Russia Analytical Report, April 13-20, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • Columnist David Ignatius wonders whether, after discussing the oil crisis, there is a broader dialogue between Trump and Putin. Such discussions might include a new initiative on strategic arms control, joint efforts to contain the pandemic and cooperation against terrorism, a Russian government adviser told Ignatius. Meanwhile, Vladimir Frolov argues Moscow has again resorted to its traditional strategy of “offering oneself as an ally” in the “fight against a common enemy,” which Putin successfully tested after 9/11, and less successfully in September 2015, when the U.S. ignored the Kremlin’s calls to form a coalition against ISIS. Russia now invites the West to “join forces” in the struggle against the new common enemy, the coronavirus, and insists on “global solidarity,” Frolov writes.
  • It is tempting to think that the coronavirus pandemic will have a moderating effect on tensions between Russia and the West, writes Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer. Unfortunately, such thinking is based on a profound misreading of what drives Russian foreign policy. It would take a radical reversal of domestic economic and political fortunes, Rumer argues, for the Kremlin to contemplate a retreat from its present course in Ukraine, Syria or anywhere else.   
  • As COVID-19 devastates the world, nuclear power plants must remain safe and secure to provide electricity for food supply chains, emergency response teams, hospitals and telecommunications in countries home to more than half of all people, write the Belfer Center’s William Tobey and Simon Saradzhyan and Nickolas Roth of the Stimson Center. Nuclear operators and their security contractors need to take additional measures to prevent non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, from exploiting opportunities to stage attacks. 
  • In thinking about escalation management, it does not appear that the Russian military is articulating a theory of victory in the same way that U.S. doctrine envisions defeating an adversary, argue CNA’s Michael Kofman, Anya Fink and Jeffrey Edmonds. While Russian strategies aspire to terminate the conflict on favorable terms, the concepts underpinning Russian thinking on escalation management have several objectives: managing escalation at existing levels, keeping the conflict bounded, deterring additional participants from joining and reducing the cohesion of opposing coalitions.
  • For Russia, in peacetime, superiority in long-range conventional precision munitions can have deterrent value given "escalation dominance" and the ability to hold Russia's outer layer of defenses at risk and protect its military-economic potential in the rear, write Clint Reach, Vikram Kilambi and Mark Cozad for the RAND Corporation. In wartime, according to some Russian analyses of a hypothetical NATO-Russia war, escalatory pressure can be created by expanding the conflict beyond the local theater of military operations as a result of disparity in long-range precision capability and capacity.
  • Nothing suggests Donald Trump will achieve anything on nuclear arms control, writes Brookings’ Steven Pifer. No one in the administration can explain why Moscow or Beijing, both of which have made their positions utterly clear, would agree to a new trilateral nuclear arms control deal, and yet, Pifer writes, administration officials continue to suggest that much can be achieved with Trump’s big new arms control vision—whatever it may be. Pifer writes that fifteen months after Trump broached the idea, it is beginning to look like fake news.


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

Nuclear security:

"How to keep nuclear power plants operating safely during the coronavirus pandemic," William Tobey, Simon Saradzhyan and Nickolas Roth, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 04.16.20: The authors, the director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at the Belfer Center, the founding director of Russia Matters and the director of the Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program, write:

  • “How are nuclear organizations coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and what are best practices that should spread? It is early in the course of the outbreak, but some answers are emerging.”
  • “First, nuclear installations are implementing broad public health measures, having employees work-from home when possible, use personal protection equipment, wash their hands frequently and keep a proper distance at workstations. … Second, nuclear activities other than power production can be halted temporarily.”
  • “Third, nuclear sites can delay labor-intensive operations. … Fourth, regulators may also decide to temporarily ease some controls. … Fifth, nuclear establishments can isolate essential workers as a preventive measure.”
  • “Sixth, nuclear enterprises can ramp up cyber defenses. … Seventh, nuclear operators can share best practices and knowledge about how to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. … Last but hardly least, nuclear operators and their security contractors can take additional measures to prevent the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other violent extremist actors from exploiting opportunities to stage attacks.” 

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Evolution of Key Concepts,” Michael Kofman, Anya Fink and Jeffrey Edmonds, CNA, April 2020. The authors of the report write:

  • “Although we cannot predict what choices Russia’s political leadership might make, it is less likely to be self-deterred if its military establishment has developed several plausible options for escalation management and war termination from crisis to large-scale war. These employ flexible means, many of which are usable because they are either conventional or non-forceful in nature, while others represent an iterative approach to nuclear escalation which inherently eschews the notion that it may be uncontrolled.  Hence, the Russian political leadership may consider a conflict, even against a superior adversary, as a risky but ultimately manageable affair.”
  • “The more confident the Russian leadership is in the ability to manage escalation, and in the existence of workable war termination strategies in each possible type of war … the more likely they are to engage in activities short of war or competitions in risk taking.”
  • “By developing an interlinked series of approaches that range from intimidation to inflicting calibrated damage for the purpose of escalation management, the Russian military has not traded warfighting for intra-war deterrence. The means involved, and the operational concepts for their employment, afford a suitable hedge strategy to be used in theater warfighting with precision conventional or nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Therefore, there is both a general purpose force for warfighting, and the ability to employ a pre-designated strategic deterrence force to deliver deterrent damage. These capabilities are equally applicable in peacetime.”
  • “Russian thinking is increasingly clear on the role and utility of nonstrategic nuclear weapons … Russian writings offer a good glimpse into when, how and against what targets nuclear weapons might be used. Russian deliberations on the threat posed by theater U.S. missile defense to these calibrated escalation approaches also telegraph one of the likely potential counters to single or grouped strikes.”
  • While Russian strategies aspire to terminate the conflict on favorable terms, the concepts underpinning Russian thinking on escalation management have several objectives: managing escalation at existing levels, keeping the conflict bounded, deterring additional participants from joining and reducing the cohesion of opposing coalitions.”
  • “By conceptualizing and testing ways in which it could signal more limited aims, or developing operational concepts for limited use of force, the United States would increase its chances to control both intended and unintended escalation.”

“Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Key Debates and Players in Military Thought,” Anya Fink and Michael Kofman, CNA, April 2020The authors, a research analyst and a senior research scientist at CNA, write:

  • “[There are] several trends for the evolution of Russian military views [as formulated by key articles and players in Russia’s military-analytical community] about escalation management.” 
  • “First, strategic conventional capabilities are becoming more important in Russia’s strategic deterrence and operational planning, though some judge them insufficient for escalation management at higher thresholds of conflict, particularly regional and large-scale war.”
  • “Second, there is an enduring role for nonstrategic nuclear weapons in regional contingencies, and an ongoing debate about the role that strategic conventional weapons could play in the escalation management dynamic.”
  • “Third, there is an important debate about the definition of deterrent damage, and how to ‘dose’ it against an adversary. While opinions diverge on what deterrent damage should constitute, the general current is to transition from unacceptable damage, calculated as some degree of counterforce or countervalue destruction visited upon an adversary, to inflicting some degree of calibrated damage, with conventional or nuclear weapons, in an iterative fashion against an adversary.”
  • “Finally, an undercurrent in the Russian military-analytical community continues to advocate for nuclear threats at significantly earlier points in the conflict than the consensus across the journals, and the statements of military and political leaders, may suggest.”

“Deterrence, Norms and the Uncomfortable Realities of a New Nuclear Age,” Gerald C. Brown, War on The Rocks, 04.20.20: The author, an analyst with Valiant Integrated Services, writes:

  • “Unfortunately, the use of nuclear weapons may be increasingly plausible in the years ahead … The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action … meant to slow the inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but was undermined when the United States withdrew from it in 2018.”
  • “North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have proven to be an effective means of deterring U.S. intervention and will not go away anytime soon, bringing fears of proliferation both in East Asia and to other dictatorships around the world.”
  • “Bilateral arms control agreements are becoming less relevant as they weaken signatories against states outside of the agreement, and multilateral arms control agreements have become less likely to have meaningful content due to the wide variety of conflicting capabilities, arsenal sizes, and security concerns.”
  • “The unfortunate reality is that the nuclear taboo is falling apart. If we wish to continue to see a world where nuclear weapons are not used, deterrent postures must be based on the assumption that states will use these weapons when it is in their interest to do so.”
  • “The Cold War ended without the use of a single nuclear weapon. However, the non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 can be misunderstood, and the wrong lessons can be learned. It is sometimes assumed that the absence of nuclear war since World War II proves that nuclear weapons are not relevant for national security, will never be used in conflict or that a taboo against nuclear weapons will deter their use in the future. This thinking is dangerous, and may bring about the very event it assumes can never occur.”

“The End of Grand Strategy. America Must Think Small,” Daniel W. Drezner, Ronald R. Krebs and Randall Schweller, Foreign Affairs, 04.13.20: The authors, professors of political science, write:

  • “[There has emerged] a world marked by entropy. A world populated by dozens of power centers will prove extremely difficult to navigate and control. In the new global disorder, even countries with massive economies and militaries may not be able to get others to do what they want. It is essentially impossible for modern states, no matter how militarily and politically powerful, to influence violent groups that prosper in ungoverned spaces or online.
  • “Grand strategy is not well suited to an entropic world. Grand strategic thinking is linear. The world today is one of interaction and complexity, wherein the most direct path between two points is not a straight line. A disordered, cluttered and fluid realm is precisely one that does not recognize grand strategy’s supposed virtue: a practical, durable and consistent plan for the long term. To operate successfully in such an environment, actors must constantly change their strategies.
  • “A sustainable grand strategy must also rest on a shared worldview among key political constituencies … Such a consensus no longer exists.Grand strategy is dead. The radical uncertainty of nonpolar global politics makes it less useful, even dangerous.
  • “Moving forward without grand strategy requires embracing two principles: decentralization and incrementalism.
  • “Aspiring national security advisers should give up competing for the title of the next George Kennan. Crafting a durable successor to containment is neither important nor possible for the near future. Improving U.S. foreign policy performance is. Given the recent record of U.S. foreign policy, that goal doesn’t seem half bad.

NATO-Russia relations:

“Russian Assessments and Applications of the Correlation of Forces and Means,” Clint Reach, Vikram Kilambi and Mark Cozad, RAND Corporation, April 2020: The authors of the report write:

  • “The changes that have taken place in modern warfare have had an impact on the way Russians think about the correlations of forces and means (COFM) … Modern Russian COFM assessments with respect to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) likely are based on combat potential values derived through a methodology that uses qualimetric methods and expert elicitation and was developed by the Russian General Staff's think tank.” 
  • “From the Russian perspective, the critical force correlation is NATO's capability to build up forces and execute conventional precision strikes against critical military and economic infrastructure from air and sea, and Russia's capability to disrupt such an attack.”
  • “Russia's military force structure remains a product of deep reforms implemented in 2008, which were predicated on the assumptions that large-scale war was unlikely and that modern wars between advanced militaries with nuclear weapons would be centered on the aerospace domain.”
  • “In peacetime, superiority in long-range conventional precision munitions … can have deterrent value given ‘escalation dominance’ and the ability to hold Russia's outer layer of defenses at risk and protect its military-economic potential in the rear.”
  • “In wartime, according to some Russian analyses of a hypothetical NATO-Russia war, escalatory pressure can be created by expanding the conflict beyond the local theater of military operations as a result of disparity in long-range precision capability and capacity.”

“NATO Enlargement: Evaluating Its Consequences in Russia,” Kimberly Marten, International Politics, April 2020: The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “It is often claimed that NATO’s post-Cold War geographic enlargement threatened Russian security interests and caused the downturn in Russia’s relations with the West. This article unpacks and challenges that causal claim, making three basic arguments.”
  • “First, NATO enlargement made the alliance weaker. Russia knew this and did not react militarily to any perceived threat from Europe until after it seized Crimea in 2014.”
  • “Enlargement posed challenges for force integration, communication and effectiveness, and as its membership expanded, NATO faced new sources of internal political disagreement … Russian military planners knew that NATO enlargement did not create a threat to Russian security. Annual military data that Russia provided to members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe through the Vienna Document process show that the numbers of troops and weaponry … deployed in Russia’s Western and Southern Military Districts … fell steeply from 2000 to 2010.”
  • “Second, the downturn in Russia’s relationship with the West was overdetermined and most likely caused by Russia’s reaction to its own declining influence in the world. While NATO’s geographic enlargement aggravated this situation, it was probably not the most significant causal factor.”
  • “Third, while Russia certainly reacted negatively to NATO enlargement right from the start, the reaction was manipulated and magnified by both the nationalist opposition, and Vladimir Putin’s regime, to serve domestic political interests.”

“Is NATO Still Necessary?”  Sharon Tennison, David Speedie and Krishen Mehta, The National Interest, 04.18.20: The authors, the president of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, the founder of the program on U.S. global engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior global justice fellow at Yale University, write:

  • “We believe that there are [several] reasons that NATO is no longer needed … Russian president Vladimir Putin actually proposed a new continental security arrangement ‘from Dublin to Vladivostok,’ which was rejected out of hand by the West. If accepted, then it would have included Russia in a cooperative security architecture that would have been safer for the global community.”
  • “It is argued by some that the threat of present-day Russia is why America needs to stay in Europe. But consider this: The economy of the EU was $18.8 trillion before Brexit, and it is $16.6 trillion after Brexit. In comparison, the economy of Russia is only $1.6 trillion today.”
  • “The current environment presents an even greater danger, that of extreme instability arising from non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Russia and the NATO principals are uniquely capable of addressing these threats—if they act in concert.”
  • “Along with climate change, the greatest existential threat is that of a nuclear holocaust—this sword of Damocles still hangs over all of us. With NATO having bases in twenty-nine countries, many along Russia’s borders, some within artillery range of St. Petersburg, we run the risk of a nuclear war that could destroy humankind.”
  • “As long as the United States continues to spend close to 70 percent of its discretionary budget on the military, there will always be a need for enemies, whether real or perceived. … The coronavirus has joined the list of global threats that demand cooperation rather than confrontation even more urgently than before.”


“Rethinking International Security for a Post-Pandemic World,” Igor Ivanov, Kommersant/Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.20.20: The author, president of the Russian International Affairs Council and a former foreign minister, writes:

  • “The coronavirus pandemic has overturned many assumptions about the current world order. As a matter of urgency, it is time to revisit the principles of international security.”   
  • “National security should no longer be defined solely by a country’s military capabilities. Nuclear arms and other modern weapons are unable to combat pandemics, climate change, uncontrollable migration, and other challenges faced both by humanity as a whole and each country individually.”
  • “Right now, we have no idea how long it will take before humanity can declare victory over the coronavirus. Yet even now, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council could launch a joint initiative to start negotiations on bringing the entire system of international relations back under shared control. A global initiative of this kind would both bring our common victory over the virus that much closer and give humanity a reason to have greater confidence in the post-pandemic world.”

“The Russian Power Vertical and the COVID-19 Challenge: The Trajectories of Regional Responses,” Regina Smyth, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Timothy Model and Aiden Klein, PONARS Eurasia, April 2020: The authors, experts in political science and regional studies, write:

  • “The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia at a precarious moment marked by a global oil war and constitutional reforms intended to secure regime stability beyond 2024. These three crises place significant pressure on the Putin system defined by its focus on statism, international standing and a power vertical that concentrates power within the national government.”
  • “As in other federal systems, the Kremlin has responded to the challenge by outlining a decentralized response, resulting in a scramble in the central and regional governments to limit costs and evade blame.”
  • “[Our] analysis demonstrates a mismatch between the nature of the threat and the regional resources available to meet the crisis and points to the likelihood that regional policy will vary in response to the trade-off between public health and economic costs.”
  • “The effects of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis are revealing the social and economic vulnerability of the population and the hollowness of the regime’s achievements (which were declared by Putin in his 2020 address to the Federal Assembly.)”
  • “The confluence of political, economic and healthcare crises will almost certainly amplify trends of increased distrust in government institutions and central leadership. The regional variation in these trends and the effectiveness of governors’ policies in response to mounting problems will define the extent of the challenge to the regime.”

“Coronavirus Spoils Putin's 'Forever-in-Power' Public Vote,” Ilya Klishin, The Moscow Times, 04.16.20: The author, the former digital director of the New York-based Russian-language RTVI channel, writes:

  • “Tens of millions of Russians have lost all or part of their incomes, sit home in isolation and receive no financial assistance from the federal center—unlike their counterparts in the West.”
  • “Now imagine if, after all that, the Kremlin suddenly announced that citizens could briefly emerge from their cages and trek to polling places to register their feelings towards those authorities. It’s an interesting prospect, isn’t it? Of course, the authorities could simply toss all the ‘no’ votes into the trash but that would be a risky move if more than, say, 50 percent of the people had opposed the amendments.”

“The Pandemic and the Toll of Transatlantic Discord. At a Time of Crisis, the US-European Relationship Can—and Must—Be Saved,” Karen Donfried and Wolfgang Ischinger, Foreign Affairs, 04.18.20: The authors, the president of the German Marshall Fund and the chair of the Munich Security Conference, write:

  • “The pandemic should make another reality equally clear: transatlantic cooperation is essential to finding effective solutions to shared challenges—for the United States and Europe, and for the world.”
  • “The first step the United States and the European Union should take is to lift all export bans  and tariffs on medical equipment. … Th[e] harsh reality created an opening that Russia and China rushed to exploit. On March 22, just 24 hours after speaking to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent nine planes loaded with medical supplies to Italy. Russia’s aid has been controversial—some reports claim that most of the equipment was of little or no use—but Italians, feeling abandoned by their traditional allies, embraced the help.”
  • “The United States and Europe should also use the virus as an opportunity to broaden their definitions of national and international security to include public health. COVID-19 … has made crystal clear that a germ can kill as easily as a bullet. … Expanding NATO’s stockpiles to include personal protective equipment and other medical supplies would allow the organization to step up its assistance during a pandemic, and it would make clear that the alliance stands ready to protect its members from today’s most immediate existential threats, whether from an aggressive Russia, an unstable Middle East or a pandemic.”
  • “Finally, Americans and Europeans should respond to future international pandemics by creating a shared system of global medical surveillance.” 

“The Global Coronavirus Crisis Is Poised to Get Much, Much Worse,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 04.13.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “What happens when the pandemic strikes nations of millions of people that have only a half-dozen ventilators? In some places in the United States and other developed countries hit hard by COVID-19, the question is when might it become possible to start getting back to work. For much of the rest of the world, the nightmare is yet to start. And part of the horror is that many poorer countries won't have the means to do much about it. Nor, given the international community's lack of organization and leadership in the face of a global crisis, can they count on richer nations to help them.”
  • “The weakness of Washington should not prevent the brain trust of the developed world—the think tanks, news media, universities and nongovernmental organizations—from focusing on a strategy for the next and possibly most brutal front in the struggle against the scourge of the coronavirus. Many organizations have already begun to do so, recognizing that this may be the defining struggle of our era, and that if ever the world demanded a global response, this is it.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Arms control:

“What the United States Loses by Quitting the Open Skies Treaty,” Thomas Gaulkin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 04.13.20: The author, multimedia editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, writes:

  • “Reports emerged this week that the White House may be moving ‘soon’ on withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, a nearly two-decade-old agreement that allows 34 countries to fly and share reconnaissance missions over each other to promote military cooperation and transparency.”
  • “Foreign policy veterans from multiple administrations have called on the White House to reconsider. … [E]arlier this month, [Alexander] Graef [a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy] and his colleague … Moritz Kütt decided to publish figures based on exhaustive flight data they received from a NATO source on all Open Skies missions from 2002 through 2019.”
  • “They set up a website,, that quantifies the overall flight records … The United States receives … far fewer flights over its territory than it flies over others’ … Graef and Kütt calculate that more approximately 94 percent of reconnaissance flights under the Open Skies treaty were flown over European states, including Russia.”
  • “Moreover, the visualization [on the website] makes plain that there are really two main blocs gathering observations of each other under the treaty: European states and Russia (including Belarus, which is grouped with Russia under the terms of the treaty).”
  • “In addition to losing an important mechanism for building trust between increasingly antagonistic states, some experts speculate that those opposed to the existing arms control regime will use withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty to justify calls for an exit from New START—on the grounds that New START verification will be hindered without the intelligence gathered via Open Skies.”

“Tearing Up the Open Skies Treaty Would Be a Mistake for Trump,” Daniel R. DePetris, The National Interest, 04.20.20: The author, a fellow at Defense Priorities, writes:

  • “U.S. national security officials have an important decision to make. They can either do the shortsighted thing and depart the Open Skies Treaty unilaterally despite widespread protests from the accord’s other participants, gambling that a precipitous pullout will pressure Moscow to return to the table or come back into full compliance. Or they can see the bigger picture, work with Russian officials on compliance concerns and remain in an agreement that has both given Washington a sense of comfort about Russian military hardware and provided the world’s two largest nuclear powers with a reliable channel of communication.”
  • “Preserving military transparency and strategic predictability among nuclear superpowers is a core U.S. national security interest—particularly today when the U.S.-Russia relationship is at a low point. Now is the time to enhance pragmatic agreements, not recklessly eliminate them.”

“Trump's Fake News on Arms Control?” Steven Pifer, The Hill, 04.14.20: The author, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “Nothing suggests President Trump will achieve anything on nuclear arms control. … New START expires next February. While it can be extended by up to five years, and Putin is ready to agree, the Trump administration has not taken up the offer.”
  • “Asked about extension in 2017, administration officials said two things had to occur first: The Defense Department had to complete its nuclear posture review, and Russia had to meet New START’s limits when they took full effect. Both of those things happened … but officials continued to defer.”
  • “On Feb. 29, Trump pointed to a possible summit of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in September as a venue for discussing his proposal … In March, his statement marking the 50th anniversary of the Nonproliferation Treaty said the United States ‘will be proposing a bold new trilateral arms control initiative with Russia and China.’”
  • “The world continues to wait for that bold initiative. Meanwhile, no one in the administration can explain why Moscow or Beijing, both of which have made their positions utterly clear, would agree. Even if the Russian and Chinese leaders were inclined to negotiate, why would they offer concessions in September, less than two months before the U.S. election? Particularly in view of Trump’s inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, they would assume a serious prospect that he will no longer be president come Jan. 20, 2021.”
  • “White House and administration officials surely understand this, but they continue to suggest that much can be achieved with the president’s big new arms control vision—whatever it may be. Fifteen months after Trump broached the idea, it is beginning to look like fake news.”


“Inside White-Supremacist Russian Imperial Movement, Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization by US State Department,” Robyn Dixon, The Washington Post, 04.13.20: The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “When the State Department designated a Russian white-supremacist group, the Russian Imperial Movement, as a terrorist entity this month, some supporters saw it as an honor, almost like a coming-of-age moment. For RIM leader Stanislav Vorobyov, it was affirming. ‘A reward,’ he said in a social media post.”
  • “The terrorist designation marks a U.S. shot across the bow on Russian authorities' relative tolerance of RIM and an associated paramilitary training operation outside St. Petersburg. Despite Vorobyov's bravado, the designation is likely to hinder RIM's moves to forge ties with far-right groups in the United States and Europe, and frustrate its efforts to persuade foreign ultranationalists to travel to Russia for combat training.”

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security:

“Making Cyberspace Safe for Democracy. The New Landscape of Information Competition,” Laura Rosenberger, Foreign Affairs, 04.13.20The author, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, writes:

  • “With the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign underway, stories of Russian interference are again in the headlines. In 2016, Russia’s hacking operations and use of social media to manipulate public discourse in the United States caught U.S. policymakers off-guard. Four years later, officials have not yet fully understood that those attacks reflected the changing landscape of geopolitical competition. Viewing Russia’s attempts at interference in 2016 in isolation misses the larger context: rival states compete in the twenty-first century as much over information as any other terrain.”
  • “Democratic countries view information as an empowering force in the hands of people: the free and open flow of ideas, news and opinion fuels deliberative democracy. Authoritarian systems see this model as a threat, viewing information as a danger to their regimes and something the state must control and shape. Using surveillance, censorship and the manipulation of information, authoritarian regimes shore up their power.”

Elections interference:

“Steele Dossier Disinformation Update,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 04.14.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The newly released portions of last year's Department of Justice Inspector General report about the FBI's investigation into Trump-Russia collusion [shows] how the FBI abused its powers by misleading a secret court into granting surveillance warrants on the Trump campaign.”
  • “Thanks to Congressional pressure, the Justice Department has now declassified footnotes showing that the FBI's main source for its collusion allegations—Christopher Steele—may have been targeted as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. The FBI was warned of this threat but ignored it.”
  • “The footnotes reveal the FBI was further warned that the investigator's [Steele’s] network had been infiltrated by Russian intelligence. The FBI received a report in 2017 outlining an ‘inaccuracy’ in the dossier about the activities of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.”
  • “The footnote also says a report in 2017 told the FBI that claims involving Trump activities during a 2013 trip to Moscow were false and the result of Russian intelligence … A separate footnote noted the FBI ignored a warning that a Steele contact was ‘rumored to be a former KGB/SVR officer,’ while another footnote showed the FBI closed its eyes to Mr. Steele's ‘frequent contacts’ with Russian oligarchs.”
  • “The footnotes have emerged thanks to the dogged pressure of GOP Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley, but crucial information remains redacted. All the more reason for U.S. Attorney John Durham to dig deep in his own investigation of the origins of the FBI probe and finally give the country a full picture of who knew what and when.”

“The Steele Dossier Just Sustained Another Body Blow,” Erik Wemple, The Washington Post, 04.18.20: The author, a media critic for the news outlet, writes:

  • “So you thought you'd heard the last word on the Russian dossier, did you? Nope: Freshly declassified footnotes from a 2019 Justice Department report cast further doubt on one of the central documents of Russiagate—a collection of memos compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed in January 2017.”
  • “In December 2017 … MSNBC host Rachel Maddow spoke in admiring tones about the ‘deep cover sources’ deployed by Steele. Well, Steele's main source might take issue with Maddow's description … ‘When interviewed by the FBI, the Primary Subsource stated that he/she did not view his/her contacts as a network of sources, but rather as friends with whom he/she has conversations about current events and government relations.’”
  • “That tidbit comes from a batch of footnotes to a December 2019 report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz that were declassified this month in two tranches, one from the Justice Department and one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”
  • “As the FBI sought independent confirmation of the Steele claims, it found holes, according to the Horowitz report: ‘The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location and title information, much of which was publicly available."

Energy exports from CIS:

“European Lockdown Hits Russia’s Gas Market,” Sergei Kapitonov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.17.20: The author, a gas analyst at the Energy Center of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, writes:

  • “It’s a trying time for the two pillars of Russia’s energy exports: oil and gas. The new coronavirus pandemic has shattered demand on traditional markets, especially in Europe. Compared with the same day last year, electricity generation at gas-powered plants in northern Italy was down by 54 percent on the last Tuesday of March this year, by 37 percent in the Netherlands and by 15 percent in western Germany.”
  • “On the European market, stock market prices for gas … are already below $80 per thousand cubic meters: levels unseen since 1999. For comparison, in central and southern Russia, Gazprom can get up to $65 at the current exchange rate per thousand cubic meters by selling gas to industrial enterprises, and a little less if it sells to the public. And that doesn’t entail the expense of transporting the gas to Europe and paying a 30 percent export tax. The prices for Gazprom’s long-term contracts are for now up to double those of European stock quotes, and on its own export trading platform, Gazprom is keeping prices at $110 per thousand cubic meters, using long-term forward contracts for the autumn and next year, when the company expects gas to be more expensive.” 
  • “The most surefire strategy for the gas sector is radical cost-cutting and boosting efficiency. The gas industry managed to mostly avoid these measures in previous crises, but the current perfect storm simply leaves it with no other options.”

Oil Crisis Tests Putin’s Skill to Project Strength, Thomas Graham, YaleGlobal Online, 04.13.20: The author, managing director at Kissinger Associates, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to yield under pressure. That is … a key aspect of his appeal to Russian elites and the public alike ... The plunge in oil prices because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of the OPEC+ agreement on production cuts provide the most recent test.”
  • “Despite Russia’s dependence on oil … the Ministry of Finance announced that Russia could withstand prices as low as $25 a barrel … the Russian oil industry itself would suffer significant damage in the short term … [Still], Moscow would not back down.”
  • “Despite such rhetoric, the collapse in oil prices raised grave domestic challenges for Putin … The global economic consequences of COVID-19 would inevitably slow Russian economic growth.”
  • “On March 31, Trump called Putin to discuss the … coronavirus crisis and oil markets. Kremlin statements … [made] it clear that Trump made the call – the inference was that Trump, not Putin, urgently needed relief from the price war and the pandemic. The next day Russia sent a planeload of humanitarian assistance to New York, underscoring again that the United States, not Russia, was in need … Putin announced that Russia was prepared to work with its partners … to stabilize oil markets … He supported another meeting of OPEC+ to work out the details. [For] Moscow cuts in US production … would have to be part of the deal.
  • “Two narratives for the oil price war gained greater prominence in Russian media … the Saudis as determined to drive American shale oil off the markets … [and] the price war [as] … a US-Saudi conspiracy to undermine the Russian oil sector … Both reinforced standard Kremlin tropes of Russian goodwill and victimhood."
  • "Putin will appear as a decisive and constructive leader … playing a stronger hand than Trump. More important, Putin, and Russia, did not yield.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Universal Reset. Russian Foreign Policy in the Age of Coronavirus,” Vladimir Frolov,, 04.14.20: The author, an international relations columnist, writes:

  • “At the beginning of the year, Russia’s foreign policy objectives were seen in the preparation for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, with the invitation of the leaders from the great world powers (Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron accepted the invitation, Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe seriously considered it). This was to be the main event of the year, setting the restoration of Russia’s status as a great power, able to set the rules of the game.”
  • “The meetings in Moscow were supposed to be used to outline the arrangements for the ‘Big Five Summit’ of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council scheduled for September in New York … As a result of the epidemic, this diplomatic crescendo is in question.”
  • “Any crisis, however, not only invalidates old plans, but creates new opportunities. Russia saw the main one in the prospect of a ‘universal reset.’ The thesis is such: the coronavirus pandemic is like a new world war … it will lead to the breakdown of the old world order … and form a stable new order, the rules of which will be set by the ‘big five’ at the summit proposed by Putin. Of course, this new order must have no place for sanctions.”
  • “So far, Moscow’s traditional strategy of ‘offering oneself as an ally’ in the ‘fight against a common enemy,’ successfully tested by Vladimir Putin … in 2001 after 9/11, and less successfully … in September 2015, when the Americans ignored the Kremlin’s calls to form a ‘new anti-Hitler coalition’ against ISIS … Now, Russia invites the west to ‘join forces’ in the struggle with the common enemy that is coronavirus and insists on ‘global solidarity.’”
  • “The main foreign policy success of the era of coronavirus was unexpectedly achieved on the American front. Vladimir Putin managed to create a completely new channel and subject of direct dialogue with Donald Trump … Putin used the opportunity that Trump gave him when [Trump] called the Russian president on March 30, to pressure Moscow to resume negotiations with OPEC to stabilize world oil prices …  Russia and the United States are now consulting at the highest level on oil more often than on strategic nuclear weapons.”

“Will the New Oil Pact Open a Broader Dialogue Between Trump and Putin?” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 04.13.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Since President Trump moved into the White House, he has been eager for a dramatic initiative with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he may finally have found one in [April 12]’s announcement of a joint American-Russian-Saudi effort to stabilize world oil prices.”
  • “What's intriguing is whether it signals a broader dialogue between Trump and Putin. Such discussions might include a new initiative on strategic arms control, joint efforts to contain the pandemic and cooperation against terrorism, Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian government adviser who heads its sovereign wealth fund, told me [April 13].”
  • “Dmitriev said that to reach [April 12]’s agreement, Putin spoke five times with Trump over the preceding two weeks, more than he had the entire previous year. Dmitriev, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, was one of several key intermediaries in the three-way dialogue that led to the pact.”
  • “Whether Trump and Putin will move forward on additional issues, such as arms control, is hard to predict given the current political turmoil in Washington and abroad caused by the pandemic. But Dmitriev said he expected that the United States would continue cooperating with other oil producers to limit supply and stabilize prices. Here's one more astonishing consequence of the novel coronavirus: The United States, historic enemy of OPEC, has signed on as de facto leader of the oil cartel.”

“What Does Russia Want From the United States?” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.15.20: The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The main reason for Moscow to reach out to Washington with an offer of cooperation in a non-existential crisis is that a coalition would allow it—just as the Obama administration had hoped in 2009-2010—to break through the logjams blocking the relationship.”
  • “Given that virtually the entire U.S. political class has a highly negative view of Russia, Moscow’s gestures and overtures are addressed to President Donald Trump personally. The aim is to get him to accept a last-minute dialogue with Russia on extending the New START Treaty … Putin certainly has a broader agenda, which probably includes the Middle East and Ukraine.”  
  • “Will this work? Historically, this approach has not yielded much for Russia. Even while, on Putin’s orders, the Russian General Staff was generously sharing information on Afghanistan with the U.S. military, President George W. Bush announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.”
  • “Yet one aspect of the coronavirus crisis—the collapse of oil prices—has prompted Trump to engage with Putin and the Saudi King Salman to help them stop the price war and agree on major cuts in output. For Russia, this intervention has had a dual positive effect: preventing an even steeper plunge in the price of oil and establishing Russia—alongside the United States and Saudi Arabia—as one of the three powers deciding on global energy issues. Herein lies an important lesson.”
  • “Russia’s efforts to engage the United States in coalitions using the World War II model are doomed to fail. Washington never joins others. The United States can be relied upon, however, to reach out to Russia out of its own self-interest. Just as it did, incidentally, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.”

“Measuring Power, Power Cycles and the Risk of Great-Power War in the 21st Century,” Jacob L. Heim and Benjamin M. Miller, RAND Corporation, April 2020: The authors, a defense policy researcher at RAND and a professor and the Pardee RAND Graduate School, write:

  • “There is growing concern that U.S. power has been declining relative to the growing power of Russia and China. This concern renews long-standing questions about how we should measure national power, which nations have the most power, which states are gaining and losing power, and when such shifts in relative or perceived power might portend conflict.”
  • “The authors explore these questions, illustrating a quantitative, scenario-based approach for policymakers who are interested in measuring the interstate balance of power, assessing the impact of shocks on the balance of power, and identifying periods during which shifts in the balance of power could portend conflict between major powers.”
  • “The methodology demonstrates how different climate change scenarios, population projections or economic growth forecasts lead to different balances of global power, then uses power cycle theory to map those changes in the distribution of global power to changes in the risk of conflict between major global powers.”
  • “The authors … find that global power can be ‘sticky,’ meaning it takes drastic assumptions about the future to create meaningful changes in the global balance of power. Further, because their model treats global power as a relative concept, the authors find that the types of shocks that affect the risk of conflict are the types that create relative ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’”

“How Trump and Putin Weakened UN Bid for a Global Cease-Fire,” Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, 04.17.20: The author, a senior diplomatic reporter for the magazine, writes:

  • “For several weeks, the United States and Russia have quietly opposed efforts by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and key Western allies to promote a sweeping global cease-fire aimed at urging all countries and armed groups in conflict to ‘silence the guns’ and devote their attention to battling the coronavirus pandemic.”
  • “Both Washington and Moscow have assured their counterparts that they favor cease-fires in a range of conflict zones, from Libya to Syria and Yemen. But both governments fear that a universal cease-fire proposed by the U.N. chief could potentially constrain their own efforts to mount what they consider legitimate counterterrorism operations overseas. The United States is also concerned that a blanket cease-fire could inhibit Israel’s ability to engage in military operations throughout the Middle East.”

“Avoiding the 'Realist’s' Retreat,” Daniel Fried and Ash Jain, The National Interest, 04.19.20: The authors, the Weiser Family distinguished fellow and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, write:

  • “Putin’s external aggression (and hostility to the United States) is bound up with his despotism at home: he needs to keep democracy far away from Russia to maintain his unchallenged rule-for-life. We must do our best to stabilize relations with the Kremlin. There may be areas of common interests even now. But better relations with Russia will require a better Russia.”
  • “The challenges of the coronavirus force thought about what counts. America and the world have prospered for 75 years because we and our best friends—fellow democracies—built and maintained an international order rooted in common values. We should not abandon that tradition for the sake of aligning ourselves with despots. We should not retreat from our best traditions for the sake of short-term fears, lack of confidence, or a cynical calculation that we must settle for transactional relations. The higher realism of seeing our interests and values as ultimately linked is the American way.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • No significant developments.

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“The Coronavirus Won’t Make Putin Play Nice,” Eugene Rumer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04.14.20: The author, a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes:

  • “It is tempting to think that the global coronavirus pandemic will have a moderating effect on tensions between Russia and the West. Unfortunately, such thinking is based on a profound misreading of what drives Russian foreign policy.”
  • “From Moscow’s perspective, the war with Ukraine—or for Ukraine—is a war of necessity, not choice. … It is thus wishful thinking to imagine that, even with the Russian economy heading precipitously into a recession, Putin would end the war in Ukraine in exchange for relief from Western sanctions.”
  • “Putin’s foreign policy is daring, but hardly reckless. It involves calculated risks. … In the case of Ukraine, the United States and its allies made clear they would not enter the fray directly. … Russia’s deployment in Syria … was a bold move with a worthwhile payoff. The principal risk—a military confrontation with the United States—was minimal, since Washington had made it abundantly clear that it would not intervene militarily in the civil war to topple Assad.”
  • “His deal with Maduro reportedly made money for Russia’s national oil company, Rosneft. … Other Russian moves—such as forays in the Central African Republic and Libya and meddling in U.S. and European politics—carried little risk and expended few resources, but created a new image of Russia as a major power with global reach.”
  • “It would take a radical reversal of domestic economic and political fortunes for the Kremlin to contemplate a retreat from its present course in Ukraine, Syria or anywhere else.”

“The White House Blessed a War in Libya, but Russia Won It,” David Kirkpatrick, New York Times, 04.14.20: The author, an international correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Early last spring, just before a planned American-backed peace conference between warring factions in Libya, the aspiring Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter arranged a phone call with John R. Bolton, then the White House national security adviser. A former Libyan Army general and onetime CIA client, Mr. Hifter wanted a White House blessing for a surprise attack to seize Tripoli, the capital, before the peace talks commenced. Mr. Bolton did not say no.”
  • “The attack, launched last April 4, backfired badly. Mr. Hifter failed to capture Tripoli, overextended his forces and restarted a civil war—killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands more. The fighting has cut off the flow of Libyan oil, injected new volatility into the region and severely diminished Washington's influence.”
  • “But one apparent winner has emerged: the Kremlin. Russia has operated with cold-eyed cynicism, taking advantage of three years of muddled messages from the Trump administration to become a critical kingmaker in Libya, a geopolitical prize with vast energy reserves and a strategic location on the Mediterranean.”
  • “'This has been Russia's dream since World War II,' said Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister of the Tripoli government, quoting Winston Churchill's wartime statement that Moscow saw Libya as the 'soft underbelly' of Europe. 'To get Russian feet on Libyan soil.'”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“Does China’s Propaganda Work?” Maria Repnikova, New York Times, 04.16.20: The author, an assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, writes:

  • “Not long after it publicly recognized the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party declared war—a ‘people’s war’—against the epidemic. Since then it also appears to have declared war against any narrative it thinks challenges that endeavor.”
  • “While conducting research on public perceptions of China in Ethiopia and Russia over the past two years, I have found many people in both countries who held conflicting thoughts and feelings toward China. One can respect China’s might and achievements, while being vigilant about its intentions, especially when it comes to material assistance.”
  • “China’s propaganda has matured—but so have its targets. Instead of delivering diktat and defensiveness, the government now engages in selective dialogue with its audiences and their criticisms, featuring those views in its own storytelling, or its retelling of them. So far, this seems to have played to the Communist Party’s advantage, partly by forcing it to keep adapting its messaging. But the public, in China and abroad, in turn is reinterpreting the propaganda, and further testing the party’s agility.”


“Grey Zone Politics: Why Ukraine Needs Creative International Cooperation,” Pavlo Klimkin and Andreas Umland, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 04.16.20: The authors, the director of the Program on European, Regional and Russian Studies at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future and a non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, write:

  • “Even before the pandemic, domestic developments in countries such as the United Kingdom, the U.S., Hungary and France created uncertainty about the identity and future of NATO and the EU. In these circumstances, the two major Western organizations will become increasingly closed to new applicants.”
  • “For years to come, efforts to integrate Ukraine into security organizations and the liberal democratic order will have to hit a moving target. Accordingly, Kyiv and its partners will need creativity, resolve, and flexibility in exploring new paths for international cooperation. These could lie in, for instance, existing multilateral formats such as the Three Seas Initiative, or in entirely new regional structures that embrace all of Central Europe.”

“The Coronavirus Crisis: An Opportunity to Mend Polish-Ukrainian Relations,” Joanna Hosa and Oleksandra Iwaniuk, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 04.17.20: The authors, the deputy director of the Wider Europe program at ECFR and a political analyst, write:

  • “As both the Polish and Ukrainian governments seemingly want to stem the massive outflow of Ukrainians from Poland, they need to communicate and coordinate with each other more than they have so far.”
  • “It is no less important for them to create a sense of solidarity among Poles and Ukrainians—a task that might be easier if the Polish government and state-controlled media outlets were more outspoken about its assistance for the Ukrainian minority. Polish citizens ought to feel reassured by the knowledge that the government protects the country’s largest minority, many of whom are key workers who play a crucial role in helping Poland through the crisis.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Belarusians Left Facing COVID-19 Alone,” Ryhor Astapenia and Anaïs Marin, Chatham House, 04.16.20: The authors, the Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow and an associate fellow at Chatham House, write:

  • “President Alexander Lukashenko’s statements that vodka, sauna and tractors are protecting Belarusians from coronavirus attracted amused attention in international media. Lukashenko also described other societies’ response to COVID-19 as ‘a massive psychosis.’ … Although Lukashenko is notorious for his awkward style of public communication, the fact that Belarus is refusing to impose comprehensive confinement measures is of concern. Belarusians continue to work, play football and socialize.”
  • “Belarus actually has one of the largest numbers of hospital beds in the world per 1,000 of the population. But in the absence of quarantine measures its health system, already crippled by corruption and embezzlement, is likely to be overwhelmed.”
  • “Patients being treated for pneumonia in hospitals have suggested medical staff are uninformed and inadequately equipped. It is claimed doctors are not reporting COVID-19 as the suspected cause of death, either through a lack of testing or for fear of reprisals.”
  • “Observers believe the real mortality rate is already well above official figures (40 deaths as of 16 April). Based on an Imperial College London model, between 15,000 and 32,000 people could die under the current mild confinement regime and such a high death toll would hugely impact the country’s political stability. Citing personal data protection, the Ministry of Health has imposed a total news blackout; the only cluster officially acknowledged so far is the city of Vitsebsk.”
  • “This crisis does risk a new ‘Chernobyl moment’ for the authorities, but the population could react more vocally this time. As volunteers self-organize to fight the epidemic, it might become more difficult for the authorities to say that it is efficient in running the country. But the bottom line is Belarus desperately needs money. Whoever steps up to support Belarus financially will also be able to heavily influence its politics.”