Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 20-27, 2018
NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Sept. 4, instead of Monday, Sept. 3, because of the U.S. Labor Day holiday.
This Week’s Highlights:
- U.S. sanctions can’t bring Russia “to its knees,” Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky argues. “If less than maximum pain is applied, Russia could manage for years with relatively low growth. That is the basis for Putin’s calculations. It bodes badly for the current direction of U.S. policy.”
- Russia is conducting an experiment with nuclear power—one that proponents call cheaper, greener and safer, “but that critics call reckless. The country is unveiling a floating nuclear power plant,” the New York Times reports.
- Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya describes the many dangers that lie ahead for Russia in a post-Putin transition, including the possibility of infighting among elite clans. As a result, she doesn’t expect the president to relinquish power anytime soon, but to closely manage its very gradual transfer.
- Analyst Arkady Dubnov parses the geopolitical implications of the new agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea, noting that Moscow now sees Turkmen gas as a competitor to U.S. LNG rather than to Gazprom. Meanwhile, for both Russia and Iran security has displaced gas as the top priority in the Caspian, with the two countries eager to prevent any U.S. military presence there.
- The death of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic highlights Russia’s latest geopolitical ambition—“a push into Africa,” according to the Financial Times.
- Wired magazine’s Andy Greenberg shares an excerpt from his new book about the NotPetya cyberattack, which resulted in an estimated $10 billion in damage, calling it “the story of a nation-state’s weapon of war released in a medium where national borders have no meaning, and where collateral damage travels via a cruel and unexpected logic.”
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
“The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia,” Andrew Kramer, The New York Times, 08.26.18: The author, a Moscow-based correspondent for the newspaper, reports that “Russia is conducting an experiment with nuclear power, one that backers say is a leading-edge feat of engineering but that critics call reckless. The country is unveiling a floating nuclear power plant. Tied to a wharf in the city of Murmansk, the Akademik Lomonosov rocks gently in the waves. The buoyant facility, made of two miniature reactors of a type used previously on submarines, is for now the only one of its kind. Moscow, while leading the trend, is far from alone in seeing potential in floating nuclear plants. Two state-backed companies in China are building such facilities, and American scientists have drawn up plans of their own. Proponents say they are cheaper, greener and, perhaps counterintuitively, safer. … ‘They are light-years ahead of us,’ Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the Russian floating power program.”
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant commentary.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant commentary.
New Cold War/saber rattling:
- No significant commentary.
“In Familiar Dance, Turkey Warms to Russia as US Ties Unravel,” The Associated Press, 08.27.18: According to this analysis by the news agency, “[r]elations between Turkey and Russia are cozy, prompting worries in the West of a potentially critical rift in the NATO alliance. But Turkey's president may be engaged in a balancing act, tactically turning to Russia as ties with the United States further deteriorate...” Just as “President Donald Trump … announced tariff hikes on the NATO ally, … Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the phone with Russia's Vladimir Putin,” promising “more cooperation in the areas of defense, energy and trade. … Despite his country's economic vulnerability, Erdogan seemed to be signaling that it had alternatives to the traditional alliances that date from its Cold War role as a regional bulwark against Soviet power. In Turkey's view, ‘the U.S. has become even more threatening than Russia’ due to strains over critical issues, Sener Akturk, an associate professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul, said. The perceived threat makes the U.S. ‘an ally that has to be paradoxically kept at arm's length and even balanced against with Russian cooperation.’ … A lever in Turkey's diplomatic maneuvering is its pledge to buy a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, with deliveries starting next year. U.S. and NATO officials say the Russian system conflicts with NATO equipment and would lead to security breaches. … Erdogan and Putin have met at least 11 times since August 2016. Outgrowths of the frequent contact between the two regional powers include the resumption of a deal for a natural gas pipeline through Turkey and Russian plans to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey. The rapprochement ‘demonstrates a striking level of pragmatism in this relationship,’ Anna Arutunyan, a Moscow-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, said.”
- No significant commentary.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant commentary.
“Russian Peace Talks [in Afghanistan] Raise Specter of Shifting Influence,” The Associated Press, 08.25.18: In this analysis written out of Islamabad, the news agency asserts that “Vladimir Putin's Russia appears to have emerged as a player in Afghanistan after 17 years of Western involvement that has left the country no closer to peace than before. To some, Russia's offer to host talks next month might contain at least the seeds of a positive pivot if the Taliban are coaxed to the table at a time when they have been more aggressive on the battlefield than in recent years, causing much mayhem in Kabul and other cities. But the move may be stuck before it even begins. The Afghan government has said it will not attend, unable to agree on a coherent strategy because of divisions within the government that many see as a function of personal and ethnic rivalries, and calling for the Taliban to first agree to direct talks with Kabul. The insurgents have consistently refused, instead demanding direct talks with the United States.” [Editor’s note: While the Taliban ultimately accepted Russia’s invitation to attend the talks, Moscow then agreed to postpone the planned Sept. 4 summit until Kabul’s participation could be ensured.] The AP analysis goes on to say that “[t]he U.S., for its part, seems displeased by the maneuver, even though Washington has been trying to find a reasonable exit strategy for years in vain. On the ground in Afghanistan, the situation has given rise to boundless cynicism about the various players and almost no hope for a quick improvement in the violent, corruption-plagued nature of daily life. Analysts say the wrangling over a meeting to talk peace offers a window into the enormity of the task of actually reaching a peace pact in a region of competing influences.”
Conflict in Syria:
“In Syria, an Ugly Peace Is Better Than More War,” Jimmy Carter, New York Times, 08.24.18: The author, president of the United States from 1977 to 1981, writes that “more is needed to end the violence in Syria” than the agreements reportedly reached by presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki. "Western countries, including the United States, should re-engage incrementally with the Syrian government,” he says. "They can start by reopening their embassies in Syria, since Western diplomats’ absence from Damascus has led to missed opportunities. The West should also abandon the goal of regime change and temper expectations of democratic transition in Syria in the short to medium term. Instead, the focus should be on patiently building democracy. In exchange for this re-engagement, Damascus should be required to enact reforms, though the West must keep its demands moderate. Additionally, the West should be prepared to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria, perhaps selectively by sector. … Syria’s economy cannot be revived while the country remains under sanctions that hurt ordinary citizens. Lifting sanctions will be crucial to solving the huge challenges of reconstruction, unemployment and economic revival. … The Syrian government must accept the inevitability of reforms and implement confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees and accountability for their treatment,” Carter writes. "Assigning responsibility for the catastrophe in Syria would be an important part of postwar healing, but the priority now should be to end the war.”
“Trump is Setting His New Syria Team Up for Failure,” Josh Rogin, The Washington Post, 08.22.18: The author, a columnist for the newspaper, writes that “[l]ate last week, President Trump appointed two new officials to lead U.S. policy on Syria—and simultaneously slashed U.S. resources for Syrian civilians. Trump is undercutting his State Department's new effort and repeating the Obama administration's mistake of trying to negotiate with Russia without real leverage,” Rogin argues. On Aug. 17, "the State Department announced former ambassador Jim Jeffrey's appointment as the 'secretary's representative for Syria engagement,' a new position Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created. Jeffrey will handle 'all aspects of the Syria conflict,' except the fight against the Islamic State, which will still be handled by Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk, officials said. Former National Security Council staffer Joel Rayburn will now be deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs and special envoy for Syria. … Jeffrey's marching orders are work with Russia and others to reinvigorate international diplomacy on Syria via the United Nations process under Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for free and fair elections in Syria to transition to a new government.” The author points out, however, that "Trump also permanently canceled $230 million of stabilization assistance already appropriated for Syria's northeast, the region struggling to recover from Islamic State rule where approximately 2,200 U.S. troops are deployed. … Trump's policy is predicated on the notion that Russia is interested in the U.N. process and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has an incentive to cooperate. There is, however, little evidence to support either assumption. … Putin is now working with Iran and Turkey in a separate diplomatic process based in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Assad has less reason than ever to cede power. The Trump administration has secretly endorsed a deal with Russia and Israel that seeks to diminish Iranian influence in Syria, but even the Russians admit they don't have the power to enforce it. What's more,” Rogin writes, "Assad and Russia are beginning a fresh assault on Syrian civilians in Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands have fled previous rounds of fighting. To think Assad and Putin are going to deal away their power for promised reconstruction money from the international community anytime soon is pure fantasy."
“The Untold Story of NotPetya, the Most Devastating Cyberattack in History,” Andy Greenberg, Wired, 08.22.18: The author, a senior writer for the magazine, offers an excerpt from his forthcoming book “Sandworm” in which he delves “into the experience of one corporate goliath brought to its knees by Russia’s worm [a cyberattack initially aimed at Ukraine]: Maersk, whose malware fiasco uniquely demonstrates the danger that cyberwar now poses to the infrastructure of the modern world. … But the story of NotPetya isn’t truly about Maersk, or even about Ukraine. It’s the story of a nation-state’s weapon of war released in a medium where national borders have no meaning, and where collateral damage travels via a cruel and unexpected logic: Where an attack aimed at Ukraine strikes Maersk, and an attack on Maersk strikes everywhere at once. … The release of NotPetya was an act of cyberwar by almost any definition—one that was likely more explosive than even its creators intended. Within hours of its first appearance, the worm raced beyond Ukraine and out to countless machines around the world, from hospitals in Pennsylvania to a chocolate factory in Tasmania. It crippled multinational companies including Maersk, pharmaceutical giant Merck, FedEx’s European subsidiary TNT Express, French construction company Saint-Gobain, food producer Mondelēz, and manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser. In each case, it inflicted nine-figure costs. It even spread back to Russia, striking the state oil company Rosneft. … The result was more than $10 billion in total damages, according to a White House assessment confirmed to WIRED by former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, who at the time of the attack was President Trump’s most senior cybersecurity-focused official. Bossert and U.S. intelligence agencies also confirmed in February that Russia’s military—the prime suspect in any cyberwar attack targeting Ukraine—was responsible for launching the malicious code. (The Russian foreign ministry declined to answer repeated requests for comment.) … ‘While there was no loss of life, it was the equivalent of using a nuclear bomb to achieve a small tactical victory,’ Bossert says. ‘That’s a degree of recklessness we can’t tolerate on the world stage.’”
See also “Elections interference” section below.
“Twin Convictions Are a Stunning Rebuke of Trump,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 08.22.18: The newspaper’s editorial board writes that, on Aug. 21, “the president of the United States was credibly accused in federal court of directing one of his subordinates to commit a federal crime. The effect of their alleged conspiracy against campaign finance laws was to defraud American voters, who were prevented from learning potentially relevant information ahead of Election Day 2016. This admission came from President Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen… Cohen's plea in New York City came within minutes of a jury in a federal courthouse in Alexandria announcing the conviction of Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's former campaign chairman… Mueller continues to demonstrate with quiet professionalism and steady results that his investigation is anything but the ‘witch hunt’ of Mr. Trump's insult-mongering. … These revelations of guilt come on top of those of others who spent time in Mr. Trump's orbit, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted in a December plea deal that he lied to the FBI about his contact with Russian officials. … Congress must open investigations into Mr. Trump's role in the crime Mr. Cohen has admitted to. … [L]egislators cannot in good conscience ignore an alleged co-conspirator in the White House.”
“Dershowitz Says Federal Probe in New York, Not Mueller, Is ‘Greatest Threat’ to Trump,” Felicia Sonmez, The Washington Post, 08.26.18: The author, a reporter for the newspaper, describes comments made by retired Harvard Law School professor and informal Trump advisor Alan Dershowitz who said in a television appearance Aug. 26 that “President Trump should be more worried about federal prosecutors in New York than about the Russia probe” led by Robert Mueller… ‘I think he has constitutional defenses to the investigation being conducted by Mueller,’ Dershowitz said. ‘But there are no constitutional defenses to what the Southern District is investigating. So, I think the Southern District is the greatest threat.’ … The president’s legal quandary in New York … continues to deepen after prosecutors there granted immunity last week to Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer for the Trump Organization; and to David Pecker, a longtime Trump ally who is the executive of the National Enquirer magazine’s parent company.” Dershowitz argued that the latest revelations about hush money to women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs were unlikely to cause legal problems for the president, as reporting such payments is the responsibility of the campaign treasurer, not the candidate. “He also offered four broader points of advice for Trump. ‘Look, my advice to the president—I never gave it to him privately because I’m not his lawyer, but on television—is: Don’t fire, don’t pardon, don’t tweet and don’t testify. And if he listened to those four things, he’d be in less trouble than he is today,’ Dershowitz said.”
“Putin Hates You? Then Put Less Data Online,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 08.21.18: The author, a Russia-watching columnist for the news agency, writes that “Microsoft Corp.’s announcement that it has taken down a number of fake domains set up by the same cyber-espionage group that allegedly hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 shows Russia’s interest in U.S. politics isn’t ebbing. More importantly, it highlights that the methods these malicious actors have been using since well before the 2016 U.S. election can still be effective. … If there’s anything more naive than entering your email password into a phishing website, it’s believing that spies, Russian and otherwise, will stop hacking into U.S. political operators’ and think-tankers’ computers just because of a hullabaloo about an attack on American democracy, an indictment or two and a threat of economic sanctions. Knowing what the adversary is thinking and planning will still be important no matter how many times spies get caught and what potential repercussions follow, short of nuclear war. … Russian intelligence’s interest won’t wane after this year’s midterm campaign is over; the line between intelligence-gathering and election meddling through the release of compromising information is thin.” The cyber protections on offer, Bershidsky argues, will not “thwart the occasional click on a malicious link, much less a zero-day attack. What will is a technique used by Emmanuel Macron’s campaign during the 2017 French presidential election: his team simply refrained from putting sensitive information on email or online. Good old paper-based and oral communication works fine and requires much more effort to spy on. When Macron’s campaign was, inevitably, hacked, the thieves didn’t find anything politically useful or important about Macron or his team. For those the Russian regime considers hostile, a little old-fashioned paperwork will be key to maintaining privacy.”
Energy exports from CIS:
“Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Is Against Europe’s Interests. Brussels Should Block a Project That Undermines EU Energy Policy,” Financial Times editorial, 08.21.18: The editorial argues that “the $21 billion pipeline aims to carry more Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea direct to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. But it makes no economic or, from the EU’s standpoint, strategic sense. It will not transport additional gas, but merely provide an alternative to the trans-Ukraine pipeline, which is only running at 50 percent capacity. … Russia’s real motive for Nord Stream 2,” the editorial claims, “seems to be precisely to deprive Ukraine of its transit role. While Kiev has jettisoned many commercial links with Moscow as it re-orientates itself towards the west, there is no contradiction in trying to retain the revenues—and leverage—that transporting Russian gas provide. Ukrainian officials note that possible damage to the artery carrying Moscow’s biggest export earner was a disincentive for Russia to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine after it occupied Crimea and eastern regions in 2014. It still is. … [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s own embrace of Nord Stream 2 is lukewarm, and cooling. But it undermines her vital and principled role in cajoling the EU to impose sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The project contradicts the EU’s strategy of diversifying gas sources and reducing reliance on Russia, and the EU’s Third Energy Package, which aims to create a single energy market. Berlin should not allow itself to be used by Moscow in this way. The mechanics of Germany’s governing coalition may give Ms. Merkel little choice but to support the project. If so, the onus falls on EU authorities to find a way to block the project, as inconsistent with everything that EU energy policy seeks to achieve.” The editorial is followed by a response from Nord Stream 2’s CFO, who argues that Europe’s interest is secure, sustainable and affordable energy.
See also “Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors” section below.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
“Too Big to Sanction? U.S. Struggles with Punishing Large Russian Businesses,” Jeanne Whalen and John Hudson, The Washington Post, 08.26.18: The authors, reporters for the newspaper, write that tough sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his companies in April “caused havoc far beyond Russia. Global aluminum prices spiked, battering U.S. and European companies that use the metal. After an outcry from manufacturers and foreign governments, Treasury softened its stance, giving companies more time to end dealings with the aluminum producer, Rusal, and suggesting it could lift sanctions on the company if Deripaska cedes control. The episode,” the authors write, “is a cautionary tale as the United States readies more sanctions against Russia, including some beginning Monday [Aug. 27] that will affect U.S. technology exports, and some under consideration in Congress that could prove painful for European oil and gas companies. Compared with other countries that have been under U.S. sanctions … Russia plays a bigger role in global commerce, giving the sanctions more potential to sting—both their intended targets and unintended bystanders in the United States and Europe, economists and trade experts say. … After an initial ban on some U.S. technology exports to Russia [beginning this week], a second stage of the sanctions could follow later this year with penalties including a ban on Russian airlines landing in the United States. Russian lawmakers say the measures could prompt Moscow to halt exports of its RD-180 rocket engines, which the United States uses to launch government satellites. Russian state television said Moscow could also retaliate by charging U.S. airlines more to traverse Russian airspace en route to Asia.” New energy-related sanctions under consideration by Congress “could prove particularly harmful to European companies,” banning them “from investing in crude-oil infrastructure inside Russia, or in large energy projects outside Russia if they involve a Russian state-controlled company” and likely complicating investments in Nord Stream 2. “One former Treasury official said the tumultuous rollout of the Rusal sanctions showed a lack of coordination with U.S. allies and ignorance about the global metals market. ‘One lesson we should draw from this is that while folks at Treasury have a pretty good sense of how their sanctions on financial products will play out, they don’t have the same expertise and knowledge of nonfinancial commercial sectors,’ said Liz Rosenberg, who handled sanctions policy during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. … U.S. allies, including Germany, Ireland, France and Britain, warned the State Department that the move was disrupting global markets and hurting European factories that relied on Rusal, diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations. … Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, has extended the grace period for companies to wind down dealings with Rusal until Oct. 23, giving both sides until then to reach a deal.”
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“No, the U.S. Can't Bring Russia to Its Knees. Russia’s economy continues to grow, despite the fallback of sanctions,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 08.24.18: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes that “[d]uring a Senate Banking Committee hearing this week, a telling exchange took place between Republican Senator John Kennedy and the Trump administration’s senior sanctions officials. Kennedy demanded to know what they would do if the president ordered them to bring the Russian economy ‘to its knees.’ They wouldn’t give a straight answer, saying instead that the ramifications of such a goal would need to be assessed and that current sanctions were already aggressive. Irritated, Kennedy insisted: ‘But the economy hasn’t been brought to its knees!’ … Russia’s unapologetic stance, and the absence of any steps by Putin that could be interpreted as a peace offering, show that the Kremlin isn’t prepared to give any ground to get the U.S. to step back. That creates the temptation in Washington to make such pressure overwhelming. Even if the Trump administration doesn’t want to go there, many legislators do. … In the most extreme case, Washington could impose the same kind of embargo as it did on Iran. That would make it impossible for any company with ties to the U.S. to have any dealings with Russia. It could cut off all Russia’s banks from the dollar-based financial system and punish buyers of the country’s oil and gas. Not even the most hawkish are willing to consider the oil and gas part of this option. Russia is the biggest natural gas exporter in the world and produces about three times as much crude oil as Iran. Removing it from the market would unleash a global energy crisis. Sanctioning all $486 billion of Russia’s foreign debt would also roil markets and cause deep losses to investors—including ones based in the U.S. … As the U.S. begins to consider an all-out economic war, the two strategic questions it needs to answer are: what it is willing to pay to extract any concessions from the Putin government at all, and how long it is prepared to wait. Macroeconomically, Russia, with unemployment at a record low, modest inflation and $400 billion of international reserves, is unlikely to collapse before the U.S. unleashes a global energy or debt crisis that could prompt its allies to desert it. If less than maximum pain is applied, Russia could manage for years with relatively low growth. That is the basis for Putin’s calculations. It bodes badly for the current direction of U.S. policy. If Washington inflicts as much pain as it can—and nothing changes—it will be a painful failure for the superpower.”
“Sanctions on Russia Are Working: Why It’s Important to Keep Up the Pressure,” Nigel Gould-Davies, Foreign Affairs, 08.22.18: The author, a lecturer in international relations at Mahidol University and an associate fellow at Chatham House, writes: “Russian sanctions have proved more effective, more quickly, than their advocates expected. … [T]hey were designed … to deter Russia from escalating military aggression … to reaffirm international norms and condemn their violation; and … to encourage Russia to reach a political settlement [in Ukraine]… Judged against those goals, sanctions have largely worked. … Sanctions have failed only in their most ambitious goal, to nudge Russia toward fulfillment of the Minsk agreements. … By design, their impact will intensify. In particular, measures that deprive the energy sector of foreign technology and finance will bite more deeply the longer they are applied. … The newest sanctions are the most potent. … [They are] set to disrupt the Russian elite’s ability to make money in Russia and send it abroad for safekeeping. … If a critical mass of oligarchs feels its core interests are harmed by Western responses to the Kremlin’s behavior, it may begin to view Putin in a different light. … [A]s the ‘2024 question’ looms … tensions between power and money could create an important new force for change… Failing to match new outrages with new sanctions would undermine perceptions of Western resolve. Readiness to expand sanctions is also what makes them effective deterrents. … Russia has struggled to find new ways to evade sanctions. If anything, its efforts to adapt have created new problems. … In the past decade, Russia has carried out impressive military reform and waged effective information warfare. Its resurgent power has surprised and disconcerted the West. But Russia remains, as it has always been, economically weaker than its rivals. The West’s biggest advantage lies in economic power. Sanctions exploit that fact.”
II. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Journalists’ Deaths Highlight Russia’s Moves into Africa,” Max Seddon and Tom Wilson, Financial Times, 08.21.18: The authors, reporters for the newspaper, write about “[t]he team of Russian journalists who flew into the Central African Republic last month … on a mission to investigate Moscow’s growing role in one of the world’s poorest nations. Days after arriving, the three men were murdered by unknown assailants. Their local driver told CAR authorities that they were killed at a roadside checkpoint by turban-wearing men speaking Arabic or a similar language. While the killings are still being investigated, the case highlights Russia’s increasing presence in the CAR, a country that has become a staging point for Moscow’s latest geopolitical ambition—a push into Africa. … So far this year Russia has struck military co-operation deals with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea and Mozambique. Others, including Nigeria and Angola, have agreed to buy arms from Moscow or are working with Russia to exploit mineral deposits. … Russia’s involvement in the CAR began in December when a team of military instructors and 170 ‘civilian advisers’ arrived in Bangui to train the country’s army and presidential guard. Nine weapons shipments have arrived in the CAR capital since. … The landlocked CAR consistently ranks at the bottom of the UN’s human development index. Decades of fighting between different armed groups have stunted economic development, despite its rich natural resources. Large deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium have attracted foreign interest but instability and violence mean few investments have succeeded. The three murdered men, all freelance journalists, travelled to the CAR as part of a story for an investigative news outlet financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a one-time Russian oligarch turned fierce critic of the Kremlin. The publication says the reporters’ aim was to visit a gold mine in a rebel-held area they believed was operated by a company owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, a prominent Russian businessman … [who] was indicted in the U.S. this year for allegedly running an online ‘troll farm’ that aims to sway voters in U.S. elections. He is also reported by independent Russian media to have links to Wagner, the main private military contractor for the Russian army. The Russian military confirmed earlier this year that it sent ‘civilian instructors’ to CAR. … [Evgeny] Korendyasov, the former ambassador [to a number of African countries], insisted Russia was being singled out for criticism because it was late to the party, when Moscow’s interests were no different to anyone else. ‘The French are very jealous of our presence in the CAR,’ he said. ‘Everyone wants resources in Africa.’”
- No significant commentary.
“Soldier, Patriot, Hero, Traitor? The Strange Saga of Nadiay Savchenko,” James Marson, Wall Street Journal, 08.24.18: The author, a correspondent for the newspaper, writes that the saga of Nadiya Savchenko—“a lawmaker, former soldier and hero of the country’s conflict with Russia” now accused of plotting a coup against Ukraine’s government—“shows how this troubled country, more than four years into a confrontation with Moscow, has become a political hall of mirrors, rife with suspicion, paranoia and uncertainty.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“What the New Status of the Caspian Will Change,” Arkady Dubnov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.21.18: The author, a political analyst and expert on Central Asia, notes that there has been effusive praise for the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed on Aug. 12 by the leaders of the five Caspian states (Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan): “Russian President Vladimir Putin called the event ‘epochal,’ while his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev said the convention was nothing short of a constitution for the Caspian. The 18-page convention, the result of 22 difficult years of negotiations, is, however, essentially a framework document that will still need to be fleshed out significantly with additional agreements. Only after that will it be possible to really talk about the partition of the Caspian… So what does it actually change? The main thing is that the conceptual approach to determining the Caspian’s status has changed. The decision to consider the Caspian Sea neither a sea nor a lake, in legal terms, is revolutionary.” It has allowed the parties to put off “the issue of definitively partitioning the bottom of the Caspian being … until a future time. This gives Iran, which has a short coastline, the right to haggle over its share… The five sides also rejected the idea of dividing the Caspian according to the equidistance principle, in which boundaries are determined by a median line that is equidistant from the other nations’ shores. This decision looks to have strengthened Baku’s position in its long-running dispute with Ashgabat” over ownership of “the oil deposits in the middle of the sea… Russia, in turn, has given up its veto right on the construction of the proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (formally it cites ecological considerations in opposing the underwater pipeline, which would circumvent Russia and take Turkmen gas directly to Europe). … [Now] Russia cannot interfere in the implementation of a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline passing through the Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan sectors. … Moscow’s readiness to give in to Ashgabat over the pipeline is linked to changes on the European gas market. If previously Moscow feared that Caspian gas could become competition for its own state gas giant Gazprom, now Turkmen supplies are more likely to compete with liquefied gas from the United States. For Russia, just as for Iran, gas issues have been relegated to second place, while the top priority is security. Both countries are trying above all to prevent the presence in the Caspian Sea of states from outside the region, especially any military presence. This chiefly concerns the United States, and no one is attempting to hide that. This position is enshrined in the convention, which gives Moscow and Tehran the right to express concern over plans by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to cooperate with Washington in allowing the United States to use their territory for the transit of nonmilitary cargo destined for American troops in Afghanistan. … Finally, the main point that made the convention on the legal status of the Caspian of great geopolitical importance for Russia is the enshrinement in it of the agreement to allow unrestricted military activity in the unpartitioned basin of the sea by the navies of each Caspian country.”
III. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“What Comes After Putin Could Be Trouble,” Mark Whitehouse, Bloomberg, 08.25.18: The author, an editorial writer for Bloomberg Opinion, interviews Olga Kryshtanovskaya, “a sociologist who has spent the last few decades focused on—and sometimes participating in—the Russian political elite. An early critic of the Putin regime, she later became an active member of the Kremlin-loyal United Russia party.” Now back in academia, “Kryshtanovskaya sees many dangers ahead, including the possibility of a new time of troubles as parts of the elite turn against Putin. As a result, she doesn’t expect him to relinquish power anytime soon. And whatever happens, she’s sure that elections will play little to no role.” Instead, Kryshtanovskaya predicts that each of the clans “widely understood” to be running Russia will offer its own candidates to be Putin’s successor when the time comes and “Putin will make the final choice.” Perhaps, Putin will also create a new position for himself to “remain legitimate and respectable, while maintaining a certain amount of power. … There’s already some evidence of this happening,” she says. “The president’s administration has created a new department for the State Council. It’s very strange—there aren’t any such departments for other government organs, such as the State Duma. But there it is.” Kryshtanovskaya also describes a generational shift within the Russian elite in which the “new people … appearing in government posts … [are] all controlled by the older patriarchs” who recruited them. “[G]radually,” she says, “their political interests will diverge from those of their patriarchs. They’ll want to move up the ladder of power. … As 2024 approaches, these different interests will lead to conflicts within the old ruling elite. If that coincides with rising dissatisfaction among the people—say, because they’re unhappy about pension reform or about the worsening economy—then we have a dangerous situation. The process could get out of control.” Kryshtanovskaya added that she believes Putin understands this and “it’s his main concern. So I think he will try to create a system that won’t allow his successor to act too freely, but also won’t allow the people to revolt while the successor is still weak. Putin needs to cede power gradually. … But then there’s another danger. If Putin doesn’t allow a successor to truly gain power, the system will still depend too much on him. This is unstable, as we saw with Brezhnev and Stalin. Long periods of rule tend to end in times of trouble.”
“Picturing a Post-Putin Russia,” John Lloyd, Reuters, 08.24.18: The author, a contributing editor at the Financial Times and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, argues that Donald Trump has a point “when he says that ‘getting along with Russia is a good thing.’ … Russia isn’t a country whose enmity to the West should be shrugged off. Rather than copy its aggressive attitudes, democratic countries should remain vigilant and tough on its egregious moves on Ukraine and its intimidation of the NATO members in the Baltic states. But they should also try harder to promote cultural links, open debates with Russians of all opinions, promote educational exchanges and give platforms to Russian commentators, intellectuals and politicians.” The recent decline in Putin’s popularity shows that he has not “exempted himself from the laws of public disillusionment. Even a controlled democracy like Russia’s leaves space for loyalists to defect… Putin remains firmly in control for now, but these trends show he may no longer be an unassailable figure… Putin may falter before his term ends in 2024, or he may finish his presidency amid plaudits at home and even some abroad. In either case, ‘Putinism’—in the form of a country largely hostile to the West—will prevail as any successor seeks to preserve Putin’s success in making Russia at least appear to be great again. The world’s democracies cannot have normal relations with a state as aggressive and potentially destabilizing as Russia. … At the same time, as former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul writes, American and other Western leaders ‘must say clearly that they do not want endless conflict with Russia.’ Since Russia without Putin will likely look and act much as it does with him, it will be a long haul.”
“Russians Get a Revisionist View of Soviet Union’s End,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 08.22.18: The columnist describes a new narrative from a former Russian vice president that paints Boris Yeltsin as a tool of the U.S. in thwarting the 1991 coup by hardliners that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union, but argues that the revisionist view is inaccurate: “Only 27 years after the failure of a coup meant to keep the Soviet Union alive, some of the people who helped crush the revolt are doing their best to blacken their own victory. … [N]ostalgia for the Soviet Union and Russia’s imperial past are now part of the official Kremlin ideology… Yet there have been few high-profile attempts to contradict the official narrative of the coup, laid out in Yeltsin’s 1994 book, “The Struggle for Russia.” Putin has never publicly criticized Yeltsin, who chose him as his successor. This year, however, Alexander Rutskoy, a highly decorated air force veteran and Yeltsin’s vice president in 1991, challenged key points of Yeltsin’s story.” In an interview, Rutskoy, who was next to Yeltsin throughout the coup, described the president’s behavior as a “three-day drinking binge with multiple attempts to escape to the American embassy.” … The former vice president says he prevented Yeltsin’s flight.” Yeltsin’s own story in his memoir was that his aides tried to take him to the embassy, but “he flatly refused: ‘People’s reaction, if they learned I was hiding in the U.S. embassy, would be unambiguous. It would be like emigration in miniature.’ This version is corroborated by Yeltsin’s chief bodyguard at the time, Alexander Korzhakov, who says he hustled Yeltsin to the limo. … But Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the Russian parliament at the time of the coup and [like Rutskoy] another anti-Yeltsin renegade in 1993, confirmed Rutskoy’s version, claiming it was he [Khasbulatov] who dissuaded Yeltsin from running to the Americans. … These details,” the author writes, “are suddenly relevant because Putin’s Russia is accused of interfering in U.S. political life. Many in Russia … believe the U.S. has no right to complain given its role in the end of the Soviet Union. In this narrative, Yeltsin was an American puppet, a traitor, and Gorbachev at best an American dupe. Evidence of U.S. support for Yeltsin during the 1991 coup has been reported before, but putting on the record that he was constantly on the verge of seeking U.S. asylum takes the narrative to a different level. … I witnessed the events of Aug. 1991 from outside the Moscow White House. I was among the thousands of people inspired by Yeltsin’s speech from the tank. I know there wasn’t an American plot. By reviling Yeltsin, Rutskoy—and current regime figures who mourn the Soviet Union—are, in effect, reviling those of us who defied a curfew and tanks on the streets to take part in a genuine revolution with real achievements, even though many of those have been erased since. … Narratives of foreign plots are usually no more than facile explanations for tectonic events. Countries don’t change unless their people want them to. Rutskoy appears to have forgotten that—but perhaps only because Russia has changed again, this time to fit his revisionist version of 27-year-old events.
Defense and aerospace:
“The International Army Games Are Decadent and Depraved,” Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, 08.24.18: The author, a London-based senior fellow with the Institute of International Affairs Prague, describes his attendance at a tank biathlon outside of Moscow—the showcase event of this year’s International Army Games—where, he writes, “Russia’s successful blending of sport, warfare, soft power, and spectacle is a high-octane form of public entertainment. But it’s also much more than that. It opens an important window into how the Kremlin sees its military force as its Swiss army knife, a tool for all occasions.” Since 2014, the games “have grown from 14 separate events involving teams from 17 countries to 28 and 32, respectively. While most of those attending could be considered usual suspects—BRICS partners such as China and India, Russian allies or customers such as Serbia and Venezuela—this year, Israel sent teams to compete in three events (the military rally, field medicine, and a field cook-off), and NATO member Greece even joined a single event. Although the Army Games are an annual fixture conducted not just at Alabino but in other Russian cities and beyond, including in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, China, Iran and Kazakhstan, it’s Moscow that bears primary responsibility for organizing, and paying for, the events. That raises the question of motive. … In part, it’s because the games are also an arms fair. … Right after the 2015 games, in which Nicaragua’s team crewed Russian-provided T-72 tanks, for example, Nicaragua opened negotiations that saw it agree to buy 50 for $80 million. There are also broader diplomatic goals at stake. … Russia has also made a point of inviting countries at odds with each other—Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and so on—to present itself as an independent international arbiter. Of course, the Army Games have hosted far more arms deals than peace deals—but as one Western diplomat told me, ‘Just getting all these teams here is a win.’ … Above all, they [the games] are a public relations opportunity at home for the Russian military. The event is an unashamed celebration of military life, values and hardware. Alabino is transformed into a military theme park for the entire family, as parents take proud photos of 7-year-olds holding AK-74s almost as tall as they are, girls chase each other around the latest self-propelled howitzers, and courting couples sport his-and-hers camouflage T-shirts and pilotka military caps.”
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant commentary.