Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 4-11, 2021

This Week’s Highlights

  • The U.S. as a democracy won’t be measured by the skill of the Capitol cops or the desperate escapades of die-hard Trump fans, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. As for Putin, America’s wars with itself are not really his to win. The value of U.S. instability to Putin is vastly overrated, Bershidsky writes; the highly stable Barack Obama, not Trump, was president when Putin seized Crimea, attacked eastern Ukraine, went into Syria, made inroads in Africa. On the other hand, mob scenes on TV don’t actually detract as much from U.S. military or economic strength as Putin perhaps would like. Any “gift” he may have received this week, according to Bershidsky, is only an empty wrapper. 
  • As Gen. Michael Hayden, who directed the CIA and the NSA during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, said after China hacked the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2014, “Not shame on them; shame on us,” writes Rob Knake, former director of cyber-policy at the National Security Council, regarding the SolarWinds hack. The incoming administration may wish to consider promoting new norms that would make this kind of widespread intelligence collection unacceptable, Knake writes.
  • Under Trump, relations with China have spiraled steadily downward over the past four years, writes Harvard Prof. Stephen M. Walt, while Trump’s handling of the other Asian great power—Russia—was no better. Trump never made a serious effort to improve relations or drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, even though doing so would have made good geopolitical sense. Apart from sanctioning a few more Russian officials, Walt writes, Trump didn’t do very much to challenge Russia either.
  • Chinese private high-tech businesses are gradually incorporating Russia into Pax Sinica, and—most importantly—are preparing society for that, write Anastasia Muravyeva and Vasily Lemutov, experts on Chinese business and technology. Considering that Western sanctions will remain in place under U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, and that the confrontation between China and the United States makes the balkanization of global tech regulation increasingly likely, private Chinese tech companies will play an important role in ensuring that Russia remains firmly on the Chinese side of the digital fence, according to Muravyeva and Lemutov.
  • In Libya, Russia has implemented a new modus operandi by combining skillful soft-power maneuvering with the use of force through an unacknowledged semi-state actor, writes Jalel Harchaoui. a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. This low-cost strategy has enabled Moscow to become an impossible-to-circumvent power broker in a country where it had lost all sway in the wake of the U.S.-led intervention in 2011. In all cases, the war is not over, writes Harchaoui, and the Russian pendulum is not done swinging in Libya. Time is on its side. 

NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Jan. 19, instead of Monday, Jan. 18, because of the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday.


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

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:

“Trump’s Final Foreign-Policy Report Card, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 01.05.21. The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “To be fair, Trump can claim a number of genuine achievements. For one thing, he didn’t start any new wars or create any new failed states. … By repeatedly hinting that he might take the United States out of NATO, Trump encouraged European efforts to take a bit more responsibility for their own defense. … Some observers would also give his administration credit for midwifing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states”
  • “Unfortunately, this modest list of successes must be matched against a long list of more consequential failures. … Relations with China have spiraled steadily downward over the past four years.”
  • “Trump’s handling of the other Asian great power—Russia—was no better. … Trump never made a serious effort to improve relations or drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing … Apart from sanctioning a few more Russian officials, however, Trump didn’t do very much to challenge Russia either. ... The result? Russia is still interfering in Ukraine today, still supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and still conducting murderous attacks on perceived threats at home and abroad.”
  • “Trump’s amateurish handling of North Korea offers another example of foreign-policy ineptitude. … And then there are the more obvious blunders. … It was a mistake to leave the Paris climate accord. … It was a mistake to abandon the TPP while simultaneously trying to balance China, and an even bigger blunder to leave the nuclear deal with Iran. … With respect to COVID-19, Trump has provided a master class in how not to handle a serious emergency.”
  • “Trump’s blunders have left the United States in much worse shape than when he took office. For President-elect Joe Biden and his team, the bad news is that they have an enormous amount of repair work to do. The good news, such as it is, is that it won’t be hard to do better than the people they are succeeding.”

“America’s History of Luck Is Running Out,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 12.23.20. The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes:

  • “No other great power has enjoyed the so-called free security that America has possessed since its founding. Apart from Britain, every other major power has been invaded at least once in the past 200 years, and several of them have been conquered and at least temporarily occupied.”
  • “Since becoming a great power, the United States has also been fortunate in its choice of enemies. ... The Soviet Union was by far America’s most formidable adversary, but the deck was still heavily stacked in America’s favor. The Soviet economy was significantly smaller, its allies were much weaker and less reliable, and it faced serious rivals on several frontiers while America sat unthreatened in the Western Hemisphere.”
  • “The result was a brief unipolar moment when the United States faced no serious rivals and both politicians and pundits convinced themselves that America had found the magic formula for success in an increasingly globalized world.”
  • “Is this still the case today? … Maybe, but maybe not. Here are four reasons why the United States’ luck just might be running out. First … the free security that the nation has known since its founding is not quite as profound as it used to be. …We …learned last week that a foreign power (generally believed to be Russia) has hacked into a vast array of government computer systems, including many that are part of the U.S. national security establishment.”
  • “The second cause for concern is China, which is a far more formidable rival than the Soviet Union ever was. … A third reason … is the series of wounds Americans decided to inflict on themselves. … And then there’s climate change. … If Americans want to enjoy a future as favorable as their past, it will take a willingness to work together that has gone missing for a couple of decades. If they can’t bring it back, the United States’ long run of luck is likely to come to an end.”

“Trump’s Final Act Has Accelerated the Onset of a Post-American World,” Richard Haass, Foreign Affairs, 01.11.21. The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “From the beginning, the essence of the Trump foreign policy has been disruption of arrangements and policies that largely served the United States well for three-quarters of a century … [A]ll of this, I explained, would result in a marked decline in U.S. influence, to the benefit of China, Iran and Russia and the detriment of global efforts to address climate change, infectious disease, nuclear proliferation and cyberthreats.”
  • “But the damage wrought by the events in Washington on Jan. 6—the lawlessness and violence at the U.S. Capitol and the refusal, by Trump and dozens of Republican members of Congress, to accept the results of the November presidential election—will be even greater, on U.S. foreign policy as well as on U.S. democracy.”
  • “The siege and occupation of the Capitol on Jan. 6 were something distinct: the president of the United States, along with many supporters and enablers in Congress and around the country, inciting or carrying out violence with the aim of subverting American democracy.”
  • “The images reinforced the sense among fellow democracies that something is seriously wrong in and with the United States. … [T]he restoration of more traditional American behavior under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris could, from the vantage of most U.S. allies, prove only a limited and temporary respite. As a result, allies have little choice but to question their decision to entrust their security to the United States.”
  • “[T]he United States can begin to regain the soft and hard power it will need to help manage great-power rivalry and contend with global challenges; as always, foreign policy begins at home. A post-American world will not be dominated by the United States, but that does not mean it has to be led by China or defined by chaos.”

“Russian Aggression Spurs Neighbors to Rebuild Defenses ,” Michael M. Phillips and James Marson, Wall Street Journal, 01.05.21. The authors, a reporter and European security correspondent for the news outlet, write:

  • “With Russia's foreign policy growing more assertive over the past decade under President Vladimir Putin, the Swedes are bulking up defenses on Gotland. Its army expects that in the opening moments of a Russian invasion, airborne soldiers from the 76th Guards, based across the Baltic Sea, would likely parachute onto Gotland. Both sides know that whoever controls the island controls naval traffic through the southern Baltic.”
  • “Last month, Sweden's parliament authorized the biggest increase in military spending in 70 years, including a 50 percent expansion of the country's armed forces, to 90,000 troops in 2025 from 60,000 today. In 2018, the army resurrected its Cold War-era Gotland Regiment, which had been deactivated in 2005, and now the troops regularly train to repel Russian invaders. The army plans to add another battalion, artillery units and logistical capabilities to its forces on the island.”
  • “A U.S. Army Green Beret team is stationed full-time in Sweden to help the country's 22,000-strong Home Guard—part-time citizen-soldiers—plan sabotage, ambush and other operations to disrupt any attempted occupation.”
  • “Russia briefly occupied Gotland in 1808 during the Finnish War with Sweden. … Now, with climate change shrinking the ice cap in the Arctic, Russia is laying claim to key shipping routes along its northern coast.”
  • “In response to Russia's resurgence in the area, the Swedes dusted off old Cold War military plans and reinstituted the draft. Sweden is a member of the European Union, but not of U.S.-led NATO. Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania belong to the alliance, in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. Finland isn't part of the alliance. NATO membership isn't on the table for Sweden, partly because Stockholm knows the Russians would see the move as deeply threatening. Stockholm, however, has signed a series of defense understandings with the U.S., Norway and Finland in recent years. The Swedes and Finns have joint war plans on the shelf just in case.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms control:

“Nuclear Diplomacy in the Biden Administration,” Rebecca Davis Gibbons, European Leadership Network, 01.06.21. The author, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine and an associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School, writes:

  • “What can we expect from the Biden administration in terms of arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament? Where are the opportunities for progress?”
  • “The first and most obvious action is extending New START for a full five years. … Next, the Biden administration likely will begin planning for the twice-postponed NPT Review Conference (RevCon), now scheduled for August 2021. … Next, we move to three challenging steps the Biden administration is likely to attempt: Reviving a nuclear deal with Iran, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy, and establishing strategic stability talks with China.”
  • “The ‘wishful thinking’ category includes some type of nuclear deal with North Korea, arms control that includes a broader swath of capabilities than previous agreements and taking actions that promote the longevity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”
  • “In seeking follow-on arms control agreement with Russia, the Biden administration will likely seek to expand what is covered by the treaty. While a deal is possible, it is unlikely to be able to account for the full gamut of capabilities with strategic effect, to include new nuclear weapons, so-called tactical weapons, hypersonic missiles, cyber capabilities and ballistic missile defense systems.”
  • “Finally, the Biden administration has the opportunity to take steps that will promote the longevity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime in the medium- to long-term. ... For the regime to persist, the great powers must work together to universalize existing agreements, set a path toward eventual disarmament, and in the long run, even find a way to bring in the non-NPT parties.”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Redefining Victory in America’s War Against the Islamic State in Syria,” Sam Heller, War on the Rocks, 01.05.21. The author, an independent researcher and analyst focused on Syria and the broader Levant, writes:

  • “America’s stated commitment to enduring defeat [of ISIL]—which entails indefinite U.S. sponsorship of its Syrian partners—seems only to have further motivated Turkey, Damascus and the latter’s allies Russia and Iran to coordinate to target those partners and the U.S. presence in eastern Syria. If the United States just withdraws now, these hostile forces seem certain to try to dismantle the local counter-ISIL force America leaves behind.”
  • “The United States has few attractive options now in Syria. Realistically, the Biden administration may now face a choice between an indefinite half-in, half-out military presence in northeast Syria and a withdrawal that leaves America’s local counter-ISIL partners to waiting predators. Still, the first step to rationalizing counter-ISIL efforts in Syria, and U.S. Syria policy broadly, is more realistically defining what the United States hopes to achieve. The Trump administration’s enduring defeat is a mirage—it’s time to come back to reality.”

Cyber security:

“The US Failed to Execute Its Cyberstrategy—and Russia Pounced. Even the Best Playbook Is Useless If You Don’t Follow It,” Rob Knake, Foreign Affairs, 01.06.21. The author, Whitney H. Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes:

  • “As details of the hacking campaign emerge, they will likely reveal that the failure was not one of strategy but of execution. To address the country’s vulnerabilities now requires not a new grand cyberstrategy but the discipline and resources to implement the current one.”
  • “On New Year’s Day, Congress passed a National Defense Authorization Act that fulfills one of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s central recommendations: the creation of a national cyber director (NCD) at the White House with sufficient staff and authority to overcome the coordination hurdles that have impeded the implementation of U.S. cyberstrategy for the last two decades.”
  • “The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden must not only improve the United States’ ability to detect and disrupt hacking campaigns but also respond to Russia’s intrusion in a way that deters future cyber-aggression. … If forensic evidence suggests that the campaign was intended to enable a destructive cyberattack against the U.S. government or U.S. industry, an in-kind response could be justified, such as turning off the lights in Moscow.”
  • “If, however, Russia’s goal was espionage, it will be harder to justify such a punitive response. Moscow will not have violated any norms of intelligence gathering—spies spy, after all. When they get caught, nations whose secrets are sought make halfhearted protests but signal by other means that they do not intend to escalate. … The incoming administration may wish to consider promoting new norms that would make this kind of widespread intelligence collection unacceptable.”
  • “The challenge for the incoming administration will be to devise a response to the SolarWinds hack that is in some way proportional but that does not replicate Moscow’s bad behavior. Such a response will have to telegraph to the Russians which aspects of its hacking campaign were acceptable and which the United States is declaring out of bounds.”

“How the US Government Can Protect Itself From the Next Big Hack,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 01.05.21. The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Merely requiring that firms responsible for critical functions certify to undertake certain cybersecurity practices before supplying to the government could prove transformative: Code audits by independent parties are a clever route to verification, and authorities could influence private-sector risk management, too, by making the publication of those audits a prerequisite for procurement.”
  • “All this would help rescue government cybersecurity from its present shambles. Perfection, however, is impossible to achieve—which is why the next frontier is figuring out how to root out those attackers officials should assume have found a way in. Agencies ignored a Government Accountability Office report advising them to update a malware catching tool called ‘Einstein’ that proved significantly less smart than its namesake. Einstein could nab only known assailants, not identify new ones; an improvement is in immediate order. So is a strategy for speedy recovery from infiltration. This has to be an urgent priority for the Biden administration.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Scene in Washington Recalls Images of Post-Soviet Uprisings,” Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 01.08.21. The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “For anyone who has covered political turmoil across the wreckage of the former Soviet Union over the past three decades, the mob that stormed the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday [Jan. 6] looked shockingly familiar, down to the dress code and embrace of banners trumpeting seemingly lost causes.”
  • “In fervor and style, the mob resembled the ragtag bands that seized control of the Parliament building in Moscow in 1993, clamoring for the revival of the Soviet Union. Much the same scenes unfolded two decades later, as self-styled militias stormed the regional assembly in Donetsk, a major industrial city in eastern Ukraine and now the capital of a secessionist, pro-Russian 'people's republic.' … What was most familiar about the insurrectionists in Washington … was their certitude, an unbending conviction that, no matter what anyone else or the law might say, right was on their side.”
  • “When insurrections began in Moscow in 1993, and then in eastern Ukraine in 2014, failure looked inevitable. The leaders, along with their followers, seemed deranged, intoxicated by nostalgia, wild conspiracy theories and fantasies about the depth of their public support.”
  • “In Moscow in 1993, the insurrection fizzled quickly, at least on the streets, though not in minds ... But the winners squandered the victory, unleashing a wave of crooked privatizations and staging a deeply flawed presidential election in 1996 that kept an infirm and increasingly erratic Mr. Yeltsin in the Kremlin for a second term. When that was nearly done, he handed over power to Vladimir V. Putin.”
  • “Two decades after he came to power, the word traitor has become one of the Kremlin's favorite terms of abuse, democracy the butt of mockery. Commenting on the tumult in Washington, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia's upper house and a Putin loyalist, scoffed at American democracy as 'limping on both feet.' 'The celebration of democracy has ended. It has, unfortunately, hit rock bottom, and I say this without a hint of gloating,' he added, clearly gloating.”

“The US Capitol Riot Wasn’t a Gift to Putin. Whether for propaganda or geopolitics, the value to Russia of current U.S. domestic turmoil is vastly overrated,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.08.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The U.S. as a democracy won’t be measured by the skill of the Capitol cops or the desperate escapades of die-hard Trump fans. It’ll be judged by how it emerges from the Trump era: As a dogmatic bureaucracy that equates flamboyant protest with terrorism, or as a nation that actually wants to heal, coming to terms with the enormous differences of opinion that exist within it and allowing all kinds of people to find ways of life they can accept.”
  • “As for Putin, America’s wars with itself are not really his to win. The value of U.S. instability to him is vastly overrated; the highly stable Barack Obama, not Trump, was president when he seized Crimea, attacked eastern Ukraine, went into Syria, made inroads in Africa. On the other hand, mob scenes on TV don’t actually detract as much from U.S. military or economic strength as Putin perhaps would like. Any ‘gift’ he may have received this week is only an empty wrapper.”

“How Leaders Bend Reality With Big Lies,” Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 01.10.21. The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “In a cable to Washington in 1944, George F. Kennan, counselor at the United States Embassy in Stalin's Moscow, warned of the occult power held by lies … No matter how untrue something might be, he wrote, 'for the people who believe it, it becomes true. It attains validity and all the powers of truth.' … Mr. Kennan's insight, generated by his experience of the Soviet Union, now has a haunting resonance for America, where tens of millions believe a 'truth' invented by President Trump: that Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost the November election and became president-elect only through fraud.”
  • “Bigger and more corrosive lies, ones that don't just fiddle with figures but reshape reality, have found extraordinary traction in Hungary. There, the populist leader Viktor Orban has cast the financier and philanthropist George Soros … as the shadowy mastermind of a sinister plot to undermine the country's sovereignty, replace native Hungarians with immigrants and destroy traditional values.”
  • “In Poland, the deeply conservative Law and Justice Party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski … has promoted its own multipurpose, reality-shifting conspiracy theory. It revolves around the party's repeatedly debunked claim that the 2010 death of scores of senior Polish officials … in a plane crash in western Russia was the result of a plot orchestrated by Moscow and aided, or at least covered-up by the party's rivals in Warsaw.”
  • “But there are differences between the Russian leader [Putin] and the defeated American one, said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor and expert on Soviet and other forms of propaganda at the New School in New York. 'Putin's lies are not like Trump's: They are tactical and opportunistic,' she said. 'They don't try to redefine the whole universe. He continues to exist in the real world.'”

“Stalin and Hitler, Putin and Xi: How to Deal with Bad Guys?” Walter C. Clemens Jr., The National Interst, 01.04.21. The author, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Center and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, writes:

  • “How should Joe Biden respond to the growing threats posed to free peoples by the criminal regimes headed by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping? If the world needs Russian and Chinese cooperation to deal with climate change and other global problems, should the United States just ignore the threats posed by militant dictators to their own subjects and to international security?”
  • “Like the actions of Stalin and Hitler in the mid-1930s, those of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping today appear to be limited—below the threshold of threats to world peace. … Repression at home breeds aggression abroad. Putin generated hostility to Chechnya to win support in Russia. To foster patriotism and recover imperial glory, he used military force to annex or occupy parts of Georgia and Ukraine. … Russia has used cyberwar to … foment discord in Europe, influence U.S. elections and spawn distrust in democratic politics. … China’s record is no better. … There are two or more sides to all these issues. Russian and Chinese representatives offer historical and other justifications for the actions of their bosses. Russians complain about NATO’s expansion eastward and U.S. shredding of the antiballistic missile treaty. Nearly everything China does is said to aim at recovering from Western and Japanese imperialism. Such arguments have some merit but bolster self-righteous posturing and bad behavior by Putin and Xi.”
  • “No global problem—climate, disease, pollution—can be solved without global cooperation. But being nice to others without reciprocity can bring martyrdom. Mutual distrust, on the other hand, condemns all sides to lose. Policies that benefit all sides can foster mutual gain. But this outcome is impossible so long as major players see life as a zero-sum enterprise.”

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“The Friendlier Face of Putinism. Meet the often overlooked organization trying to reconnect Russia’s leader with the people—and secure Putin’s influence for years to come,” Emily Ferris, Foreign Policy, 01.07.21. The author, a research fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI, specializing in Russia and Eurasia’s foreign policy, writes:

  • “All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), often overlooked, was formed in 2011 just ahead of one of Putin’s presidential bids. The body, which he officially leads, is designed to be a sort of think tank adjacent to United Russia, proffering new policy ideas and acting as a potential breeding ground for many of Russia’s up-and-coming younger policymakers.”
  • “United Russia currently holds a supermajority in the State Duma, controlling 343 out of 450 seats, allowing it to push through bills largely unburdened by checks and balances. But judging by the impressive array of legislation that the party proposed in November to further limit protests and increase state control over online content, United Russia does not appear confident of retaining its dominance over the State Duma without some serious intervention.”
  • “This is where the ONF might be able to help. As United Russia focuses on restriction, the ONF may be positioning itself as the friendlier face of the party. This seemed to be confirmed by statements that Kuznetsov made on Dec. 3, in a roundtable with the Expert Institute for Social Research, a body close to Putin’s circle. Kuznetsov directly called for the State Duma to identify candidates from among the ONF ahead of the elections, a request that appeared to be endorsed by other senior political officials, who noted that the ONF would likely have a better understanding of the Russian people’s problems on the ground.”
  • “The ONF, in short, is an organization to watch in the coming months. Individuals who do their jobs well and support the party are likely to be chosen for promotion and will give an important indication of the kind of political system Putin is building for the future.”

“Why I Got the Russian Vaccine,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 01.08.21. The author, a reporter based in the Moscow bureau of the New York Times, writes:

  • “Last Monday, I put aside my misgivings and got the first dose of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, called Sputnik V, made at a factory outside of Moscow from genetically modified human cold viruses.”
  • “Like so much else in Russia, the rollout of Sputnik V was entangled in politics and propaganda, with President Vladimir V. Putin announcing its approval for use even before late-stage trials began. For months, it was pilloried by Western scientists. Like many Russian citizens distrustful of the new vaccine, saying they would wait to see how things turned out before getting it themselves, I had my doubts.”
  • “With many of my fears alleviated, another reason I chose to get inoculated with a product of Russian genetic engineering was more basic: It was available. Russian clinics have not been dogged by the lines or logistical snafus reported at vaccination sites in the United States and other countries.”
  • “I was willing to take my chances. At Polyclinic No. 5 on a snowy morning, I filled out a form asking about chronic diseases, blood disorders or heart ailments. I showed my press pass as proof of my profession. A doctor asked a few questions about allergies. I waited an hour or so for my turn in a beige-tiled hospital corridor. Sitting nearby was Galina Chupyl, a 65-year-old municipal worker. What did she think of getting vaccinated? ‘I am happy, of course,’ she said. ‘Nobody wants to get sick.’ I agreed.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia analyst: What are the Kremlin’s priorities for 2021?” Dmitri Trenin, DefenseNews, 01.11.21. The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: 

  • “Last year marked the completion of the first Russian military rearmament program since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is a major achievement.” 
  • “Top of the list of the Kremlin’s defense industrial priorities in the past decade has been Russia’s nuclear forces. These have been more thoroughly modernized than any other part of the military. Soviet-vintage missiles are to be completely phased out by 2024.”  
  • “Great power ambitions drive the need to modernize the Air Force and the Navy. Since 2015, Russia has been conducting a successful military operation in Syria, for the first time in history not relying on its ground forces. Having secured a long-term lease of an air base and a naval basing point in Syria, Russia has recently reached an agreement with Sudan on a naval facility on the Red Sea.” 
  • “Russia’s defense industry exhibits a number of serious problems. Russia’s financial resources are limited … On top of that, there is a generally poor business model, with a fair amount of mismanagement, corruption and outright theft. The workforce is aging, and in a number of areas the Soviet-era technological prowess has been lost, perhaps irretrievably. Some key and highly publicized programs … have stalled.” 
  • “Army weaponry will be a priority under the next weapons program. As a result, Russia will be able to maintain a solid nuclear deterrence posture vis-a-vis the United States and NATO; build anti-access/area denial capabilities to protect its vulnerable flanks, as in Kaliningrad and Crimea; keep conventional superiority over its immediate neighbors, with the exception of China; conduct limited but effective and financially affordable operations abroad; increase its level of self-sufficiency in military production; and remain one of the world’s major arms exporters.” 

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“The Pendulum: How Russia Sways Its Way to More Influence in Libya,” Jalel Harchaoui, War on the Rocks, 01.07.21. The author, a senior fellow specializing in Libya at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, writes:

  • “The Russian state, despite having the capacity to do so, never made the strategic decision to engage head-on in a long bout of war and ensure that Haftar triumphs in western Libya. Instead, Moscow has been working quietly to render the field marshal less and less indispensable to its agenda in eastern Libya—but gradually, without ever clashing with him. The Kremlin wishes to see a less unpredictable, less dysfunctional class of Libyan elites run Cyrenaica. It would use that to secure more perennial access to key facilities there, such as, potentially, a naval base, more hydrocarbons concessions, and the option to do business with Tripoli.”
  • “The Kremlin moves slowly and surreptitiously closer to that objective by exploiting the weaknesses of the United Arab Emirates’ Libya policy. Despite Moscow’s pragmatic attitude vis-à-vis Turkey, Abu Dhabi and its proxies have no choice but to keep working with [PMC] Wagner. By fulfilling a military role in eastern and southwestern Libya, Wagner acquires essential importance there. The Kremlin then converts this into sheer power in those Libyan territories, which currently fall outside of Turkey’s sphere of influence.”
  • “As for the Turkish-backed authorities, Moscow has managed to preserve a communication channel with them even though Wagner continues to be a dangerous threat.”
  • “Russia has implemented a new modus operandi by combining skillful soft-power maneuvering with the use of force through an unacknowledged semi-state actor. This low-cost strategy has enabled Moscow to become an impossible-to-circumvent power broker in a country where it had lost all sway in the wake of the U.S.-led intervention in 2011. In all cases, the war is not over—and the Russian pendulum is not done swinging in Libya. Time is on its side.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“How Chinese Tech Companies Are Conquering Russia,” Anastasia Muravyeva and Vasily  Lemutov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.11.21. Muravyeva and Lemutov, co-authors of Celestial Forces, a Kommersant publishing house project, as well as the Telegram channel Sina Tech, write:

  • “For many years, cooperation between Russia and China in the field of technology was limited to the military-industrial complex. This changed with Russia’s “pivot to the East” following its fallout with the West over the Ukraine crisis. The two countries signed an agreement on cooperating via the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt in 2015, and a year later, a bilateral dialogue on innovation was launched.”
  • “Major Chinese tech companies are actively expanding their presence on the Russian market. … The most famous Chinese tech company operating in Russia is the e-commerce giant AliExpress. … The 2014 economic crisis was a boost for the Chinese platform, and Russia became a key market for the company. By 2018, AliExpress accounted for more than 70 percent of Russians’ orders from foreign online stores. … The second major Chinese player on the Russian tech market is Huawei. The company was always interested in Russia, but in recent years, against the backdrop of sanctions and the bans on Huawei products in the West, that interest has soared.”
  • “Chinese smartphones have been the market leaders in Russia since 2015, and now account for nearly 60 percent of the market. Another Chinese tech giant—Lenovo—dominates the Russian computer market.”
  • “Chinese companies are changing China’s image in the eyes of Russian consumers. If just ten years ago Chinese goods going to Russia were mainly cheap light manufacturing items, now Chinese electronics dominate, from Huawei smartphones and Haier home appliances to Xiaomi smart devices. Russian attitudes to Chinese IT goods are also changing: they are no longer seen as cheap and low quality.”
  • “Chinese private high-tech businesses are gradually incorporating Russia into Pax Sinica, and—most importantly—are preparing society for that.”


“Joe Biden and the Challenge of Ukraine,” Nicolai Petro, The National Interest. 01.09.21. The author, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, writes:

  • “America is trapped. It cannot abandon its current policy toward Ukraine without appearing to offer Russia an undeserved victory, yet it also cannot continue its current policy because it enhances internal divisions that stoke popular frustration and anger toward America.”
  • “Coming up with an effective policy in Ukraine be a challenge for the incoming administration. … Biden told them [Ukrainian parliamentarians] they should: put aside their ‘parochial differences,’ grant amnesty and ‘devolved administration’ to Donbas, amend their constitution to include judicial reform and decentralization … overhaul the judiciary and the Office of the General Prosecutor, and enact budgets that are ‘consistent with your IMF commitments.’” 
  • “These are all excellent common-sense initiatives, which the current Ukrainian government cannot possibly implement. … For starters, the very mention of constitutional reforms that hint at federalism is taboo in Ukrainian politics. … Finally, what Biden in his speech called ‘the pervasive poison of cronyism, corruption, and kleptocracy,’ has since grown to levels that can compare with the massive amounts of money that the government spends to combat it.”
  • “It is time to acknowledge that U.S. policy in the region has failed. … First, because it is premised on the assumption that there is a ‘united Ukraine’ when … the historical memories of Eastern and Western Ukrainians continue to be diametrically opposed. … Western analysts downplay these differences, which has led to the second reason for U.S. policy failure—the assumption that war with Russia would smooth over all internal disagreements.”
  • “It is high time to trust in the good sense of all Ukrainians, including those who see their Russian cultural heritage as fully compatible with a Ukrainian civic identity. Treating the latter as potential traitors … can only undermine their sense of attachment to Ukraine.”

“What Is Ukraine’s Economic Outlook for 2021?” Anders Åslund, Atlantic Council, 01.07.21. The author, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes:

  • “Ukraine’s GDP slumped by about five percent in 2020. … The main reason, of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the Ukrainian government to close down much of the economy in the second quarter. … The other key reason for this sharp economic downturn was President Zelenskyy’s decision to sack his reformist government in March 2020.”
  • “Looking ahead, Ukraine’s worst economic problem remains the absence of property rights, which continues to hinder investment of any kind. Judicial reform was supposed to be at the top of the Zelenskyy government’s agenda in 2019, but since the sacking of the previous prosecutor general in March 2020, everything has gone backwards. During the second half of 2020, the allegedly corrupt Constitutional Court ruthlessly dismantled the whole framework of anti-corruption institutions established since 2014. President Zelenskyy rightly protested, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can actually do anything to counter the outrageous actions of the Constitutional Court.”
  • “Ukraine’s rule of law shortcomings continue to have an unwelcome impact throughout the economy. In spring 2020, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a long-awaited land reform bill, paving the way for an agricultural land market. Will this reform prove effective without credible property rights? Many investors remain unconvinced. Instead, foreigners continue to purchase Ukrainian bonds happily. This enthusiasm reflects the high yields Ukraine must pay due to legal uncertainty.”
  • “As we move into 2021, the country’s macroeconomic stability appears strong, but few dare to invest in Ukraine. Without judicial reform or an increase in investment, there is little reason to expect any economic growth beyond the gains arising from the anticipated post-coronavirus rebound.”


  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Confidence and Catastrophe: Armenia and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War,” Michael A. Reynolds, War on the Rocks, 01.11.21. The author, the director of Princeton University’s program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, writes:

  • “In April 2016, the Azerbaijani armed forces initiated a four-day skirmish. … Some in Armenia saw the clash as a wake-up call. In May 2016, Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the Karabakh army, implored his listeners to understand that Armenia simply could not compete with Azerbaijan in either financial or human resources.”
  • “Feeding Armenian overconfidence was a disbelief in Azerbaijanis’ attachment and commitment to Karabakh.  Armenia, pointing to such things as the semi-nomadic past of many Azerbaijanis and their historically lower rates of literacy, was already inclined to see Azerbaijani nationalism as thin and artificial. …Since 1994, however, the Azerbaijani government has pursued a steady campaign to build a sense of national identity.”
  • “The repeated arrests of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, whom Putin described as ‘a true friend of Russia,’ irritated the Kremlin. More substantive moves, including the curtailment of intelligence ties with Russia and Pashinyan’s replacement of pro-Russian personnel with thinly experienced loyalists, only upset Moscow further.”
  • “Meanwhile, anti-Russian rhetoric was percolating in Armenian circles. Karabakhi leaders grew dismissive. …  While antagonizing Russia, Pashinyan and his Cabinet indulged in maximalist claims. In March 2019, his defense minister, David Tonoyan, famously announced that Armenia’s policy was no longer ‘land for peace’ but ‘war for new territories.’”
  • “Pashinyan doubled down on maximalism when on a visit to Stepanakert in August 2019 he asserted, ‘Artsakh is Armenia, and that is it!’ … Pashinyan threw logic and prudence aside entirely а year later in a speech he delivered on the centennial of Sevres, declaring that the treaty is a ‘historical fact’ and ‘remains so to this day.’ … Armenia’s example perhaps suggests that historical trauma coupled with limited experience of sovereignty can lead states voluntarily to pursue self-destructive policies.”