Russia Analytical Report, Dec. 18, 2023-Jan. 2, 2024

8 Ideas to Explore

  1. The U.S. and its European allies “are quietly shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s goal of total victory over Russia to improving its position in an eventual negotiation to end the war,” according to a Biden administration official and a European diplomat interviewed by Politico. “Such a negotiation would likely mean giving up parts of Ukraine to Russia,” this media outlet reported last week. In addition to recognition of Russia’s land grabs in Ukraine, recent formulations of Moscow’s public conditions for negotiations with Kyiv by Vladimir Putin and his top diplomats continue to include the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. All of these conditions continue to be rejected by Volodymyr Zelensky, who has told the Economist this week that he does not detect “any fundamental steps forward to the peace from Russia.”
  2. Is Vladimir Putin open to a cease-fire? Yes, he is, and he has been privately signaling that openness since at least September, according to a recent NYT news article. “They say, ‘We are ready to have negotiations on a cease-fire,’” one senior international official who met with top Russian officials told NYT. This newspaper has also recently published a commentary by Serge Schmemann, who argues that “the only way to find out if Mr. Putin is serious about a cease-fire, and whether one can be worked out, is to give it a try.” Should a cease-fire be attained, Putin may want to honor it, as restarting the large-scale hostilities would be unpopular and costly, according to Stephen Crowely of Oberlin College. According to Andrei Sushentsov of Russia’s Valdai Discussion Club, however, “It is unlikely that Russia will agree to freeze the conflict.” Ukrainian officials also continue to oppose a ceasefire. 
  3. “The inflated expectations,” which Zelensky created ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023, were “partly what led to a sense of disappointment” with the military outcomes of the past year, according to The Economist’s Jan. 1 article primarily based on an interview with the Ukrainian president.  Such inflation can explain why even though “Ukraine’s stated strategic ambition to restore Ukraine to its original borders has not and will not change,” Zelensky is “no longer setting timelines and makes no promises of how much territory Ukraine can ‘de-occupy’” in 2024, according to the Economist. In fact, Zelensky gave “little away about what Ukraine can achieve in 2024, being less open about his goals in the east and the south though he did signal that Crimea and the Black Sea will become the war’s center of gravity,” according to the Economist. Zelensky also used the interview to reiterate his often-repeated point that if Ukraine loses, Putin will target the West next. “Putin feels weakness like an animal, because he is an animal. He senses blood, he senses his strength. And he will eat you for dinner with all your EU, NATO, freedom and democracy,” Zelensky warned.
  4. Russia should reach out to countries of the “World Majority” to prepare them “for a possible conflict escalation, including ... direct use of the nuclear factor” in the context of Russia’s conflict with the West over Ukraine, according to a December 2023 report1 co-authored by a trio of pro-Kremlin policy influentials: Sergei Karaganov, Alexander Kramarenko and Dmitri Trenin.2 The report, which has been prepared “under the aegis of the Russian Foreign Ministry” and published in Russia in Global Affairs, claims that public outreach to the “World Majority” on the “nuclear factor” will become a “powerful factor in containing the West and breaking its will to engage in aggressive behavior.” At the same time, Russia is “open to finding mutually acceptable solutions [with the U.S. and other nuclear powers] so as not to accidentally blow up the whole world,” according to a commentary for Kommersant co-authored by another Russian policy influential, Evgeny Buzhinsky. Pursuit of such solutions, however, requires a holistic approach, in the view of Buzhinsky, who criticizes the Biden administration’s calls for compartmentalization of nuclear arms control in the U.S.-Russian relationship as “dismemberment.”
  5. Did Putin end up being one of the winners of 2023? Yes, he did, according to WSJ’s Gerard Baker, who declared the Russian autocrat “the geopolitical winner of the year,” noting that “Putin’s position looks immeasurably stronger than a year ago [with] Kyiv’s much-vaunted counteroffensive ... stalled; Mr. Putin’s economy has withstood Western sanctions; European resolve is fading; American support is fracturing.” However, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian disagree. These two Yale researchers point to what they describe as talent and capital flight from Russia, loss of access to Western know-how, dramatic decline in FDI and “[m]assive destruction of wealth” among the reasons why Putin was not one of 2023’s winners.
  6. Putin’s “re-election” in March 2024 will not be “an empty ritual, by any means,” according to Thomas Graham of CFR. “Rather, it is meant to showcase Putin’s mastery of the political system, and therefore his legitimacy,” serving as a referendum on his war in Ukraine itself,  according to Graham. Some of Putin’s top supporters will reap domestic benefits from the electoral ritual too, as Putin will shuffle “cadres in the presidential administration and government in preparation for his next term,” Graham writes in RM.
  7. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council and long-time confidant of Putin, organized and ordered the assassination of PMC Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023, Western intelligence officials and a former Russian intelligence officer alleged in interviews to NYT. Prigozhin’s plane was bombed to kill the Wagner top brass, including Prigozhin, less than two months after he launched an abortive mutiny, taking his 25,000 men and tanks from the battlefield in Ukraine to march into Rostov-on-Don and toward Moscow.
  8. Should the U.S. and its allies use hundreds of billions of the Russian Central Bank’s seized assets to fund aid to Ukraine? Yes, they should, according to WP columnist Josh Rogin, who fears that “without Russia's seized assets, Ukraine could lose its ability to survive as a functioning country.” Bloomberg columnist Andreas Kluth and FT’s editorial board disagree. The latter argue in a recent editorial that “Confiscating Russian reserves risks setting harmful precedents and undermining the global financial architecture.”

 

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“The end of North Korea’s strategic solitude?” Artyom Lukin, Russia in Global Affairs, January/February 2024 issue. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • Unlike Russia, China is unlikely to be ready for large-scale military and military-technical cooperation with the DPRK. One of the reasons is that Beijing does not yet want to go through a significant escalation with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, which is inevitable if China begins active military and military-technical cooperation with North Korea. In comparison, Moscow has practically nothing to lose in relations with the quasi-NATO trio in Northeast Asia.
  • Pyongyang itself may not want too close a military-political rapprochement with Beijing, including taking into account the historical role of China as the imperial overlord of Korea and the difficult relations already in the modern era. Russia now acts as a political equal and, therefore, a more comfortable partner for the DPRK.
  • The military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula and around it is on the verge of significant changes. The question is whether these transformations will be gradual, or whether they will happen quickly and dramatically.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict:

“Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Nears Its 10th Anniversary,” Jim Hake, WSJ, 12.19.23. 

  • Americans have donated more than $66 million to Spirit of America to help Ukraine's military with nonlethal assistance such as surveillance drones, secure communications equipment and trauma kits. Razom, another nonprofit, has distributed more than $100 million in food, fuel, medicine and other supplies to Ukraine's front-line communities. Philanthropist Howard Buffett's foundation has invested more than $500 million to help Ukraine, including funding for demining agricultural fields and providing food and other essentials for families living in formerly occupied areas.
  • Ukrainians need Washington to catch up with the American public and provide Kyiv the assistance it needs to win. If our political leaders hand Russia a victory, we will live with the consequences for generations.

Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:

“Army conscription becomes toxic issue for Ukraine’s leaders,” Ben Hall, FT, 01.01.24.

  • As it prepares to enter the third year of full-scale war against Russian invaders, Ukraine needs significantly more troops. But given the risk of a public backlash, the task of raising men for the armed forces has become something of a hot potato in Kyiv, tossed back and forth between Ukraine’s political leaders and its top military commanders. 
  • Neither side appears to be willing to take full responsibility for drafting hundreds of thousands of perhaps reluctant Ukrainians to serve in a grim, grinding war.
  • The tussle began on Dec. 19 when President Volodymyr Zelensky said at his year-end press conference that Ukrainian army chiefs had requested the conscription of 450,000 to 500,000 men. His announcement was extraordinary in two ways. 
    • First, he put a figure on it. 
    • Second, Zelensky stressed this was a request from the top brass, one that he had not yet granted. 
  • Zelensky’s Servant of the People party ... seems loath to take ownership of the [mobilization] bill. Its MPs were instructed not to comment on it and instead refer journalists’ questions to military commanders, according to the Ukrainian Truth media outlet.
  • Blaming the army for a potentially unpopular move was “destructive and wrong,” Mariia Zolkina of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation think-tank in Kyiv wrote on X.
  • Zelensky’s eagerness to share with his top commanders the burden of responsibility for a new recruitment push shows that 2024 will be a more difficult year on the home front as well as at the front line.

“Gaza and Ukraine are very different wars, but they teach similar lessons,” Max Boot, WP, 12.20.23. 

  • The wars in both Gaza and Ukraine should remind complacent Western leaders that our adversaries do not share our liberal values and, thus, are much less casualty-conscious than Western militaries are. That gives them a major military advantage.
  • Gen. James E. Rainey, commander of the U.S. Army Futures Command, recently told me that the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts should both remind us "that war remains primarily a human endeavor, land is decisive, urban conflict is as unavoidable as it is undesirable, and  … should be better organized, trained, and equipped for intense urban fighting."
  • Another lesson taught in Ukraine, and reinforced in Gaza, is "that we must engage and win the information war," retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander Europe, told me. "
  • Another important point was made to me by retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who says that we should have "a healthy skepticism of intelligence assessments." He points out that while the U.S. intelligence community accurately predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine, it did not anticipate how successfully Ukraine would resist the invasion.
  • Reliance on technology brings its own vulnerabilities. ... Russia, meanwhile, has used more advanced electronic warfare systems to jam the GPS guidance of Ukraine's U.S.-made rocket systems. Both examples show other adversaries, from China to Iran, how to blunt the United States' military edge by blinding U.S. sensors.
  • The final lesson from the Ukraine and Gaza wars is the need for a robust defense-industrial capacity, because high-intensity conflicts always consume vast quantities of ammunition.

“Ukraine War in 2024: What Happens Now?” Alexander J. Motyl, NI, 12.28.23. 

  • The only question is whether the funding will resume in a few weeks or months. Given such circumstances, Kyiv’s strategy is clear: to keep doing what it has been doing very effectively. That means degrading Russia’s navy, air force, transportation networks, and strategic infrastructure and inflicting high casualties on Russian soldiers.
  • The real question is not whether Kyiv can continue doing what it’s been doing—because the answer is yes—but whether Moscow can. 
  • Reelection will make Putin the sole owner of the war and its dismal effects on ordinary Russians.
  • The fact is that Russia’s armed forces are in no position to conduct a mega-offensive and in even less of a position to conduct it successfully. Ukraine may lose some territory, but Russian losses of personnel, tanks, and other equipment will be horrendous. Not even Putin and his propagandists will be able to persuade Russians that such an outcome is tantamount to a smashing win.
  • Defeats in wars have often produced significant change—in Russia and elsewhere. The Crimean War led to the abolition of serfdom; the Russo-Japanese War produced democratic reforms; World War I ended the tsarist regime; the defeat in Afghanistan facilitated perestroika. Russia could easily be next if Putin decides that the time is ripe for an all-out assault in 2024.

“The Lands Ukraine Must Liberate,” Frederick W. Kagan, George Barros, Noel Mikkelsen and Daniel Mealie, ISW, 12.31.23. 

  • The most advantageous lines Ukraine could hold militarily and economically are its internationally recognized 1991 boundaries. Any discussion of recognizing changes to those borders as concessions to try to persuade Russia to stop its unprovoked and illegal invasion must reckon with the heavy blow such concessions would make against core principles of international law banning wars of conquest, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and many other moral and ethical principles that are central to a peaceful world. But discussions of such concessions are already underway, and so we have examined the concrete and pragmatic problems surrounding their implementation.
  • Freezing the Russian war in Ukraine on anything like the current lines enormously advantages Russia and increases the risks and costs to Ukraine and the West of deterring, let alone defeating, a future Russian attempt to fulfill Putin’s aims by force. The current lines are not a sensible starting point for negotiations with Russia even if Putin were serious about negotiating a ceasefire on those lines. They are, rather, the necessary starting point for the continued liberation of strategically- and economically vital Ukrainian lands, without which the objective of a free, independent, and secure Ukraine able to defend and pay for itself is likely impossible.

“Ukraine Is Attacking a Russian Railroad Built by Tsars Putin Needs,” Hal Brands, Bloomberg, 12.31.23. 

  • During the buildup to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, he used the Trans-Siberian to shuttle men and materiel from the far reaches of Siberia to Ukraine’s frontiers. As the war turned bloody and protracted, Putin then used the railway to reinforce and resupply his struggling army — by importing artillery shells from North Korea, for instance — and to begin reorienting Russia’s heavily sanctioned trade toward Asia. All of which explains why Ukraine is so set on weakening the Russian war effort by tearing Putin’s railroads apart.

Military aid to Ukraine:

“Time is of the essence in defending Ukraine. Western calls for peace talks ignore the Kremlin’s determination to pursue its war of conquest,” Gwendolyn Sasse, FT, 12.20.23. 

  • The mantra of “supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes,” a common but vague temporal reference point in the German political debate, which echoes in other Western policymakers’ speeches, increasingly resembles self-reassurance rather than a future-orientated strategy. Moreover, frequent references to “Ukraine’s victory” have turned this phrase into a means for politicians to position themselves rather than act. In times of war, a word or phrase carries particular weight. But even a principled position is not sufficient in itself and has to be measured against current and future action.
  • Western and in particular European governments have a decisive role to play at this juncture. Europe needs a strategy that takes seriously the possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the White House. This must include a decision on using the remaining window of time to step up military assistance to Ukraine and military production in Europe. The EU, meanwhile, must push ahead with Ukraine’s membership negotiations.
  • Thinking about Russia’s war against Ukraine in temporal logic underlines that time is of the essence. The time zones of Ukraine and its Western allies need to be reconnected before entirely new ones open up in 2024.

“Ukraine Braces for Political Disaster in 2024,” Oz Katerji, FP, 12.20.23. 

  • Europe cannot afford to be complacent in the face of the rising threat of a Trump presidency. Opening EU accession talks for Ukraine is a good start, but until the bloc can match or outperform Russia’s current levels of ammunition production, the tide will start to turn against Ukraine if U.S. leadership on this war continues to falter. The truth is that U.S. leadership on this and on any other pressing international issue cannot be guaranteed. For Ukraine to stand a chance of victory, its allies must begin preparing for catastrophe now.

“The High Price of Losing Ukraine: Part 2 — The Military Threat and Beyond,”  Nataliya Bugayova, ISW, 12.22.23. 

  • A Russian victory in Ukraine would create a world fundamentally antithetical to U.S. interests and values with an empowered anti-Western coalition. U.S. deterrence power and geopolitical standing will diminish. The cost of protecting the homeland and operating globally will rise, as will the number of national security issues the United States will have to tackle. More states and groups will challenge America at home and abroad. Latent adversarial intent is more likely to transform into action — which is how we got here in the first place, when Russia perceived the West to be weak.
  • The asymmetry goes both ways: Ukraine is the lynchpin on which the future of Russia’s power hinges. Russia’s ability to reconstitute; to maintain and increase its control and influence over its neighbors; the power of the Kremlin’s global narratives and ability to manipulate U.S. will and perceptions; and the strength of Russia’s coalitions, including with U.S. adversaries, all depend on whether Russia wins or loses in Ukraine. Helping Ukraine win would not only prevent Russia from erasing an independent nation and save the Ukrainian people from Russian atrocities and murder but would also land an asymmetric blow to the Russian threat and the anti-U.S. coalition.
  • As long as Ukraine remains committed to defending itself against Russia’s aggression, the best course of action for the United States is to commit to the path of helping Ukraine win.

“Does Biden Want Ukraine to Win?” Phillips P. O'Brien, WSJ, 01.01.24. 

  • The Ukrainians, when supplied with Western tanks and vehicles, struggled to advance this summer. In comparison, long-range weapons have been very effective. In 2023 the U.K. and France sent Ukraine a few hundred of their Storm Shadow/Scalp cruise missiles. The systems are similar but have different names. These missiles enabled Ukrainians to hit targets anywhere in Crimea and to neuter Russian naval power in the peninsula.
  • The Storm Shadow/Scalps played a crucial role in the Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol in September. ... The attack underscores Crimea's vulnerability to long-range fire. Only the Kerch Bridge connects it to Russia. As the Russians are being driven from the naval bases, they will become almost entirely reliant on the bridge. If the Ukrainians could stop movement across it, Russian rule over Crimea would be threatened. The U.S. has many systems in addition to ATACMS, such as Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, that could help, but it isn't offering them.
  • Arming Ukraine with long-range systems would help Ukraine liberate Crimea and end the war sooner, saving lives on both sides. An administration that wants Ukraine to win should see that and act accordingly. If the Biden administration continues to hem and haw, after all we have seen in recent months, we can stop asking whether it wants Ukraine to win the war. 

“Russia’s deadly new salvos challenge Congress to respond,” Editorial Board, WP, 01.01.24. 

  • On Dec. 29 Russia unleashed 14 [S-300 missiles] … not defensively against airplanes or missiles, but offensively at cities in Ukraine. They were part of a wave of missiles and drones that marked the largest one-day aerial attack on Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion 22 months ago. The barrage ... killed 40 people in all: 17 in Kyiv, nine in Zaporizhzhia, six in Dnipro, four in Odessa, three in Kharkiv and one in Lviv. The onslaught wounded 160.3
  • What Ukraine needs now are longer-range attack missiles and F-16 air power, continued supply of air defenses, as well as a steady stream of artillery shells and ammunition. The West has to choke off the supply chains and cash that are propping up Russia's ruinous war. Mr. Putin launched that aggression on his own initiative, in violation of international law. He could end it at any moment by leaving Ukraine's territory. That's the kind of peace the world could welcome but, alas, the kind Mr. Putin is least likely to offer. A long struggle looms, which the Russian president would never consider ending on any terms unless he knows that Ukraine has the steady military support of its friends in the West. 

“Don’t Give In to Gloom About Ukraine,” Editorial Board, Bloomberg, 12.20.23. 

  • It’s impossible to predict when and how the war will end. But defeat would carry steep strategic costs, damage global food and energy security, and embolden Putin to go further. However daunting the challenges faced by Ukraine and its partners in the year ahead, failure isn’t an option.

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

“Seizing Russia’s Central Bank Funds to Help Ukraine Is Well-Meant But Wrong,” Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg, 12.26.23. 

  • Here’s a bill winding its way through the U.S. Congress that looks great at first blush: the REPO for Ukrainians Act. Or, in full, the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians Act. I even like the pun on “repossession.”
  • The REPO Act and other efforts to confiscate the Kremlin’s money mean well, because they want to help Ukraine. But they’re the wrong policy to answer the big question of our time, which is whether freedom-loving countries will prevent a neo-imperialist aggressor such as Putin from conquering nations that don’t threaten anybody, while hewing to their own principles in the process. 
  • The U.S. and Europe must rise to the occasion — but in the proper way, by overcoming domestic polarization and disinformation and helping Ukraine out of their own resources. If Kyiv were to lose, the world would be a darker place. And if Kyiv prevails, we can always decide what to do with the Kremlin’s dollars at the peace conference to follow.

“The pitfalls of seizing Russian assets to fund Ukraine,” Editorial Board, FT, 12.21.23. 

  • The case for making Russia pay for its unprovoked assault on Ukraine is morally and legally indisputable. How to achieve this is a trickier question. ... Confiscating Russian reserves risks setting harmful precedents and undermining the global financial architecture.
  • Proponents of using Russian assets argue that “Western taxpayers won’t pay.” But the world’s wealthiest economies, and their financial institutions, ought together to be up to this task — and to making the case to their electorates for why this must happen. With careful preparation, and by building the broadest possible coalition in support, there may be ways to lessen the risks of confiscating Moscow’s reserves. As 2023 moves into 2024, however, it is on unblocking and locking in their own financial support for Kyiv that Western leaders should focus their efforts.

“To get Republican support for Ukraine, make Putin pay up, too,” Josh Rogin, WP, 12.28.23.

  • For more than a year, the administration resisted a bipartisan effort to pass legislation that would give President Biden the authority to seize Russian sovereign assets currently frozen in U.S. banks and give them to Ukraine. In November, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 40-2 on its version of the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians Act (Repo Act).
  • Passing this law would not replace the need for Congress to also approve military aid to Ukraine as soon as possible. But it could provide political cover for Republicans who want to support Ukraine but are afraid of backlash from the MAGA part of the GOP. 
  • Administration officials told me that without European buy-in, the plan won't work. That's true. But passing the Repo Act would show that the United States is deadly serious, thereby possibly inducing fence-sitting allies to fall in line. Moreover, the law simply gives Biden the authority to act. He would maintain broad flexibility in when and how he chooses to move forward.
  • The critics have a narrow point when they say this is an unprecedented use of America's economic power for national security purposes. But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Without Russia's seized assets, Ukraine could lose its ability to survive as a functioning country. And that is exactly Putin's strategy.

Ukraine-related negotiations: 

“Putin Quietly Signals He Is Open to a Cease-Fire in Ukraine,” Anton Troianovski, Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, NYT, 12.23.23. 

  • Vladimir Putin has been signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine, two former senior Russian officials close to the Kremlin and American and international officials who have received the message from Mr. Putin’s envoys say. In fact, Mr. Putin also sent out feelers for a cease-fire deal a year earlier, in the fall of 2022, according to American officials. That quiet overture, not previously reported, came after Ukraine routed Russia’s army in the country’s northeast.
  • While deploying fiery public rhetoric, Mr. Putin privately telegraphs a desire to declare victory and move on. “They say, ‘We are ready to have negotiations on a cease-fire,’” said one senior international official who met with top Russian officials this fall. “They want to stay where they are on the battlefield.”
  • “He really is willing to stop at the current positions,” one of the former senior Russian officials told The New York Times … The former official added, “He’s not willing to retreat one meter.”
  • Mr. Putin, the current and former officials said, sees a confluence of factors creating an opportune moment for a deal: a battlefield that seems stuck in a stalemate, the fallout over Ukraine’s disappointing offensive, its flagging support in the West, and, since October, the distraction of the war in Gaza. 
  • The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia. Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said. “Putin and the Russian army, they don’t want to stretch their capacity further,” said the international official who met with top Russian officials this fall.
  • The former Russian officials said that Mr. Putin would prefer to strike a deal sooner, given the uncertainty inherent in war. They said that Mr. Putin’s propaganda could easily spin the status quo as a victory, celebrating a land corridor to Crimea, an army that withstood Ukraine’s Western-supplied counteroffensive and Russia’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions—papering over the fact that Russia doesn’t fully control them.
  • The ideal timing, one of the people said, would be before Russia’s presidential election in March. Mr. Putin is certain to secure another six-year term, but he cares deeply about the election as a marker of his domestic support.
  • American officials see a shift in Mr. Putin’s position, noting that he is no longer demanding the departure of Mr. Zelensky’s government. … Still, senior American officials said they did not believe that any prominent Ukrainian politician could agree at this time to a deal leaving Russia with so much Ukrainian territory.

“The Biden Administration Is Quietly Shifting Its Strategy in Ukraine,” Michael Hirsh, Politico, 12.27.23. 

  • With U.S. and European aid to Ukraine now in serious jeopardy, the Biden administration and European officials are quietly shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s goal of total victory over Russia to improving its position in an eventual negotiation to end the war, according to a Biden administration official and a European diplomat based in Washington. Such a negotiation would likely mean giving up parts of Ukraine to Russia.
  • The White House and Pentagon publicly insist there is no official change in administration policy — that they still support Ukraine’s aim of forcing Russia’s military completely out of the country. But along with the Ukrainians themselves, U.S. and European officials are now discussing the redeployment of Kyiv’s forces away from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s mostly failed counteroffensive into a stronger defensive position against Russian forces in the east … This effort has also involved bolstering air defense systems and building fortifications, razor wire obstructions and anti-tank obstacles and ditches along Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, these officials say. In addition, the Biden administration is focused on rapidly resurrecting Ukraine’s own defense industry to supply the desperately needed weaponry the U.S. Congress is balking at replacing.
  • The administration official told Politico that much of this strategic shift to defense is aimed at shoring up Ukraine’s position in any future negotiation. … The spokesperson emphasized, however, that no talks are planned yet, and that Ukrainian forces are still on the offensive in places and continue to kill and wound thousands of Russian troops. “We want them to be in a stronger position to hold their territory. It’s not that we’re discouraging them from launching any new offensive,” the spokesperson added. 
  • Over the past year … Biden has shifted from promising the U.S. would back Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” to saying the U.S. will provide support “as long as we can” and contending that Ukraine has won “an enormous victory already. Putin has failed.” Some analysts believe that is code for: Get ready to declare a partial victory and find a way to at least a truce or ceasefire with Moscow, one that would leave Ukraine partially divided. “Biden’s victory comment has the virtue of being true,” said George Beebe, a former chief of Russia analysis for the CIA who is now head of strategy for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. But “time has become a stark disadvantage when it comes to Ukraine’s manpower and industrial capacity, and that’s true even if the West continues its support. The longer this goes on the more we’re going to have to concede up front just to get the Russians to the negotiating table.”
  • In the end, said Kirby, it is Putin who must make the first move — and the Russian president hasn’t done anything like that yet. “While we all would like to see this war end immediately,” Kirby said, Putin “has shown no indication of entering into good faith negotiations.”

“Ukraine and the End of Magical Thinking,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation, 12.20.23.

  • It is time for a sober reassessment. In the end, Barack Obama got it right nearly a decade ago. When the Russians entered Crimea after the 2014 coup against an elected Ukrainian leader who was sympathetic to Russia, Obama rejected plans to get involved militarily, arguing that “the fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” The Mexicans have a saying—“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Ukraine shares that same fate with neighboring Russia. Rather than providing the West with a proxy force to weaken Russia, it had to find a way to coexist with its bigger, more powerful neighbor.
  • Both sides have reason to explore a cease-fire. The damage and casualties inflicted on Ukraine can’t be sustained. Outgunned and outmanned, with its allies distracted and faltering, it can only lose more ground and suffer more destruction in a war of attrition. .... Putin has a real stake in a settlement, one that doesn’t stoke furies that lead to constant terrorist attacks. He’ll want an end to sanctions and an agreement on the damage claims around Ukraine’s ruin. The stability he would desire couldn’t be had without a settlement that sticks.
  • What’s clear is that any continued support for Ukraine must be tied to a serious exploration of a negotiated settlement with the Russians. That requires a reassessment and a change in course and moving toward negotiations, a cease-fire, and reconstruction—not the continued war of bloody attrition, the senseless killing and fighting to the last Ukrainian in the hope that Putin will collapse.

“A Practical Guide to Perpetual Peace,” Stephen M. Walt, FP, 12.19.23. 

  • There’s no magic wand that can end the scourge of war, but here are a few modest ideas for building a (somewhat) more peaceful world.
    • First, world leaders (and publics) could start by taking realism’s lessons more seriously and cast a more skeptical eye on any ideology that claims to have found the key to ending war forever. 
    • Second, although most political leaders gain and retain power by appealing to their fellow citizens’ sense of national pride, they often forget that similar forces exist in other countries, too. Russian President Vladimir Putin erred by discounting the power of Ukrainian nationalism and found himself in a war that has proved to be far more costly than he expected, whatever the ultimate outcome. 
    • Third, leaders contemplating war should be reminded that once the fighting starts, they are no longer in control of their fate. 
    • Fourth, because war is always costly and unpredictable, wise leaders will exhaust every alternative before rolling the iron dice. 
    • Lastly, efforts to promote peace might be furthered if we asked aspiring leaders to explain what they intend to do to make peace more prevalent and robust. 

“Europe Must Ramp Up Its Support for Ukraine. Abandoning Kyiv Would Embolden Russia—and Lead Only to More War,” Norbert Röttgen, FA. 12.22.23. 

  • Forcing Ukraine to negotiate under the current circumstances would destroy all its hopes to align more closely with the West—hopes that are a little brighter after the EU’s decision to approve negotiations toward allowing Kyiv entry into the bloc. Putin will continue to target and destabilize Ukraine through all means available. It was Putin’s fear, after all, of having another flourishing Western country along Russia’s border that propelled him to attack in the first place. 
  • A defensive strategy focused solely on dialogue with Russia is at best fundamentally flawed—and at worst catastrophically naive. Such a strategy would lead to a partitioned Ukraine with no hope of joining NATO, as no NATO country would want to risk being drawn directly into a lingering conflict with Russia. Without NATO deterrence, Putin would be free to recover, regroup, and eventually attack again. And Ukraine would not be the only country at risk of a renewed assault; other states such as Moldova and the Baltic countries would be under constant threat, as well. Europe can prevent this nightmare scenario from happening only if it sheds its illusions and wholeheartedly commits to Ukraine’s defense.

“After a Ceasefire, Would Russia Simply Fight Again?”, Stephen Crowley, War on the Rocks, 12.21.23. 

  • One assumption we can safely make is that Putin and his circle regard their self-interest as paramount. Should the war in Ukraine end, restarting it or engaging in another war would demand still more of the Russian population, including greater social and economic hardship. Any new foreign interventions will rely on an ever-smaller economic base. At the very least, Kremlin leaders will need to reckon with the following: Mobilizing dwindling manpower and financial resources for yet another conquest could create greater risks to regime stability. Should talks lead to a ceasefire, Western leaders should not automatically assume the Russian leaders are simply buying time for a new war. They may not be able to.

“Ukraine Doesn’t Need All Its Territory to Defeat Putin,” Serge Schmemann, NYT, 12.27.23.

  • Regaining territory is the wrong way to imagine the best outcome. True victory for Ukraine is to rise from the hell of the war as a strong, independent, prosperous and secure state, firmly planted in the West. 
  • Any talk of armistice is understandably difficult for Volodymyr Zelensky…, but to explore an armistice is not to walk away. On the contrary, the fight must go on, even when talks begin, to maintain the military and economic pressure on Russia. 
  • And stopping the fight is not to grant Mr. Putin a victory, however loudly he may claim one. Ukraine and much of the world will not accept his annexation of any Ukrainian territory. 
  • The  only way to find out if Mr. Putin is serious about a cease-fire, and whether one can be worked out, is to give it a try. Halting Russia well short of its goals and turning to the reconstruction and modernization of Ukraine would be lasting tributes to the Ukrainians who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the existence of their nation. And no temporary armistice would forever preclude Ukraine from recovering all its land.

“Ukraine, Palestine, Taiwan: key points of tension in 2024,” Andrei Sushentsov, Valdai Club, 01.02.24.Clues from Russian Views. 

  • Let's try to determine objective criteria for victory for the participants in the [Ukraine] crisis.
    • It follows from Russian interests that Ukraine must be neutralized, demilitarized and deprived of resources to continue its offensive policy, and the coalition of its allies must recognize the legitimacy of Russia's security interests in Europe.
    • For the United States, a relative victory will be the preservation of the existing front line and stabilization of the situation: Ukraine will retain its mobilization potential and industry, and will also be ready to continue to fight with Russia. Some in the West are still considering the possibility of admitting Ukraine to NATO: if Kyiv retains its industrial potential, it will be valuable to the United States as an instrument of pressure on Russia.
  • In the eyes of Moscow, the importance of attaining the goal of denazification of Ukraine is growing - if at the beginning of the campaign it was more of a psychological nature, today it is becoming an increasingly applied task of eliminating discriminatory legislation in relation to large ethnic groups. It is unlikely that Russia will agree to freeze the conflict. The fundamental difference between the current situation and the events of the beginning of the special military operation is that previously Ukraine had the opportunity to be a subject of negotiations, but now it has lost it.

“Vladimir Putin’s Visit to Vishnevsky Central Military Clinical Hospital,” Kremlin.ru, 01.01.24. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • [When asked: “How do you feel about Western countries helping our enemy?”] Vladimir Putin: The point is not that they are helping our enemy. They are our enemy. They are solving their own problems with their hands. That is what it is all about. This has been the case for centuries, unfortunately, and continues to be the case today.
  • Ukraine itself is not our enemy whereas those who want to destroy Russian statehood and to achieve, as they say, a strategic defeat of Russia on the battlefield, are mainly in the West, but still, there are different people there. There are people who sympathize with us and who are with us at heart. But there are the elites who think the existence of Russia (at least in its current state and size) is unacceptable. They want to disintegrate it. ... For decades, they have simply been writing frankly about it: divide Russia into five parts, one is too much.
  • The problem is not with Ukraine, but with those who are trying to destroy Russia using Ukraine. That is the problem. But they will fail: it is simply out of the question, absolutely out of the question. I think that the realization is starting to dawn on them, and the rhetoric is changing: those who were talking just yesterday about the need to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia are now looking for the right words on how to quickly end the conflict. We also want to end the conflict, as quickly as possible, but only on our terms. We have no desire to fight endlessly, but we are not going to cede our positions either. You fought there, you were wounded there; are we going to surrender everything now? 

“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s interview with RIA Novosti and Rossiya 24 TV on current foreign policy issues,” Mid.ru, 12.28.23. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • We are getting ready to implement our goals – demilitarization and denazification. There is no avoiding this. We are actively working with the developing nations, especially in the context of changes in the West’s tactics. Maybe, the West is even thinking about “specifying its strategy” because if “Russia’s strategic defeat” is a strategy (excuse my tautology please), it has failed miserably. Everyone understands this. They are starting to approach us and beginning to whisper – why don’t you meet someone who will be ready to talk to you in Europe. Indicatively, this suggests talking about Ukraine without Ukraine.
  • Before, they would boast of their position – “Not a word about Ukraine without Ukraine.” Now there are signals and leaks in the Western media about the West’s desire to search for ways to overcome this situation. But they try to find approaches that will allow them to announce Ukraine’s “victory.”... It is clear what they want to achieve – to leave as soon as possible from this grievous position, one that Europe was driven into primarily by Washington. The Americans have disrupted the European economy and risen very seriously at Europe’s expense by dragging down its industrial production, providing energy for their industry at prices that are four or five times less than those they imposed on Europe for their LNG after blowing up our pipelines. They have done this before, too. They need a way out “without losing face” or a way out that will allow them to persuade at least themselves that they have not lost face. This is how I see it.
  • The main point is that practically the entire country, all social strata have worked and continue working for victory. When we launched the special military operation, the West started gloating – Vladimir Putin wanted to stop NATO’s expansion but now the alliance is expanding with Finland, and Sweden is next in line. Probably, this is how they are reassuring themselves. They wanted to convince themselves that they had done everything right. But in reality, they wanted something else. Their main goal was not to expand NATO but to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia. This was the whole point of the expansion by the North Atlantic alliance.
  •  More and more countries are telling us that they are with us. They understand that the lengthy process of forming a multipolar world has begun.
  • In the context of the emphasis on the Global Majority, on the countries that are ready to work with us in a fair, mutually beneficial and mutually respectful manner, including in the economy, politics, and security, our chairmanships, two of them, coming next year, are of central importance. One is in the CIS and the other in BRICS.

“Interview with MIA Rossiya Segodnya, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation M.Yu. Galuzin,” MID.ru, 12.30.23.4Clues from Russian Views. 

  • Whether a comprehensive, sustainable and fair resolution of the Ukraine conflict can be attained largely depends on whether its root causes can be eliminated. The West must stop pumping up the Armed Forces of Ukraine with weapons, and Kyiv must stop hostilities and withdraw its troops from the Russian territory. It is necessary to confirm the neutral, non-aligned and nuclear-free status of Ukraine, carry out its demilitarization and denazification, recognize new territorial realities, ensure the rights of Russian-speaking citizens and national minorities living in this country. Unfortunately, today we do not see the political will for peace either in Kyiv or in West. 
  • We have never refused dialogue with Ukraine, we have always advocated a political solution to the conflict, but for now we have no choice but to bring the special military operation to the full completion of all assigned tasks.

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

“Free Expression: Winners of the Year: Putin, Musk, the U.S. Economy,” Gerard Baker, WSJ, 12.18.23. 

  • It gives me no joy to declare Vladimir Putin the geopolitical winner of the year. Though his war on Ukraine continues to inflict massive damage on Russia even as it slaughters blameless Ukrainians, his position looks immeasurably stronger than a year ago. Kyiv's much-vaunted counteroffensive has stalled; Mr. Putin's economy has withstood Western sanctions; European resolve is fading; American support is fracturing. He took a wholly innocent and honorable Wall Street Journal reporter prisoner and will doubtless be rewarded for this piracy with another villain-for-hostage swap. He has shown the cruel advantage of strategic patience that autocratic rule confers.
  • That should make Volodymyr Zelensky the geopolitical loser of the year, but his continuing fortitude in the face of existential menace is too admirable for that title. So let's instead award it to a really deserving loser: Yevgeny Prigozhin. It could have been so different for Mr. Putin's chef, but after cooking up a credible mutiny he messed up the recipe and wound up as toast -- another statistic in the astonishing run of fatal accidents that befall those deemed a threat to the new czar.

“No, Putin Is Not One of the Year’s ‘Winners,’” Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, FP, 12.22.23. 

  • Consider the following economic statistics we have verified.
    • Talent flight. In the first months after the invasion, an estimated 500,000 individuals fled Russia.
    • Capital flight. Per the Russian Central Bank’s own reports, a record $253 billion in private capital was pulled out of Russia between February 2022 and June 2023.
    • Loss of Western technology and knowhow.
    • Near-complete halt in foreign direct investment into Russia. Foreign direct investment (FDI) into Russia has come to a near-complete stop by several measures. 
    • Loss of the ruble as a freely convertible and exchangeable currency. 
    • Loss of access to capital markets. 
    • Massive destruction of wealth and plummeting asset valuations. Thanks in part to the mass exodus of global multinational businesses, asset valuations have plummeted across the board in Russia, with even the total enterprise value of some state-owned enterprise down 75 percent compared with prewar levels, according to our research, on top of 50 percent haircuts in the valuation of many private sector assets, as cited in the Times.
  • Based on our ample economic data, the verdict is clear: The unprecedented, historic exodus of 1,000-plus global companies has helped cripple Putin’s war machine. At such a dire moment for Ukraine, it would be a mistake to be too Pollyannaish—just as it would be a mistake to be too cynical.

“A New Year’s interview with Volodymyr Zelensky,” The Economist, 01.01.24. Clues from Ukrainian Views.

  • Ukraine’s president is exasperated by the wobbles of some of his allies as well as the detachment among some of his compatriots. And he wants you to know it.
  • In Ukraine weariness is setting in. In the West headlines ask whether Vladimir Putin … has started to win. Aid to Ukrainians has become a subject for political horse-trading in America and Europe. The West has lost a sense of urgency and many Ukrainians have lost a sense of existential threat, Mr. Zelensky says. He is now trying to rekindle both. “Maybe we did not succeed [in 2023] as the world wanted. Maybe not everything is as fast as someone imagined,” he says, but the idea that Mr. Putin is winning is no more than a “feeling.” The reality, he says, is that Russian forces are still being slaughtered in places like Avdiivka, from where he has just returned.
    • British defense intelligence sources estimate that, on current trends, Russia will have suffered more than 500,000 casualties, killed and wounded, by 2025.
  • He emphasizes that Mr. Putin’s army failed to take a single large city in 2023, whereas Ukraine managed to break through Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and is now shipping millions of tons of grain using a new route that hugs Ukraine’s southern coast. “Huge result!” the president declares.
  • Central to his argument is that by supporting Ukraine, Europe is protecting itself from Russian aggression. “Giving us money or giving us weapons, you support yourself. You save your children, not ours,” he warns bleakly. … If Ukraine loses, Mr. Putin will bring his wars closer to the West. “Putin feels weakness like an animal, because he is an animal. He senses blood, he senses his strength. And he will eat you for dinner with all your EU, NATO, freedom and democracy.”
    • “Intelligence services of several European countries have started to [examine] a possibility of attack on their territory from Russia … Even those countries that were not in the USSR.”
  • As for suggestions about negotiations, Mr. Zelensky says he does not detect “any fundamental steps forward to the peace from Russia.” What he and Ukrainians experience instead is a barrage of aerial attacks on Ukrainian cities in the east, south, north and west.
  • Mr. Zelensky gives little away about what Ukraine can achieve in 2024. ... But if he has a message, it is that Crimea and the connected battle in the Black Sea will become the war’s center of gravity. 
    • Zelensky has asked for the Taurus, a German-made, long-range stealth cruise missile with the ability to explode deep inside a target. This could enable Ukraine to destroy the $4 billion Kerch bridge, “Russia has to know that for us this is a military object in effect isolating the Crimean peninsula from Russia.” He suggests the Germans are not the only Western power standing in his way.
  • Mr. Zelensky is still less open about his goals in the east and the south. Ukraine’s stated strategic ambition to restore Ukraine to its original borders has not and will not change, but he is no longer setting timelines and makes no promises of how much territory Ukraine can “de-occupy” next year. The inflated expectations Mr. Zelensky created ahead of the counteroffensive of 2023 were partly what led to a sense of disappointment. ... As part of this Plan B, he is asking the American government to provide licenses to Ukraine to produce weapons ranging from artillery systems and missiles to air defense.
  • The “mobilization of Ukrainian society and of the world” at the beginning of the war is not present today, Mr. Zelensky says. “That needs to change.” Polls suggest that reducing the mobilization age from its current 27 years and reducing the grounds for exemption are not popular. But Ukraine’s leader insists there is no alternative.
  •  “The most important profession a Ukrainian can do at the moment is to be in Ukraine…and for our Western partners, it is to be with Ukraine…If you don’t have the strength, then either get out or step aside. We will not retreat.” 

“NATO and Donald Trump,” Editorial Board, WSJ, 12.18.23. 

  • In the annual defense policy bill that passed last week, Congress included a provision requiring a U.S. President to consult Congress before withdrawing from NATO. 
  • The problem with Congress's NATO provision is that it probably couldn't stop a determined president. 
  • The NATO provision is nonetheless useful in showing Europe that U.S. support for the alliances is strong and bipartisan. And for showing any isolationist President, whether a populist of the right or left, that the political price for withdrawal would be high.

“How to Make Russia Pay for Ukraine,” J. French Hill and Lulzim Basha, WSJ, 12.18.23.

  • Any national legislation must meet three objectives to ensure the best possible outcome for Ukraine. 
    • First, the U.S. must play a leadership role by working in close coordination with allies. 
    • Second, legislation should maximize the potential monetary benefits to Ukraine at no cost to taxpayers. 
    • Third, lawmakers should provide mandatory authority to the executive branch to seize and vest title and interest in the Russian assets for Ukraine's benefit. 
  • U.S. action would send a compelling signal, urging the West to bolster its collective effort in support of Ukraine's fight for its sovereignty, territory and democracy as Europe's bulwark against Russian aggression. 

“What if Russia wins?” Simon Kuper, FT, 12.21.23. 

  • The West, after an 18-month hiatus, is resuming its 15-year appeasement of Putin’s aggression. 
    1. Russia exacts terrible victor’s justice on Ukrainians. 
    2. A free state might survive in Western Ukraine
    3. Putin would control close to a quarter of the world’s wheat exports. 
    4. Putin’s success would encourage countries interested in invading a neighbor: China, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and, indeed, Russia. 
    5. A discredited NATO would face its biggest test. 

“What a Russian Victory Would Mean for Ukraine,” Adrian Karatnycky, FP, 12.19.23.

  • To understand Ukraine’s likely fate if Russia turns the tide, the best place to start is what the Russians actually say. On Dec. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that in his view there is no future for the Ukrainian state
  • We can also project the effect of a Russian victory from the atrocities that are already widespread in the Russian-occupied territories. 
  • Should Ukraine lose, almost all of Ukrainian society would need to be punished, repressed, silenced or reeducated if the occupation is to quell resistance and absorb the country into Russia. 
  • For the remaining Ukrainians [who have not fled], the future would be one of totalitarian controls on culture, education and speech, accompanied by a mass terror on a scale not seen in Europe since the 20th-century era of totalitarian rule.

“A warning to the West: Appease Putin, and you will lose your freedom,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, WP, 12.22.23. 

  • A U.S.-led West still has a chance to protect itself and its allies, but it will need to pay a price — and not just a monetary one. Today the price is weapons, but if that price is not met, tomorrow it will be the mobilization of your children. If the West does not act decisively now, then the decade in which I regained freedom could prove to be the decade in which the West surrendered it.

“Don’t Give Up on a Better Russia. An Opposition Activist in Moscow on How His Country Can Change,” Aleksei Miniailo, FA, 12.28.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • To steer both the Russian establishment’s and ordinary people’s opinions toward returning occupied territories to Ukraine, 

[T]the United States and Europe need to grant protection to people running from Russia, and they need to stop discriminating against Russians abroad. 

  • They have to make more compelling assurances that they will not try to dismember Russia, and they need to offer some form of amnesty to officials who oversee a democratic transition. 
  • Finally, and most important, they have to lay out a clear road map of how, and under what conditions, they will lift both individual and national sanctions.. 
  • Foreign states ultimately have little power over my country’s domestic politics. At the end of the day, only Russians can bring democracy and peace to Russia. But these measures would remove some of the roadblocks that make the job of Russian activists—including mine—harder than is needed. It can help us show other Russians that our country can have a future free of isolation, one where they will have more opportunities to prosper than they do right now. It can help us persuade Russians that, if Moscow abandons its aggression, their children will not have to go to the frontline to earn $2,000 per month. The West can, in other words, help Russians stop fearing democratization and an end to the war in Ukraine. This, in turn, will increase the chances that Russia will start addressing the evils it has inflicted. Ukraine would then hopefully get peace and reparations. Russians would get a better life. And the United States and Europe would get a predictable and constructive partner instead of a hostile dictatorship.

"Russia’s Policy Toward World Majority,”5 Sergei A. Karaganov, Alexander M. Kramarenko, Dmitri V. Trenin, The Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the Higher School of Economics, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and “Russia in Global Affairs” journal with support from the State Duma Committee on International Affairs and under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 12.27.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • The main conflict of the modern world stems from a contradiction between the desire of the U.S.-led West to preserve its five-century-long hegemony, which allowed it to redistribute world wealth in its favor, impose its cultural and political principles on the whole world, on the one hand, and the striving of non-Western countries toward full-fledged sovereignty, not constrained by Western dogmas, institutions and orders, on the other. Only such sovereignty can ensure free development and a fair share in the global economy.
  • The SMO [Special Military Operation] has become a turning point and catalyzed these trends, testing countries’ readiness to develop independently and defend their national interests. The armed conflict in Ukraine has already led to the emergence of the World Majority as a clearly defined phenomenon in international relations. Russia should position itself as a force standing at the forefront of the struggle against Western hegemony not by chance but by virtue of its history and cultural and civilizational identity.
  • Russia’s victory in Ukraine will give an impetus to further efforts to change the global balance of power in favor of mutual respect and equal dialogue, and eventually establish a world order based on cultural and civilizational diversity. A defeat, even conditional, would mean a slowdown or even partial reversal of the emancipation from Western hegemony.
  • Strategically, the World Majority policy is a program to build a new world order. Developing such a program and the related long-term (for example, until 2040) strategy is a priority.
  • The vanguard of the World Majority is BRICS and partly the SCO with their potential for making rules, setting standards, conducting policies and creating institutions alternative to the Western ones.
  • Leadership within the World Majority cannot imply anyone’s dominance, and any ideas within it can only be possible if they have been voluntarily accepted by all interested parties.
  • The main functional aspects of the Russian strategy in relation to the World Majority are:
    • accelerating efforts to shift the center of Russia’s spiritual and material development toward the Urals and the whole of Siberia;
    • developing trade and economic ties with traditional and new partners; 
    • implementing joint technological, in particular biotechnological and ICT, projects, including technology platforms; 
    • creating new logistic corridors to world markets; 
    • ensuring Russia’s systemic presence in growing markets (Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America).
  • Institutional priorities include the World Majority’s own organizations in which Western countries are not represented, with an emphasis on the development of BRICS and the SCO, accelerated creation of technology platforms with these countries and intensive expansion of contacts in the field of education and science.
  • Since the West continues to step up military support for Kyiv and even creates conditions for strikes into Russian territory, it is advisable to prepare the ruling circles and societies of the World Majority countries for a possible conflict escalation, including through political or even — in extreme cases — direct use of the nuclear factor. The very fact of discussing this issue with the political and expert circles in the World Majority countries will become a powerful factor in containing the West and breaking its will to engage in aggressive behavior.
  • There are concerns that once China has achieved strategic self-sufficiency, it may partially lose interest in relations with Russia in the long term. Therefore, Russia needs to diversify ties with the World Majority countries and eventually normalize relations on the western flank to the extent possible. The sooner we force the United States (including using the nuclear factor) to look for ways to normalize relations, the better. But this will not happen any time soon.

“Majority of Majority,” Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia in Global Affairs/Profil, 12.26.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • In almost all G-7 countries, the ratings of the ruling parties/coalitions are now extremely low. Thus, the governments in these countries represent the interests of a minority of the population [minority-ruled countries].
  • Today the [ruling] establishments in these countries frame virtually every vote as a battle for democracy. The implication is that democracy is the victory of forces that maintain the “correct” continuity. Accordingly, those who want to reverse this course are declared enemies of democracy, even if the majority is on their side.
  • The concept of “global majority” (that is, countries outside the Western community), which has become entrenched in the Russian political lexicon this year, appeals to the parallelism between processes at the level individual countries and at the global level.
    • 2022 marked a turning point as the ruling minority was directly challenged for the first time.
    • 2023 is a time of getting used to the fact that the old restrictions, the very “rules on which the order is based,” are departing and the space of the possible is expanding for everyone.
    • 2024 is called the “year of big elections.” … In the leading Western countries there is a serious battle between the “populists” and the establishment with the United States being of course, the main arena of that battle. It is possible that the global majority and majorities in the currently minority-ruled countries will resonate, giving a powerful impetus to the further transformation of the world.​ 

“The Ukrainian conflict: echoes of the Caribbean crisis and Russia’s strategic interests,” Andrei Sushentsov, Valdai Club, 12.27.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • I don't think that what has happened will determine our [Russia’s] relations with Ukraine forever.
  • Russia’s interest now is to permanently eliminate the security threat on the territory of Ukraine and, in the … future, to fix the situation with regard to the security structure in Europe. We must return to discussion of the rules of conduct between Russia and NATO countries.
  • Our tradition differs from the Western one in that it acknowledges that peace is very fragile, … that it is an exception rather than a rule. This historical experience of our country is deeply rooted in the minds of our elites. If arguments are made that assess probability of a nuclear war scenario, then we cannot analytically rule it [such a scenario] out.
  • What is the lesson of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? Having had no experience of a direct confrontation under conditions in which use of nuclear weapons was possible, the two countries refrained from use these weapons and gained valuable experience in the thirteen days, which later served as the basis for a series of bilateral negotiations on the limitation and reduction of offensive weapons
  • Washington has closed off the possibility of a constructive, trusting interaction with us [Russia] for at least 10 years. Moscow has zero trust in any initiatives by the American administration. The United States is perceived as an inconsistent, opportunistic, hostile country that is looking for an opportunity to consolidate its dominance in the world by all means.

“Where the river is flowing to – Year 2024. Sergei Karaganov: Russia has completed its European journey,” interview conducted by Evgeniy Shestakov, RG.ru, 12.27.23.Clues from Russian Views.

  • The threat emanating from Europe is that the Old World has stopped fearing armed conflicts. This is very dangerous. ... We must not forget that these European elites unleashed two world wars in the last century in the span of one generation. And now the quality of these elites is even lower than it was in the last century.
  • The West is dropping an iron curtain, firstly, because we in Russia are the right Europeans. We are morally healthy ... In any case, we will not cancel anything, of course, including our European history. Yes, we have ended our European journey. I think it lasted a bit longer than necessary, maybe for a century.
  • The military operation we are conducting in Ukraine is aimed, among other things, at preparing the country for existence in a future very dangerous world. ... We have certainly entered an era of long-term conflicts.
  • Maybe it is Russia’s mission to free the world from the “Western yoke.”
  • If we talk about normal relations between Russia and the West, I think it will take at least one and a half generation, that is, about 20 years, for that to happen.
  • We must realize that we no longer need the West. We have taken everything useful from this wonderful European journey Peter the Great commenced in the past. Now we need to return to ourselves, to the origins of Russia’s greatness. This, of course, implies the development of Siberia.
  • The current governing Western elites have degraded so much that negotiating with them is impossible. But we should talk to them all the same as totally new threats have emerged in addition to nuclear weapons. A “drone revolution” has occurred. Cyber weapons and artificial intelligence have appeared. There are biological weapons that can also threaten humanity with terrible troubles. Russia needs to develop a new theory of deterring all these threats ... Unfortunately, there can be no serious interstate arms limitation agreements in the foreseeable future in principle, simply because it is not clear what and how to limit.
  • We are a great Eurasian power, Northern Eurasia, a liberator of peoples, a guarantor of peace, and the military-political core of the World Majority. This is our manifest destiny.

“2023: Stabilization After a Shake-up,” Ivan Timofeev, Valdai Club, 12.27.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • 2022 became a year of dynamic chaos – Russia experienced a transition to a new reality of its politics and life. The nerve of change was the emergence of contradictions in relations with the “collective West.”
  • 2023 brought some certainty. The turning point is behind us, Russia lives in new conditions of confrontation and copes with them. Russian politics has moved from crisis mode to new normalcy. What are its parameters of this news normalcy?
    • The first is relations between Russia and the West. In 2022, they acquired a mode of acute confrontation. ... The new normal is the absence of visible prerequisites for a [Russian-Western] compromise.
    • The second is the military situation in Ukraine ... Apparently, Russia proceeds from the fact that only a painful and large-scale defeat of Ukraine can lead to a situation when Russian demands and interests will be factored in ... The struggle of attrition is another sign of that new normal.
    • Third are the sanctions against Russia. The year 2022 was marked by a “sanctions tsunami” ... Moscow is not showing any interest in raising the issue of easing sanctions in response to political concessions. Ignoring sanctions and adapting to them, combined with targeted responses to these sanctions, are part of the new normal.
  • How long will the new normal last? What new forks await us in the future? How exactly will Russia get through them? All these questions remain open. For now, it is clear that the shake-up of 2022 is compensated by the stabilization of 2023. 

“Russian strategic narratives, 2022–2023,” Olena Snigyr, Orbis, Winter 2024. 

  • Russia, in its competition with the liberal world for establishing the dominant discourse—alongside hard power military means—deploys soft power, leveraging the allure of illiberal values to forge foreign policy alliances, undermine the credibility of international institutions, and reshape the global order. Russian strategic narratives delineate the political objectives of the Russian government. In a contest for discursive authority with other global actors, Russia presents its vision of a new world order—a world partitioned among major powers—where Moscow holds the authority to determine the fate of peoples in the “Greater Eurasia” region, including Europe.

China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

“Will Climate Change Drive a Wedge Between Russia and China?” Mikhail Korostikov, CEIP, 12.20.23. 

  • On top of the economic achievements, tackling climate change has also become key to the politics of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who actively promotes the idea of an “ecological civilization.” Chinese state propaganda takes pride in showcasing the achievements of the green economy. 
  • All of this is a direct threat to Russian fossil fuel exports. In the coming decades, China’s energy consumption habits could change to such an extent that the volume of required Russian hydrocarbons dwindles drastically. The accelerated introduction of electric cars to China—through government subsidies—means that gasoline consumption in China is expected to peak this year, according to forecasts by Chinese oil company Sinopec. Chinese demand for oil should plateau at the end of this decade, after which it is expected to fall.
  • At the same time as developing renewable energy, which is becoming cheaper, China is trying to maximize domestic hydrocarbon extraction. By 2030, this should mean that China can cut fossil fuel imports by as much as 10 percent.
    • Both of these trends make China less reliant on the outside world, including Russia. 
  • In the event of a Beijing-Washington confrontation, Moscow’s close ties to Beijing mean Russia is bound to take China’s side. For that reason, Beijing will likely continue to get at least some of its fossil fuel supplies from Russia for as long as possible.  Still, if Sino-American ties do not deteriorate any further, the deciding factors when it comes to Beijing’s decisions on energy will be economic ones. Increasing fossil fuel exports and ignoring the climate agenda may yet turn out to be an own goal for Moscow.

“Putin promises Xi to 'fight for five years' in Ukraine,” Katsuji Nakazawa, Nikkei, 12.28.23. 

  • During a meeting in Moscow back in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that Russia "will fight for [at least] five years" in Ukraine, sources have revealed. This was apparently Putin's way of summarizing a situation that at the time was not favorable to Russia and assuring Xi that Russia would emerge victorious in the end.
    • The likely implication was that a protracted war would favor China's well-armed partner.
    • Taken another way, the remark was also a warning to Xi not to change his pro-Russia stance.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms:

“Rethinking the US strategic triad: When it comes to nuclear platforms, how many are enough?”, Stephen J. Cimbala and Lawrence J. Korb, BAS, 12.20.23. 

  • Global nuclear disarmament may not be achievable by deliberate political agreement among nuclear weapons states and others. But it is not inconceivable that better conventional weapons, including non-nuclear antimissile defenses, may become more competitive with prospective weapons for attack. Indeed, there is already in progress a competition between new technologies for hypersonic attack weapons and those for preclusive antimissile and air defenses. By mid-century, nuclear weapons could remain deployed in the arsenals of major powers but without their status as mainstays of deterrence, passing that baton to advanced non-nuclear weapons offering deterrence by denial preferentially to deterrence by threat of regional or global annihilation.

“The Real Russian Nuclear Threat. The West Is Worried About the Wrong Escalation Risks,” Peter Schroeder,6 FA, 12.20.23.  

  • To hear U.S. officials tell it, there is little risk that the war in Ukraine will lead to nuclear escalation. ... [O]fficials do not appear to believe that the war in Ukraine could lead Russia to use its nuclear arsenal against a NATO state, however furious it is at the West for supporting Ukraine. 
  • That is a mistake. … It is actually quite unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine, but it is very possible that he will move toward using one against NATO. ... Putin has been remarkably consistent that Russia is willing to use nuclear weapons against NATO to defend its interests in Ukraine. Even eight years ago, in a television interview done a year after Russia invaded Crimea, Putin declared that he had been ready to place Russian nuclear forces on alert to prevent Western forces from interfering in Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula.
  • When Putin invokes his arsenal … his rhetoric is designed to threaten NATO itself. ... To see why, consider, first, the state of the battlefield. Tactical nuclear weapons would do little to help Russia break the stalemate. ... In fact, right now he believes that there is little to gain from using nuclear weapons anywhere. Putin thinks that Russia can win in Ukraine by conventional means. ...
  • If the West makes a strong, renewed commitment to support Kyiv as it tries to retake all occupied territory and provides Ukraine with long-term financing support and a bolstered defense industry, Putin might decide that he may not be able to grind Ukraine down through attritional warfare. If, in addition, Western economic sanctions finally start to significantly disrupt the Russian economy, Putin may conclude that time is not on his side. 
  • [I]f Putin does escalate the war, for instance by attacking NATO with conventional weapons, he will likely move very swiftly, so as not to give the United States a chance to maneuver away from a crisis. … Ukraine is too central to the Kremlin’s ambitions—and too secondary to the United States’—for Putin to believe any American threats. Ultimately, Putin will expect the United States to back down before fighting a nuclear conflict over land so far from home.
  • To avoid the worst, the United States needs to find new ways to prevent Russia from using its arsenal. It must persuade the country’s officials, including ones along the military command chain, to subvert and obstruct decisions that might lead to a nuclear attack. It needs to convince Russian elites that their country can concede on Ukraine without suffering a catastrophic defeat. It must rally other countries, especially neutral ones, to delegitimize nuclear use and convince Putin that he will be making a dreadful mistake if he turns to his nuclear arsenal. And it must do so now. 
  • If it wants to avoid a nuclear standoff, Washington must therefore take a different tack. 
    • U.S. policymakers should instead pursue policies aimed at subverting Russia’s decision-making, so that if Putin orders escalatory steps he faces internal pushback.
    • The United States must also persuade Russian officials that there are paths out of Ukraine that do not end in either victory or a humiliating defeat ... Top Russian officials simply have to know that their choice is not between capitulation and nuclear escalation.
    • [The U.S.] must simultaneously rally neutral states to pressure Moscow away from escalation. ... China’s and India’s public warnings about nuclear strikes were both positive signs, but they and other countries—such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia … can do more.

“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s interview with Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency,” MID.ru, 12.31.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • A clear signal that we may reconsider a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of ground-launched intermediate and short-range missiles was included in the original wording [of the INF Treaty], where we stated that we were imposing corresponding self-limitations.
  • If the United States does not take any extraordinary steps to exert pressure through other means, Russia will not be the first to deploy missiles that were previously prohibited under the INF Treaty. However, judging by the preparations made by the Pentagon, practical actions by the Americans to deploy ground-launched intermediate and short-range missiles in different regions of the world should not take long. Therefore, the time when we will have to make necessary political decisions is fast approaching.
  • Our readiness to restore a full-fledged dialogue with the United States should not be taken for granted. Russia-U.S. relations have become strained to the maximum due to Washington’s strategic objective of inflicting a decisive blow on Russia. Although the White House is still cautious about completely ruining what remains of the relationship, the Americans are clearly not ready to engage in an honest dialogue based on mutual respect and consideration of each other's interests. We will only be able to develop a formula for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in certain areas when Washington acknowledges our core national interests and engages in sincere negotiations. ... The U.S. political establishment, regardless of party affiliation, views Russia as an enemy and an existential threat. Given the existing bipartisan consensus on this matter, it would be naive to hope for improved relations in the event of a victory by a candidate from the Republican Party. In general, the outcome of the U.S. presidential race is not of great concern to us.

“Against Dismemberment,” Evgeny Buzhinsky, Vladimir Orlov and Sergey Semenov, Kommersant, 12.26.23.7Clues from Russian Views.

  • The American proposal, which has been voiced this year, to “compartmentalize,” that is, separate arms control [from other issues] in the non-existent bilateral [U.S.-Russian] relations, is a bad idea. ...We [also] see that in continental Europe they are again feeding on American illusions, this time that “for the Russians, strategic stability is more important than the European theater of military operations.” This is worse than a delusion, it is a mistake.
  • Arms control is not built in a vacuum. It is not an end in itself, but only a means of stabilizing military-strategic parity. It is a tool for reducing the risk of armed conflict between nuclear states.
  • For Russia ... the main threat is measured not only and not so much by the number of warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles and the equipment of heavy bombers. Those are just a part of a broader picture in which a hotbed of tension has been created right at our borders, threatening to escalate into a major war. Therefore, the issue is not arms control. … The previous system of European security, under which the spread of the NATO tumor had become possible, must be destroyed. And the only topic that makes sense to discuss is what will replace that system ... as a whole.
  • The alternative [to compartmentalization is] a holistic approach which was proposed by Russia in 2020–2021. It is guarantees of Russian security with an emphasis on curbing NATO’s harmful activities along the perimeter of Russian borders; [and] arms control, covering all elements of the strategic equation, that constitute key factors influencing the security of the state.
  • We proceed from the fact that the highest priority in the field of reducing strategic risks should remain the prevention of war between nuclear powers by preventing direct armed conflict between them. Nuclear powers, in our opinion, should abandon any attempts to change and weaken the external security contours of other nuclear powers by expanding or calling for the expansion of military alliances, or inflaming existing and creating new centers of tension, including [with the help of] color revolutions and other kinds of unrest in states located near the borders of other nuclear powers.
  • Time is on our side. There will be no arms race in the next few years: the United States does not have enough forces for a sharp increase in arms. The ceilings of the New START Treaty, which has been suspended until 2026 and which is most likely [to remain suspended] beyond, will regulate the development of the military capabilities by the parties.
  • The Americans keep tugging at our sleeves: talk to the Chinese, who are supposedly planning a big nuclear leap. We are not tugging at anyone’s sleeve, but we are ready to repeat to the Americans: talk to the British and French first.
  • [Compartmentalization as a term] is too diplomatic. We, being experts, translate this as dismemberment. Does that sound discordant? Well, it wasn't us who suggested it. We are open to finding mutually acceptable solutions so as not to accidentally blow up the whole world. ... But games of dismemberment are not our games. 

“An Age of Wars? Article One,” Sergei Karaganov, Russia in Global Affairs, 01.01.24.Clues from Russian Views

  • Many structural factors indicate an extremely high probability of qualitative escalation in military conflicts, which brings the world to the brink of final catastrophe ... In this first article will try to present my vision of challenges [sources of increasing global tensions].
    • The tenth challenge. For many decades, relative peace on the planet has been maintained thanks to the fear of nuclear weapons. In recent years, however, the habit of living in peace, the abovementioned intellectual degradation and clip thinking in societies and elites have spurred the rise of “strategic parasitism.” People no longer fear war, even a nuclear one.
    • And finally, the eleventh and most obvious challenge, or rather a set of challenges. A new qualitative but also quantitative arms race is underway. Strategic stability―an indicator of the likelihood of nuclear war―is being undermined on all sides. New types of weapons of mass destruction appear or have already appeared, which are not covered by the system of limitations and prohibitions.
      • The drone revolution is in progress.
      • High-precision long-range non-nuclear weapons undermine strategic stability “from below.”
      • Hypersonic weapons, in which we and our Chinese friends are still leading, thanks to God and our designers, sooner or later will spread. 
      • Artificial intelligence in the military sphere not only significantly increases the danger of weapons, but it also creates new risks of escalation.
  • The world is on the verge or already past a series of disasters, if not a global catastrophe.

Also see “Vladimir Putin’s Remarks at Expanded Meeting of Defense Ministry Board,” Kremlin.ru, 12.19.23 in the defense and aerospace section below.  

Counterterrorism:

  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security/AI: 

“The Premature Quest for International AI Cooperation,” Marietje Schaake, FA, 12.21.23. 

  • Although the impulse to borrow from previous successes of multilateralism is understandable, simply introducing a new agency will not solve the puzzle of AI governance. 
  • International regulatory bodies are only successful when there are rules to which they can hold companies and national governments accountable. Political leaders should first hammer out the preconditions and content of those laws—and only then fit agencies to oversee regulation. 
  • Real progress on international AI oversight will take more than getting policymakers from key countries in the same room. In her account of the IAEA, the scholar Elisabeth Roerich identified two essential elements that made nuclear safeguards effective: legal agreements binding the agency and its member states, and technical tools to monitor compliance. AI safeguards, too, will require new and updated laws as well as the resources and technical capacity to enforce them. Today, many political and corporate leaders are trying to jump straight to the end, focusing on overarching institutions rather than the policies that make them work. History is a valuable guide, but it is not a shortcut.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

Climate change:

  • See section “China-Russia: Allied or aligned?”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant developments.

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies 

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“How Putin’s Right-Hand Man Took Out Prigozhin,” Thomas Grove, Alan Cullison and Bojan Pancevski, WSJ, 12.22.23. 

  • On the tarmac of a Moscow airport in late August, Yevgeny Prigozhin waited on his Embraer Legacy 600 for a safety check to finish before it could take off. Through the delay, no one inside the cabin noticed the small explosive device slipped under the wing. When the jet finally left, it climbed for about 30 minutes to 28,000 feet, before the wing blew apart. The assassination of the warlord was two months in the making and approved by Nikolai Patrushev, according to Western intelligence officials and a former Russian intelligence officer. 
    • Hours after the incident, a European involved in intelligence gathering who maintained a backchannel of communication with the Kremlin and saw news of the crash asked an official there what had happened. “He had to be removed,” the Kremlin official responded without hesitation. 
  • A former senior White House official said Nikolai Patrushev has been a key conduit between Moscow and Beijing. “If Putin had been deposed or killed earlier this year by Wagner Group, I suspect Beijing would have made efforts to install Patrushev as Putin’s replacement,” the former official said. 
  • Patrushev began to warn Putin about Prigozhin during the summer months of 2022. But the warnings fell on deaf ears while Wagner made progress on the battlefield. That changed when Prigozhin called Putin in October 2022 and complained rudely about his lack of supplies, said the former Russian intelligence officer, who maintains ties to people close to Putin and his spy chief.
  • On Friday June 23, Prigozhin launched a mutiny, taking his 25,000 men and tanks from the battlefield in Ukraine and marched them toward the southern city of Rostov-on-Don to take the Russian armed forces’ southern military district headquarters. ... With Putin at a villa far outside of the city, Patrushev took over, organizing a flurry of phone calls to persuade Prigozhin to stand down, according to Western intelligence assessments and the former Russian intelligence officer. Patrushev asked officers sympathetic to Prigozhin to try to get through to him. Five calls to Prigozhin from the Kremlin went unanswered. He also looked for mediators, and calls were made to the governments of Kazakhstan and Belarus, both members of a Russian-led military alliance made up of former Soviet states.
  • After the mutiny, the Kremlin did little publicly to limit Prigozhin’s life. He traveled to Africa to check in on his operations there. He was also allowed to continue working in St. Petersburg and around Russia, said Maksim Shugaley, who worked for Prigozhin at a think tank. But, he said, Prigozhin was wary. 
  • In the beginning of August, as most of Moscow went on vacation, Patrushev, in his office in central Moscow, gave orders to his assistant to proceed in shaping an operation to dispose of Prigozhin, said the former Russian intelligence officer. Putin was later shown the plans and didn’t object, Western intelligence agencies said.

“For Putin, Winning is Not Everything in Russia’s Presidential Election,” Thomas Graham, RM, 12.20.23.

  • Vladimir Putin is now a wartime president. The raging conflict in Ukraine—of uncertain outcome, no matter what the Kremlin boasts of coming victory—will provide the backdrop to the March 2024 presidential election. … This essentially uncontested election is not an empty ritual, by any means. … [I]t is meant to showcase Putin’s mastery of the political system, and therefore his legitimacy; by extension, it will serve as a referendum on the war itself.  
  • As in the past, the Kremlin will set targets for voter turnout and Putin’s share of the vote. It will then be challenged to energize regional officials, who conduct the election, and other public figures to meet those targets with minimal fraud.  That would demonstrate the elite’s loyalty and mobilization skills, as well as the people’s acquiescence, if not active support. The smoother the operation, the less the fraud, the better for Putin’s authority. 
  • To that end, the campaign that will now unfold until the election in mid-March will be designed to generate enthusiasm for Putin’s candidacy by highlighting the successes of the recent past. If it follows the pattern of past elections, it will also alert the elites and the people alike to tasks ahead. Two interrelated themes are certain to figure large: the military conflict in Ukraine and the larger hybrid war against the U.S.-led “collective West,” in which it is embedded. 
  • In the end, the Kremlin will most likely achieve its electoral goals, reaffirming Putin’s vast political authority. Many officials well understand that the Kremlin’s portrayal of the state of affairs is far too rosy, but few will be willing to push back—the personal costs are simply too great in the repressive political system Putin has built. Moreover, there are great rewards to be reaped for vigorously backing Putin as he shuffles cadres in the presidential administration and government in preparation for his next term. This is the way the system is supposed to work. Whether Putin can lead his country to the victory he seeks in his war in Ukraine and against the West is another matter.    

“Putin’s Wartime Dictatorship Enters a New Year,” Julian G. Waller, NI, 12.28.23.

  • The resilience of the Russian regime and the acceptance of elites to the new order of the day have had major consequences for its public politics. After a brief total closure in the spring of 2022, a new political dynamic has emerged in its place. The place of the dictator has been tacitly assented to by all relevant domestic actors, and elites are now far too wrapped up in supporting the war and its aims to defect easily. There is nowhere to go for those who chose not to leave in the first year of the war.
  • A form of loyalist public politics has reemerged, concentrated on the national-patriotic side of the Russian political spectrum that had previously been far more marginal. The cadre of “war correspondents” and so-called “angry patriots” writing critically about Russian military failures have become the primary arena for critical information about the regime’s insufficiencies, even as establishment media has remained timid and controlled. 
  • Meanwhile, the greatest rupture in the internal stability of the regime—the Prigozhin Rebellion of June 2023—was notable for what it wasn’t. The Rebellion was not a coup aimed at toppling the apex executive, but rather an armed negotiation by a political-military baron who desperately wished for the firing (and execution) of the bureaucratic-military leadership that he believed was undermining his own forces, and the war more broadly. The fact that this negotiation failed and was punished severely in due time points to the untouchable position of Putin as national dictator, as well as the irregular nature of the exceptional wartime regime itself. 

“Between Putin’s Loyal Praetorian Guard and Devoted Servant of the Chechen People,” Jean-François Ratelle and Marat Iliyasov, PONARS, 12.18.23.   

  • [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov has recognized the risks and constraints associated with leveraging the war in Ukraine for political gains at the federal level. Prigozhin’s fate serves as a stark illustration of the perils of overreach. Instead of escalating his clash with the Ministry of Defense, Kadyrov chose to use the mutiny as an opportunity to solidify his allegiance to the regime. By deploying troops to quell the rebellion and secure the Russo-Ukrainian border near Belgorod, the Chechen leader once again positioned himself at the forefront of the battle to preserve Vladimir Putin’s regime. 
  • His support extended to the deployment of additional Akhmat units in costly battles, reinforcing the Russian army in Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Robotyne. Although these units were composed primarily of Russian citizens, Kadyrov framed their involvement as a significant contribution by his regime to the overall war effort. Our analysis highlights Kadyrov’s adaptability and resilience in the face of political challenges throughout the war. While the imperative of political survival has compelled him to suspend his pursuit of a higher position within the federal political hierarchy, it would not be surprising—under the right circumstances—to witness renewed attempts by Kadyrov to rise and confront federal elites.

“Cossacks as a Case Study of Russia’s Paramilitarization,” Richard Arnold, PONARS, 12.20.23. 

  • Cossack activities in Russia are a case study of the country’s ongoing “paramilitarization.” So-called “asphalt Cossack” (a mocking term for inauthentic Cossacks) institutions both provide men for service in Russia’s conflicts—including the “special military operation”—and prepare youth physically and mentally for future service. In this way, the Cossacks fulfill both the demand and supply sides of paramilitarization, doing so in a way that constructs para-state entities. 

Defense and aerospace:

“Vladimir Putin’s Remarks at Expanded Meeting of Defense Ministry Board,” Kremlin.ru, 12.19.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • The past year’s developments have confirmed, and we can all see it, that the West continues to wage hybrid warfare against Russia, actively providing the Kiev regime with real-time intelligence data, sending military advisers, transferring new weapons systems to the country, including high-mobility multiple rocket launchers, long-range missile systems, cluster munitions, and large batches of new UAVs. As we know, Western countries are also planning to send F-16 multirole fighter jets to Ukraine, and pilots are now being trained in the West.
  • The NATO military bloc has increased its overall activity dramatically of late. Considerable forces and resources from the United States have been redeployed to our borders, including aircraft. The number of NATO troops in Eastern and Central Europe has increased. As we know, Finland has been dragged into NATO already, and Sweden is planning to join. In fact, this means a new stage of the alliance’s advance to our borders.
  • The West is not abandoning its strategy to contain Russia and its aggressive goals in Ukraine. Well, we are not going to give up the goals of our special military operation either.
  • Assessing the current situation on the ground, on the line of contact, we can say with confidence that our troops hold the initiative. In fact, we are doing what we think is necessary, and what we want to do. Where necessary, where you, the commanders generally consider it appropriate to use active defense, tactics, you do that; in other areas, we are improving our positions.
  • The enemy is suffering heavy losses and has largely squandered their reserves trying to show their real bosses at least some progress in their much-hyped operation they call a counter-offensive. 
  • We need to increase the capabilities of our satellite constellation not only for the special operation zone, but also at the global level. We have to seriously increase the production and supply of high-precision projectiles and drones of various types. 
  • But the things we did not pay attention to before, that we thought were just details, some plywood and so on, maybe, small drones that fly around – no, it turned out that these things also cause damage and should not be missed in any case.
  • Given the changing nature of military threats and the emergence of new military and political risks, the role of the nuclear triad, which ensures the balance of power, the strategic balance of power in the world, has significantly increased.
  • This year, thanks to the consistent implementation of the state armament program and the efficient operation of the defense industry enterprises, the level of modern weapons and equipment in the strategic nuclear forces as a whole has reached 95 percent, and the naval component – almost 100 percent. By the end of the year, 15 Yars and Avangard missile system launchers will be put into combat service in the strategic missile forces. We have received four submarines, two just recently; last week, I accepted the Krasnoyarsk, a multi-purpose nuclear-powered submarine, and the Emperor Alexander III, equipped with Bulava ballistic missiles. The aviation component is also being upgraded. In particular, four Tu-160M missile carriers have arrived. We must continue to maintain the combat readiness of strategic forces at the highest level. All plans approved in this area will certainly be implemented.
  • The indicators achieved in re-equipping the nuclear triad are a benchmark for our work on conventional weapons and equipment. New equipment deliveries to the troops have tripled compared to last year. It is expected that, in general, the state defense order will be completed at about 98 percent by the end of 2023. It is necessary to continue sending cutting edge weapons to the troops.
  • The third most important task is the timely and full supply of everything necessary for the troops participating in the special military operation.
  • This year, the volume of supplies of armored vehicles has increased threefold, and other vehicles by 4.5 times thanks to the effort of the defense industry. In general, the number of purchased basic weapons has increased by 2.7 times, and those in high demand by seven times.
  • Next, the fourth point is, as I have already said, the wide use of the experience gained during the special operation in tactical and combat training, in the teaching process at military universities and academies. 
  • We realize that Russia is not going to fight Europe. We are not going to fight against them today either. U.S. and NATO leaders keep saying, if Russia wins in Ukraine now, the NATO countries will be next in line. Why do we need these NATO countries? We have never needed them and don’t need them now and won’t need them in the future. Why are they saying this? To encourage them to pay – this is the whole point.
  • Having reached its current goals, having torn Ukraine away, as they saw it, and having severed Russian-European relations, the United States has achieved what it was after, unfortunately. 
  • Russia was the only guarantor of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. …only Russia could be the guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. If they do not want it, so be it. 
  • You have it all now, and the Motherland expects you to deliver.

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

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“The Rebirth of Russian Spycraft. How the Ukraine War Has Changed the Game for the Kremlin’s Operatives—and Their Western Rivals,” Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, FA, 12.27.23. 

  • Overall, Putin has taken a flexible, pragmatic approach to his intelligence services, playing between the ever-present fear of purges and encouraging the agencies to be more innovative at regaining ground in the West. One result seems to have been a noticeable rise in more ambitious foreign operations over the past year, including alleged sabotage operations, as well as the exfiltration of the Russian operative in Italy and stepped up recruitment efforts in several NATO countries, as is apparent in the case of a member of Germany’s BND intelligence agency who was arrested in December 2022 on charges of allegedly transferring highly classified information to the Russian government, and is now on trial for treason.
  • In staging their comeback, Russia’s spy agencies have also internalized another important lesson from the Soviet years: the strategic use of ideology. In the 1930s, Moscow was able to win over many Westerners to the Soviet cause by aiming its arguments at Western deficiencies rather than promoting Marxist doctrine. At the time, Soviet agents learned that they did not really need to sell a full-fledged communist ideology; instead, they could portray the Soviet Union as an alternative to Western imperialism, emphasizing the West’s double standards and hypocrisy and offering in contrast a leader who stood up against global powers. These ideas are exactly what Russian agencies can now pedal to potential allies and recruits in Russia’s new intelligence war with the West.
  • As Russia prepares to enter a third year of war, its intelligence agencies know that the Kremlin supports them and shares their paranoia and prejudices. This reality suggests that the spy services can count on the Kremlin’s protection. … with the war in Ukraine, Putin has tried to avoid the mistakes of the past and keep his intelligence forces loyal. He has also succeeded in making them stronger, for the time being, than at any previous point in the war.
  • But it is unclear if any of this has improved his control over them. And so far, Putin has done nothing to fix the problem: he is unwilling to repeat Stalin’s mistakes of purging his agencies on an industrial scale, but he also understands that unlike during the Soviet years, when the Communist Party controlled the KGB, he has few other ways to rein them in. If things began to go badly for Russia in the war, this one-sided dynamic could mean that Putin’s spies might be in no rush to save him.

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia’s War on Woke. Putin Is Trying to Unite the Far Right and Undermine the West,” Mikhail Zygar, FA, 01.02.24. Clues from Russian Views.

  • Putin’s right-wing policies may play well at home, helping to justify his continued rule and the invasion of Ukraine. But domestic politics alone cannot explain his war on woke—and not just because it includes attacks on European immigration and the racial justice movement in the United States. Contrary to what Putin suggests, Russia is not a fundamentally conservative society. According to surveys by the Levada Center, for example, only one percent of Russians attend church weekly, and more than 65 percent of Russians say that religion does not play a significant role in their lives. According to other Levada surveys, roughly 65 percent of Russians support the right to abortion. Transgender people, meanwhile, make up only a tiny fraction of the country’s populace. Before Putin launched his attacks, they attracted almost no public attention. 
  • Instead, Putin’s rants appear to be aimed less at a domestic audience and more at right-wingers abroad. They seem to be targeted at Europe and North America in particular, the two places where Moscow has lost the most support over Putin’s last decade in power. In both regions, mainstream leaders who have isolated Moscow are struggling to fight off insurgent right-wing politicians who support ostensibly Christian values. Increasingly, these populist conservatives are winning. And by embracing their rhetoric, Putin believes he can gain their support and, with it, find a way to improve Russia’s international position. 
  • Even if Putin’s vision does not come to full fruition, a “far-right international” would help strengthen his hand. He hopes that it might prompt Western states to weaken sanctions, for example, or to cut back on support for Kyiv. The result might be a more durable Kremlin regime. And for Putin, that in itself would be a win.

“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s address at a meeting of the United Russia Party General Council Commission on International Cooperation and Support for Compatriots Abroad, Moscow,” Mid.ru, 12.26.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • The formation of a multipolar, polycentric world order is undeniably becoming a major trend in international development. This process is steadily progressing, involving sovereign states and their associations that do not rely on advice from across the ocean or from closer territories, but rather prioritize their own national interests, as cultural and civilizational identity. They promote their own agenda in both domestic and international spheres, choosing the model of political and socio-economic development that best suits their people and traditions.
  • At the same time, many of these countries have already achieved significant success in various fields, such as economics, science and technology, and are influencing global governance and the decisions made by leading multilateral organizations. Among them (although we cannot list them all, we will mention our strategic partners) are China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Türkiye and many other countries of the Global South and East.
  • I have mentioned above all the countries that will join the BRICS association from January 1, 2024, in accordance with the decision made at the summit in Johannesburg this autumn.
  • The world is becoming increasingly diverse, with more independent players. However, this also makes it more complex, which is evident from the way discussions are developing at multilateral forums. A prominent example of this is the interaction within BRICS. Over the years, this association has been a platform for efficient cooperation among states that represent various religions, world regions, and – without exaggeration – even civilizations. Our joint efforts encompass nearly all major areas, ranging from politics and security issues to the economy and humanitarian contacts in all their forms. In fact, BRICS represents a cooperation network that operates in addition to the traditional North-South and West-East lines.
  • Recently, the world has seen daylight concerning the goals, which the Americans and their allies were achieving when promoting their model of globalization. They had a similar colonial and neo-colonial goal – to live at the expense of others, to ensure one’s well-being (yes, this word is quite acceptable) through the exploitation of the natural resources, and other resources, of developing countries.
  • Our BRICS chairmanship  [in 2024] will take place under the theme “Strengthening multilateralism for the purposes of fair global development and security.” 

“Why Egypt’s new nuclear plant is a long-term win for Russia,” Marina Lorenzini, BAS, 12.20.23.

  • In agreeing to the Russian [NPP] program, Al-Sisi has also tethered his country, by many metrics, to an isolated regime and unprosperous country. While construction at El Dabaa has so far largely gone according to plan, analysts should not take this progress for granted. As sanctions and the war effort in Ukraine continue, Moscow may deprioritize such overseas projects and give preference to its own military budget, civil servants, and infrastructure.
  • To maintain a level of independence, Cairo should seriously engage with the International Monetary Fund and continue to build up a competent indigenous workforce capable of fully operating and maintaining a nuclear power plant

Ukraine:

“On December 19, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held his end-of-year press conference, … and… Meduza is sharing the key highlights,” Meduza, 12.19.23. Clues from Ukrainian Views.

  • Zaluzhnyi is “responsible for the results on the battlefield as Commander-in-Chief.”
  • Zaluzhnyi is my representative, just like everyone who I appointed. I’m proud of some people on my team, and ashamed of others.
  • Zelensky said he had not yet approved Ukrainian Armed Forces’ General Staff suggestion of mobilizing another 400,000-500,000 people, since they don’t yet have a clear picture of the rotations and leaves of absence for active military personnel.
  • On when the war will end: “I think no one knows the answer, even our commanders or Western partners. They don’t know.” Zelensky said in response to a question about whether he agrees with Western leaders that the war could go on for a long time and that it won’t end in 2024.
  • “I’m confident that the U.S. won’t betray us, and that the U.S. will completely fulfil what we agreed to.” Zelensky also expressed confidence that the E.U. would allocate funds to Kyiv “in the near future.” 
  • On comparing the war in Ukraine to the Israel-Hamas war: “Russia’s occupation and invasion of Ukraine didn’t start with a terrorist attack on Russian territory by people with Ukrainian citizenship.”
  • On what a Donald Trump presidency would mean for Ukraine: “I think that America as a whole will not change its mind. But a leader obviously has influence over society. The first signals from the next U.S. president, whoever it may be, will have an impact. These signals will have a very strong influence on the course of the war in Ukraine.”

“Here are some leadership examples to inspire Zelensky in 2024,” Alec Russell, FT, 12.29.23.

  • Exhibit A is Siya Kolisi, the captain of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning team. His life story embodies perseverance. 
  • A second source of potential reassurance is closer to home: Maia Sandu, president of Moldova. Ukraine’s tiny neighbor has also long been in Russia’s shadow and it, too, dreams of joining the EU. Sandu’s routine is to keep plugging away in tackling corruption in the courts and the political culture, a problem that plagues Ukraine too.
  • Exhibit C is another fellow head of state, whose capital is some 9,500km to the east of Kyiv. Indonesia’s political culture has similarities to Ukraine’s. It is an emerging democracy with an elite not always known for the transparency of its dealings. The country’s president, Joko Widodo, has made an art form of keeping expectations low.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant developments.

 

Footnotes

  1. According to the report, the term “World Majority” refers to a community of non-Western countries that have no binding relationships with the United States and the organizations it patronizes.  
  2. Both Trenin and Karaganov have repeatedly lamented what they described as the Western elites’ and public’s loss of fear of nuclear weapons, penning articles that aimed to revive such fear in hopes that it would dissuade the West from supporting Ukraine in the war with Russia.
  3. Since Dec. 29, Ukraine and Russia have exchanged strikes. For a recent account of these strikes, see this FT article
  4. Translated with the help of machine translation.
  5. According to the report, the term “World Majority” refers to a community of non-Western countries that have no binding relationships with the United States and the organizations it patronizes. 
  6. Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He served as the Principal Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2018 to 2022 and was a member of the Senior Analytic Service at the CIA.
  7. Translated with the help of machine translation.

 

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

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

Photo shared by the Russian presidential press service (Kremlin.ru) under a CC BY 4.0 license.