Russia Analytical Report, Feb. 19-25, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • As Washington’s focus shifts towards the consequences of China’s rise, some analysts have called for a “reverse Kissinger,” writes Zachary Paikin, a senior editor at Global Brief. This grand strategy would see Washington forge an alliance with Moscow against Beijing; however, Paikin argues, the events of the past three decades make this impossible.  
  • Continuity with the Soviet era and earlier Russian history is a hallmark of the Kremlin’s current foreign policy and the toolkit it relies on to advance its goals, write Carnegie’s Julia Gurganus and Eugene Rumer. While these two authors see continuity in foreign policy, former CIA station chief John Sipher notes continuity in the sense that the USSR was the world's first ''intelligence state” and that post-Soviet Russia has become even more so under Putin.
  • U.S. national security advisor John Bolton’s disdain for New START is partly to do with his belief that the treaty should allow the U.S. to have more weapons than Russia, according to Brookings senior fellow Steven Pifer. While the Trump administration shows little interest in arms control, it does want funding to modernize U.S. strategic forces; Pifer argues that Democrats should take note and force the White House’s hand to ensure the extension of New START.
  • While Putin’s state of the nation address last week ended with the usual nuclear saber-rattling, much of the speech “was devoted to spending pledges,” writes the Financial Times editorial board. However, “[i]t is far from clear that such social bribery will work,” they write, as “polling suggests … that Russians are starting to see the official obsession with restoring national greatness in the face of supposed threats from the West for what it is—a diversion from domestic malaise.”
  • Commenting on U.S. investor Michael Calvey’s arrest in Russia, Carnegie’s Andrey Movchan writes that ultimately, everything built in Russia should be treated as a sunk cost, since anyone with any power could develop a commercial or social interest in it at any time. Russia today, Movchan argues, has no interest in investors.
  • The key to economic progress in the information age is creativity or human capital, write the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst and Sergei Erofeev, a lecturer at Rutgers University. The authors claim that the outflow of Russia’s creative talent is largely the reason why Russia is not producing new, cutting edge cyber products and establishing world-competitive technology firms in Russia.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Are Trump and Putin Opening Pandora’s Box?” Ted Postol, New York Times, 02.19.19The author, a scholar of missile defense, writes:

  • “In Greek mythology, … [opening Pandora’s box] irreversibly releas[ed] the plagues that would affect all of humanity forever. The American threat to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty … will have similar consequences for humanity if it is also executed in spite of warnings and without considering the consequences.”
  • “The Trump administration’s stated reason for threatening to withdraw … is Russia’s development of the SSC-8 cruise missile, also known as the 9M729 … But the SSC-8 missile appears to have characteristics similar to those of America’s Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. The Tomahawk could readily be stored at and launched from the Aegis sites.”
  • “Both sides must stop and think about the common and avoidable danger they are creating by clinging to arguments about each getting some inconsequential military advantage. In fact, existing nuclear weapons systems can do anything imaginable, and much more that is unimaginable. It is the unimaginable capabilities of these weapons that must take center stage when considering the giant and still unknown terrors and threats they pose to global stability and humanity’s future.”
  • “America must recognize that the Obama administration inadvertently chose a land-based missile defense system with no defensive capacity that instead looks like a strike system to Russia. The Trump administration must stop its extremists from ending a meaningful treaty and putting the world on a faster path to oblivion. And the Russians need to pull back from their threats and boasts about their new missiles … Everyone will win if the will exists to make those compromises. Everyone will lose if not.”

“Extending New START Is a No-Brainer—And Yet, We Can’t Count on It,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 02.20.19The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “The Trump administration has finished off the … INF Treaty, a treaty mortally wounded by Russia’s deployment of a banned intermediate-range missile. That leaves … New START as the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.”
  • “Extension should be a no-brainer. … Trump does not seem to understand much about nuclear arms control. During his first telephone conversation with President Putin, Trump reportedly dismissed New START as a bad deal done by his predecessor. … National Security Advisor [John] Bolton shows disdain for arms control and has criticized New START. One of its faults, according to Mr. Bolton: It provides for equal limits on the United States and Russia. He felt the treaty should allow the U.S. military to have more. … Asked about New START extension, Mr. Bolton notes two alternatives: renegotiation and a new treaty modeled on the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).”
  • “Renegotiation would prove difficult, take considerable time and have at best uncertain prospects for success. A wiser course would extend New START and then seek a renegotiation or a new follow-on treaty. … While the Trump administration shows little interest in arms control, it does want funding to modernize U.S. strategic forces. Democrats should recognize that and force the White House’s hand.”

“Trump Accidentally Just Triggered Global Nuclear Proliferation. Before the United States killed it, the INF Treaty didn’t just stem the arms race with Russia—it stopped the spread of nuclear weapons around the world,” Sarah Bidgood, Foreign Policy, 02.21.19The author, a senior research associate and program manager at Middlebury's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writes:

  • “By withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the Trump administration has eliminated any consequences of Moscow’s alleged noncompliance … But there is another outcome … that is less examined and no less dangerous: It will undermine global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t yet have them.”
  • “For over 30 years, it [the INF Treaty] has quietly been a central part of the international nonproliferation regime, too. … [T]he nonproliferation regime is a complex and deeply intertwined network that … resembles a spiderweb: stronger than the sum of its parts but likely to unravel if individual threads start to break.”
  • “Perhaps the most important thread in this tapestry is the long-running tradition of close cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear issues. … The importance of U.S.-Russian relations to nonproliferation means that the end of the INF Treaty will affect other areas of the regime, too. As many experts have observed, New START—now the last bastion of bilateral arms control—is probably the most susceptible to contagion. … A development like this would be especially dangerous at a time when there is no legally binding instrument that prohibits nuclear testing.”
  • “The scrapping of the INF Treaty could lead some observers to conclude that commitments made under the NPT can be ignored, particularly when the political situation isn’t conducive to upholding them. … It is … worth appreciating just how widespread the impact of the end of the treaty is likely to be—particularly with respect to nonproliferation.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“An Open Letter to My Republican Colleagues,” Adam B. Schiff, The Washington Post, 02.21.19The author, a U.S. Congressman, writes:

  • “For the past two years, we have examined Russia's interference in the 2016 election and its attempts to influence the 2018 midterms. Moscow's effort to undermine our democracy was spectacularly successful in inflaming racial, ethnic and other divides in our society.”
  • “But the attack on our democracy had its limits. Russian President Vladimir Putin could not lead us to distrust our own intelligence agencies or the FBI. He could not cause us to view our own free press as an enemy of the people. He could not undermine the independence of the Justice Department or denigrate judges. Only we could do that to ourselves.”
  • “Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may soon conclude his investigation and report. Depending on what is in that report and what we find in our own investigations, our nation may face an even greater challenge. While I am alarmed at what we have already seen and found of the president's conduct and that of his campaign, I continue to reserve judgment about what consequences should flow from our eventual findings. I ask you to do the same.”
  • “If Abraham Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party, could be hopeful that our bonds of affection would be strained but not broken by a war that pitted brother against brother, surely America can come together once more.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain,” John Herbst and Sergei Erofeev, Atlantic Council, February 2019The authors, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a lecturer at Rutgers University, write:

  • “The key to economic progress in the information age is creativity or human capital. The Soviet Union had for years produced numerous Nobel Laureates in mathematics and science. Today, Russia harbors some of the world’s top hackers. Why is this talent not producing new, cutting edge products and establishing world-competitive technology firms?”
  • “We believe that one main factor has contributed to these failures: the outflow of creative talent. … Since President Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the presidency, between 1.6 and 2 million Russians out of a total population of 145 million have left for … destinations where they can be freer with their skills put to a better use. … This emigration sped up with Putin’s return as president in 2012, followed by a weakening economy and growing repressions. It soon began to look like a politically driven brain drain, causing increasing concern among Russian and international observers.”
  • “This study examines the patterns and drivers of Russian emigration to the West since 2000 based on the findings from focused interviews and surveys with new Russian émigrés in four key cities in the United States and Europe. … [T]here is a distinct disparity between those who emigrated before 2012 and those who left later: among other things, the latter demonstrate a growing pro-Western and liberal orientation and greater politicization in general, including stronger support for the anti-Putin non-systemic  opposition.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia’s Global Ambitions in Perspective,” Julia Gurganus and Eugene Rumer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.20.19The authors, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes:

  • “At first glance, Moscow’s attempts to create a web of relationships and project influence in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and other parts of the world appear to be a new element of Russian foreign policy. However, … Russian foreign policy has been building up to its present expansive phase for over two decades. Moreover, … [c]ontinuity with the Soviet era and even earlier periods of Russian history is a hallmark of the Kremlin’s current foreign policy and the toolkit it relies on to advance its goals.”
  • “Today, Russian foreign policy has embraced many of the same ambitions that drove Soviet foreign policy during an earlier era. … Along with those ambitions, Russian foreign policy has inherited a diverse and tested toolkit … The instruments in this toolkit range from information operations and propaganda to subversion and assassinations. … As the confrontation with the West takes on a long-term, permanent character, neither Russian foreign policy nor the Kremlin’s toolkit will stay static. Moscow will continue to prioritize the creation of new capabilities that can protect the regime and advance the country’s national interests.”
  • “Technological breakthroughs … will undoubtedly be adopted by Russian state actors and their agents, adapted to their needs and (if need be) weaponized for the ongoing confrontation with the West. … These technologies may be new, and they hold out the possibility of expanding and enriching the arsenal of Russian foreign policy. Yet Moscow’s driving ambitions, as well as the many other tools in that arsenal, will continue to carry a lasting imprint of Soviet foreign policy.”


“Russia’s Pivot to the East: Where Does It Leave the EU?” Zachary Paikin, European Council on Foreign Relations, 02.21.19The author, senior editor at Global Brief magazine and an assistant lecturer in international relations, writes:

  • “While it is now too late for a fully-fledged rapprochement between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West, the process of deepening Sino-Russian cooperation has not yet passed the point of no return.”
  • “With Washington’s focus now partly shifting towards the consequences of China’s rise, some analysts have called for a ‘reverse Kissinger’—a fresh American grand strategy of forging an alliance with Moscow against Beijing. However, the events of the past three decades make this impossible. … [T]he by-product of Atlanticism has been … Moscow’s exclusion from Europe’s most important institutions, opening a gaping psychological wound and producing fundamental strategic incompatibility between Russia and the West. … Just as crucially … the Kremlin is now committed to proving itself a reliable partner for Beijing.”
  • “That said, the integration of the Chinese and Russian economies is proceeding slow … Russia’s fear that it will be unable to compete with the world’s second-largest economy limits its desire to push for a bona fide Eurasian free trade zone. … The Sino-Russian partnership rests on uneven foundations. But … the longer Western sanctions on Russia remain in place, the more Moscow’s dependency on Beijing will grow, and the more the economic dimension of their relationship will likely acquire an overtly strategic character.”
  • “The events of the past five years have made any genuine reconciliation between the EU and Russia impossible so long as Putin remains in the Kremlin. But the seeds of greater European sovereignty and security are more likely to grow if they are planted while he is still in office.”


“Five Years Have Passed, and Russia Is Still Occupying Territory in Ukraine,” Pavlo Klimkin, The Washington Post, 02.19.19The foreign minister of Ukraine writes:

  • “This month marks five years since Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula was invaded and subsequently occupied by Russia. … The Russian occupation of Crimea was the prelude to a broader campaign of aggression that continues to play out across eastern and southern Ukraine. To date, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced and almost 13,000 others have been killed.”
  • “In the years since its occupation of Crimea, the Kremlin has pursued a relatively simple strategy: It has attempted to normalize the situation and to obfuscate when challenged by the international community. … At this five-year milestone, our top priority is the release of Ukraine's 24 captured servicemen, as well as the 70 Ukrainian political prisoners who are suffering in Russian jail cells.”
  • “We urge the international community to acknowledge the inherent dangers of a weak response to Russian aggression. If you value democracy and the rule of law, and if you genuinely believe the international rules-based system makes us all safer, you will increase pressure on the Kremlin to start adhering to international law. Increasing sanctions is the next logical step. Russia should be dealt with from a position of strength, not from a position of appeasement.”

“Ukraine: Looking Forward, Five Years After the Maidan Revolution,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 02.22.19The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Five years after the Maidan Revolution drove out an authoritarian president, Ukraine has made significant progress on domestic reform and agreed on the goal of becoming a normal European state. However, Ukraine has more to do, and it has to pursue further reforms while engaged in a low-intensity but nevertheless real war with Russia.”
  • “Politics will dominate Ukraine in the coming nine months. Ukrainians vote for president on March 31, with an April 21 run-off certain to be needed, and Rada (parliament) elections will take place in the fall. Elections and the preceding campaign periods do not provide the best backdrop for reforms. Nor is it likely to be time for a breakthrough on resolving the conflict in the Donbass. Moscow dislikes incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and will wait to see how the presidential and Rada elections turn out before deciding whether to change its course.”
  • “For 2019, the West should patiently pursue its policy of supporting Ukraine. … As for Russia, the United States and Europe should sustain—and intensify—visa and economic sanctions while making clear that a genuine settlement in the Donbass would lead to a lifting of sanctions … A settlement would also remove what now constitutes the biggest obstacle to moving relations between the West and Russia toward a more normal place.”

“Ukraine Can’t Shake Off Its Old Regime,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg 02.22.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “On Feb. 21, 2014, Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled his residence near Kiev … A new Ukrainian state emerged after his escape to Russia, but, five years later, the many remaining questions … raise doubts about whether the country has fundamentally changed.”
  • “The 106 people who died throughout the 2014 revolution came to be known as the ‘Heavenly Hundred.’ For anti-Yanukovych forces, their deaths are considered the founding act of the power transfer that Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity and that the Kremlin calls a violent coup d’etat.”
  • “On Feb. 20, [Prosecutor General Yury] Lutsenko wrote on Facebook that the investigation into the 2014 killings was ‘practically over’ … But Sergei Gorbatyuk, … the lead investigator in the Euromaidan cases, insists that the cases are far from closed, as does Yevgenia Zakrevskaya, lawyer for the victims’ families. A report published recently by Gorbatyuk’s directorate presents the prosecutor general’s handling of the investigations as a huge cover-up operation, aided by the Ukrainian police and counterintelligence.”
  • “The open strife within the Ukrainian law enforcement system and between that system and the unreformed courts isn't limited to the investigation of the 2014 killings. … No wonder that, according to a recent poll, about two thirds of Ukrainians don’t trust the new anti-corruption agencies or the prosecutor general’s office. Only about half trust police and the counterintelligence service. … The Ukrainian authorities … haven’t had the courage to reform law enforcement and the judiciary … With that [old] system stubbornly in place, Ukraine may be refounded but it isn’t reformed.”

“Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are on the March in Ukraine. Five years after the Maidan uprising, anti-Semitism and fascist-inflected ultranationalism are rampant,” Lev Golinkin, The Nation, 02.22.19The author, a memoirist, writes:

  • “Today, increasing reports of far-right violence, ultranationalism and erosion of basic freedoms are giving the lie to the West’s initial euphoria. There are neo-Nazi pogroms against the Roma, rampant attacks on feminists and LGBT groups, book bans and state-sponsored glorification of Nazi collaborators.”
  • “These stories of Ukraine’s dark nationalism aren’t coming out of Moscow; they’re being filed by Western media … and watchdogs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, which issued a joint report warning that Kiev is losing the monopoly on the use of force in the country as far-right gangs operate with impunity.”
  • “America’s backing of the Maidan uprising, along with the billions D.C. sinks into post-Maidan Kiev, make it clear: Starting February 2014, Ukraine became Washington’s latest democracy-spreading project. What we permit in Ukraine sends a green light to others. … The implications—especially at a time of a global far-right revival—are profoundly disturbing.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Can Belarus Become a Success Story of European Security?” Yauheni Preiherman, European Council on Foreign Relations, 02.21.19The author, head of the Minsk Dialogue Track-2 Initiative, writes:

  • “Becoming part of the Russian-Western confrontation is against the country’s [Belarus] core interests … In the worst-case scenario—a military conflict between NATO and Russia—Belarusian territory will inevitably become a battleground.”
  • “Belarus has therefore taken a neutral stance in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and tries to promote de-escalation and peace talks. It has also come up with several diplomatic initiatives aimed at enhancing stability and security in Europe. Most importantly, Belarus refused to host a Russian military base in order to not further provoke the growing regional security spiral.”
  • “Many Russian officials think … that such behavior goes against Russia’s interests and that Belarus has to stand by Moscow as it experiences increased Western pressures. And they have started using economic levers … to ‘tame’ their ally. … This is a serious challenge for Minsk. It is also a potential problem for European security. If Belarus has no option but to bandwagon with Russia, it will hardly be able to ‘play the key critical role in security and stability in Europe’ envisaged by General Hodges.”
  • “However, … Moscow worries more about its relations with the West than it does about Minsk; at least, as long as Belarus has no NATO or European Union aspirations—which is firmly the case. So, if Belarus … were to become a success story of security cooperation, not confrontation, between Russia and the West, it would interest the Kremlin as a possibility to de-escalate Russian-Western tensions and as a plausible model for future security arrangements.”

“Why Has Kazakhstan’s President Sacked His Government?” Paul Stronski, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.22.19The author, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes:

  • “On Feb. 21, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev sacked his entire government. He scolded former cabinet members and regional governors for failing to address social problems or shore up the country’s social safety net.”
  • “Nazarbayev frequently rotates his cabinet. But this mass dismissal was unprecedented in scale … It suggests that Nazarbayev sees an urgent need to appear decisive and divert attention away from rising socioeconomic dissatisfaction and his failed promises to improve the quality of life for average citizens in the country.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Needs More Than Spending to Lift Ratings. Five Years After Crimea Was Annexed, Russian Discontent Is Rumbling,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 02.22.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Five years after Mr. Putin swelled the hearts of Russian patriots … by annexing Crimea, trust in the president has dropped to a 13-year low. The economy is stagnating. … [M]uch [of Putin’s recent state of the nation speech] was devoted to spending pledges aimed at burnishing his image.”
  • “It is far from clear that such social bribery will work. … The economy is largely to blame [for Putin’s low approval rating]. … Genuine economic reform, strengthening property rights and rule of law, would threaten its [the regime’s] hold on power. Instead, the Kremlin might be tempted to distract attention with another “small war”. But few foreign policy issues rouse strong feelings among Russians beyond Ukraine and Crimea … Tolerance for casualties is low, with the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan not forgotten.”
  • “Polling suggests … that Russians are starting to see the official obsession with restoring national greatness in the face of supposed threats from the West for what it is—a diversion from domestic malaise. … Unreformed, Russia’s economy is set to fall ever further behind developed markets and emerging powers such as China. That might be sustainable for a good few years. But older Russians have seen this script before. They remember how it ended last time.”

“No Country for Investors: Russia’s Latest Shock Arrests,” Andrey Movchan, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.22.19The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “There are many reasons why I cannot believe that the private equity firm Baring Vostok and its U.S. founder Michael Calvey committed the fraud of which they stand accused, and personal acquaintance with people involved in this case is only one of them. … Calvey and several of his colleagues are accused of embezzling funds from Vostochny Bank, which is majority owned by Baring, by selling another company in which they owned a controlling stake to Vostochny at an inflated price.”
  • “Why are investigators demonstrating such vigor … ? Could it be that they have been paid to do so? … [S]ure enough, a shareholder conflict between Calvey versus [Sherzod] Yusupov and … Artem Avetisyan, is currently the subject of international arbitration proceedings in London. Now Yusupov has taken his complaint to Russia’s Federal Security Service … presumably at the behest of Avetisyan, who is known to be close friends with the son of Russia’s Security Council secretary and former FSB director, Nikolai Patrushev.”
  • “This is hardly an isolated incident. … The only surprising aspect really is the senior level of the arrested foreigner … But this means nothing in today’s Russia, unless of course a foreigner happens to have a distant relative who was an FSB colonel.”
  • “Russia long ago crossed the line beyond which any action capable of leading to a commercial or political conflict is toxic unless you have a reliable protector in the feudal pyramid … Ultimately, everything built in this country is a sunk cost, non-returnable expenses, since anyone with any power could suddenly develop a commercial or social interest in it at any time. … It’s true that investors have a short memory. And it’s also true that Russia today has no interest in them.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Putin's Main Weapon: The 'Intelligence State,'” John Sipher, New York Times, 02.24.19The author, a former chief of station for the CIA, writes:

  • “The history of the brutal Soviet security services lays bare the roots of Russia's current use of political arrests, subversion, disinformation, assassination, espionage and the weaponization of lies. None of those tactics is new to the Kremlin. In fact, those tactics made Soviet Russia the world's first ‘intelligence state,' and they also distinguished it from authoritarian states run by militaries. Today's Russia has become even more of an intelligence state after Mr. Putin's almost 20-year tenure.”
  • “As the United States seeks to engage Russia, it must realize that the Kremlin tiger will not change its stripes. Russia's efforts to forcefully defend itself stem from a profound sense of insecurity, bred from centuries of invasions and breakdowns of the state. … We should avoid threatening Russia's sovereignty and instead work with our allies to defend ourselves vigorously and in unison from cyber, physical and hybrid attacks and push back when threatened.”