Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 11-18, 2023

4 Ideas to Explore

  1. U.S. and Ukrainian military leaders are searching for a new strategy that they can begin executing early next year to revive Kyiv’s fortunes and America’s flagging support for the country’s war against Russia, officials in Washington and Kyiv told NYT. Some in the U.S. military believe Ukraine could pursue a “hold and build” strategy to focus on holding the territory it has and building its ability to produce weapons over 2024, according to NYT. Without both a new strategy and additional funding, American officials say Ukraine could lose the war, according to NYT. In fact, the conflict has already reached an “inflection point … where it could very rapidly tip … into a losing proposition for Ukraine,” Fiona Hill, a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, warns in an interview to Politico. Like the U.S. officials interviewed by NYT, Richard Haass of CFR also believes that Ukraine needs to move away from its current strategy. “We need to define success as not that Ukraine militarily liberates all of its land, but that Ukraine becomes a permanent fixture,” he argues in WSJ. In contrast, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba insists in a commentary for FA on the continued pursuit of a maximalist “end result” that would include “fully restoring our territorial integrity and bringing those responsible for international crimes to justice.”
  2. The outlook for Ukraine in 2024 is bleak, in the view of Gideon Rachman, as Ukrainian forces are forced to ration ammunition while Western countries struggle to agree on new packages of military aid. Rachman also points to a change of rhetoric by U.S. President Joe Biden during Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to DC last week. “Western leaders normally pledge to support Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes.’ But President Joe Biden recently ominously revised that to ‘as long as we can,’” Rachman notes. Given this, Ukraine should reformulate its theory of victory, according to this FT columnist. Ukraine’s “status as an independent nation … will never be erased again. In the great sweep of history, that is a victory that will really count,” Rachman suggests.
  3. If the West maintains support for Ukraine, then “the chances rise starkly for a round of meaningful peace negotiations a year from now,” according to James Stavridis. This retired U.S. admiral envisions these negotiations would be held under either U.N. auspices or possibly some combination involving the U.S., European Union, China and India. The former commander of NATO forces in Europe speculates in his Bloomberg column that Zelensky might consider “temporarily or even permanently ceding Crimea and the ‘land bridge’ connecting it to Russia in exchange for acquiescence in EU and NATO.”  
  4. Is Putin ready to normalize relations with the U.S.? One may have gotten that impression from the Russian leader’s remarks at his annual call-in show and press conference last week. “We are ready to build relations with the United States,” Putin told the audience of that Dec. 14 show, describing America as “an important country on the world stage.” Putin—who recently announced his reelection bid—also said during the show that he is prepared to communicate with European leaders, though he did not shy away from criticizing both Europe and America in the remarks that he made during this show. Putin’s Dec. 14 remarks indicate that he “is waiting for the West to reconsider its policy and start looking for opportunities for an inclusive dialogue,” R.Politik’s Tatiana Stanovaya writes in her take on Putin’s remarks. “Sending out the signal that Russia is ready for such a dialogue was one of the main aims of the phone-in and press conference,” she argues in a commentary for CEIP.

Dear readers: Please be advised that Russia Analytical Report will resume publication on Tuesday, Jan. 2 due to Harvard’s winter recess. We wish you all happy holidays and the best in the New Year!


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

Nuclear security and safety:

“Why the World Should Still Worry About Dirty Bombs. With Radiological Weapons, States—Not Terrorists—Pose the Main Risk,” William C. Potter, Sarah Bidgood and Hanna Notte, FA, 12.15.23. 

  • The war in Ukraine has revived interest in the risks of radiological weapons. Shortly after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Russian media began to disseminate unsubstantiated claims that Russian forces had interrupted a Ukrainian radiological weapons program … based at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power station. Russia’s subsequent seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and its shelling of other nuclear facilities in Ukraine raised the specter of the unintended dispersal of radioactive material in a fashion that might have resembled the battlefield effects of radiological weapons.
  • Ironically, the Soviet Union—along with the United States—had led the initial effort to negotiate a ban on radiological warfare. A draft convention submitted to the Committee on Disarmament … by the two superpowers in 1979 specified that parties to the accord would agree not to develop, produce, stockpile, otherwise acquire or use radiological weapons. Consensus could not be reached, however.
  • It is significant, therefore, that in October 2023, the United States and 38 co-sponsors introduced a remarkably similar draft resolution on radiological weapons at the UN General Assembly. ... Although some adversaries of the United States opposed the draft resolution, its final version was adopted by a vote of 159 to 5 with 13 abstentions. (The five naysayers were Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria. China abstained.) ... A senior diplomat from one state that voted in favor of the resolution raised an interesting question shortly after the vote about what prompted the resolution. Was there new intelligence to suggest that some states were considering the launch of radiological weapons programs?
  • U.S. officials have yet to respond to the question, but they believe this effort is long overdue. The recent UN vote has convinced them that banning radiological weapons has broad support. The test will now come at the Conference on Disarmament, where prospects for the accord are dim … If talks founder there, Washington might support commissioning an international group of government experts who would assess the dangers posed by radiological weapons and make recommendations about how to prevent or mitigate these risks. They could in turn recommend legally binding restraints on the production and use of radiological weapons, as well as the adoption of nonproliferation and nonuse commitments, the creation of radiological weapons-free zones, and the fostering of a taboo against radiological weapons through civil society engagement and public education.
  • With little certainty that this will transpire, shedding more light on the impediments faced by past would-be radiological weapons proliferators could discourage new states from investing in them in the first place.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict:

“Rebuilding Resiliency: Kyiv’s Opportunity to Bolster its Defense,” Liam Collins, John Spencer, and Benjamin Yarckin, War on the Rocks, 12.12.23. 

  • Throughout history, cities — especially capital cities — have been operational and strategic objectives in war. As such, numerous cities around the world have risen, fallen, and been rebuilt as they rise again. While Kyiv may not have fallen during Russia’s most recent invasion, it easily could have. Regardless, the city’s metropolitan area likely suffered tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and many countries have pledged billions to help Ukraine rebuild. 
  • As Kyiv rebuilds, it should consider how to include dual-purpose strongpoint buildings, large concrete waterways, an expanded and enhanced underground, and green space around major intersections so that bunkers could be built down instead of up. Population centers were once built with defense as a top priority. Recent history has shown that leaving a city’s defense to its nation’s borders is a dangerous proposition. It is time that Kyiv, and other cities in nations that border expansionist neighbors, once again make the defense part of city planning.

Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:

“U.S. and Ukraine Search for a New Strategy After Failed Counteroffensive,” Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, David E. Sanger and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, NYT, 12.11.23.

  • American and Ukrainian military leaders are searching for a new strategy that they can begin executing early next year to revive Kyiv’s fortunes and flagging support for the country’s war against Russia, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
  • Ukraine’s setbacks have come as Republican support for continuing American financial assistance for Kyiv has eroded. Even some senior U.S. officials have expressed worries that if the war falls into a long stalemate next year, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will gain the advantage.
  • U.S. and Ukrainian military officers say they hope to work out the details of a new strategy next month in a series of war games scheduled to be held in Wiesbaden, Germany.
  • Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the top American commander in Europe, has been taking a bigger role in coordinating with Ukrainian officials. The Pentagon has also decided to dispatch Lt. Gen. Antonio A. Aguto Jr., who commands the support of Ukraine from a base in Germany, to spend lengthy periods of time in Kyiv. Gen. Aguto will work more directly with the country’s military leadership to improve the advice the United States is offering, American officials said. While the White House has opted not to have U.S. military advisers in the country permanently, Gen. Aguto’s frequent rotations in and out of Kyiv would inch toward the end of that restriction.
  • At U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, senior American military leaders, including Gen. Cavoli and Gen. Aguto, met with two top Ukrainian officials last week to discuss the broad strokes of the strategy in the next year.
    • Without both a new strategy and additional funding, American officials say Ukraine could lose the war. This implies that Kyiv would still lose if it doesn’t change strategy, even if funding is resumed.*
    • The Americans are pushing for a conservative strategy that focuses on holding the territory Ukraine has, digging in and building up supplies and forces over the course of the year. The Ukrainians want to go on the attack, either on the ground or with long-range strikes, with the hopes of seizing the world’s attention.
    • Some in the U.S. military want Ukraine to pursue a “hold and build” strategy — to focus on holding the territory it has and building its ability to produce weapons over 2024. 
    • Scoring some strategic and symbolic victories, while strengthening their defenses and building up their own abilities to produce more weaponry, could be enough to strengthen Ukraine’s hand when calls for peace talks to end the war inevitably restart.
    • American officials say that without a change in strategy, 2024 could be akin to 1916, the deadliest year of World War I, when thousands of young men lost their lives and battle lines changed very little.
      • U.S. and Ukrainian strategists did not initially realize how much more Russians were strengthening their defenses. 
      • Russian drones were able to cut communications between frontline troops and Ukraine’s command post. Other drones were used to spot Ukraine’s mine-sweeping teams, allowing Russia to send attack helicopters to strike them.
      • Compounding Ukraine’s problems were sharp disagreements with U.S. generals on how and where to employ the new mechanized forces. Ukrainian officials, including Mr. Zelensky, concluded that the eastern part of the country was the most important theater as Russian forces focused their efforts there. Washington saw Ukraine’s east, including the Donbas region, as strategically less important than the occupied southern coastline.
  • Many Ukrainian leaders do not realize how precarious continued U.S. funding for the war is, American officials said. These Ukrainian generals and senior civilian officials have unrealistic expectations about what the United States will supply, they said. They are asking for millions of rounds of artillery, for example, from Western stockpiles that do not exist. American officials say Ukraine will have to fight on a tighter budget.

“Ukraine’s army is struggling to find good recruits, The Economist, 12.17.23. 

  • The new recruits came from a variety of backgrounds, but they shared one thing: after rudimentary training in western Europe, none of them expected to be deployed to an assault unit at the hottest section of the Ukrainian front line. Some had signed up voluntarily, expecting to be given places in units that suited their profiles … Others were plucked from their villages with little warning. One older recruit didn’t even have the chance to pick up his false teeth.

  • What lawyers describe as a “deployment lottery” is straining the recruitment process [in Ukraine]. Army chiefs are struggling to fill places with the willing; some are resorting to conscription raids on gyms and shopping centers. Few of those who are signed up this way make good soldiers. “We’re seeing 45- to 47-year-olds,” complains one senior officer. “They are out of breath by the time they reach the front line.”

  • Recognizing the problem, in September Ukraine’s defense ministry began work on a new mobilization strategy. The reforms aim to give those who are wavering more choice: new recruits can, more or less, sign up for a specific position. A new digital register will improve the ministry’s understanding of Ukraine’s manpower resources. There will be a clearer system of rest and rotations. Eventually, volunteers will be mobilized for a finite period, not indefinitely as is the case now.

  • Ukrainian critics of the government in Kyiv, meanwhile, charge that the country is only “pretending to mobilize.” Viktor Kevlyuk, a retired colonel who oversaw the implementation of mobilization policy for the western half of the country from 2014—when Russia first invaded—to 2021, says Ukraine risks falling into a trap. Russia will step up its mobilization after its presidential election in March is over, he thinks. (HUR, Ukraine’s military-intelligence agency, agrees.)

  • Tough decisions lie ahead. For Col. Kevlyuk, the army is a beast that must be fed: “We have no choice other than to be bloodthirsty,” he says. But some officials prefer a more consensual approach. The high-level source predicts media campaigns promoting national sacrifice and warning that Russia continues to pose an existential threat. 

  • The task is to convince potential recruits. “Conductor,” one of the men deployed to the ill-fated unit in the Donbas, says he is committed to serving his country, “but only in a way that can be useful.” In the meantime he is occupied “24/7” in securing a transfer away from the assault forces. “You can’t just write people’s lives off like this,” he says. 

“Stalemate Is Not Checkmate in Ukraine,” Philip Wasielewski, FPRI, 12.11.23. 

  • The ground war in Ukraine is now at a stalemate, a predicament which is neither a sign of impending defeat nor an unusual occurrence in war. While one aspect of a war may be “frozen” for a time, wars usually consist of many different geographic theaters, environments (air, land, sea, space, cyber), and aspects (economic, psychological, political), whose combination is what generally determines victory or defeat. 
  • History has shown that past stalemates in war often cause participants to innovate and create new tactics and/or technologies and mobilize heretofore untouched resources to move past stalemate and towards victory.
  • The decision to provide aid to Ukraine should not depend on what phase this war is in, even if it is currently a static one. The United States started its support to the Ukrainian people at their darkest hour when there was little hope of survival, let alone victory. It should not end it because the war has not met arbitrary expectations or timelines.

“Ukrainian Strikes Have Changed Russian Naval Operations in the Black Sea,” Nicole Wolkov, Daniel Mealie and Kateryna Stepanenko, ISW, 12.16.23. 

  • Ukrainian strikes against Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) assets have changed Russian naval operating patterns, causing the BSF to move some ships away from its main base in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea and hampering the BSF’s ability to interfere with maritime trade in the western part of the Black Sea. Ukrainian strikes have likely caused the BSF to set conditions for a more permanent basing pattern along the eastern Black Sea coast as it transfers naval assets away from Crimea and expands a small port in de facto Russian-controlled Ochamchire, Abkhazia. Ukrainian strikes against BSF assets have successfully facilitated the use of Ukraine’s Black Sea grain corridor as international support for the corridor continues to increase despite Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative and military threats against it.

“The High Price of Losing Ukraine. Military-Strategic and Financial Implications of Russian Victory,” Frederick W. Kagan, Kateryna Stepanenko, Mitchell Belcher, Noel Mikkelsen and Thomas Bergeron, ISW, 12.14.23. 

  • The United States has a much higher stake in Russia's war on Ukraine than most people think. A Russian conquest of all of Ukraine is by no means impossible if the United States cuts off all military assistance and Europe follows suit. Such an outcome would bring a battered but triumphant Russian army right up to NATO’s border from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. The Ukrainian military with Western support has destroyed nearly 90% of the Russian army that invaded in February 2022 according to US intelligence sources, but the Russians have replaced those manpower losses and are ramping up their industrial base to make good their material losses at a rate much faster than their pre-war capacity had permitted.
  • A victorious Russian army at the end of this war will be combat experienced and considerably larger than the pre-2022 Russian land forces. The Russian economy will gradually recover as sanctions inevitably erode and Moscow develops ways to circumvent or mitigate those that remain. Over time it will replace its equipment and rebuild its coherence, drawing on a wealth of hard-won experience fighting mechanized warfare. It will bring with it advanced air defense systems that only American stealth aircraft—badly needed to deter and confront China—can reliably penetrate. Russia can pose a major conventional military threat to NATO for the first time since the 1990s in a timeframe set to a considerable extent by how much the Kremlin invests in its military. Since Moscow has already committed to an ambitious post-war military expansion program the US cannot be confident that the timeframe will be very long.
  • The overall military potential of the United States and its NATO allies is so much greater than that of Russia that there is no reason to doubt the West’s ability to defeat any conceivable Russian military even assuming that Russia fully absorbs Ukraine and Belarus. But as Americans consider the costs of continuing to help Ukraine fight the Russians in the coming years, they deserve a careful consideration of the costs of allowing Russia to win. Those costs are much higher than most people imagine.
  • Almost any other outcome of the Ukraine war is preferable to this one. Helping Ukraine keep the lines where they are through continuous Western military support is far more advantageous and cheaper for the United States than allowing Ukraine to lose. “Freezing” the conflict is worse than continuing to help Ukraine fight—that would simply give Russia time and space to prepare for a renewed war to conquer Ukraine and confront NATO. Helping Ukraine regain control of all or most of its territory would be much more advantageous, as it would drive Russian forces even further to the east. Best of all, supporting Ukraine to its victory and then helping it rebuild would put the largest and most combat-effective friendly military on the European continent at the forefront of the defense of NATO—whether Ukraine does or does not ultimately join the alliance.

“Russia’s Election Gives Ukraine an Opportunity to Rebuild Forces,” Alexander Finiarel, MT, 12.15.23. 

  • Russia will hold presidential elections in March 2024. The results are a foregone conclusion — Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Vladimir Putin will be re-elected president with 90% of the vote. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the elections do not matter to the Kremlin. In electoral autocracies, elections are used to demonstrate a dictator’s popular support to citizens, elites and outsiders. In 2024, the election will also be used to show the Russian people remain committed to the war.
  • However, there has to be some portion of the population that supports Putin so that the government can claim it is indeed so widespread. For this purpose, before the elections, it must win over citizens by flooding them with good news about fulfilled promises and national projects being completed. If the opposition can demonstrate during the election period that it is gaining strength and the dictator is in retreat, it increases the likelihood of a coup in the first six months to a year after the election.
  • Therefore, a new mobilization before the elections is almost completely ruled out, since the authorities are trying to reduce the risk of social tension. This opens a window of strategic opportunity for Ukraine. Kyiv can afford to make unpopular decisions because the public still supports continuing to war to victory. Furthermore, because elections cannot be held during a period of martial law, Zelensky does not need to worry about damage to his re-election prospects.
  • After the elections, Putin’s hands will no longer be tied and he will almost certainly start a new wave of mobilization. He will no longer need to care about public opinion, which means he can draft almost anyone he wants. So Ukraine should act now to stay ahead of the curve, preparing for the expansion and renewal of its military. This will have to be done anyway, given the fact that the end of the war is not yet in sight. 

Military aid to Ukraine:

“Remarks by President Biden and President Zelensky of Ukraine in Joint Press Conference [with Volodymyr Zelensky],” The White House, 12.13.23. 


  • Putin has failed — failed in his effort to subjugate Ukraine. The brave people of Ukraine have defied Putin’s will at every turn, backed by the strong and unwavering support of the United States and our allies and partners of more than 50 nations — 50 nations — in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. And Ukraine will emerge from this war proud, free, and firmly rooted in the West, unless we walk away. 
  •  The American people can be and should be incredibly proud of the part they played in supporting Ukraine’s success. We’ll continue to supply Ukraine with critical weapons and equipment as long as we can, including $200 million I just approved today in a critical needed equipment: additional air-defense interceptors, artillery, and ammunition. But without supplemental funding, we’re rapidly coming to an end of our ability to help Ukraine respond to the urgent operational demands that it has.
  • Putin is banking on the United States failing to deliver for Ukraine. We must, we must, we must prove him wrong. 
  •  Today, Ukraine’s freedom is on the line. But if we don’t stop Putin, it will endanger the freedom of everyone almost everywhere. Putin will keep going, and would-be aggressors everywhere will be emboldened to try to take what they can by force. Mr. President, I will not walk away from Ukraine and neither will the American people. A clear bipartisan majority of people across the United States and in Congress support your country. They understand, as I do, that Ukraine’s success and its ability to deter aggression in the future are vital to security for the world at large. 


  • Today, President Biden and I discussed how to increase our strengths for next year.
    • First, air defense and destroying Russian logistics on Ukraine’s land. Mr. President, thank you very much for your supporting — supporting us and in these areas — like our victory in the Black Sea.  We aim to win the air battle, crushing Russian air dominance.  This will — this will intensify our ground advantages in 2024 with our control of the skies. Who controls the skies controls the war’s duration.
    • Second, yesterday I met with American — American defense company leaders. They advised us on how to make our defense industries work faster and more effectively. 
    • Third, I informed Mr. President that Ukraine has fulfilled all the recommendations of the European Commission regarding the preparation for a decision to start negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. 
    • American leadership is crucial. It’s keeping this unity together — a unity that serves the entire free world. And I thank America for new sanctions. And today we discussed Putin’s further isolation and making him pay for his aggression. 
  • We are working to turn our battlefield success into peace. And we are heading there together with you and thanks, of course, to your support.

“The cost of not funding Ukraine in its war against Russia,” Eric Rosenbach, BG, 12.13.23.

  • To understand the gravity of withdrawing support for Ukraine, Congress should look no further than the words of Putin himself. In a speech two months ago, Putin said, “Imagine that supplies will stop tomorrow — [Ukraine] will only have a week to live when the ammunition runs out.” Putin, who doesn't even blink at the more than 300,000 Russian casualties suffered since the invasion two years ago, will calmly flatten Ukraine if the United States and its allies deprive Ukraine of military support. And Putin is confident that America's fractious domestic politics will defeat Ukraine in a way that Russia never could alone.
  • Putin is not the only dictator closely watching the debate on Capitol Hill — President Xi Jinping of China knows that support for Ukraine is a harbinger of an American response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 
  • The risks of Russian tanks rolling up to the Polish border and China invading Taiwan should be serious enough to prompt action. Still, congressional skeptics should also consider that a failure to provide resources to Ukraine will fracture relations with key allies, and NATO in particular. 
  • Although funding Ukraine is crucial, the Biden administration must also recraft its strategy and framing of the war in Ukraine. In the past, Biden has said that the United States will stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes” rather than giving Ukraine “what it takes” to win. Unfortunately, the major offensive against Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine has stalled, in part because the tanks, long-range artillery, and modern aircraft Ukraine needed to advance against the Russians arrived too late or not at all. 
  • Absent funding and a more assertive strategy, the best case is that Putin gladly accepts a war of attrition that allows him to grind Ukraine into a peace deal that seals the currently occupied land as Russian soil. In the worst case, supporting Ukraine with $60 billion seems an outstanding investment compared to the costs of future aggression by Putin in Europe, an invasion of Taiwan by China and America that will be standing alone against those threats because we abandoned our closest allies.

“A compromise on the border would be good for Biden (and for Ukraine),” Marc A. Thiessen, WP, 12.14.23.

  • Getting tough on the border is in Biden's political interest. ... A recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that immigration is the second-most important issue to voters, and 64 percent disapprove of his border policies, while just 27 percent approve. That's because he has presided over the worst border crisis in U.S. history. In fiscal 2023, the record for the most encounters at the southern border was again broken — for the third year in a row. Last week, migrant encounters hit more 12,000 in a single day — the highest total ever recorded. To put that in perspective, in 2019, the Obama administration's homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said that 1,000 border encounters a day "overwhelms the system." Wouldn't it be better for Biden's reelection prospects if border encounters drop down from current record levels to the averages under the past three (Republican and Democratic) presidents?
  • Doing so would be good for Biden and good for the American people — and it would be good for Ukraine. The most devastating argument employed by the anti-Ukraine right is that Biden cares more about securing Ukraine's border than our own. Well, Biden could prove critics right by refusing to secure the U.S. border. Or he can prove them wrong by reaching an agreement with Republicans that would stop the flood of illegal migrants into this country and disarm the GOP isolationists of their most potent argument against aid to Ukraine. The American people — and the Ukrainian people — are waiting to see what he decides.

“Will America Betray Ukraine?” Review and Outlook, The Wall Street Journal, 12.14.23.

  • Both Ukraine and the border are U.S. security interests. The GOP has little to show for winning the House majority in 2022, and even a partial victory on border policy would be something to brag about back home. A deal would demonstrate to GOP voters that U.S. leadership abroad doesn't preclude addressing problems at home.
  • The slower the weapons delivery, the longer the fighting lasts and the less likely that Ukraine will be able to seize the initiative on the battlefield. Ukraine's critics want Kyiv to negotiate with Russia, but why would Mr. Putin settle now if he thinks he might win outright? An overrun Ukraine would be a second Afghanistan for President Biden. The strategic damage -- Mr. Putin victorious, an emboldened China -- would be much worse than the debacle in Kabul. Republicans don't want to co-own that world, and they will if they abandon Ukraine after its people have sacrificed so many lives for two years.
  • A Ukraine-border deal would be good for the country and a tonic for America's polarized politics. Kyiv isn't the only world capital watching to see whether the American President and lawmakers can still accomplish something so clearly in the nation's interest.

“Why 2025 Can Be a Good Year for Ukraine,” Holman W. Jenkins Jr., WSJ, 12.15.23.

  • It's fairly easy, in fact, to say when Mr. Putin should be ready to stop the fighting -- 2025. A 1% of GDP increase in NATO defense spending would be the equivalent of a 24% increase by Russia. Mr. Putin's 70% planned hike in actual outlays in 2024, equal to about 2% of GDP, is not a repeatable event. Meanwhile, though Western rearmament has been paltry and slow to get off the ground, eventually it will swamp Russia's year after year.
  • Western equipment will be able to offset Mr. Putin's ability to throw poorly trained recruits into battle on Tuesday and have them returned in body bags on Friday. Ukraine was never going to be given arms to fight this war by attacking air bases, military factories and transport hubs across the vastness of Russia. But the capabilities it relies on instead, such as ground maneuver, benefit from having time to train and become familiar with equipment.
  • Even a stalled U.S. aid package may not be as make-or-break in these circumstances at it seems. But it would be exceptionally idiotic to let Mr. Putin hope, even for a moment, the West might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for want of a few billion to see Ukraine through the next year. Each dollar helps to secure an investment already made in restarting the West's defense-industrial base, dismantling Russia's vaunted military modernization, while establishing a battle-hardened, modern Ukrainian army to serve as a linchpin of European security for decades to come.
  • Mr. Biden seems to be waiting now for a signal from Mr. Putin, who, for all his jaunty show of faux confidence, may be waiting on the counterintuitive possibilities of a second Donald Trump presidency.
  • Here's what he [Trump] actually said about Ukraine: "I know Zelensky very well, and I know Putin very well, even better. And I had a good relationship, very good with both of them. I would tell Zelensky: No more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin: If you don't make a deal, we're going to give them a lot. We're going to give them more than they ever got, if we have to. I will have the deal done in one day. One day."

“Washington dysfunction could get a lot of Ukrainians killed,” Josh Rogin, WP, 12.14.23.

  • "If their ammunition supply starts to choke, then they are put in a very precarious position," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. Despite talk of a stalemate, there are active battles going on in places such as Avdiivka and Bakhmut, where Ukrainians are depending on resupply of vital equipment from the United States to survive, he said. Late arriving ammunition is of little value if the soldiers waiting for it get killed.
  • "Ask [Senate Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer why he waited until the end of the year to tee this up, knowing about but trying to ignore the border issues," . Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.),  told me. "So, it will be a January exercise, I assume."
  • Worryingly, when Congress does reconvene in January, both sides' ability to make a deal [on border issues and aid to Ukraine] could be even more constrained. On the Republican side, Donald Trump's MAGA allies in Congress and anti-Ukraine aid groups such as the Heritage Foundation will have spent weeks urging GOP lawmakers not to support it. And on the Democrat side, progressive groups are already organizing to oppose any deal that includes significant concessions on immigration. "
  • At the end of the day, the administration has got to tell the far left something they don't want to hear," Lindsey Graham told me. "And I've got to tell my party something they don't want to hear: We are going to help Ukraine." All sides must compromise to push through emergency funding for Israel, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific and border security as soon as possible in the new year. It will take some courage and some risk for all parties. But the alternative is to let Russian President Vladimir Putin win, which would bring about an even bigger national security nightmare than we already have.

“In Ukraine, the risk isn't stalemate. It's defeat,” Lee Hockstader, WP, 12.13.23.

  • Putin's main advantage is strategic patience — the capacity to wait out what he is confident is finite Western political will and resources to sustain Ukraine, buttressed by his indifference to Russia's staggering casualties. In the end, he believes, Ukraine will be forced to capitulate.
  • If he is right, the timetable of that ending would be accelerated if Congress and the E.U. fail to approve fresh support. That would leave Ukraine's government unable to maintain basic services, and its military increasingly short of artillery ammunition, air defense capability and other equipment. Ukraine's already badly battered front-line forces would become more brittle. Russian territorial gains would be accompanied by murders, rapes, kidnapping of children and other Russian war crimes on a chilling scale.
  • That grim scenario would be a staggering blow to Western prestige and credibility, revealing that pledges to back Ukraine for "as long as it takes" were empty. A failure on that scale — let alone actual defeat in Ukraine — would have much more lasting repercussions than Kyiv's inability to break through Russian battle lines. It could raise the curtain on a new era of aggression by authoritarian states, unchecked by the world's diminished democracies.

“Ukraine shouldn't have to pay the price of the GOP's wedge politics,” E.J. Dionne Jr, WP, 12.17.23.

  • What can be done to shatter Putin's smugness? The Senate needs a deal. Biden and the Democrats have already signaled a willingness to give substantial ground on immigration, which could serve their party's electoral interests next year. It will take courage, but pro-Ukraine Senate Republicans must be willing to take yes for an answer and not press extreme demands they know Biden can't possibly agree to.

“No time to go wobbly on Ukraine,” Jeff Jacoby, BG, 12.17.23.

  • Ukrainians have fought tenaciously to preserve their democracy and independence in the face of a devastating Russian onslaught. Providing the funds they need to keep fighting is manifestly in America's national interest. With or without an immigration deal, Washington must not leave Ukraine in the lurch. This is no time to go wobbly.

“Putin Is All-In On Ukraine And Europe Must Be Too,” Mark Champion, Bloomberg, 12.15.23. 

  • Russia and the European Union set parameters for the next phase of the war in Ukraine on Thursday, as each recommitted to the fundamental positions that began the conflict back in 2014. By the time he renewed his vows in a year-end press conference, Vladimir Putin had already put his nation’s industry and mobilized youth where his mouth was. Europe, by contrast, dithered, in a mismatch of rhetoric and commitment that risks human tragedy and severe strategic loss.
  • There is one sense in which aid-skeptics are right: Neither Ukraine nor its backers have formulated a clear concept of victory, or the strategy to achieve it, since the previous yardstick – taking back all territory lost since the invasion, if not 2014 – became implausible with this years’ failure to achieve a breakthrough.
  • Estonia’s defense ministry just issued a discussion paper, that seeks to fill the void. The plan is at once encouraging and daunting. It’s clear that the combined $47 trillion economies of the Ramstein Group that’s been supporting the Ukrainian war effort until now can easily afford the $100 billion or so that would be required next year. Also encouraging is that Russia is already having to spend 29.4% of its federal budget on defense to compete. The daunting part is the amount of time, political will and unity needed to do what it would take, in a period when all three are in short supply.
  • As the report gets into the details and numbers required, it becomes clear that the biggest challenge will be for Europe and the US to get serious about all the pledges they’ve made to increase production capacity in their arms industries. That’s less a demand for a new arms race than a call to reverse the atrophy that followed the end of the Cold War and resulted in a $920 billion NATO underspend on defense since 2014, relative to the alliance’s 2% of GDP target. For Europe in particular, it means finally consolidating the continent’s fragmented systems, procurement and output to meet strategic targets.
  • What politicians need to make clear to their taxpayers is that the costs involved are tiny when compared with the levels of expenditure that a Russian victory in Ukraine could trigger. Even more important is to stress that these costs aren’t just being incurred for Ukraine’s sake, but for their own. Putin’s invasion has proved that large-scale war is again possible and that Europe’s militaries in particular need to restore their capacity to fight one. War tends to come to the unready.

“‘Ukraine fatigue’ is a problem of western leaders’ own making,” Martin Sandbu, FT, 12.16.23.

  • [European] Leaders face the need to expend more political capital today because they evaded hard political choices earlier. This is as true for weapons as for financial support. And it is true for where the two come together: Europe’s failure to make good on the promise of 1mn artillery shells for Ukraine flows from its limited physical production capacity — a capacity that could have been greater if money had been committed sooner.
  • Bluntly, western leaders let their publics feel that this would be easier than it is. They never dared to ask for sacrifice in the form of a “war economy lite”. But to do so remains crucial in a Europe whose security will still depend on helping Ukraine to victory — especially if Donald Trump returns as US president. Resilience and strategic autonomy demand a minimum ability to accept some privations, because Ukraine’s defeat would make everything worse.
  • After the decision to open Ukraine’s EU membership talks was announced in Brussels, Zelensky said: “History is made by those who don’t get tired of fighting for freedom.” That is not quite right. Everyone gets tired. History is made by those who press on nonetheless.

Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine and their impact globally:

“Sanctions and Russia’s War: Limiting Putin’s Capabilities,” Rachel Lyngaas,, 12.14.23. 

  • There are three major forces acting in concert upon the Russian economy: the war itself, U.S. and partners’ sanctions and related measures, and the Russian government’s policy response to those measures. As a result of these forces, the Russian economy is reorienting away from private consumption and towards defense spending at the expense of Russian citizens, who will face a long-term decline in living standards.
  • Russia’s macroeconomic performance is suffering due to its war and the impact of the United States and our partners’ sanctions and economic measures. Russians are voting with their feet and leaving the country.
    • Russia’s economy is over 5 percent smaller than had been predicted prior to the escalation, and it is far underperforming other energy exporters (including the United States).
    • The decline in Russia’s 2022 growth was driven by a 14 percent contraction in exports and 11 percent decline in imports over 2021, among other factors. 
    • As Russia mobilized its war effort, emigration has reached historic highs; around 668,000 people left Russia in 2022 — a 71 percent increase over the prior five-year average.
    • The Russian economy has also experienced volatility in its exchange rate, with the ruble falling then rising then falling again, now down roughly 20 percent against the dollar from early February 2022 to December 2023.
  • Russia is experiencing increasing fiscal pressure due to growing expenditures and the impact of sanctions on its revenues.
    • The Russian authorities have doubled the 2023 defense spending target to more than $100 billion (a third of all public expenditure) while pausing public salary increases slated for 2024. As spending has grown, energy revenues have declined sharply—by almost 40 percent from January through October 2023 relative to 2022. Russian’s own policy responses to our sanctions are growing increasingly expensive for Russia.
  • The United States and our partners have taken innovative measures to spare the global economy from unnecessary damage from Russia’s war. 
    • The price cap on Russian oil aims to curtail Russian profits while keeping oil supply stable by forcing Russia to sell its oil cheaper than it otherwise would.
    • The United States has not imposed sanctions related to Russian agricultural commodities or equipment.
    • President Biden committed to help Europe access liquefied natural gas.

Ukraine-related negotiations: 

“Ukraine-Russia Latest: Zelensky’s Failed DC Trip Is Bad News for US and EU,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 12.14.23. 

  • A good bet is that if the US and Europeans continue to step up military assistance to Kyiv in the range of $100 billion between them (a small sum compared to their combined defense budgets of more than $1.2 trillion), Ukraine will at a minimum be able to hold off further significant Russian land gains. Especially with US F-16 fighters arriving in Kyiv by spring, more advanced missiles systems (ATACMS and HIMARS) coming and a reasonable stock of basic armaments, the Ukrainians will be able to stand firmly along the current lines. 
  • Can the Ukrainians come back in spring 2024 with a new offensive plan? Perhaps, but the advent of clouds of drones over the battlefields offers real advantage to the defensive side in the fight. Given the unblinking eyes of unmanned, long-dwell, all-weather aircraft, the chances of a Blitzkrieg-style attack gaining any surprise are nil. The iron law of ground warfare — defense is to offense as three is to one — comes into play. Thus, the best bet would be on fairly static battle lines through the spring. Unless new Ukrainian air assets can somehow seize overhead control from Russia, there is little reason to believe there will be significant shifts.
  • A far darker scenario is also possible. If the US and Europe draw down military assistance, Putin’s armies might gain the ability to return to the offensive. Without sufficient armaments, the smaller Ukrainian forces could be forced to retreat. Zelensky himself, meeting with congressional leaders this week, evoked the idea of a “guerilla war” — saying the Ukrainians would fight to the last person. 
  • Putin will do everything imaginable to keep the conflict going until then, given his hopes of a Donald Trump victory and collapse of US aid for Kyiv. So Zelensky can have faith he’s got at least another year of fighting ahead. Which brings us to the hardest question: How does this end? If the West maintains support no matter the US election result — not a sure thing, but still a reasonable bet — the chances rise starkly for a round of meaningful peace negotiations a year from now. It would probably be under either UN auspices or possibly some combination involving the US, European Union, China and India. 
    • Ultimately, Ukrainian forces seem unlikely to be able to expel Russia from much of the currently occupied portion of the nation. Perhaps Zelenskiy might consider temporarily or even permanently ceding Crimea and the “land bridge” connecting it to Russia in exchange for acquiescence in EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership for Kyiv. Such decisions are of course for the Ukrainians (and Russians) to make, but the outline of an agreement — somewhat like the end of the Korean War — might fall along those lines.

“A World in Disarray? A Longtime Diplomat Says It's Worse Than That; Richard Haass offers his perspective on the wars in Ukraine and Israel, and China's outlook,” WSJ, 12.14.23. 

  • [When asked: There is a dictators-versus-democracy struggle, a decline in U.S. influence over global affairs, the rise of China. Which of those factors are contributing to this disarray?] All of the above: The rise of China, which is not a status quo power, represents a shift in the balance; a truly disaffected Russia with the ability to do something about it, as we're seeing in Ukraine and elsewhere; a shift in power in various forms moving around the world.
  • With Ukraine, it's an indirect effort on our part. What could we do to increase support? The question is how do we avoid walking away from it.
  • Two years ago, if we had said that two years after a Russian invasion Ukraine would still control 80-odd percent of its territory, would have fought the Russians to a standstill, every one of us would have said, "Where do we sign? What a fantastic outcome." As desirable as it is that Ukraine recover all of its territory, it isn't going to happen. In part, because Russia can produce a lot more. And, in a pinch, North Korea, Iran, conceivably China would help them out.
  • Ukraine needs to move away from its current strategy. We need to define success as not that Ukraine militarily liberates all of its land, but that Ukraine becomes a permanent fixture. They move away from an offensive strategy, which I believe cannot succeed, to a defensive strategy, which can succeed. My guess is it has to wait for a very different Russia that might be willing to make some trades in exchange for no longer being a political and economic pariah.
  • Russia could say that they won, but they haven't. Plus, you'd have Ukraine integrated one way or another into the EU and NATO. You'd have a thriving Western country, which is exactly what Putin doesn't want to see. His immediate successor might be worse. Maybe his successor's successor, though, won't be. At some point in Russia, Vladimir Putin is going to be seen as the guy who drove Russia over the cliff into the ditch.
  • Russia, Iran, North Korea, those really are the pariahs. China is not totally comfortable there, nor is it totally comfortable with its no-limits relationship with Putin. That's not China's economic future.
  • There's a lot of grumbling in China about what Putin told them, whether he misled them. We don't know what China would do to help Russia in extremis. But they've accepted some limits.

“Ukraine and its backers need a credible path to victory,” Gideon Rachman, FT, 12.18.23.

  • Going into 2024, the outlook [for Ukraine] is much bleaker. Ukrainian forces are already having to ration ammunition. Both the EU and the US are struggling to agree new packages of military aid. Western leaders normally pledge to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But President Joe Biden recently ominously revised that to “as long as we can.” 
  • Even if the war remains a stalemate in 2024 this year, time could still be on Russia’s side.
  • Without a credible theory of victory, the pressure on Ukraine to negotiate with Russia will mount. The Ukrainians might make a deal — even if it involved making territorial concessions — if they had any confidence that Russia would stick to it. But Ukrainian officials can point to a litany of agreements that Putin has made and then broken. 
  • One alternative to a formal agreement between Russia and Ukraine might be a de facto freezing of the conflict. 
  • An intermediate situation — somewhere between a frozen conflict and a formal peace treaty — would be an armistice. 
  • [Ukraine’s] status as an independent nation — with its own proud culture and identity — will never be erased again. In the great sweep of history, that is a victory that will really count.

Great Power rivalry/new Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

“We Forget Henry Kissinger’s Effectiveness at Our Own Peril,” Charles A. Kupchan, NYT, 12.18.23. 

  • The United States should have done more to anchor its vanquished adversary in the post-Cold War settlement — just as the Concert [of Europe] integrated a defeated France into it ranks. Instead, Washington launched a process of NATO expansion that excluded Russia. Despite his initial support for NATO enlargement, Mr. [Henry] Kissinger understood that opening the alliance to Ukraine would provoke Moscow, writing in 2014 that Ukraine should function as a “bridge” between East and West and that the country “should not join NATO.” Instead, NATO beckoned Ukraine, contributing to the sense of grievance and threat that climaxed in Vladimir Putin’s invasion last year.
  • With the Kremlin having returned to the path of territorial conquest, pragmatic realism requires that the West now reinstates a policy of firm containment. But it also requires sober acknowledgment that Ukraine is unlikely to be able to drive Russian forces from its territory; a military stalemate has settled in. Accordingly, the United States should press Ukraine to focus on defending and rebuilding the 80-plus percent of Ukraine still under its control. Over the longer term, the West should help Ukraine restore territorial integrity — an outcome more likely to be achieved at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
  • Ever the strategist, Mr. Kissinger, in one of his last public messages a few months ago, warned that “we must develop a concept of where we are going and how we intend to get there across party lines and through political differences. Such is the requirement of leadership.” The United States would do well to heed his wisdom.

"‘We’ll Be at Each Others’ Throats’: Fiona Hill on What Happens If Putin Wins," Politico's Maura Reynolds interviews Fiona Hill, Politico, 12.12.23.

  • The problem is that many members of Congress don’t want to see President Biden win on any front. … People are incapable now of separating off “giving Biden a win” from actually allowing Ukraine to win. They are thinking less about U.S. national security, European security, international security and foreign policy, and much more about how they can humiliate Biden. … In that regard … whether they like it or not, members of Congress are doing exactly the same thing as Vladimir Putin. They hate that. They want to refute that. But Vladimir Putin wants Biden to lose, and they want Biden to be seen to lose as well.  
  • Asked whether the domestic situations in the US and Europe could, in her opinion, cause Ukraine to start losing the war: We’re at a pivotal point. There’s a lot of detail, but the bottom line is that we are at an inflection point, a juncture where it could very rapidly tip, in fact this month — December and January — into a losing proposition for Ukraine.  
  • A military failure for Ukraine is going to shift the entire balance in the Indo-Pacific.           
    • … Putin turned for assistance to two countries that should give Americans and members of Congress pause — Iran and North Korea. …. Iran and North Korea both see this as a kind of international opening for them. If Russia prevails on the battlefield, you can be sure that Iran and North Korea will get benefits from this.  
    • China sees this as an opportunity to put pressure on the United States. China’s also learning an awful lot of lessons from this war, about how the United States and Europe and other countries are likely to react in other contexts. If we step back and allow Ukraine to lose, well, are we going to do the same in the case of Taiwan?  
  • Asked what will happen to the West if Putin wins: We’ll be at each others’ throats. There’ll be no way in which this is going to turn out well. There’ll be a lot of frustration on the part of people who thought that this was the easier option when we reel from crisis to crisis. There’ll also be the shame, frankly, and the disgrace of having let the Ukrainians down. I think it would create a firestorm of recrimination. And it will also embolden so many other actors to take their own steps.
  • Asked if Putin is winning right now: He’s about to, and it’s on us. … If we leave the field, then he will win. His calculation is that our domestic politics and our own interests override everything, and that we no longer have a sense of national security, or of our role in international affairs. This is a moment for him to get rid of not just Pax Americana, but America as a major global player. 

“Results of the Year with Vladimir Putin,”, 12.14.23. Clues from Russian Views 

  • Domestic politics:
    • This margin of safety [of Russia] ... rests on several components. The first and most important element is the high level of unity in Russian society. The second element is the stability of our financial and economic system. As it turned out, and this came as a big surprise to our so-called partners. And the third element is, of course, the growing capability of our security component, that is, the army and security agencies.
  • Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:
  • The southeastern part of Ukraine has always been pro-Russian because it is historically a Russian territory. I see a colleague holding up a sign saying “Turkey.” He knows, and people in Turkey know that the entire Black Sea region was incorporated into Russia as the result of Russo-Turkish wars. What does Ukraine have to do with that? Neither Crimea nor the Black Sea region has any connection to Ukraine. Odesa is a Russian city. We know this. Everyone knows this. But they [Ukrainians] have concocted some historical nonsense.
  • Almost all along the line of contact our armed forces, shall we say modestly, are improving their position, almost all are in an active stage of action and there is an improvement in the position of our troops throughout. 
  • There will be peace when we achieve our goals. ... Now let’s return to these goals – they have not changed. I would like to remind you how we formulated them: denazification, demilitarization, and a neutral status for Ukraine.
  • Cyber security/AI: 
    • At one time, when nuclear energy turned into a nuclear bomb and it was realized that the threat to those who own these weapons was growing, then they [countries in possession of nuclear arms] began to negotiate. The threat and damage are becoming unacceptable. Negotiations began. The same will probably happen with artificial intelligence: when the leaders in this sphere of development realize that some threats are emerging, then they will probably begin to negotiate, but before that it is unlikely that any real agreements will be reached. But, of course, we need to think about this today.
  • U.S.-Russian relations in general:
    • In fact, we are ready to build relations with the United States as well. We believe that America is an important country on the world stage. But this absolutely imperial policy the country pursues is bad for them, not even for us. Why? Because the public expects them to act like an empire, and if they agree to compromise on something or concede something to someone, their voters will see this as a failure or a flaw. That may partly be the reason the elites have to act in this way.
    • As soon as they change on a deeper level, and begin to respect other people, other countries, start searching for compromises instead of addressing their problems using sanctions and military force, which would create the underlying conditions for restoring full-fledged relations. So far, there are no such conditions. But we are ready for this.
  • Ukraine:
    • Today Ukraine produces very little; they are trying to maintain some production, but it is almost non-existent. Everything they get is a freebie, and I apologies for such talk. But these freebies may end one day; in fact, they are already coming to an end little by little.
  • Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
    • We are ready to build relations with them [European countries].
    • If European countries, and the President of France, in particular, do not wish to communicate with us – so be it, no means no. We have things to work on and to keep ourselves busy. If there is an interest, we are ready to reciprocate.
    • Almost everyone [in Europe] behaves this way, except for a few people. Robert Fico became a new leader [in Slovakia] after the election, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. I have said many times that they are not pro-Russia politicians, they are pro-national – they are defending their countries’ interests. But there are too few politicians like this.
    • The Secretary-General of the United Nations called today’s Gaza the biggest children’s cemetery in the world. This opinion speaks volumes. It is an objective opinion, what else can I say? ... First, it is necessary to keep people in Gaza. Second, it is necessary to bring humanitarian aid on a massive scale to these people. 

“United Russia party congress. Vladimir Putin attended a meeting at the 21st congress of the United Russia political party,”, 12.17.23. Clues from Russian Views

  • The Western elites, as they unleashed a real aggression against us – it was increasing in intensity, year after year – expected to ruin not only the economy and the social sphere in Russia, but also our political and state system. 
  • But such recipes have not worked and, I am sure, will not work with regard to Russia ...We have responded to the challenges because we have been consistently going step by step and year after year along the path of strengthening our sovereignty, including in the political and public domains, in the economy, education and culture. 
  • We will defend their sovereign right to choose their future from any outside interference. The Russian state will be sovereign, which means it will be a truly people’s state. 
  • Russia cannot — like some countries — give away its sovereignty for some sausage and become someone's satellite.

“Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov to Dimitri Simes for the ‘Big Game’ program on Channel One, Moscow,”, 12.18.23. Clues from Russian Views

  • [When asked by the interviewer to comment on what the interviewer described as a change of the narrative by Kyiv and its allies from forecasts of victory to potential defeat:] Why has there been a change in Western narratives? Firstly, money is running out. … The main reason is that the American people and the population of European countries are beginning to understand that they have nothing positive to gain from this. 
    • Changing the narrative does not change the essence of Western politics. They still consider Russia an adversary, a threat and, as U.S. Secretary of Defense L. Austin put it, even as an enemy.  
  • The West has never abandoned the idea of containing Russia and has not even given up on making Russia “a little smaller.” This goal was achieved with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The West played its role in this. Although those who say that Russian politicians themselves made a (perhaps even greater) contribution, if not to the collapse itself, then to preparing the conditions that made it inevitable, are absolutely right (I agree with them). 
  • The main goal [of the West] is to destroy Russia as an independent entity on the world stage.

“Putin’s End-of-Year Event Was a (Doomed) Invitation to Dialogue,” Tatiana Stanovaya, CEIP, 12.15.23. Clues from Russian Views

  • Putin is waiting for the West to reconsider its policy and start looking for opportunities for an inclusive dialogue. Sending out the signal that Russia is ready for such a dialogue was one of the main aims of the phone-in and press conference. 
  • Putin has been striking a far more optimistic tone ever since the summer, damping down the nuclear rhetoric and threats. He used his Direct Line phone-in show not so much to score points ahead of the election as to present the global community with a “new” Russia, and make it clear to the West that it is time to rethink its policy.
  • The Russian leader’s uncharacteristically pacific rhetoric was designed to underscore confidence in his advantage over the enemy: military superiority over Ukraine, and moral, historical and geopolitical superiority over the West. Putin apparently believes that the West has hit a dead end and is looking for a new strategy, opening a window of opportunity to talk about ways out of the situation.
  • Putin tried to convey to the West that Russia will in any case achieve all of its goals: not just the capitulation of the Ukrainian armed forces, but also the installation of a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine (this is what is really meant by “de-Nazification”). In addition, southeastern Ukraine will become part of Russia. The only question, the president implied, is what price the West will pay for dragging its feet on reconsidering its support for Ukraine.
  • Overall, the event demonstrated that the time of military uncertainty is over, and the new reality has stabilized. Russia is a consolidated nation at war, and neither Ukraine nor the West can change the situation at the front now as far as Moscow is concerned. Accordingly, Putin plans to sit back and wait for the West to reconsider its policy and start looking for opportunities for an inclusive dialogue.
  • Yet it is quite obvious that no one in the West will accept proposals from Moscow issued from a perceived position of strength. That means a new spiral of conflict lies ahead.

“Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment,” Riley Bailey, Kateryna Stepanenko, Christina Harward and Frederick W. Kagan, ISW, 12.17.23. 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Finland and the wider NATO alliance in a statement ostensibly meant to dismiss concerns about the threat that Russia poses to NATO. Putin gave an extended interview with Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1 on Dec. 17, wherein he attempted to deny US President Joe Biden’s December 6 warning that Russia would attack a NATO country in the future if it won the war in Ukraine. Putin argued that Russia does not have any geopolitical, economic, military, or territorial reason to fight NATO and that Russia is interested in developing relations with NATO member states. 
  • Putin followed this supposed reassurance with an accusation that NATO member states artificially created conflict between Russia and Finland and “dragged” Finland into the NATO alliance. Putin stated that “there will be problems” with Finland and that Finland’s NATO accession prompted Russian officials to start forming the Leningrad Military District (LMD) and concentrating military units in northwestern Russia.
  • Putin’s reassurances about his peaceful intentions toward NATO ring hollow in the context of the threats he and Kremlin pundits have recently been making against NATO member states. 
    • Putin threatened Poland on July 21, stating that Russia would respond “with all the means” at its disposal after Warsaw sent troops to the Belarusian-Polish border due to the redeployment of Wagner Group fighters to Belarus. 
    • Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev threatened on Aug. 29 that Russia had “an opportunity to act within the framework of jus ad bellum against everyone in NATO countries” when commenting on Western support of Ukrainian strikes on occupied Crimea.
  • These threats are part of long-standing Russian narratives about attacking NATO that predated Finland’s application and acceptance into the alliance on April 4
  • Putin’s interview indicated that he continues to perceive the West as weak, contrasting with his confidence in the growth of Russia’s power over the past two decades. 
  • Putin is increasingly invoking a purposefully broad, vague, and pseudo-realist conception of Russian sovereignty in an effort to justify Russian goals to impose Putin’s will in Ukraine and beyond. Putin also addressed the United Russia Party Congress on December 17 in Moscow and argued that “being strong is a vital necessity for Russia.”
  • Putin’s focus on the ties between strength and sovereignty frames Russian aggressive efforts to achieve Russia’s strategic objectives and diminish perceived Western power as defensive measures protecting Russian sovereignty.
  •  Putin has built a world view over two decades of rule in which dissatisfaction with the West has grown into a hardened zero-sum view of Russian and Western power.
  • Putin’s worldview suggests that Putin regards anything less than full Western surrender to Russian grand strategic objectives as insufficient.

“There Is a Path to Victory in Ukraine. The Delusions and Dangers of Defeatist Voices in the West,” Dmytro Kuleba, FA, 12.14.23. Clues from Ukrainian Views

  • What matters is the end result. In Ukraine, that means both fully restoring our territorial integrity and bringing those responsible for international crimes to justice—goals that are both clear and feasible. ... [O]ur objectives will remain militarily feasible as long as three factors are in place: 
    • adequate military aid, including jets, drones, air defense, artillery rounds, and long-range capabilities that allow us to strike deep behind enemy lines; 
    • the rapid development of industrial capacity in the United States and Europe as well as in Ukraine, both to cover Ukraine’s military needs and to replenish U.S. and European defense stocks; 
    • and a principled and realistic approach to the prospect of negotiations with Russia.
  • Some analysts believe that freezing the conflict by establishing a cease-fire is a realistic option at the moment. ... The problem is not just that a cease-fire now would reward Russian aggression. Instead of ending the war, a cease-fire would simply pause the fighting until Russia is ready to make another push inland.
    • The reality is that such a negotiated cease-fire is not even on the table. Between 2014 and 2022 ... Ukraine made some painful concessions. Where did it lead? To Russia's full-scale attack on Feb. 24, 2022. Declaring yet again that Ukraine must take the first step is both immoral and naive.
    • This support [by Ukraine’s allies] is not, and never has been, charity. Every dollar invested in Ukraine’s defense returns clear security dividends for its supporters. 
  • Scholars and analysts often warn of a World War III involving nuclear conflict between great powers. But they may overlook the risk of a world of smaller hot wars between states, with bigger powers feeling empowered to take advantage of their smaller neighbors—World Wars I, plural, rather than World War III. Without a common commitment to Ukrainian victory, Russian aggression could in hindsight mark the onset of such a world.
  • For years, policymakers and experts in Europe and the United States failed to listen to Ukrainian warnings that both diplomacy and business as usual with Russia were no longer possible. It took a large-scale invasion and enormous destruction and suffering for them to recognize that the Ukrainian warnings were right. They should not fall into the same trap again.
  • Opting to accept Putin’s territorial demands and reward his aggression would be an admission of failure, which would be costly for Ukraine, for the United States and its allies, and for the entire global security architecture. Staying the course is a difficult task. But we know how to win, and we will.

“The War That Neither Ukraine nor the West Can Afford to Lose,” Serhii Plokhy, WSJ, 12.12.23.

  • Ukraine can't lose this war because the very existence of the Ukrainian state and nation depends on its outcome. And ending it with an armistice resulting in the loss of people and territories and without NATO membership is tantamount to losing the war.
  • A loss for Ukraine also would be tantamount to a major loss for the U.S. and its allies. Russian victory would result in Moscow strengthening its grip of the post-Soviet space, restoring its positions in the Caucasus, where Armenia indicated its interest in strengthening its relations with the West, and Central Asia, where Kazakhstan uses its ties with China to counterbalance Russian power in the region. 
  • In many ways, the biggest disadvantage for the West is the striking difference between the ways in which the war is viewed in Russia and the West. While the Kremlin perceives it as a life and death struggle with the U.S. and its allies, and whips the anti-Western hysteria in the Russian media to mobilize the population and resources to wage such a war, the Western governments imagine this war largely as a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and debate the degree to which they should help Ukraine without antagonizing Russia too much.
  • What the West perspective is missing is that the key question on the global agenda is the future of the West itself. At stake in this war isn't just the fate of Ukraine but also the security of the West, the stability of the international order, and the future of democracy as a global force. The outcomes of wars of such magnitude shape the future for generations to come. Even if much of the West doesn't yet recognize this, this war is no exception.

“For a secure and stable Europe, put Ukraine on a definitive path to NATO,” Steven Pifer, Brookings, 12.13.23. 

  • The United States has long defined a stable and secure Europe as a vital national interest, an objective naturally shared by NATO’s European members. It is increasingly apparent that this will not be possible absent a stable and secure Ukraine. The United States and the West have various options before them. They include the “Israeli model” (arming Ukraine to defend itself), individual security commitments (though apparently short of security guarantees that would entail sending their armed forces to Ukraine’s defense), security commitments by the European Union or another institution, and NATO membership. The first two options would leave Ukraine on its own. The third is difficult to see in the near term. An invitation to Ukraine to join now or at the NATO summit scheduled to take place in Washington in July 2024 seems a bridge too far.
  • Membership entails the protection of Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty … Were Ukraine at peace and in NATO, Russia’s consideration of renewing hostilities would face the Kremlin with a tough decision: going to war again against Ukraine would mean war with NATO. Were Ukraine to enter the alliance while still in conflict with Russia, the onus for the decision on going to war would lie with NATO members. They thus far have not been prepared to commit their forces to Ukraine’s defense … While there have been suggestions to modify Article 5’s application to accommodate Ukraine’s situation, those ideas threaten to dilute Article 5 and weaken the significance of NATO membership.
  • Accounting for these complexities and the desire to avoid a divisive argument over Ukraine in the run-up to the 2024 Washington summit, the United States and its allies should prepare the ground now so that next July they can announce accession talks with Ukraine. The goal of those talks, conducted in the NATO-Ukraine Council, would be to work toward a formal invitation for Ukraine to join at the earliest possible date. This would put Ukraine on a definitive path to membership, signaling NATO’s commitment to Ukraine to both Kyiv and Moscow. It would also enhance Kyiv’s bargaining position in any future negotiations with Moscow.

“The Atrophy of American Statecraft. How to Restore Capacity for an Age of Crisis,” Philip Zelikow, FA, January/February 2024.

  • The world has entered a period of high crisis. Wars rage in Europe and the Middle East, and the threat of war looms in East Asia. In Russia, China, and North Korea, the United States faces three hostile states with nuclear weapons and, in Iran, another on the verge of acquiring them. Beyond the headlines, states are failing in southwest Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and enormous migrations are in motion. 
  • On almost every issue … people in the world look to the U.S. government for help, if only in organizing the work. The Americans cannot meet this demand. Their supply of effective policies is limited. 
  • The United States and its allies must now prepare for how they might be pulled into four different wars—with China, with Iran, with North Korea, and with Russia—and how these dangers could interact. The default assumption of most Western policymakers is that these rivals are led by fundamentally rational regimes that will not court the risks of seeking violent change. That was the default assumption a year before Russia invaded Ukraine. It was the default assumption the day before Hamas invaded Israel. The current era may well turn out to be a prewar period. But Americans, Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, and Australians are not coordinating as if this were so. Meanwhile, the governments and media of China, Iran, and North Korea have been mobilizing for war. Russia is already at war and preparing for a long one.
  • The military assistance program for Ukraine would seem to be the great success story. It is, to some extent. But it is flagging ... five big factors seem to cripple the effort, even if Congress appropriates needed money.
    • First, most of the help has come from drawing down inventories.
    • Second, European inventories were often more useful to Ukraine, because the Europeans had stockpiled more. 
    • Third, the U.S. defense industrial base cannot expand quickly enough to meet the emergencies of the next year or two. 
    • Fourth, much could be accomplished if U.S. money could be more freely used, including by Ukraine, to buy drones and other needed weapons from non-American suppliers. 
    • Fifth, the big defense contractors will not expand their production base without multiyear contracts. 
  • The strain to mobilize resources to help Ukraine is a tragedy. It is tragic not only because of the suffering of heroic Ukrainians. It is tragic also because some in the U.S. government are valiantly trying to solve these “how” problems, whether they are banging on the table at the U.S. Army headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, where Ukraine’s partners try to coordinate their military help, or in the White House. Yet in a new age of emergencies, they find that most people in most governments are still conducting business as usual.
  • The operational talent that Western policymakers displayed in the twentieth century was not in their genes. It was the accumulation of hard-earned experience and an accompanying culture that reinforced practical professionalism, including new and difficult habits of cooperation with international partners. There is only one way to recover these skills: practice them again.

“The Self-Doubting Superpower. America Shouldn’t Give Up on the World It Made," Fareed Zakaria, FA, January/February 2024. 

  • In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, his country was humiliated during the age of unipolarity. Since then, mainly as a result of rising energy prices, Russia has been able to return to the world stage as a great power. Putin has rebuilt the power of the Russian state, which can extract revenues from its many natural resources. And now he wants to undo the concessions Moscow made during the unipolar era, when it was weak. It has been seeking to reclaim those parts of the Russian Empire that are central to Putin’s vision of a great Russia—Ukraine above all else, but also Georgia, which it invaded in 2008. Moldova, where Russia already has a foothold in the breakaway Transnistria republic, could be next.
  • He hoped to conquer the country [Ukraine], thus reversing the greatest setback Russia had endured in the unipolar age. Putin miscalculated, but it was not a crazy move. After all, his previous incursions had been met with little resistance.
  • The challenge of combating Russian expansionism is real and formidable. .. Since 1945, there have been very few successful acts of aggression of this sort, in marked contrast to before then, when borders around the world changed hands routinely because of war and conquest. Russia’s success in its naked conquest would shatter a hard-won precedent.
  • China is not a spoiler state like Russia. It has grown rich and powerful within the international system and because of it; it is far more uneasy about overturning that system.
  • The most worrying challenge to the rules-based international order does not come from China, Russia, or Iran. It comes from the United States. If America, consumed by exaggerated fears of its own decline, retreats from its leading role in world affairs, it will open up power vacuums across the globe and encourage a variety of powers and players to try to step into the disarray. 
  • As long as America does not lose faith in its own project, the current international order can thrive for decades to come.

“Thinking Like a State. What Makes Foreign Policy Rational?” John J. Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato; Keren Yarhi-Milo, FA January/February 2024. In response to “Why Smart Leaders Do Stupid Things,” by Keren Yarhi-Milo.

  • Surprisingly, for an article assessing the prevalence of rationality in international politics (“Why Smart Leaders Do Stupid Things,” November/December 2023), Keren Yarhi-Milo’s review of our book, How States Think, never offers its own definition of the term. Yarhi-Milo does, however, argue that irrational leaders resort to mental shortcuts, otherwise known as heuristics, or succumb to their emotions. But even this description of irrationality is wanting because it focuses on individuals and says nothing about irrationality at the collective or state level. 
  • Yarhi-Milo clearly disagrees with our core claim that most states are rational most of the time. Rather, she maintains that there is abundant evidence of leaders resorting to heuristics, succumbing to their emotions, and failing to deliberate. One might have expected her to point to such evidence in our ten cases. After all, these decisions are often said to be exemplars of irrationality. But she does not. We are not surprised, since our analysis of those cases reveals no evidence of leaders employing mental shortcuts, being overwhelmed by their emotions, or failing to engage in robust and uninhibited debate.
  • In the absence of evidence from these cases of states acting irrationally, Yarhi-Milo points to the Russian decision to invade Ukraine as a clear example. She asserts that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an “emotional fixation” with controlling Ukraine and speculates that he may have acted the way he did “because he perceived himself as being in a domain of losses, making him less risk averse.” But she provides no supporting evidence for either conclusion. 
  • Yarhi-Milo also claims that Putin shut down the deliberative process in the run-up to war, writing, “Dissenting ministers and military officers were shown the door, went into exile, or disappeared.” There is no evidence to support this assertion: not a single minister or top general was fired, let alone forced to leave the country. Yarhi-Milo’s claim is also starkly at odds with what William Burns wrote in a 2008 message to the State Department when he was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow: “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
  • Given her conclusions about the pervasiveness of irrationality, Yarhi-Milo unsurprisingly predicts that the United States and China will be irrational in their dealings with each other. Washington will use “mental shortcuts” to navigate the relationship, while Beijing’s “mercurial leaders may miscalculate or act in irrational and neurotic ways,” with tragic consequences. 
  • Clearly, we disagree, as we expect both sides to behave rationally, like other great powers before them. Nevertheless, as history shows, rational states invariably compete for security and sometimes go to war with each other. Sadly, rationality is no guarantee of peace. That is the real tragedy of great-power politics.
  • Keren Yarhi-Milo replies:
    • Consider Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and the United States’ to invade Iraq. Mearsheimer and Rosa to deem the former rational because it entailed deliberation and yet deem the latter irrational because it lacked such a process. This claim defies commonsense. On February 21, 2022—just days before the invasion of Ukraine—Putin did convene a meeting of his Security Council. But that meeting was simply for show, a fact clear to anyone watching. And many people watched: Moscow had the meeting televised. During it, every member of Putin’s council declared they agreed with his policy. No one voiced even an ounce of dissent.
    • If Putin’s deliberative style is uninhibited and vigorous, as the authors suggest, it is unclear what constrained deliberation would ever look like in practice. If the authors think there was more deliberation based on credible theories in the prelude to war in Ukraine than in the prelude to war in Iraq—and that is what makes the former rational and the latter irrational—then the whole purpose of assigning rationality based on the author’s criteria should becalled into question. It is impossible to know where they draw the line—and therefore where readers should draw the line, as well.

China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

“The Big One. Preparing for a Long War With China,” Andrew F. Krepinevich, FA, January/February 2024.

  • With the United States distracted by major wars in Europe and the Middle East, some in Washington fear that Beijing may see an opportunity to realize some of these revisionist ambitions by launching a military operation before the West can react.
  • Israel refrained from employing nuclear weapons against Egypt or Syria, even in the darkest hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The same has been true thus far of Russia in its war with Ukraine, even though that conflict is now approaching the end of a second year of fierce fighting and has already exacted from Russia an enormous price in blood and treasure.
  • As Russia discovered in Ukraine in 2022, rapid subjugation, even of an ostensibly weaker power, can be harder than it looks.
  • Following Ukraine’s successful initial defense against Russia’s invasion in the spring of 2022, many countries in the West, including historically neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden, rallied to Kyiv’s support. Similarly, if China were unable to quickly secure its objectives, traditionally neutral countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam might join efforts to resist Beijing’s aggression. 
  •  As Russia’s war in Ukraine has revealed, the United States and its allies lack the capacity to surge the production of munitions. The same holds true regarding the production capacity for major military systems, such as tanks, planes, ships, and artillery. To address this critical vulnerability, Washington and its prospective coalition partners must revitalize their industrial bases to be able to provide the systems and munitions needed to sustain a war as long as necessary.
  • In the case of China, it is difficult to predict with any precision how, when, and where a war might begin or the path it will take once it does. Yet there are many reasons to think that such a conflict could remain limited and last much longer than has been generally assumed. If that is the case, then the United States and its allies must begin to think through the implications of a great-power war that, while remaining below the threshold of nuclear escalation, could last for many months or years, incurring far-reaching costs on their economies, nfrastructure, and citizens’ well-being. And they must convince Beijing that they have the resources and the staying power to prevail in this long war. If they do not, China may conclude that the opportunities afforded by using military force to pursue its interests in the Asia-Pacific outweigh the risks.

“West's Russia Sanctions Aren't Scaring China From a Taiwan Invasion,” Hal Brands, Bloomberg, 12.13.23. 

  • The democratic world risks finding that it can commit to a sharp economic response only after China were to attack Taiwan — by which time deterrence will have already failed.... democratic leaders often overrate the effectiveness of sanctions because they believe their opponents care about the wellbeing of their citizens as much as they themselves do. But autocrats are skilled at shielding themselves, and their closest supporters, from the impact of sanctions. And they may not view economic difficulty with such horror, after all. Any Chinese leader who attacks Taiwan would be risking a devastating, potentially regime-threatening military conflict with the US. If that doesn’t deter him, it’s not clear why the threat of economic problems would.
  • To be clear, sanctions can play an important role in a protracted US-China conflict. Over time, measures that constrict China’s trade, impede its high-tech innovation and reduce its access to financial resources could make it harder for Xi to stay in the fight. But the US will only get to a long war if it has the military power to avoid being defeated in a short one. A country that ignores that reality may invite the very conflict it aims to avoid.

“Russian-Chinese economic relations. Moscow's path to dependence,” Janis Kluge, SWP, December 2023.2

  • With the large-scale war of aggression against Ukraine since February 2022, the framework conditions for Russian-Chinese cooperation have fundamentally changed. Economic cooperation with China has become vital for Russia.
  • Russian-Chinese trade has increased significantly since Moscow's invasion began. On the other hand, Chinese investments in Russia, which were already low, have continued to shrink since then.
  • Fossil fuels remain the backbone of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation, although the infrastructure for a faster expansion of Russian exports is lacking.
  • Russia's arms exports to China have been declining for several years. China, for its part, is exporting more and more dual-use goods to Russia, which are urgently needed by the Russian defense industry.
  •  Russian-Chinese cooperation in the IT industry has declined sharply since the start of the war of aggression against Ukraine, as Chinese digital companies fear US secondary sanctions.
  • Russia's trade with China is largely conducted in yuan. However, Russia continues to rely on the US dollar for trade with other countries

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms:

“Biden has the power to rein in the nuclear presidency. He should use it,” Jon Wolfsthal, WP, 12.18.23.

  • [There is not] a permanent solution but an improvement over the current process nonetheless: President Biden has the authority as commander in chief to change the military chain of command. He can make launching nuclear weapons absent a confirmed nuclear attack on the United States conform to the same procedures required for the use of conventional forces. Adopting such a process would not impact the country's security, or that of its allies. But it would ensure that no president can act without other senior officials being directly involved in a decision to use America's most powerful weapons.
  • Could a future president try to reverse these safeguards? Yes, but doing so would take time and require the work of other senior officials. The formal chain of command is established by law but can be changed through executive order. Requiring White House lawyers to develop a new directive to revert to the older, less-constrained systems would be a time-consuming process. And putting even surmountable speed bumps in place is worth the effort.
  • There is no perfect system for preventing nuclear use as long as nuclear weapons exist. Yet nuclear procedures have been adjusted many times over the decades, and it is time for yet another change. The Biden administration should be praised for spending a lot of time crafting norms for responsible nuclear behavior — from repeatedly declaring that a nuclear war cannot be won and thus must never be fought, to ensuring that unsupervised artificial intelligence is kept far from decision on the use of nuclear weapons. It should continue this admirable track record by insulating the United States' nuclear weapons from an unstable future president by adding senior officials into the process.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security/AI: 

"AI Is Replacing 007 in the Espionage Arms Race," Tobin Harshaw interviews Harvard’s Calder Walton, Bloomberg, 12.16.23. 

  • [Asked about the extent to which open-source intelligence has displaced clandestine intelligence collection] There will continue to be a narrow but very deep margin of what intelligence communities can do in the traditional, clandestine, sense. A well-placed source in the Kremlin, in Beijing, etc. But so much is now available through open sources that Western services are struggling to figure out what their role is in this changed world. Is it to try to do everything, or are they just going to be more conservative and concentrate on what open source cannot deliver? Whatever happens, the age of a traditional secret service is over. 
  • [On China’s use of open-source intelligence] Collect, collect, collect. That’s their strategy. What they’re going to do with all of that is anyone’s guess. The intelligence struggle between China and the West is built around a race for machine learning, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing — it’s a race to process data. Whoever masters AI will be able to master the data that’s been collected. And in the West, it will not be governments to do that. It will be the private sector. We’re thus at this watershed moment of redefining the nature of intelligence and national security. Intelligence communities are by necessity having to bridge gaps with the private sector. Quite how that will come out is anyone’s guess. I’d be hugely in favor of the US intelligence community setting up a single open-source intelligence agency, and having it collaborate with all the clandestine agencies, rather than each individual agency trying to do open source itself. 
  • [On Walton’s belief in the importance of bridging the public-private sector divide in AI —a phenomenon Harshaw describes as a “collaborative Western-style effort” that would include the federal government, universities, and Silicon Valley, as compared with China’s tendency to emphasize centralized control] Democracies have stood the test of time so far. Democracy is the least bad form of government compared to every other, to paraphrase Churchill. … I think we will prevail. I have full confidence in it. But we’ve got our work cut out for us. 

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

Climate change:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Putin’s good friends in America,” Edward Luce, FT, 12.13.23. 

  • Why are Putin’s sympathizers making such inroads into the Republican party? Because Putin is Biden’s enemy, and the enemy of your enemy is your friend. It is not much more complicated than that. There are genuine Putin backers on America’s hard right. But the bulk of his American fellow-travelers are dark opportunists, like Donald Trump. Anything that is harmful to Biden is good for them. Ukraine’s defeat would thus be good for Republicans. 
  • America’s exploitable divisions give Putin an edge over Biden, which threatens to outweigh America’s huge advantage over Russia. The US economy is more than 13 times the size of Russia’s.3 It controls the global reserve currency and has a decisive technological lead. Unlike Russia, America has dozens of allies. Yet these will come to naught if Putin can play on America’s political enmities within. Biden has no comparable lever inside Russia to harm Putin. 
  • Biden has two obvious ways of blocking Putin. 
    • The first is to get that $60bn he needs from Congress. Republicans insist on tying the Ukraine aid to much more money for US border security and a drastic tightening of America’s asylum rules. Some Republicans genuinely want this; others are using it as a pretext to deny support to Ukraine. There ought still to be enough of the former kind of Republicans for Biden to strike a deal that includes both.   
    • Second, Biden could lift constraints on Ukraine’s use of US-supplied artillery and aircraft. Ukraine should have the means to strike military targets inside Russian territory. It is impossible to win a war — or make enough headway to reach a favorable settlement — if you are limited to fighting the invader on your own soil. Nothing succeeds like success or fails like failure. The difference between the two is still in Biden’s hands. 


II. Russia’s domestic policies 

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“The Best Laid Plans: Putin’s Rogue Election Announcement,” Andrey Pertsev, CEIP, 12.13.23.

  • Putin confirmed he would run again in the 2024 presidential election following a Kremlin ceremony on December 8 to award the title of Hero of Russia. His comments were made in reply to an impassioned plea from Artyom Zhoga, a former military commander who fought in Ukraine’s Donbas region and is now speaker of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic parliament. Footage of Putin’s mumbled confirmation did not appear in the media straight away, and when it finally surfaced, it only strengthened the impression that the painfully obviously staged request and response had been put together in a rush, which is hardly in keeping with the Kremlin’s statements about the historical significance of the upcoming vote. Zhoga visibly struggled to get his question out as other participants in the awards ceremony crowded around him and Putin to shake hands with the president, clearly unaware that something important was happening right in front of them.
  • It would appear that the initiative to divert away from the planned scenario came from Putin himself. Given his KGB background, the president does not like it when his plans are known in advance, since that may give ill-wishers (both foreign and domestic) the chance to use those plans against him. But since Putin’s “enemies” had no illusions about him running for election, this chaotic smokescreen was entirely unnecessary. 
  • The president’s inclination to act upon his own initiative is increasingly ruining the plans of his administration. His actions are out of touch with reality, and are damaging to both himself and the power vertical he created. 
  • The unofficial announcement involving Zhoga will not have critical consequences, but it shows that the president is ready to derail carefully laid plans at the most inopportune moment. In the event of plans related to war or the economy, such interference could have far more serious consequences.

"What Putin’s Unsurprising Re-Election Bid Means for Russia’s Future," Nikolas K. Gvosdev, RM, 12.13.23.  

  • After months of waiting for the formal, if anti-climactic, announcement that he is in fact seeking another term as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin (or his political team) decided to eschew a formal presentation in favor of an apparently impromptu declaration [on Dec. 8].  

  • Putin’s affirmative response to the request to continue as president, in the shadow, as he put it, of Russia’s past military glory, fits not only into this historical pattern but also into an emerging narrative that Putin needs more time to finish the job he started 25 years ago: restoring the Russian state and defending it against what is now described as a proxy war with the West over Russia’s future.  

    • At stake in the latter, as Putin sees it, is the existential question of whether Russia will remain an independent pole of power and a distinct political-cultural civilization, or whether it will be broken up and brought under Euro-American management.  

    • Putin, having failed to convince the West to accept his requests for modifying the terms of the Cold War settlement, believes he has been forced to use other means—and as he said at the beginning of the conflict in 2022, he was determined not to leave this matter for his successor. 

  • Putin wants the 2024 elections to confirm that he is the only option for seeing the Ukraine conflict to a successful close. Polling suggests that most Russians either support Putin’s continued leadership—or are resigned to his re-election. The challenge here will be for the Kremlin team to generate sufficient enthusiasm to get people to cast ballots, against attitudes that voting doesn’t matter because votes don’t count or “everything has been decided.” 

  • Putin, now in his 70s, cannot pretend that mortality is not gaining on him. With several reported health scares in the recent past, Russians—not only the political and business elites, but the general populace more broadly—are concerned about whether there will be an orderly process for succession. As part of his 2018 campaign, Putin hinted that he was trying to cultivate a next generation of leaders who could take over his system. Yet for the reasons discussed above, it is unlikely that his political team will use the 2024 elections to showcase possible successors, instead likely opting to focus on showing the world Putin has a clear mandate from the Russian electorate to finish the job. 

  • The message seems to be that Putin, once re-elected, will start, over this next term, to finalize the composition of the next Russian political generation in time for a transition in 2030.  

“Central Bank warns Russian economy running on borrowed time,” The Bell, 12.16.23.

  • While central banks in the West are poised to begin cutting interest rates, the opposite is underway in Russia. On Friday, the Central Bank pushed rates to 16%. 
  • Rates are now within just one percentage point of the all-time record of 17%, which was hit after the collapse of the ruble in late 2014. The bank began its current policy tightening in July and, over the course of the subsequent five months, has raised rates by a total of 8.5 percentage points. Russia’s interest rates are currently even higher than in Ukraine.
  • When the Central Bank hiked rates in both 2014-2015, and in early 2022 after the invasion of Ukraine, it was quick to bring them down again once the immediate crisis had passed. This time, however, high rates are here to stay, Nabiullina told journalists Friday. She emphasized that the current high inflation is a systemic problem – and not linked to exchange rate fluctuation, or other one-off factors.
  • By the end of the year, inflation in Russia will be at least 7.5%, which is at the upper end of the Central Bank’s projected range. According to Putin, it might even be “closer to 8%.” For the past four months, core inflation has been growing over 10% in annualized terms, Nabiullina said. She gave the service sector as an example – despite only being slightly affected by the exchange rate and other one-off factors, inflation is up 14% in three months. 
  • This is all explained by an overheating economy unable to meet rising demand. And the latest figures suggest GDP growth is causing even more of an imbalance than the Central Bank had anticipated. “Think of the economy as an automobile,” Nabiullina said. “If we try to drive it faster than it can go, and pump the gas as hard as we can, sooner or later the engine will burn out and we won’t get far. We can go, maybe even quickly, but not for long.”
  • This year has been one of economic overheating fueled by military spending. However, Nabiullina’s monetary policy (with Putin’s approval) means it will be much harder next year for the Kremlin to boast about economic growth.

“Russia’s Bank Chief Is Running Her Own PR Campaign. Moscow’s economic paradoxes offer an opportunity for Ukraine, Natalia Antonova, FP, 12.11.23. Clues from Russian Views

  • The Central Bank and the Kremlin are in league. But there is a paradoxical element to their relationship, wherein the Central Bank wants the Russian economy to be more transparent and to function normally, while the Kremlin is in a protracted fascist spiral that threatens these goals. Emphasizing those discrepancies, and tightening the screws on the economy, can cause the fissures in the relationship to fracture.
  • Conservative Russian zealots will be eager to blame Nabiullina once even falsified economic data can no longer distract the population from what’s happening, but as financial hits continue to pile up, both the Kremlin and the Central Bank lose. There are political wedges here to widen in the meantime, as ingrained mistrust of the Central Bank makes its position fragile, and fragility exists to be exploited in a time of war.

Defense and aerospace:

  •  See section Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts above.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant developments.


“This Is the World If Ukraine Loses If the West doesn’t help Ukraine beat back Russia, your lives will not be the same,” Victor Pinchuk, Politico, 12.13.23. 

  • The White House has announced that by the end of the year funding for supporting Ukraine will run out. The EU has declared that it will miss by a large measure its announced goal of providing Ukraine with 1 million artillery shells by March 2024. These are sober words presaging what I believe will be a devastating failure for the West. 
    • Many more Ukrainians will flee if Russia is able to seize more Ukrainian territory. 6.3 million have fled the country as of now. … European countries incur costs of hundreds of Euro per month for each Ukrainian refugee.  
    • Meanwhile Baltic states and Poland will be subject to Russian threats and its hybrid war. It worked out in Ukraine, will be the Kremlin’s logic. Moldova and Georgia could face military aggression. 
    • At the same time, inside European societies radical and populist parties that sympathize with Russia will gain momentum.  
    • With an emboldened aggressive Russia right at the border of the EU, deterrence will be needed far beyond what government plan now. Defense budgets in Europe during the Cold War averaged 3.5 percent of GDP. Now they are lower than 2 percent in many European countries. … For NATO as a whole to hit 3.5 percent of GDP on defense spending, it would require $410BN more per year. … And this staggering sum is still nothing against the cost if a hot war between Russia and NATO emerges. 
    • For sure, if the Kremlin is successful in Ukraine, Russian support for terrorists all over the world would strengthen. As will cooperation with Iran and North Korea. …  And of course China watches if the West defends the rules it proclaims.  
  • A decline in Western support for Ukraine will not lessen the cost for the West. It will make the cost for the West skyrocket. … Ukraine winning is doable. It will even be comparatively inexpensive. 
  • Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. has committed just 3.9 percent of its defense budget on military support for Ukraine. This has thus far kept Russia in check in Europe, prevented many more millions of refugees, and deterred Iran and China. 
  • I am not insisting you make Ukrainian independence your cause, I am just asking you to think through the war in Ukraine from the point of view of your own interests. … For a small fraction of a percent of Western GDP, and without sending a single soldier into battle, the West can enable Ukraine to keep holding at bay the single greatest security threat to the West and the international order today.  

“’Everything looks as though Zaluzhny will run for office,’ Meduza reports on what is happening in Ukraine's domestic politics after the unsuccessful counteroffensive,” Yelizaveta Antonova, Meduza, 12.12.23

  • The Ukrainian authorities are losing the trust of voters. A survey conducted in October 2023 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) attests to this. The trust of Ukrainians in the country's government fell the most drastically from May 2022 to October 2023 (the share of those who trust it has decreased from 74% to 39%) and in the Verkhovna Rada (from 58% to 21%).
    • Ukrainian’s trust in the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has also decreased, according to the survey, from 91% to 76%. 22% of the country's residents do not trust him (previously 7%), and another 2% found it difficult to answer (this proportion has not changed since May 2022).
  • Vladimir Paniotto, Director General of KIIS, in a conversation with Meduza explained that sociologists haven’t observed a fall in ratings per se, but rather their rollback to pre-war values… ‘Against the backdrop of full-scale Russian aggression, what is called the 'rally around the flag effect' occurred’… If we talk about the specific reasons for the decline in trust in the authorities, says Paniotto, then, of course, the fatigue of society from the war is affecting… 
    • At the same time, all those processes that were put on pause since the beginning of the full-scale invasion are gradually resuming in society, including politics, he continues. ‘At first [during the war], political parties refrained from direct criticism of the authorities and the president. But apparently, it's difficult for them, so the criticism resumed in the fall,’ the expert said.
  • Another reason for the decline in the ratings of the authorities is the acute issue of corruption in Ukraine, the expert continued. ‘The perception of corruption generally depends on people's personal experience and the media coverage of this topic,’ he explains.
    • ‘The fight against corruption and frequent reports on the exposure of corruption schemes create the impression that the level of corruption is growing. And against the backdrop of the war, this is perceived especially painfully and intolerably. People associate this topic with the cabinet of ministers and the Rada,’ he summarized.
  • In the KIIS rating, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and volunteers, as a year ago, enjoy the highest trust among Ukrainians. In October 2023, the Ukrainian army was trusted by 94% of Ukrainians (in May 2022, it was 98%), and volunteers – 87% (this indicator has not changed since May 2022)… ‘People believe that the failure of the counteroffensive is the failure of Zelensky, the office, civilians, Americans, but not the VSU,’ noted a high-ranking source in the Ukrainian government in a conversation with Meduza.
  • Simultaneously, the possible conflict between Zaluzhny and Zelensky is one of the most discussed topics in Ukrainian politics since November, both in Ukraine and abroad. Officially, Kyiv categorically denies the existence of opposition between the political and military leadership of the country. According to Mikhail Podoliak, advisor to the head of the President's office of Ukraine, rumors of a "mythical conflict" between them are intentionally inflated to "significantly increase depressive moods" among Ukrainians, as well as to signal to Ukraine's partners that it does not need help. However, polls show that there is indeed competition between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, at least when speaking with voters. 
    • Zaluzhny so far has not shown any political ambitions, unlike, for example, Arestovych or someone else, the Director of KIIS Vladimir Paniotto continued. ‘He is doing his job. Perhaps this is the basis for a higher level of trust in him,’ the expert added.
  • Complicating the situation is the fact that the media machine of Petro Poroshenko, including his bot network on Facebook and partly the Ukrainian intelligentsia (who, after all ‘by no means entirely supports the current president’) are actively working to support Zaluzhny as Zelensky's competitor, continued a source in the Ukrainian government.
    • All this is picked up and utilized by the Russian propaganda machine, he said. ‘We are feeling a huge information-psychological operation from Russia, whose task is to present everything as if there's a real split in Ukraine,’ he continued. 

“Ukraine has a civil rights problem,” Nicolai N. Petro, FP, 12.18.23

  • Ukrainians across the political spectrum … are questioning the long-term social merits of wartime policies that effectively relegate Russian speakers to permanent second-class status. It should be noted that almost all of these critics reside in Ukraine and are fiercely supportive of Ukrainian independence.
  • Freedom of religion is protected by the Ukrainian Constitution. But since the outset of war, this freedom has taken a sharp turn for the worse for groups symbolically linked to Moscow. … Freedom of the press, and of political expression more generally, has taken a similar beating. A new media law, adopted in March 2023, extends the censorship purview of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting beyond its namesake mediums to include print and online media. In 2024, the council’s powers over language usage in the media are set to expand further. 
  • The vast majority of Russophile Ukrainians refuse to categorize themselves as a minority. They see themselves simply as Ukrainians citizens, and as such, they argue, they have a constitutional right to speak any language and espouse any religion or culture that they wish, not just the ones endorsed by the state. But Ukrainian law does not recognize Russians as indigenous to Ukraine, or even as a minority within Ukraine. They therefore have no claim to legal protection of their cultural heritage and language, a direct contradiction of Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution.
    • The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that whereas in May 2022, only 8 percent of Ukrainians said they saw evidence of systematic discrimination against Russian speakers, in its latest September 2023 survey, that number had risen to 45 percent.
  • As part of its accession negotiations with the European Union, in 2022, Ukraine passed a law outlining the rights of national minorities, but it specifically exempted Russian speakers from protection during the period of martial law and five years thereafter.
    • Although the EU had asked that this latter period be shortened, the final version, recently signed into law, while significantly expanding minority language rights for official languages of the EU, eliminates them entirely for Russian.
  • The extent of what is being contemplated by Ukrainian lawmakers is staggering. According to Tamila Tasheva, Zelensky’s representative in Crimea, if it were liberated tomorrow, at least 200,000 residents of Crimea would face collaboration charges, and another 500,000 to 800,000 residents would face deportation. Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, says that more than 1 million people—more than half the current population—will have to leave “immediately.”
    • Ukrainian political commentator Andrei Zolotaryov has noted, “a significant part of the citizenry is in internal emigration and does not consider the state to be theirs. This is a very big problem in a country waging war.”

“How Ukrainian membership could change the European Union,” Emily Rauhala and Beatriz Ríos, WP, 12.15.23.

  • Around the European Council table, some decisions are made by unanimity, others by “qualified majority voting,” a system whereby a decision must be approved by 55 percent of the member states representing at least 65 percent of the E.U. population. 
    • According to an analysis from the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, Ukraine would get about 9 percent of votes, roughly the same as Poland’s voting weight today. The shares of other member states would drop, with Germany going from 18.6 percent to 16.9 percent, for instance. Together, Poland and Ukraine would have the same voting weight as Germany.
    • In the European Parliament, Ukraine would be entitled to a certain number of members, or MEPs. But adding enough members for Ukraine would probably mean exceeding the current limit of 751. This fall, French and German officials introduced a report, written by a team of experts, that argued against adding additional seats in favor of finding a new way to divvy them up.
  • Bringing Ukraine into the E.U. is likely to require a rethink of the bloc’s common agricultural policy. E.U. farmers currently receive subsidies of more than $200 per hectare farmed. Given its vast arable land, Ukraine would be eligible for billions in payments.
    • In Poland, Ukraine’s impact on grain prices has become a major political issue, with Polish farmers warning they will be swamped by Ukrainian supply. Ukraine exported about 20 million metric tons a year before the war, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which is more than a third of the bloc’s total grain exports. Poland, meanwhile, exports 4 million tons each year.
  • As the E.U. begins to imagine what Ukrainian membership would mean, money is one of the major issues, according to analysts. Ukraine’s per capita gross domestic product was $4,872 in 2021. The same year, GDP in Bulgaria, the current poorest E.U. country, stood at $11,683, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
    • A joint European Commission, World Bank and United Nations assessment estimated that the cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine had grown to more than $400 billion — and that was based on the first year of the war alone.
  • Some estimates suggest that Ukrainian membership would turn many net recipients of E.U. funds into net payers. One recent policy paper from Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security estimated that, if Ukraine were a member today, it might get $20 billion a year from the E.U. budget, with only Spain changing from a net recipient to a net payer.

“Europe’s Emerging War Fatigue. How to Shore Up Falling Support for Ukraine,” Susi Dennison and Pawel Zerka, FA, 12.18.23.

  • The momentum generated by Ukraine’s success in the first year of the conflict has given way to a sense that, despite ongoing fighting, the frontline is not moving, and the risk of a frozen conflict is growing. 
  • Arguably the most significant support Europe can offer Ukraine is membership in the EU... The EU Council decision last week to open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova was important in this respect, but only the first step in a long road to entry to the club, given the heavy lifting needed on reform requirements for Ukraine and for the EU itself. 
    • Here, it becomes clear why European public opinion on the war matters so much. Internal EU Council estimates forecast that around $200 billion in EU funds would flow to Ukraine over seven years after accession. 
  • Paying more to Ukraine is not a development that existing EU citizens would accept lightly, especially amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. ....To guard against this, Europe’s leaders need to show deeper understanding for the cost-of-living crisis and why some Europeans link their economic difficulties to the war in Ukraine. Subsidies to households and businesses to help them bear these costs can help, but they will not be enough. European leaders also need to urgently preempt what looks like a gathering sea change in attitudes toward Ukraine. They should frame the conflict as a Russian war against Europe, not just against Ukraine. They should remind voters that a war-mired Ukraine and a victorious Russia would be even more costly for the EU, perpetuating the threat in its direct neighborhood. European leaders need to develop a stronger case for EU enlargement, making clear that Ukraine joining the union will also benefit ordinary Europeans, by broadening the area of stability, prosperity, and freedom 

“Ukraine needs a military-industrial complex of its own,” Gillian Tett, FT, 12.14.23.

  • Even as Zelensky begged for US government support, his aides were engaged in a second battle that investors should watch. Namely, persuading western companies and financiers to back private sector military-tech partnerships inside Ukraine.
  • The raison d’être for this is that both the White House and Kyiv know that Ukraine urgently needs to develop its own military-industrial complex. In theory, Ukraine should be well placed for this, since it previously accounted for 30 per cent of Soviet defense industry and historically had good engineering talent. But in practice its Soviet-legacy production is stodgy and state-owned, its talent base under threat and the country has been surprisingly slow to ramp up modern capabilities.
  • Some would-be investors think this problem will solve itself. “There is huge opportunity here — some people are going to make a lot of money,” says one US-based entrepreneur, who is funding Ukrainian drone start-ups. Others are more doubtful. Either way, the fight is on to turn Ukrainian innovation into credible business plans.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Central Asia: Making Use of a Historic Opportunity,” Vladislav Inozemtsev, Russie.Eurasie.Visions, No. 132, Ifri, December 2023. Clues from Russian Views

  • There are multiple pragmatic steps the West can and should undertake to substantially augment its role in Central Asia. 
    • Unleash the region’s energy resources potential for its use by European countries.
    • Both the European Union and the United States should compete with China to develop the region’s infrastructure, based on European world-class engineering and using Western financial resources, which exceed those of the Chinese.
    • Developing a strategic doctrine of substituting the commodities imports previously arriving in European Union member states from Russia, with commodities originating in Central Asia.
    • Establishing an EU/US–Central Asia high-level coordination center that can take over the agendas of the numerous bilateral summits held between Western policymakers and Central Asian leaders, and organize uninterrupted follow-up activities aimed at increasing Western presence in the region, including military cooperation.
    • Increasing the region’s presence in global politics.
    • Western powers should team up with local authorities to promote modern education and science, technology, economics, law, and other disciplines in Central Asia.
    • Western countries, and especially chambers of commerce, need to address the needs of local entrepreneurs trying to combat corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and adopt international business models and standards.

“Attitudes toward Russia’s War on Ukraine in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” Hannah Chapman and Raushan Zhandayeva, PONARS, 12.12.23. 

  • Our study provides initial evidence that, overall, the public in Kazakhstan is less supportive of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine than the public in Kyrgyzstan. On the surface, this result is not necessarily surprising. Despite continued strong ties with Russia, the government of Kazakhstan has long pursued a multi-vector foreign policy that has sought to balance between competing world powers. Russia’s invasion may also have tapped into long-standing fears that Kazakhstan will someday become a target of Russian imperialism due to its shared border with Russia and large ethnic Russian minority population. Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is more economically dependent upon Russia: Russia is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most important trade and economic partners, and remittances from Russia make up a substantial portion of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP.
  • The study reveals that ethnicity, language preference, and media use play important but nuanced roles in shaping attitudes toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan consistently express more pro-Russian attitudes and hold views more consistent with Russian narratives surrounding the war than their counterparts from titular ethnic groups. Russian language preference, meanwhile, is less consistently related to pro-Russian attitudes and varies by issue area and political context, a finding that underscores the importance of disaggregating various measures of ethnolinguistic identity. Finally, while Russian media use in both countries is generally associated with pro-Russian attitudes, the impact of traditional Russian media is diminishing due to the shift toward internet-based news sources.

“Azerbaijan Strongman Ilham Aliyev Is the Winner from Putin’s War on Ukraine,” Marc Champion, Bloomberg, 12.13.23. 

  • Aliyev has won big from Russia’s invasion on multiple fronts. 
    • In July last year he signed a deal with the European Union to double natural gas exports to the bloc, as it scrambled for new energy sources to fill the void left by Russian supplies lost to sanctions. New infrastructure has to be built to make that possible, but increased sales and prices together raised revenue from the ex-Soviet nation’s oil and gas sectors from $19.5 billion in 2021, to $35 billion in 2022. Those fossil fuels accounted for more than 92% of Azerbaijan’s exports and over half the state budget.
    • A distracted Russia, the traditional security provider for Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, also gave Aliyev the space to overrun the ethnic-Armenian controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh...A triumphant Aliyev has called early elections for next year to capitalize on the patriotic euphoria, dressing the stage for his third decade in power.
  • Everybody, it seems, now needs Aliyev. 
    • The EU not only wants his energy but is also conscious that Azerbaijan controls the only viable route for the bloc to access the resources and energy markets of Central Asia without crossing Russia or Iran, both now hostile and under sanctions. 
    • The US, similarly, sees Azerbaijan’s geopolitical value rising the worse Washington’s relations with Moscow and Tehran become, despite misgivings over Karabakh’s ethnic cleansing. So too, for the inverse reason, do Russia and Iran.
    • Moscow was once a partisan backer of Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, yet that relationship has been overridden. Putin needs Azerbaijan’s cooperation as European sanctions force him to shift trade and energy routes east, and Russia’s military capacity to dictate events in the Caucasus is in any case tied up elsewhere. 
    • Iran, long a prickly neighbor that’s politically close to Armenia, also has been courting Baku. 
  • From this already high base, things are looking up for Aliyev. Azerbaijan just locked up the right to hold the next global summit on climate change, COP-29. 
  • Aliyev is well aware that he needs to wean the economy off its overreliance on energy to raise living standards and long-term growth prospects. The fastest way to achieve that last goal would be to secure help and investment from Europe. Success would require significant reform to break down what the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has called Azerbaijan's “monopolistic vested interests,” but would also do more to secure Aliyev’s position than jailing or silencing any number of his critics ever could. Who knows, he might even win genuine elections. It’s time to remind him of that.  

“Nagorno-Karabakh: Eurasia’s Forgotten Conflict,”  Mark Temnycky, NI. 12.17.23. 

  • Time is running out to help the current and displaced citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh. With the unsuccessful attempts by the international community to try and resolve the conflict, individuals from the region have sadly become victims of this forgotten war. The international community has failed them, and this injustice should not be overlooked. Such inaction cannot happen again.

“A Resolution to the Transnistria Conflict Is More Distant Than Ever,” Vladimir Solovyov, CEIP, 12.18.23.

  • When Azerbaijan established full control over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, the post-Soviet space was left with just one completely unrecognized de facto state: Transnistria. No one, not even Russia, disputes Moldova’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Yet the Transnistria conflict is also the only one in the region no one cares to resolve, an indifference that has only grown since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has been years since anyone, Moldova included, tabled a proposal to end the dispute. 
  • For Moldova, the war in Ukraine has opened up the possibility that the EU might overcome its enlargement fatigue. In Brussels and other European capitals, there is a feeling that the bloc has a moral duty to admit Kyiv—and possibly other countries whose bids had previously stalled. Many now agree that while integrating new member states will be hugely costly—both financially and politically—it would still be cheaper than living with constant risks from an unstable buffer zone between the EU and a hostile Russia.
  • Even if Chisinau’s EU accession moves forward, the problem of Transnistria won’t just go away. How might its leadership react to Moldova joining the EU? What about its population: an unknown quantity given the absence of reliable polling data? What would it mean for the more than 90 percent of Transnistrians with Moldovan citizenship? What about Gagauzia? Chisinau may feel confident it can ignore Transnistria for now, but sooner or later these questions will need to be answered. 


The cutoff for reports summarized in this product was 11:00 am Eastern time on the day this digest was distributed. Unless otherwise indicated, all summaries above are direct quotations. 

*Here and elsewhere, the italicized text indicates comments by RM staff and associates. These comments do not constitute RM editorial policy.



  1. For more of Dr. Hill’s views, see two other interviews released this week — one with CNN on delayed aid being a “winning ticket” for Putin, and one with Charlotte Talks on a broad range of topics, including more on Western support for Kyiv, as well as on how Putin’s views of Russian history have shaped his Ukraine strategy.   
  2. Machine-translated from German.
  3. It depends on how one measures GDP. The World Bank, the IMF and the CIA all recommend relying on purchasing power parity (PPP) for GDP comparisons. If one were to use the World Bank’s estimates of  GDP, PPP (constant 2017 international $), they would find U.S. economic ouput to be 5.3 times larger than that of Russia’s in 2022. 

Photo is a U.S. government work shared in the public domain.