Russia Analytical Report, Aug. 6-13, 2018

This Week’s Highlights

  • The CIA’s former chief of Russia analysis argues that if “Moscow views its social-media campaign as a defensive response to American meddling in Russian politics, then it might see little to gain and much to lose by giving up this activity without getting reciprocal U.S. concessions.”
  • “By putting the original sanctions imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine into law, and layering new measures on top, Congress risks convincing the Kremlin they are never intended to be reversed but rather to place it under permanent pressure,” according to a recent Financial Times editorial.
  • Russian companies routinely face harassment from law-enforcement officials seeking to extort money or expropriate businesses,” the Wall Street Journal reports. According to one Kremlin official, pne in six Russian business owners is facing criminal prosecution.


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

Nuclear security:

“The Good Old Days of the Cold War: U.S.-Soviet Cooperation on Nonproliferation,” William Potter and Sarah Bidgood, War on the Rocks, 08.07.18: The authors, both of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, write that “[n]onproliferation has historically united the largest nuclear weapons states. Indeed, U.S.-Soviet cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation was largely immune to the political storms swirling around it. But no longer.” Meanwhile, they point out, “[t]here is no shortage of nonproliferation threats today that would benefit from U.S.-Russian collaboration. These include addressing the continuing development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, preventing nuclear terrorism and—yes—making sure the 2020 NPT Review Conference is not an unmitigated disaster.” They also highlight “ingredients of successful U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation” in order to “point to some ways for Washington and Moscow to get back to a place where they can address these and other challenges effectively. First, it would be useful for the two countries to conduct a joint nuclear proliferation threat assessment to see where their interests correspond today. Second, it would also be worthwhile for Washington and Moscow to renew collaboration on a variety of technical issues like disarmament and nonproliferation verification, which have historically been more insulated from high politics than other nuclear matters. Third, in these and other pursuits, creating more fora for Russian and American practitioners to interact will be critical to rebuilding personal relationships between officials from the two countries.”

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.

NATO-Russia relations:

  • See “Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors/Russian-Georgian war of August 2008” section below.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“In Gorky Park, With Nuclear Worries,” Matthew Bunn, The Hill, 08.13.18: The author, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School specializing in nuclear security and proliferation, outlines a plan for improving arms control. “Today,” he writes, “both Russia and the United States are modernizing their nuclear forces to keep these threats robust for decades to come — though their forces’ total numbers are limited by treaties (thank goodness). The U.S. program is expected to cost $1.2 trillion over 30 years, and the Trump administration has added new, smaller nuclear weapons that critics warn might seem more usable should war come. Russia’s program includes entirely new types of strategic weapons, from an intercontinental torpedo designed to blow up U.S. coastal cities to a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile. In both countries, these efforts are going forward with only the most limited public debate. There is no doubt that the United States needs strong military forces—including, for now, an effective nuclear deterrent. … But even during the depths of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet leaders understood that despite their global confrontation, they had to work together for mutual survival. … Today, we, too, ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. To make progress toward reducing the risk, Americans need to understand that while we feel threatened by Russia, Russians also feel threatened… So, in the classic Russian phrase, what is to be done? First, at their next summit, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin should restate the fundamental point that Reagan and Gorbachev once made: ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’ Second, they should direct their governments to make the compromises necessary to resolve the charges of violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that each side is making against the other. Third, they should extend the New START Treaty for five years, keeping its cap on nuclear forces and the inspections and data exchanges that enhance transparency and predictability. That would give negotiators time to work out a follow-on agreement. Then, U.S. and Russian experts need to revitalize in-depth ‘strategic stability’ talks, to explore both sides’ concerns and how they might be addressed. … Washington and Moscow need to agree to fully implement accords to prevent dangerous military incidents, and allow observers at military exercises. And they need to get our militaries and nuclear scientists talking to each other again.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“Four Ways to Counter Russia’s Social-Media Warfare: The Battle of Cressy offers a lesson on fighting the weaponization of Twitter and Facebook. Seriously,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 08.07.18: The author, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, writes that “Americans should recognize that the long history of warfare is largely about the balance between offensive and defensive capabilities. England's offensive long-range archers were able to overcome the defensive armor of French knights at the Battle of Cressy in 1346, for example. … [T]he use of social networks in conflict is far less understood and the U.S. has struggled to defend itself. We must react. Peter Singer, a noted futurist and military analyst, writes convincingly about this phenomenon in his forthcoming book, ‘LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.’ … Singer and others have made the case that the U.S. has much work to do in order to operate in these shadow zones of the social networks. I would start with four concrete steps. First, we need much better public-private cooperation. Facebook, Twitter and the other major social networks should have government liaisons assigned from the National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security to assist them in monitoring and responding to such attacks. Second, we need to develop better technical defenses that can detect bots and propaganda and the work of fake-news mills in real time and stifle them. … Third, we need to be more adept at revealing the nature and extent of such attacks when they occur and publicizing them. … Fourth, we need to be willing to use more aggressive and potentially public responses when we are attacked. … The U.S.,” Stavridis argues, “should be considering using the social networks in a proportional way against Russia if it does not cease and desist—perhaps by revealing corruption and overseas wealth held by senior Russian leaders.  This has been done to an extent, but needs to be deepened to include Putin specifically. It should also be done creatively on social networks with evocative images of villas, yachts and Italian suits. … Americans need to understand and be ready to respond more efficiently and forcefully when the power of the social networks is turned against the U.S. The lights are blinking red indeed.”

Elections interference:

“Is Russia Really Trying to Sway the Midterm Elections?” George Beebe, The National Interest, 08.11.18: The author, director of the Center for the National Interest’s intelligence program and a former chief of Russia analysis for the CIA, argues that “[i]f Moscow views its social-media campaign as a defensive response to American meddling in Russian politics, then it might see little to gain and much to lose by giving up this activity without getting reciprocal U.S. concessions.” Earlier this month, Beebe writes, Intelligence Community leaders said “that Russia ‘continues to engage in malign influence operations’ and warned that Russian hackers might resume targeting America’s voter rolls and voting machines as they did in 2016. … In testifying to the reality of the Russian threat, however, the briefing left a major question largely unaddressed: What could the Russians possibly be thinking? If Moscow is hoping to pursue the ambitious bilateral agenda that President Putin proposed in Helsinki, continued election meddling would seem tailor-made to preclude it. On the other hand, if the Kremlin is looking not to normalize relations, but rather to divide and conquer American democracy by sowing dissension, then it could not have ginned up a more counterproductive tactic. … One of the challenges of intelligence analysis is that dispositive evidence—information that is consistent with only one explanation, thus ruling out others—is rare. Most intelligence aligns simultaneously with multiple pictures of an evolving situation, and analysts must put together what they believe is the most likely explanation while leaving open the possibility that other narratives might also be accurate. Intelligence failures often flow from anchoring prematurely on a hypothesis that analysts expect to be true while neglecting or downplaying alternative hypotheses they are inclined to doubt. Exploring alternative explanations for what Russia is up to is therefore critical. … Putin often recalls occasions when he made unilateral concessions to the United States, such as closing Russia’s intelligence collection site in Cuba and withdrawing from its naval facility in Vietnam in 2001, without gaining anything in return. As a result, many Russian nationalists view him as too eager to court Washington and too reluctant to stand up to American pressure. He may be wary of feeding those perceptions by ordering Russian trolls to stand down absent an American agreement to abstain from meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs. And, in view of the U.S. media’s near obsessive focus on Russia’s activity, he may well see the continuation of that activity as a bargaining chip too valuable to be tossed aside. The problem with this approach, of course, is that by failing to stop Russia’s social-media meddling, Putin has retained a bargaining chip but precluded any possibility that America might bargain. Moscow appears to have badly misjudged how much damage its cyber intrusions and influence operations have inflicted on U.S.-Russian relations and, by extension, Russia’s own security. … By the same token, Washington must reckon with the reality that it has miscalibrated its approach to deterrence. For deterrence to be effective, the Russians must believe not only that we will follow through with threatened punishments, but also that we will reward good behavior. So far, America’s response to Russian meddling has been almost exclusively punitive, crafted to make it exceedingly difficult to lift sanctions in the event Russia complies with our demands. In encouraging Moscow to believe punishments will remain in effect even if it halts meddling, we have unintentionally incentivized continued Russian defiance.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Tightening Vice of U.S. Sanctions on Moscow: A Unified Russia Policy From Washington Would Be More Effective,” Financial Times editorial, 08.09.18: The newspaper’s editorial board considers the new U.S. sanctions confronting Russia “[t]o the perhaps mutual chagrin of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump… Not only have U.S. senators, apparently alarmed by Mr. Trump’s deferential treatment of the Russian president [at their summit in Helsinki], proposed stiff further measures to punish the Kremlin for its interference in American elections. Moscow is also facing bans on imports of U.S. technology following the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK in March with a banned nerve agent. The sanctions amount to a tightening vice on Russia’s economy. The impact of U.S. and EU measures imposed since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea may have been limited. Alexei Kudrin, a liberal ex-finance minister, estimates they have shrunk Russian gross domestic product by only half a percentage point a year. But they add pressure when growth is already stagnating. … The Kremlin is facing protests, meanwhile, over plans to raise the pension age and value added tax. Polls suggest Russians are tiring of Mr. Putin’s insistence that they should put patriotism above economic interests. … The motive of the U.S. State Department—which took the lead on the measures linked to nerve agent use—and Congress is in part to deter Russia from repeat transgressions. … It is welcome that at least parts of the U.S. administration are ready to take firm and decisive action against Russian wrongdoing. A unified and coherent U.S. policy would, however, be preferable. To stand the best chance of changing the Kremlin’s behavior, moreover, the U.S. needs to maintain co-ordination with other partners, which can appear lacking. … Sanctions should provide, too, some certainty that if Moscow does turn over a new leaf, they will be lifted. By putting the original sanctions imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine into law, and layering new measures on top, Congress risks convincing the Kremlin they are never intended to be reversed but rather to place it under permanent pressure. Moscow may then decide complying is futile, and step up efforts to undermine the West. The lack of consistent Western policy,” the authors conclude, “creates unpredictability that may increase the economic damage to Russia from sanctions. Ultimately, it might not make them more effective.”

“Here We Go Again With Russia Sanctions That Will Do Nothing,” Eugene Rumer, The Hill, 08.07.18: The author, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that “American foreign policy toward Russia is stuck in a seemingly endless pattern of doing the same thing over and over again with an unsatisfactory result, but expecting a different outcome each time. The latest bipartisan bill, called the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, championed by six U.S. senators fits this pattern. … The bill may be good politics in an election year, but it is just as unlikely to accomplish its stated goal as the long list of its predecessors that have not worked. Take the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the Magnitsky Act, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and sanctions related to the illegal annexation of Crimea. What do all of these legislative and executive actions have in common? All were introduced to make Russia stop doing something, whether it is violating the rights of its citizens, returning Crimea to Ukraine, [or] interfering in our elections. They all failed,” Rumer writes. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a sponsor of the new legislation, “himself has admitted that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has failed. The new bill, if it passes Congress in the short amount of time left in this legislative session, is destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. The combination of so many aspects of our global migration to the online domain and poor cyber defenses means that our elections will be threatened not just by Russia, but by many other actors, both foreign and domestic. Focusing on Russia is misleading and potentially harmful, for the problem requires a comprehensive solution, not just a ‘whack a mole’ type campaign against one country or another. Some aspects of the bill make one admire the sense of humor of its drafters. The bill calls for a report, presumably from the intelligence community, on the ‘net worth and assets of Vladimir Putin.’ This is coming at a time when our own president refuses to come clean about his finances. … Moreover, the proposed sanctions bill could actually benefit Putin. The Kremlin has been using Western sanctions in its propaganda to convince Russians that the West is their enemy and that the nation has to unite around its leadership in this hour of confrontation. … Instead of more ‘crushing’ sanctions bills, we need a crash effort in the near term to boost our cyber defenses and resilience of our electoral systems… In the long term, as our adversarial relationship with Moscow is likely here to stay, … we need to devote more resources to understanding the drivers of Russian policy, Kremlin priorities and vulnerabilities, and what is likely to deter it. Our ability to understand Russia has unfortunately been a victim of our preoccupation with China, North Korea and the Middle East. The Russia challenge is here to stay, and we need to get serious about it. Doing more of what has not worked in the past will get us nowhere.”

“Putin Is Afraid of One Thing. Make Him Think It Could Happen,” Michael Morell, The Washington Post, 08.07.18: The author, a career intelligence officer and former deputy director of the CIA, addresses the problem of Russian interference in American affairs and argues that “[t]he U.S. answer to Russia, so far, has been ineffective because Washington has targeted only the entities and individuals actually involved in the Russian information operations.” At the start of the piece, Morell writes that “Facebook revealed on July 31 that it had discovered a 17-month-long influence campaign to sow political divisiveness on its network, an effort that bore the hallmarks of the Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency. Two days later at the White House, the nation's top national security officials said Russia is conducting a pervasive campaign to weaken our democracy and influence this year's midterm elections. Taken together, these announcements leave no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin's political assault on the United States continues unabated. The most important question the Trump administration and Congress should be asking is: How can we make Putin stop? … Here is what the United States needs to do. In terms of self-defense, it must secure the nation's elections system, especially the software that holds data on registered voters. … As for imposing costs on those who attack the United States: Fully implement sanctions already on the books. That is still not happening. But then move beyond targeted sanctions to broad-based sanctions that are designed to hurt the Russian economy—just as the Obama administration's sanctions against Iran were designed to do, as are the Trump administration's. … What would such sanctions look like? A Senate bill introduced on Aug. 2, again with sponsors from both parties, is a good start: Prohibit any transaction related to Russian energy projects and bar the purchase of new Russian sovereign debt. Washington should encourage its allies to join in these efforts. Putin is afraid of one thing. He is afraid that one day the Russian middle class will finally rebel against his regime and rush into the streets demanding change. …. Sanctions that bite at the heart of the Russian economy—sanctions that increase the risk that Russia's middle class will become restive—will get Putin's attention.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Putin Is Building a Bosnian Paramilitary Force: With elections approaching in October, Russia has ramped up its support for Bosnia's Serb separatists,” Vera Mironova and Bogdan Zawadewicz, Foreign Policy, 08.08.18: The authors—a visiting scholar at Harvard and a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany, respectively—write that “[i]n recent years, as Washington’s attention has wandered from the … [Balkans], Russia has zeroed in on the opportunities for influence operations. The main target,” the authors say, isn’t Croatia, an EU and NATO member, or Serbia, “which has a long history of ties to Moscow. The Kremlin is focused instead on Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Western-aligned country that is nevertheless vulnerable to destabilization, especially with elections approaching in October. Bosnia is administratively divided between two decentralized entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a mostly Bosniak and Croat population, and Republika Srpska, which has a Serb majority. Russia’s policy consists in encouraging the separatist instincts of the latter. … The most intensive cooperation between Bosnian Serbs and Russia is channeled through the Republika Srpska security forces. The region is not permitted to have its own military, under the terms of the Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995. But it does maintain its own police force—one that has an increasingly close relationship with Moscow.” Examples cited by the authors include the following: “In 2016, during an official visit by a Russian delegation to Banja Luka, talks focused on establishing a partnership between Republika Srpska and Russian police on matters including intelligence collection, counterterrorism and combatting cybercrime. Republika Srpska also agreed to host Russian police trainers and to send members of Serb special units to Moscow for training. Since then, Russian intelligence officers (former members of the Federal Security Service) often give lectures and teach courses in the Republika Srpska police academy and at the University of Banja Luka’s faculty of security studies, which serves as the regional police’s policy planning department. … The exchange of military knowledge and socializing among security personnel also flows in the other direction, from Republika Srpska to Russia. Former RS military officers also often travel and work in Russia. … Meanwhile, under the pretext of counterterrorism, Republika Srpska has recently been strengthening its police force in ways that resemble outright militarization, sometimes with the help of Russia. … There is also ongoing discussion in Republika Srpska of creating of a Russian ‘humanitarian’ center similar to one already established in the Serbian city of Nis. … Russia and Republika Srpska have also cultivated close ties between their respective war veterans’ organizations. … Such organizations have been involved in recruiting locals to travel to eastern Ukraine and Syria as foreign fighters with Russian private military companies such as the Wagner Group. … Russia’s gradual strategy is unlikely to include any sudden moves. But it may eventually tempt Sarajevo, or its Western backers, to intervene to prevent a decisive break between Banja Luka and the rest of Bosnia—in which case, an escalation by Russia may become inevitable and unpredictable. Alternatively, the West may eventually discover that it has become too late to intervene at all.”

“Turkey Looks to ‘New Alliances’ for Way Out of Crisis,” Laura Pitel and Andrew England, Financial Times, 08.12.18: The authors, correspondents reporting from Istanbul and London, respectively, write that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whose country is facing extreme economic pressure in a stand-off with the U.S.—does not seem willing to back down but “could try to turn to Russia, Qatar or China for support, further loosening the already weakened ties between a strategically vital NATO member and the West.” In an Aug. 10 op-ed Erdogan wrote that “‘Turkey has alternatives.’ On Sunday, he said [in a seeming reference to U.S. President Donald Trump]: ‘Our response to the person who wages a trade war against the whole world, including our country, is to head towards new markets, new co-operation and new alliances.’ Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based consultant at GlobalSource Partners, said Mr. Erdogan’s bold language suggested he was exploring other options. ‘I think he talked to Putin, who might have promised some loans. This is my speculation… He’s mad but he’s not crazy. So I would assume he has a reasonable expectation of getting some cash from somewhere.’ … As rows have erupted with EU countries and the U.S., Turkey has been drawn into closer co-operation with Russia. Ankara’s decision to buy an S-400 air defense system from Moscow has become a key source of anger towards Turkey in Washington. On Monday [Aug. 13], Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit the Turkish capital for two days of meetings. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the talks would focus on the conflict in Syria and regional instability, but added that they would include discussions on deepening the economic relationship between the two countries. Turkey has also courted the support of China. … Another option is Qatar.”


“China and Russia’s Dangerous Liaison: The West Ignores the Alliance Forming Between Moscow and Beijing at Its Peril,” Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, 08.08.18: The author, a columnist for the newspaper, argues that the West risks making a significant “mistake by dismissing the anti-Western, anti-U.S. alliance that is now forming between Moscow and Beijing. At a conference in Singapore in June, Jim Mattis, U.S. defense secretary, talked about a ‘natural non-convergence of interest’ between Russia and China and his belief that both countries had more in common with America than with each other. This idea that Russia and China can never really be friends is just as wrong and dangerous as the Cold War dogma that portrayed global communism as an unshakeable monolith. … It is true that Russia’s ego has been bruised by the obvious role reversal—from the former Soviet Union as ‘big brother’ to Russia as ‘little brother’ today. But China has been careful to save Moscow’s pride—by speaking of the two as equals, massaging Mr. Putin’s ego and offering many of his confidantes and advisers lucrative contracts. While heavily lopsided—Russia’s economy is about one-tenth the size of China’s—the countries’ economic relationship is critical for both sides. China is the world’s biggest importer of crude oil; Russia was China’s biggest supplier last year and Beijing has lent tens of billions of dollars to Moscow to secure future oil and gas supplies. Crucially, from Beijing’s perspective, oil imports from Russia do not need to travel by ship through strategic chokepoints… Even more significant than their economic entanglement is the military relationship between the neighbors. On his first trip abroad in his new role in April, Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, visited Moscow with a very direct message: ‘The Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia,’ he told his counterpart. ‘We’ve come to support you.’ … Until recently, Chinese naval vessels had not strayed from the country’s coastline for centuries, but today its warships conduct regular joint exercises with Russia from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean. For decades, Russia resisted selling its most advanced military equipment to China but it has now abandoned that policy. … The most important unifying factor between the two is ideological,” the author argues. “Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin are strongmen autocrats… Their tightening embrace is as much about antipathy towards the U.S. and the U.S.-dominated global order as their rapidly growing common interests. This presents an opportunity for Washington to drive a wedge between them before their alliance becomes unbreakable. … [Henry] Kissinger has reportedly counselled Donald Trump to pursue a ‘reverse Nixon-China strategy’ by seeking to befriend Moscow and isolate Beijing. Given the current investigation into possible collusion with Russia, it will be almost impossible for the U.S. president to pursue such a strategy successfully. But American institutions, and whoever succeeds Mr. Trump as president, must recognize how serious a threat the nascent Sino-Russian alliance is to U.S. interests—and the current world order.”


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors/Russian-Georgian war of August 2008:

“The West Has Spent a Decade Playing Right Into Putin's Hands,” Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, 08.07.18: The author, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, asks, “If the edifice of the liberal world order is in danger of collapse today—and it is—when did the pillars begin to weaken? Many date the problems to President Trump's election. But while Trump's ‘America First’ approach to the world has significantly widened the cracks in the order, perhaps making them irreparable, they appeared long before he did. Ten years ago this week, Vladimir Putin struck one of the first major blows when he sent Russian forces into South Ossetia in neighboring Georgia in support of Russian-backed separatists. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, fearing a full-blown invasion, ordered his troops to attack, thus springing Putin's trap. … The five-day Russo-Georgian war was ostensibly fought over disputed territories, but Putin's real purpose was geopolitical. Georgia, like other former Soviet satellites and republics, was seeking to integrate into the West economically and politically, and to gain Western protection from Moscow. Fearing Putin's reaction, NATO that spring had refused to offer Georgia even a road map to membership in the alliance, but Putin moved anyway—to punish the Georgians, to warn others and to send a clear message to the West. … The West's response bordered on indifference… [President George W.] Bush did not even levy sanctions. … In the end, Putin was rewarded. … Less than a year after the Russian invasion, Obama held his first summit with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and launched efforts to smooth things over with Russia. … The Russo-Georgian war established a modus operandi that Putin would employ against Ukraine almost exactly six years later. In both cases, the Russian attack was preceded and accompanied by extensive cyberwarfare and ‘fake news.’ In both cases, Russian forces moved in surreptitiously before the main attack. Both invasions were cloaked in ambiguity and confusion, leading many in the West to blame the victims. In both cases, Moscow claimed to be defending pro-Russian populations from alleged mistreatment. But the real purpose was to restore Russian hegemony over former Soviet republics seeking to integrate into the liberal world order—in Ukraine's case by negotiating a trade deal with the European Union. The Russian attack on Georgia also displayed the effectiveness of Putin's narrative of grievance. Although Russia committed the aggression, many in the West blamed others—Saakashvili, Bush, NATO—for ‘forcing’ Putin's hand. Today, ‘realists’ and the left blame the United States and the West for provoking Putin in Ukraine. … It is one of Putin's greatest triumphs that this narrative is widely accepted today in the American academy and by large segments of both political parties. As McFaul explains, however, it is mostly a myth, designed by Putin to justify his increasingly autocratic and personalistic rule to his own people. … Trump is also following a familiar script. Ten years on, the real lessons of Russian aggression still escape us.”

“Russia Invaded Georgia 10 Years Ago. Don't Say America Didn't Respond,” Condoleezza Rice, The Washington Post, 08.08.18: The author, who served as U.S. secretary of state in 2005-2009, sets out to note several points for the historical record” regarding the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008: “We in the Bush administration did recognize the looming danger of Russian military action in Georgia. … I told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili—privately—that the Russians would try to provoke him and that, given the circumstances on the ground, he could not count on a military response from NATO. … When the Russians launched their invasion, the United States focused first and foremost on protecting the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the duly elected Georgian government. In that regard, U.S. military transport returned Georgian armed forces from Iraq so that they could defend their homeland. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told his Russian counterpart that we were doing so and not to interfere. And, as Saakashvili recounted in his own op-ed … in the Wall Street Journal, we launched a ‘humanitarian convoy,’ escorted by U.S. warships. This was a signal to the Russians.” The author recounts that, in a telephone conversation during the crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told her “‘just between us’” that “‘Saakashvili has to go.’ I told Lavrov that the American secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister couldn't have a secret conversation about the overthrow of a democratically elected president. … By the way, … the United States did ask the French—who held the presidency of the Council of the European Union at the time—to try to negotiate an end to hostilities. Ultimately, they could not—and I personally negotiated the final agreement that ended the war. Sitting in Saakashvili's office—working from the French draft—we made important changes, including altering the geographical limits of where Russian troops would be allowed so that they could not threaten the Georgian capital. The United States is sometimes constrained in what it can do in circumstances such as the Georgian conflict. We focused our energies on stopping Moscow from overthrowing a new democracy that then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hated with a virulence that is hard to overstate. America and its allies raised $1 billion in aid for the Georgians.  Sanctions levied on the separatist regions remain largely in place, so Moscow foots the bill for its adventurism in territory that is difficult to develop economically. … We could not deter Moscow in this case. But we did act, and Georgia survived. It is still a sad story—and perhaps Putin did take the wrong lessons from it. In order to deter him in the future, however, we need to first get the facts right about the past.”

“When Does Vladimir Putin’s Russia Send In Troops?” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, 08.08.18: The author, director of the Harvard-based Russia Matters project, considers Vladimir Putin’s three military interventions abroad—Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015—and poses the question: “When does Putin authorize the use of military force, overtly or covertly, against other countries and why?” In the author’s view, “at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force; I’ll call the presence of such threats ‘Condition 1.’ The situation in Georgia in 2008 threatened key Russian interests in several ways, including an attack on an ally or client (also the case in Syria in 2015) and, more important, concern that one of Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbors may ‘escape’ to what Russia sees as a hostile alliance (also the case in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine). … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (‘Condition 2’). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs and that their military would either prevail in the confrontation or at least ensure a stalemate that would constrain the targeted state’s ability to seriously undermine Russia’s vital interests.” The author goes on to apply these criteria to the three aforementioned military interventions and then tests them by looking at situations when Russia has not sent troops in to other countries: “It should be noted that Putin’s Russia does not intervene in another state’s affairs militarily just because a revolution is underway there. Putin refrained from intervening during the so-called color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018) because the victorious new leaders signaled their desire to continue participating in Russian-led integration projects and showed no intention of trying to ‘escape’ from Russia’s zone of influence. Neither does Putin’s Russia intervene militarily just because a post-Soviet country is undergoing democratization. … When recalling the events of 2008 [when NATO, in its final communique after an April summit in Bucharest, “agreed” that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”], one cannot help wonder why Russia did not intervene in Ukraine. … The difference is that Condition 2 was insufficiently present in Ukraine of 2008. Putin may have believed a simultaneous intervention in two countries would have stretched his military dangerously thin. Ukraine’s armed forces were larger than Georgia’s and [then President Viktor] Yushchenko did not—and was not likely to—give Putin the kind of pretext to intervene that Saakashvili did. Putin may also have believed that Georgia’s NATO ambitions represented a greater threat, especially as tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia escalated throughout the spring and summer of 2008. He may have thought, too, that Western punishment for such a double intervention would have been long-term and painful, greatly lessening or even negating the benefit of keeping Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO. More important, … Ukraine eventually ‘uncrossed’ Russia’s red line: In 2010 Yushchenko lost the presidency to the more Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych.”


Russia's vital national interests (in order of importance)



of 2008 war with Georgia

of 2014 intervention in Ukraine

of 2015 intervention in Syria

Prevent armed aggression against Russia and secession of territories from Russia;

No significant impact

No significant impact

No significant impact

Ensure Russian allies' survival and their active cooperation with Russia; ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states among which it can play a leading role and in cooperation with which it can thrive;

Formidable positive impact on survival of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, but formidable lasting negative impact on efforts to anchor Georgia

Formidable lasting negative impact on efforts to anchor Ukraine

Formidable positive impact on survival of Assad’s regime

Prevent emergence and/or expansion of hostile powers and/or alliances on or near Russian borders;

Significant positive impact

Significant positive impact

No significant impact

Establish and maintain productive relations, consistent with Russian national interests, with the United States, China and core European Union members;

Minor negative impact on relations with U.S. and EU

Significant lasting negative impact on relations with U.S. and EU, somewhat positive impact on relations with China

Some negative impact on relations with U.S. and EU

Ensure the viability and stability of major markets for major flows of Russian exports and imports;

No significant impact

Significant lasting negative impact due to Western and Ukrainian sanctions

Some negative impact due to Western sanctions

Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy, its integration into the global economy;

No significant impact

Significant lasting negative impact due to Western and Ukrainian sanctions

Some negative impact due to Western sanctions, but also some positive impact due to Assad’s continued purchases of Russian goods and services, including high-value machinery

Prevent neighboring nations from acquiring nuclear arms and long-range delivery systems; secure nuclear weapons and materials;

No impact

No impact

No impact

Prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia.

No impact

No impact

Significant positive impact

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“In Russia, the Corporate Raiders Are Often Cops,” James Marson and Thomas Grove, Wall Street Journal, 08.07.18: The authors, correspondents reporting from Rostov-on-Don, write that “Russian companies routinely face harassment from law-enforcement officials seeking to extort money or expropriate businesses, according to business owners, lawyers and activists. One in six Russian business owners is facing criminal prosecution, according to Aleksandr Khurudzhi, who works for an agency the Kremlin set up in 2012 to help entrepreneurs. ‘It's a cancer for the economy,’ said Mr. Khurudzhi, who was detained in 2015 for nine months on fraud charges related to his firm before being released and later acquitted in court. If President Vladimir Putin doesn't tackle the problem, he said, ‘Russia can't develop further.’ … Mr. Putin's authoritarian rule relies on security officials and political heavyweights who use their authority not only to squash political opponents but also to squeeze companies for payoffs, seize them on behalf of rivals or take them over for themselves, critics say. That makes changes to the justice system potentially perilous. … As a result, people who should be building Russia's economy are losing their businesses and their freedom. Russian courts found 99.8% of defendants guilty, according to court data, and are ripe for hijacking using fabricated cases, lawyers and activists say. Business owners often prefer to cut a deal rather than end up in court.”

“Why Russia Can’t Build the Political Infrastructure It Needs,” Andrey Pertsev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.07.18: The author, a journalist with the Russian-language Kommersant newspaper, writes that public discontent over a plan to raise Russia’s pension age has highlighted President Vladimir Putin’s “main problem: The Russian political system lacks virtually any political infrastructure that could stably function in crisis conditions.” It hinges on the president, and those who represent him, while other political institutions “fail to function as elements of the power mechanism. … The system required political infrastructure to explain this unpopular [pension] reform to the people. It engaged the Duma, regional parliaments, United Russia, the governors and television propaganda. Nonetheless, the approval ratings of the president, Cabinet and United Russia all began to decline, even though the authorities tried to hide the announcement of the reform behind the World Cup. … The Russian political system’s extreme focus on Putin, which must be overcome, dates back to the 2000 presidential election. Even during his campaign, candidate Putin addressed voters as an individual without referring to the political forces and groups that nominated him. … However, current realities are forcing the Kremlin to create political infrastructure independent of the president. The unpopular reforms started earlier than expected, and so did the public discontent with them. Meanwhile, the revolution in Armenia earlier this year has demonstrated the lightning speed with which a ruling party can disintegrate. But Armenia had a self-sufficient opposition, which was able to organize the protests and even introduce its members into the government. Russia lacks such an opposition: the ‘in-system’ parties have been totally weakened, in part through their collusion with the government. Russia needs a political infrastructure project with strong institutions and internal competition. The problem is that such projects are incompatible with the Russian power vertical. In fact, they would destroy its very essence.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.