Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 13-20, 2018

This Week’s Highlights

  • Looking back on the brief war between Russia and Georgia 10 years ago, senior research scientist Michael Kofman writes that NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008 left Georgia exposed with a promise of eventual NATO membership at a time when Russia made clear it was likely to use force to prevent further NATO expansion.
  • Fears of Russian domination in Europe through gas sales ignore the experience of earlier pipeline projects, according to Eugene Rumer, director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia program. In looking at opposition to the Nord Steam 2 pipeline, the notion that the interests of Ukraine or Poland, with its increasingly nationalist politics, should take precedence over Germany’s is hard to accept, according to Rumer.
  • The successful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine requires more than ending Russian military presence and restoring Kiev’s control over the border, writes Serhiy Kudelia, associate professor of political science at Baylor University. It rests on designing a new institutional framework that can provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents and prevent conflict recurrence, according to Kudelia.
  • As Putin’s approval ratings drop following the unpopular proposal to raise Russia’s pension age, one way of distracting public attention could be to continue the tsunami of recent arrests of alleged spies and traitors to Russia, warns Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

“Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” James M. Acton, International Security, 08.08.18The author, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes: “Nonnuclear weapons are increasingly able to threaten dual-use command, control, communication and intelligence assets that are spaced based or distant from probable theaters of conflict. This form of ‘entanglement’ between nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities creates the potential for ... nonnuclear strikes ... to spark inadvertent nuclear escalation. Escalation pressures could be generated through crisis instability or through … ‘misinterpreted warning’ or the ‘damage-limitation window.’ The vulnerability of dual-use U.S. early-warning assets provides a concrete demonstration of the risks. … If these risks are to be ameliorated … China, Russia, and the United States will first have to conclude that the risks of entanglement outweigh the benefits. ... [T]hen ... unilateral risk-reduction measures offer the most promising way forward. Establishing risk-reduction teams would help institutionalize and inform these efforts and … raise awareness of the risks within governments and militaries … Over the longer term, cooperative risk-reduction measures could be adopted to further mitigate the risks.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“In Gorky Park, With Nuclear Worries,” Matthew Bunn, The Hill, 08.13.18The author, a professor and the co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes: “The United States needs to firmly push back against threats to its interests and values. But even during the depths of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet leaders understood that despite their global confrontation, they had to work together for mutual survival. … Americans need to understand that while we feel threatened by Russia, Russians also feel threatened … Diplomacy will have to help address the concerns of both sides … First, at their next summit, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin should restate … [that] ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’ Second, they should direct their governments to make the compromises necessary to resolve the charges of violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that each side is making … Third, they should extend the New START Treaty for five years … Then, U.S. and Russian experts need to revitalize in-depth ‘strategic stability’ talks … And they need to get our militaries and nuclear scientists talking to each other again.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“A Plan for Securing Cyberspace,” Michèle Flournoy and Michael Sulmeyer, Foreign Affairs, 08.14.18The authors, the former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center, write that “states have shown little appetite for using cyberattacks for large-scale destruction. … States are [instead] using the tools of cyberwarfare to undermine the very foundation of the Internet: trust. … [A]n arena that the world relies on for economic and informational exchange has turned into an active battlefield. [T]he United States and its allies will have to recognize … that state sovereignty is alive and well on the Internet.  … As Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed, it is now possible to undertake cyber-operations in support of a sophisticated campaign of covert influence. … What is needed most is leadership from the United States, which should work with governments that share its commitment to privacy, freedom and stability in cyberspace. The first task is to … set forth clear consequences for cyberattacks. … [T]he United States must back up its threats by imposing real costs on perpetrators. … [The U.S.] can also use them [U.S. cyber-capabilities] judiciously to degrade its adversaries’ ability to perpetrate cyberattacks by hacking foreign hackers  … At home, the U.S. government needs to fundamentally rethink its approach to cyber defense [and] … invest more in the appropriate human capital. … The final challenge is to promote greater accountability in the technology sector for the products and services its companies put into the market.” 

Elections interference:

“Trump's Claims Are Hogwash,” John O. Brennan, New York Times, 08.17.18The author, former director of the CIA, writes: “When Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's internal security service, told me during an early August 2016 phone call that Russia wasn't interfering in our presidential election, I knew he was lying. … When I warned Mr. Bortnikov that Russian interference in our election was intolerable and would roil United States-Russia relations for many years, he denied Russian involvement in any election … with a feigned sincerity that I had heard many times before. President Vladimir Putin of Russia reiterated those denials numerous times over the past two years, often to Donald Trump's seeming approval. Russian denials are, in a word, hogwash. … Mr. Trump's claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash. The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy and how many members of 'Trump Incorporated' attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.”

“Why Should We Fear Russian Political Ads?” Curt Levey, Wall Street Journal, 08.17.18The author, president of the Committee for Justice, writes: “Alarm bells rang in the media and on Capitol Hill last month when Facebook announced its discovery and removal of a new wave of malicious political ads of probable Russian origin … Some perspective is in order. Facebook's announcement concerned the deletion of 32 pages and accounts that made ‘inauthentic attempts to influence political discourse’ by running some 150 ads on Facebook and Instagram between April 2017 and June 2018. The cost of the ads was $11,000, even less than the $46,000 … spent on Facebook ads during the 2016 campaign. Whether viewed in monetary terms (the official Clinton and Trump campaigns alone spent $81 million on Facebook ads) or reach (28 of the 32 removed pages and accounts had fewer than 10 followers), the deleted pages' influence on the American electorate could not have been more than a drop in the ocean. Likewise with the 2016 phase of the attack. For every 25,000 items the typical Facebook user saw in his news feed, only one came from the Russians. … There is no doubt the Russian ads are intended to stir up controversy rather than bring Americans together, but the same can be said about many domestically produced political ads … We don't like the divisiveness, name-calling, wild accusations and other heated rhetoric that increasingly dominate that discourse. Blaming the Russians is seductive because the unpleasant alternative is to blame ourselves.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Opposition to Nord Stream 2 Makes No Sense for America or Europe,” Eugene Rumer, Financial Times, 08.12.18The author, a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes: “Geopolitics creates strange bedfellows. President Donald Trump, his opponents in the U.S. and his critics in Europe have found common cause: opposing the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline. … [Trump] sees U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) sales to Europe—Germany in particular—as a way to rebalance trade relations he thinks work against U.S. interests. … Trump’s critics on both sides of the Atlantic argue Nord Stream 2 raises Europe’s dependence on Russian gas … In reality, Europe is not overly dependent on Russian gas. Russia accounts for 37 percent of EU gas imports … New sources of gas, including LNG supplies, have effectively undercut Russian leverage. Nord Stream 2 will not change that. … With nearly $40 billion in revenue from its gas sales to Europe in 2017, Russia needs Europe’s cash as much as Europe needs Russia’s fuel. … Ukraine stands to lose as much as $3 billion annually in pipeline transit fees … Warsaw worries Nord Stream 2 will undermine its own plans for an LNG terminal and gas pipeline from Norway. Yet fears of Russian domination through gas sales ignore the experience of earlier pipeline projects. … The most bizarre aspect of the Nord Stream 2 opposition, however, is its anti-German quality. The notion that the interests of Ukraine or Poland, with its increasingly nationalist politics, should take precedence over Germany’s is hard to accept.”

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 Democracies Can Fight Authoritarian Sharp Power. New Laws Aren't Enough,” Christopher Walker, Shanthi Kalathil and Jessica Ludwig, Foreign Affairs, 08.16.18The authors, the vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, the director of the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies and a research and conferences officer at the Forum, write that “authoritarian governments are interfering with the institutions of democratic societies in ways that would have been unthinkable even during the Cold War. … This kind of sharp power is so effective because institutions in democratic settings are open to the outside world and thus vulnerable to foreign manipulation. … For too long, observers in democracies interpreted authoritarian influence through an outdated lens … In many democracies that are vulnerable to sharp power, there is a severe shortage of information about influence efforts by China, Russia and other authoritarian governments. … Journalists, civil society organizations and country and subject matter experts must work together—within their own countries and with international counterparts … They should consider how they can agree upon common institutional standards to safeguard the integrity of the public sphere within their democracies.”


  • No significant commentary.


“Kennan Cable No. 35: Institutional Paths to Ending the Donbass Conflict,” Serhiy Kudelia, Wilson Center, 08.15.18The author, an associated professor of political science, writes: “The successful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine … rests on designing a new institutional framework that can provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents and prevent conflict recurrence. Responsibility for the adoption of new institutions lies primarily with the Ukrainian authorities. So far, they have avoided publicly discussing the specifics of a long-term settlement. Moreover, the idea that resolving the conflict would require the adoption of a special set of rules for the region, as outlined in the Minsk Agreements, remains highly controversial among Ukrainian political elites. However, lack of credible institutional guarantees for the separatist side would undermine any prospect of implementing a peace agreement.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War,” Michael Kofman, War on the Rocks, 08.17.18The author, a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, writes: “The Russo-Georgian War, the August War or for some simply the ‘five-day war,’ was an important departure point in U.S.-Russian relations, and in European security. … [T]his war heralded an important transition in international politics. This brief conflict presaged the return of great-power politics and the end of the post-Cold War period. In 2008, Moscow demonstrated the will and ability to actively contest the U.S. vision for European security, veto NATO expansion in its neighborhood and challenge Washington’s design for a normative international order where small states can determine their own affairs independent of the interests of great powers. … The U.S. failure was one of strategic negligence, in the perpetual battle between the normative aspects of U.S. foreign policy and objective realities of international politics. The Bucharest Summit left Georgia exposed with a promise of eventual NATO membership at a time when Russia made clear it was likely to use force to prevent further NATO expansion. What was lost on that battlefield was the idealistic belief that Russia would eventually come to accept the security framework Washington had established in Europe, and NATO’s role as the principal security agent in the region.”

“What Russia Wins From the Caspian Sea Deal,” John Roberts, The Moscow Times, 08.17.18The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center, writes: “Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan signed an agreement on Aug. 12 in Aktau, Kazakhstan to split the Caspian Sea into territorial zones. The landlocked water mass used to be neatly split between Iran and the Soviet Union, but the emergence of new countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union created a need for new negotiations.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Why Putin's Approval Ratings Are Declining Sharply. And What It Means for Russia's Political Future,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Foreign Affairs, 08.15.18The author, a senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “According to data collated by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, only 67 percent of Russians polled said that they approved of his [Putin’s] activities in July 2018, compared to 82 percent in April and 79 percent in May. … The main reason for the slump in ratings is the government’s proposal to increase the retirement age … [The] proposal is a breach of Russia’s unwritten social contract, in which the government preserves so-called stability, maintains modest social benefits and promotes feelings of national pride in exchange for the public’s political support and indifference to the rife corruption … The pensions proposal is … not the only factor … Already, Putin’s successful foreign policy agenda is starting to lose its power to command public support in the face of growing domestic frustrations. … It’s conceivable that Putin’s popularity will stabilize at a lower yet sustainable level. … Still, if Putin’s low approval ratings persist, the Kremlin will likely try to create some sort of spectacle to distract attention from Russia’s many social problems. It may want to double down on dramatic foreign policy gestures, but … these have lost their potency. … Another way of distracting public attention could be to continue the tsunami of recent arrests of alleged spies and traitors to Russia.”

“Why New Sanctions Might Be the Costliest for Russia Yet,” Oleg Vyugin, The Moscow Times/Vedomosti, 08.16.18The author, an economics professor at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, writes: “The new set of U.S. sanctions affects the areas that are most vital to Russia’s macroeconomic stability. Foreign investment in Russia’s sovereign ruble debt totals approximately $30 billion and includes significant stakes in … flagships of the domestic banking system … There are also investments in the stocks and bonds of other domestic issuers. … Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that the U.S. declared economic war against Russia, he has said that possible countermeasures could be political, not exclusively economic and even alluded to other avenues by which Moscow might take action. In these conditions, all investors … have little choice but to liquidate their Russian holdings as quickly as possible. This is exactly what happened last week. Russia’s entire investment portfolio of more than $70 billion—plus $30 billion of upcoming payments on outstanding corporate debts—is at risk. This is more than the country’s balance of payments can handle … unless … the authorities pour currency reserves into propping up the ruble. The devaluation of the ruble is therefore necessary to cut imports and make ends meet in the balance of payments. What happens when the ruble falls? It results in huge losses for exporters, the federal budget, companies catering to domestic demand and individual households … [T]he fiscal authorities should pursue a flexible policy that prevents a major decline in real incomes due to the sanctions.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.