies.”
  • “The U.S. has a genuine interest … in preventing the democratic nations of Eastern Europe from being absorbed into an aggressive Russian imperial state. … The principal strategic question is whether these countries [the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] are willing to do what is necessary to maintain their own national independence … Perhaps the most important candidate for such a strategic alliance is India.”
  •  “In reality, Turkey is no more an ally than Russia or China. … Meanwhile, America's most reliable Muslim allies, the Kurds, live under constant threat of Turkish invasion and massacre. … [In the Middle East] Washington should seek alliances with national states that share at least some key values and are willing to shoulder most of the burden of defending themselves while fighting to contain Islamist radicalism. Such natural regional allies include Greece, Israel, Ethiopia and the Kurds.”
  • “The U.S. cannot be, and should not try to be, the world's policeman. Yet it does have a role to play in awakening democratic nations from their dependence-induced torpor, and assisting those that are willing to make the transition to a new security architecture based on self-determination and self-reliance.”

“The Partnership for Peace: A Quiet NATO Success Story,” Azita Raji, War on the Rocks, 04.08.19The author, a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, writes:

  • “As NATO celebrates its achievements over the past 70 years, the establishment of the Partnership for Peace deserves to be recognized as one of the most creative diplomatic initiatives the alliance has undertaken.”
  • “Through the Partnership for Peace, partners work on military and politico-military reforms. The countries worked to develop Western-style defense ministries in which civilians set up militaries along Western lines, rather than in the old Soviet style. Reforms focused on interoperability and defense planning, as well as modern budgeting. Partners could take a seat at most NATO meetings to observe allies’ deliberations.”
  • “[F]or countries like Sweden and Finland, who did not seek NATO membership but wished to have a close relationship with NATO, the Partnership for Peace provided the perfect vehicle to link ‘neutral’ nations with the alliance.”
  • “In the current complicated security environment, when the future of NATO is being questioned and the U.S. commitment to the alliance seems to be waning, the United States needs friends—especially friends that serve as a useful bulwark against Russia.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“10 Years After Obama’s Nuclear-Free Vision, the US and Russia Head in the Opposite Direction,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 04.04.19The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “April 5 marks the 10th anniversary of the speech in which Barack Obama laid out his vision for a world without nuclear weapons. It did not gain traction. Instead, the United States and Russia are developing new nuclear capabilities, while the nuclear arms control regime is on course to expire in 2021.”
  • “While U.S. and Russian nuclear modernization proceeds, the regime that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arms has begun to break down. Russia violated the … INF Treaty by deploying a prohibited cruise missile. … The end of the INF Treaty will leave New START, which caps the sides’ strategic missiles and bombers as well as their deployed strategic warheads, as the sole remaining nuclear arms control agreement.”
  • “Extension [of New START] would also continue the flow of information that the United States receives about Russian strategic forces … Unfortunately, Trump’s grasp of these questions appears weak, and Bolton does not appear a fan of New START.”
  • “The two nuclear superpowers thus will likely find themselves in 2021 in a situation that they have not faced for decades—a world with no constraints on nuclear force numbers. The result will be a world that is less stable, less secure, and less predictable.”

"Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Europe in a Post-INF World," The Nonproliferation Review, Ulrich Kühn, 04.04.19The author, deputy director of arms control and emerging technologies at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, writes:

  • “Russia’s continued violation [of the INF Treaty] coupled with the Donald J. Trump administration’s desire to balance against Moscow and Beijing could force a new missile debate on Europeans. Even though Washington is trying to assuage its allies, the specter of another round of INF missile deployments to Europe is not unrealistic.”
  • “NATO’s European members face a dilemma. Some want NATO to resolutely push back against Russia. Others want to avoid a new deployment debate, at almost all costs. The Kremlin will use these cleavages to weaken NATO. If not carefully handled, NATO’s response … could lead to domestic turmoil in a number of European states and render the alliance ineffective for a prolonged period.”
  • “Europeans need to act now and voice their preferences in the military and diplomatic domains. A number of different military options are available, below the level of deploying new INF missiles in Europe. However, Europeans need to consider trade-offs regarding crisis and arms-race stability.”
  • “[I]t will be up to European capitals to conceptualize a new arms-control framework for the post-INF world, one that takes into account today’s geopolitical realities and the entanglement of modern conventional and nuclear forces. Given the Trump administration’s loathing of arms control, concepts of mutual restraint may well have to wait for the next U.S. administration. In any case, that should not stop Europeans from taking on more responsibility for their own security.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“The Folly of ‘Russiagate,’” Stephen Kinzer, The Boston Globe, 04.04.19The author, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, writes:

  • “The election of President Donald Trump was not, we now learn, the result of a conspiracy directed from Moscow. This finding by special prosecutor Robert Mueller will change few minds. A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans now consider Russia a ‘critical threat.’ … Lurid demonization of Russia has become a staple of American politics. … Once again … everything is Russia's fault—no matter what Mueller says.”
  • “‘Russiagate’ was a vivid example of the power of narrative. … Mueller's report makes clear that much of this hyperventilating was either highly overblown or downright false. Russians were evidently involved in purloining emails and posting memes on Facebook, but their mass-scale attack on American democracy turns out not to have happened.”
  • “Although the collusion story has been a white-hot Washington obsession, few Americans outside the Beltway cared about it. … Why, then, did the collusion story … drive the political class into such a frenzy? Partly because it provided an urgently needed explanation for how Trump could have defeated Hillary Clinton.”
  • “[Y}ears of relentless attacks by American pundits and politicians … made it possible to imagine Putin as powerful enough to decide the outcome of a presidential election in the United States.”
  • “Mueller's report forces us to accept the cruel fact that voters, not Vladimir Putin, chose our current president. … The delusion that Russians hate us and are working assiduously to rob us of our democratic birthright is dangerous. It leads to the belief that … we should not negotiate with Russia about reducing tension in Europe, limiting nuclear weapons, calming the Middle East, or anything else. … That is more dangerous to our security than anything that happened during the last presidential campaign.”

“Making Sense of Our Russiagate Failure. Healthy skepticism took a back seat to a story that too many were too eager to believe,” George Beebe, The National Interest, 04.04.19The author, vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “The most consequential function of journalists is not reporting facts, but establishing a narrative framework for making sense of those facts. In the wake of the Mueller investigation’s whimper-like conclusion, it is apparent that the roots of the Trump-Russia failure … lay in a collective refusal to subject the story’s broad narrative to critical scrutiny.”
  • “It is by no means clear that the one finding from Mueller about which everyone is certain—that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in order to help Trump and sow chaos—merits such certainty. That Russians were behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee and mounted a social-media trolling and advertising campaign is clear enough. But the narrative framework that makes sense of these facts demands critical examination.”
  • “[T]hose judging Russian intentions toward the United States assert with little apparent reflection and no dispositive evidence that Moscow aims to rend our societal fabric because of what we are—a democracy—rather than what it perceives that we do, which is to destabilize established regimes in and around Russia.”
  • “We cannot change the nature of what we are, but we can conceivably manage our differences with Russia over involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries. Media voices that uncritically accept the prevailing narrative about Russian intentions are in danger of stepping on the same rake that caused us to stumble into the Iraq “weapons of mass destruction” failure and subsequent war.”
  • “Facts matter. But the narrative tissue connecting these facts into a coherent story matters even more. Before we march even farther down the road toward confrontation with the world’s largest nuclear power, we need to ask ourselves how confident we should be that we have got that narrative right.”

“A Cold War Case of Russian Collusion. What the Investigation of a 1972 Stasi Operation Can Teach Us About the Mueller Report,” David Shimer, Foreign Affairs, 04.05.19The author, a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Oxford, writes:

  • “There is a far better historical precedent for Mueller’s investigation [than Watergate]. In 1973 … the West German parliament, the Bundestag, formed an investigative committee … to probe possible interference in a parliamentary vote of no confidence held in an attempt to oust Chancellor Willy Brandt.”
  • “The vote … came at a pivotal moment in West German and Cold War history. Brandt had just negotiated reconciliation agreements with the Soviet Union and Poland … The conservative opposition in the Bundestag … called the vote of no confidence to prevent their ratification. With Brandt’s future uncertain, the attention of world leaders turned to Bonn. … Almost everyone expected Brandt to fall from power. When he didn’t … suspicions immediately arose that someone, somewhere, had paid members of the opposition to abstain. … Neither the Bundestag nor the CIA could prove then what we can conclude today: East German operatives, on orders from Moscow, rigged the vote in Brandt’s favor.”
  • “During the Cold War, the great powers lacked the digital tools that Russia harnessed in 2016. But they nonetheless manipulated elections to advance their interests. American and Soviet agents funneled money to their preferred political parties abroad. They also spread disinformation about specific candidates.
  • “[G]overnments have sometimes carried out a bolder, riskier, type of electoral interference: altering the actual vote. All available evidence suggests that in 2016, despite hacking many of the United States’ voting systems, Russia did not tamper with the results. Forty-seven years ago, however … the Stasi, East Germany’s state security service, changed ballots at the Soviet Union’s direction.”
  • “On the eve of the Mueller report’s release, the Brandt affair offers a discomforting lesson: it can take decades to pull back the curtain on covert electoral interference. Despite Mueller’s efforts, there is no guarantee that he has uncovered the full extent of Russia’s operation.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“US Sanctions on Russia: Congress Should Go Back to Fundamentals,” Jarrett Blanc and Andrew S. Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04.03.19The authors, a senior fellow in the geoeconomics and strategy program and the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, write:

  • “Many in Congress have come to the conclusion that tougher sanctions on Russia are in order, if only to box in the Trump administration. … The lack of focus reflects the competing priorities of DASKA [Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act]’s six original co-sponsors and makes it far less likely that the bill will pass in anything like its current form.”
  • “[There] are several areas that require additional focus as well as several points on improving the process used to design coercive economic tools focused on Russia: A Recalibrated Focus on Elites … Stringent Designation Requirements … Countering Illicit Finance … Focus on Beneficial Ownership.”
  • “Congress will—and should—continue to seek to develop tools to create leverage over Moscow in an effort to persuade it to change policies that run counter to U.S. interests. … [I]t should also adopt as a guiding principle that tools of coercive economic statecraft be coordinated with key allies and partners, especially in Europe and East Asia.”
  • “[S]anctions regimes are more effective and durable when they are multilateral, and especially when they include a larger percentage of the target state’s commercial and trading partners … U.S. sanctions power is sharp but brittle … [B]latant disregard of allies’ and partners’ interests in the application of coercive economic tools undermines U.S. relationships.”
  • “One aspect of sanctions policy development that is receiving careful attention in Europe and that, regrettably, is no longer a central consideration for the Russia sanctions program in the United States: having a workable plan for sanctions relief once the policy objective of the sanction has been met.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Why Moscow Sent Its Military Personnel to Venezuela. No, Venezuela Is Not the New Syria,” Vladimir Frolov, The Moscow Times, 04.02.19The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:

  • “Russia’s deployment of military personnel to Venezuela provoked much hand-wringing and some fierce language from Washington. … Washington seems to be working against Russia repeating the ‘Syria scenario’ in Venezuela.”
  • “Although top Russian military leaders have talked about using Syria as a template for ‘limited military operations abroad’in support of Russian interests, Venezuela’s ill-suited for such operations due to its distance from Russia and proximity to the U.S. Nor are there clear military objectives in Venezuela apart from deterring outside military intervention.”
  • “While Russia is under no obligation to defend Venezuela … the country is important to the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia’s return to the global stage as a great power that shapes a new multi-polar world order and has the capability to check destabilizing American unilateralism.”
  • “Moscow was pleasantly surprised by U.S. outreach to launch bilateral talks on Venezuela and agreed to a meeting in Rome two weeks ago. … Moscow hopes to continue with the format. Russia’s preference would be to mediate between Maduro and the opposition and engineer a settlement with new presidential and parliamentary elections in ways that would look like an internal decision, not something dictated from the outside.  It is not too large a gap to bridge.”

“The Options Narrow for Venezuela,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 04.03.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The reality is that Mr. Trump has no real option but to wait. It is hard to conceive that Mr. Maduro will hang on indefinitely, or that his generals will not see the writing on the wall as the situation becomes ever more dire. Vladimir Putin, for all his longing to prop up a rare ally in Latin America and to stick it to the United States, cannot project serious power halfway around world, or risk the serious response this could provoke.”
  • “It is terrible to witness the suffering of a nation for no reason other than the criminal obduracy of a corrupt clique. But the last act in this tragedy can only be performed by the Venezuelans, knowing that the sooner they and their armed forces evict the thieves, the sooner the world will pitch in to help them recover their lives.”

“Chess: A Pawn in Russia’s Power Game,” Sam Jones, Financial Times, 04.04.19The author, an investigations correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “For two decades, Fide [the World Chess Federation] has been a peculiar lens through which to view the shifting geopolitical currents of the post-Cold War order: the previous president [of the organization], oligarch Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was forced out last year after he was sanctioned by the U.S. government for abetting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
  • “Russia had held dominion of sorts over this world since 1995. But Ilyumzhinov’s departure threw the presidency of Fide wide open. Putin’s preferred candidate to succeed him was Arkady Dvorkovich—then deputy prime minister of Russia, who had recently chaired the football World Cup organizing committee.”
  • “Documents seen by the Financial Times and extensive interviews … show a coordinated global effort by the Russian state, through ambassadors and representatives of its banks and biggest companies, to win votes with promises of money and political pressure.”

“Europe Struggles to Speak With a Single Voice. The EU must forge a common position towards the world’s leading powers,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 04.05.19The author, an editor with the news outlet, writes:

  • “Forging a common position towards the world’s leading powers—China, Russia and the U.S.—is fast becoming the most serious challenge of EU economic, foreign and security policy. … A more protective EU, one that vigorously defends its interests and relies less on ‘soft power’ than in the past, is arguably a necessary condition for defeating political extremism and populism inside the bloc.”
  • “The EU correctly identifies strategic autonomy as the goal. But its own internal disunity is the biggest obstacle to achieving it.”

“In Libya, One of Putin’s Many Bets Is in Play. The Kremlin doesn’t have the luxury of choosing allies: It has to go with adventurers and risk-takers,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 04.08.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “The Russian involvement in Libya straddles the line between the old friendships and the new, opportunistic alliances with money-hungry regimes interested in Russian military support. … Since 2017, Putin’s generals and diplomats have built a new relationship—with Haftar, who commands the strongest military force in Libya and contains most of the country’s oil and gas.”
  • “Moscow’s official line is that it supports the stability of developing nations in the face of Western attempts to undermine their legitimate rulers. That’s the claim Moscow has made in Syria and in Venezuela, and if necessary, it’ll make it again in Sudan. But in Algeria and Libya, where the situation is murky at the moment, Putin’s bets are being made in private for now.”
  • “The problem … is that they [these bets] depend on the success of players running extreme risks. In the absence of committed allies, Putin’s Russia has to act opportunistically and seek receptive bedfellows. In countries with serious resource wealth and in strategically attractive locations, the choice is extremely limited. And with this crop of situational friends, you win some, you lose some.”
  • “If Maduro falls in Venezuela, Russia will be on the lookout for others like him to befriend in the region. If Haftar fails to win control of Tripoli and his hold on much of Libya’s natural wealth weakens as a consequence, the Kremlin will be actively seeking others to empower so it can get back into the country’s oil and gas sector and seek opportunities for a naval presence. Defeats are part of this high-stakes game.”


“Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance? The Evidence Is Less Than Impressive,” Leon Aron, Foreign Affairs, 04.04.19The author, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writes:

  • “Economic relations between Russia and China are rapidly expanding. … Yet asymmetries in the scale and structure of bilateral commerce suggest caution: Although China is Russia’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU) and Russia’s largest individual partner in both exports and imports, for China the Russian market is at best second-rate. … The structure of the trade is similarly skewed.”
  • “Russia and China are hardly any closer in foreign policy than they are in trade … [T]he two countries are hardly aligned. They poach in each other’s spheres of influence, contest each other’s clients and reach for each other’s economic and geopolitical assets.”
  • “Chinese-Russian military cooperation in particular is often held up as evidence of a growing closeness. Much has been made of the fact that Russia has sold China the latest version of its most advanced antiaircraft S-400 missile defense system. But India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are next in line for the same equipment.”
  • “[T]he most promising portent of an alliance might be the personal relationship between the rulers of the two countries. … Putin’s and Xi’s kinship is real and formidable, but even it may not be enough to overcome the obstacles to a genuine alliance. … Authoritarian states sharing a 2,600-mile border, with much of that boundary first imposed by imperial Russia on a weaker neighbor, are hardly ideally set up to build mutual trust. Reinforcing that barrier are very significant structural differences between the two countries’ economies.”
  • “As a greater beneficiary of the liberal international economic order than Russia, China is warier of antagonizing that order’s ultimate guarantor, the United States. … Despite claims to the contrary, the notion of a Chinese-Russian alliance is still premature.”

“China and Russia Are Not Breaking Up Anytime Soon,” Daniel W. Drezner, The Washington Post, 04.03.19The author, a professor of international politics, writes:

  • “The entente between Russia and China … will not be disrupted anytime soon. … A recent National Bureau of Asian Research special report noted that in the Far East, ‘Driven by common dissatisfaction with real or perceived Western constraints on their geopolitical ambitions, China and Russia have steadily converged in their positions on key regional strategic issues. Though the two maintain independent interests on the margins, their core aims on the Korean Peninsula appear congruent and largely complicate the United States' pursuit of its goals.’”
  • “I want to be clear about what I am not saying here. I am not saying that cooperation between Russia and China is a game-changer that requires Cold War-level efforts to combat. Nor am I saying that their entente is permanent; there are persistent frictions in their relationship. What I am saying is that their cooperation on foreign policy is growing … that it will complicate U.S. foreign policy going forward. Foreign policy analysts in Washington should internalize that fact as soon as humanly possible.”


“Will a Comic Actor Become Ukraine’s Next President? Why Volodymyr Zelensky Won the First Round of Elections,” Melinda Haring, Foreign Affairs, 04.02.19The author, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukrainians have reelected only one president. … [Incumbent Petro] Poroshenko gets solid marks as a wartime president, but the economy is barely growing. …According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe as measured by GDP per capita, even poorer than Moldova. At least two million Ukrainians have moved to Europe to look for work.”
  • “Zelensky read the public mood better than any other candidate. Ukrainians have the lowest rates of trust in their government in the world. They have consistently told pollsters that they want new faces in power and a real fight against corruption. … Despite Zelensky’s strong performance in the first round, his victory is far from assured. … Zelensky may be a self-made millionaire, but he will have to better explain his relationship with the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns … the TV channel that airs Zelensky’s shows.”
  • “Although it’s easy to fixate on the presidential election, the fall parliamentary elections are even more important for Ukraine’s future. Parliament, after all, is the body that determines the country’s economic policies. Most experts predict a more fragmented and less reform-minded legislature than the current one.”
  • “The outcome of the parliamentary elections, together with the presidential one, will show just how serious Ukraine really is about leaving behind a system that enriches elites and impoverishes everyone else.” 

“Serious Intent Underpins Ukraine’s Comic Candidate Oligarch’s Support of Volodymyr Zelensky Stirs Fears of Big Business Pulling Strings,” Roman Olearchyk and Ben Hall, Financial Times, 04.07.19The authors, journalists for the news outlet, write:

  • “When Sophia was asked to explain why she would not be voting for Volodymyr Zelensky … in Ukraine’s run-off presidential election, she gave a one-word response: ‘Kolomoisky.’ … [She] was referring to Igor Kolomoisky, the oligarch whose television channel has given the comedian’s show almost daily airtime during the election campaign. He is one of a clutch of Ukrainian oligarchs who continue to exert outsize influence on the country’s politics and business.”
  • “[B]oth he and Mr. Zelensky deny their relationship stretches beyond a broadcasting deal. … However, Mr. Kolomoisky told one confidant last year that Mr. Zelensky would run for president, long before the comedian announced his candidacy.”
  • “People who know Mr. Kolomoisky well say he is driven by an urge for revenge against the president [Petro Poroshenko]. … One associate … said he [Kolomoisky] was so determined to bring down Mr. Poroshenko that he backed two of the president’s rivals.”
  • “Daria Kaleniuk, director of Antac, a Kiev anti-corruption watchdog, said if Mr. Zelensky won the presidency he could still assert himself by pursuing strong anti-graft reforms and surrounding himself with reformist experts.” 

“Old Fissures Reemerge in Ukraine. That's a Big Problem,” Henry Olsen, The Washington Post, 04.02.19The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “While … Volodymyr Zelensky, has run on a pro-EU, pro-NATO platform, his support is based predominantly in the Russian-speaking east and south.”
  • “Poroshenko is already signaling that he plans to wrap the Russian flag around Zelensky’s neck in the second round. A close look at the returns suggests it might work, too. … If Poroshenko can win the bulk of their [the pro-E.U. west and north] votes, and it seems that is what his campaign aims to do, he could still prevail.”
  • “The sad reality is that Ukraine is really two nations trapped inside one country, bordering a regional power that badly wants one of those nations to prevail. Many in the West want to believe that Ukraine has abandoned its old ways and is now united in its desire to free itself from Russia's grasp. The first round's vote suggests that might not be the case …Whichever candidate ultimately wins continues to face an extremely difficult task in uniting an inherently fractured country.”

“Ukraine Will Be Stuck With an Oligarch-Linked President. But the Fight Rages On,” Vitaliy Shabunin and Olena Halushka, The Washington Post/World Post, 04.01.19The authors, head of the board at the Kiev-based Anti-Corruption Action Center and the center’s head of international relations, write:

  • “Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian linked to one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch himself [are] … to compete in a runoff election on April 21.”
  • “Besides ongoing Russian aggression, Ukraine’s biggest problem remains its oligarchs. Many Ukrainian oligarchs rely on a network of Western banks and lawyers to launder the proceeds of their corruption and to whitewash their reputations in the West.”
  • “The results of the presidential election will influence the pace of reform and the struggle for it. However, society, not the president, controls the direction of the country’s democratic transformation. Over the next president’s five-year term, civil society and journalists must guard the real gains that have been made.”
  • “Ukrainians know what they want: a normal, European democratic state free from Russia. A synergy of civil society, international partners and reformers in government will continue to push us in that direction, regardless of who becomes the next president.”

“Ukrainian Candidates Set to Haggle Ahead of Presidential Runoff,” Konstantin Skorkin, Moscow Carnegie Center, 04.02.19The author, a journalist specializing in Eastern Ukraine, writes:

  • “The clash between the new populism of Zelensky, who staked everything on Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast, and Poroshenko’s national-patriotic conservatism is leading to a partial resumption of the old standoff between the two Ukraines, which in the current post-Crimea conditions will not lead to anything good.”
  • “Official Moscow itself is taking a break from events in Ukraine, and is staying out of the fray until the results of the elections are known. It has its reasons for suspecting that the elections will only add to the chaos in Ukraine. 2019 will be an endurance test of Ukrainian democracy, and of the judgment of its elites.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“From Belarus With Love: The Limits of Lukashenko’s Dalliance With the West,” Benno Zogg, War on the Rocks, 04.03.19The author, researcher at the Center for Security Studies, writes:

  • “Belarus’ mediation in Ukraine, its efforts to host gatherings on a range of European security issues, its opening towards foreign visitors and civil society, as well as its willingness to offend Russia to some extent in the process amount to a tangible change of course, particularly since 2014.”
  • “For the time being, Lukashenko does genuinely wish to diversify his country’s foreign policy and economic ties and to emphasize Belarus’ distinctness and independence. The Belarusian government should be encouraged along those lines … The West should focus on slowly building mutual trust. It should continue to criticize a lack of human rights and the rule of law and democracy and use incentives and design its assistance in a way to cautiously broaden the participation of domestic actors and the space for civil society.”
  • “However, as the underlying nature of the regime will not change, the West should reluctantly accept that this authoritarian regime could help mediate between the West and Russia and that its stability has certain benefits for the Belarusian people, its Ukrainian neighbor to the south and the wider region.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Grudges Before Politics: Arrests in Russia Are Increasingly Random,” Tatyana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.05.19The author, founder and CEO of a political analysis firm, writes:

  • “A fascinating tale is unfolding following the high-profile arrest of the once influential Russian politician and businessman Mikhail Abyzov. Abyzov is known for two things. First … he was in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s team … [I]n 2008–2012, Abyzov staked a lot on Medvedev staying on for a second term as president … He also played a notable role in the electricity sector.”
  • “The current charges publicized by the Investigative Committee relate to the sale of four energy companies. According to Kommersant newspaper, Abyzov’s businesses sold them for 4 billion rubles, while their real value was only 186 million.”
  • “Abyzov was likely in the Russian capital to attend the birthday celebrations of former deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who used to supervise Abyzov’s work in the cabinet. Dvorkovich is one of the weakest figures in Medvedev’s entourage, but also one of the closest to the prime minister.”
  • “Medvedev’s circle has suffered so many other blows recently. … The current wave targets those working for Medvedev, rather than Medvedev himself. It seems that the security services realize that only the former heir is off limits, and everything around him is fertile ground for asserting ambition and instilling order.”
  • “Abyzov’s arrest is also important because it demonstrates that the security structures are gradually switching from selective to random persecution. And everyone knows that they collect compromising material on any government official and influential businessman. Prosecution for economic crimes is becoming chaotic, and politics, which previously loomed large behind high-profile arrests, now appears only after the fact.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.