Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 19-26, 2019

NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Sept. 3, instead of Monday, Sept. 2, because of the U.S. Labor Day holiday.

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Russia’s leaders would love to see a world in which everybody, especially the U.S., observes the U.N. Charter, write Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Elena Chernenko, deputy foreign editor at Kommersant Publishing House. Failing that, they write, Russia’s preference is to be a great power that elbows its way through the international system and carves out a sphere of influence in its neighborhood—in the Kremlin’s view, that is no different from what the U.S., China, India and Iran are already doing.
  • The Islamic State is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits, writes former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump said other, closer countries should handle the faraway problem, but Panetta argues that the false promise of isolations is that distance can shield us from the threats in the world; it did not work during the 1930s, and it will not work in the 21st century in confronting the global threat of terrorism.
  • Russia has no desire to rejoin the G8, writes columnist Vladimir Frolov. Russia is much more comfortable dealing with the U.S., the EU and Japan separately, rather than as a group, and returning to the G8 at the cost of raising suspicion and ill will with China is not worth it for Moscow, Frolov argues.
  • Preserving bilateral arms control treaties that are working is vital to ensuring the United States is a leader in nuclear diplomacy, as is ensuring nuclear war is less likely, not more, argue Tom Countryman and Laura Kennedy of Foreign Policy for America. The Trump administration has taken a number of steps that have undermined U.S. credibility when it comes to global arms control and nuclear non-proliferation norms, they write, but Congress has the power to contain these impulses and provide a roadmap for sustained nuclear diplomacy.
  • If Trump is defeated in 2020, the winning candidate may have to rethink most of his or her current foreign policy positions, because Russia has a hand in every one of the global crises in which the U.S. is involved, columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes. Sooner or later, candidates and voters alike will have to wake up to the real Russia issues; hacking and propaganda are nowhere near the top of the list.
  • Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky once wrote that Russia is too heavy a piece to be removed from the game board; but trying to exclude Russia from the game altogether will make it start playing its own game, the rules of which will be uncoordinated and unpredictable, writes Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov. For this reason, he argues, it’s better to include Russia in the game wherever possible.

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/saber rattling:

“Putin Calls for 'Symmetric Response' to US Missile Test,” Will Englund, The Washington Post, 08.23.19: The author, assignment editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian government agencies Friday [Aug. 23] to prepare a ‘symmetric response’ to a recent U.S. missile test. He castigated Washington for pulling out of the … INF treaty on Aug. 2 and then launching a new land-based cruise missile just 16 days later. These actions, he said, were both ‘links in a chain,’ and showed that the United States had a concerted plan to junk the treaty.”
  • “‘Considering the newly emerging circumstances, I instruct the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and other specialized agencies to analyze the level of the threat, which the above-mentioned U.S. moves are creating for our country, and take comprehensive measures for preparing a symmetric response,’ he said.”
  • “He said that Russia will not engage in a costly arms race, but he promised to ensure national security. The U.S. military tested a Tomahawk cruise missile on Sunday [Aug. 18] … Flying more than 310 miles, it would have violated the INF treaty if the agreement were still in force. American declarations that new missile systems are to be deployed first in the Far East are not reassuring, Putin said.”
  • “A retired military expert told the Interfax news agency that Russia may choose to design a ground-launched Kalibr weapon system as that symmetric response to the new U.S. cruise missile.”
  • “Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center … urged a measured response by Russia. He tweeted: ‘Amid all post-INF infowar hype, Russia needs to keep its head cool and remember lesson of Cold War: symmetrical arms race with US will be ruinous. Strategic stability requires maintaining credible deterrence, not matching all of rival's moves.’”

“There Once Was a President Who Hated War,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 08.18.19: The author, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “On Aug. 14, 1936 … FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] gave a speech … [laying] out his thoughts on the proper American approach to international affairs. … For me, the most remarkable feature of this speech is Roosevelt’s blunt, vivid and passionate denunciation of war.”
  • “Bill Clinton was no militarist, but he was so worried about being labeled a dove that he kept boosting defense spending, firing off cruise missiles without thinking … George W. Bush was a swaggering frat boy who brought wars to several places and peace nowhere. … Barack Obama may have agonized over every targeted killing and major military decision, but he also ramped up the drone war, sent additional troops to Afghanistan to no good purpose, helped turn Libya into a failed state and tacitly backed the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”
  • “Ironically, though Donald Trump loves military parades, flybys and the other visible trappings of military power, he seems rather leery of war. … [I]nstead of embracing peace as a virtue, U.S. politicians go to great lengths to show how tough they are and how ready they are to send Americans into harm’s way in order to take out some alleged enemy. But how often do they talk about trying to understand the complex origins of most contemporary conflicts?”
  • “The United States should not shrink from fighting if such fighting is forced on it, but it should be the country’s last resort rather than its first impulse. … When you’re already on top of the world, encouraging the use of force isn’t prudent; it’s dumb. Peace, in short, is almost always in America’s strategic interest. Which makes it even more surprising that the word has mostly vanished from Americans’ strategic vocabulary.”
  • “There are faint signs that this situation is changing, after nearly 25 years of mostly failed adventures abroad.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“The Lasting Lesson of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” Nicholas Burns, The Atlantic, 08.23.19: The author, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, writes:

  • Thirty years ago this week, on August 23, 1989, more than 2 million citizens of the Baltic republics of the USSR engineered one of the most dramatic and successful mass protests in Soviet history. … They were protesting what was then the 50th anniversary of one of modern history’s most brutal and cynical backroom deals … The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact … divided Poland, giving Hitler a free path to go to war against it 10 days later and Stalin the green light to invade Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in May and June of 1940.”
  • “By 2004, in a remarkable transformation, all three were admitted to NATO. They joined the European Union that same year. … As Bush’s ambassador to NATO at the time, I believed the Baltic countries would be truly free only when they were inside the alliance, protected by its Article 5 mutual-defense guarantee. … Before the end of his presidency, Obama and NATO leaders deployed a battalion of NATO troops to each of the Baltic countries and Poland as a visible symbol of that commitment.”
  • “The Cold War ended peacefully in large part because of the constancy and determination of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Each American president had a shared sense of what was at stake and a common strategy to deploy U.S. military and diplomatic strength to defend freedom. … President Trump, however, sees the world through a radically different lens … He is dismantling, block by block, the foundations of our power that made America great from FDR’s time to Obama’s.”
  • “His open ambivalence toward NATO has produced a genuine crisis in America’s most important alliance. For the first time in its history, NATO does not have a strong, principled American leader to guide it. … The lasting message of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is that evil triumphs when democracies fail to stand up to it. … The Baltic governments that previous presidents worked so hard to defend must now be worried that, if Russia threatens, Trump will not heed those lessons.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Is Russia’s Doomsday Missile Fake News?,” Amy Mackinnon and Lara Seligman, Foreign Policy, 08.22.19: The authors, staff writers for the magazine, write:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to confirm on Wednesday [Aug. 21] … that a deadly blast at a military site in northern Russia that caused a spike in radiation levels was the result of testing what he called a promising new weapons system. … [T]he trail of evidence suggests that the Aug. 8 test … was related to the 9M730 Burevestnik—or SSC-X-9 Skyfall, as it has been termed by NATO. This theory was bolstered on Tuesday [Aug. 20] when Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that the test was of Russia’s development of a nuclear-propelled missile.”
  • “But not everyone is convinced that the blast was a result of a botched missile test. … [A]rms controls experts remain skeptical that Russia has the money and technical know-how to make the Skyfall a reality. … Whether or not the accident was indeed related to the new weapon—a nuclear-powered cruise missile that Moscow claims will be able to fly around the world for days or even months and to skirt U.S. missile defenses—Putin’s remarks were just one part of a pointed campaign to reestablish Russia as a major player on the world stage.”
  • “Putin has long promised to restore Russia to greatness on the world stage. Without the economic might and population of neighboring China, or the diplomatic clout of the United States, Russia’s nuclear weapons have played an outsized role in the country’s conception of what it means to be a great power.”

“How Congress Can Prevent a Meltdown of Global Nuclear Arms Control,” Tom Countryman and Laura Kennedy, The National Interest, 08.24.19The authors, a member of the Advisory Board for Foreign Policy for America and a member of the Board of Directors for Foreign Policy for America, write:

  • “House and Senate negotiators will soon meet to begin reconciling major differences in their versions of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Among the many issues that must be addressed, that of nuclear weapons is poised to be one of the most controversial.”
  • “While the Senate stayed silent or rubber-stamped administration objectives, the House of Representatives took strong stands on three major nuclear-related issues: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons. The NDAA conferees should retain all of these House provisions in order to preserve vital global U.S. leadership on nuclear non-proliferation.”
  • “The collapse of the INF Treaty makes the preservation of existing agreements even more important. The New START Treaty would remain as the sole U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms control treaty. … In order to preserve the ability to extend the treaty, the amendment proposed by Rep. Eliot Engel and adopted on the floor of the House would prevent the president from withdrawing from the treaty unless he certifies to Congress that Russia is in material breach of the treaty. “
  • “Preserving bilateral arms control treaties that are working is vital to ensuring the United States is a leader in nuclear diplomacy. So is ensuring nuclear war is less likely, not more. The Trump administration’s NPR called for the development and deployment of a ‘low-yield’ submarine-launched ballistic missile … To prevent this destabilizing weapon from being fielded, the House-passed NDAA wisely included a prohibition on the deployment of these warheads.”
  • “The Trump administration has taken a number of steps that have undermined U.S. credibility when it comes to global arms control and nuclear non-proliferation norms, but Congress has the power to contain these impulses and provide a roadmap for sustained nuclear diplomacy.”

Counter-terrorism:

“The Fight Against Terrorism Is Far From Over,” Leon E. Panetta, The Washington Post, 08.23.19: The author, former U.S. Defense Secretary, writes:

  • “Last month, President Trump said … the Islamic State has been largely defeated and no longer represents a direct threat to our country. Let other, closer countries handle the faraway problem. That has always been the false promise of isolationism—that distance can shield us from the threats in the world. It did not work … during the 1930s … And it will not work in the 21st century in confronting the global threat of terrorism.”
  • “According to U.S. and Iraqi military and intelligence officers and a Defense Department inspector general report, the Islamic State is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits.”
  • “Whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the United States must remain focused on not allowing terrorists the opportunity to establish a base of operations from which to attack our country. … We learned a bitter lesson in 2011 when we completed the withdrawal of all our forces from Iraq. That left the Islamic State free to establish a caliphate that was the size of Britain and control the lives of up to 12 million people. We were forced to send troops back into Iraq and Syria to destroy the caliphate. We should not make that same mistake again.”
  • “The choice is not between fighting or leaving. The choice is between protecting our country or pretending that the threat has gone away. Yes, we have been fighting wars for too long since 9/11. But because of that fight and U.S. leadership, we have been able to protect the United States from another major terrorist attack. Unfortunately, that fight is far from over, and to pretend that it is could be a prescription for disaster.”

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“Cyber Deterrence Is Overrated: Analysis of the Deterrent Potential of the New US Cyber Doctrine and Lessons for Germany’s ‘Active Cyber Defense,’” Matthias Schulze, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), August 2019: The author, a research associate at SWP, writes:

  • “Proponents of active, offensive cyber operations argue that they could have a deterrent effect on potential cyber attackers. The latter would think twice about attacking if a digital counter-attack might be the consequence. The idea that offensive cyber capabilities should have a deterrent effect was one reason why the new U.S. cyber doctrine was adopted in 2018. The same assumption is implicit in the debate about cyber counterattacks (“hack backs”) in Germany.”
  • “Yet these assessments are based on a superficial understanding of deterrence. Cyber deterrence by the threat of retaliation works differently than that of nuclear deterrence. Problems of attribution, displays of power, controllability and the credibility of digital capabilities increase the risk of deterrence failure.”
  • “Deterrence is … not easily transferable to the digital domain. Hawks and national security advocates, however, disagree and believe that, in case of doubt, the possession of fearful cyber capabilities produces deterrent effects. They advocate a stronger offensive, because although the U.S. is a formidable cyber power, it could not deter Russia from influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election with cyber capabilities. In response to this deterrence failure, the Pentagon introduced a new cyber doctrine in 2018. … The doctrine gives the U.S. Cybercommand greater scope for offensive action, for which no presidential authorization is required.”
  • “The existence of offensive cyber capabilities alone does not act as a deterrent, especially if it is not credibly communicated that there is a willingness to use them. There are many pitfalls that make deterrence by punishment an ineffective policy concept with many risks. The risks of deterrence failure are more prevalent than in the analogue world. Deterrence by punishment is most likely a strategy doomed to fail.”

“Is Hacking an ‘Act of War’? Billions rest on that question for insurance companies and their policyholders,” Elisabeth Braw, Wall Street Journal, 08.21.19: The author, director of the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute, writes:

  • “In the best-case scenario, today’s hybrid warfare drives up the cost of insurance enormously, as in the Strait of Hormuz. Anthony Gurnee, CEO of Ardmore Shipping, told CNBC in July that the cost of covering a trip through the strait had grown 10-fold in two months. Other corporate victims of foreign assaults are even unluckier. Two years ago, the NotPetya attack, a virus targeting Ukrainian government agencies and businesses, spread to various multinational corporations. It caused an estimated $870 million in losses to Merck; $400 million to FedEx’s European subsidiary, TNT Express; $300 million to Maersk, the Danish shipping giant and $188 million to Mondelez, which makes Oreos.”
  • “It’s unclear if some of those companies will get an insurance payout. Mondelez’s and Merck’s claims have both been denied on grounds that the NotPetya attack was an act of war—an argument supported by the fact that several countries including the U.K. and the U.S. attributed the attack to Russia. Both companies are fighting in court with their insurance companies.”
  • “It’s dangerous to insulate companies from risks they take on, but hybrid warfare is an unpredictable danger imposed on the entire market. Almost any firm could be hit by a cyberattack. Governments need to afford them the protections needed for global commerce to continue.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Democrats Should Care More About Russia,” Leonid Bershidsky, The Moscow Times/Bloomberg, 08.21.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “When the poll-analysis website FiveThirtyEight surveyed the Democratic presidential candidates to get their views on key foreign policy issues, it decided not to ask about Russia, because it couldn’t formulate a provocative question on the subject. That’s a problem … for the Democratic field.”
  • “[A] kind of Pavlovian reflex has formed in American political circles since 2016 … Years of ‘Russiagate’ and unrealistic expectations from the Mueller investigation have strengthened it. … Most of the Democratic candidates have said something about Russian attacks on U.S. democracy. Some of their claims … are too outlandish to even start unpicking. As Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, wrote in a Twitter thread on the subject, Russiagate turned Russia from a foreign policy issue into a U.S. domestic one.”
  • “Thanks in large part to Donald Trump, prevented by Russiagate from pursuing any coherent Russia policy, and to the previous three American presidents, who tended to write off Russia as a waning regional power, the U.S.-Russia relationship has become not just adversarial but also deeply dysfunctional.”
  • “Any post-Trump U.S. leader will face a dilemma: Should he or she take an implacable stance while waiting for Putin to die and his system to collapse—or pursue an active Russia policy aimed at least at laying down basic rules of interaction, perhaps even locating common interests?
  • “It’s difficult to ponder this dilemma amid the Russiagate scenery … A responsible leader can’t really avoid it, though, especially not after the election. But then, the winning candidate — should Trump be displaced in 2020 — may have to rethink most of his or her current foreign policy positions, because Russia has a hand in every one of the global crises in which the U.S. is involved … Sooner or later, candidates and voters alike will have to wake up to the real Russia issues; hacking and propaganda are nowhere near the top of the list.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“What Russia Thinks About Multilateralism,” Alexander Gabuev and Elena Chernenko, Project Syndicate, 08.20.19: The authors, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy foreign editor at Kommersant Publishing House in Moscow, write:

  • “The way Russia sees it, the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally when it needs to, and it is precisely this double standard that has eroded global rules. … To be sure, when the U.S. wants a legal pretext for its actions, it will turn to multilateral bodies such as the United Nations Security Council. But if its plans meet resistance there … America can always fall back on the default option: brute force and the mobilization of its allies.”
  • “It is little wonder, then, that Russia sees debates about the multilateral rules-based order either as hypocritical or, worse, as a sophisticated plot to undermine the role of international law as codified in the U.N. Charter. … And yet, Russia does not actually want to see the rules-based multilateral order erode. … The U.N., after all, is Russia’s preferred multilateral forum. … Russia exercises a lot of influence there. The problem … is that the U.N.-centered system of multilateral institutions is now in a crisis brought on by American dominance.”
  • “Russia’s leaders would love to see a world in which everybody, especially the U.S., observes the U.N. Charter. But failing that, Russia’s preference is to be … a great power that elbows its way through the international system and carves out a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. That, in the Kremlin’s view, is no different from what the U.S., China, India, and Iran are already doing.”
  • “[O]n issues in which Russia has a stake and the relevant political and diplomatic expertise, it can play an important and constructive role. … By the same token, in areas where Russia has neither a direct interest nor significant expertise, it does not invest much effort in multilateral cooperation.”
  • “In the absence of a world truly governed by international law and the principles of the U.N. Charter, Russia’s preferred version of multilateralism is something akin to the nineteenth-century “Concert of Nations” in Europe. … The fact that Russia harkens back to a time when it was a global superpower should come as no surprise. What is less clear is whether its interest-based approach will redound to its benefit in the long run.”

“Putin Needs to Bury This Relic of Stalin,” Leonid Bershidsky, The Moscow Times/Bloomberg, 08.23.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “As Europe marks 80 years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which carved up eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Russia is trying to defend the agreement again. … In Moscow, the original of the treaty is now exhibited alongside documents relating to both the 1938 Munich Agreement, where British and French leaders sanctioned the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland and Poland’s subsequent invasion of part of Czechoslovakia.”
  • “At the opening of the exhibition … Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of Britain and France’s treachery: By cozying up to Hitler, they forced the Soviet Union to sign a deal with the Nazis to ensure its own security, he said. … Kremlin officials can say all this until they go hoarse, but that can’t erase the undeniable fact that the Soviet Union’s security didn’t require it to grab the Baltics and parts of Poland and Romania. … These excuses are a major reason other European countries don’t trust Russia: To them, Putin and his subordinates are saying that Moscow would do something like this all over again if its interests dictated it.”
  • “If Putin’s goal was to inspire trust and start a meaningful conversation about collective European security in an age of increasing global competition, an unconditionally apologetic stance would work much better. Refraining from invading neighboring countries would be an even more meaningful step.”
  • “I suspect, however, that Putin doesn’t really believe in such goals, because, like Stalin, he thinks a deal with the devil, based on common interest rather than trust, is the best. … If Putin can do a deal that will promote what he sees as Russia’s interests, he will do it with anyone. … He is oblivious to Molotov-Ribbentrop’s biggest lesson of all: That such agreements don’t hold.”
  • “What’s needed from Russia isn’t an apology for carving up Europe with Hitler, but a different foreign policy—one in which principles trump interests. … And that shift shouldn’t come at a moment of weakness, as it did in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Restoring trust should be a conscious process.”

“Why Macron Gave Putin Such a Warm Welcome in France,” Alexander Baunov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.22.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru, writes:

  • “It’s impossible for Russia to return to the G7, but it’s also impossible for the group to solve many problems important to it without Russia. France’s relationship of trust with the Russian leadership, and the opportunity to represent Russia behind the scenes at the group’s gatherings, are an important diplomatic asset that France would hate to lose.”
  • “French President Emmanuel Macron’s hosting of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at his summer residence in southern France … was in stark contrast to their previous meeting in the cold and publicly accessible Versailles. … Macron’s behavior may seem misplaced, but he simply has his own agenda.”
  • “So far, European politicians don’t view the Moscow protests as a particularly important item on meeting agendas … [T]he West isn’t just tired of Putin, but also of the protests directed against him. … Europe fears a potential loss of control in an enormous neighboring country. ... Putin is responsible for maintaining the equilibrium between his regime’s security faction, which seeks to undermine Western interests, and its economic camp, which would like to cooperate on issues of mutual interest. This is precisely why Putin was invited to Macron’s picturesque European residence … the best way to remind the Russian government about civil rights is to remind it of its European identity and mission.”
  • “Foreign concern about domestic civil rights is only possible if the countries share an identity. That is just how Macron is trying to frame the issue, with his statements that Russia is a European country … This, it is implied, is why Russia should observe European principles such as freedom of speech and expression.”
  • “The political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky once wrote that Russia is too heavy a piece to be removed from the game board. … Trying to exclude Russia from the game altogether will make it start playing its own game, the rules of which will be uncoordinated and unpredictable. For this reason, it’s better to include it in the game wherever possible. … While U.S. President Donald Trump is unilaterally abrogating the multilateral treaty with Iran and leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change, Russia remains in both, alongside Europe. Both sides should take advantage of this cooperation.”

“Russia's Attempts to Undermine Democracy in the West: Effects and Causes,” Robert E. Hamilton, Orbis, Summer 2019: The author, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, writes:

  • “By exploiting pre-existing divisions in Western societies and attempting to sway elections toward candidates palatable to the Kremlin, the Russian Federation has had some success in eroding social cohesion and confidence in the institutions of democracy.”
  • “But pulling the West down has not improved Russia's position in the world. Russia today is less well-regarded, less prosperous, and less secure than it was before it began its campaign of sowing disorder. Since the Kremlin sees its actions as justified responses to the West's alleged attempts to undermine Russia, this is a price it is willing to pay.”
  • “Rather than trying to convince Russia to cease its malign activities, Western societies need to look inward. We need to eliminate the societal divisions that Russia exploits rather than try to convince Russia not to exploit them, denying it fertile ground on which to scatter its seeds of disinformation and propaganda. Only then will we solve the ‘Russia problem.’”

“Russ-Afrique? Russia, France and the Central African Republic,” Kimberly Marten, PONARS Eurasia, August 2019: The author, director of the program on U.S.-Russia relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, writes:

  • “The French government has been taking a balanced and often supportive diplomatic and economic approach to Russia in recent years, so Moscow should logically be trying to cement good relations with Paris amidst current tensions with the West.”
  • “Yet since 2017, in the Central African Republic (CAR)—a poverty-stricken, violence-ridden country with enduring ties to France where neither the USSR nor Russia ever played much of a role—Russia has targeted France in what Moscow portrays as a geopolitical competition. This memo describes the situation and explores the variety of motives that Moscow might have for challenging France in CAR, even though no definitive explanation is possible with the currently available evidence.”
  • “[W]e may never know for sure why Russia has chosen CAR, of all places, to take a stand against France. The potential future gains for Moscow seem far outweighed by the immediate risks of a poor investment choice, not merely for Prigozhin and his men but for the Russian defense ministry, now saddled with an unstable new client state.”
  • “Moscow risks driving away Paris at a time when it most needs friends in the West. If Russia cannot restrain Prigozhin’s greed and its own unilateralism to cooperate more fully with the U.N. and EU security missions, the biggest victims may end up being the people of CAR.”

“Hitler and Stalin Weren’t Such Strange Bedfellows: They’d demonized each other but had in common a bitter opposition to the capitalist democracies,” Juliana Geran Pilon, Wall Street Journal, 08.22.19 The author, a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, writes:

  • “Known officially as the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Hitler-Stalin pact—signed 80 years ago Friday—stunned the world. Some said that by uniting implacable ideological foes it had turned isms into wasms.”
  • “That wasn’t quite right. As German negotiator Karl Schnurre had observed the month before, ‘despite all the differences in their respective worldviews, there is one common element in the ideologies of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies. Neither we nor Italy have anything in common with the capitalist West. Therefore it seems to us rather unnatural that a socialist state would stand on the side of the Western democracies.’ Since capitalist democracy was their common enemy, why not pool resources?”
  • “Hitler and Stalin had demonized each other over several years, but they also had interlocking interests. Hitler wanted to invade Poland without fear of war on two fronts, so he had to neutralize the Soviets. He also needed access to Russia’s natural resources. Stalin coveted German industrial and weapons technology. To his cadre, he explained that he could destroy Germany later, after Hitler had assisted him in destroying the most ‘reactionary’ imperialist capitalist countries, England and France. Though some balked, most communists world-wide acquiesced. Even the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm later acknowledged he’d had ‘no reservations’ about it at the time.”

China-Russia: allied or aligned?

  • No significant commentary.

Ukraine:

“Russia Rejoices Over Trump’s G7 Readmission Offer: But Putin doesn’t actually want to be part of the group anymore,” Vladimir Frolov, The Moscow Times, 08.22.19: The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:

  • “President Trump’s suggestion that Russia should be readmitted to the Group of Seven industrialized democracies and his no less extravagant proposal that the U.S. should purchase the island of Greenland have two things in common.  Neither calls are likely to be materialized, at least in the near future, and both serve as useful distractions for Trump to deflect attention from his growing isolation during annual G7 gatherings. … By changing the agenda and focusing the talks on Russia’s readmission, Trump is simultaneously making himself the center of attention, thus taking him back into his comfort zone.”
  • “This year, Trump has seized on president Macron’s meeting with Vladimir Putin ahead of the G7 gathering in Biarritz where the French president has essentially reaffirmed this condition to Putin directly—there will be no readmission of Russia into the G7 as long as the Ukrainian crisis continues.”
  • “Macron believes that with the new leadership in Ukraine, there are real prospects of ending the conflict in Donbass. Indeed, president Zelenskiy has shown willingness to implement those parts of the Minsk agreements that do not require changes to the Ukrainian constitution … What Zelenskiy cannot do is grant the Donbass separatist republics a constitutionally decreed “special status” … This is precisely the reason why Russia will firmly insist on granting the republics special status in Ukraine’s constitution and on blocking Kiev’s effective control over them and the border with Russia in the final settlement.”
  • “The prospects for a final settlement in Donbass are still remote, yet some progress is possible. Whether that progress would be sufficient to justify Russia’s reinstatement to the G7 next year would be a matter of debate. For Russia, however … [t]his discussion benefits Moscow as it eliminates the stigma of denial and isolation from the west caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014.”
  • “But fully rejoining the G8? No, thank you. … Russia is at the moment much more comfortable dealing with the U.S., the EU and Japan separately, rather than as a group. … [R]eturning to the G8 at the cost of raising suspicion and ill will with China is not worth it for Moscow. Russia's preference would be to end the G7 as we know it by bringing in China and India, but that is hardly an appealing proposition for the rest.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“All Quiet in Russian-Belarusian Relations,” Arkady Moshes, PONARS Eurasia, August 2019: The author, Director of the EU Eastern Neighborhood and Russia Program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, writes:

  • “[F]rom summer 2018 onwards, observers were paying close attention to tensions in relations between Russia and Belarus. … Moscow might be planning to impose upon Minsk the reunification of two states, which could hypothetically allow President Vladimir Putin to circumvent the constitutional two-consecutive-terms limit on Russia’s presidency.”
  • “However … all these have proven to be false alarms. Furthermore, in July this year, Russian and Belarusian leaders agreed to postpone the decision about the future of the two countries’ integration until December 2019 … Quite plausibly, if the reunification scenario has ever existed, it has now been shelved or abandoned altogether.”
  • “[W]hile the status quo in Russian-Belarusian relations is undoubtedly being revised by Moscow, the goal may be different and not that ambitious. The Kremlin may simply aim at significantly lowering the level of Russian economic subsidies to Belarus … while preserving a critical degree of Minsk’s dependence and loyalty. In turn, the latter will try to delay the introduction of a new economic model and save as much as possible from the old times. Yet, its leverage vis-à-vis Moscow is limited and in the end Minsk will have to accept the offered compromise.”
  • “Most likely, in December 2019, Moscow and Minsk will declare their readiness to deepen integration, but this will not imply the creation of a common state or Belarus’s entry into Russia. Belarus will still be offered a privileged economic relationship. … Possibly, Moscow will more actively seek control over key Belarusian industrial assets … The unavoidable question is to what extent Belarus … can cope with the further decrease of Russian subsidies. There is no definite answer, but there are reasons for cautious optimism. … The less Russian money there is and the less capable the Lukashenko system is to fund its neo-patrimonial social contract, the more vocal society may become in demanding and supporting change.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Kremlin Analytica: Russian Elite Sets Sights on AI,” Konstantin Gaaze, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.21.19: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, plans to create a new platform that it will use to conduct experiments in AI and big data in partnership with the Moscow city municipality under a special legal framework, Kommersant newspaper reported on Aug. 13.”
  • “Data—payments, parking tickets, health screenings … will be anonymized and made available to solve problems in federal and municipal government. A council will be set up to oversee the experiments … Essentially, the Kremlin is now planning to control the development of AI in Russia: a development that is not surprising in the context of the current Moscow protests.”
  • “The use of AI and big data will enable the Kremlin to do much more than the wizards at Cambridge Analytica … We are not just talking about the privatization of a specific sector of the economy, but of an entire digital platform overseeing the country’s economic and social development.”
  • “Evidently, Sberbank will be responsible for so-called ‘nudge economics,’ stimulating a certain kind of consumer behavior. The Kremlin, for its part, will be working on harnessing AI resources to create an invincible twenty-first-century political machine, trying to repeat what Cambridge Analytica claimed it did for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
  • “However, … this plan … could have some dangerous and unintended consequences. Everything will come down to short-term political deliverables and the very possibility of strategic thinking could disappear. We will find ourselves chained to the digital infrastructure of a state that always thinks and acts in terms of short (one- or two-year-long), high-profile tactical campaigns.”
  • “A civilization built on data is а leap forward. The leap won’t happen unless we understand the new capabilities of the intelligence presented by data. It won’t happen if people quietly surrender their digital rights. Neither Sberbank nor the Kremlin should be granted access to AI experiments without a broad and impartial public debate.”

“Has Russia, Inc. Stalwart Chemezov Crossed the Barricades?,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center/Forbes, 08.26.19: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian domestic politics and political institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Sergei Chemezov’s comments on the public mood in Russia testify not to the specter of a thaw, but, on the contrary, to the fact that the clampdown is in full swing, and only individual members of the inner circle are apprehensive of the authorities’ new radical strategy of repression, which will provoke a new spiral in the war that is already de facto raging between the state and civil society.”
  • “Googling his name brings up a complete checklist of attributes of a state capitalist oligarch in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle … So when a person of such standing … suddenly starts holding forth on the public mood in Russia amid a wave of protests in Moscow … it naturally prompts a furor.”
  • “Ultimately, however, it’s just a storm in a teacup. What Chemezov … actually said was something that Putin himself has reiterated time and time again, in various situations. … There would have been nothing unusual if it hadn’t been for one phrase that clearly ran counter to Putin’s own interpretation of the situation: ‘It’s obvious that people are really disgruntled, and that’s not good for anybody.’ … Judging by what the Russian president said during his meeting with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, this week, Putin in no way considers people to be ‘disgruntled.’”
  • “Some decisionmakers close to him [Putin] … believe otherwise. … [T]hey are beginning to fear the consequences of waking up civil society.”
  • “It’s already entirely obvious that the regime has embarked on the path of more frequent and refined use of repression, and that the protests have been presented … by the Kremlin to the silent majority as the machinations of foreign powers. … Ultimately, Chemezov’s musings either mean nothing at all, or are a bad sign. What we are definitely not seeing is a former KGB officer going over to the side of the people. In reality, it is an attempt to force those who were present when the decision was being made to radicalize the policy of repression to stop for a moment and think about the potential negative consequences of the path they have chosen.”

“Protests in Moscow: What’s Different This Time?,” Cyrus Newlin and Jeffrey Mankoff, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 08.22.19: The authors, an adjunct fellow and the deputy director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia program, write:

  • “This summer’s demonstrations have a few distinguishing characteristics that suggest Russia has entered a new political era, one that could force the Kremlin into some difficult decisions ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.”
  • “First, protests have been massive. With over 50,000 attendees, the officially sanctioned August 10 protest marked the largest since 2011-2012 Bolotnaya demonstrations. … Second, and anecdotally, a wider range of Russians are showing up at protests.”
  • “Third, protestors appear to hold mixed political views. A medley of signs and political banners appeared at recent demonstrations, underscoring that attendees do not all fall into what we normally think of as Russia’s opposition … Rather, Muscovites of different political stripes are offended by what they see as a blatantly rigged election. … Fourth, the state’s response to protests has been unusually harsh.”
  • “Both inside and outside of Moscow, Russians’ growing willingness to speak out seems in part the result of economic stagnation, which has frayed the traditional social contract of political acquiescence for a higher standard of living, allowing local-level issues to gain political momentum. But despite a general malaise and the use of a common tactic—protests—to amplify grievances, these movements remain local in nature, and it is unclear if or how they could gain national traction that could in some way alter the status quo at the national level.”
  • “Through protests, Russians have signaled a new readiness to make their voices heard, even if the outcome or goal of demonstrations is not always clear. If it grows, this expectation—to be listened to— may shape the environment in which an impending political transition occurs. A smooth change of power will necessitate a degree of trust from the public. An erosion of this trust just at the time when it is most needed means political transition may not happen solely on the Kremlin’s terms.”

“After Two Decades in Power, Putin Should Heed the Warning Signs,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 08.26.19: The author, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “If political change is to come in Russia, it may arise from … strongly felt irritations of daily life rather than from the narrower cause of democratic reform embraced by Mr. Putin’s most vocal critics. True, weekly demonstrations in Moscow in support of free local elections have drawn larger numbers than at any time since the winter unrest of 2011-2012. … At a time when representative democracy and the rule of law are under strain in Western countries, and even derided by politicians who should know better, the Russian protests … are a useful reminder that the human desire for justice, dignity and freedom is irrepressible.”
  • “One reason for the limited impact of the Moscow protests is that they have so far failed to integrate the complaints of Russian society about, say, environmental degradation and the cost of living. … Another argument, espoused by Mr Putin’s sympathisers in the west, is that the president still commands support from Russian society, even if his popularity has fallen.”
  • “Perhaps it is premature to detect in the Moscow demonstrations and the environmental protests the first stirrings of the next cycle of liberalisation. The Putin system is not yet in serious trouble. But nothing is forever, not even in eternal Russia.”

“Russia’s Opposition Protests: On the Road from Nowhere to Nowhere,” Vitali Shkliarov, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 08.21.19: The author, a Harvard University fellow, writes:

  • “The recent Moscow protests have been seen as yet another turning point in anti-Putin oppositional politics. … Do the recent opposition protests in Russia signal a real change is coming? Or is it just more of the same false hope concealing the fact that pro-democracy efforts in Russia are really just a road to nowhere?”
  • “The recent protests began when not a single real opposition candidate was allowed to run in the Moscow Duma (legislative) election scheduled for September. … Protests took place not only in Moscow, but also in St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Arkhangelsk, Belgorod, Rostov-on-Don, and other Russian cities. … The result: 341 people detained in five cities. All in all, the protests in July and August resulted in 2,500 detainees, one hunger strike and dozens of criminal cases. … The response to the protests from the authorities seems to be intentionally over-the-top and unnecessarily harsh.”
  • “It’s important to note first that these protests … have little to do with the Moscow Duma elections. … [I]t was actually the slogans directed at the federal government, against Putin and, in part, against Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, that found a much greater response.”
  • “It is also important to remember that … even though the protest organizers are essentially the opposition, the protests themselves have a rather independent nature. … The protesters are mostly youth using the Internet, members of international organizations and volunteer movements and activist parties. These are the people who make up the modern Russian intelligentsia.”
  • “The opposition protests repeat the same pattern, never gaining much momentum or traction, … Once again, what seemed to be a “window of opportunity” will not be used. … But what made these recent Russian protests unique was the rising participation of young people, first time protesters, and political outsiders—who when they get involved might be able to bring about the change and the leaders that the “old” opposition has been trying to produce.”

Defense and aerospace:

“A Guide to Becoming an Admiral in the Russian Navy,” Dmitry Gorenburg and Kasey Stricklin, War on the Rocks, 08.20.19: The authors, a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA and a research analyst in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, write:

  • “American national security analysts and practitioners would be well advised to follow who is rising to the senior ranks of the Russian military. Over the decades, these leaders have been important in shaping the trajectory of a foe that was once America’s most formidable and remains, arguably, its most troublesome.”
  • “In May 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a transition in the senior leadership of the Russian Navy. Adm. Vladimir Korolev … retired and was replaced by Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov, who had served as commander of the Northern Fleet … Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseyev moved from his command of the Black Sea Fleet to replace Yevmenov at the Northern Fleet and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov was appointed as the new head of the Black Sea Fleet. … Now is therefore an opportune time to examine the career factors that lead to the selection of Russian naval leaders and to make some predictions about who is likely to rise to the highest positions in the Russian Navy in the coming years.”
  • “[W]e found 10 factors that correlate with reaching the higher ranks … We [also] found that certain positions were correlated with subsequent promotion to the three senior-most positions in the Russian Navy (navy commander in chief, navy chief of staff, and navy deputy commander).”
  • “Obviously, factors other than career trajectory can also play a role in determining military promotions, especially at the highest levels. … [T]he universe of potential candidates for the highest jobs in the Russian Navy is largely limited to those who pass through a relatively specific set of command positions when they first reach senior rank.”
  • “Those who will run the Russian Navy in the coming decade will come from that group of officers. They will have to decide whether to continue to develop the Russian Navy as a coastal defense and deterrence force or to seek to build a blue-water navy that tries to compete with the United States on the high seas. Analysts in Washington and elsewhere would be wise to pay attention.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.