Russia Analytical Report, Feb. 20-26, 2018

This week’s highlights:

  • It’s not clear that expanding NATO as opposed to adopting another European security arrangement that would have included Russia was the preferable option, writes Richard Haass. However, Putin is still largely responsible for the emergence of a new Cold War. The U.S. needs to hold Russia accountable for its actions, Haass argues, but without destroying the remnants of the U.S.-Russia relationship, already in worse shape than it was for much of the first Cold War.
  • Putin supported Donald Trump’s campaign for reasons similar to Germany’s motivation for backing Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century, writes Gideon Rachman. Once Trump was in the White House, Russia made at least three tactical (not strategic) errors, argues Andrey Kortunov. Moscow was insensitive to American accusations of election interference, it chose to interact exclusively with the Trump administration, ignoring its political opponents and finally, Russia simply wanted to turn the page in bilateral relations, to start with a clean slate.
  • The post-Soviet space is probably the most fertile ground for potential flashpoints between Russia and the United States, writes Alexander Gabuev, and of these, Ukraine is the single most important and dangerous. By providing lethal weapons to this country, the U.S. has crossed a Russian line, argues Dmitri Trenin. Additional steps in that direction along with Russia’s countermoves will further increase tensions. A security compromise saying no further NATO expansion into former Soviet space and no restrictions on former Soviet republics moving closer to the European Union is necessary, writes Trenin.
  • Unlike Vladimir Putin, Xi—who has just set himself up to rule for life—is not about to surrender his spotlight to a Medvedev-type subordinate, especially one who might one day grow too big for his boots, writes Simon Denyer.

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:

“Cold War II,” Richard Haass, Project Syndicate, 02.23.18The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes: “Russia is no longer a superpower, but … it remains one of two major nuclear-weapons states, has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and is willing to use its military, energy and cyber capabilities to support friends and weaken neighbors and adversaries. This state of affairs was anything but inevitable … . It is true that the U.S. could and should have been more generous as Russia made its painful transition to a market economy in the 1990s. Nor is it clear that NATO enlargement was preferable to other security arrangements for Europe that would have included Russia. That said, the lion's share of the responsibility for the emergence of a second Cold War is Russia's, and above all Vladimir Putin's. …  As Russia has become a revisionist country … shoring up Europe's defense and providing lethal arms to Ukraine is a sensible response. Americans must recognize that defense is not enough. Congress is right to call for additional sanctions, and Donald Trump is wrong to refuse to implement sanctions that Congress has already passed. The U.S. government also needs to find its voice and criticize a Russian regime that arrests its opponents and reportedly murders journalists. …  At the same time, the objective should not be to end what little remains of the U.S.-Russian relationship, which is already in worse shape than it was for much of the first Cold War. Diplomatic cooperation should be sought … . Russia may well be willing to stop interfering in Eastern Ukraine in exchange for a degree of sanctions relief … . the Kremlin has no interest in a military escalation in Syria that would increase the relatively modest cost of its intervention there. At the same time, Russian support is needed to tighten sanctions against North Korea. And maintaining arms-control arrangements and avoiding a new nuclear arms race would be in the interest of both countries.”

“Averting the US-Russia Warpath,” James N. Miller, Richard Fontaine and Alexander Velez-Green, The National Interest, 02.22.18The authors, a former under secretary of defense for policy, the president of the Center for a New American Security and a research associate at the center, write that “perceptions of lower risk for the use of ‘nonkinetic’ and nonlethal attacks are creating new incentives to use cyber and/or counterspace weapons early in a crisis or conflict. At the same time, … [new weapons] could cause one or both nations to lose confidence in their nuclear second-strike capabilities—thereby eroding the stability afforded by mutually assured destruction. … U.S.-Russian relations in the coming years will take one of three forms: strategic rapprochement, intensified military competition or managed competition. … Five specific factors could lead to rapid and unintended escalation in cyberspace and outer space. … the Trump administration should begin by articulating a clear policy on Russia, in close coordination with Congress and NATO allies. … the United States should respond with military deployments to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. … It should make clear that EPAA deployment … will have a role in deterring Russia’s use of missiles in Europe, while reaffirming that EPAA deployments in Romania and Poland will still be unable to engage Russian ICBMs aimed at the United States. … The U.S. should … improve the digital resilience of its critical infrastructure. … continue to develop areas of cooperation with Russia. … [and] reopen diplomatic and military lines of communication with Russia. … an integrated program [is] necessary to buttress strategic stability between the United States and Russia … . The United States should also invest in its missile-defense architecture. … Finally, the United States should regularize strategic-stability talks with Russia and seek to extend the New START treaty by five years.” 

“European Security: From Managing Adversity to a New Equilibrium,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.21.18The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “After the end of the Cold War, the Euro-Atlantic countries failed to create a regional security system that would include Russia. This failure lies at the heart of Europe’s current security problem … . Given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, a direct confrontation … no longer seems impossible. … The two sides should … strengthen and update, as necessary, the existing agreements on preventing incidents between Russia and NATO members; establish and maintain reliable round-the-clock communications between the Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff, on the one hand, and the U.S. Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, on the other; and make those two aspects a prime task for the Russian mission to NATO. … Eastern Ukraine remains the largest and most dangerous conflict zone in Europe, but a number of others … pose risks as well. … The provision of U.S. lethal weapons to Ukraine is now a done deal. … A line has been crossed, and follow-on steps in the same direction in addition to Russia’s countermoves will lead to increased tensions. … it is important to keep secondary issues … from boiling over and drawing in the principals. Nagorno-Karabakh is potentially the most dangerous conflict in that category. … a basic security compromise will be necessary. … [its] formula might be: no further NATO expansion into former Soviet space and no restrictions on former Soviet republics moving closer to the European Union.”

“Russian-US Flashpoints in the Post-Soviet Space: The View From Moscow,” Alexander Gabuev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 02.23.18The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “As Moscow embarks on this activist foreign policy, the number of flashpoints around the world where Russian and U.S. interests can clash is on the rise. … The post-Soviet space is probably the most fertile ground for potential flashpoints between Russia and the United States. … [It] remains the Kremlin’s most important foreign policy priority.” This priority stems from “emotional ties, security considerations … national prestige …  [and] Russian business interests. … The single most important and dangerous region is Ukraine. … The impasse in Donbass could lead to a new spike in hostilities at any time. … The rest of the post-Soviet space, as seen from Moscow, appears to be far less threatening in the next six years when it comes to competition with the United States. Nevertheless, developments in two other countries that are moving closer to the West are a constant source of attention in the Kremlin: Moldova and Georgia. … Since fundamental transformations in Russia and in the United States are equally unrealistic, both sides should concentrate on measures that prevent risks from exacerbating tensions.” 

“Russia, America and a Contest of Sick Systems: Internal Resilience, Not External Strength, Will Determine the Century’s Power Struggles,” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 02.26.18The author, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, writes that during World War II, Germany “facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia, knowing that the Bolshevik leader advocated peace between Russia and Germany. The aim was to destabilize the Tsarist regime, and to knock Russia out of the war. … A century later, Mr. Putin got behind the campaign of Donald Trump" for similar reasons. "There was also a broader [historical] lesson ... from the Soviet Union’s death. ... The Soviet system collapsed internally. The crucial variable was … internal resilience. In a similar way, the power struggles of the 21st century … are more likely to be determined by domestic resilience than by external strength. … [Putin’s] effort to reassert Russia’s role as a world power is likely to be undermined by the same weakness that did for the Soviet Union: an economy that is too small and inefficient to sustain Moscow’s global ambitions.”

“A Distracted Trump Makes Room for Putin,” Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 02.22.18: The author, associate editor of the Financial Times, writes that the U.S. will likely follow the "hardening sentiment in Congress that says the attempt to manipulate American politics must be met with an escalating scale of punitive measures. ... That promises another nuclear arms race and raises the threat of an unintended military clash … . The West learned during the Cold War that the ingredients of productive engagement with Moscow are a readiness to confront aggression and a willingness to seek out areas of potential agreement. ... The doctrine of mutually assured destruction did not preclude a procession of arms deals and confidence-building measures. Something of the same is needed now.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  •  No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Russian Policy Across the Middle East: Motivations and Methods,” Nikolay Kozhanov, Chatham House, 02.21.18The author, a visiting lecturer at the European University at St. Petersburg, writes: “Since 2012, Russia defined three categories of goals to be pursued in the Middle East.” These include economic, political and security objectives. “Russia is persistent in defending what it sees as its red lines [in the region]. … Thus, it is against any military intervention not approved by the U.N. Security Council (where it can use its veto) or that is not formally compliant with the U.N. regulations … . It does not welcome forced regime change if it leads to the destruction of the state. … Russia is also concerned about any change to borders in the Middle East, and it is firmly against any dialogue with radical Islamists. … Russia is awkwardly trying to reclaim its Cold War role as a counterweight to the U.S. in the region. … Although Russia’s presence in the Middle East may periodically be considered a challenge to U.S. and EU interests, on a limited number of issues their interests coincide and present opportunities for cooperation ... . Asking Moscow for assistance could have an unexpectedly positive role in allaying existing tensions between Russia and the West. Otherwise, any attempts to isolate Russia run the risk of turning it into a serious and unpredictable troublemaker.”

“Russia's Mercenary Debacle in Syria. Is the Kremlin Losing Control?” Neil Hauer, Foreign Affairs, 02.26.18The author, an independent security analyst, writes: “On the night of Feb. 7, a Kurdish-held oil field in northeastern Syria came under sudden attack by forces allied with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Heavy U.S. air strikes and artillery fire repelled the assault … . The next week, information began to emerge that many of those killed were Russian mercenaries contracted to the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin. A pair of Russian-language audio recordings described 200 dead Wagner fighters; other sources gave casualty figures as high as 600. … A former Wagner employee and comrade of several of those killed … stated that it was an attempt by ‘local big businessmen currently supporting Bashar Assad’ to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurds. … [The] incident has  highlighted the role that Wagner has come to play as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. … Wagner may diminish the political risk of casualties but cannot eliminate the threat altogether. A battle producing 100 deaths is impossible to hide in the social media age, and some journalists have already spoken to family members of the deceased. … as bad as the Feb. 7 attack is on the Russian domestic front, its impact on the Syrian conflict is likely to be worse. … For Putin, this attack appears to be just the latest in a series of unwelcome escalations in a country where he declared victory just two months ago—and proof that proxy forces such as Wagner can backfire in an unintended fashion.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments,” Masha Gessen, New Yorker, 02.20.18The author, a writer for the magazine, writes: “It is true that [Rober Mueller’s] indictment tells us nothing about connections between the Russian efforts and the Trump campaign, and the Trump victory. It is also true that Moscow is laughing, at least in part because the Kremlin had no grand plan to elect Trump. … Loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russian meddling to be ridiculous. … It’s hard to square words like ‘sophisticated’ (frequently used by the Times to describe the Russian campaign) with posts like one from an apparently fake LGBT group promoting something called ‘Buff Bernie: A Coloring Book for Berniacs.’ … The need to see the Russian effort as somehow meaningful and masterly has produced its own experts in the field. Molly McKew, who identifies as an ‘information warfare expert,’ has said that … ninety percent of what they [Soviet agents] produced mirrored what they saw, so that they could blend in before starting to sow discord. This idea makes so much sense that it doesn’t seem to matter that McKew offers no source for it or, indeed, any credentials for her own expertise. … If sincerely held beliefs brought people to the rallies, then it makes no difference to the broader political life whether someone paid for an actress to take part, too (even if that or similar payments were themselves illegal). In fact, the plan was not at all sophisticated, and about as bold as, say, keying a neighbor’s car under the cover of night.”

“What Counterterrorism Can Teach Us About Thwarting Russian Disinformation,” Joshua Geltzer and Charles Kupchan, The Washington Post, 02.22.18The authors, professors at Georgetown University, write: “We should adapt three main pillars of the U.S. approach to counterterrorism to counter Russian interference more assertively. … we need to adapt our framework for tracing and blocking terrorist financing to the current threat of information warfare. Congress should quickly pass legislation that would criminalize accepting assistance from a foreign government aimed at influencing elections. … we need to punish and deter those who interfere with our democracy. … just as public education has helped mitigate the political impact of terrorism, greater awareness that the Kremlin is deliberately seeking to pit Americans against themselves can help make the public less susceptible to manipulation.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Disillusionment and Missed Opportunities: Russian-US Relations in 2017,” Andrey Kortunov, Carnegie Endowment, 02.23.18The author, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes that “the main reason for the Russian leadership embracing Trump … was that they viewed Trump as being ideologically closer and thus more understandable to the Kremlin, in contrast with Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. … most Russian political analysts and politicians now directly or indirectly acknowledge that their initial expectations were unjustified. … Every [theory explaining the failure of these expectations] puts all the responsibility … squarely on the United States. … Looking back, Russia made at least three tactical (not strategic) mistakes after the new Republican administration came to power. … Russia was incredibly insensitive to American accusations of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. … the Kremlin chose to interact exclusively with the Trump administration, ignoring its political opponents … . the Russian proposals transmitted to the Trump administration in March … contained no changes in Russian positions on questions of U.S. interest … . Russia simply wanted to turn the page in bilateral relations and start with a clean slate. … The adoption of the new sanctions is certainly the most significant event in U.S.-Russian relations in 2017. … The decision had a substantial economic impact on Russia and revealed the current balance of forces in Washington.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant commentary.


“With a Dash of Putin and an Echo of Mao, China's Xi Sets Himself Up to Rule for Life,” Simon Denyer, The Washington Post, 02.26.18The author, the news outlet’s China bureau chief, writes that on Feb. 25, the parallels between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping “were too stark to ignore.  China's Communist Party is to abolish a two-term limit on the presidency … potentially opening the door for Xi to rule for life. In that simple step, the Communist Party showed that it has forgotten one of the main lessons of the despotic rule of Mao Zedong,” wrote on expert. While Xi hasn’t annexed “parts of a neighboring country … nationalism is such a central part of his rule, it’s hard not to expect anything but a steady ratcheting up of China's demands for respect and recognition of its various territorial claims … . Putin, of course, didn't change Russia's constitution but maneuvered around it by installing a loyal ally in Dmitry Medvedev to serve as president for one-term … . [Xi’s] global stature also depends on his title as president—and Xi is not about to surrender that spotlight to a Medvedev-type subordinate, especially one who might one day grow too big for his boots … . China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang … [called] the decision ‘a matter for the Chinese people.’ But the Trivium consultancy in Beijing headlined their client note Monday with a simple quote from Deng himself: ‘To build the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous.’”


“Ukraine Four Years After the Maidan,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 02.22.18The author, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes: “Ukraine today finds itself facing two challenges: beating back Russian aggression, and completing the domestic reforms that will make Ukraine compatible with European Union norms and draw foreign investment to grow the economy. … The potentially promising development of the past six months is the possibility that the Kremlin might consider an international peacekeeping force to facilitate a settlement. … With attention in Moscow now on the March 18 presidential election, the Russian view will not become clear until later in the spring. … As Ukraine has failed to deliver on measures such as land privatization and harmonization of gas prices, the IMF’s program has disbursed no money for 10 months. IMF officials now seem especially concerned about the need for more effective steps to combat corruption … . With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019, many worry that Mr. Poroshenko will put off further reform steps. That might not prove the smartest political course. …  A newly released survey regarding potential presidential candidates showed Mr. Poroshenko in second place, polling 9.4 percent—a dramatic decline from the 55 percent he won in 2014. … The people of Ukraine deserve more if they are to realize the potential of the Maidan. The West should want more as well: A successful Ukraine will contribute to a more stable Europe.”

“Ukraine’s Toughest Fight: The Challenge of Military Reform,” Valeriy Akimenko, Carnegie Endowment, 02.22.18The author, a veteran reporter with BBC Monitoring, writes: “Ukraine is undertaking comprehensive reform of its armed forces, necessitated by conflict in the east of the country. The combat-hardened army now fighting in the Donbass region bears little resemblance to the one that suffered heavy losses when fighting with Russian-backed separatists first broke out in 2014. … [However,] overall coordination of these old and new military forces is reportedly very poor … lesser dangers persist, such as the potential for business tycoons to use volunteer forces as small private armies … . At the same time, the government is reluctant to do anything that jeopardizes its fight against the Russian-backed insurgency, and the volunteers still enjoy warm public support. … The lack of a clear legal status for some groups … compounds another problem: reports of human rights abuses in Ukrainian government–controlled territory. … Insufficient civilian oversight of Ukraine’s armed forces and security services is a constant refrain … .  Alarm bells sound especially loud regarding the lack of external oversight and transparency of Ukraine’s defense procurement process. … Ukraine’s Western partners have been key players promoting military reform. … The next step Western partners are considering is how to help level the playing field to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself. … As with other areas urgently requiring reform, the only sure guarantee of success is a strong commitment to change from within Ukraine’s own society.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin's Russia Is Becoming More Soviet by the Day: A Toxic Mix of Nostalgia and Forgetting,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 02.26.18The author, a Russian opposition politician, writes: “In December, Gennady Zyuganov, the Russian Communist Party's perennial presidential candidate for the past two decades, stepped aside to make way for a fresh face: the 57-year-old manager of a commercial farm near Moscow by the name of Pavel Grudinin. … Grudinin spent the first weeks of the campaign publicly pledging his loyalty to that most macabre figure of Russian history, Joseph Stalin. … Reverence for Soviet symbols is a trait Grudinin shares with the current occupants of the Kremlin. … Russian voters who feel nostalgic for the Soviet era don't need Pavel Grudinin. They already have a likeminded leader in the Kremlin. … The rehabilitation and preservation of Soviet symbols is a deliberate policy choice of Putin's regime.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.