Russia Analytical Report, April 15-22, 2019
This Week’s Highlights:
- Putin will host North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on April 25, and Moscow could help facilitate an agreement on North Korea's nuclear program, writes research professor Lyle J. Goldstein.
- The problem facing the U.S. military is not insufficient spending, but rather that rivals like China and Russia have superior strategies, argues Carnegie senior fellow Christian Brose. The greatest danger to the U.S. is the erosion of conventional deterrence—leaders in Beijing or Moscow will run greater risks and press their advantage if they think they can win a war against the U.S., he writes.
- The notion of consequence free NATO enlargement was based on two assumptions: there would be no more rivalry with a post-Soviet Russia and Russia’s weaknesses would keep it from reemerging as a major Eurasian power; however, developments under Putin should have raised questions about the soundness of these assumptions as a basis for NATO policy, writes FPRI’s Nikolas K. Gvosdev.
- With the exception of the INF withdrawal and the U.S. response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Trump administration’s Russia policy seems to be to put as little pressure on Moscow as possible, writes Robert D. Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations.
- The Mueller report offers a unique view into the Kremlin, showing a government as shambolic and disorganized as the White House, writes political science professor Mark Lawrence Schrad.
- Although Zelenskiy has offered a vague promise that he will be better suited than Poroshenko to resolving the conflict with Russia, Putin has shown no sign of preferring the new Ukrainian president-elect, writes FPRI’s Nikolas K. Gvosdev. Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov argues that under Zelenskiy, Ukraine will become a new domestic policy issue for Russia, as an amiable, fresh young president could be seen as an alternative to Putin
- The Kremlin sees Internet technologies as a modern solution to the Russian population’s growing wave of negative feeling captured in recent sociological research, writes former Vedomosti columnist Alexandra Prokopenko. One potential mechanism for maintaining stability is artificially inflating ratings by literally blocking out the negative.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant commentary.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
“How Russia Can Help Break the Deadlock with North Korea,” Lyle J. Goldstein, The National Interest, 04.22.19: The author, a research professor, writes:
- "It is worth taking a serious interest in the meeting that will take place in Vladivostok over the next couple of days between Russian president Vladimir Putin and North Korean president Kim Jong-un. ... Assistance from Moscow in helping to put the troubled Pyongyang-Washington negotiating track back together would be most welcome."
- "Moscow could do even more to facilitate an agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program. ... First, Russia obviously has not only the technical expertise to assist with verification, but it also has vast experience with arms control negotiations and crisis management too. Second, it is on good terms with both China and also South Korea, but Russia may be more trusted in Pyongyang for the simple reason that it does not really pose an existential threat to Pyongyang in the way that either Seoul or Beijing might. Finally and most importantly, Russia’s continual focus on military power earns it a certain amount of credibility in a tough neighborhood."
- "Would Trump significantly soften sanctions on Russia in return for Putin delivering a concrete and feasible arms control agreement covering North Korea’s arsenal that Kim accepts? Unfortunately, such a diplomatic masterstroke is far too much to hope for in these confused and tense times."
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant commentary.
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- No significant commentary.
“Don’t Believe the Doomsayers: NATO Has a Future.” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 04.15.19: The author, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and non-residential fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, writes:
- “Post-Cold War NATO enlargement as a cost- and consequence-free decision was based on two assumptions: that there could never be strategic enmity and rivalry with a post-Soviet, post-Communist Russia, and that Russian weaknesses were long-term and would preclude any resurgence of Moscow as the dominant power in Eurasia. … [D]evelopments during the 2000s and beyond under Vladimir Putin’s tenure should have called into question whether these were realistic bases on which to base NATO policy.”
- “NATO already had a clear warning of the problems that were accumulating when the alliance experienced a mini-crisis in February 2003. … [Q]uietly, the Turks discerned that when it came to NATO, Eastern Europe wanted no distractions from the focus on Russia.”
- “[I]n parts of Europe … there remains a continuing reluctance on the part of governments to spend more or resume a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis Moscow. Even in 2019, the existential threat from Russia that Atlanticists … see is not shared by many European politicians.”
- “Certainly Putin—and the contemporary Russian Federation—have few friends in Europe. 2018 polling data from the Pew Research Center suggests that most Europeans dislike the Putin regime. This does not, however, automatically translate into viewing Russia as a deadly foe. … The data is clear: the further south and west one goes in the NATO alliance, the less there is support for challenging the Kremlin.”
- “And throughout the alliance, there is not much appetite for NATO helping to contain a rising China, even if Beijing is currently aligned with Moscow. … The Euro-Atlantic theater is once again a zone of conflict and instability. NATO’s primary purpose as a security alliance should take precedence over using the alliance as a tool for social change and reform.”
“The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future,” Christian Brose, Foreign Affairs, 04.16.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:
- “There is an emerging consensus that the United States’ top defense-planning priority should be contending with great powers with advanced militaries, primarily China, and that new technologies … are now both real and essential to future military advantage. … [W]hen it comes to these threats, the United States is falling dangerously behind.”
- “The problem is not insufficient spending on defense; it is that the U.S. military is being countered by rivals with superior strategies. … The traditional model of U.S. military power is being disrupted … A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before.”
- “What will really increase the rate of fire are intelligent systems that will radically reduce the time between when targets can be identified and when they can be attacked. A harbinger of this much nastier future battlefield has played out in Ukraine since 2014.”
- “U.S. rivals are fielding large quantities of multimillion-dollar weapons to destroy the United States’ multibillion-dollar military systems. … The greatest danger for the United States is the erosion of conventional deterrence. If leaders in Beijing or Moscow think that they might win a war against the United States, they will run greater risks and press their advantage. They will take actions that steadily undermine the United States’ commitments to its allies.”
- “U.S. leaders simply do not believe that the United States could be displaced as the world’s preeminent military power, not in the distant future but very soon. … If that attitude prevails, change could come not from a concerted plan but as a result of a catastrophic failure, such as an American defeat in a major war.”
“Spies, Lies and Algorithms: Why US Intelligence Agencies Must Adapt or Fail,” Amy Zegart and Michael Morell, Foreign Affairs, 04.16.19: The authors, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, write:
- “From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence rapid technological change is giving U.S. adversaries new capabilities and eroding traditional U.S. intelligence advantages. The U.S. intelligence community must adapt to these shifts or risk failure as the nation’s first line of defense.”
- “Although U.S. intelligence agencies have taken initial steps in the right direction, they are not moving fast enough. In fact, the first intelligence breakdown of this new era has already come: … Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
- “The intelligence agencies missed Russia’s most important tool: the weaponization of social media. … The explosion of open-source information … offers perhaps the best unclassified example of the promise and perils of new technology. … Separating the true from the spurious will only become more difficult. AI is giving rise to a deception revolution. Russian disinformation ahead of the 2016 election pales in comparison to what will soon be possible with the help of deepfakes—digitally manipulated audio or video material designed to be as realistic as possible.”
- “The intelligence community is more and more concerned about the willingness of U.S. technology companies to sell their products and services to foreign clients who do not share the United States’ democratic principles or national interests. Google … has said that it will not work with the Pentagon on any AI projects that could be used in making weapons, but it is considering helping the Chinese government develop a better-censored search engine. … Russia’s highly touted deep-learning project iPavlov uses hardware from NVIDIA, a cutting-edge California-based chip company.”
- “The first priority of any transformation effort should be to do no harm to the intelligence community’s most valuable asset: its commitment to objectivity, no matter the policy or political consequences.”
- No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
Conflict in Syria:
- No significant commentary.
- No significant commentary.
“Mueller’s Bombshells Are About Putin, Not Trump. The special counsel’s report reveals a disorganized government with unclear lines of authority—and not just in Washington,” Mark Lawrence Schrad, Foreign Policy, 04.19.19: The author, an associate professor of political science, writes:
- “[The Mueller report] paints a portrait of a Russian government that in large part is as disorganized and shambolic as its counterpart in the United States. … The most fascinating insights … come from the testimony of Petr Aven—the head of Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank. … ‘According to Aven, Putin … did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.’ Such evidence is clearly at odds with the imagery of Vladimir Putin as the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics. … In multiple subsequent meetings with Putin, Aven had to admit his failure to create a back channel between the Kremlin and Trump.”
- “Mueller also chronicles the actions of another influential oligarch, Kirill Dmitriev—the CEO of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund … According to the report, ‘Dmitriev was very anxious to connect with the incoming Administration’—especially Kushner and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.—but was repeatedly unable to do so. … Dmitriev was able to meet with … informal envoy Erik Prince in the remote Seychelles to pass on Putin-approved plans for U.S.-Russian reconciliation … Dmitriev said he was ‘disappointed’ not to be meeting a more important representative.”
- “One further curiosity regards the role of then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. … [M]ore than once in the Mueller report it is noted that ‘while Kislyak was an important person, Kislyak did not have a direct line to Putin,’ so other, informal, oligarch intermediaries … became necessary.”
- “The image of Putin that arises from the Mueller investigation is a mixed one. On the one hand, the evidence of the ‘active measures’ of the IRA troll farm, as well as the malign hacking … certainly feeds the popular image of Putin … Yet … he still faltered when it came to the seemingly far easier task of making contact with the Trump team itself. His inability to do so adds credence to the current literature on Kremlin politics that portrays Putin as a sometimes hands-on, sometimes hands-off leader of a disorganized political system that relies increasingly on informal mechanisms and solutions.”
“What Mueller Didn't Tell Us About Russia,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 04.19.19: The author, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, writes:
- “Mueller and his team had a specific task, not a comprehensive mandate. They did not analyze all aspects of the Russian interference campaign, which extended beyond social media strategies and computer-intrusion operations. They did not assess how the Obama administration, social media companies and media organizations responded to Russian meddling. They did not evaluate the appropriateness of a number of interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Most importantly, they did not propose policies for preventing future attacks. The Mueller report is … only a first step.”
- “Volume I of Mueller's report focuses principally on the two operations conducted by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency. This scope is reasonable, because they probably had the biggest impact. Yet the Russian government and its proxies ran several other plays only partially discussed in the Mueller report.”
- “We also need in-depth studies of how policymakers (and others) responded or failed to respond effectively to these Russian efforts. … The actions of social media companies and traditional media organizations require similar scrutiny.”
- “We also need a more thorough and precise assessment of the intentions behind contacts between campaigns and foreign governments, companies or individuals to develop policy prescriptions … for future elections.”
- “The report appears to clear Trump and his campaign team of the crime of conspiring with the Russians. That means that the president and his associates should feel free to acknowledge and criticize forcefully what the Russians did to us in 2016. The Trump administration should seize this chance to work with Congress, the media and election officials to protect our elections from the malign influence of foreign forces.”
“The Mueller Report Shows Politicians Must Unite to Fight Election Interference. Time to Put Partisanship Aside,” Jamie M. Fly and Laura Rosenberger, Foreign Affairs, 04.22.19: The authors, co-directors of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, write:
- “The release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report has generated pitched debate over whether it vindicates President Donald Trump or damns him. But lost in this partisan fight is one of the investigation’s most important findings: its detailed documentation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election … If Democrats and Republicans cannot unite to take action against this threat to U.S. national security, they will leave Americans vulnerable to further attacks.”
- “Congress should pass measures to secure election systems, enforce the same standards for online political advertising as apply offline, set consequences for any foreign group or country that interferes in U.S. democracy and tighten anti-corruption measures. It should also work with the executive branch to create a hybrid threat center to coordinate analysis of such threats across the intelligence community, and require the White House to designate a policy coordinator for the issue on the National Security Council staff.”
- “The President and senior officials should send deterrent warnings to U.S. adversaries and impose consequences for interference operations. … The administration should also coordinate with U.S. allies that face similar threats. And political parties and candidates running for office should publicly pledge not to use weaponized information obtained through hacks or other illicit means.”
- “When it comes to Silicon Valley, policymakers need to address underlying issues that manipulators exploit, including by crafting legislative frameworks for data protection and online transparency that also protect speech. They should also create formal mechanisms for law enforcement and tech companies to share information and remove malicious users.”
“The Next Russian Hack,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 04.20.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “There are two approaches to defending against further intrusions. First is deterrence, which relies on making hostile actors think twice about trying to meddle … Congress should write into law that the U.S. government must retaliate against any fresh foreign attack on our democracy. … The other strategy is hardening the country's democratic infrastructure against any attempted intrusion.”
- “There is no reason to expect the Russians would stop at what they did before; Moscow can be expected to exploit other vulnerabilities its hackers identified. … Just one election administration hack in a close swing state could throw the country into chaos.”
- “Counties and states must continue tightening up their systems, which means buying new voting equipment that leaves paper trails, shoring up security around electronic voter rolls, insisting on statistically valid post-election audits of paper records and checking on contractors' security measures. That will all take money—which Congress should give them.”
“Can the Media Survive Mueller?” Holman W. Jenkins Jr, Wall Street Journal, 04.16.19: The author, a columnist and member of the news outlet’s editorial board, writes:
- “Journalists were not wrong in being open to Christopher Steele (a paid advocate) and his handlers (also paid advocates), but they were wrong not to notice that the one incontestable fact Mr. Steele had put before them had nothing to do with Mr. Trump and Russia.”
- “The one incontestable fact was that a paid advocate who was trading on his previous profession as a British intelligence agent … was being shepherded around Washington by a notorious PR schemer and promoting allegations whose truth he was unwilling to vouch for and whose source he was unwilling to reveal.”
- “Unless you are an exceptionally dim journalist, whenever somebody peddles a salacious story to you, a question naturally and unbidden leaps to mind: Is the real story the one I'm being peddled? Or is the real story the fact that I'm being peddled it?”
- “The desperation with which so many news organizations misread the evidence the world kept putting in front of them, first of all, is a testament to the enduring applicability of the allegory of the emperor's new clothes. … Secondly, it represents a relentless reiteration of the original mistake, asking ‘What if the Steele allegations are true?’ but not ‘What if they are false and have been knowingly and recklessly promoted to us?’”
“OPEC Has a New Best Friend: Russia,” Benoit Faucon, Tim Puko and Summer Said, Wall Street Journal, 04.15.19: The authors, reporters and correspondents for the news outlet, write:
- “When the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries met in Vienna in December, it was in danger of imploding. Oil prices had plunged. Member states Iran, Venezuela and Libya were refusing to cut production. Qatar had quit. And U.S. President Trump was pressuring Saudi Arabia to keep prices low.”
- “With negotiations teetering on the brink of failure, rescue came from an unlikely place—Russia, which isn't even an OPEC member. President Vladimir Putin agreed to cut Russian oil production in league with OPEC, provided that Iran was allowed to keep pumping.”
- “What happened behind closed doors in December was a pivotal moment in Russia's transformation … to one [a nation] that has become an indispensable partner. … The coalition began curbing output in January. Oil prices have risen 30 percent since the beginning of the year, their best annual start since the early 1980s. … Russia had pledged to curb production by 230,000 barrels a day, but in March it had slashed daily output by just 120,000 daily barrels.”
- “Saudi officials say Riyadh is willing to overlook Russia's shortcomings because it needs support on the international stage. ‘We cannot afford to lose them,’ says one Saudi official.”
“Russia’s Gas Web Ensnares Europe,” Varsha Koduvayur and Greg Everett, Foreign Policy, 04.17.19: The authors, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a corporate lawyer, write:
- “As Washington readies itself for a diminished role in the Middle East, Moscow is laying the groundwork for a significant long-term presence. By acquiring pipelines and exploration rights in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, Russia is building a land bridge to Europe through the Middle East. In doing so, it will cement its role as Europe’s primary gas supplier and expand its influence in the Middle East, posing serious risks to U.S. and European interests.”
- “If Russia succeeds … the implications for European security will be profound. A Europe even more dependent on Russian gas will lose significant leverage over the Kremlin, constraining its ability to punish the country for transgressions like the killing of Russian defectors on European soil.”
- “Russia’s plans could also diminish influence in a region where Washington has historically been the prime security guarantor. … The United States could seek to develop alternate gas export routes into Europe by financing the construction of strategic gas import infrastructure on favorable terms in key European markets, including offshore liquified natural gas (LNG) regasification units.”
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant commentary.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
Section on Russia in “Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem,” Robert D. Blackwill, Council on Foreign Relations, April 2019: The author, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
- “Since … 2012, Moscow has significantly stepped up its efforts to confront the United States and its allies politically and militarily and to counter American influence worldwide. … A career intelligence officer, Putin is hostile to democratic change anywhere near Russia, paranoid about what he believes are U.S. efforts to oust him and resentful of American domination of the post–Cold War world. His goals are to weaken the United States, divide it from its European allies and expand Russian influence.”
- “Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. His most vivid public embrace of Putin … was in Helsinki in July 2018. There, he dismissed the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
- “[I]t is no surprise that his administration has struggled to implement even legally required penalties against Russia for its efforts to interfere with elections in the United States and for its actions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. … [T]hese measures are far too small to be proportional to Moscow’s many destabilizing actions, and are as weak in this regard as were those of President Obama.”
- “An exception … has been President Trump’s justifiable decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. … Another important area in which the Trump administration has pushed back against Russian actions is Ukraine. … Overall, the Trump administration’s response to the Russian challenge has been deficient. The president’s policy objective seems … to be to put as little pressure on Moscow as possible regarding its destabilizing foreign policies.”
- “The United States is militarily and economically superior to Russia, and yet it has struggled to respond to Russia’s actions. Because of this, tough diplomatic interaction between senior U.S. officials and Moscow is unlikely to have much effect on Putin, since he knows he has a friend who goes to work every morning in the Oval Office. … Trump Grade on Russia Policy: F.”
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Russia Has Won the Information War in Turkey,” H. Akin Unver, Foreign Policy, 04.21.19: The author, an associate professor of international relations, writes:
- “Domestic pro-Russian accounts and bots in Turkey rarely deploy false information these days and instead use accurate information but distort its meaning and remove its context. … [T]hese accounts use timing to their advantage to push a factually accurate narrative in particularly crisis-prone periods to distort the public narrative in favor of Russia.”
- “This not only increases public support for pro-Russian policies … but also decreases support for pro-NATO policies. … It affects mainstream pro-government information networks through its direct influence on the government. At the same time, it hedges by ensuring that Russia’s main Turkish-language outlets, Sputnik Turkiye and RSFM radio, are overwhelmingly pro-opposition. This enables Russia to control the narrative on both the pro-government and the pro-opposition networks.”
- “This wasn’t always the case. Before Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, Turkish digital media was largely ambivalent and defensive toward Moscow. The main turning point was Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet in Syria in November 2015, after which Russian digital information operations spiked in Turkey. Aiming to distract observers from the debate over whether the jet had veered into Turkish airspace, Russian social media accounts instead highlighted the claim that Turkey was selling oil produced from Islamic State-controlled territories. This narrative became one of the most successful Russian information operations.”
- “Russia’s ongoing influence over both pro-government and pro-opposition digital media in Turkey will give Moscow the upper hand in any future crisis or emergency.”
“Putin's Hold on the European Far Right,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 04.17.19: The author, vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes:
- “Last week, leaders of far-right parties from several European Union countries assembled in Milan to announce the creation of a nationalist alliance for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The group, known as the European Alliance for People and Nations, aims to win the largest bloc of seats in the European Parliament and already includes members from Germany, Italy, Finland, Denmark, Austria and France.”
- “Europe's far-right parties share something else, too: a staunch affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. One after another, nationalist politicians across the EU have praised the Kremlin leader and harshly criticized their own governments for imposing sanctions on Putin's regime over its human rights abuses at home and territorial grabs abroad.”
- “The leaders of Europe's far right provide Putin with a commodity he has been lacking since the mass protests of 2011-2012, and especially since his 2014 attack on Ukraine: international legitimacy.”
- “While the Kremlin continues under current management, documentary evidence of its support for foreign legislators and political parties is bound to remain contestable and fragmented. In the end, as they say, the truth will always out.”
“Russia Is Cultivating Germany’s Far Right. Germans Don’t Seem to Care,” Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post, 04.12.19: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “It's not as though the relationship between the Russian government and the German far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, has ever been a secret. Nevertheless, there is something different about the investigation … into the Russian contacts of one AfD member—Markus Frohnmaier: a strategy document obtained by journalists, created before the German elections in 2017 and sent from a former Russian counterintelligence officer to a member of the Kremlin administration, assesses Frohnmaier's chances, recommends ‘support’ and notes that if he wins, ‘we will have our own absolutely controlled MP in the Bundestag.’”
- “The Frohnmaier story is unfolding at a moment of real geopolitical shift. Since 1989 and the German reunification that followed, Germans of all political colors have operated under the conviction that there is no real existential threat to Germany, that weapons and armies are unnecessary in Germany … and that economic prosperity is the most important, if not the only, goal of politics. But a U.S. president is expressing his dislike of the NATO alliance just at a moment when Russian efforts to influence Germany are becoming bolder and more aggressive. Frohnmaier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning that Germans need to think differently about strategy and defense in this new age.”
- No significant commentary.
“Can Zelenskiy Make Ukraine Great Again? Is the ouster of Petro Poroshenko a turning point in Ukraine's crisis or just another disappointment?” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 04.22.19: The author, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and non-residential fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, writes:
- “Outgoing Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is to be commended for presiding over an election that was generally free and fair and, more importantly, in accepting the outcome. Privately, however, he may be breathing a sigh of relief that he will not have to take responsibility for some of the major decisions Ukraine is facing … His successor, comedian Volodomyr Zelenskiy, fits squarely in the mold of anti-establishment populist candidates.”
- “When one breaks down the voter bloc which coalesced to give Zelenskiy a commanding win in the second round, it is immediately clear that this is an unstable coalition—one that is likely to fracture quickly.”
- “Not only will Zelenskiy have to demonstrate that he can recruit the expertise (which he himself admits he lacks) to develop policies … he will have to find a way to hold together a government that may quickly fracture over policy priorities. He also … comes to the presidency without any political base in the Rada.”
- “He will also be under challenge to define his relationship with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky … Zelenskiy also must deal with the reality of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in Europe … Zelensky ran on the vague promise that he, more than Poroshenko, would be able to wrap up the conflict with Russia. … Vladimir Putin has shown no evidence of welcoming the electoral change in Ukraine … Russia … may prefer to sit back and to see whether the situation in Ukraine becomes more chaotic—and how Moscow might be able to strengthen its hand as a result. The Kremlin will be especially interested in mining any further deterioration in Ukraine's economic position as part of its domestic campaign to show that protests and elections do not lead to improved conditions.”
“Putin Should Fear Ukraine’s Russia-Friendly Front-Runner,” Alexander Baunov, Foreign Policy, 04.18.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “You can do everything possible to be European and as far from Russia as possible, but those wishes won’t magically transport Ukraine next door to Austria or Belgium. It will stay just where it is, next to Russia. That change of mentality will be welcomed in Russia.”
- “Yet, in the longer run, Zelenskiy could prove a much less convenient opponent for the Kremlin than Poroshenko is. … Poroshenko’s Ukraine, a hostile country that has turned its back on Russia to look toward NATO, was a useful bogeyman for Russian domestic politics, an example of what route not to follow.”
- “Under a President Zelenskiy, Ukraine would go from being a foreign-policy problem for Russia to becoming a domestic one. An amiable, fresh young president with a sense of humor, who is focused on domestic issues, would become—in the eyes of an indeterminately large proportion of Russians—an alternative to Putin.”
- “To ward this off, Putin will have to attack Zelenskiy from the same positions that his enemy Poroshenko has taken: as a comedian, the oligarchs’ stooge, an inexperienced politician. But attacking him won’t be so easy. After all, the man likely to be Ukraine’s next president is the favored choice of the Russian-speaking voters, who are tired of the enmity between Ukraine and Russia.”
“How Zelenskiy Beat Ukraine's Establishment. Volodymyr Zelenskiy won by promising always to ask the people first,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 04.22.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:
- “The landslide victory of … Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Sunday’s run-off presidential election in Ukraine poses a problem both for the country’s Western backers and those in the Kremlin who hope to exert control again. The Ukrainian people … voted against being told what to do.”
- “Zelenskiy’s way of winning tells a more important truth about them: Ukrainians are loath to accept any kind of authority. … It’s easy for an optimist to find nice things to say about Ukraine’s upcoming transition. Incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who spent his term consolidating power and trying to pick off rivals, is giving up his office peacefully … Zelenskiy is Jewish, and he speaks better Russian than Ukrainian, which means most voters have proved unsusceptible to hardcore Ukrainian nationalism … Zelenskiy is only 41, and he’s not a member of the post-Soviet political elite.”
- “Poroshenko and other Ukrainian politicians … are making plans for the October parliamentary election … hoping to prevent Zelenskiy’s start-up party … from gaining a majority. But if … Zelenskiy is beaten back, he’ll have no other option but to turn directly to the people, and to Ukraine’s powerful civil society, every time he’s thwarted in parliament.”
- “The high likelihood that Zelenskiy’s rule will be a direct democracy experiment poses challenges both for Westerners hoping the country will remain on a path toward NATO and European Union membership and for Putin allies hoping Ukraine will slip back into the Russian fold. … Both will have to go directly to the Ukrainian people by any means they can find.”
- “Zelenskiy’s victory is another tantalizing chance for Ukraine to find a way of government suitable to its peculiar, anarchic national character. Like Poroshenko’s short reign, it could be a wasted chance — or it could finally free up the creative energy Ukraine needs for a leap forward.”
“There’s One Far-Right Movement That Hates the Kremlin,” Michael Colborne, Foreign Policy, 04.17.19: The author, a Canadian journalist who covers Central and Eastern Europe, writes:
- “On May 21, 2013, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, a man known in France as a ‘nationalist extremist’ … walked into the 12th-century cathedral, stood next to the altar, pulled out a revolver and shot himself. … Outside of France, few knew Venner’s name. But right-wing nationalists in Ukraine certainly did. The far-right Azov movement was founded in 2014 to help defend Ukraine against invasion by Russian-led proxy forces … It didn’t take long for the Azov Battalion to become known for having some of the fiercest fighters on the Ukrainian side—but it also quickly became known for its embrace of self-confessed neo-Nazis into its ranks.”
- “Members of the Azov movement have made Venner a martyr. … Azov benefits from a unique situation for an ambitious far-right group—an ongoing war started by an imperial neighbor, an already conservative and nationalistic political climate and the alleged protection of one of the country’s most powerful politicians, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is widely believed to be Azov’s patron.”
- “Above all, however, Ukraine’s political climate is one where Azov’s outright violent actions don’t often get the scrutiny they deserve. Azov hopes, in that environment, it can start to turn some of Venner’s far-right fantasies into reality.”
“It's Time to Do Away With Laws Enforcing Triumphal National Histories,” Matthew Lenoe, The Washington Post, 04.16.19: The author, an associate professor of history, writes:
- “On March 31, a few hundred demonstrators gathered in U.S. cities to protest congressional resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and promoting restitution of confiscated property to Holocaust survivors. … Similar to a 2018 Polish law that penalizes statements ‘in public and against the facts, ascribing to the Polish Nation or the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes,’ the event was the latest attempt to erase complex or negative aspects of Polish history.”
- “‘Memory laws’ … criminalize specific statements about history. Modern memory laws were first promulgated in West Germany in 1985 and Israel in 1986 to combat Holocaust denial. … In the 1990s, memory laws spread across Eastern Europe in states recently freed from Soviet domination.”
- “Consider Ukraine. In 2015, it passed a package of memory laws that concentrated on Communist crimes and protected the reputation of Ukrainian nationalists. In particular, ‘insulting’ the memory of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its armed branch … both of which fought the Soviets for Ukrainian independence during World War II, now carry criminal penalties. But though the organizations fought Communists, they also collaborated at points with Nazis.”
- “The earliest memory laws banned denial of the Holocaust, a historical fact. … But not all historical ‘facts’ are as clear as the reality of the Holocaust, and memory laws have been used to stifle legitimate debate. Worse, these laws put the power to police such debates into the hands of government, enabling leaders to buttress their power with childish myths of national glory and victimization. This is a real danger and should make us question the very concept of memory laws.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“Accelerating the Transition: What’s Behind Kazakhstan’s Snap Election?” Vyacheslav Polovinko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.17.19: The author, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta based in Alma-Ata, writes:
- “Kazakhstan’s elections have never taken place as scheduled, and despite the recent resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been president for nearly thirty years, it seems that in this respect, nothing has changed. The Kazakh authorities have announced a snap presidential election in June.”
- “Kazakhstan’s power handover increasingly looks like a trap for Nazarbayev. He wants the process to go smoothly, as planned, but the entire system only works when he is at the helm. … Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist, but that fist is gradually growing weaker. As for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Dariga Nazarbayeva, their influence can buy them respect, but it doesn’t inspire fear.”
- “The father of the nation can’t trust anyone except himself, which means he can’t give up power until his death. Each next step raises new questions for Nazarbayev, and ready answers are increasingly scarce. This makes for a fragile and unstable transition, yet there’s no one to blame for that. In any event, risks will have to be taken.”
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“Putin’s Art of the Purge,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Project Syndicate/Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.15.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials—all on corruption or fraud charges. … [T]he authorities launch 18-20 criminal investigations per year into governors, deputy governors and mayors. But in the post-Soviet era, former prime ministers, deputy premiers and ministers generally considered themselves more or less safe from this risk.”
- “Putin’s purge now extends to former members of the federal government, who have appeared in numerous official photographs alongside Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and other members of Russia’s ruling class. … For Putin, reminding Russia’s elites that no one is untouchable is the best way to keep them on their toes.”
- “The current purges also send a message to Russia’s next generation of officials, namely that inappropriate political behavior or excessive focus on their own business interests will be punished.”
- “Purges played nearly the same role under Stalin. Back then, fresh-faced people’s commissars and their deputies knew that they had drawn a winning ticket when their former bosses were arrested (or worse). But the young commissars also understood that … their ticket might just as easily become an arrest warrant. Similarly, Putin prefers to have new technocrats in ministerial and gubernatorial positions. … These newcomers are already scared by the continuing purges, and will not undertake anything without the leadership’s approval. That will put any genuine modernization in Russia on hold—just as Putin intends.”
“Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law Will Destroy Innovation,” Alexandra Prokopenko, Vedomosti/The Moscow Times, 04.21.19: The author, a former columnist at Vedomosti Business Daily, writes:
- “The Russian authorities have embarked on unprecedented measures to control internet content. Under what has become known as the sovereign internet law passed by the State Duma on April 16, internet providers will be obliged to install devices to filter traffic, and the state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor will get unparalleled powers, including an official ‘off switch’ to deploy as it sees fit.”
- “Slowing down or switching off the internet at one company, even a huge one, undoubtedly results in losses and a certain amount of inconvenience, but it’s not fatal. At the national level, however, it’s a different story. Black boxes make the decision to forcibly route the traffic or degrade its speed automatically, without differentiating between individual internet users, companies, schools or hospitals.”
- “Installing black boxes that will operate automatically will inevitably lead to lower network speeds. This will effectively put an end to the development of the Internet of Things, driverless transport, telemedicine and other innovation-related initiatives that are supposedly on the government’s agenda.”
- “The Kremlin sees technology as a modern solution to the growing wave of negative feeling among Russians that has been recorded by sociological research for the last few years. … One potential mechanism for maintaining stability is artificially inflating ratings by leveraging information: not just by focusing on the positive, but by literally blocking out the negative.”
- “It’s possible that the technology will be tested at the upcoming Duma elections in 2021 … Then it could be rolled out in full force in 2024 for the presidential election. By that time, incidentally, Russia will be noticeably lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of technology as a result of its slow Internet. For that particular problem, the powers that be don’t yet have a solution.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant commentary.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant commentary.