Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 12-19, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Accidents happen frequently in the Russian military, but the recent deadly accidents involving nuclear-powered platforms like the Losharik and the Burevestnik missile are particularly dangerous for both the health of Russians in the vicinity and the reputation of the Russian military, write Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman of CNA.
  • The best way to get out of an arms race is by refusing to play—the United States should move toward a “deterrence-only” nuclear posture, which would allow for sizable cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal without changing the strategic balance, argues Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists. We need to start enacting ambitious solutions that are equal to the problems that we face. Not just reflexively demanding more nukes, Korda writes.
  • The focus on Russian interference has distracted attention from the fundamentally homegrown nature of the flaws in Western democracy, argues Financial Times’ Tony Barber. In the U.S., suppressing voters’ rights, gerrymandering congressional districts and the failure to reform campaign finance rules have nothing to do with Russia; the same is true for corruption and bad governance in individual European countries, and for the insufficient accountability of EU institutions, Barber writes.
  • The United States also needs to help create a more benign environment beyond Asia, argues Prof. Odd Arne Westad. At a time when China is continuing its rise, it makes no sense to leave Russia as a dissatisfied scavenger on the periphery of the international system; Washington should try to bring Moscow into a more cooperative relationship with the West by opening up more opportunities for partnership and helping settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine, he writes.
  • Outsiders have always judged Russia on their own terms, and Americans are particularly myopic when it comes to understanding other countries, writes Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker. Many failed to take Putin either seriously or literally until it was too late, or decided that what he was doing did not matter all that much in a country that U.S. President Barack Obama characterized as a “regional power,” Glasser writes.
  • For many Russians outside the capital, as one Yaroslavl resident noted, “Moscow is another country,” writes Prof. Hannah S. Chapman. This suggests that opposition leaders may find it difficult to sustain the momentum spurred by the ongoing protests in the capital unless they continue to broaden their reach beyond Moscow, Chapman argues.

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

Nuclear security:

“5 Things You Need to Know About Last Week’s Explosion in Russia,” Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman, The Washington Post/Monkey Cage, 08.16.19The authors, senior research scientists at CNA, write:

  • “An Aug. 8 accident at Russia’s Nonoksa missile testing facility left seven dead and caused a brief radiation spike in a nearby town. What went wrong? Vague and potentially misleading statements by Russian authorities have only added to speculation that scientists were working on a nuclear propulsion system for one of the country’s more secretive weapons projects, possibly the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Here’s what you need to know.”
  • “1. Accidents happen frequently in the Russian military. … But the recent deadly accidents involving nuclear-powered platforms like the Losharik and the Burevestnik missile are particularly dangerous for both the health of Russians in the vicinity and the reputation of the Russian military.”
  • “2. And the military looks to cover up the story. … It took two days for Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear agency, to explain the cause of the accident and to admit that the explosion resulted in radioactive contamination. … Experts believe it could be a nuclear-powered engine intended for Russia’s new cruise missile, a novel radioisotope thermoelectric generator or an experimental reactor.”
  • “3. Russia is a leader in nuclear energy use. … The industry continues to work on various forms of power from radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) … The latest nuclear weapons—like the Burevestnik missile—are also nuclear powered … 4. Why is Russia building these weapons? … Military planners at Russia's General Staff headquarters have developed several tiered strategies for escalation management, believing in the coercive power of long-range conventional weapons, nonstrategic nuclear weapons and their strategic nuclear forces.”
  • “5. Where are Russia’s wonder weapons now? Russia’s Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile has likely entered service with at least one squadron of Mig-31K modified fighters. … Peresvet, the road mobile laser system, had officially entered service in December 2018. … A new heavy liquid-fueled inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), Sarmat, is reportedly somewhat delayed.”
  • “Burevestnik, the nuclear-powered cruise missile, appeared to be in trouble … The project has low feasibility given the number of technological innovations required to make it work. … [I]t seems quite likely Russian scientists were indeed working on a novel way to power the missile at the time of last week’s accident.”

“What Happened at the Severodvinsk Naval Testing Range? Thoughts on the Severodvinsk Radioactive Release and When It Happened Here,” John R. Haines, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 08.19.19: The author, co-chair of the Eurasia program, executive director of the Princeton Committee and a member of the Board of Trustees at FPRI, writes:

  • “The area in question is an overwater airspace that contains a number of test ranges, which the Russian Navy uses for test and evaluation activities and training exercises. … The Russian Ministry of Defense on Aug. 8 initially attributed the incident to the explosion of a liquid-fuel rocket engine … Revised official reports attributed the incident to a nuclear-powered cruise missile called the 9M730 Burevestnik [NATO reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall] … Official statements … revised the explanation to ‘fuel ignited by a liquid propulsion system during the testing of the new Burevestnik intercontinental cruise missile.’”
  • “Russian media then began citing reports by … Western media outlets that identified a Burevestnik missile prototype as the likely protagonist. That narrative found ready acceptance … The Severodvinsk incident might have been a Burevestnik prototype test gone wrong. … On the other hand, the limited facts … support an alternate, more plausible thesis: … the Severodvinsk incident might well have been a Russia space program test gone wrong, possibly involving a small, uranium-235 based fission reactor.”
  • “The Severodvinsk venue makes sense: the Russian Navy was involved in the country’s space program in the 1990s and 2000s. There is ample technical precedent as well. … If true, it could be suggested the Russian government used a false Burevestnik accident narrative to support a larger, perhaps equally fictitious one regarding Russian missile prowess and the penetrability of Western anti-missile defense.”
  • “The Severodvinsk incident may be one of those exceptions in which the Russian government sought to establish falsehoods as true to support a broader narrative about Russian offensive missile capabilities. … Whatever caused the Severodvinsk incident, it is not the first time such an incident happened. Case in point, on 7 June 1960, a fire erupted inside Shelter 204 at the Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (BOMARC) facility on New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base.”
  • “Claimed Russian advanced weapon systems, whether or not they exist, serve to establish and reinforce a fundamental Russian narrative, one that serves a potent if less commonly heard dezinformatsiya objective.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“No Bret, the U.S. Doesn’t Need More Nukes,” Matt Korda, Federation of American Scientists, 08.14.19: The author, a research associate for the nuclear information project at FAS, writes:

  • “Last week, on the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings … But … New York Times’ Bret Stephens … laid out his case against arms control: ‘the bad guys cheat, the good guys don’t,’ and all the while, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is becoming ‘increasingly decrepit.’ It’s a simple narrative; it’s also false.”
  • “As examples … Stephens cites the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (from which the United States withdrew in 2002), the Iran Deal (which was working until the United States withdrew last year) … None of these involved significant cheating … Stephens also cites the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty … Yes, it appears that Russia likely violated … [it] … however … Trump’s decision to pull out of the treaty makes the United States needlessly complicit in its demise and frees Russia from both the responsibility and pressure to return to compliance.”
  • “[T]he United States doesn’t need more nukes. … [T]he Trump administration wants to develop two new ones––a low-yield warhead and a sea-launched cruise missile––both of which are dangerous, and neither of which are necessary. … [T]he ‘low-yield’ aspect of the low-yield warhead is a misnomer; it’s roughly one-third the yield of the Hiroshima bomb … And the new sea-launched cruise missile is a concept brought back from the dead.”
  • “[P]erhaps most evidently, Stephens’ piece is driven by fear. And understandably so: we’re currently locked into an ever-increasing nuclear arms race with no signs of it slowing down. If you’re not afraid, you’re probably not paying attention. However, crying ‘more nukes’ without articulating any kind of strategic vision isn’t going to get us out of this mess.”
  • “[T]he best way to get out of an arms race is by refusing to play. … [T]he United States should move toward a ‘deterrence-only’ nuclear posture, which would allow for sizable cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal without changing the strategic balance. … [W]e need to start enacting ambitious solutions that are equal to the problems that we face. Not just reflexively demanding more nukes.”

“Intermediate-Range Missiles Are the Wrong Weapon for Today’s Security Challenges,” Tom Countryman and Kingston Reif, War on the Rocks, 08.13.19: The authors, the chairman of the board of directors and the director of disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, write:

  • “On Aug. 2, the United States formally withdrew from the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, heralding the end of an era and the beginning of a new, potentially more perilous one. … The Trump administration’s decision to terminate the agreement and plan to develop new ground-launched intermediate-range missiles may be justifiable as a response to Russia’s violation. But ‘justifiable” is not the same as “smart.’ … Without the treaty, there needs to be a more serious arms control plan to avoid a new missile race in Europe.”
  • “With the treaty gone, attention has turned to how the United States and NATO should approach a world without the agreement. The Defense Department has announced plans to test, beginning later this month, two types of mobile, conventionally armed, ground-launched missiles with ranges that exceed the treaty’s limits. … [S]upporters of pursuing the missiles argue that the weapons would provide the United States with additional military options against Russia and especially China, which is not a party to the treaty and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that Washington and Moscow were long prohibited from deploying. … But the push for new missiles has been controversial in Congress.”
  • “The Defense Department’s budget request for new intermediate-range missiles lacks key details about the types of missiles the Pentagon plans to develop, justification of the need for the missiles or plan to base them.”
  • “Could developing land-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe convince Russia to return to the negotiating table to discuss new arms control approaches in the same way that the U.S. deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe during the early 1980s convinced Moscow to agree to the INF Treaty? Such an approach is unlikely to be successful for a number of reasons.”
  • “Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is a serious matter. But the U.S. pursuit of new ground-launched intermediate-range missiles is militarily unnecessary, would divide NATO and would lead Russia to increase the number and type of intermediate-range missiles aimed against NATO targets. Congress would be wise to withhold its support for a new Euromissile race.”

“America Needs a ‘Dead Hand,’” Adam Lowther and Curtis McGiffin, War on the Rocks, 08.16.19: The authors, director of research and education at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute and the associate dean of the School of Strategic Force Studies at the Air Force Institute of Technology, write:

  • “Today, Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization is rapidly compressing the time U.S. leaders will have to detect a nuclear launch, decide on a course of action, and direct a response. Technologies such as hypersonic weapons, stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and weaponized artificial intelligence mean America’s legacy NC3 system may be too slow for the president to make a considered decision and transmit orders. The challenges of attack-time compression present a destabilizing risk to America’s deterrence strategy.”
  • “To maintain the deterrent value of America’s strategic forces, the United States may need to develop something that might seem unfathomable—an automated strategic response system based on artificial intelligence. Admittedly, such a suggestion will generate comparisons to Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday machine … but the prophetic imagery of these science fiction films is quickly becoming reality.”
  • “A rational look at the NC3 [nuclear command, control, and communications] modernization problem finds that it is compounded by technical threats that are likely to impact strategic forces. … [T]he existing NC3 system may not act rapidly enough. Thus, it may be necessary to develop a system based on artificial intelligence, with predetermined response decisions, that detects, decides and directs strategic forces with such speed that the attack-time compression challenge does not place the United States in an impossible position.”
  • “The challenge, as we see it, is that neither the current modernization path nor the approach offered by nuclear minimalists adequately accounts for the effects of shrinking decision time. While the psychology of deterrence has not changed, we believe that time compression is changing the risk-reward calculation of our adversaries. … Rather than simply replacing current systems with a new version, it is time to fundamentally rethink the U.S. approach to nuclear deterrence.”
  • “U.S. adversaries are working on their own fait accompli that will leave the United States in a position where capitulation to a new geostrategic order is its only option. The United States cannot allow that. The United States must re-examine its view of an old concept in light of fundamental technological change. Moving forward as if twentieth-century paradigms are still valid is not an option.”

“The Real Stakes in the New Space Race,” Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, War on the Rocks, 08.19.19: The author, a lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force, writes:

  • “Why is space so critical to the future? Space is powerful precisely because it benefits from the attributes and principles of a network. … [T]he first civilization to build a robust networked space infrastructure will dominate the global economy of the 21st century.”
  • “Space will be a multi-trillion-dollar market that will disproportionately benefit the first great power that builds a vibrant infrastructure there. … If America is first to build the infrastructure of space, its rule of law and values, including every human’s inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, will underpin the marketplace. If China is first, its values will dominate. … China’s strategy is to dominate the key engines of economic growth that have historically changed world power and it views space as the place to seize and grow that advantage. … America … is so underinvested, it is relying on the Russians to launch its astronauts into space.”
  • “Most Americans are completely unaware that China has a plan to build manned labs both on the moon and on Mars. Nor are they aware that China has publicly announced its plans to build a nuclear-powered space shuttle or its plan to begin mining asteroids by 2040.”
  • “The United States is making the same mistake that other fallen great powers have made. Namely, it is doubling down on the approach that made America successful in previous generations and discounting rising powers taking new approaches. While the U.S. government nibbles around the edges of game-changing technologies, the Chinese party-state is making huge investments in key areas to include: hypersonics, 5G, supercomputing, artificial intelligence, 3D-printing, quantum computing and robotics.”
  • “Unless Congress and the President act now, we will remain on the road to inferiority and submission to China’s power. America is only dipping its toe into the pool of the future, while China is already swimming furiously away. Losing this race means certain economic subordination, and the surrender of our liberty and our values. If we tap into the full power of our American spirit, however, we can save our future.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Turkey: Why Erdogan Gambled on a Pivot to Russia,” Laura Pitel, Aime Williams and Henry Foy, Financial Times, 08.14.19: The authors, a correspondent, a reporter and the Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, write:

  • “As the date for delivery of Turkey’s order of a Russian S-400 air defense system drew closer, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced louder and louder warnings. If the shipment went ahead, U.S. officials and analysts cautioned, then Donald Trump would … impose sanctions that could wreak havoc on the fragile Turkish economy. But in recent weeks, 30 planeloads of radars, missile launchers and support vehicles have arrived at an air base near Ankara … and the threatened sanctions have not materialized.”
  • “Observers are now asking whether Turkey, a NATO member, has got away with its bold decision to strike a … defense deal with the alliance’s historical foe—or whether the fallout has merely been postponed. … The Pentagon has already kicked Ankara out of the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program … And there is still the danger that the U.S. Congress … could flex its muscles to make sure that his dealings with Russia do not go unpunished.”
  • “Erdogan always insisted that Mr. Trump would not sanction Turkey due to its geostrategic importance … Shortly before the planned delivery, he said he would simply ask the U.S. president not to impose punitive measures. … That suggestion was met by derision. But then, at a meeting between the two men at the G20 summit in Osaka at the end of June … Mr. Trump repeated Mr. Erdogan’s complaint … that he had been treated ‘very unfairly’ by the Obama administration when Ankara had tried to buy a U.S.-made Patriot missile system several years earlier.”
  • “Even if he wants to, it remains unclear whether Mr. Trump will be able to shield Turkey in the longer term. Under CAATSA legislation, to delay sanctions the White House would have to submit a report to Congress every 180 days certifying that Turkey is ‘substantially reducing’ its business with Russia.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“The Internet Freedom League: How to Push Back Against the Authoritarian Assault on the Web,” Richard A. Clarke and Rob Knake, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019: The authors, the chair and CEO of a risk management firm and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, write:

  • “Instead of spreading democratic values and liberal ideals, the Internet has become the backbone of authoritarian surveillance states all over the world. Regimes in China, Russia and elsewhere have used the Internet’s infrastructure to build their own national networks. At the same time, they have installed technical and legal barriers to prevent their citizens from reaching the wider Internet and to limit Western companies from entering their digital markets.”
  • “But despite handwringing in Washington and Brussels about authoritarian schemes to split the Internet, the last thing Beijing and Moscow want is to find themselves relegated to their own networks and cut off from the global Internet. … China and Russia would ideally like to re-create the Internet in their own images and force the world to play by their repressive rules. … In the long term, China and Russia would still like to exert influence on the global Internet. But they see more value in building their closed networks and exploiting the West’s openness for their own gain.”
  • “An Internet Freedom League modeled on the Schengen area is the only way to secure Internet freedom from the threats posed by authoritarian states and other bad actors. Such a system would admittedly be less global than today’s more freewheeling Internet. But only by raising the costs of malicious behavior can the United States and its friends hope to reduce the scourge of cybercrime and limit the damage that regimes such as those in Beijing and Moscow can do to the Internet.”

Elections interference:

"Democracies Need Renewal If They Are to Survive,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 08.19.19: The author, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Democracies can die — of that there should be no doubt. But they can also be modernized and restored to good working order, though never to permanent, perfect health. Much depends on the diagnosis and proposed remedies. In today’s conditions, although the two sets of problems overlap, it helps to distinguish between the need to improve democratic representation on the one hand, and the need to advance social cohesion and prosperity on the other.”
  • “The focus on Russian interference … has distracted attention from the fundamentally homegrown nature of the flaws in Western democracy. In the U.S., suppressing voters’ rights, gerrymandering congressional districts and the failure to reform campaign finance rules have nothing to do with Russia. The same is true for corruption and bad governance in individual European countries, and for the insufficient accountability of EU institutions.”
  • “Undeniably, the West’s adversaries and competitors have learnt how to stir up trouble. Russia’s tactics involve identifying a divisive issue … and whipping up anger on both sides of the argument in order to obstruct reasoned debate and paralyze government. Fake news, spread through social media, is part of the Russian armory. But fake news is also something at which unscrupulous U.S. and European politicians shamelessly connive. It is not exactly new.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Falling Prices Have a Silver Lining for Oil Majors,” Nick Butler, Financial Times, 08.19.19: The author, visiting professor and chair of the Kings Policy Institute at Kings College London, writes:

  • “The oil price is down again, creating both winners and losers. The oil-exporting countries led by OPEC and Russia lose income and wealth. The international oil majors will also see revenue fall but for them there could be a silver lining—an opportunity to regain access to areas closed to private ownership for the past half century.”
  • “The price is volatile and vulnerable to speculation, but those betting on a return to prices of $80 or $100 a barrel keep losing out. The impact of the $60 barrel falls hardest on the producing countries that are heavily dependent on oil revenue for their national income. The new fall … will compound their problems.”
  • “Working as a cartel is no longer effective. Even with an OPEC production limit in place, and the support of outside producers such as Russia and Mexico, the ability to keep prices up has gone. … The only answer may be to draw in new international investment.”
  • “The process of re-engagement has begun. The international companies are present in many oil-producing countries from which they were once excluded … but usually on limited service contracts that offer very limited returns. Better deals will be essential to secure investment on the scale necessary.”

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:

“How Does the Kremlin Kick When It’s Down?,” Polina Beliakova, War on the Rocks, 08.13.19: The author, a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust ratings are at historic lows. So are levels of popular satisfaction with Russian government authorities and economic policy. … The Kremlin is losing the public’s tolerance to the severe mismanagement of the state. How will this domestic turmoil affect Russia’s international behavior?”
  • “Putin’s track record suggests that … Russia does not go to war when domestic support is at its lowest. Does this suggest that Putin will practice restraint in foreign policy as he deals with discontent at home? That conclusion would be premature. Low public approval does not limit the Kremlin’s ability to advance its foreign policy objectives using nonviolent means.”
  • “First, relatively high levels of approval for domestic and economic policy … preceded previous major episodes of Russia’s international offensives … Thus, Russia’s aggressive foreign policy does not correlate with public support for the government in a way consistent with the diversionary war argument. … Second … expensive foreign endeavors may only exacerbate popular dissatisfaction, and there are signs that Putin does pay attention to fluctuations in the public’s mood.”
  • “With a diversionary war off the table, should we expect Russia to keep a low international profile due to domestic troubles? Well, yes and no. … Russia’s recent record shows that in the past, even dramatically low levels of support did not discourage the Kremlin’s use of covert action and cyber operations. The record suggests that with or without domestic approval, Russia’s international behavior largely remains consistent with the strategy of raiding—the use of limited means to achieve particular political objectives relying on infiltration, surprise attack and swift withdrawal.”
  • “Additionally, plummeting approval rates are not likely to contain (and even might encourage) the Kremlin’s bold symbolic political gestures, the economic costs of which are not immediately apparent to the Russian public. … As previous record shows, when the Kremlin is down, it still kicks, and sometimes with serious international consequences.”

China-Russia: allied or aligned?

“The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Are Washington and Beijing Fighting a New Cold War?,” Odd Arne Westad, Foreign Affairs, 08.12.19: The author, Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University, writes:

  • “For many, including in Washington and Beijing, the analogy has become irresistible: there is a U.S.-Chinese cold war, and American policymakers need an updated version of Kennan’s containment. … But if such an inquiry starts where Kennan’s did—with an attempt to understand the other side’s basic drivers—the differences become as pronounced as the parallels. It is these differences, the contrast between the sources of Soviet conduct then and the sources of Chinese conduct now, that stand to save the world from another Cold War.”
  • “The United States also needs to help create a more benign environment beyond Asia. At a time when China is continuing its rise, it makes no sense to leave Russia as a dissatisfied scavenger on the periphery of the international system. Washington should try to bring Moscow into a more cooperative relationship with the West by opening up more opportunities for partnership and helping settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
  • “If Washington refuses to do that, then the strategic nightmare that haunted U.S. officials during the Cold War yet never fully materialized may actually come true: a real Sino-Russian alliance. Today, the combination of Russia’s resources and China’s population could power a far greater challenge to the West than what was attempted 70 years ago. As Kennan noted in 1954, the only real danger to Americans would come through ‘the association of the dominant portion of the physical resources of Europe and Asia with a political power hostile to [the United States].’”

“Party Man: Xi Jinping’s Quest to Dominate China,” Richard McGregor, Foreign Affairs, 08.14.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, writes:

  • “In the years since he took power, Xi has harshly suppressed internal dissent, executed a sweeping anticorruption campaign and adopted a bold, expansive foreign policy that has directly challenged the United States. Few foresaw the extent of Xi’s ambition before he took over as leader. There has been much handwringing in the West in recent years about how so many got China, and Xi, so wrong. Foreign analysts have habitually confused Western beliefs about how China should reform with the party’s convictions about how to govern the country.”
  • “Xi was … alarmed at the ideological decay of the [Communist] party itself, symbolized by rampant graft and the emergence of leaders’ personal fiefdoms in both public and private companies. … Xi took his greatest warning from the fall of the Soviet Union and was horrified at how the Soviet Communist Party had evaporated almost overnight. ‘A big party was gone, just like that,’ he said in a 2012 speech. ‘Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.’”
  • “China had studied the collapse of the Soviet Union intensely in its immediate aftermath. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Xi was worried enough about the state of the party to make everyone from senior leaders to rank-and-file officials go back to class and learn the lessons of the Soviet collapse again. ‘To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism,’ he said in another 2012 speech. ‘It confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels.’”

“Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China,” Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019: The authors, chair and CEO of the Asia Group and a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, write:

  • “Most observers can agree that, as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy put it in 2018, ‘strategic competition’ should animate the United States’ approach to Beijing going forward. … [I]n this case, ‘strategic competition’ reflects uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win. … A failure to connect competitive means to clear ends will allow U.S. policy to drift toward competition for competition’s sake and then fall into a dangerous cycle of confrontation.”
  • “Like the Soviet Union, China is a continent-sized competitor with a repressive political system and big ambitions. The challenge it poses is global and lasting … But the analogy is ill fitting. China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the world and intertwined with the U.S. economy.”
  • “China is the emerging global leader in several economic sectors, and its economy is more diversified, flexible and sophisticated than the Soviet Union’s ever was. … Whereas the Soviet Union was hamstrung by a closed economy, China has embraced globalization … The kinds of economic, people-to-people and technological linkages that were lacking in the militarized U.S.-Soviet conflict define China’s relationship with the United States and the wider world.”
  • “The most decisive factor in the economic competition with China is U.S. domestic policy. The notion of a new ‘Sputnik moment’—one that galvanizes public research as powerfully as seeing the Soviet Union launch the world’s first satellite did—may be overstating the point, but government does have a role to play in advancing American economic and technological leadership.”
  • “China may ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did, even if it does not explicitly seek to export its system. … Even as adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union found ways to cooperate on a number of issues … The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.”

“Putin’s Ill-Advised Embrace of China,” Marvin C. Ott, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 08.12.19: The author, a senior fellow at FPRI, writes:

  • “[Russian President Vladimir Putin] detested the effort to cultivate close ties with Europe and America seeing it as little more than capitulation to those responsible for the collapse of his beloved Soviet Union (and KGB). He was determined to rewrite the end of the Cold War and restore Russian dominance in the former satellites of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He wanted to destroy NATO and cripple the United States.”
  • “Putin’s hatred of the West is so all-consuming that he is incapable of taking the steps most Russian strategists recommend—compromise on Ukraine and Crimea, stop the cyberattacks and rebuild diplomatic ties with Europe and America as part of gaining sanctions relief. Instead, Putin has turned to China.”
  • “But consider a few basic realities: (1) Russia and China have a history of enmity over centuries; (2) The two countries have a long common border and fought battles over it as late as 1968; (3) The Chinese economy is over ten times the size of Russia’s and the gap is growing; (4) The Chinese defense budget is about six times the size of Russia’s; (5) Most of the vast expanse of the Russian Far East is empty while Chinese populations press up against it from the other side; (6) Publicly displayed Chinese military maps show the boundary of China extending across Siberia to Lake Baikal; and (7) China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative involves huge infrastructure projects in Central Asia—a region Moscow has always viewed as its exclusive domain.”
  • “Russian elites have a deep natural affinity for Europe, not Asia. … Russian military commanders distrust and fear China. (And a brief perusal of Chinese social media will reveal how much the Chinese dislike the Russians.) In sum, Putin’s obsessions are taking Russia in a direction profoundly at odds with Russian interests—and the sentiments of the Russian people.”


“Will Corruption Poison Ukraine's New President?,” Eli Kaul, The National Interest, 08.18.19: The author, a PhD candidate in political science at Kent State University, writes:

  • “While [analyst Nicolai] Petro’s concern about the impact of nationalism in Zelensky’s time in office is a valid one, a more plausible explanation for why Zelensky commands such support from average Ukrainians is the perception that he is the man who can solve Ukraine’s problems with corruption, inefficiency and the power of the oligarchy in the country’s economic and political affairs.”
  • “The other major factor behind the Zelensky election is not the conflict in the East but the conflict with widespread, normalized, corruption and inefficiency in the Ukrainian political system. … Despite the creation of a new law enforcement organization aimed at curbing corruption within governmental structures … many individuals who work within the lower-echelons of government still observe corrupt practices at similar, if not higher, levels than that of the previous decade.”
  • “[O]ne of the most common ‘initiation rituals’ in most criminal factions is the task of committing a serious crime under the observation or request of faction leadership. This not only proves the initiate’s loyalty to the faction but also gives the faction’s leadership ammunition it can use against that individual … [I]n Ukraine, this practice exists to a great extent within the government itself.”
  • “Zelensky has lambasted inefficient managers in public forums and has begun threatening lustration, which is the process of making something clean through purification. However, it seems such measures will not suffice to fix the problems endemic to Ukraine’s political and economic structures unless drastic reforms completely reshape the state’s bureaucratic organization.”
  • “The new administration has not yet undertaken the necessary lustration to cleanse the government of those tied to illicit activity, but such a scenario will be possible if Zelensky’s Servant of the People party takes a controlling stake in the Rada. Sadly, it seems most likely that the lure of corrupt practices will remain strong and it will likely be a matter of time before the new ‘political outsiders’ fall into the same corrupt practices of their predecessors.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin the Great: Russia’s Imperial Impostor,” Susan B. Glasser, Foreign Affairs, 08.12.19: The author, a staff writer for The New Yorker and former Moscow co-bureau chief for The Washington Post, writes:

  • “On Jan. 27, 2018, Vladimir Putin became the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. … Putin answered unhesitatingly when asked which world leader he admired most. “Peter the Great,” he replied. … [T]he Russian emperors’ motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” is a closer philosophical fit with today’s Putinism.”
  • Putin has struggled at home far more than his swaggering on the world stage suggests. … [S]ince winning his latest fake election, in 2018 … his approval ratings have declined precipitously. … Putin has no obvious successor, and today’s Kremlinologists report an increase in infighting among the security services and the business class, suggesting that an enormous struggle for post-Putin Russia has already begun. … “Stagnation,” …  is an epithet used to attack Putin and the state of the nation … For Putin, the goal of the state remains what it was when he came to office two decades ago. It is not a policy program, not democracy or anything approaching it, but the absence of … the upheaval that preceded him.”
  • “Outsiders have always judged Russia on their own terms, and Americans are particularly myopic when it comes to understanding other countries. … Many failed to take Putin either seriously or literally until it was too late, or decided that what he was doing did not matter all that much in a country that U.S. President Barack Obama characterized as a ‘regional power.’”
  • “There are many reasons why the West misunderestimated Putin, as Bush might have put it, but one stands out … Westerners simply had no framework for a world in which autocracy, not democracy, would be on the rise, for a post–Cold War geopolitics in which revisionist powers such as Russia and China would compete on more equal terms again with the United States.”
  • “History has shown that just because something is inconceivable does not mean it won’t happen. But that is an important reason we got Putin wrong, and why, all too often, we still do. … We may have misunderestimated him before, but that doesn’t mean we might not misoverestimate him now.”

“Book Review: Putin’s Counterrevolution,” David Szakonyi, Foreign Affairs, 08.12.19: In his review of Sergey Aleksashenko’s “Putin’s Counterrevolution,” the author, an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, writes:

  • “In this comprehensive historical study, Aleksashenko does a great service by documenting the decades-long institutional erosion and consolidation of authoritarian rule in Putin-era Russia. The author hits his stride in his discussion of the state’s intervention in the economy. Many previous works have described the consequences of the Kremlin’s takeover of the lucrative oil industry. But the state’s hand has extended into many other sectors, as well.”
  • “Aleksashenko shows how the Putin regime has taken on oligarchs, pressured international investors, built gigantic state-owned enterprises and bailed out failing firms. The book offers a definitive account of how, since the late 1990s, the balance of power in Russia has shifted decisively in favor of government officials over private firms. The regime’s economic dominance helps explain its lack of interest in reforms that would protect the property rights or political freedoms of potential challengers.”

“The Dictators’ Last Stand: Why the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look,” Yascha Mounk, Foreign Affairs, 08.12.19: The author, associate professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, writes:

  • “It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly. … Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin … declar[ed] … that ‘modern liberalism’ has become ‘obsolete.’ Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession.”
  • “According to the new orthodoxy, the populist threat to liberal democracy is a one-way street. Once strongman leaders have managed to concentrate power in their own hands, the game for the opposition is up. … But this narrative overlooks a crucial factor: the legitimacy of populist dictators depends on their ability to maintain the illusion that they speak for ‘the people.’”
  • “[P]opulists come to power by promising to deepen democracy. … Instead of accepting an explicit trade­off between self-determination and other goods, such as stability or economic growth, supporters of populist parties usually believe that they can have it all. As a result, populists often enjoy enormous popularity during their first years in power, … [like] Russia’s Vladimir Putin. … Once they consolidate their authority, however, populist dictators fail to live up to their most important promise. Elected on the hope that they will return power to the people, they instead make it impossible for the people to replace them.”
  • “This is where the vicious cycle of populist legitimacy rears its unforgiving head. As support for the regime wanes, the populist autocrat needs to employ more repression to retain power. But the more repression the regime employs, the more its story of legitimation suffers, further eroding its support.”
  • “It is too early to conclude that the populist dictatorships that have arisen in many parts of the world in recent years will be able to sustain themselves in power forever. … And so the best way to fight demagogues with authoritarian ambitions remains what it has always been: to defeat them at the ballot box before they ever step foot in the halls of power.”

“Protests Expose Russia’s Regime Rivalry,” Tatyana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.13.19: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Russia’s government agencies are so busy competing with one another and presenting themselves in a good light to the Kremlin that they are failing to deal with the new street protests. … As far as tactics go, everything is more or less clear: the government’s preferred option is to use force. When it comes to strategy, things get more complicated. … The regime is trying to flex its muscles, but its emphasis on force only reveals a growing lack of vision and coordination among its key institutions.”
  • “None of these [the authorities’] responses are a part of a planned or unified campaign directed from a unified center. … Evidently, the president made the overall decision to use force. In fact, he didn’t need to do it in a form of a direct order … Once that was set in motion, different parts of the system scrambled to put on the best show for the president.”
  • “The government clearly underestimates the nature of the crisis simply because it contradicts Putin’s worldview … No one tells the president that the situation has drastically changed since his triumphant election victory in the spring of 2018, and that the country has entered a new phase. … If the regime sees no crisis, there is no need for strategy. However, institutional interests are still there and each reacts differently to events.”
  • “Every government agency—be it the FSB, National Guard, Foreign Ministry or RT—now feels the need to demonstrate its usefulness, as well as the danger of yielding the initiative to someone else. Distracted by these efforts, no one in the government is left to deal with the actual protest itself. No one is trying to understand its nature and trajectory, nor are there attempts to look for compromise.”
  • “They are also failing to deal with the issue of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. … All this is eroding the regime from within. … The Kremlin is no longer setting the political agenda in Russia. What happens next will be determined much more by people’s political mobilization, by the effectiveness of new opposition leaders and by the number of mistakes the government will make.”

“20 Years of Vladimir Putin: The Transformation of the Economy,” Sergey Guriyev, The Moscow Times/Vedomosti, 08.16.19: The author, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, writes:

  • “In terms of economic policy, those 20 years fall into four distinct periods: the ‘reform’ years of his first term (1999-2003); the ‘statist’ years of his second term (2004 – the first half of 2008); the world economic crisis and recovery (the second half of 2008 – 2013); and the war in Ukraine, Russia’s growing isolation from the global economy and stagnation (2014 – present).”
  • “The so-called ‘Gref Program’ was approved by the government in 2000 during Putin’s first term. … This led to a sharp acceleration of economic growth, an influx of foreign investment and the strengthening of the ruble. … The second term differed significantly from the first: according to the Gref program’s authors, reforms were only 30% complete when the process was halted. What’s more, the nationalization of the economy began. … In the 10 years from 1999 to 2008, Russian GDP grew by 94% and per capita GDP doubled. This is the most outstanding decade in Russian economic history.”
  • “According to various estimates, as much as one-third to one-half of the growth rate during Putin’s first decade in office is the result of the nearly eight-fold increase in oil prices … It became obvious by 2008 that Russia had exhausted this model of growth.”
  • “Russia, however, did not carry out any reforms during the global financial crisis. … The subsequent decline in oil prices, war and isolation from the global economy buried any hopes of reform and of accelerating economic growth.”
  • “[T]he new ‘May decrees’ that Putin signed in 2018 rely on public rather than private or foreign investment. The so-called ‘national projects’ it envisions will cost Russian taxpayers and pensioners many trillions of rubles. … [N]either the markets nor the experts have faith in it. … The solution to Russia’s problems lies in precisely the opposite direction — in implementing the long-promised reforms: protecting property rights, respecting the rule of law and competition, reducing the state’s role in the economy, fighting corruption, reintegrating Russia into the world economy, and investing in human capital.”

“Ask Not What the Kremlin Will Do Next,” Maxim Trudolyubov, The Moscow Times/The Wilson Center, 08.19.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, writes:

  • “Analysts both international and domestic, including this writer, have become adept at juggling events and the Kremlin’s reactions as if the Kremlin were Russia’s sole political actor. Of course, the Kremlin, being a black box, and priding itself on its ability to keep people on their toes and to make unexpected asymmetric responses to all kinds of challenges, does contribute to this mind-set.”
  • “But today’s leader in the Kremlin is always reactive. He is more akin to a weather vane than to a father of the nation pointing out some definitive shining path. The shining path changes from day to day, and its route often depends on the Kremlin’s reading of the international situation … and its understanding of the state of Russian society.”
  • “We in Russia keep asking what to expect from the Kremlin, what kind of restrictions ‘they’ are going to impose on us next. But those in the Kremlin (who are not even in the Kremlin most of the time) are doing the same. They keep asking what ‘they,’ down below, in the streets, are going to do next. … The Kremlin’s behavior—circling the wagons as if it were under attack—suggests defensive rather than offensive action.”
  • “Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics.”
  • “This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may in fact be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.”

“In Moscow, Citizens Have Been Protesting for Five Weekends in a Row. What Does the Rest of Russia Think?,” Hannah S. Chapman, The Washington Post/Monkey Cage, 08.15.19: The author, an assistant professor of political science and faculty associate in the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University, writes:

  • “On Aug. 10, an estimated 50,000 protesters marched in Moscow to demand free and fair local elections—the latest in a series of protests that have taken place in the Russian capital in recent weeks. … The protests began after city election officials barred independent candidates from appearing on the ballot for the Moscow City Duma elections, slated to take place on Sept. 8.”
  • “To understand how people view the protests [outside of Moscow], I commissioned two focus groups a few weeks ago in Yaroslavl, a provincial city about 160 miles from Moscow. The focus groups—a total of 16 working-class individuals from different age groups—took place three days after the first large-scale unauthorized protest July 27.”
  • “A majority of young workers and many older participants in the focus groups had not heard of the protests. Among those that expressed some knowledge of the rallies, many had heard a mention only in passing and did not know any details about what was really happening. … For a country where nearly 75 percent of individuals get their news from television, this lack of coverage suggests that Russians outside the capital are not receiving comprehensive information of the ongoing unrest. However, word does appear to be spreading.”
  • “Focus group participants who were aware of the protest were largely sympathetic toward the protesters. They noted that people are dissatisfied with Russian authorities and take to the streets because of lack of freedom of speech in Russia. … Participants condemned police violence against protesters and argued that the authorities should allow the protests to occur.”
  • “For many Russians outside the capital, as one participant noted, ‘Moscow is another country.’ This suggests that opposition leaders may find it difficult to sustain the momentum unless they continue to broaden their reach beyond Moscow.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.