Russia Analytical Report, April 22-29, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The Trump administration’s policy of bullying other countries encourages adversaries to join forces and allies to stay away, argues Prof. Steven M. Walt. Despite not being natural allies, Moscow and Beijing continue to move closer together, and thanks to U.S. policy, states like Iran may join them, Walt warns.
  • Although Russia will bear the cost of increased competition less easily than the U.S., both sides will have to divert resources for the purpose, according to a new RAND report. As such, extending Russia for its own sake isn’t worth it, the authors write. Instead, the options should be considered in a broader context of defense, deterrence and cooperation.
  • In a correlation of forces reminiscent of the Battle of Agincourt, today’s U.S. military is spending trillions of dollars to build a small number of highly sophisticated platforms that are highly vulnerable to near-peer adversaries like Russia and China, writes New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.
  • Russia doesn’t want war, but can deal with tension, while NATO wants neither, writes Mathieu Boulègue of Chatham House. Boulègue advises targeted engagement of Russia over established redlines to lay the ground for future dialogue.
  • The disintegration of the Russian empire and the historical core of the Russian state has become irreversible, writes Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin. There will be no reintegration with Ukraine, and Belarus is moving in the same direction, Trenin writes. Russia should neither turn away from the West nor become Asian nor try to form an anti-U.S. alliance with China, he warns.
  • Zelensky’s key task is to not become either of his predecessors: Poroshenko, who lost the support of half the country, or Yanukovych, who lost the other half, writes Prof. Nicolai N. Petro. If Zelensky can accomplish this, then he will indeed become the savior of Ukraine, according to Petro.

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

Nuclear security and safety:

“Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials Worldwide: Expanded Funding Needed for a More Ambitious Approach,” Matthew Bunn, Nickolas Roth and William H. Tobey, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 2019The authors, a professor of the practice, a senior research associate and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, write:

  • “The Trump administration budget request for programs to reduce the dangers of nuclear theft and terrorism is too small to implement the ambitious approach that is needed. Congress should increase funding in this critical area; direct the administration to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for improving security for nuclear weapons and materials worldwide; and exert expanded oversight of this effort.”
  • “Recommendations for congressional action: Direct the administration to develop a comprehensive U.S. government plan for achieving effective and sustainable security for nuclear stocks worldwide and assign a senior official to take full-time charge of the effort. Revitalize U.S. international nuclear security programs, seeking to work with all countries with nuclear weapons, highly-enriched uranium, separated plutonium or major nuclear facilities that might be sabotaged to convince them to put effective and sustainable nuclear security measures in place. Congress should provide in-depth oversight of programs to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.”

“Thirty-three Years Since the Catastrophe at Chernobyl: A Universal Lesson for the Global Nuclear Power Industry,” Najmedin Meshkati and Serhii Plokhy, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 04.25.19The authors, a research fellow with Belfer’s Project on Managing the Atom and a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, write:

  • “Chernobyl and its legacy, with its specters of lingering human toll, radiation contamination and the massive new shelter … installed over the old sarcophagus encasing the reactor, will be with us for a long time.”
  • “The Chernobyl accident was attributed initially to workers who shut off key emergency equipment during a test and then ignored warnings that the reactor was out of control. The accident in Japan followed a powerful earthquake and tsunami that swept over the northern part of the country. But both disasters were preventable. Flaws and failures in the safety culture of nuclear power operation and oversight in Japan and the Soviet Union caused these accidents.”
  • “While world attention is focused on the nonproliferation of nuclear arms, an equally great danger looms from the mismanagement of nuclear energy around the world. … What we need now are tough, system-oriented nuclear safety standards, strong safety culture and much closer cooperation between countries and their independent regulators.”  

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Bad Cop, Mediator or Spoiler: Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula,” Alexander Gabuev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.24.19The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The tools Russia has at its disposal are too limited to have an impact on the calculations and behavior of North Korea or the U.S. … Russia could, however, be an indispensable partner in a broader conversation on security mechanisms in Northeast Asia. … The stated goal of Russian policy and diplomatic efforts on the Korean Peninsula is denuclearization. … Decision-makers in Russia, however, do not consider this official goal to be realistic.”
  • “Russia is fully aware of the consequences that the example set by North Korea could have for the global non-proliferation regime … [Additionally,] the North Korean nuclear program … gives the U.S. a legitimate pretext to ramp up the American military presence on Russia’s doorstep in Northeast Asia.”
  • “Given the current dynamics within the Russia-U.S.-China triangle, Moscow is expected to continue its increasingly active support of Beijing by playing second fiddle to China on North Korea. … As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia is indispensable for any moves that the international community might want to make on the future of the Korean Peninsula. Russia’s veto power gives it a lot of leverage.” 
  • “Russia plays a very mixed role on the Korean Peninsula. It tries to be an honest mediator and bring the parties to the table, but can’t be efficient because it doesn’t have leverage over North Korea. … Washington believes that Moscow acts as a spoiler … In reality, the Kremlin’s actions stem from its vision of Russia’s national interest with regard to the Korean Peninsula.”
  • “A negotiated diplomatic framework that would limit an arms race in this part of the world is impossible without engaging Moscow. Although the short to medium-term result of these efforts might not be the ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement’ of North Korea’s nuclear program that the U.S. is trying to achieve, putting a cap on deploying offensive and defensive missile systems while freezing advances in its nuclear program might be no less important, given the changing global security environment.”

“The Normalization of Kim Jong Un—What Kim Gains From Visit to Russia,” Katie Stallard-Blanchette, Wilson Center, 04.25.19The author, a fellow at the Wilson Center, writes:

  • “While there are broader strategic reasons why Kim is meeting Putin … this summit benefits him in other ways too. At a time when many North Koreans are once again facing food shortages, these expeditions make for powerful domestic propaganda and evidence of how hard the leader is working to improve life for his countrymen.”
  • “The normalization of Kim Jong Un strengthens his hand, both at home and abroad. So no matter what actual substance the meeting with Putin yields, Kim will return to North Korea with this much at least—another incremental gain in his ongoing diplomatic offensive, a little less ‘Rocket Man,’ a little more statesman.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

“Sanctions Can’t Spark Regime Change. The Trouble With Trump’s Approach to Venezuela and Iran,” David S. Cohen and Zoe Weinberg, Foreign Affairs, 04.29.19The authors, a former deputy director of the CIA and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, write:

  • “In the last several decades, financial and economic sanctions have become a key tool of U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration has made particularly heavy use of this tool, especially in its efforts to induce regime change in Venezuela and Iran. … [T]he demands it has issued to Tehran are so onerous that, as former U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill has argued, they are ‘effectively impossible for Iran to accommodate without fundamentally changing its leadership and system of government.’”
  • “The Venezuelan and Iranian people surely deserve better governments, and such a change would serve U.S. interests. But the Trump administration’s use of sanctions in this pursuit will probably fail. Moreover, it will likely weaken the force of sanctions.”
  • “Venezuela may be closer to a change in government than Iran … Even so, the Maduro regime—with a loyal military, a ruthless internal security apparatus, Cuban advisers and critical financial support from Russia—shows no signs of stepping aside willingly.”
  • “Although there are benefits to noncoercive sanctions … the downsides are significant. Secondary sanctions … can unintentionally roil markets, as demonstrated by the recent episode with U.S. sanctions on the Russian aluminum giant Rusal … [W]hen broad-based economic sanctions are imposed in the quixotic pursuit of an impossible goal such as regime change, they are, in effect, purely punitive.”
  • “The more the United States uses sanctions to pursue policies that lack international support, the more other countries … will seek alternatives to the dollar and the U.S. financial system. If they find such alternatives, it will be a blow not only to U.S. sanctions policy but to the United States’ position in the global financial system.”

“Here’s Why the Trump Administration’s Iran Sanctions Strategy Won’t Work,” Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller, NPR, 04.24.19The authors, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, write:

  • “The Trump administration has clear goals for its policy toward Iran: Tehran should accept U.S. terms for renegotiating the nuclear deal it signed with Washington and other powers, end its baleful regional behavior and halt its development of ballistic missiles. What the administration doesn't have is a realistic strategy to achieve these goals.”
  • “Pressure—in the form of military threats, economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation—can be an effective tool if it's tethered to a comprehensive and realistic strategy that combines carrots and sticks. But a strategy that insists on getting 100 percent of what the administration wants while denying Iran anything it wants is doomed to failure.”
  • “The Iranian regime remains legitimate in the eyes of millions of Iranians, has been in place for four decades, retains tremendous repressive power, enjoys the support of Russia and China and faces no organized opposition on the ground.”

New Cold War/competition among great powers:

“The Era of Unilateralism Is Over—And Washington Is the Last to Realize it,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 04.26.19The author, a professor of international relations, writes:

  • “Just how powerful is the United States? Is it still the unipolar power … ? Or are there clear and significant limits to U.S. power … ? The Trump administration has embraced the first position, especially since John Bolton became White House national security advisor and Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of state. … [T]heir arrival marked a return to the unilateralist, take-no-prisoners approach to foreign policy that characterized George W. Bush’s first term as president … The Bush-Cheney approach produced a string of failures, but the same unilateral arrogance lives on in the Trump administration.”
  • “If the United States is really all-powerful, then sanctioning China over oil purchases from Iran won’t have any impact on the trade talks that are now underway with Beijing, and Turkey won’t respond to the same pressure by moving closer to Russia.”
  • “There are even more potent reasons why this bullying approach has produced no major foreign-policy successes so far and is unlikely to yield significant success in the future. First of all, even much weaker states are loath to succumb to blackmail … Second, bullying nearly everyone makes it much harder [to] construct powerful coalitions … Third, other states don’t like being beholden to the whims of others.”
  • “Lastly, being a bully encourages adversaries to join forces out of their own self-interest … It is no accident that Russia and China continue to move closer together—even though they are not natural allies, and a smarter U.S. approach could give Moscow reasons to distance itself from Beijing—and America’s same bullying impulses are going to push states like Iran even closer to them.”

“Overextending and Unbalancing Russia. Assessing the Impact of Cost-Imposing Options,” James Dobbins, Raphael S. Cohen, Nathan Chandler, Bryan Frederick, Edward Geist, Paul DeLuca, Forrest E. Morgan, Howard J. Shatz and Brent Williams, RAND, April 2019The authors of this report write:

  • “This report examines a range of possible means to extend Russia. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy recognized, the United States is currently locked in a great-power competition with Russia. This report seeks to define areas where the United States can compete to its own advantage.”
  • “Russia's weaknesses lie in the economic domains Russia's greatest vulnerability … is its economy, which is comparatively small and highly dependent on energy exports. The Russian leadership's greatest anxiety stems from the stability and durability of the regime. The most promising measures to stress Russia are in the realms of energy production and international pressure. Sanctions can also limit Russia's economic potential. To be effective, however, these need to be multilateral.”
  • “Geopolitical measures to bait Russia into overextending itself are likely impractical, or they risk second-order consequences. Many geopolitical measures would force the United States to operate in areas that are closer to Russia and where it is thus cheaper and easier for Russia than the United States to exert influence. Ideological measures to undermine the regime's stability carry significant risks of counter escalation. Many military options … could enhance U.S. deterrence and reassure U.S. allies, but only a few are likely to extend Russia.”
  • “[A]lthough Russia will bear the cost of this increased competition less easily than the United States will, both sides will have to divert national resources from other purposes. Extending Russia for its own sake is not a sufficient basis in most cases to consider the options discussed here. Rather, the options must be considered in the broader context of national policy based on defense, deterrence and—where U.S. and Russian interests align—cooperation.”

“Syria and Now Iran: How the US Is Driving Russia South,” Bruno Maçães, The Moscow Times, 04.24.19The author, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, writes:

  • “Whether it knows it or not, Washington continues to redraw the political map of the world, dismantling the system it built practically alone and from which it benefited since the end of the Second World War. First, it helped build the European Union as a major global power. … Then, in just three decades it helped transform China into its first genuine rival for global domination, a rival far exceeding the Soviet Union in economic capacity and political will.”
  • “And thus the old order was dismantled and we seemed well on our way to a system where China, Europe and America stood as its three main poles. … In this map of the world, Russia felt more or less lost. Neither European nor Asian, it seemed destined to become what Brzezinski called a ‘black hole’ between Europe and China. A number of Russian strategists attempted to turn this around and started speaking of Russia’s manifest destiny as a bridge between the two economic giants.”
  • “No longer dreaming of either west or east, Russia will move south. … As you consider the map of Eurasia, it becomes apparent that two of its three regions are already led and organized by a leading actor: Germany in the case of Europe and China for the Asia Pacific. But the middle region—from Murmansk to Mumbai—lacks a center capable of ensuring its survival as an autonomous unit in the Eurasian system. Russia has found a new historical mission.”

“The U.S. Military: Like the French at Agincourt?” Bret Stephens, New York Times, 04.25.19The author, an opinion columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “‘The traditional model of U.S. military power is being disrupted, the way Blockbuster’s business model was amid the rise of Amazon and Netflix,’ Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, writes. ‘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.’”
  • “The logic here is the same as the one that decided the Battle of Agincourt, where the humble and effective English longbow made short work of the expensive and vulnerable French cavalry. Today’s version of that cavalry consists of aircraft carriers priced at $13 billion apiece and fighter jets that go for $90 million.”
  • “On the one hand, we are burning through billions of dollars by deploying state-of-the-art resources against technologically primitive enemies in the Middle East and Africa. Why? Because, for example, an Air Force obsessed with acquiring fifth-generation stealth fighters still can’t bring itself to purchase a squadron of cheap turboprop planes to patrol, say, the skies of northern Iraq.”
  • “On the other hand, we are burning through trillions in order to build a relatively small number of ultra-sophisticated platforms that are increasingly vulnerable to detection and destruction by near-peer adversaries like China and Russia.”
  • “A Pentagon with a visionary and independent leader, a Congress ruled by a non-parochial and bipartisan spirit and a serious president capable of long-term thinking could change the way America prepares for the next war—to prevent it if possible, to win it if necessary.”

“Information Warfare Is Here To Stay. States Have Always Fought for the Means of Communication,” Heidi Tworek, Foreign Affairs, 04.25.19The author, an assistant professor of history, writes:

  • “We often forget that the Internet is not as wireless as it seems. Most online data still flow through physical fiber-optic cables laid out across several hundred thousand miles of ocean floor. If a shark were to bite through a cable (which has happened before), some or all of the Internet could come to a standstill.”
  • “These days, however, observers spend less time worrying about underwater fauna than about Russia’s submarines … Russian submarines snooping on undersea cables may seem unique to today’s interconnected world. Yet states have long competed to shape global information flows and control the infrastructure that enables them.”
  • “Two main lessons … First, whoever controls the relevant infrastructure can also exert influence over the data and news that flow through it. … Second, states invest in global information networks when they aspire to a status as a global power. This was as true for Germany in the past as it is for Russia and China today. … One thing is certain in today’s multipolar world: competition over communications is here to stay.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Russia and NATO: A Dialogue of Differences,” Mathieu Boulègue, Chatham House, 04.25.19The author, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, writes:

  • “NATO faces a Russia challenge, but lacks unity over its response. A targeted ‘dialogue of differences’ with Moscow and between NATO members themselves could be the way forward to ending the communication failures, which increase the risk of miscalculation and policy errors.”
  • “This [NATO-Russia] relationship breakdown, however, is not due to a collapse of dialogue with Moscow—and a greater volume of dialogue will not improve relations. Instead … a change in its substance is necessary. … NATO should abandon the assumption that the Kremlin wants to cooperate on reducing tension. Russia does not want war but can deal with tension, whereas NATO wants neither.”
  • “A ‘dialogue of differences’ could break this impasse by examining new forms of engagement to establish where both sides differ as the basis for a less conflict-prone relationship … Two parallel tracks would be required—one with Russia, one without.”
  • “Targeted engagement over established redlines is needed to lay the ground on which future dialogue can take place on a sounder basis—ready for a time when Russia finally wants a better relationship with NATO.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“With US-Russian Arms Control Treaties on Shaky Ground, the Future Is Worrying,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution/The Ambassadors Review, 04.25.19The author, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “On its current path, the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control regime likely will come to an end in 2021. That will make for a strategic relationship that is less stable, less secure and less predictable and will further complicate an already troubled bilateral relationship.”
  • “The United States could not remain forever in a treaty that Russia has violated. However, the way the Trump administration handled its departure [from the INF Treaty] amounted to diplomatic malpractice. Washington will get blamed for the treaty’s end. There was a smarter way.”
  • “New START extension should be a no-brainer. First, it would extend to 2026 the limits on Russian strategic forces and provide a mechanism to address new nuclear systems that the Russian military has under development. Second, extension would not affect U.S. strategic modernization plans … Third, extension would continue the flow of information that the U.S. military and intelligence community receive about Russian strategic forces.”
  • “Economic constraints may limit an all-out arms race, but the strategic nuclear relationship seems headed for uncharted territory.”

“Globalizing the INF Treaty. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Is Worth Preserving and Expanding,” Dinshaw Mistry, The National Interest, 04.28.19The author, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, writes:

  • “The INF treaty is not only worth preserving but also expanding. It establishes norms against medium-range missiles and has proven verification mechanisms. These foundations make it easier to bring dozens of countries without INF-type missiles into a global INF. They can also assist dialogues with countries having INF-type missiles, so that such countries adhere as closely as possible to INF thresholds and their medium-range missile forces remain limited.”

“Open Forum: Time for a Reality Check on Nuclear Diplomacy,” Jerry Brown and William Potter, San Francisco Chronicle, 04.24.19: The authors, the former governor of California and a professor of nonproliferation studies, write:

  • “In some respects, the promise of the NPT has been realized. The pace of proliferation has been much slower than anticipated, and the treaty’s membership now includes almost all the nations of the world.”
  • “What is less evident is whether any of the nuclear-armed states actually believes in nuclear disarmament. It is also unclear if the overall reduction in nuclear weapons has made the world a safer place. Indeed, we believe that the use of nuclear weapons is actually more likely today than at any time in recent memory. The greatest nuclear danger today is the potential for a military confrontation among nuclear-armed states because of mistake, miscalculation or accident.”
  • “The biggest difference between today and the past is that there is an absence of trust between the United States and Russia. There simply is no inclination on either side to interpret ambiguous information—such as an early warning signal of a missile launch—as anything other than the worst case. In order to reduce this risk of the unthinkable, a number of prominent U.S. and Russian figures have suggested that the leaders of both nations reaffirm the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement ‘that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’”
  • “Sadly, a recent and little-noted effort to secure a joint statement by the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states along these lines proved impossible. … It is hard to maintain faith in the future of the NPT when states cannot even agree on the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. When countries meet next week to review the performance of the NPT, they should insist that the nuclear weapons states publicly declare their positions on this basic existential issue.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Mueller Documented a Serious Crime Against All Americans. Here’s How to Respond,” Hillary Clinton, The Washington Post, 04.24.19The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate writes:

  • “Our election was corrupted, our democracy assaulted, our sovereignty and security violated. This is the definitive conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. It documents a serious crime against the American people.”
  • “[Here is] how we should proceed today. First, like in any time our nation is threatened, we have to remember that this is bigger than politics. What our country needs now is clear-eyed patriotism, not reflexive partisanship. Whether they like it or not, Republicans in Congress share the constitutional responsibility to protect the country.”
  • “Second, Congress should hold substantive hearings that build on the Mueller report and fill in its gaps, not jump straight to an up-or-down vote on impeachment. Third, Congress can’t forget that the issue today is not just the president’s possible obstruction of justice—it’s also our national security. After 9/11, Congress established an independent, bipartisan commission to recommend steps that would help guard against future attacks. We need a similar commission today to help protect our elections.”
  • “Fourth, House Democrats … also should stay focused on the sensible agenda that voters demanded in the midterms, from protecting health care to investing in infrastructure.”

“The Mueller Report Exposes US Election Weaknesses,” Paul R. Pillar, The National Interest, 04.24.19The author, a contributing editor at The National Interest, writes:

  • “It would be a profound mistake to overlook the Mueller report’s detailed account of a foreign government’s multifaceted efforts to interfere in a U.S. election. Russian efforts extended not only to the already well-known trolling and manipulation of opinion but also to hacking that included attempted intrusions into county election offices and election technology companies, according to special counsel Robert Mueller.”
  • “Although there is no evidence that the intrusions changed any vote totals, the first lesson about foreign governments and U.S. elections is clear: beware of such governments—and not just Russia—as a possible threat to the independence and integrity of U.S. elections.”
  • “Another lesson worth learning involves not what foreign governments do that is threatening but instead the favorable example they set for how the United States could do better—much better—in conducting its own elections.”
  • “It behooves the United States to spend more effort and attention on repairing democracy in the homeland than it has done in recent years—and more than any effort to impose democracy in someone else’s country.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant commentary.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“It’s Time to Rethink Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.25.19The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “It has been just over five years since the Ukraine crisis began, drastically reorienting Russia’s foreign policy … Modern Russia has many weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Russian economy is trailing behind a dozen others. Russia’s scientific and technical capabilities … lag far behind … Yet Russia remains able to think and act globally. If Russia’s internal contradictions are resolved in a constructive way … the country can still play an important and positive role in the world in the late twenty-first century. … Politically, today’s Russia belongs to neither Europe nor Asia. … It would be a mistake to consider this a temporary situation and expect an eventual return to pre-crisis conditions.”
  • “Russia should not turn away from … the global West as a whole; it should not seek to become Asian or try to form an anti-American alliance with China. … It is absolutely contrary to Russia’s interests for Moscow to retreat into itself and embark on a quest for autarky—the path of the USSR, but from a worse starting point.”
  • “The overarching goal of Moscow’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future should be turning Russia into a modern, developed country while avoiding excessive dependence on leading players in Greater Eurasia, such as China, the EU and the United States. … Russia’s leadership has significant, though not unlimited, resources at its disposal … None of this matters, however, if Russia’s economic and political system does not fundamentally change in such a way that man-made obstacles to economic and technological development are removed.”
  • “Russia must act abroad pragmatically, primarily to promote or protect its interests; it should not attempt to impose a given political system or international order on other countries or regions of the world. It should have no permanent allies or enemies.”


“Should Trump Worry About the Putin-Xi Meeting?” Doug Bandow, Cato Institute/The National Interest, 04.27.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, writes:

  • “The bilateral relationship [between Russia and China] is better than at many points in the past, but it remains superficial. … In fact, ties remain focused on dislike rather than like. The two nations share a fractious past but few present interests.”
  • “Beijing and Moscow share one very big objective: resist U.S. dominance. … More broadly, both Russia and China oppose America’s use of its economic power to browbeat the two nations. … Washington has done much to bring its two leading adversaries together. However, hostility is a limited basis for agreement. … When the two countries otherwise act for similar purposes, it usually is independently, even competitively, rather than cooperatively.” 
  • “Washington should act to foreclose any close combinations against America. Over the long term the greatest challenge to America—and certainly the greatest military threat—likely is posed by Beijing, a superpower in waiting, rather than Moscow, now a regional power with only limited global reach.”
  • “Thus, it would be in Washington’s interest to add heft to a neighborly coalition against the PRC. The best and easiest way to do so would be to seek a modus vivendi with Russia. … Given its history and culture, Moscow would more naturally line up with Europe and the United States than China.”
  • “In a sense, the Putin-Xi meeting [on April 26] was much ado about nothing. The relationship revolves around what they are against, which mostly is the United States. They would have little to talk about other than the latest grievance about America to express or American activity to counter. Unfortunately, for quite some time Washington has seemed determined to give both China and Russia good cause for discontent. Instead, in response, Washington should do its best to eliminate behaviors which bring its two most important competitors together.


“Ukraine's New Leader Must Set Clear Priorities,” Carl Bildt, The Washington Post, 04.23.19The author, a former prime minister of Sweden, writes:

  • “Volodymyr Zelensky faces major challenges. The country needs to repay large sums of foreign debt—and it can't do it without International Monetary Fund and EU financial support and the strict reform conditions that come with it. He can't afford to waver on this.”
  • “The political situation will be volatile, with parliament and its members maneuvering to secure positions and powers before a major election in October. But two issues will stand out. The first is how Zelensky handles the relationship with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is responsible for the one of the worst financial scandals in recent years. … The second issue is obviously Russia and the conflict with it over both Crimea and parts of Donbass.”
  • “It's to be expected that the Kremlin will seek to pressure Zelensky into accepting its thesis that this is just an internal conflict in Ukraine, and that he has to settle with Russia's separatist stooges in the region. … Including both the United States and E.U. in the process would facilitate a more integrated approach toward seeking a solution to the Donbas conflict and other important issues.”
  • “The controversial gas contract between Ukraine and Russia is expiring at the end of the year — just as Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into Europe is facing delays. That makes a new Ukraine deal necessary also for Russia. … The risk of a new gas conflict by the end of the year looms large.”
  • “Zelensky will need the support of the West—both financial and political—in order to succeed … But then he must be clear on both how he intends to handle his relationship with the oligarch Kolomoisky and how he intends to seek support for a resolution to the Donbass conflict.”

“Victory for Zelensky in Ukraine—But the Real Battle Starts Now,” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 04.23.19The author, an independent journalist specializing in the Donbass, writes:

  • “Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky has formulated his ideal country as one that is neither a ‘corrupt partner of the West,’ nor ‘Russia’s little sister.’ This pragmatic kind of civil patriotism is close to the hearts of most Ukrainians, for whom the most important task right now is to fix the country’s domestic problems.”
  • “Zelensky must present a real team of people with whom he is going to work. … Zelensky will also have to promptly tackle the problem of his relationship with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. … Ukrainian journalists recently reported that numerous representatives of the old elite had made pilgrimages to Kolomoisky’s Israeli office, the implication being that he is the new behind-the-scenes leader.”
  • “Zelensky will also have to do something about Ukraine’s war-torn Donbass region, on which he made many contradictory promises during his election campaign.” 

“Ukraine’s Pretend President Now Faces a Real Test. In his fight against corruption, Zelensky will face real challenges—not least from his own constituents,” Alexander J. Motyl, Foreign Policy, 04.22.19The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “Sooner rather than later, Ukrainians will wake up from their infatuation with a virtual president and come to realize that Zelensky now faces the very real task of running a country beset with economic, social and demographic problems that is fighting a war against a regional superpower.”
  • “Disenchantment with the new president is inevitable. His landslide victory has raised expectations of immediate change to such dizzying heights that there is no way any president, least of all an inexperienced comedian, could possibly meet them.”
  • “If Zelensky does pursue some internal reform … he will quickly encounter the same opposition of the bureaucrats and oligarchs that every other erstwhile reformer has confronted. … He’ll also have to deal with his own impatient voters, most of whom aren’t ready for the economic pain that comes with real reform, and with the same corruption-focused activists who demonized Poroshenko.”
  • “It’s far too easy to imagine any number of destabilizing scenarios … Will Zelensky be able to maintain stability without cracking heads? Possibly. Will his popularity dive? Of course. Will Russian President Vladimir Putin … seize the opportunity to intervene, bite off a few more chunks of Ukraine and generate some imperial enthusiasm? That could happen. And if it does, all bets are off.”

"Petro Poroshenko's Nationalism Cost Him the Presidency,” Nicolai N. Petro, The National Interest, 04.23.19The author, a professor of peace studies and nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island, writes:

  • “Why, after five years of policies that had the full political and financial backing of the West, did the Ukrainian people reject him [Petro Poroshenko] by a three-to-one margin?”
  • “The answer lies in the anti-Russian policies that he and the Ukrainian parliament have pursued … These include restrictions on the usage of the Russian language, on travel to Russia, on trade with Russia, on any social contact with Russians, even those who clearly oppose Putin and support Ukraine.”
  • “Zelensky’s key task is to figure out how not to become Poroshenko, who lost the support of half the country, while also not becoming Yanukovych, who lost the support of the other half. If he can accomplish this, then he will indeed become the savior of Ukraine.”

“America Must Stand With Ukraine Against Russia,” Michael McCaul, The National Interest, 04.27.19The author, a U.S. representative and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, writes:

  • “The free and fair election in Ukraine of new President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky reflects a positive step for Ukraine’s democratic future, but the same challenges from Russia remain.”
  • “We should develop an effective Black Sea strategy where the United States, NATO and other U.S. allies can regularly deploy naval assets there to better support Ukraine against Russia.”
  • “We should also increase foreign military sales and security assistance to Ukraine. Last year’s delivery of the Javelin anti-tank missiles was a game-changer for the country’s ability to better defend itself against Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine.”
  • “The Sea of Azov attack exhibited the urgency for Ukraine to have the necessary capabilities to defend itself.  That is why I sent a letter to National Security Advisor John Bolton, along with my colleagues … to offer congressional assistance on providing additional offensive and defensive military equipment to Ukraine for a more effective deterrence.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Envisioning Opportunities for US-Russia Cooperation in and With Central Asia,” Marlene Laruelle and Andrey Kortunov, Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations, April 2019The authors, the associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the Elliott School of International Affairs and the director general of the Russian International Council, write:

  • “Besides the high level of distrust and feeling of competition on both the Russian and U.S. sides, there are still several domains where their respective soft powers complement each other [in Central Asia]. It is in this breach that new ideas for cooperation may emerge even in a very deteriorated context.”
  • “Obviously, the first step prior to many constructive proposals would be for each power to stop treating the other as an adversary in the Central Asian context. … Both Russia and the United States should also put more emphasis on multilateral cooperation projects.”
  • “In the current challenging environment, with many official communication lines frozen or downgraded, it is particularly important to make full use of second-track mechanisms, above all expert-level communications. … It seems that the time has come for the two sides to recognize that comparative U.S.-Russia assessments of the situation in the region might be fruitful and intellectually rewarding.”

“What Happens to Kazakhstan's Dictatorship Now That Its Dictator Has Quit?” Austin S. Matthews, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, 04.25.19The author, a research associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, writes:

  • “The country [Kazakhstan] has scheduled a snap election on June 9 to formally elect Nazarbayev's successor. But leadership change in a dictatorship can often be a difficult, even dangerous, process. What does political science research tell us about what might come next for Kazakhstan's ruling politicians?”
  • “These three factors may help promote a stable transition: 1. Rules of succession restrain ambitious governing elites … 2. Legislatures win the cooperation of opposition elites … 3. Political parties help keep the masses passive and supporters organized.”
  • “Kazakhstan's dictatorship appears to have all of the necessary institutions in place to facilitate a smooth transition after Nazarbayev. The regime is set up to benefit from the presence of the Nur Otan party, the continued operation of the Kazakh parliament and a constitutionally mandated process for selecting a new president.”
  • “The experiences in neighboring Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan, countries that have successfully transitioned leaders under similarly institutionalized dictatorships, suggest there's reason to believe the Kazakhstan regime also will survive.”

“Israel’s Refusal to Recognize the Armenian Genocide Is Indefensible,” Yossi Melmanmm, Foreign Policy, 04.24.19The author, an Israeli journalist, writes:

  • “Despite the shared experience of genocide, Israel and Armenia are worlds apart today. Israel has consistently refused to acknowledge that what happened to the Armenian people was a genocide. This decision … is primarily a cynical political ploy.”
  • “For many years, Israel feared Turkey’s wrath if it recognized the genocide. Since the late 1950s, Turkey had been a strong strategic ally of the Jewish state—one of its only friends in the Muslim world. … But in the past decade, relations between Turkey … and Israel have deteriorated. … Israel remains adamant in its refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. These days, there is a new excuse: Azerbaijan.”
  • “To a certain degree, Azerbaijan has replaced Turkey as a market for Israeli military hardware. ‘For Israel, it’s just a trade, but for us, its death,’ Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told Foreign Policy. In return, Azerbaijan sells oil to Israel and allows Israeli intelligence agencies to use its soil as a launching pad for operations against Iran.”
  • “Israel’s behavior is a travesty of morality and history. It’s even more shameful because it comes from a nation that was built on and has risen from the ashes of genocide. … It is past time for Israel to stop its evasive language about Armenia in the service of crude economic interests. A genocide is a genocide. It is Israel’s moral obligation to humanity, and to the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, to recognize the Armenian genocide, just as it has recognized the Rwandan genocide.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“The Age of the Elected Despot Is Here. People Want to Believe a Powerful and Charismatic Leader Is on Their Side in an Unjust World,” Martin Wolf, Financial Times, 04.23.19The author, chief economics commentator at the news outlet, writes:

  • “We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His—it is almost always a ‘he’—are the politics of fear and rage. … We now see elected ‘strongmen’ … everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the U.S. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication.”
  • “The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies … Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent U.S. watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy.”
  • “In developing countries, the election of would-be autocrats frequently follows the spectacular failures of predecessors … or deep national humiliation (as in Russia)—or both.”

“The Split in Russia’s Civil Society,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Moscow Carnegie Center, 04.29.19The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Russia’s civil society is a split image. One part of it is genuinely independent: thriving or struggling, as the case may be, but expanding its reach well beyond the proverbial Soviet intelligentsia kitchens. The other part is a careful imitation of civil society, created and lavishly supported by the authorities.”
  • “Until recently, the Kremlin had mostly been challenged domestically by political activists inspired by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny’s campaign. Now another challenge is unexpectedly looming on the horizon. A growing part of society is developing civic consciousness as a result of nonpolitical conflicts in which entities supported by the authorities intrude into ordinary people’s private space. These new conflicts are typically caused by … the closure of hospitals and clinics as part of efforts to optimize the healthcare system, and the issue of transporting garbage from major cities to the countryside for disposal.”
  • “Elections in various regions, including Moscow (for the State Duma) and St. Petersburg (for governor) in September 2019 will demonstrate the level of dissatisfaction of the population. What is already clear is that Russia is entering a new period of civil and political activity.”

Defense and aerospace:

“How Much Did Orthodox Church Help Revive Russia’s Military and Nuclear Complex?” Dmitry Gorenburg, Review of Dmitry Adamsky’s book “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy,” Russia Matters, 04.23.19The author, a senior research scientist at CNA, writes:

  • “‘Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy,’ an important new book by the Israeli scholar Dmitry Adamsky, explores the critical but highly understudied juncture between religion and the military.”
  • “The main argument comes in three parts. First, the church has played and will continue to play a crucial role in promoting the rebuilding of the Russian military in general and the nuclear weapons complex in particular. Second, the church has influenced the direction of security thinking among both Russian politicians and military leaders. Finally, church advocacy has resulted in a gradual conflation of national defense and rearmament with holiness and spirituality.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.