Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 11-19, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • A very useful step for Moscow and Washington would be to revive the practice of convening bi-annual U.S.-Russian meetings at the assistant/under-secretary or deputy foreign minister level, suggest Prof. William C. Potter, founding director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and Anton Khlopkov, founding director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow. They also note that it would be worthwhile to resurrect a number of the arms control, nuclear energy and nuclear security working groups that were originally established under the bilateral U.S.-Russian Presidential Commission. 
  • Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden have said that, in principle, they want to invoke a provision of the New START treaty, write Anton Troianovski and David E. Sanger of the New York Times. One complicating factor, however, is that critical members of Biden's cabinet may not yet be confirmed by the Senate in time for the negotiation.   
  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow with the Belfer Center, writes that with regard to cyber, specifically, is there merit in initiating negotiations with the Russians and Chinese, without preconditions, in order to explore the possibility of agreeing on mutual constraints in areas of common interest, and lowering the possibility of confrontation in areas of disagreement, i.e., development of a cyber “rules of the road?” 
  • A poll of 15,000 Europeans in 11 countries conducted for the European Council on Foreign Relations has revealed that in no surveyed country would a majority want to take Washington’s side in a conflict with Russia. “Amazing only 36 percent of respondents in Poland and 40 percent in Denmark say that their country should side with the U.S. in such a scenario,” write Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard in their analysis of the poll conducted for ECFR by Datapraxis and YouGov in November and December 2020. “This shift in perceptions might have as much to do with power as anything else. What Europeans love about the memory of Cold War 1.0 is that they were on the winning side; the fear in many European countries is that Cold War 2.0 might have a different outcome,” they write. 
  • American thinking about Russia is clouded by misperceptions, writes former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Many analysts wrongly assume that Russia is a declining power. Biden and his national security team must retire outdated perceptions of the Russian threat and formulate a new policy to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military, and political influence, McFaul writes. Washington can work to counter Putin’s ideological project even while working with the Russian government in narrow areas of shared interest and deepening ties with Russian society at large.    
  • America is indeed exceptional in one sense, relative to older powers such as France, Japan, Russia and China, writes Charlie Lane of The Washington Post. Unlike them, this country did not grow organically over millennia but was settled, or conquered, in the modern era, then consciously organized according to historically derived political theory. "It has defined its raison d'etre ideologically," the most astute modern analyst of exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset, wrote. 
  • Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist arrested on his return to Moscow on Jan. 17, may not possess the same righteousness as Andrei Sakharov, the most famous of Soviet dissidents. But there is no doubting his courage, writes the Financial Times’ Ben Hall. The Kremlin’s high-visibility persecution risks turning Navalny into a rallying point for domestic opposition, according to Hall. He must be effective if Putin fears him so much. The Russian leader does not seem to care that dispensing with due process makes Navalny a symbol of the abuses of an authoritarian regime, Hall writes, but the West must. 


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

Nuclear security:

“Can Shared US–Russian Interests Lead to Joint Action?” William C. Potter and Anton Khlopkov, Kommersant/Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, 01.13.21. Potter, a professor of nonproliferation studies and director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and Khlopkov, the founding director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow, write:

  • “As the world enters the new year with a new U.S. administration waiting in the wings, it is tempting to assume that the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations can be slowed, if not reversed. Nowhere is the need for this change in trajectory more acute than in the sphere of nuclear arms control. What might this look like in practice under the new Biden administration, and how could the required dialogue on nuclear issues be facilitated? A good starting point would be for the two parties to undertake parallel nuclear threat assessments.”
  • “A very useful step would be to revive the … practice of convening bi-annual meetings at the assistant/under-secretary or deputy foreign minister level. … It also would be worthwhile to resurrect … a number of the arms control, nuclear energy and nuclear security working groups that were originally established under the bilateral U.S.-Russian Presidential Commission. … Additionally, there are many multinational fora where the United States and Russia often engaged cooperatively on nuclear matters.”
  • “It is unrealistic to expect that the arrival of a new U.S. administration will, by itself, remove all the obstacles that have impaired U.S.–Russian arms control and nonproliferation cooperation. … There will be opportunities in early 2021, however, for the United States and Russia to replace ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ approach to nuclear relations with a ‘step by step’ approach.”
  • “The first such opportunity concerns the looming expiration of the New START Treaty on Feb. 5. Action must be taken quickly to secure its extension. The Biden Administration also will have a very limited window of opportunity in which to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. … A third opportunity for constructive joint action involves the 10th NPT Review Conference.”

“A Threat to Confront: Far-Right Extremists and Nuclear Terrorism,” Rebecca L. Earnhardt, Brendan Hyatt and Nickolas Roth, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 01.14.21. The authors, a research associate, a nuclear security intern and the director of the Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program write:

  • “Every [U.S.] president serving in the last two decades has said that nuclear terrorism is a significant national security threat. Analysis of this threat has been, for good reason, mostly focused on foreign extremist groups, but recent events raise questions of whether there should be greater focus in the United States on far-right, domestic extremist threats. These extremists represent a unique danger because of their prevalence in federal institutions such as the military and the potential that they might infiltrate nuclear facilities, where they could access sensitive information and nuclear materials.”
  • “A robust response to violent far-right extremist threats vis-a-vis nuclear security is necessary to minimize risk. Violent far-right extremists are not going away: The instability and chaos of the COVID-19 era combined with increased political polarization and dwindling trust in long-standing institutions suggests that the problem of right-wing extremist terror is likely to grow in coming years.”
  • “Moreover, there is evidence that this threat is growing in other countries with nuclear facilities. If a violent far-right extremist gained access to nuclear materials or weapons, the consequences would be catastrophic. Improved data collection, redesigned screening and insider protection systems and diversity and equity initiatives all can help governments and private companies to better understand and mitigate risks to nuclear security posed by violent far-right extremists.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/saber rattling:

“The Crisis of American Power: How Europeans See Biden’s America,” Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 01.19.21. The authors, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, write:

  • “While most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory in the November U.S. presidential election, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader. This is the key finding of a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations.”
  • “Majorities in key member states now think the U.S. political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade and that Europeans cannot rely on the U.S. to defend them.”
  • “At least half of the electorate in every surveyed country would like their government to remain neutral in a conflict between the U.S. and China.”
  • “Europe’s unwillingness to side with the U.S. also comes out in respondents’ views on a conflict between the U.S. and Russia: in no surveyed country would a majority want to take Washington’s side. Amazingly, only 36 percent of respondents in Poland and 40 percent in Denmark [the countries with the highest support for taking the U.S.’s side] say that their country should side with the U.S. in such a scenario.”
  • “The main lesson of ECFR’s poll is for the Biden team. The new American administration has a clear idea of how Trump’s four years have changed America, but they should be aware of the Trump effect on Europe’s geopolitics of emotions. Although Europeans will not mourn Trump’s electoral defeat, his legacy will persist long after he has left the White House.”

“Trump Has Made America a Laughingstock,” Ivan Krastev, New York Times, 01.12.21. The author, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, writes:

  • “Donald Trump promised to make the world respect and fear America. In the end, he accomplished neither. He has made a laughingstock of America and its democracy. Nobody could blame Russian, Chinese or Iranian leaders for thoroughly enjoying what they saw on Jan. 6 as a mob incited by the president ransacked the Capitol.”
  • “The scenes looked like something out of a ‘color revolution’ … irate citizens, propelled by social media, protesting what they viewed as fraudulent elections and calling for democracy, draped in the American flag. The only difference was that this time it was not an opposition candidate but a sitting American president protesting a ‘rigged election,’ and the storming took place in the United States.”
  • “Four years of President Trump will continue to reverberate around the world … This will assuredly affect the two core priorities of the new administration’s foreign policy: its hope to build an effective alliance of democracies in defense of a liberal order and its effort to put together a common American-European response to the rise of China and its authoritarian allies. … [C]an the new administration legitimately return America to its role as the leader of the free world when its own democratic system is in a shambles?”
  • “Jake Sullivan, whom Mr. Biden plans to appoint as his national security adviser, has made it clear that he sees the establishment of a coordinated trans-Atlantic policy toward China as a pillar of the new administration’s foreign policy. … But how realistic is it now?”

“How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era,” Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs, 01.18.21. The author, Mosbacher Director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, writes:

  • “The U.S. government is still captured by powerful elite groups that distort policy to their own benefit and undermine the legitimacy of the regime as a whole. And the system is still too rigid to reform itself. These conditions, however, have morphed in unexpected ways. Two emerging phenomena have worsened the situation enormously: new communications technologies have contributed to the disappearance of a common factual basis for democratic deliberation, and what were once policy differences between ‘blue’ and ‘red’ factions have hardened into divisions over cultural identity.”
  • “In theory, the capture of the U.S. government by elites could be a source of unity, since it angers both sides of the political divide. Unfortunately, the targets of this animus are different in each case. For people on the left, the elites in question are corporations and capitalist interest groups … For those on the right, the malignant elites are the cultural power brokers in Hollywood, the mainstream media, universities and major corporations that espouse a ‘woke’ secular ideology at odds with what conservative Americans regard as traditional or Christian values.”
  • “Trump has handed authoritarians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping a huge gift: a United States divided, internally preoccupied and contradicting its own democratic ideals. Biden winning the White House with a bare Democratic majority in Congress won’t be enough for the United States to recover its international standing: Trumpism must be repudiated and delegitimized root and branch, much as McCarthyism was in the 1950s. The elites who establish normative guardrails around national institutions must regain their nerve and reestablish their moral authority. Whether they rise to the challenge will determine the fate of U.S. institutions—and, more important, the American people.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“What Should Be Addressed in Austin’s Confirmation Hearing for Defense Secretary?”, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Just Security, 01.19.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center and formerly director of the Center's Intelligence Project, writes:

  • “U.S.-Russian relations have continued to deteriorate in recent years. In response to Russian aggression … U.S.-Russian military channels of communication have been sharply curtailed in recent years. Do you [Defense Secretary nominee retired Gen. Lloyd Austin] plan to re-establish lines of communications with the Russian military? At what level? How important are robust channels of communication in lowering the possibility of an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that could lead to conflict?”
  • “How do you plan to address the deterioration in strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia that occurred under the Trump administration, e.g., U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, extension of START treaty and ballistic missile defense? Should non-nuclear factors such as NATO, conventional forces, cyber means, and other levers of statecraft be considered in negotiations to strengthen strategic stability? How should China factor in U.S. military strategy in this regard?”
  • “With regard to cyber, specifically, is there merit in initiating negotiations with the Russians and Chinese, without preconditions, in order to explore the possibility of agreeing on mutual constraints in areas of common interest, and lowering the possibility of confrontation in areas of disagreement, i.e., development of a cyber ‘rules of the road?’”
  • “As concerns Iran, should the United States re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), as has been signaled by the incoming administration? Should Iran have to meet certain pre-conditions in coming back into compliance with the terms of the agreement? If the JCPOA is restored, what leverage would the United States have in confronting Iranian threats against U.S. allies, notably in the Middle East and Yemen?”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

“Joe Biden’s Turn,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 01.17.21. The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “Twelve years have passed since Obama spoke of his Prague agenda. If arms control is to be revived, the Biden administration can’t just attend to the particulars, as hard as they will be. Members of Team Biden have to explain why they are attending to the particulars.”
  • “Arms control can accomplish what deterrence alone cannot. Deterrence is too dangerous to keep the nuclear peace. As Kenneth Boulding reminded us, ‘If deterrence were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.’ Most strengthening measures for nuclear deterrence make threats more credible, and therefore more dangerous.”
  • “Deterrence needs reassurance in the form of arms control to help keep the nuclear peace. We need both arms control and deterrence to prevent mushroom clouds, erect guardrails, establish stabilization measures, reduce numbers and reaffirm nonproliferation. This case has to be made; it can no longer be assumed because it has been widely forgotten.”
  • “The second prerequisite for success is woman and manpower. The State Department has suffered a great exodus of talent, experience and energy. A large coterie of new hires is needed to help with immediate problems.”
  • “Absent legislative authorization and funding for new staffing positions dealing with arms control and nonproliferation, the State Department will continue to hobble along, even with strong leadership. This is a daunting agenda. As if this weren’t enough, there’s also the matter of the State Department weighing in on U.S. nuclear doctrine. The language used to characterize the circumstances surrounding possible use of nuclear weapons in warfare matters.”

“Russia's Exit From Open Skies Treaty May Complicate Relations With Biden Team,” Anton Troianovski and David E. Sanger, New York Times, 01.16.21. The authors, correspondents for the news outlet, write:

  • “Russia said on Friday [Jan. 15] that it was pulling out of a decades-old treaty that allowed countries to make military reconnaissance flights over each other's territory. The move escalates Russia's growing military competition with the United States and Europe just weeks before the incoming Biden administration will have to negotiate the extension of the central nuclear arms-control treaty between Moscow and Washington.”
  • “Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden have said that, in principle, they want to invoke a provision of the [New START] treaty that allows for an extension of up to five years. Because that provision is contained in the original treaty negotiated by the Obama administration, it would not require a new vote in the U.S. Senate.”
  • “But it is unclear if Russia may introduce new demands, or if either side would want to extend the treaty for the full five years.”
  • “Mr. Biden has also promised that Russia will 'pay a price' for its broad hacking of American government agencies and corporations, revealed last month—meaning he will almost certainly be threatening the country with sanctions or conducting some kind of counter-cyber operation at a moment he is also negotiating the treaty extension.”
  • “Another complicating factor is that critical members of Mr. Biden's cabinet may not yet be confirmed by the Senate in time for the negotiation. The task of dealing with Russia, therefore, will most likely fall to Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, who does not require Senate confirmation.”

“The End of Nukes,” Ira Helfand and Nate Goldshlag, The Boston Globe, 01.17.21. The authors, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a former treasurer of Veterans for Peace, write:

  • “With the danger of nuclear war growing, we can no longer afford to ignore the existential threat these weapons pose. Relations between the United States and Russia are the worst they have been since the Cold War. Relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point since the 1970s. North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons. Tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are high.”
  • “The countries that wisely chose not to build nuclear weapons have had enough. On July 7, 2017, 122 countries met at the United Nations and voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Next Friday [Jan. 22], the treaty … will formally enter into force … None of the nine nuclear-armed states have joined this historic effort to abolish nuclear weapons.”
  • “New scientific studies have shown that a nuclear war would be even more catastrophic than previously believed. … Here in the United States, the Back From the Brink Campaign has been organized to bring about fundamental change in U.S. nuclear policy … These weapons are the greatest threat to our existence and must be eliminated before they eliminate us. Back From the Brink calls on the United States to welcome the TPNW as a positive step toward nuclear disarmament and to begin negotiations with the other nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to dismantle their weapons.”
  • “The Biden administration has the opportunity to reverse the ill-conceived nuclear policies of the past and seek the true security of a world without nuclear weapons. For the sake of our children, let us all work to make sure that it takes this step.”

“Biden Can’t Lose Sight of the Nuclear Crisis,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, 01.19.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “At Wednesday’s [Jan. 20] inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden is likely to address the ‘four historic crises’ he has repeatedly identified as confronting our country: a global pandemic, a severe recession, climate change and systemic racism. Yet even as so many challenges compete for our attention, we can’t afford to lose sight of a fifth crisis: the continued danger of nuclear annihilation.”
  • “It is high time to step back from the brink of catastrophe. Fortunately, Biden has long championed stronger nuclear arms controls. And his administration can act immediately to make our world safer. … Biden will have just two weeks to complete the first move, as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia is set to expire on Feb. 5.”
  • “There are many other actions Biden should take to reduce the likelihood of nuclear conflict—and move our nation further toward the ultimate goal of abolishing all nuclear weapons. … Former defense secretary William Perry and nuclear scholar Tom Collina outline a series of strong steps in their recent book, ‘The Button.’ One key suggestion is retiring the nuclear football that gives presidents the sole discretion to launch atomic attacks.”
  • “Biden should also scrap the Trump administration’s plans to spend $264 billion on a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). … America is poised to spend $2 trillion over the next 30 years replacing every Cold War submarine, bomber, missile and warhead. These expenditures aren’t driven by military necessity or grand strategic plan, but they do have the support of hundreds of defense industry lobbyists.”

“Joe Biden's Early Test From Moscow and Beijing,” John Bolton, Wall Street Journal, 01.17.21. The author, former national security adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, writes:

  • “President-elect Joe Biden's advisers have been signaling that they will rely on arms-control agreements with Russia to reduce the Defense Department budget. … But reliance on arms-control deals with Russia is a fool's paradise. Whatever relatively small near-term fiscal savings might accrue will be outweighed in the long term by increased threats not only from Moscow, but also from Beijing and rogue states aspiring to become nuclear powers.”
  • “Mr. Biden's first arms-control decision will be whether and for how long to extend the New START treaty. … Mr. Biden should offer six months … New START has three broad substantive defects: It omits tactical nuclear weapons; it is technologically outdated and doesn't address developments like hypersonic weapons; and China is not a signatory.”
  • “Mr. Biden's advisers also seem open to Russia's desire to revive the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from which America withdrew in 2019. Whether through a new agreement or by incorporation into a revised START framework, resurrecting the INF is dangerous.”
  • “These are heavy-duty questions. This is not Mr. Biden's first arms-control rodeo, but what he does and how he does it could define both his presidency's ideological direction and its competence.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Biden Doesn’t Need a New Middle East Policy,” James F. Jeffrey, Foreign Affairs, 01.15.21. The author, chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, writes:

  • “Most new administrations issue a National Security Strategy and then quickly shelve it. But the 2017 document drafted by the White House offered a novel blueprint for U.S. policy in the Middle East and one that the Trump administration generally followed. Overall, the strategy called for shifting focus from so-called endless wars to great-power competition, primarily with China and Russia.”
  • “For the Middle East, that first principle meant avoiding entanglement in local issues while still pushing back on near-peer and regional dangers. In practice, this amounted to containing Iran and Russia while smashing serious terrorist threats.”
  • “The next principle—working alongside allies and partners in the region rather than, usually, taking unilateral action—was more complex. … Trump aimed to end the United States’ central involvement in the counter-ISIS campaign … and reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan … As part of that second principle, Trump also made clear that he would support Israeli and Turkish military actions against Iran and Russia in Syria and would rely primarily on the Gulf states, Jordan, Iraq and Israel to stand up to Tehran. … But when it did decide to act, U.S. forces effectively targeted Assad, terrorist groups, Russian mercenaries and Iranian-backed militias.”
  • “U.S. policy placed Washington at odds with Moscow, which saw Syria as the primary venue in which to reengage diplomatically and militarily in the Middle East. In line with its goal of countering regional peer threats, the United States repeatedly responded to Russian military and mercenary activity in northeast Syria and helped Turkey fend off joint Syrian-Russian incursions in the country’s northwest.”
  • “Over the last four years, the Trump administration scored two major successes in the Middle East—the Abraham Accords and the destruction of ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria. It also managed to counter Russia’s further expansion in Syria and elsewhere, grasp Iran’s enduring and multifaceted threat to regional stability, and mobilize a coalition to counter Tehran’s malign behavior. … By recent Middle East standards all this together is a respectable policy outcome.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

“Does China Need More Gas From Russia and Central Asia?” Sergei Kapitonov and Temur Umarov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.12.21. The authors, a gas analyst at the Energy Center of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo and a consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center, write:

  • “Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2020 that in forty years, China would achieve carbon neutrality. … Such plans jeopardize the future of large-scale gas pipeline projects to bring natural gas from Russia (Power of Siberia 2) and Central Asia (Line D) to China. Is there any sense in building pipelines if China will reduce gas consumption in forty years?”
  • “On what terms will Beijing be prepared to buy natural gas from the Yamal? Will it prefer to buy gas from Central Asian countries that depend on Chinese loans, or will it simply expand its LNG portfolio? Will Russia find the offered price acceptable (clearly, amid the current low oil prices, LNG will not fetch a high rate)? How will Beijing play the climate card, and will it be prepared to sign a two-decade contract if it plans to end the ‘golden era’ of natural gas?”
  • “Answers to these questions will emerge in the near future. It is apparent that Russia’s time is limited. Negotiations on gas deliveries to China started in 2004, while deliveries via Power of Siberia only began fifteen years later. Over that time, Beijing’s energy agenda could change drastically. The ‘fat decades’ of the Russian gas industry (the 2000s and the 2010s, when the markets and the super-profits were growing) are over, and the sector must learn to live in the new paradigm. Gazprom will not sell gas from Yamal to China cheap, but endlessly and stubbornly delaying progress on new routes today could lead to losses of market share in the future. In conditions of swiftly growing competition by gas suppliers for the Chinese market, one might cautiously predict that we could hear news about the Power of Siberia project within 2021.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“How to Contain Putin’s Russia. A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power,” Michael McFaul, Foreign Affairs, 01.19.21. The author, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, writes:

  • “American thinking about Russia is clouded by misperceptions. Many analysts wrongly assume that Russia is a declining power, for example. Just last month, Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, quipped that ‘Russia is a gas station parading as a country,’ adding that Moscow was ‘lashing out in a moment of decline.’ Such analysis is outdated.”
  • “Russia [is not] the weak and dilapidated state that it was in the 1990s. It has reemerged, despite negative demographic trends and the rollback of market reforms, as one of the world’s most powerful countries—with significantly more military, cyber, economic and ideological might than most Americans appreciate. … It has the 11th-largest economy in the world; the sixth, measured by purchasing power parity.”
  • “Biden and his national security team must retire outdated perceptions of the Russian threat and formulate a new policy to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military and political influence. Washington can work to counter Putin’s ideological project even while working with the Russian government in narrow areas of shared interest and deepening ties with Russian society at large.”
  • “Containment must start at home. Russia’s recent intrusion into U.S. government and private-sector cybernetworks clearly demonstrates that the United States has not invested enough in defending against Moscow’s attacks on U.S. digital networks. … Containment abroad starts with deterrence.”
  • “Even as Washington works to contain Russian influence at home and abroad, it should seek to engage the Kremlin on a small number of issues of mutual benefit, much as it did during the Cold War. … Most important, the Biden administration—as well as other American elected officials, commentators and journalists—must stop demonizing the Russian people. Biden and his team should go out of their way to distinguish between Russia and Russians.”

“No One Benefits From Renewed Demonizing of Russia,” Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 01.14.21. The author, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), writes:

  • “There are smart and well-informed analysts of Moscow’s politics, who understand that Kremlin policy is often reacting to perceived Western slights and pressures, and that it is often both pragmatic and risk-averse. However, if their political masters are seduced by the easy caricature of Putin as Sauron to the Russian Mordor and assume both that everything they do is hostile and that they are driven not by self-interest but an irrational hatred, then this will distort policy.”
  • “Russia does conduct political warfare against the West. It does assassinate—or attempt to assassinate — those whom it considers traitors. It does screech out infoshum—'info-noise’—to try and drown out inconvenient truths and painful news. It does maintain an extensive array of agencies and instrumentalities devoted to active measures, to meddling, subverting and distracting the West.”
  • “It’s not doing it all the time, though, nor in every case, and not for the reasons often advanced. The Kremlin is not trying to advance some ideological agenda based on authoritarianism and kleptocracy across the world. It is not trying to re-establish the Soviet Union or the tsarist empire. It is not preparing for, much less seeking, any kind of military confrontation with the West.”
  • “Clearly many advising and influencing Putin—and perhaps even Putin himself—genuinely do hold a rather paranoid vision of the world, one mirroring the most hawkish Russia-bashers in the West. Others simply play along, because this is the official line. However, just as the West is at a foreign policy crossroads, so too Russia is making crucial decisions about its domestic approach, leaning towards a more repressive model of politics.”
  • “The more its leaders genuinely consider themselves under threat from a hostile and meddling West, and the more they can convince at least some of their subjects, then the more likely it is that they will continue this drift into confrontation abroad, clamp-down at home.”

“Bill Burns Knows Russia Inside Out—and That Will Be Critical to Biden,” Daniel N. Hoffman, The Hill, 01.15.21. The author, former chief of station with the CIA, writes:

  • “Expect Burns to be on the hook for three key priorities relating to Russia.”
  • “First, the CIA is responsible for collecting intelligence on threats to our national security ‘left of boom,’ so that they can be preempted before they are visited on our shores. … Collecting intelligence on Putin’s plans and intentions is of the highest priority. Having long been a consumer of CIA source-based human intelligence, Burns is ideally prepared to drive this mission.”
  • “Second, CIA officers and diplomats learn firsthand to appreciate cross-cultural differences. They develop an aptitude for seeing the world through the eyes of foreign state and non-state actors. This refined sense of empathy is the basis for the most effective intelligence collection, analysis and diplomacy. Burns is an expert at seeing the world through Putin’s eyes … Burns will be a valuable consigliere to Biden as the U.S. contends with Putin in the years ahead.”
  • “Third, U.S.-Russia relations resemble a Venn diagram, with shaded space of shared interests, unshaded space where our interests will never intersect and a grey area where diplomacy can produce bilateral agreements. Nowhere is finding some common ground with Russia … more consequential than in arms control. … The first step is to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) beyond its expiration next month … Under Burns’s leadership, the CIA will play a key role in collecting the intelligence that supports arms control negotiations and exposes any duplicity on the Kremlin’s part.”
  • “Russians are fond of saying, ‘V chuzhoi monastir so svoyim ustavom ne khodyat’—that is, ‘No one goes to another monastery with their own charter,’ or the equivalent of, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ Burns has been to the Russian monastery and immersed himself in Russian language, culture and history. U.S. national security should benefit considerably as a result.”

“Joe Biden’s Pick of Victoria Nuland Means Relations With Russia Could Get Worse,” Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 01.15.21. The author, national security reporter for The National Interest, writes:

  • “Biden is expected to nominate veteran diplomat Victoria Nuland as undersecretary of state for political affairs, according to sources familiar with the process. These sources also told reporters that the president-elect will tap Wendy Sherman, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, as the deputy secretary of state.”
  • “Nuland was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008. She served as State Department spokesperson under Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton before succeeding Philip Gordon as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. … Nuland played a central role in executing the Obama administration’s Ukraine policies during and after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.”
  • “More broadly, Nuland has supported and facilitated Obama-era policies aimed at confronting, containing and deterring Moscow across multiple policy fronts. Nuland was a prominent voice in favor of expanding the Magnitsky Act in response to Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s assassination. The act was successfully bolstered in 2016, giving the U.S. government broad leeway to impose sanctions on anyone found to be guilty of human rights violations.”
  • “Nuland in, short, is a capable and committed advocate of the Obama-Biden approach to Russia and Ukraine. In a Summer 2020 op-ed for Foreign Affairs, Nuland offered a series of policy prescriptions for the next president on how to deal with Russia: a united global front to check and deter Russian military aggression, a more robust toolkit to crack down on Russian disinformation, further sanctions and public diplomacy efforts aimed directly at the Russian people. Many of these proposals enjoy widespread support throughout the rest of Biden’s assembled foreign policy team, and with the president-elect too.”
  • “Reports of Nuland’s future appointment are sure to come as a source of elation to the government in Kyiv. By the same token, they send perhaps the clearest message yet to Moscow that the prospects for meaningful U.S.-Russian rapprochement under a Biden administration appear exceedingly slim.”

“For Russians, Trump's Twitter Ban Gets Lost in Translation,” Sergey Radchenko, The Moscow Times, 01.12.21. The author, director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, writes:

  • “Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s account has met with a real furor on the part of Russia’s digitally-connected commentariat. For several days now, bloggers, journalists, politicians and just the concerned members of the Russian public have (for the most part) condemned the ban with the raging passion of those truly in the know.”
  • “What accounts for this unprecedented interest in Russia in Twitter’s decision, and, in particular, the unparalleled convergence of views on the subject of the freedom of speech in the U.S. between Putin’s fiercest critics and his foremost supporters? The answer is two-fold.”
  • “First, America does not exist just for itself. Love it or hate it, it is a central component of Russia’s national discourse, so much so that the Russians’ self-perception is closely bound up with what they believe about America. … For those who vilify the United States and question its democratic credentials, Twitter’s decision is a godsend: the much-needed evidence to prove America’s moral failure and, by extension, Russia’s moral superiority.”
  • “Those who in their turn point to Russia’s authoritarianism warn against giving their opponents such an easy propaganda victory, which is exactly why Navalny in his statement claimed that the ban would give the likes of Putin more ammunition to further restrict freedom of speech in Russia.”
  • “This debate is rooted in Russia’s own painful experience with censorship and propaganda, and the experience of struggle against censorship and against propaganda—an experience that the Americans simply do not share to the same extent. Here, one could retort that Russian commentators have simply failed to appreciate the nuanced distinction between state censorship and private censorship.  Hence, the second point: it is true that many Russian observers have failed to appreciate this nuance.”

“America Is Not So Exceptional After All,” Charlie Lane, The Washington Post, 01.18.21. The author, an editorial writer and columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “We should have been more realistic about American exceptionalism all along. The phrase itself was invented by Joseph Stalin, as a pejorative label for the belief among U.S. Communists that this country's working class was uniquely resistant to revolution.”
  • “The Founders, who devised checks and balances in anticipation of Trump-style demagoguery and blind, Josh Hawley-style ambition, were not exactly American exceptionalists. They were conservatives, but of a different stripe than former vice president Dick Cheney, co-author of both a moralistic foreign crusade, the Iraq War and a book, ‘Exceptional,’ that touted U.S. influence in the world as a nearly unmixed blessing, born of the American system's special capacity for good.”
  • “America is indeed exceptional in one sense, relative to older powers such as France, Japan, Russia and China. Unlike them, this country did not grow organically over millennia but was settled, or conquered, in the modern era, then consciously organized according to historically derived political theory. ‘It has defined its raison d'etre ideologically,’ the most astute modern analyst of exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset, wrote.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“How Proponents and Opponents of Political Change See Russia’s Future,” Andrei Kolesnikov,  Alexei Levinson and Denis Volkov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.14.21. The authors of the report write:

  • “The Kremlin has consistently failed to define its vision of Russia’s future. … The only thing about the country’s domestic political order that is clear is that President Vladimir Putin has secured the option to stay in power until 2036. While Putin may see keeping himself in power as the best guarantee of political stability, that reality is hardly a substitute for the specific socioeconomic goals that he has laid out.”
  • “But what about the Russian public? … While most participants readily identified a similar set of socioeconomic problems facing the country, they significantly diverged on their views of the potential solutions. … Both loyalists and traditionalists expressed comparable support for greater state-led interventions, while liberals consistently expressed support for limiting state involvement.”
  • “Loyalists and traditionalists expressed no interest in changes to Russian foreign policy. … Liberals expressed deep unhappiness about Putin’s foreign policy. They want Russia to have a friendly relationship with the West, to adopt a less aggressive foreign policy, to jointly develop technologies with advanced countries and to engage in peaceful competition on the global stage.”
  • “All six focus groups shared an extremely negative assessment of current Russian government officials, the performance of the state bureaucracy, and … United Russia. There was a consensus that those who ‘live well in Russia’ are ‘those in power’ and ‘those riding the gravy train’ to become rich in corrupt or underhanded ways. … The only difference that could be seen was in the groups’ attitudes toward Putin personally. Liberals and traditionalists believe he is fully responsible for the country’s problems, but loyalists are still inclined to stand up for the president.”
  • “These findings seem to reveal public dissatisfaction with Putin’s regime from a variety of standpoints. Nevertheless, the majority of respondents, except liberals, lacked the ability to articulate forward-looking thinking.”

“What Will 2021 Bring the Russian Regime and Society?” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.15.21. The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the founder of R.Politik, writes:

  • “Following the constitutional amendments, the regime is determined to create a system of protectors against destabilization; a mechanism for dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ All the elements of power are involved in forming this mechanism, with security and stability as their top priorities.”
  • “The problem is that there is no unified center making decisions, adjusting strategy, and providing a long-term view or plan for the future. The elements of the system are competing among themselves for precedence and resources, frequently sacrificing long-term priorities for the sake of their own, more narrow interests. In other words, the system is consuming itself, with each part of it trying to survive separately at the expense of its neighbor. In this situation, society is a hostage of this battle for survival, and an expendable component in political experiments.”
  • “This year promises to be difficult and dangerous for civil society, the real opposition, and independent journalists and bloggers: all those who ask questions of the authorities and demand answers. Last year showed just how defenseless both society and the opposition are when faced with a regime that hardly ever encounters any serious political resistance.”
  • “Yet there is a limit to the regime’s durability. The fall in living standards and decreased trust in the authorities, combined with the latter’s inability to communicate effectively and recognize problems, will lead to growing unhappiness in society, increased outbursts of local protests, and the appearance of new areas of conflict. Putin can make any number of decisions, but does not want to, while the collective Putin wants to, but cannot always do so. Meanwhile, the new system of immobilizing society and repressing any resistance could have unforeseen consequences.”

“Alexei Navalny Is Russian for ‘Domestic Enemy Number One,” Ben Hall, Financial Times, 01.18.21. The author, Europe editor of the Financial Times, writes:

  • “Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist arrested on his return to Moscow on Sunday, may not possess the same righteousness as Sakharov, the most famous of Soviet dissidents. But there is no doubting his courage. Or that today’s Kremlin regards him as its greatest domestic enemy. As with the nuclear scientist half a century ago, Mr. Navalny’s treatment by the Russian government has only elevated his status as a symbol of repression.”
  • “’Navalny’s reception by the authorities at the airport is the best evidence of how afraid they are of him,’ Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said on Twitter. ‘They themselves are inflating the importance of Navalny, turning him into academician Sakharov.’”
  • “’For the authorities, how they viewed Navalny changed not as much after he was poisoned, but after the . . . FSB exposés. No longer is he a small-time crook, but an enemy who must be humiliated, crushed, punished,’ says Tatiana Stanovaya of political consultancy R.Politik.”
  • “The Kremlin’s high-visibility persecution risks turning Mr. Navalny into a rallying point for domestic opposition. He must be effective if Mr. Putin fears him so much. The Russian leader does not seem to care that dispensing with due process makes Mr. Navalny a symbol of the abuses of an authoritarian regime. But the west must.”

“The Extraordinary Courage of Aleksei Navalny,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 01.18.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “If Mr. Putin does decide to imprison Mr. Navalny, he will have a celebrated political prisoner on his hands. If he sets Mr. Navalny free, he will appear weak to his lieutenants and followers, and under constant assault from the Navalny-led opposition. The option Mr. Putin is least likely to consider would be to confront Mr. Navalny openly and fairly at the ballot box, say in the parliamentary elections looming in September.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant developments

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Russia’s Security Agencies Are Both Terrifying and Incompetent,” Natalia Antonova, Foreign Policy, 01.15.21. The author, a writer, journalist and online safety expert based in Washington D.C., writes:

  • “Western media has written that the FSB’s incompetence and inefficiency were ‘exposed’ by the botched poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But that incompetence, to Russians, is exactly what they expect from the security state.”
  • “The FSB is not unique when it comes to botched assassinations. Take another security agency, the GRU, which attempted to poison another dissident in the UK—and the ‘chain of stupidity’ that resulted in them being exposed.”
  • “In Putin’s Russia, the security services don’t actually need to be professional in order to be considered fearsome. In fact, no officials in Russia need to be professional in order to be feared. Instead, their terrifying reputation comes from a total lack of accountability.”
  • “In some ways, the incompetence of the armed and powerful in Russia can be even more terrifying than their flashes of competence. Just consider the botched Beslan siege, when Russian special forces stormed a school being held hostage and accidentally killed dozens of people.”
  • “In the Navalny case, even an assassination gone wrong can be exploited by the Kremlin for shock value. Yes, it will result in memes and plenty of people making fun of the situation. Yet at the same time, it’s not as if the Russian government is going to be brought down by memes, and the leaders know that. As a Russian official told me off the record once, the memefication of the security services’ screw-ups can actually be convenient, as it humanizes the participants.”


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Armin Laschet Under Fire as Critics Rake Up Past Comments on Russia,” Guy Chazan, Financial Times, 01.19.21. The author, Berlin bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, is coming under mounting scrutiny over statements he has made in the past defending Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime in Syria.”
  • “One of the controversial interviews that have resurfaced in recent days is one he gave in March 2014. … He quoted Henry Kissinger as saying: ‘Putin’s demonization is not a policy, but an alibi for the absence of one.’ The interview that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung established Mr. Laschet as one of Germany’s most prominent Putinversteher or defenders of Mr. Putin. In it, he noted that there were 1,200 companies in North Rhine-Westphalia that traded with or had invested in Russia, and stressed the region’s dependence on imports of Russian natural gas.”
  • “Mr. Laschet has become much more circumspect since the poisoning of Alexei Navalny … and the murder of a former Chechen fighter in a Berlin park in 2019, which the German authorities blamed on the Kremlin. Both incidents had, he told reporters last month, ‘badly strained’ Russo-German relations. However, he added that there was still scope to work with Russia on issues such as climate change and on academic and economic exchanges.”
  • “Perhaps his most controversial foreign policy intervention was in 2014, when he accused the U.S. of supporting Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. At the time he frequently portrayed Mr. Assad as a potential ally of the west in the fight against Islamist terrorism, and praised Russia for supporting the Syrian regime. The person close to Mr. Laschet said that in the 2014 Twitter message he was simply calling for a ‘more nuanced approach to the Syrian opposition, which was a lot more heterogeneous than people thought.’”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“The Sorry State of Baltic-Russian Relations,” Sergei Utkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.13.21. The author, head of strategic assessments at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, writes:

  • “When economic and political relations are in decline, historical issues take the central place in Russia’s relationship with the Baltic states. The two sides see the events of World War II and the three republics’ subsequent entry into the Soviet Union very differently.”
  • “With relations between Russia and the Baltic states deadlocked, Baltic voters have continued (through various leaders, parties, and governments) to view Russia not as a prospective partner but as a source of problems, real and imagined.”
  • “On the Russian side, domestic political changes in the Baltic region appear insignificant, since they are seen to have done nothing to change the state of relations. Russia’s grievances with Estonian and Latvian politicians over the treatment of their countries’ Russian-speaking minorities—some of whom are still classified as non-citizens—may have deepened amid a rollback of opportunities to attend Russian schools in the region and the marginalization of the political forces representing the region’s Russian communities.”
  • “Paradoxically, it is with Lithuania—which has the smallest Russian community of the three countries, and no non-citizens—that Russia has had the worst relations since 2014. Latvia and Estonia have made efforts, however limited, to engage in dialogue at the state level.”
  • “In today’s political circumstances, the Baltic countries’ policies toward Russia act as a constraint on Russia’s relations with the EU. The Baltic states will oppose, not welcome, any push for a new EU–Russia reset. Russia, for its part, does not care to waste its time on trifles and, given the general intransigence of the West, is looking to other fronts for victories. Both sides’ political elites, then, must be persuaded of the need to avoid a total collapse of contacts, a sad state of affairs that is most likely here to stay.”

“Nested Games? The Inconsistencies of Russian Foreign Policy in Eurasia,” Mikhail Filippov and Irina Busygina, PONARS, January 2021. Filippov, an associate professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Busygina, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, write:

  • “The main problem of all post-Soviet integration projects is that Russia cannot commit credibly. Specifically, an approach to integration based on (relatively) equitable relations within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) (similar to the EU model) has very low chances of success. Because the partners do not trust Russia, they insist on integration projects that are limited at best. Russia is more likely to be successful in using asymmetric bilateral bargains than the multilateral institutions to dominate in the post-Soviet region.”
  • “Analytically, one could view Russian foreign policy as a combination of ‘nested games’ at different but inter-connected levels (global and regional). In this perspective, decision-makers would seek a balance between these levels based on different priorities and agendas. However, in our view, the inconsistencies of Russian policies between the regional and global levels are apparent, in particular after Russia annexed Crimea.”
  • “Before 2014 Moscow mostly followed a commitment to respect the national sovereignty of post-Soviet nations. It provided political incumbents with a combination of benefits and pressures, but without openly encroaching on the integrity and sovereignty of their nations. Most importantly, there were no de jure changes to the post-Soviet borders.”
  • “Since 2014, the inconsistency between the regional and global agendas has become apparent. For the first time, the administrative borders of the former USSR were unilaterally revised by Russia, sending to the post-Soviet nations a clear message: in acting as a great power, Russia is not limited in its foreign policy choices by international rules and previous obligations. The annexation of Crimea thus turned out to be destructive for the Russian regional agenda. As Fyodor Lukyanov admitted, 2014 was marked by ‘the end of the post-Soviet space as a virtual community.’”