Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 24-31, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • In Moscow last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun warned Russian officials that the U.S. response to Alexei Navalny’s suspected poisoning could be harsher than after the alleged election interference, according to an account from the Russian Foreign Ministry—though State Department accounts of the meeting do not mention the threat, writes Adam Taylor for The Washington Post. However, Nikolas K. Gvosdev argues that what we are most likely to see is policy deadlock. Navalny lying near death’s door in the Charite hospital, along with injured U.S. servicemen in Syria and Russian election involvement makes it impossible for any U.S. political figure to talk about the need for a new effort to engage Russia. At the same time, Gvosdev writes, none of these irritants rise to the level of existential threats for the U.S. or key European partners, certainly not worth the risk of a major rupture.
  • The version of events circulating that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered “a solution to the Navalny problem” looks doubtful, writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Tatiana Stanovaya, as Navalny doesn’t fall into the category of traitor, unlike fellow poisoning victims Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal. Additionally, she writes, amateur sleuths suspect that people who might volunteer to assist the regime might be behind the poisoning. The formation of such a “protection services” market is a dangerous trend, Stanovaya argues, as it means that structures close to the authorities believe that the regime is no longer capable of dealing with threats itself.
  • On Aug. 27, Putin announced that Russia has already organized a reserve police force to assist Lukashenko if necessary. He should reconsider this, writes Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution. The Russian government could choose to side with the Belarusian people, in which case, Russia would likely gain a stable Belarus as a neighbor, Pifer writes, while a violent and prolonged crackdown in Belarus supported by the Kremlin would lead to an increasingly radicalized Belarusian population that views Russia as thwarting its desire for a greater political voice. To Moscow’s disadvantage, Pifer argues, this might bring geopolitical factors into play that are currently absent from the debate in Belarusian society
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee’s fifth report reveals that Russia mounted a classic and multifaceted human intelligence operation against the Trump campaign, write former CIA officials Michael Morell and Marc Polymeropoulos, in which the targeted Americans made it easy for the Russians. According to the Senate report and a New York Times analysis, Trump and 18 of his associates had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries. That is an extraordinary number, write Morell and Polymeropoulos, for an intelligence operation against a “hard target,” in this case, the United States.
  • Russia’s role in Libya’s war has been heavily mythologized, writes Kommersant’s Marianna Belenkaya.  But Russia has no clear idea of its interests in Libya and what the country is good for beyond a demonstration of the influence Moscow has gained by intervening militarily in Syria.

NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Sept. 8, instead of Monday, Sept. 7, because of the U.S. Labor Day holiday.


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“North Korea Doesn’t Trust China to Protect It,” Monet Stokes, Foreign Policy, 08.25.20: The author, a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Tsinghua University, writes:

  • “Despite sanctions and isolation, North Korea has been surprisingly successful at leveraging its nuclear weapons for domestic and international political aims. In the 1990s, North Korea leveraged its nuclear weapons program to obtain food, energy, and economic aid from the United States, South Korea, Japan and China.”
  • “Domestically, nuclear weapons are a legitimizing and stabilizing force for the Kim regime. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the military arm of the North Korean government and one of its most powerful institutions. North Korea’s songun (‘military-first’) policy was implemented to strengthen national resolve and ensure North Korea could contend with its military adversaries.”
  • “The successful development of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong Un is the culmination of Kim Jong Il’s songun policy. This legitimizes the Kim regime by showing domestic political players, such as the KPA, the results of long-term national sacrifices. North Korea doesn’t just want to be safe. It wants to be safe on its own terms—and it will never accept swapping the guaranteed clout of its own nuclear weapons for the uncertain shelter of a Chinese offer.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

“The Revolutionary Guards Are Poised to Take Over Iran,” Ali Reza Eshraghi and Amir Hossein Mahdavi, Foreign Affairs, 08.27.20: The authors, project director for the Middle East/North Africa division of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and a PhD student in political science at the University of Connecticut, write:

  • “A new saying is making the rounds in Iran: power is being sucked away from heads to toes, which is to say, from men who wear turbans to men who wear boots. Iran’s new parliament furnishes the most recent evidence. Its speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, is a former brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. … Many in Iran and in the United States have long foreseen an IRGC takeover of the Iranian government; the next step toward that outcome would be for a candidate affiliated with the IRGC to be elected president in 2021.”
  • “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a bifurcated state, with elected institutions running the daily affairs of state in the shadow of the more powerful office of the supreme leader, to which security organizations, including the IRGC, ultimately answer.”
  • “That Iran will soon have a military-run government is not a foregone conclusion, but it seems increasingly to be the most likely. Iranians are frustrated with partisan tensions and compounding crises. U.S. sanctions have drained the country’s economic lifeblood … Wounded pride and resentment that Iranians cannot enjoy the international prestige they deserve is giving rise to a novel form of nationalism.”
  • “President Hassan Rouhani, unable to deliver on either his domestic or foreign policy promises, has apparently thrown in the towel, as his recent management of the pandemic indicates. … By comparison, the IRGC holds a strong hand that is growing only stronger. But the very nature of its advantages may militate against its becoming the custodian of the state.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Are We Deliberately Trying To Provoke A Military Crisis With Russia?” Ted Galen Carpenter, The American Conservative, 08.28.20: The author, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, writes:

  • “A dangerous vehicle collision between U.S and Russian soldiers in Northeastern Syria on Aug. 24 highlights the fragility of the relationship and the broader test of wills between the two major powers. According to White House reports and a Russian video … it appeared that as the two sides were racing down a highway in armored vehicles, the Russians sideswiped the Americans, leaving four U.S. soldiers injured. It is but the latest clash as both sides continue their patrols in the volatile area. But it speaks of bigger problems with U.S. provocations on Russia’s backdoor in Eastern Europe.”
  • “A sober examination of U.S. policy toward Russia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union leads to two possible conclusions. One is that U.S. leaders, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have been utterly tone-deaf to how Washington’s actions are perceived in Moscow. The other possibility is that those leaders adopted a policy of maximum jingoistic swagger intended to intimidate Russia, even if it meant obliterating a constructive bilateral relationship and eventually risking a dangerous showdown. Washington’s latest military moves, especially in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, are stoking alarming tensions.”
  • “The growing number of such incidents is a manifestation of the surging U.S. military presence along Russia’s border, especially in the Black Sea. They are taking place on Russia’s doorstep, thousands of miles away from the American homeland. Americans should consider how the United States would react if Russia decided to establish a major naval and air presence in the Gulf of Mexico, operating out of bases in such allied countries as Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”
  • “The undeniable reality is that the United States and its NATO allies are crowding Russia; Russia is not crowding the United States. Washington’s bumptious policies already have wrecked a once-promising bilateral relationship and created a needless new cold war with Moscow. If more prudent U.S. policies are not adopted soon, that cold war might well turn hot.”

“The Pentagon Is Prepared for China,” Mark Esper, Wall Street Journal, 08.24.20: The author, U.S. Secretary of Defense, writes:

  • “The PLA is not a military that serves the nation, let alone a constitution, as the U.S. armed forces do. The PLA belongs to—and serves—a political entity, the Chinese Communist Party. … PLA modernization is a trend the world must study and prepare for—much like the U.S. and the West studied and addressed the Soviet armed forces in the 20th century.”
  • “First and foremost, long-term competition with China demands that we have a force that is able to compete, deter and win across all domains: air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.”
  • “Second, expanding and strengthening our network of allies and partners is also vital to this effort, as this provides an asymmetric advantage that our competitors cannot match.”
  • “Third, because creating broader networks of capable, like-minded partners is core to our strategy to disrupt the Chinese Communist Party's malign influence, the Pentagon continues to build the capacity of our partners globally.”
  • “Nations valuing freedom, human rights and the rule of law must stand together to counter the coercive role of the PLA in the Chinese Communist Party's aggressive attempts to undermine the sovereignty of nations.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Europe’s tense standoffs with Turkey and Russia,” Ishaan Tharoor, The Washington Post, 08.28.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “On Europe’s periphery, tensions involving an array of competing countries are rising. The brewing crisis in Belarus has sparked fears of an armed Russian intervention. And a standoff in the eastern Mediterranean is pitting Turkey against Greece, Cyprus and France. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday [Aug. 27] that Russian forces were ready to enter neighboring Belarus ‘if necessary,’ apparently following a request from embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.”
  • “E.U. governments want a national dialogue between Lukashenko and the opposition, but both the Belarusian leader and Putin have dismissed these calls as outside interference from the meddling West. … It’s been a busy week abroad for the Kremlin. Russian and U.S. forces were involved in an awkward armored-vehicle skirmish in Syria. And in Germany, doctors concluded that leading Russian dissident Alexei Navalny … had been poisoned.”
  • “Beyond the politicking, sabers are rattling. This week, Sweden stepped up its defense operations in the Baltic Sea in reaction to a perceived uptick in Russian military maneuvers. Swedish television channels broadcast footage of armored vehicles rolling past vacationers on the island of Gotland. Sweden is not a member of NATO; its officials warned of a ‘deteriorating security situation’ as Russian jets and vessels push further afield. The last time it raised its military preparedness to this level was in reaction to the failed 1991 coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.”
  • “‘Even the smallest spark can lead to a catastrophe,” Maas, the German foreign minister, said this week. ‘Nobody has an interest in that, nor in a military confrontation among NATO partners and neighbors.’”

Impact of the pandemics:

"Beware leaders’ rush to approve vaccines," Editorial Board, Financial Times, 08.25.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “When Vladimir Putin said this month that Russia had become the first country to grant regulatory approval for a vaccine to prevent coronavirus, the announcement was met with caution from scientists and officials. Now Donald Trump is attempting to put America, if not first, at least a close second in fast-tracking a vaccine for widespread public use.”
  • “His administration is mooting whether normal standards should be bypassed with a suggestion that U.S. regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, could rubber stamp a candidate being developed in the U.K. ahead of presidential elections in early November. If other candidates now in extensive trials, such as those from Moderna and Pfizer, produce results during October, they might also be candidates for so-called ‘emergency use authorization.’”
  • “There are grounds to distinguish Washington’s efforts from those of Moscow. AstraZeneca and Oxford university, the partnership behind the potential vaccine in question, will make the outcomes of each stage of its trials public and approval would be based on a study of 10,000 volunteers.”
  • “However, while around a quarter of Americans have vowed never to submit to immunization, a larger group of just under 35 per cent of the population say they are unsure whether they would or not. Much of this cohort’s concerns stem from the warp speed at which pharmaceutical companies and governments have pledged to deliver a vaccine.”
  • “Governments, including those in Washington and Moscow, have been laudable in funding vaccine development. … It would be irresponsible, though, for the U.S. president to prioritize the political benefit of an early vaccine approval over the nation’s health. The world is desperate for a cure for COVID-19—but Mr. Trump and others must focus less on rushing out possible treatments and more on winning over skeptical citizens.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“U.S. Troops Injured in Altercation with Russian Forces: What It Means for the War in Syria,” Robert E. Hamilton, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 08.27.20: The author, an associate professor of Eurasian studies at the U.S. Army War College, writes:

  • “Five years on from its intervention in Syria, Russia presents a different and more formidable set of challenges for the West. Western policymakers will need to get used to the idea that Russia is intent on establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the geopolitical region that extends from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean.”
  • “Whether Russia has ‘won’ in Syria is an open question. It certainly achieved its immediate goal of preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, but it has yet to restore the government’s sovereignty over large parts of the country and seems to have no idea how to do so. The two states standing in Moscow’s way here are the United States, which controls the Al Tanf region and much of Syria north and east of the Euphrates, and Turkey, which has forces deployed in Idlib protecting its allies there.”
  • “Key Takeaways: Russia has not won conclusively in Syria, but may not need to in order to achieve its objectives. Russia hopes to make Syria the centerpiece of its regional presence, but seeks to avoid engaging in reconstruction or nation-building there. Russian strategy has been minimalist in the means deployed and flexible in the ways it used those means; it pursued multiple vectors and reinforced those that had success.”
  • “Russia is risk-tolerant, unconcerned about reputational damage, and sees all agreements in instrumental terms, violating them as soon as it is convenient. Syria was transformational for the Russian armed forces, but the transformation was uneven, with the Aerospace Forces the most transformed, the Army partially transformed, and the Navy least transformed. The institutionalization of the lessons of Syria may change the way in which Russia approaches warfare, from seeing each war as an isolated case to forming a doctrinal template for certain types of warfare.”

Cyber security:

“How to Compete in Cyberspace. Cyber Command’s New Approach,” Paul M. Nakasone and Michael Sulmeyer, Foreign Affairs, 08.25.20The authors, the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command and the Senior Adviser to the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, write:

  • “Russia uses cyberspace for espionage and theft and to disrupt U.S. infrastructure while attempting to erode confidence in the nation’s democratic processes. Iran undertakes online influence campaigns, espionage efforts and outright attacks against government and industrial sectors. North Korea flouts sanctions by hacking international financial networks and cryptocurrency exchanges … Violent extremist organizations have used the Internet to recruit terrorists, raise funds, direct violent attacks and disseminate gruesome propaganda.”
  • “Cyber Command implements this defend forward strategy through the doctrine of persistent engagement. The idea behind persistent engagement is that so much of the corrosive effects of cyber attacks against the United States occur below the threshold of traditional armed conflict. Yet much of Cyber Command’s combat power had been devoted toward preparations in the event of future contingencies. We realized that Cyber Command needs to do more than prepare for a crisis in the future; it must compete with adversaries today.”
  • “We are confident that this more proactive approach enables Cyber Command to conduct operations that impose costs while responsibly managing escalation. In addition, inaction poses its own risks.”
  • “The National Security Agency is a critical Cyber Command partner. … The power of this partnership can be seen in how Cyber Command and the NSA worked together to protect against meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. Experts from both organizations formed the Russia Small Group (RSG), a task force created to ensure that democratic processes were executed unfettered by Russian activity.”
  • “To compete, U.S. cyber forces should continue to be more proactive and implement the strategy to contest our adversaries’ malicious activity online. But our actions must also remain consistent with the law of armed conflict and other important international norms.”

Elections interference:

“The Russians infiltrated Trump’s 2016 campaign. We may never know exactly what happened,” Michael Morell and Marc Polymeropoulos, The Washington Post, 08.26.20: The authors, former CIA officials, write:

  • “As we … read the report [the Senate Intelligence Committee’s fifth, and last, report in its series on the Russian attack against our democracy four years ago] five points occurred to us. First, this report, like the four before it, is bipartisan. In this age, it is reassuring and even encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats work together on an issue that so directly threatens our national security.”
  • “Second, this report makes clear that Putin’s objectives in interfering in 2016 were to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and if she won, as president; help Donald Trump’s candidacy; and weaken our democracy. This is now not only the conclusion of the full Senate committee but also of the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation. While we will never know to what extent Russia actually swung votes in Trump’s favor, we can put to rest forever that Putin’s motivation was to do just that.”
  • “Third, it is clear … that Russia mounted a classic and multifaceted human intelligence operation against the Trump campaign. … Fourth, the targeted Americans made it easy for the Russians. … According to the Senate report and a New York Times analysis, Trump and 18 of his associates had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries. That is an extraordinary number for an intelligence operation against a ‘hard target,’ in this case, the United States.”
  • “Fifth, we only know what we know. Counterintelligence investigators do not have access to the other side; one can’t subpoena documents from the Russian government or interview Russian intelligence officers. Historically, we’ve learned the full truth in counterintelligence cases only when someone from the other side tells us.”

“The Role of Russian Espionage in Re-Shaping the West,” book review by Arthur Martirosyan of Luke Harding’s “Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West,” Russia Matters, 08.26.20: The author, a senior consultant with CMPartners, writes:

  • “The primary goal of Harding’s book is to highlight the obvious to the nearly 50 percent of Britons, according to a recent poll, who believe that—Russia messed with British democracy, including Brexit, the Scottish referendum and the general elections. But the ISC report, just as Robert Mueller’s investigative report, which Harding called a ‘historical miss,’ came as a disappointment to Harding after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his response had refused to investigate the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 EU referendum for the lack of evidence.”
  • “‘Shadow State’ is one of those books that can be extolled by one political camp and dismissed as a ‘fake’ conspiracy theory by another. Harding tends to the hypothesis that Putin controls both U.S. President Donald Trump and Johnson as stooges through money and kompromat. This hypothesis has generated hype and a significant body of circumstantial evidence, and Harding scrupulously presents every bit of it.”
  • “To give Harding credit, he poses some good questions, and one of them is almost invariably avoided in this discourse. If it is true that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s espionage was so successful, what does it say about the intelligence communities of the U.K. and U.S.? … Still, according to Harding, out of the failures of the intelligence community and politicians sprung a bright, rising star of open-source reporting: Bellingcat.”
  • “It will take time, but above all, political re-configurations in the U.S. and U.K. allowing new investigations to provide proof and refutations, to establish not the intent—which very few argue even in Russia—not the interference—which has been established—but the impact on political processes. This only means that the book will be in high demand for the foreseeable future especially among readers who are seeking data to confirm their conclusion that Putin somehow controls Trump and Johnson.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Navalny Case Won’t Change Russia’s Relations With the West,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 08.27.20: The author, a professor at the Naval War College, writes:

  • “German chancellor Angela Merkel has provided [Alexei] Navalny with state protection from the Federal Criminal Police Office and called on the Russian government and on Vladimir Putin himself to initiate a full and comprehensive investigation into Navalny’s condition, and she has been echoed by other European leaders and the Trump administration.”
  • “So will August 2020 mark a major break in relations between Russia and the West? On the one hand, the Navalny case, along with these other developments, might mark the end of any final attempts to reach accommodations with the Putin administration. Here, an important benchmark will be whether the Navalny incident shifts the German position on the Nordstream-2 pipeline.”
  • “On the other hand, particularly if Navalny recovers and appears to suffer no major injury, will the call for an investigation become the excuse for not taking action and finding ways to prevent any sanctions through meticulous application of legal principles about culpability and standards of evidence? Will there be much of a reaction at all?”
  • “What we are most likely to see is policy deadlock. Navalny lying near death’s door in the Charite hospital, along with injured U.S. servicemen and Russian election involvement makes it impossible for any U.S. political figure to talk about the need for a new effort to engage Russia. At the same time, none of these irritants rise to the level of existential threats for the U.S. or key European partners, certainly not worth the risk of a major rupture.”
  • “In the longer run, the events of 2020 seem to signal that Russia is both gearing up for an intensification of great power competition with the United States and that the Kremlin understands it has an Achilles heel in domestic politics. But it is also showing Moscow’s willingness to raise the costs—and stakes for the West.”

“Trump’s silence on Navalny’s alleged poisoning,” Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, 08.27.20: The author, a foreign affairs contributor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has drawn global condemnation. … But so far, the leader of the United States has not added his condemnation to the list. Asked about the case last Thursday [Aug. 20], President Trump said he would be ‘looking into it’ with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but offered no details. Since then: Crickets.”
  • “Trump’s silence is easy fuel for his critics, who have long said that he is too weak on Russian President Vladimir Putin after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. … It has also angered Russian opposition leaders who argue Putin acts with impunity. … After German doctors said Navalny was probably poisoned with a nerve agent this week, the U.S. did finally offer substantial official statements on Tuesday [Aug. 25]—albeit not from Trump. Pompeo said the United States was ‘deeply concerned’ about the case, while U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called for an ‘immediate, comprehensive and transparent investigation.’”
  • “There could be more to come. In Moscow this week, Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun warned Russian officials that the U.S. response could be harsher than after the alleged election interference, according to an account from the Russian Foreign Ministry—though State Department accounts of the meeting do not mention the threat.”
  • “The Navalny poisoning may be even easier for Trump to dismiss than the Skripal case: Even some seasoned and cynical Russia watchers have doubts that Putin had a direct role in it. Any investigation into the plot will take place on Russian soil, probably under the auspices of authorities loyal to the Kremlin.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Russia: who wanted Alexei Navalny dead?,” Max Seddon and Henry Foy, Financial Times, 08.28.20: The authors, Moscow correspondent and Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, write:

  • “On the flight … to Moscow, Mr. [Alexei] Navalny abruptly broke out in a sweat, became disoriented and collapsed in the plane’s bathroom … A week later, he remains in a coma after being evacuated to Berlin, where doctors said test results suggested he had been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, whose uses range from medicines and pesticides to nerve agents. The attack on Mr. Navalny—at least the sixth such attempt against a Russian dissident in the past five years—has provoked international condemnation on a scale not seen since the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal.”
  • “Although Mr. Navalny’s allies point the finger squarely at the Kremlin, the activist has built up a long list of powerful enemies. ‘It’s essentially an attempt to remove him as a threat. They consider this with a classic KGB mentality: ‘no man, no problem’,’ says Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister who advises Mr. Navalny. ‘[But] it’s a grave mistake by the Kremlin to think that without him the movement stops.’”
  • “Mr. Navalny’s visit to Siberia last week was an attempt to boost his new ‘smart voting’ campaign urging supporters to vote tactically against Mr. Putin’s United Russia party in September’s regional elections. … If the strategy is successful, Mr. Guriev [Sergei Guriev, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and former Kremlin adviser] says, Mr. Navalny could help bring to power politicians from within the Kremlin’s approved slate of spoiler parties who become magnets for discontent. … ‘He’s the only threat the ruling party is facing,’ Mr. Guriev says.”
  • “Despite Mr. Navalny’s long list of enemies, Russian officials claimed in the days following his poisoning that he was a greater threat to the Kremlin in a coma—following an attack that many would blame on the state—than alive and on YouTube. … As Moscow dragged its heels on a probe, Mr. Navalny’s supporters have relied on international pressure on the Kremlin. It was only on Wednesday [Aug. 26] … that the Kremlin finally called for a ‘thorough and objective investigation.’”
  • “Mr. Navalny’s team is soldiering on with the smart-voting campaign. … Friends say the poisoning will only harden Mr. Navalny’s resolve and lead him to reject Germany’s offer of asylum.”

“Poison Is the Crudest Way to Repress Dissent in Russia,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 08.25.20The author, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:

  • “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. This memorable verdict on Napoleon Bonaparte’s kidnapping and execution in 1804 of the Duc d’Enghien, a royal émigré, is supposed to have been coined by either the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand or the police chief Joseph Fouché. But were they right? To his dying day, in captivity on the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena, Napoleon defended the murder of the duke.”
  • “The suspected poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist, poses a similar question in a different form. The alleged attack on Mr. Navalny may prove to be a political miscalculation, should it fuel public discontent with President Vladimir Putin’s rule. However, unlike Napoleon, no one in the Kremlin accepts responsibility for the Navalny incident, so it is pointless to expect a confession that it was a mistake.”
  • “Murder is not the only, or even the most desirable, option at the disposal of a repressive system that wants to punish its opponents. For those in charge, and for the shadowy poisoners and thugs who may or may not have connections to state power, the essential point is to demonstrate that no critic of authority is safe, day or night, abroad or at home.”
  • “There is no law of history which states that abuses of power must backfire on the perpetrators. If he recovers in the German hospital to which he was flown on Saturday [Aug. 22], Mr. Navalny will know this better than anyone.”

“Navalny’s Poisoning Is the Act of a Sickly Regime,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.26.20: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “It may take months or even years to establish exactly what happened, but the attack on Navalny is in itself a grave symptom that points to the erosion of the security resources of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”
  • “The version of events circulating that Putin personally ordered ‘a solution to the Navalny problem’ looks doubtful. Sure, the Kremlin may consider Navalny an adventurist rather than a politician, but he doesn’t fall into the category of traitor, unlike fellow poisoning victims Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal.”
  • “Amateur sleuths have already divided Navalny’s possible poisoners into two groups. The first consists of the subjects of his investigations: people who were either seeking revenge or wanted to put a stop to his revelations. The second is people who might volunteer to assist the regime.”
  • “The formation of a ‘protection services’ market is a dangerous trend. It means that structures close to the authorities believe that the regime is no longer capable of dealing with threats itself. … Players on the informal market of pro-regime “protection services” are increasingly plying their trade on the turf of the state security services. Plus, the use of poisoning as a means of punishment shows clearly that the person who ordered the attack isn’t just close to power, but has access to tools that are primarily the preserve of the security services. The regime’s immune system is beginning to falter, and requires artificial intervention for it to maintain a stable state.
  • “Management of domestic politics in Russia is becoming increasingly competitive, with different clans fighting for the chance to stabilize and protect the regime. Amid this picture, the opposition is the easiest target. Taking part in politics outside of the artificial system managed by the Kremlin is becoming a health hazard, leaving Putin’s opponents few options other than emigration.”

“If Lukashenko Falls, Is Putin Next?” Amy Mackinnon, Foreign Policy, 08.24.20The author, a staff writer for the magazine, writes:

  • “The truth is that if angry citizens manage to overthrow Lukashenko, there’s still Vladimir Putin, an autocrat in his own right who has steadily eroded human rights and democratic norms in Russia and engineered constitutional changes that would effectively make him president for life. Could he be next?  Not so fast. Though the two men have certain things in common, it turns out that not all authoritarians are created equally.”
  • “Putin’s system of control is more sophisticated, a kabuki theater of democracy in which public sentiment is carefully monitored. … Unlike Lukashenko, Putin has gone to great lengths to avoid unseemly power grabs, even as he has managed to rule Russia for 20 years.”
  • “Russia has also perfected the art of disinformation, both at home and abroad. Slickly produced news shows on Russian state TV create an alternate reality in which Ukraine has been overrun by Nazis, gay people are a threat to children and Donald Trump is possibly the purveyor of the coronavirus pandemic. … For all of Putin’s centralized control, Russia continues to have competing power bases, including rival security services, oligarchs, regional elites and the powerful Orthodox church.”
  • “Still, Putin might be wise to see Lukashenko as a cautionary tale. Having fixed his term limit problem, the Russian leader is on track to match Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. Even as the spotlight has been on Belarus in the past weeks, the Kremlin has contended with its own persistent protests in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk. Eventually, Russians across the country could find themselves in agreement about the source of their problems.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“In Libya’s War, Russia Is Directionless—and Falling Behind,” Marianna Belenkaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.31.20: The author, a journalist at Kommersant, writes:

  • “On Aug. 21, the latest ceasefire in Libya’s long war between the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar took effect. The main force behind the new ceasefire was the United States, even though it was just a few months ago that Russia and Turkey appeared to be in control of the peace process. Washington’s successful mediation has led many to ask whether Moscow has lost the initiative in Libya and is at risk of squandering the gains it has made there in recent years.”
  • “Russia’s role in Libya’s war has been heavily mythologized. There is no argument that Russia’s experience in Syria has influenced its behavior in the Middle East, and much in Libya recalls Syria … As in Syria, Turkey has turned out to be a partner to Russia. In fact, since the start of the year, the Russo-Turkish agenda has become increasingly dominated by Libya.”
  • “If Turkey has entrenched itself in Libya through agreements with Tripoli, Russia’s presence would appear to boil down to Wagner, the mercenary outfit disavowed by the Kremlin. … But Russia has no clear idea of its interests in Libya and what the country is good for beyond a demonstration of the influence Moscow has gained by intervening militarily in Syria.”
  • “But what else can Russia achieve in Libya, especially given the United States’ determination to prevent Russia from expanding its political and military influence there? … For now, it remains unclear what Russia is up to in this struggle for oil and other resources, beyond helping its Mideast partners Cairo and Abu Dhabi get what they want in exchange for certain political and economic perks. However, the war—along with other conflicts in the region—is far from over.”

“Belgrade’s New Game: Scapegoating Russia And Courting Europe,” Vuk Vuksanovic, War on the Rocks, 08.28.20: The author, a Ph.D. researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics, writes:

  • “On July 7, 2020, Serbia experienced its most turbulent political unrest since the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Protesters across the country were upset by the government’s decision to reimpose a lockdown to contain the resurgence of COVID-19. Thousands of demonstrators descended on the capital, Belgrade, and other Serbian cities.”
  • “However, something rather unusual happened amid the upheaval: Pro-government tabloids accused pro-Russian, anti-E.U. right-wingers of organizing the protests. Since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, the Serbian government has nurtured its partnership with Russia to gain support on the Kosovo issue, build leverage with the West and win votes among pro-Russian parts of the Serbian electorate. Therefore, the Serbian media and the tabloids’ embrace of an anti-Russian narrative was mostly unimaginable.”
  • “While the editorial line in Serbian tabloids does not mean that Belgrade will soon sever ties with Moscow, it does show that the geopolitics of the Balkans are changing. Russia can no longer rely on the loyalty of the government in Serbia, which is now willing to scapegoat Russia to gain favor in the West.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.


“Is Putin about to make a costly mistake in Belarus?” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic Council, 08.27.20: The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “While Lukashenko, who has held power for 26 years, rails against Western interference, Western criticism focuses on democratic norms and a stolen election. There is no burning desire to pull Belarus into the West. Both the European Union and NATO have more than enough on their plates. … Likewise, the protests in Belarus are about democracy, not about a Westward geopolitical course.”
  • “The Russian government could choose to side with the Belarusian people. They could help ease the authoritarian president out of office and into a pleasant retirement in a dacha near Moscow … In that case, Russia would likely gain a stable Belarus as a neighbor … [However,] [t]he emergence of another pluralistic political system on Russia’s western border could give rise to greater questions from the Russian public as to why they cannot enjoy similar rights.”
  • “Backing Lukashenko would enable Russia to avoid such questions, but it could entail something significantly worse. A violent and prolonged crackdown supported by the Kremlin would lead to an increasingly radicalized Belarusian population that views Russia as thwarting its desire for a greater political voice. To Moscow’s disadvantage, this might bring geopolitical factors into play that are currently absent from the debate in Belarusian society.”
  • “On Aug. 27, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has already organized a reserve police force to assist Lukashenko if necessary. He should reconsider this. Over the past six years, Kremlin policies of intervention have been instrumental in pushing Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West. Does Moscow want to repeat this mistake with Belarus? Much like Donald Trump’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, Putin almost certainly hopes the protests in Belarus will just fade away. If they do not and the standoff deepens, Putin faces a hard choice. At present, he appears inclined to make the wrong decision, with potentially costly implications for Russia.”

“The Belarus protests erupted because of these 4 things,” Sam R. Bell and Svitlana Chernykh, The Washington Post, 08.25.20: The authors, a professor at Kansas State University and a senior lecturer at the Australian National University, write:

  • “What's happening in Belarus is not all that unusual. Analysts of election protests have shown claims of fraud and economic pain make post-election protest more likely. Our research findings also suggest human-rights violations, especially political imprisonment, increase the probability of post-election protests. … Many of the reasons are familiar—and we see these catalysts in Belarus this year.”
  • “Election fraud, for instance, often plays an important role in motivating post-election mobilization … This was the first election in Belarus since 2001 without election observers from OSCE … OSCE has raised concerns about the accuracy of the election results, while the European Union and the United States have issued statements of concern that the elections were ‘not free and fair.’”
  • “Another key indicator is poor economic health—research shows that pro-democracy protests are more likely when the economy is not performing well. Belarus experienced a recession in 2015-2016 and further declines in GDP growth last year, and the outlook worsened during the pandemic.”
  • “A third factor is the potential spread of post-election protests from country to country. A number of post-Soviet republics have experienced post-election protests in the past decade, including Ukraine.”
  • “Imprisoning citizens for political purposes … may galvanize protesters. In Belarus, Lukashenko arbitrarily imprisoned many political activists and opposition party leaders in the lead-up to the election. … The ongoing events in Belarus illustrate how both the election process itself, along with general economic and human rights conditions within a country before an election, can catalyze collective action against governments.”

“Economic Stagnation is at the Heart of the Belarus Protests,” Yerzhan Tokbolat, The Conversation, 08.26.20: The author, a lecturer in finance at Queen's University Belfast, writes:

  • “After watching more than 100 interviews with ordinary Belarusians on non-state TV channels over the course of the presidential campaign and closely following how the protest is unfolding, it is clear to me that a decade of economic stagnation is at the heart of the ongoing protests over Lukashenko’s re-election and that people have no hope that he will fix the problem.”
  • “Belarus was one of the most prosperous parts of the post-war Soviet Union and, after its collapse, it was the second most developed independent state in terms of GDP per capita. It is characterized by highly educated people and a well-developed industrial and agricultural base. But the failing economy is pushing more people to emigrate, depriving the country of many of its main assets.”
  • “But after a decade of the economy stagnating and further contracting due to coronavirus, people are fed up. This is why they are protesting. Even workers in large state-owned enterprises, traditionally the pillar of Lukashenko’s economic model, have heeded the opposition’s calls to strike. … With people queuing at currency exchange points and struggling to withdraw money from their accounts, the country is on the cusp of another currency crisis.”
  • “To prevent this, Lukashenko needs money. It will be challenging for him to obtain funds from the IMF, as he failed to implement the agreed economic reforms that came with borrowing in 2011. Loans from Russia or China will not lead to reforms but more dependence. If the current protest doesn’t succeed, anger at the country’s deep-seated economic issues will only grow even greater. It leaves Lukashenko’s government with little room for maneuver.”

“Belarus Protests: How Lukashenko Could Fall,” Tatsiana Kulakevich, The National Interest, 08.24.20The author, a lecturer and research fellow at USF Institute on Russia at the University of South Florida, writes:

  • “As a researcher on Eastern Europe born and raised in Belarus, I’ve been watching the president’s handling of this crisis closely. I find he made two major mistakes since the contested Aug. 9 vote—errors that may help explain how dictators fall.”
  • “Error 1: Hubris. Lukashenko has long gotten away with improbably high electoral margins. This time was different because of the grassroots activism that took place ahead of the presidential vote. When election results nonetheless showed an 80 percent win for Lukashenko, Belarusians poured into the streets to protest what they said was fraud. Tsikhanouskaya, who fled the country in fear for her life, has called for new elections.”
  • “Error 2: Counterproductive Violence. Lukashenko conceded nothing. Instead, he called in the riot police. Belarus has seen post-election crackdowns before, in 2006 and 2010. But this time the police repression was far more violent.”
  • “If Russia and other countries stay out of the fray, what happens next in Belarus will depend on whether protesters can sustain their pressure on Lukashenko. Social movements typically go through four stages of development: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline. The Belarusian opposition has reached the coalescence stage, meaning individuals participating in mass behavior have become aware of each other. Lukashenko’s opposition is starting to ‘bureaucratize.’ On Aug. 18, the opposition founded an entity called the Coordination Council of Belarus, to coordinate a peaceful transfer of power. Lukashenko declared it an attempt to seize power. Bureaucracy sounds boring. But it may decide whether Lukashenko stays or falls.”

“EU needs a tougher response to Belarus,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 08.31.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin has now threatened to intervene to prop up his Belarusian counterpart. Mr. Putin said he had assembled a ‘dedicated reserve of law enforcement officers’ at Mr. Lukashenko’s request but added that it would not be deployed ‘until the situation gets out of control.’”
  • “The attempt to asphyxiate Belarus’s opposition with the full backing of the Kremlin begs a stronger response from the West. … EU leaders, like Belarus’s opposition leaders, rightly insist they are seeking to uphold free and fair elections not to shift Minsk into a Western orbit. … The EU should impose without delay targeted sanctions against Belarus officials who helped to falsify the election or violently repress peaceful protesters. It should also prepare further sanctions on Russia should Moscow lend its forces to a crackdown. Sanctions may have failed to persuade the Kremlin to give back Crimea or end its support for separatism in eastern Ukraine but they probably deterred it from a bigger military escalation.”

“Why Russia Is Getting Ready to Invade Belarus,” John Herbst, The National Interest, 08.24.20The author, director of the Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, writes:

  • “If Lukashenko insists on staying in power and his own means are insufficient to ensure success, then Moscow will be faced with a difficult choice.”
  • “U.S. policy must consider all these nuances as it seeks to prevent bloodshed in Belarus and encourage a peaceful transfer of power from Lukashenko.  In this regard, the administration should support the efforts of EU Foreign Ministers to mediate a transition. The Administration and Congress are considering sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the crackdown. That makes sense and should be coordinated with similar EU sanctions that have been agreed in principle.”
  • “But none of this addresses the danger of a Kremlin intervention. The best card here is to outline sanctions the United States would impose on Russia were it to dispatch troops to Belarus. Such sanctions could be imposed under existing legislation and could target Russian sovereign debt issuance, or another Russian state bank. The United States could also increase restrictions on the export of dual-use, cyber or energy technology. The purpose is not to impose new sanctions but to use the threat of new sanctions to deter an invasion. But the United States has to be able to act on whatever threat it makes, so sanctions need to be strong enough to sting but not so strong that the United States would prefer not to pull the trigger. One way to do that would be to develop separate Belarus sanctions authorities by executive order rather than legislation due to time constraints.”
  • “The United States should be ready to act alone if the EU is not willing to do so. Using sanctions as a deterrence is smart.”

“Russia may not need to invade Belarus. It’s already there,” Hanna Liubakova, The Washington Post, 08.26.20: The author, an investigative journalist from Belarus, writes:

  • “[D]on’t expect Belarus to be a replay of events in Ukraine in 2014 … To be sure, the possibility that he [Putin] could yet dispatch his military into Belarus is not to be excluded. Yet there is another, less obvious scenario for achieving the same result—and signs suggest that it’s already underway.”
  • “Military intervention would be difficult to justify. … So the Kremlin has every incentive to act in a stealthier fashion. And in reality, Russian operatives have already started arriving—at Belarus state TV. The broadcaster’s regular employees went on strike from Aug. 14 to Aug. 19 to protest censorship and an election widely seen as fraudulent. … But over the past week sources in the company’s headquarters have reported an influx of Russian-speaking strangers who have taken the place of the strikers. Lukashenko admitted on Aug. 21 that he indeed invited Russian journalists to work at state television and in his presidential press pool.”
  • “The significance of these Russian media workers goes far beyond simply replacing Belarusian counterparts. The new arrivals are already spreading pro-Russian narratives and disinformation. … Even if Belarus is now far removed from the sort of intervention Moscow has used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian organizations in Belarus will most certainly promote either deeper integration and annexation, or, failing that, will try to divide and weaken the country.”
  • “Expect Russia to leverage its dominance in other realms as well. Belarus is already nearly totally dependent on Russia economically. The two countries have a joint air defense and external border control system. Russia has two military installations in Belarus.”
  • “Putin might eventually look for a more credible and agreeable partner replacing the weak ruler of a divided country. A hybrid approach—one that evades outright all-too-obvious military intervention—can work to great effect.”

“Europe needs a new plan for Belarus and Eastern Europe,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Financial Times, 08.30.20: The author, a former prime minister of Ukraine, writes:

  • “The civil uprising in Belarus has summoned a vast sense of solidarity from around the world. But in practical terms, what is urgently needed is a comprehensive new Western strategy towards Europe’s east and those nations unprotected by EU and NATO membership.”
  • “Unlike the West, Russia has a comprehensive vision of our region and its importance. Whether in Moldova, Ukraine or Belarus, Moscow seeks to establish effective control and create new bridgeheads there to help it expand its influence westwards. This is how Russian president Vladimir Putin envisages the path towards the recreation of the Soviet Union that he so desires.”
  • “There are no magic remedies that can properly cure this ‘Russian problem.’ But, as a realist, I believe there does exist a sequence of practical steps that can be taken. … Recent events in Belarus alone, and the chance that the country may fall under Russian influence indefinitely, requires action from the West and Ukraine. It is time to act, not to hesitate.”
  • “Most important, I urge the EU to treat the civil uprising in Belarus as an integral part of the European process and perspective. … In practice, this means giving Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine the clear signals that EU and NATO membership is achievable and, if a clear action plan to membership is followed, that it is also realistic. … Western Europe should give up any illusions it may have about a possible reset of Russian relations. … [I]t is more important and urgent to increase pressure, and to reset the overall process of peaceful resolution of armed conflicts that Moscow has instigated in our region.”
  • “In Ukraine, we should abandon the illusion that we can make peace in Donbass while leaving Crimea under Russian occupation. These issues cannot remain separated. … We need a new plan for eastern Europe. This is in the interests of Eastern Europe and all Western nations as they seek to maintain their own stability in an uncertain world.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.