Russia Analytical Report, Feb. 26-March 5, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Drafts of a new U.S. missile defense strategy, which may be published later this month, include suggestions that the program may now turn to developing missile defenses against Russia and China, not just countering states like North Korea with smaller arsenals, according to David E. Sanger and William J. Broad.
  • Putin is exaggerating the readiness and capability of the weapons systems he touted on March 1, according to Daryl G. Kimball and James Cameron. These weapons would have no impact on America’s deterrence capability, according to Kimball. Nevertheless, the Trump administration is responding to Putin’s procurement plans by developing new types of weapons of greater sophistication. As a result, Putin has become the best friend of the U.S. nuclear arms industry, according to Gary Samore.
  • Katrina vanden Heuvel argues that if Putin okayed meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, he might have seen it as revenge for U.S. meddling in Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian elections. As Mueller’s indictment suggests, the Russian operation began in 2014, which coincides neatly with U.S. involvement in the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
  • China holds the upper hand in the Russia-China relationship, and this asymmetry will keep growing at Russia’s expense. Nonetheless, both countries have more to gain from cooperation than competition, and Western policy needs to come to terms with the fact that their partnership is here to stay, write Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng.
  • Some observers are writing about a ‘counterrevolution’ in Ukraine, with the elites brought to power by the Euromaidan now the ones sabotaging reforms, according to Thomas De Waal. Many in Brussels privately share this view, according to this Carnegie expert.

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/Sabre Rattling:

“Putin’s Irresponsible Nuclear Boasts,” Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Now, 03.01.18The author, executive director of the Arms Control Association, writes that “Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about Russia’s pursuit of several nuclear weapons systems, some that have already been tested as well as some new capabilities: … the “Sarmat’ heavy intercontinental missile … a type of cruise missile with nuclear propulsion that has an unlimited range … new nuclear-armed ‘unmanned submersible vehicles’ … Putin also described Russia’s development and testing of hypersonic missiles. … Putin is exaggerating the capability and readiness of systems that are still in development. Furthermore, if tested and deployed, the new weapons systems described by Putin … would not affect the United States’ own very potent and deadly nuclear deterrence capability. … Russia and the United States are heading down a destabilizing and unnecessary path. Both sides are in the process of extraordinarily expensive campaigns to replace and upgrade Cold War nuclear weapons systems at force levels that vastly exceed common sense requirements for nuclear deterrence. Worse still, existing nuclear arms control arrangements are at risk. … Russia and the United States already have the world’s most formidable nuclear arsenals. … It is time that both sides stop their nuclear boasts and start talking about how to halt and reverse their accelerating technological arms race.”

“Vladimir Putin’s Nuclear Posturing Is a Dangerous Escalation,” Editorial Board, Financial Times, 03.04.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “It is hard to know whether the weapons he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] boasts Russia has developed … really exist, or work as well as claimed. Even if they do, they would hardly change the balance of power. … The Russian president was addressing a domestic audience in the run-up to an election … . But he was also putting the west on notice … . It is worrying … that both Washington and Moscow show so little interest in maintaining and strengthening the arms control agreements that have helped to regulate [their] relations … for the best part of 50 years. … the cold war shows it should be possible to pursue dialogue in areas of mutual interest even if there is no hope of progress on difficult issues … . Putin, however, is choosing to play on American fears about the loss of superpower status. The U.S. must resist the urge to retaliate.”

“Putin Just Bragged About Russia’s Nuclear Weapons. Here’s the Real Story,” James Cameron, The Washington Post, 03.05.18: The author, assistant professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil, writes: “Here are four key things to know about Putin’s speech: 1) The weapons that Putin referenced range from the established to the outlandish. … a developmental nuclear-powered cruise missile was the most outlandish, though. … the United States explored similar technology during the Cold War but dropped the concept as impractical. … the missile would emit radioactive waste in flight, rendering it a potential danger to the very people it was supposed to protect. … 2) Russia can already overwhelm U.S. missile defenses. … it is standing U.S. policy not to deploy a defensive system that could neutralize a Russian retaliatory response to a U.S. nuclear attack. … 3) Putin’s timing is probably motivated by domestic politics. … this speech was his opportunity to make his pitch to the Russian people [ahead of the March 18 presidential election]. … 4) Yes—this is a new challenge for arms-control efforts. … By announcing capabilities that, in the case of the intercontinental cruise missile Avangard and the Status-6 underwater vehicle, are not covered by existing agreements, the Russian president has added a new edge to this challenge.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

“A Russian Threat on Two Fronts Meets an American Strategic Void,” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, New York Times, 03.05.18The authors, veteran journalists, write that “Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the nominee to run the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command, acknowledged that plans were in place to strike back at Moscow for its election hacking. … ‘I would say right now they do not think much will happen to them,’ he said. ‘They don’t fear us.’ … The United States is still uncertain how to make use of its cyberweapons … . It is concerned that the Russians—along with the Chinese, the Iranians and the North Koreans—could easily retaliate against any attack … . And in the nuclear sphere, the Trump administration has yet to offer a strategy to contain or deter Russia beyond simply matching the weapons buildup. … The threat that Russia poses on both fronts has helped push the United States to declare a fundamental shift on national security: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asserted in January that ‘great power competition,’ not terrorism, is now the primary American focus. … Washington’s response—at least in the nuclear realm—also harks back to the Cold War era: a cycle of move and countermove. … ‘Putin has become the best friend of the U.S. nuclear arms industry,’ said nonproliferation expert Gary Samore. … Drafts of a new missile defense strategy, which may be published later this month, include suggestions that the program may now turn to developing missile defenses against Russia and China, not just countering states like North Korea with smaller arsenals.”

“Why Putin Is Obsessed with America's Missile Defense,” Eric Gomez, The National Interest, 03.03.18The author, a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, writes: “In a speech before Russia’s Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin unveiled several new nuclear-weapons systems … meant to counter U.S. missile defenses, which have steadily expanded since the George W. Bush administration … . Many of the nuclear capabilities Putin discussed … feature technical characteristics that help them penetrate or circumvent U.S. missile defense systems. … The size and quality of [U.S.] missile-defense capabilities are too low, and the Russian arsenal far too large to provide a meaningful level of protection against a Russian nuclear attack. Moreover, it would be foolish to expect Russia’s nuclear arsenal to not incorporate new technology over time. … Russian perceptions of what missile defense signals about long-term U.S. intentions seem to weigh much more heavily on its nuclear strategy than technical reality. If American policymakers want to avoid a new arms race with the Russians, then it would be wise of them to not dismiss Russian concerns as merely propaganda as they make missile-defense policy.”

Nuclear arms control:

  •  No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Trump Should Draw a Real Red Line in Syria: Reports of chlorine-gas attacks in Eastern Ghouta demand a harsh response from the US military,” Editorial Board, Bloomberg, 03.05.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “According to human-rights groups, more than 12,000 civilians have died in the area of 400,000 just east of Damascus since fighting began in 2011. …  over the last two weeks, more than 500 people have been killed by air and artillery strikes. And, if reports from international aid workers are correct, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has added chlorine gas to its arsenal of barbaric weapons … . If so, this is a violation of both the laws of war and human decency. … It's time for another red line, one that the U.S. won't back away from. Trump should tell Assad and his Russian backers that any more proved use of any chemical weapon, including chlorine, will be met with even greater retaliation than what happened in April. It certainly won't end the fighting, in Eastern Ghouta or across the country, but it may take away one of Assad's most unconscionable methods of terrifying his citizens.”

“Why Russia Will Prevail in Syria.” Michael Sharnoff, The Washington Post, 02.27.18The author, an associate professor of Middle East Studies at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, writes: “Russia’s end goal has remained consistent—to preserve Assad’s regime and weaken U.S. influence in Syria, and in the Middle East more broadly. … As long as Russia has coherent goals and a strategy for achieving them and the United States does not, Russia is destined to win the proxy war in Syria. Therefore, Russia will remain the greatest power broker in Syria, limiting Washington’s ability to exert leverage over Syrian affairs and reducing wider American influence in the Middle East.”

“Russia and Iran Cynically Exploit Divisions Over Syria,” David Gardner, Financial Times, 02.27.18The author, the international affairs editor at Financial Times, writes that the West’s “disarray stands in contrast to the simple and cynical clarity of Russia and Iran, patrons of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. … The Assads want to recover all Syria and total power. Russia wants to return to the top table as a great power … . Iran is creating an arc of power … . All parties to the Syrian tragedy and regional mayhem are culpable in the failure to prevent the daily mass destruction of civilian lives. But it is beyond shame to see that the single diplomatic ‘advance’ in recent years … was the de-escalation zones now being drowned in blood.”

“Russia's Syria Policy: The Hard Path of Military Disengagement,” Ekaterina Stepanova, PONARS, February 2018:The author, lead researcher and head of peace and conflict studies at Moscow’s National Research Institute of the World Economy & International Relations (IMEMO), writes: “Consolidation and slow expansion of core areas under control of the [Syrian] central government … with support by Iran and Turkey's ‘neutrality,’ is often mistaken for Russia's original ‘design’ for Syria. However … this has not been Russia's (nor, for instance, Turkey's) idée fixe. Moscow might tacitly accept this course of events as a ‘Plan B’ … . The costs of ‘Plan B’ [for Russia] could be offset by the following: It allows Moscow to keep the main political-military dividends from its military engagement … while at the same time gradually diminishing its direct engagement … . It places a heavier burden on Damascus and Tehran … . It removes the main Syria-related irritators from Russia's relationship with Turkey … while at the same time … delinking it from the Turkish-Kurdish confrontation. It nullifies the chances for the United States in particular and for the West in general to strengthen their strategic and reputational positions in and on Syria.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“On Russia, We Need More Reason and Less Frenzy,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, 02.27.18The author, editor of The Nation, writes: “Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election set off a classic Beltway frenzy.” While many likened the event to “an act of war” on the scale of Pearl Harbor, the author disagrees: “Bots are not bombs. Facebook ads are not the equivalent of planes flying into the World Trade Center. … The efforts detailed in the indictment … do not constitute a coup d’état. … If Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on the operation, he may have seen it as retribution for U.S. meddling in elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. Mueller’s indictment suggests the operation began in 2014, which coincides with the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of … Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. … Clearly the Mueller investigation needs to continue. Bipartisan congressional legislation to protect our elections from foreign interference is needed. … Those who care about our democracy should be particularly wary of stoking a new Cold War. Worsening relations only feed the worst forces on both sides … . Russian meddling should be investigated, challenged and protected against. But with Trump outsourcing his national security policy to the generals and the neoconservatives, it is particularly perilous for Democrats to be fanning the flames rather than looking for ways to limit the fire.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Why Russia's Pipeline Power Is Overhyped: A $2.6 billion ruling in Stockholm against Gazprom shows its limits as a Kremlin tool,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.02.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “Russia and Ukraine may be practically at war with each other, but they are joined at the hip by Ukraine's gas transit system … . On Wednesday, … Naftogaz Ukrainy won a $2.56 billion verdict that ends a four-year arbitration fight in Stockholm. The ruling … shows that talk of Russia's ability to weaponize energy exports is far-fetched today. … NordStream 2 is Russia's desperate attempt to escape the trap. Politically, perhaps, it shouldn't be allowed to do that … . Economically, however, it might benefit European gas buyers not to be hostages to the dysfunctional Russian-Ukrainian relationship. That explains why Germany is pushing ahead with the project despite opposition on the part of eastern European countries … . As for the weaponization of energy deals, one needs look no further than Exxon Mobil's decision to abandon its joint ventures with … Rosneft after U.S. sanctions paralyzed a major offshore drilling venture in the Arctic. Unlike Russia … the U.S. has plenty of power to extend its punitive policies into the energy realm.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant commentary.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Why Spain Doesn’t Fear the ‘Russian Threat’,” Alexander Dunaev, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.05.18The author, a research fellow at the Center for Security and Development Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University, writes: “Spain is a member of both the EU and NATO, yet its stance on Russia remains surprisingly benevolent. … Moscow’s ties with Madrid could provide a valuable foundation for future engagement with Europe. … no major party in Spain holds an openly pro-Russian position, and Russia seldom comes up in political discussions. … Despite allegations of Russian involvement in the Catalan crisis, Spanish political parties still support pragmatism and dialogue with Russia. This indicates that Russian-Spanish ties are largely independent of who comes to power in Madrid. … The Spanish government, which is embroiled in domestic policy disputes, will not lead a fight to lift sanctions on Russia. But if their partial or full cancellation ever comes up, Moscow can likely count on Madrid’s support.”


“Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East and the Arctic,” Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.28.18The authors, fellows with the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, write that the relationship between Russia and China “is complex, with lingering mistrust on both sides. The balance of competition and cooperation is most evident in Central Asia, the Russian Far East and the Arctic. … In Central Asia, China is emerging as one of the most influential players, and there is little Russia can do about that. … Russia considers economic development of its eastern territories a strategic imperative, for which Chinese investment is essential. But Chinese investment is not materializing as broadly as Russian business interests would like, while Beijing often uses its economic leverage to extract favorable commercial terms. In the Arctic, Russia needs China to realize many of its goals for infrastructure development and resource extraction. China is eager to access the Arctic’s economic potential and enhance its technological prowess … . China holds the upper hand in the relationship, and this power asymmetry will continue to grow at the expense of Russia. But Russia and China have more to gain from cooperation than outright competition. … The Sino-Russian partnership may be tempered by unfulfilled expectations on both sides. … the greatest threat to the West of the Sino-Russian partnership emanates from their efforts to adjust the international system to their advantage. As both Russia and China pursue increasingly activist foreign policies, Western policy needs to come to terms with the fact that their partnership is here to stay.”


“The EU and Ukraine: Taking a Breath,” Balázs Jarábik,  Gwendolyn Sasse,  Natalia Shapovalova, and Thomas De Waal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.27.18The authors, fellows and scholars with Carnegie, write: “Some observers now write about a ‘counterrevolution’ in Ukraine, where the same elites who were brought to power by the Euromaidan on pro-EU slogans are now sabotaging reforms. Privately, many in Brussels share this skeptical outlook. … The hope is that the Association Agreement is a robust commitment that will keep Ukraine on the right path, despite potential turmoil created by the elections. The EU-Ukraine relationship is also cemented by one key factor: a shared distrust of Russia.”

“Ukraine's Military Is Back,” Mykola Bielieskov, The National Interest, 02.27.18The author, deputy director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, writes: “Since the start of confrontation with Russia, Ukraine’s defense spending has increased several times. … In dollar terms, the military’s budget has not seen a significant increase over the last four years. However, compared to early 2014, Ukraine’s armed forces have improved considerably. … Ukraine has managed to strengthen its defensive capabilities without a radical increase in funding. One reason for this is that the proportions of the defense budget distribution have changed: the share for procurement and modernization for weapons increased by 10 percent since 2014. … Another reason is the development of an internal audit and control system—as stipulated in the Strategic Defense Bulletin—which helps to effectively utilize scarce resources. Overall, available resources are being marshalled more efficiently. Ukraine has made more strides to eliminate gaps in combat readiness in four years than in the previous twenty.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Remembering a Russian Champion of Freedom,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 02.27.18The author, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, writes: “The city of Washington will rename a square in honor of Boris Nemtsov, the brilliant Russian reformer who was struck down by an assassin's bullet in Moscow … . the former KGB agents and oligarchs who make up today's governing elite—have portrayed Nemtsov as some marginal rabble-rouser. That is not true. He played a central role in pushing Russia from autocracy to democracy and from a command economy to a market economy. Later in his career, he rallied first dozens, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands in resisting Vladimir Putin's return to autocracy. For that cause … he may have given the ultimate sacrifice. … Let's remember Nemtsov not only as a remarkable man but also as someone who still embodies the dream of a free and justly governed Russia.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia Has a Deadly Plan to Defend the Black Sea,” Igor Delanoe, The National Interest, 02.27.18The author, deputy-head of the French-Russian analytical center Observo, writes: “Several Russian lines of defense are … taking shape in the Black Sea basin. The first one would cross the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea maritime space between Crimea and Ukraine … . The second line of defense spans across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and is designed to face NATO. … The third line of defense is in the Eastern Mediterranean … . The progressive ‘littoralization’ and the ‘kalibrization’ of the Black Sea Fleet reflects, at a smaller scale, the overall limits of the Russian surface navy. There are no plans to update high sea capabilities and the 2018–2027 armament program is instead exploring the possibility of building ‘Super Gorshkov’ frigates (Project 22350M) and heavy missiles corvettes (Project 20386). … Considering that Russia’s core interests lie in the former Soviet space, there is no need to build a costly new blue-water navy. Moscow could not afford such a fleet and Russian shipyards would not be up to the task. In the Black Sea, Russia will aim to retain a comparative advantage against potentially hostile navies by accounting for the terms of the Montreux Convention, fortifying Crimea and building its fleet around Kalibr.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Cocaine Bust Is the Latest Sign of Putin's Weakness: A foiled cocaine shipment from Argentina helps build Russia's reputation as a mob state,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 02.28.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “The mind-boggling news story of cocaine-filled suitcases at the Russian embassy school in Buenos Aires demonstrates that the tolerance President Vladimir Putin's regime has shown for all kinds of moonlighting and freelancing by its servants has gone too far. … The official version of the story raises more questions than it answers. Some 18 months ago someone found bags filled with almost 400 kilograms of cocaine stored in the embassy school building. … Russian Ambassador Viktor Koronelli alerted the local police. The bags allegedly belonged to a former technical employee of the embassy whose contract had expired. Russian and Argentinian officials then conducted a joint operation … the bags were filled with flour, fitted with a GPS device and flown to Moscow to determine the recipient. Three people were detained, including the former embassy employee and two people who tried to claim the cargo. There are problems with this version. [A] Russian economist … whose children attend the school has expressed doubt that 12 massive suitcases could have been moved into the school without the knowledge of the embassy's security service. It's also difficult to explain why a Russian businessman … tried to claim the cargo on behalf of the former embassy worker … . the plane on which the flour was taken to Moscow … [was part of] Rossiya, the elite air unit that takes care of top Russian officials' travel. … Russians, especially security personnel with access to useful bits of government infrastructure use this access to line their pockets. They appear to have unofficial approval from the top to do it. … now the moonlighting is increasingly visible internationally … . That's a serious problem: Putin wants to be seen as a principled adversary to the West, not a mob boss. If he can't curb his security apparatus's greed … then maybe he no longer really runs the show as he goes into his fourth presidential term.”