Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 22-29, 2018

This Week's Highlights:

  • The U.S. has welcomed Russia into the club of its official strategic rivals and in doing so assured that competition with Russia is predetermined, writes Fyodor Lukyanov.
  • Whether or not it’s reflective of reality, argues Scott Malcomson, neither Moscow nor Beijing is likely to contradict the Pentagon’s assignation of great-power status to them.
  • The new confrontation between Russia and the United States, a Hybrid War rather than a Cold War 2.0, is essentially a conflict over world order, writes Dmitri Trenin.
  • In the event of a devastating cyberattack, most Americans wouldn’t support responding with a nuclear counterattack, research by Sarah Krep and Jacquelyn Schneider shows.
  • In responding to the information warfare of sharp power by countries such as Russia and China, democracies should be careful to not undercut their own soft power advantages, writes Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
  • Efforts to foster greater diplomatic engagement between Russia and the West was the least successful aspect of Russia’s campaign in Syria, write Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky. Oksana Antonenko holds a similar view.
  • For Russia’s elite, being named in the U.S. Treasury’s “Kremlin Report” would sound the death knell for their financial relationships with the West, writes Septimus Knoz.
  • Maxim Trudolyubov claims that Russian support for Trump was not a coherent strategy, but rather a prank at Clinton’s expense.
  • Andrei Kolesnikov argues that Putin is chained to a system he built, unable to abandon it for fear of the chaos that would ensue. 

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:

“Trump's Defense Strategy is Perfect for Russia; Trump's Strategy Pushes Confrontation With Russia, and Moscow is Pleased,” Fyodor Lukyanov, The Washington Post, 01.23.18: The author, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, writes that the new U.S. National Defense Strategy “officially pushes the Pentagon into confrontation with Russia and China,” and that this is fine with many in Moscow. “It reminds them of the Cold War, when things were quite clear and everyone knew how to behave.” The author continues: “What does all this mean for Russia, which along with China, has been officially named a U.S. strategic rival? First, welcome to the club. The liberal world order discourse — a positive-sum game which honors interdependence instead of competition, economy above security — has never been taken seriously in Moscow. The ‘balance of power’ idea … appears several times in the new U.S. defense strategy. … Now Russia and the U.S. are once again using the same conceptual language.” Trump’s main goal, the author writes, “is to change economic relations with the rest of the world, primarily China, the Asian ‘tigers’ and Europe. … He expected quick and easy returns from his steps toward the Kremlin and immediately abandoned them when political costs appeared much higher than expected. In form, Russian-American relations have returned to the Cold War model.” Still, this does not reflect the reality of the U.S.-Russian relationship, for two reasons: “First, the clash between Moscow and Washington is not central to the international system, which is polycentric, chaotic and diverse. Second, all borders are permeable in the global world, and no one knows how to regulate external influence on states.” The Trump administration’s turn to toward a more U.S.-centered foreign policy “makes Russia a perfect target both psychologically — the Cold War-era inertia is very strong — and practically, as Russia's growing military strength makes it a credible threat. Thus, competition with Russia is predetermined.

“Rethinking the Danger of Escalation: The Russia-NATO Military Balance,” Aleksandr Khramchikhin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.25.18: The author, the deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, writes that “the hysteria that has engulfed public commentary throughout Europe” over a military confrontation between NATO and Russia “has little, if any, basis in fact.” In reality, the author writes, “the military balance between Russia and NATO is stable, the danger of escalation is hardly approaching critical levels, and little needs to be done militarily to defuse the current tensions. … The true cause of the tensions is not military, but political and diplomatic. Until those causes are resolved, tensions between Russia and the West will remain high. The likelihood of a military confrontation will remain low, however, because neither side’s posture points to a heightened state of readiness or intention to go on the offensive. Until that changes, political and diplomatic tensions will remain mere tensions.”

“Avoiding US-Russia Military Escalation During the Hybrid War,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.25.18: The author, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes that the conflict in Ukraine is best conceived of as a “Hybrid War … a conflict essentially between Russia and the United States over the issue of the world order.” He writes: “It is not the result of misunderstanding or miscalculation but rather the opposite; Russia, in particular, has a deliberate outcome in mind. Moscow is pursuing a set of objectives—the most important of which is to reassert its role as a great power with a global reach. … This Hybrid War’s most distinguishing feature is that it is being fought in a truly global, virtually borderless environment. … Politically, the Hybrid War includes the outside stimulation of political changes in other countries through street activism and the promotion of specific values, parties, or popular movements.” Despite its unpredictable nature, “it is possible, up to a point, to avoid military escalation during the Hybrid War. … Although trust between Russia and the United States and Russia and Europe cannot be restored for many years, the degree of mistrust could be marginally reduced by a frank dialogue in which both parties outline their goals and concerns. … The first objective should not be to find mutual agreement but rather to agree to disagree. … A follow-on objective could be to establish interactions between Russia and Western countries where such connections make sense for both sides—in areas such as U.S.-Russia deconfliction and possible postconflict collaboration in Syria.”

“Russia Hit Multiple Targets with Zapad-2017,” Keir Giles, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.25.18: The author, a senior consulting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, writes that “Zapad-2017 practiced countermeasures for two of Russia’s perceived greatest vulnerabilities: protection of its border regions and prevention of hostile actors exploiting fissures in Russian society or in the alliance with Belarus.” If at any point, the author writes, “swift and substantial political change in Minsk with a possible reorientation to the West appeared possible, this would undoubtedly be construed by Russia as just as immediate a security challenge as Ukraine in 2014, necessitating just as rapid and forceful a response.” The author continues: “In the event of more generalized conflict with Russia, the nature of the response practiced in Zapad should give further cause for concern to the West. The early stages of the exercise saw a demonstration of Russia’s habit of using heavy firepower in counterinsurgency … The Russian approach is sometimes explained as the end justifying the means, especially if the end is bringing the fighting to as swift a conclusion as possible. This means that in the event of a future conflict in Europe, the actions of Russia’s armed forces should not be expected to be any less repugnant to Western values than previous Russian or indeed Soviet practice.”

“Generals Want Money for Yesterday's Cold War. The top UK general knows the real battlefield is virtual. So why does he still demand more money for conventional weapons?” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.23.18: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes that British and U.S. generals should be grateful to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “For the first time since the Cold War, Russia serves as a compelling argument in the budgetary tug-of-war and a focus of military strategies—a far easier one than the non-state threats that confounded military thinking for the last quarter of a century.” But it’s a misconception that the Russian threat can be countered by boosting defense budgets, the author writes. “It's a dangerous myth that Putin has been in any way deterred by Ukrainian military strength. He's simply not interested in massive territorial conquests that would require great expense to hold and which would provide no advantages. His main goal in Ukraine is destabilization, and the ‘people's republics’ get the job done for him. So do frequent cyberattacks, subversion and corruption.” What Western militaries and intelligence communities need, the author writes, “is more understanding of Russian methods and motivations … Fighting yesterday's wars with more spending on boots and hardware is a reflexive temptation now that the Cold War is back. It should be resisted.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“We're As Close to Doomsday Today as We Were During the Cold War,” Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner, The Washington Post, 01.25.18: The authors, chairmen of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, write that the organization is moving its “Doomsday Clock” forward again by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight, “due to the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.” The authors continue: “To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger—and its immediacy. North Korea's nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region and the United States. … Global nuclear risks were compounded by U.S.-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation. The United States and Russia remained at odds, continuing military exercises along the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, upgrading their nuclear arsenals and eschewing arms control negotiations.” Tensions have also increased over the South China Sea, and in the Middle East “uncertainty about continued U.S. support for the landmark Iranian nuclear deal adds to a bleak overall picture. A related danger is the rise of cyber threats targeting national infrastructure, including power grids, water supplies and military systems.” And the current U.S. administration has failed to reassure its allies. “Led by an undisciplined and disruptive president, the administration has failed to develop, coordinate and clearly communicate a coherent nuclear policy. This inconsistency constitutes a major challenge for deterrence, alliance management and global stability.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?” Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky, Military Review, 01.24.18: The authors—a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation and the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, respectively—write that “now that the bulk of Syrian territory and population centers have been wrested from the hands of anti-regime opposition groups, Russia can turn its full attention toward the postconflict settlement.” This process, which apparently has gained Washington’s acceptance, “is shaping up in line with Russia’s main strategic interests.” Russia, the authors write, “has broken the monopoly of the Geneva process, and of U.S. diplomatic leadership”; it “has managed to maintain productive ties with each of the other key regional players, ranging from Saudi Arabia on one end of the spectrum to Iran on the other”; and it “will retain its ally in Damascus, because for the foreseeable future, the Assad regime appears back in control.” The authors write: “The main area in which Russia’s Syria campaign fell clearly short of initial objectives was in the effort to broaden the platform for diplomatic engagement with Europe and the United States in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and associated Western sanctions.In sum, Russia appears to have won at least a partial victory in Syria, and done so with impressive efficiency, flexibility, and coordination between military and political action.”

“US-Russia-Turkey Dynamics in Syria After ‘Olive Branch’: One Door Closes, Another Opens,” Oksana Antonenko, Russia Matters, 01.26.18: The author, a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science, writes: “In recent months, the Kremlin’s priorities in Syria have shifted from fighting a long war to seeking a quick peace. This change has been dictated largely by domestic political considerations and by Russia’s success in propping up the Assad regime on the battlefield, and it has increased Russia’s vulnerability to fellow regional actors whose cooperation is crucial for Moscow to maintain the appearance of political progress in the war-ravaged country.” Turkey’s offensive in the neighboring Syrian province of Afrin “was not a product of Moscow’s geo-political maneuvering, but rather a demonstration of Moscow’s waning influence in Syria as it seeks to convert its strong military muscle into a more complex role of peace-broker. The big question now is how the U.S. chooses to react to this growing Russian vulnerability: Will it choose to exploit the Afrin operation to drive a wedge between Moscow and Turkey? Or will it seek to insert itself more visibly into the political transition process, not only in Geneva but also in Sochi and Astana?”

Cyber security:

“Should the US Try to Deter Cyberattacks by Promising Nuclear Retaliation?” Sarah Kreps and Jacquelyn Schneider, The Washington Post’s Money Cage, 01.29.18The authors, an associate professor of government and an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College, write that the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review reportedly “includes this: If a country launches a major cyberattack on critical U.S. infrastructure … the United States will respond with a nuclear attack. … Threatening a non-cyber response to cyberattacks is not new. … Why not just threaten to respond with a similar cyberattack? The first pragmatic issue is that the effects of cyberattacks are inherently uncertain. … Second, compared with its less open and less digitally dependent adversaries … the United States may be asymmetrically vulnerable to the damage from a major cyber-offensive. … For this [nuclear] threat to be effective, adversaries must believe that the United States really would respond to a cyberattack with a nuclear weapon. And only the widespread support of Americans would make the threat credible. Our research suggests that Americans would not support a nuclear counterattack, seeing it as excessive. … when our hypothetical cyberattack killed thousands of Americans, only 42 percent of Americans were willing to retaliate with airstrikes. Compare that to 55 percent support for air attacks in response to a conventional attack and 62 percent to retaliate for a nuclear attack. … it may be that cyberattacks are different from physical attacks in ways that make it unlikely that the American public would respond the same way. … If the United States does intend to respond to cyberattacks with nuclear weapons, it would need to find ways to make that threat credible, despite public hesitation.”

“Trump Could Push Us Into Arms Negotiations,” Scott Malcomson, The Washington Post, 01.22.18The author, a senior fellow in the international security program at New America Foundation, writes that U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal of a “U.S.-Russian ‘impenetrable Cyber Security unit’ … was not necessarily a notion to be dismissed. … The major nuclear powers, who are also the major cyber powers, are currently growing their nuclear arsenals … . These arsenals are increasingly cyber-dependent … and this dependence creates vulnerabilities, heightening the likelihood of infiltration and distrust. Yet confidence is key to nuclear stability … That confidence is being undermined by cyber, and it is hard to see how it can be rebuilt without strategic cyber negotiations. … The Trump administration's intense focus on Russia and China as great-power rivals might or might not be true to reality. … But the great-power triumvirate can create its own reality, and it must be said that neither Russia nor China is likely to quibble with being assigned great-power status by the hegemon. … each state … is motivated to ensure the stability of the others' nuclear systems, as well as their own, for the sake of both mutual deterrence and controlling the costs and risks of nuclear modernization. … This is a question of a few major powers mutually agreeing to protect the security of their own core nuclear deterrent capacities for the sake of preserving their own power. With that at stake, the technical challenges need not be insuperable.”

“How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power. The Right and Wrong Ways to Respond to Authoritarian Influence,” Joseph S. Nye Jr, Foreign Affairs, 01.24.18The author, a professor and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, writes: “‘Sharp power,’ … refers to the information warfare being waged by today’s authoritarian powers, particularly China and Russia. … As democracies respond to sharp power, they have to be careful not to overreact, so as not to undercut their own soft power by following the advice of those who advocate competing with sharp power on the authoritarian model. Much of this soft power comes from civil societies—in the case of Washington, Hollywood, universities and foundations more than official public diplomacy efforts—and closing down access or ending openness would waste this crucial asset. … China and Russia have trouble generating their own soft power precisely because of their unwillingness to free the vast talents of their civil societies. Moreover, shutting down legitimate Chinese and Russian soft power tools can be counterproductive. … democracies should be careful about offensive actions. … it would be a mistake for them to … launch major programs of covert information warfare. … there are some steps that democratic governments can take to counter the authoritarians’ aggressive information warfare techniques … . Democracies have not yet developed adequate strategies for deterrence and resilience. They will also have to be more attentive to making sure that Russian and Chinese soft power programs … do not slip into ‘sharp’ power. But openness remains the best defense … . By reducing themselves to the level of their adversaries, democracies would squander their key advantage.”

Elections interference:

“We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us,” Susan E. Rice, New York Times, 01.25.18The author, the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, writes: “It is well documented that Americans are ever more divided. … Our ability to counter … outside menaces is increasingly undermined by our collective failure to work together. … The Russians … have preyed on our divisions, interfering in the 2016 presidential election; they reportedly continue to amplify false news stories on social media that stoke fear of ‘the other.’ … Two of the three congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election are foundering over partisan efforts to distract from mounting evidence supporting the intelligence community’s high confidence that such meddling occurred. … with midterm elections just nine months away … neither the administration nor Congress has taken discernible action to reduce our vulnerability to electoral interference. … Domestic divisions are longstanding, but they are worsening to an extent not seen since the Vietnam era. Many factors have … accelerated the atrophy of the political center in favor of extremists on both left and right. … I know of no silver bullet to address our deepening domestic divisions. I do know we need to acknowledge and defeat them with the urgency a wartime adversary warrants. … Above all, we need to decide whether we want to remain the world’s pre-eminent power—a strong, cohesive beacon of democracy—or if we are content to allow our national autoimmune disorder, like a flesh-eating disease, to devour our body politic.”

“Russian Meddling Is a Meme,” Maxim Trudolyubov, Russia File, Kennan Institute, 01.24.18The author, editor of the Kennan Institute’s Russia File blog, writes: “Russia’s support for Trump was more of a prank conducted at Hillary Clinton’s expense than a strategy to get Trump elected. That is why it is so hard to find any hard evidence of collusion. … American media have popularized the theme of an alleged collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. The rest has snowballed on top of it. What this hype is really doing is elevating the Kremlin to the position of the world’s meddler in chief by reading a coherent strategy into isolated and disparate trolling and propaganda efforts … . I am an agnostic as to whether a strategy aimed at undermining democracies all over the world exists. Everything I know about how Russia and its government work makes me doubt it. But whether it exists or not, it has become an international meme that commands an army of passionate volunteer promoters throughout the world.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Why Russia’s Rich and Powerful Fear Wealth Disclosures in US Kremlin Report: A key feature of the Kremlin Report will be the inclusion of family members,” Septimus Knoz, The Moscow Times, 01.29.18The author, a senior analyst at a business intelligence consultancy, writes: “Russia’s elite is in a frenzy over the imminent publication of … the U.S. government’s Kremlin Report, which will set out the net worth and sources of wealth of senior political figures and oligarchs in the country. …  Russia’s rich and powerful are widely reported to have engaged in frantic lobbying, letter writing and legal consultation in the United States to ensure they remain omitted from the document. … The total net worth of [Russia’s] Golden Hundred in 2004 was $139 billion. One report in 2017 estimated the current amount of Russian riches squirreled away overseas to be approximately $1 trillion. … Being named in the forthcoming report could well be the death knell for a number of financial relationships in the West. The U.S. Treasury’s document has no declared legal consequences; however, many media outlets have already interpreted it as akin to a new sanctions list. For those who have worked painstakingly to manage their reputations … being linked back to Russia, or Putin, in a U.S. government report could have profound effects on their standing and their bank balance. … A key feature of the Kremlin Report will be the inclusion of family members. This should reveal how many of Russia’s wealthiest transfer assets to their wives and sons … . Ultimately the Kremlin Report, while not a traditional sanctions tool, has the potential to apply a level of pressure on Russia’s plutocrats that has not been seen in the past.”

“Proud and Prejudiced: The Risk of Stereotypes in Russia-West Relations,” Joseph Dobbs, European Leadership Network, 01.29.18: The author, an ELN research fellow, writes that “stereotypes in Russia-West relations … must be better understood, acknowledged and defended against, in order to both improve relations and … avoid worsening pre-existing security dilemmas. … One common theme in the West is that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is a ‘master tactician, but a terrible strategist.’ … By supporting the idea that Russia’s actions are reactive [the West] undermined arguments of a Russian end goal which may include dismantling the existing European security order. … For Moscow the belief that Western actions are threatening to Russian security is longstanding. … In the West it has now become commonplace to evoke the perceived expansionist desires of the Kremlin as evidence against any candidate or position deemed as ‘serving Russian interests.’ … Russia and the West hold mutual stereotypes of the other’s weakness in at least one critical area. These stereotypes co-exist alongside stereotypes of unmatched strength in other areas. For many Russian specialists, Western unity is in doubt, particularly with regard to the integrity of the European Union. For some in the West the Russian economy is perennially close to collapse. There is truth in both of these beliefs, but both dramatically oversimplify the situation.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • No significant commentary.


“America Has Little to Fear From a China-Centered World,” Salvatore Babones, The Washington Post, 01.28.18The author, an American sociologist at the University of Sydney, writes that the U.S. has “supposedly entered yet another period of ‘great power’ rivalry … . Russia, with no economic prospects, no fresh thinking and less than one-twelfth of America's GDP and defense spending, can safely be ignored by U.S. global strategists (if not by its weaker neighbors). … China is unambiguously the one realistic great power rival of the U.S. in the 21st century. … The plea for ‘sovereign equality’ is a standard plank of both Chinese and Russian official foreign policy doctrines. … China is perhaps the only country in the world that can conceivably insist on sovereign equality with the U.S. and make it stick on a global scale. But will it want to? … China is deeply integrated into U.S.-centered economic, educational and technological networks. … it seems unlikely that China will attack the U.S. and its political-economic system anytime soon. … The proposition that China has the potential to create a new world order centered on itself is predicated on the assumption that it will continue its rapid growth for another generation or two … [and] that China's next generation will share the Cold War mentality of their parents. If Chinese millennials are anything like American ones, they are likely to value access to the App Store more than ambitions of geopolitical domination. And if that is the case, the world has little to fear from a China-centered world order, now or in the future.”


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“How the Holocaust Haunts Eastern Europe,” Lev Golinkin, New York Times, 01.26.18The author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Creates of Vodka” writes that “the Holocaust, especially in Eastern Europe, was made possible with the aid of local governments and paramilitaries … . Today, these collaborators … are being glorified and rehabilitated as part of the ultranationalism surging across Eastern Europe. … Josef Tiso, a Slovak priest and Nazi collaborator, was hanged for crimes against humanity because of his eager deportation of Slovakia’s Jews. Today, he is celebrated with parades and memorials across Slovakia. … In 2015, Ukraine passed laws making it a criminal offense to deny the heroic nature of two World War II paramilitaries. … Once again, the Jews of Eastern Europe may face persecution and censorship for honoring their slain. … Today the American Jewish community—including Jewish lawmakers in Washington—is largely silent about the widespread Holocaust distortion being carried out by Eastern European allies. Breaking that silence is imperative, especially given the current global rise of anti-Semitism and the disturbing correlation between Holocaust revisionism and violence against living Jews.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Project Inertia: The Outlook for Putin’s Fourth Term,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.25.18The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin “finds himself chained to the galley that he built himself. Abandoning ship would spell danger: even if he chooses a successor, chaos might ensue. … As a result, Putin is unlikely to start modernizing the country in earnest [after being reelected in March 2018]. That would require bucking the system he has been building for two decades … . Instead, Putin would prefer to let inertia take its course and essentially enjoy a repeat of his 2012–2018 term. But … the decline of the system could prove uncontrollable.” Not from “economic catastrophe or revolutionary political transformation … . Instead, Putin will be gradually losing direct control over events, ideas and actions.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.