Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 10-17, 2018

Dear readers: Please be advised that the Russia Analytical Report will not be coming out on Dec. 24 or Dec. 31 due to U.S. public holidays. We look forward to resuming publication Jan. 7.

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Structural realities make the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run grim; however, political leaders live in the present, writes Harvard Professor Graham Allison. With Russia on its side, this adds to China’s heft, pairing a nuclear superpower with an economic one. The result is an increasingly thick and consequential alignment” between Russia and China, Allison writes.
  • According to Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an illuminating parallel to today’s world order is the nineteenth century Concert of Europe. Haas reminds us that World War I broke out some 60 years after the Concert of Europe had for all intents and purposes broken down in Crimea. According to Professor Yan Xuetong, the world order emerging following the end of the post–Cold War period of U.S. hegemony will be a bipolar one, with China playing the role of junior superpower. Rather than form clearly defined military-economic blocs, most states will adopt a two-track foreign policy, siding with the United States on some issues and China on others, according to Yan. 
  • Until a better formula is found for ensuring strategic balance and limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, it is a dangerous mistake for U.S. President Donald Trump to jettison agreements like the INF Treaty and New START, argues the New York Times editorial board. Steven Pifer of Brookings asks if Europeans care about the INF Treaty. If they do, European governments will have to make preserving the treaty an urgent priority in their relations with Moscow, Pifer writes.
  • A clear-eyed U.S. approach to the Middle East requires accepting that China or Russia, maybe both, will likely gain more of a footing in the region as the U.S. pulls back, argue Associate Professor Mara Karlin and Brookings senior fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes. The good news, they write, is that neither power is likely to make a real bid for regional hegemony.
  • It was up to U.S. authorities whether to prosecute Butina or let her hold overt meetings with conservatives, deeming them harmless to national security and perhaps even useful for fostering communication, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. They decided to prosecute, a decision that sends a message to Americans saying that any Russian they meet could be a Kremlin agent.

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

Nuclear security:

Introduction to the “US National Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism,” U.S. President Donald Trump, The White House, December 2018The U.S. president writes:

  • “We must assume that the most fanatical of these [terrorist] groups will gravitate toward weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons. Several … have made clear their desire to obtain WMD and use them against innocent people.”
  • “While we harness science to generate energy and spread prosperity, terrorists would happily deploy technology to sow death and destruction around the world.  One of the great challenges of our age is to place WMD and associated materials and expertise as far beyond the reach of these madmen as possible.” 
  • “The new strategy is comprised of three core elements. First, the United States will lead global efforts to close off terrorists’ access to WMD and related materials. Second, the United States will apply consistent pressure against terrorist groups that seek to obtain and use these weapons, including by targeting terrorist WMD specialists and facilitators. Third … the United States will strengthen its defenses against WMD threats at home and abroad.”
  • “As we work to defeat the poisonous ideologies that inspire terrorism, we can and will dramatically reduce the likelihood of the most dangerous weapons falling into the hands of the world’s most dangerous people.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Don't Tear Up This Treaty,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 12.15.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Mr. Trump is justified in his concern about Russia's noncompliance with the INF Treaty, as are NATO officials, who on Dec. 4, for the first time, joined the Trump administration in publicly condemning the violation.”
  • “Russian leaders have their own security concerns, since they are geographically close to several nations … that have growing intermediate-range missile forces, and because the United States has a formidable advantage in sea-based and air-launched missiles. But unilaterally abrogating one of the most consequential arms agreements in history would be dangerous and cause new tensions with European allies.”
  • “One solution being discussed by American experts would involve Russia acceding to American inspections of the Russian cruise missiles and the Americans allowing Russian inspections of American Aegis missile defense systems based in Romania and planned for Poland.”
  • “Until some better formula is found for ensuring strategic balance and limiting the spread of the world's most lethal weapons … it's a dangerous mistake for him [Trump] to jettison existing agreements like INF and New START.”

“Will Europe Try to Save the INF Treaty?” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 12.13.18The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “On Dec. 4, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo announced that Russia has 60 days to come back into compliance with the … (INF) Treaty.”
  • “If the treaty is to be saved, European leaders should act. … Up until recently, … European officials said little publicly about the need for Russia to correct its violation of the treaty … They should. … Europeans need to take a serious look at military steps to respond to the 9M729.  … [They] should [also] recommend to Washington that, if the Russians change course and begin to deal seriously with Western concerns about the 9M729, the Pentagon should explore ways to address Russia’s concern that the Aegis Ashore missile defense launchers in Romania could carry offensive missiles.”
  • “Do Europeans care? If so, … European capitals will have to decide to make preserving the treaty an urgent priority in their relations with Moscow. If they do not care, the handwriting is on the wall. In early February, the U.S. government will suspend its treaty obligations, relieving Russia from performing its treaty obligations. The INF Treaty effectively will be dead.”

“NATO Is the Best Defense Against Russian Aggression,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, Financial Times, 12.13.18The author, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, writes:

  • “The great untold story in Europe is that Russia is strengthening NATO, not breaking it. … After months of discussion, the U.S. and our allies decided that Russian cheating could no longer be tolerated. All 29 NATO foreign ministers unanimously supported the American finding that Moscow is in ‘material breach’ of [the INF Treaty].”
  • “Arms control that increases stability and reduces risk has no greater friend than the U.S. But arms control treaties only work if respected by both sides. That is why we have given Russia 60 days’ notice … unless Moscow returns to full and verifiable compliance.”
  • “Americans yearn for the day when Russia once again feels as Mr. Gorbachev did in 1987 when he said that the INF treaty ‘offers a big chance at last to get on to the road leading away from the threat of catastrophe.’ … In this environment, we and our allies must act to deter an increasingly aggressive and restless Russia.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria/Middle East:

“America’s Middle East Purgatory. The Case for Doing Less,” Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The authors, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write:

  • “The reduced appetite for U.S. engagement in the region [the Middle East] reflects … a deeper change in both regional dynamics and broader U.S. interests. Although the Middle East still matters to the United States, it matters markedly less than it used to. … In response to the Iraq war, the United States has aimed to reduce its role in the Middle East. Three factors have made that course both more alluring and more possible.”
  • “Even as the Middle East’s problems have become less susceptible to constructive outside influence, the United States’ global interests have also changed—most of all when it comes to Asia. For decades, U.S. policymakers debated whether China could rise peacefully, but the country’s destabilizing behavior … have led many to worry that it will not. Russia, meanwhile, has generated growing concern ever since its invasion of Crimea in 2014.”
  • “A new approach to the region should begin with accepting … that what is good for the United States may not be good for the Middle East. … [T]he United States must also clearly communicate … [its] limits to other countries. … It is also crucial that the United States accept the limitations of its partners.”
  • “A clear-eyed approach also requires accepting that China or Russia (or both) will likely gain more of a footing in the Middle East as the United States pulls back. The good news is that neither power is likely to make a real bid for regional hegemony. … Russia’s involvement in Syria … suggest[s] that regional governments will face a strict quid pro quo from Moscow … Setting Syria aside, Russia’s role in the region has been similar to China’s: free-riding on U.S. security guarantees while using diplomacy and commercial ties to make friends as widely as possible without offering unique guarantees to any one party.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

"New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep," Craig Timberg and Tony Romm, The Washington Post, 12.16.18The authors, a reporter and a staff writer for the news outlet, write:

  • “A [new] report prepared for the Senate … found the [Russian] operation used every major social media platform … to help elect President Trump—and worked even harder to support him while in office. … [According to the report, Russian] efforts shifted over time, peaking at key political moments, such as presidential debates or party conventions. … The data sets used by the researchers were provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google and covered several years up to mid-2017.”
  • “The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters … Many other groups—Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans—got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts. … [A second report released by the Senate] emphasized this aspect of the Russian operation.”
  • “[The second report] also offered some new statistics, including that the Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos … and that Instagram generated more than twice the ‘engagement’ among users than either Facebook or Twitter. … Both reports also offered some of the first detailed analyses of the role played by YouTube … as well as anecdotes about how Russians used other social media platforms … that have received relatively little scrutiny. … The report expressed concern about the overall threat social media poses to political discourse … warning that companies once viewed as tools for liberation in the Arab world and elsewhere are now threats to democracy.”
  • “Researchers also noted that the data includes evidence of sloppiness by the Russians that could have led to earlier detection … The report traces the origins of Russian online influence operations to Russian domestic politics in 2009 and says that ambitions shifted to include U.S. politics as early as 2013 on Twitter.”

“Deepfakes and the New Disinformation War. The Coming Age of Post-Truth Geopolitics,” Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The authors, the director of the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin and a professor of law at the University of Maryland write:

  • “Thanks to the rise of ‘deepfakes’—highly realistic and difficult-to-detect digital manipulations of audio or video—it is becoming easier than ever to portray someone saying or doing something he or she never said or did.”
  • “Over the last decade, more and more people have begun to get their information from social media platforms … [S]ocial media [will be] fertile ground for circulating deepfakes, with potentially explosive implications for politics. Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election … already demonstrated how easily disinformation can be injected into the social media bloodstream. … Deepfakes will also exacerbate the disinformation wars that increasingly disrupt domestic politics in the United States and elsewhere.”
  • “Perhaps the most acute threat associated with deepfakes is the possibility that a well-timed forgery could tip an election. … On the eve of the French election, Russian hackers tried to undermine the presidential campaign of Emmanuel Macron … A convincing video in which Macron appeared to admit to corruption, released on social media only 24 hours before the election, could have spread like wildfire and proved impossible to debunk in time.”
  • “But although deepfakes are dangerous, they will not necessarily be disastrous. Detection will improve, prosecutors and plaintiffs will occasionally win legal victories against the creators of harmful fakes and the major social media platforms will gradually get better at flagging and removing fraudulent content. And digital provenance solutions could … provide a more durable fix at some point in the future. In the meantime, democratic societies will have to learn resilience.” 

“How to Wage Political Warfare,” Hal Brands and Toshi Yoshihara, The National Interest, 12.17.18The authors, a professor of global affairs and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, write:

  • “If war is politics by other means, then authoritarian political warfare is war by other means. Neither China nor Russia have so far been willing to take on the United States and its allies militarily. For years, however, they have been pursuing revisionist geopolitical ends in part by seeking to weaken and distort rival political systems. … [T]his behavior is rooted in burning ambition and intense insecurity. The resulting campaigns have been expansive and multi-faceted.”
  • “What would an [American counteroffensive] strategy look like? Such an offensive should be multifaceted, hitting an adversary on multiple fronts at once. … It should be multilateral, exploiting cooperation with close allies and partners if possible. … It should also be multi-level, featuring strong leadership from the president and coordinated implementation throughout the bureaucracy. … Additionally, it should be more asymmetric than symmetric, more proactive than purely reactive. … Finally, a political warfare offensive must be calibrated: it must be strong enough to have meaningful strategic impact, but not so aggressive as to have dangerous or counterproductive consequences.”
  • “[T]he United States should pursue four lines of effort. First, Washington should raise the price of authoritarian governance in China and Russia. … A second line of effort involves strengthening dissident or liberalizing currents within Chinese and Russian society. … A third line of effort entails mounting a vigorous counteroffensive against Russian and Chinese efforts to make the world … unsafe for democracy. … Fourth, the United States must enable all these activities by rebuilding its governmental capacity to wage political warfare.”

“The Unhackable Election. What It Takes to Defend Democracy,” Michael Chertoff and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The authors, the co-founder and executive chair of the Chertoff Group and the founder and co-chair of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, write:

  • “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 marked a sharp break with the past: the post–Cold War interlude … was over, and a new, more aggressive era, had begun. … Western governments have had to relearn the forgotten art of deterring attacks and protecting their countries’ borders. They have failed to see, however, that the attacks can also be aimed at their democratic institutions. Liberal democracy … is under debilitating pressure from threats both internal and external.”
  • “Malign foreign powers—led by Russia—have weaponiz[ed] the infrastructure that underpins democratic societies. … The Kremlin has been testing its interference playbook in countries throughout eastern Europe, and especially Ukraine, ever since those states escaped Soviet rule in the early 1990s.”
  • “In the next two years, more than 20 elections will take place across Europe and North America. Russia and other autocratic regimes have a clear stake in these elections, and there is every indication that they will continue to interfere in them.”
  • “[F]oreign meddling operations tend to be carried out in an operational gray zone. This makes it hard to attribute responsibility to one specific government agency. … The scope of Russia’s social media disinformation campaigns is staggering. … [I]n most cases, their strategy is simply to discredit the entire democratic process.”
  • “For now, foreign meddling operations remain largely the preserve of state actors and their proxies, but other actors will enter the fray in the near future as new technology and artificial intelligence lower the barriers to entry. … [I]t’s time to start developing a more forward-thinking strategy for dealing with foreign interference. … Unless the transatlantic community stands together, malign foreign powers will continue to pick off democracies one by one.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Under New Management—Russia Now Runs OPEC,” Julian Lee, Bloomberg, 12.16.18The author, an oil strategist for Bloomberg First Word, writes:

  • “When Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak arrived Friday morning [at the OPEC meeting], he moved in to the office of OPEC’s Secretary General. If ever there was a symbol of OPEC’s demise, it was this.”
  • “The agreement that emerged is, on paper, fair and reasonable. OPEC will cut production by 800,000 barrels a day … The group’s partners will reduce their supply by 2 percent … That combined reduction is just about enough to balance supply and demand in the first half of next year.”
  • “Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq boosted their combined output by almost 1.6 million barrels a day between May and October. That … gives them much higher starting points for the latest cuts than for the previous ones.”
  • “OPEC's smaller members are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts. … Handing control of OPEC decision making to the Kremlin has come at a high cost for the group, and most particularly for its smaller members. Some of the latter were already feeling marginalized.”
  • “Russia has done very well out of this. It agreed to … reduce its production to 11.19 million barrels a day … just 15,000 barrels below its original 2016 baseline—a cut of just 0.1 percent. Contrast that with OPEC member Algeria … Its new target will be 1.023 million barrels a day. That’s a cut of 66,000 barrels a day, or 6.1 percent. … Oil markets have reacted with indifference. OPEC has lost a lot for very little gain.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“US Security and Russia: Choices and Consequences,” Jill Dougherty and Thomas Zamostny, The National Interest, 12.07.18The authors, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former chief of Eurasian analysis for the CIA, write:

  • “Russia has formed a de facto entente with China … Moscow is becoming bolder in challenging the United States and its allies while expanding its regional and global trade and security arrangements.”
  • “To revise our strategy toward Russia we must first define America’s own long-term strategic interests. Our paramount interest is national security. Russia remains the only country that can destroy the United States with nuclear weapons. Moscow is developing a new generation of hypersonic weapons … It has the means to disrupt the American way of life … through cyber attacks … And, as we saw in 2016, it can exploit social media to undermine our democracy … The United States, of course, has the capability to harm Russia, which locks the two countries in an embrace of mutual destruction.”
  • “For the sake of our own security, we must try to understand what motivates Russia. Objectively analyzing Moscow’s aims helps clarify how we should pursue our objectives or respond to future actions by the Kremlin. … This process of re-evaluation makes one thing clear: we need more tools, and a more flexible strategy … Although confrontation may sometimes be necessary, we must add two more components: competition and cooperation.”
  • “[W]e believe our strategy must include the following elements: A renewed emphasis on strategic stability … A robust offensive and defensive cyber warfare capability, combined with dialogue with Russia and others designed to promote strategic stability in the cyber sphere. Restored official and citizen-to-citizen contacts. … This strategy is not predicated on Russia’s liking us; it is based on strengthening our own security. Like it or not, building paths to Russia is part of ensuring U.S. security.”

“Agents of Doubt: How a powerful Russian propaganda machine chips away at Western notions of truth,” Anton Troianovskiand Joby Warrick, The Washingotn Post, 12.11.18The authors, journalists for the news outlet, write:

  • “The initial plan was a Cold War classic … Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison … But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours … a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway … the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear.”
  • “Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately … all of them sowing doubt about Russia's involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. … Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014 … They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia's arsenal.”
  • “In the West, government agencies fear that Russia's efforts are contributing to a growing distrust in traditional sources of information and blurring the line between fact and fiction. … Just as often, the stream flows in the opposite direction. … Since the start of the Trump era, Russian channels regularly echo the U.S. president's allegations about an American ‘deep state’ and his depictions of the mainstream media as ‘fake news.’”
  • “The resulting muddle was highlighted by Putin himself … while responding to a question about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. ‘As for who to believe, who you can't believe, can you believe at all?’ Putin mused, before answering his own questions: ‘You can't believe anyone.’”

“The Maria Butina Case Is Not About Spying,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 12.14.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Two things stand out in this week’s plea deal of Maria Butina … The description of her offense by federal prosecutors doesn’t mention any link to Russian intelligence services and the plea agreement says she’s willing to cooperate with the U.S. authorities despite knowing she’ll almost certainly be deported to Russia.”
  • “She’s admitted helping Torshin organize a back channel for the Russian government to the U.S. gun lobby and conservative politicians close to it. Back channels of communication based on personal contacts and common interests are not inevitably malicious. … I can easily imagine someone like Butina going unpunished during the Cold War.”
  • “Ultimately, it was up to the U.S. authorities whether to prosecute Butina or let her hold overt meetings with conservatives, deeming them harmless to national security and perhaps even useful for fostering communication. They decided to prosecute, even though the court documents in Butina’s case describe activities that were unrelated to the illegal hunt for information, which is how dictionaries define spying.”
  • “This decision … does send a message to Americans that any Russian they meet could be a Kremlin agent. It’s easier not to take part in any such meetings than to ask whether their Russian counterpart has registered as a foreign lobbyist and filed the necessary paperwork. … If sending this message was indeed the point of building a case against Butina, it raises questions of how the American justice system is applied to citizens of countries with whom the U.S. is at odds.”

“Russia Wants to Extend US Space Partnership. Or It Could Turn to China,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 12.11.18The author, a journalist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Russian space officials … hope to persuade Washington to continue joint piloted exploration in the next decade rather than split into separate paths. They face significant hurdles. … The American incentives for engaging with Russia in space in the 1990s … have mostly disappeared with the resumption of tensions.”
  • “The Trump administration has already proposed that by 2025 the United States should stop supporting the International Space Station … In its place, NASA plans to place a habitable station called Gateway in orbit around the moon and send probes to the surface, while testing technologies for possible trips to Mars.”
  • “It is unclear how much longer the post-Soviet era of space cooperation … can last in the more hostile environment now surrounding relations. … The American and Russian piloted space programs should remain merged, he [Russian space chief Rogozin] said, as a symbol of coexistence and the peaceful pursuit of science. He also argued that it would be a mistake to leave the Russians out of any risky venture in space. Russian hardware would provide a safety net if something went wrong near the moon.”
  • “Analysts say Moscow has a strong incentive to maintain the joint program: a decided lack of money to pursue a lunar station on its own. Russia's budget for its space program is something less than one-tenth what the United States spends on NASA. Mr. Bridenstine, the NASA chief, has said he would like Russia to participate in the lunar program, and he temporarily lifted sanctions imposed on Mr. Rogozin during the Ukraine crisis so that he could pay a visit and continue the talks. … But if talks fail, Russia can turn to China or India for partnership.” 

Global order:

“How a World Order Ends. And What Comes in Its Wake,” Richard Haass, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “The more illuminating parallel to the present is the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century. … That order’s demise and what followed offer instructive lessons for today—and an urgent warning. Just because an order is in irreversible decline does not mean that chaos or calamity is inevitable. But if the deterioration is managed poorly, catastrophe could well follow.”
  • “[T]he rise and fall of major powers determines the viability of the prevailing order, since changes in economic strength, political cohesion and military power shape what states can and are willing to do beyond their borders. … Those changes upended the balance of power that had been the concert’s foundation. … The concert’s great-power comity ended … because of competition on the periphery. … [T]he process of deterioration is often not evident to decision-makers until it has advanced considerably.”
  • “The global order built in the aftermath of World War II consisted of two parallel orders … One grew out of the Cold War … The other … was the liberal order … Both of these orders served the interests of the United States. … [T]oday, both orders have deteriorated.”
  • “Although Russia has avoided any direct military challenge to NATO, it has nonetheless shown a growing willingness to disrupt the status quo … The liberal order is exhibiting its own signs of deterioration. … Today’s world order has struggled to cope with power shifts … Globalization has had destabilizing effects … Nationalism and populism have surged … Meanwhile, effective statecraft is conspicuously lacking. … Given these changes, resurrecting the old order will be impossible. It would also be insufficient, thanks to the emergence of new challenges.”
  • “The deterioration of a world order can set in motion trends that spell catastrophe. … What we are seeing today resembles the mid-nineteenth century in important ways: the post–World War II, post–Cold War order cannot be restored, but the world is not yet on the edge of a systemic crisis. Now is the time to make sure one never materializes.”

“The Age of Uneasy Peace. Chinese Power in a Divided World,” Yan Xuetong, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The author, a professor at Tsinghua University, writes:

  • “In early October 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a searing speech … enumerating a long list of reproaches against China. … The tone was … blunt enough for some to interpret it as a harbinger of a new Cold War between China and the United States. … [T]he comparison contains a kernel of truth: … U.S. hegemony is over, and bipolarity is set to return, with China playing the role of the junior superpower.”
  • “The transition will be a tumultuous, perhaps even violent, affair, as China’s rise sets the country on a collision course with the United States over a number of clashing interests. But … Beijing has no clear plan for … shaping new international norms from the ground up. … [A] bipolar U.S.-Chinese world will not be a world on the brink of apocalyptic war. …. … Chinese foreign policy in the coming decade will largely focus on maintaining the conditions necessary for the country’s continued economic growth.”
  • “The coming bipolarity will be an era of uneasy peace between the two superpowers. … Beijing and Washington will largely carry out their competition in the economic and technological realms. … Proxy wars, however, cannot be ruled out, nor can military skirmishes among lesser states. … Russia, in particular, may not shy away from war as it tries to regain its superpower status and maintain its influence in eastern Europe and the Middle East.”
  • “U.S.-Chinese bipolarity will likely spell the end of sustained multilateralism outside strictly economic realms … Rather than form clearly defined military-economic blocs, most states will adopt a two-track foreign policy, siding with the United States on some issues and China on others.”

“More, Less or Different? Where US Foreign Policy Should—and Shouldn’t—Go From Here,” Jake Sullivan, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:

  • “What is the purpose of U.S. foreign policy? Are there fundamental changes in the world that demand a corresponding change in approach? … Into this … conversation enter Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, each with a new book, each making his long-standing argument about the failures of U.S. foreign policy with renewed ferocity.”
  • “Both Walt and Mearsheimer have neglected the recent shifts in the center of gravity of the Washington foreign policy consensus. The debates of 2018 are not the debates of 2002. … Virtually every argument policymakers make in response to the scholars’ critique has to lean on counterfactuals. … ‘The alternative would have been worse!’ is never a fun argument to resort to in a debate, and yet sometimes it’s just the right answer.”
  • “Both authors have remarkably little to say about the central debates in U.S. foreign policy today—the vexing questions that the Blob has been wrestling with since 2016. The first is how to shape a deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relationship so that it advances U.S. interests without turning into outright confrontation. … The second … is … [t]o what extent are the United States’ main competitors systematically exporting their illiberalism, and what are the implications for U.S. strategy? … China and Russia ‘share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism,’ and therefore U.S. foreign policy needs to privilege the defense of democracy in the context of great-power competition.”
  • “The Trump era, along with broader changes in the international environment, has put many assumptions back up for debate. Walt, especially, sees this moment as a golden opportunity for progressives, libertarians and academic realists to join together to defeat the liberal internationalists. The real trend appears to be going in a different direction.”

“America’s Long Goodbye. The Real Crisis of the Trump Era,” Eliot A. Cohen, Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18The author, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, writes:

  • “The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order … The real tragedy, however, … is that his is merely one mangled interpretation of what is rapidly emerging as a new consensus on the left and the right: that the United States should accept a more modest role in world affairs.”
  • “There is an idea behind Trump’s foreign policy … but not a concept of geopolitics … The short-term damage of Trump’s first two years has … been less than what many feared. In the long term, however, his malign influence will not be escaped so easily.”
  • “[H]is antics and rhetoric have undermined U.S. credibility. According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center … the international public places more faith not only in Macron and Merkel relative to Trump but also in Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. … If U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation … ends with a credible accusation against the president or one of his family members, it will mean a domestic political crisis with spillover effects on foreign policy.”
  • “What’s most dangerous about Trump’s worldview is not its incoherent or erratic elements but its coherent and consistent ones … [H]is worldview is not all that different from that of his predecessor: Trump believes, as Barack Obama did, that most U.S. interventions abroad have been costly and stupid and that the United States should focus on nation building at home. This suggests that Trump’s emphasis on putting ‘America first’ is … an expression of something deeper and more consequential: a permanent shift, among American leaders, away from the dominant postwar conception of U.S. foreign policy.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Isolation and Reconquista: Russia’s Toolkit as a Constrained Great Power,” Marlene Laruelle, Russia Matters, 12.12.18The author, co-director of PONARS Eurasia at The George Washington University, writes:

  • “Today … Moscow is more isolated from its Western counterparts than at any time since the early 1980s, but also the most active and visible on the non-Western international scene that it’s been since then.”
  • “This is no accident: In the atmosphere of deteriorated trust with the West, Moscow has progressively built a dual strategy of isolation and ‘Reconquista’—seeing and portraying itself at once as beleaguered and newly triumphant, a beacon of hope for those disappointed with the U.S.-led world order.”
  • “This dual strategy aims to buy time to cement Russia’s claims to great-power status, or at least to shift the global balance in that general direction, with a relatively well-assessed cost-benefit analysis: low cost for Moscow, but with effective power projection, and an overstretched U.S. already busy in so many other theaters. This strategy has clear disadvantages over the long term, but may be Russia’s best bet for the next five to 10 years.”

“France’s Yellow Vests Aren’t Imported from Russia. Such movements may be cheered by outsiders, but they’re homegrown,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 12.11.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “The French security services are reportedly looking into the Russian boosting of the Yellow Vest cause. Even though it’s taking place quite openly, the investigators are on the same wild goose chase as Vladimir Putin’s regime following the Moscow protests of 2011-2012.”
  • “Maybe it’s time for democratic leaders and dictators alike to realize something important about the modern brand of protest, no matter where it takes place … If pro-establishment U.S. voices or Russian propaganda channels cheer it on, that doesn’t make it an import. … Protests can spring up anywhere these two factors exist: A very real sense of estrangement from a country’s elite and authorities, and social networks.”
  • “This doesn’t mean, of course, that foreign powers won’t try to take advantage of the protests. That’s what’s happening with the Russian propaganda and the Trump tweet. But the core reasons for the protests are domestic, as Macron clearly realizes given his belated … attempt to appease the protesters. Faced with a version of the Yellow Vests, any nation’s elite must look inward; the question to answer is, ‘What have we done wrong?’”


“China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making,” Graham Allison, The National Interest, 12.16.18The author, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, writes:

  • “The year before he died in 2017 … Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, ‘the most dangerous scenario,’ he warned, would be ‘a grand coalition of China and Russia … united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.’ This coalition ‘would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.’”
  • “The Nixon-Kissinger gambit is now known as ‘playing the China card.’ Today we should be asking: is Xi Jinping’s China ‘playing the Russia card?’ … Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. But political leaders live in the here and now. Denied opportunities in the West, what alternative do Russians have but to turn East? ... The confluence of China’s strategic foresight and exquisite diplomacy, on the one hand, and U.S. and Western European clumsiness, on the other, has produced an increasingly thick and consequential alignment between two geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.
  • “In international relations, an elementary proposition states: ‘the enemy of my enemy is a friend.’ The balance of power … between rivals is critical. To the extent that China persuades Russia to sit on its side of the see-saw, this adds to China’s heft, a nuclear superpower alongside an economic superpower. … What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a ‘functional military alliance.’”
  • “[W]e should ask whether Brzezinski’s warning about the ‘most dangerous scenario’ could soon become a fact.”

“Ignoring Possible Sino-Russian Cooperation Against the United States, and the Factors That Can Exacerbate It, Could Be Very Costly,” Dimitri K. Simes, The National Interest, 12.16.18The author, president of The Center for the National Interest, writes:

  • “In private, Chinese and Russian officials and experts express scant confidence that their two countries can build a lasting alliance. … If Russian officials do not see acceptable and feasible changes … that could facilitate a better relationship with the United States and its allies, they may believe that they have few options other than closer relations with Beijing.”
  • “Of course, neither Moscow or Beijing are currently discussing formal mutual security obligations. But there is more and more talk of a political, economic and military partnership between the two nations. … Should such an alignment come to pass, the dynamics of global geopolitics and economics would change profoundly to America’s and the West’s disadvantage.”
  • “Today Russia and China are capable of challenging the United States, its allies and its partners on a far greater scale than any adversary since the Cold War. … The very possibility of a Sino-Russian alliance of convenience emboldens Moscow in facing American pressure and makes Russia more willing to target U.S. interests worldwide if the relationship further deteriorates.”
  • “There is no path to responsible policymaking that does not begin with understanding and accounting for the unintended consequences of confronting two great powers simultaneously.”


“Don't Let Ukraine Drag America Into War. The adage to not let a weak ally make major decisions still rings true,” Ted Galen Carpenter, The National Interest, 12.10.18The author, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, writes:

  • “Ukraine’s behavior in the Kerch Strait is another example of a U.S. ally (or security dependent) trying to gain American military backing for its own parochial agenda. Georgia sought to do that in 2008 regarding its territorial dispute with Russia … A European Union-sponsored report subsequently concluded that Georgia started the fighting that broke out in August of that year.”
  • “U.S. leaders need to be far more alert to such maneuvers and take steps to make certain that the American republic does not become entangled in conflicts that have little or no connection to important American interests.”
  • “Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s conduct before, during and after the November Kerch Strait incident, should trouble all thoughtful Americans. … Kiev considers the strait international waters and points to a 2003 bilateral navigation treaty with Russia to vindicate its position. However … Moscow now treats the strait as Russian territorial waters. It insists on forty-eight hours notice and explicit Russian approval before Ukrainian ships can use the strait. Ukraine had complied with that requirement a few months earlier, but in late November declined to do so and attempted to carry out an unapproved crossing. … The motive for Kiev’s challenge was murky and the timing extremely suspicious. Poroshenko faces a tough reelection campaign in Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of March. … Poroshenko had ample political reasons for wanting a crisis.”
  • “The United States is drifting toward a perilous confrontational policy toward Russia on Ukraine’s behalf. The status of the Kerch Strait or even the broader controversy about Crimea’s status can and should be a matter of indifference to America. … The Trump administration needs to put far greater distance between U.S. and Ukrainian policies, not close that distance.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Religious soft power in the South Caucasus: The influence of Iran and Turkey,” Ansgar Jödicke, Brookings Institution, 12.13.18The author, a senior lecturer at the University of Fribourg, writes:

  • “In 2017, Mehran Kamrava published … a volume about Iranian and Turkish influence in the South Caucasus. Kamrava’s thesis is that Iran and Turkey have started a new geopolitical competition for influence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, the rivalry between Iran and Turkey is not new and the ‘power game’ in the South Caucasus is not limited to these two middle powers.”
  • “Iran and Turkey have been playing this game for years and the South Caucasus is still under strong influence from Russia. Nevertheless, … the changing geopolitical situation has opened up new options for Iran and Turkey to influence this region.”
  • “Iran’s and Turkey’s policies promote their respective official views of Shiism and Sunnism, and these religious components spill over into—and potentially become relevant for understanding—foreign policy. The target countries Azerbaijan and Georgia have inhabitants with the same religious affiliation as Iran and Turkey.”
  • “The fact that religious soft power exists as a tool in the foreign policy repertoire of some states does not mean that religion is something outside the political world or a force that somehow transcends geopolitical realities. Rather, the use of religious soft power by some states reflects a recognition of religion as deeply embedded in society and available as a resource for mobilization in certain bilateral relationships.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Rule by KPI: The Kremlin’s New Approach to Governing Russia,” Andrey Pertsev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.12.18The author, a journalist with Kommersant, writes:

  • “Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, has been hard at work training Russian government officials in the art of corporate governance—a sign that the Kremlin has decided to reduce politics to cut-and-dried numbers, and itemize and grade the government’s interactions with the public.”
  • “Bureaucrats will now be evaluated with the help of key performance indicators (KPIs), while meetings of the State Council … already feature elements of business training and brainstorming sessions. Apparently, the Kremlin believes that rigid corporate structures—with a Soviet tinge—are an appropriate response to growing discontent.”
  • “The dangers of the Kremlin’s new approach … are already making themselves known. Newly appointed government officials deflect the people’s complaints by deriding them as lazy. From a corporate perspective, they are merely putting slacking employees in their place, but from a political standpoint, their arrogant statements simply contribute to the growth of discontent. … [T]he Kremlin is fencing itself off—at the risk of completely separating itself from reality.”

“The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire,” Michael Scammell, New York Times, 12.11.18The author, a biographer, writes:

  • “When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure … This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders … Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.”
  • “That novella, ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’ took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.”
  • “When the government of Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed in 1991 he [Solzhenitsyn] enjoyed both the thrill of success and the satisfaction of being of being proved right in his predictions of disaster. Three years later, he returned to Russia and received a hero’s welcome. But he didn’t much like what he saw there.”
  • “What he advocated was a strong leader, who maintained strict order in the country, encouraged more religion and state support for the Orthodox church, together with a revitalized patriotism and a return to traditional values. He seemed to get his wish in 2000, when Mr. Yeltsin handed the presidency over to … Vladimir Putin.”
  • “Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, before Mr. Putin showed his true colors … Solzhenitsyn should be remembered for his role as a truth-teller. He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees.”

“Kremlin Jails a Veteran Human Rights Activist—For a Facebook Post,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 12.12.18The author, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes:

  • “Thousands of Muscovites came to the Central House of Journalists … to pay their respects to Ludmila Alekseeva, a veteran Russian human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group who died last week at the age of 91.”
  • “The memorial ceremony was notable less for the presence of Putin … than the absence of Lev Ponomarev, himself a veteran human rights campaigner … A few miles away … he was being held in a cell at the Interior Ministry Special Detention Center #1 after being sentenced to jail for the ‘repeat offense’ of violating the law on public demonstrations. His crime was posting on Facebook about rallies in support of teenage opposition activists arrested on extremism charges.”
  • “The judges who put a 77-year-old human rights activist in jail for a Facebook post could be held to account internationally. Six years ago this week, the United States led the Western world in adopting legislation [the Magnitsky Act] that provided for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.