Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 7-14, 2019

NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Jan. 22, instead of Monday, Jan. 21, because of the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday.

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Against a backdrop of deep mistrust, the coming U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty and a new U.S. emphasis on tactical systems revive fears of nuclear war in Europe, writes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Despite 24/7 contact between the U.S. and Russian militaries, Trenin argues there is a need to resume strategic-stability dialogue to avoid miscalculation.
  • If Trump is intent on withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria, the best his advisers can do is to limit the damage by encouraging Russia to keep ISIS down and contain Iran, write Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas A. Heras, the director of the Middle East Security Program and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • There are three reasons to believe that Russia’s nuclear system is at great risk of cyber attack: Russia has already experienced a high rate of cyberattacks; the Russian nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to potential accidental use of nuclear weapons; and the high-stress living conditions at command centers, write M. V. Ramana, director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues, and his co-author.
  • Washington Post columnist Max Boot has come up with 18 reasons why he thinks that “Individual 1” in the Mueller investigation, U.S. President Donald Trump, could be a Russian “asset.”
  • The unification of Russia and Belarus is politically attractive to Russian President Vladimir Putin, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. A deeper integration scenario of the two countries appears to be on Russian officials’ minds, Bershidsky writes. However, Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator for, argues that the current confrontation between Belarussian and Russian leaders is a significant step in the two countries’ emancipation from one another.

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:

  • No significant commentary.

Military-to-Military/NATO-Russia relations:

“Re-establishing US Space Command Is a Great Idea,” Frank A. Rose, Brookings Institution, 01.07.19The author, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “There are a number of compelling reasons for bringing back U.S. Space Command. The threat to U.S. and allied space systems continues to grow. … U.S. Strategic Command’s span of control became too big for one combatant commander to effectively manage. … [It] will allow the U.S. military to develop more effective operational responses to the anti-satellite threat. … Re-establishing … is cost-effective.”
  • “[T]here are several considerations for the Trump administration and Congress. First, it is imperative to ensure effective coordination and integration between U.S. Space Command, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command. … Second, U.S. Space Command should ensure coordination with key allies and partners. … Third, the administration and Congress should consider whether the commander of U.S. Space Command should … also serve as the commander of Air Force Space Command. … Finally, while the Trump administration should certainly receive credit for focusing national-level attention on the importance of space, its approach has been too focused on developing purely military solutions to this problem and has largely neglected diplomacy.”
  • “The administration should also resume the bilateral space security dialogues with Russia and China. … Given the current tensions in the bilateral relationships with both countries, having forums where the United States can deliver blunt messages is of particular importance. Such forums can also provide opportunities to advance cooperative initiatives where appropriate. … And lastly, as I have written elsewhere, the United States should continue its efforts to develop norms of behavior for outer space to help manage an increasingly congested, competitive and contested space environment.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Russian Views of US Nuclear Modernization,” Dmitri Trenin, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 01.07.19The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “The current U.S. nuclear modernization program signals to Moscow that the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy is on the rise. The Kremlin regards Russia’s nuclear deterrent as the main security guarantee vis-à-vis the United States.”
  • “Even as the United States is embarking on a new modernization cycle, Russia is about to complete its own. Moscow’s prime concern is strategic stability in the new environment of a hybrid war—a medley of conflicts in which Russia refuses to play by U.S. post-Cold War rules.”
  • “Against a backdrop of deep mistrust, the coming U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the new U.S. emphasis on tactical systems revive the specter of a nuclear war in Europe. Even though the two militaries stay in touch on a 24/7 basis, there is a clear need to resume a U.S.-Russian strategic-stability dialogue, to avoid fateful miscalculation.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“If Trump Wants to Get Out of Syria, He Should Do a Deal With Russia. Making the Best of a Bad Idea,” Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas A. Heras, Foreign Affairs, 01.09.19The authors, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a fellow there, write:

  • “The best of the United States’ meager options is to encourage a political deal between Assad, the SDF, Iran, Russia and Turkey. … Turkey and Iran cannot and will not hold together a political settlement in eastern Syria. That leaves Russia as the best of a bad series of options. Russia does not want to see a new conflict that gives ISIS an opportunity to recover and delays international aid for Syrian reconstruction. It also wants to avoid a major war between Israel and Iran … Israel, Jordan and the Gulf states are all relying on Russia to provide some measure of stability. Moscow does not want to throw away that status.”
  • “U.S. diplomats should support Israel’s efforts to counter Iran through limited strikes in Syria. That should motivate Russia to find a solution acceptable to Israel, in order to avoid a major new conflagration … The United States should leave the withdrawal from the Middle Euphrates River Valley and al-Tanf … until last. It should press Russia to commit to keeping Hezbollah fighters away from Jordan’s border and encourage the Israelis and Jordanians to echo this point with the Russians.”
  • “[T]he U.S. withdrawal from Syria is a bad idea. … But if Trump is intent on leaving, the best his advisers can do is to limit the damage by … encourage[ing] Russia to keep ISIS down and contain Iran.”

Cyber security:

“Cyberattacks on Russia—The Nation With the Most Nuclear Weapons—Pose a Global Threat,” M. V. Ramana and Mariia Kurando, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 01.07.19The authors, the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues and a student at the International Relations department at the Odessa I. I. Mechnikov National University in Ukraine, write:

  • “Russian officials and the country’s media typically exude confidence and control when it comes to the nation’s nuclear arsenal. For example … a journalist said the SMF [Strategic Missile Forces] has ‘one of the most advanced combat management systems in the Russian Armed Forces. The penetration of computer viruses into it is completely excluded.’”
  • “If this claim is true, why did an official from the press service and information department of the Russian Defense Ministry announce the creation of units for detection and prevention of computer attacks in the Strategic Rocket Forces, the most important component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal?”
  • “There are good reasons to believe that the country’s nuclear system is at great risk if the current state of affairs continues: Russia has experienced a high rate of cyberattacks, which raises the likelihood that sophisticated sources are behind certain infiltrations and are in a position to overcome defenses. Because the Russian nuclear arsenal is highly integrated and kept ready for quick launch, it is more vulnerable to potential accidental use of nuclear weapons. The high-stress living conditions at command centers could lead to mistaken responses to cyberattacks.”
  • “There are two major steps that the two countries [Russia and the U.S.] could take to lower the risk of inadvertent nuclear war resulting from a cyberattack. First, stop carrying out cyberattacks, overt or covert. … Second, in order to avoid the possibility that there could be a launch due to a false alarm, stop deploying nuclear weapons in a fashion that allows for quick launch.” 

Elections interference:

“That Sophisticated, Specific Russian 2016 Voter Targeting Effort Doesn't Seem to Exist,” Philip Bump, The Washington Post, 01.09.19The author, a correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “The revelation on Tuesday that … Paul Manafort, had shared polling data with a colleague in Ukraine who had ties to Russian intelligence predictably kicked up a furor of speculation about the significance of the move.”
  • “This is what one of the Russia-Trump collusion scenarios looks like: Someone from Team Trump passing data to the Russians that the latter group could use to target voters and influence the election. … [T]he common understanding is that Russia's interference efforts included sophisticated targeting of specific voting groups on Facebook, which could have made the difference in states that Trump narrowly won … That understanding about Russia's sophisticated targeting, though, is not supported by the evidence—if it's not flat-out wrong.”
  • “Even if Russia had deployed a particularly insightful, strategic effort … it's not necessarily the case that they would have had to rely on data from the Trump campaign to do so. … [H]ackers believed to be linked to Russian intelligence stole information from the Clinton campaign that could have revealed where they were most concerned about turnout, giving the Russians a map for where to deploy their resources the most effectively.”
  • “But, again, there's no evidence that they did any particularly sophisticated targeting. … It's just not as enticing as the idea of savvily deploying American social media users against themselves.”

“How the Charge Against Natalia Veselnitskaya Could Lead Back to the Trump Campaign,” Joshua Yaffa, New Yorker, 01.09.19The author, a New Yorker contributor based in Moscow, writes:

  • “On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in New York charged the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya with obstruction of justice, accusing her, essentially, of maintaining a back channel with Russian officials while defending a Russian client in a money-laundering case in New York.”
  • “Veselnitskaya … is most widely known as the lawyer who met with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower, in June, 2016 … But the reason she was in the United States at the time was for hearings in a case launched by the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York against a longtime client of hers, a Russian man named Denis Katsyv [who reportedly owns Prevezon Holdings].”
  • “U.S. prosecutors are probably less interested in this particular, narrow matter than in what filing charges allows them to do going forward. ‘If the government wants on record that Natalia is a Russian government agent, this indictment serves this purpose,’ the former member of the Prevezon defense team told me. That is to say, if and when charges are filed in relation to the Trump Tower meeting, prosecutors now have a building block on which to argue that, in her actions in the United States, Veselnitskaya did not represent merely herself and her client but the interests of Russian officials.”

“Here Are 18 Reasons Trump Could Be a Russian Asset,” Max Boot, The Washington Post, 01.13.19The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “[T]he New York Times reported that ‘in the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.’”
  • “Here is some of the evidence suggesting ‘Individual 1’ could be a Russian ‘asset’: Trump has a long financial history with Russia. … The Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help elect Trump … Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. … The Trump campaign was full of individuals … with suspiciously close links to Moscow.”
  • “Trump fired Comey to stop the investigation of the ‘Russia thing’ … Trump has refused to consistently acknowledge that Russia interfered in the U.S. election.”
  • “Trump attacks and undermines the Justice Department and the FBI … Trump attacks and undermines the European Union and NATO. … Trump supports populist, pro-Russian leaders in Europe. … Trump has praised Putin … while trashing just about everyone else … Trump was utterly supine in his meetings with Putin … Trump defends the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and repeats other pro-Russian talking points. Trump is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria … Trump has effectively done nothing in response to the Russian attack on Ukrainian ships in international waters … Trump is sowing chaos in the government.”
  • “I can’t think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grasping what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power. In his own defense, Trump claims he has been tougher on Russia ‘than any other President,’ but literally in the next sentence he says, ‘getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.’”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Warnings From Versailles. The Lessons of 1919, a Hundred Years On,” Margaret MacMillan, Foreign Affairs, 01.08.19The author, a historian, writes:

  • “Today’s world is not wholly comparable to the worlds that emerged from the rubble of the two world wars. Yet as the United States once again turns inward and tends only to its immediate interests, it risks ignoring or underestimating the rise of populist dictators and aggressive powers until the hour is dangerously late.”
  • “President Vladimir Putin of Russia has already violated international rules and norms, most notably in Crimea, and others—such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Chinese President Xi Jinping—seem willing to do the same. And as Washington and other democratic powers abdicate their responsibility for the world, smaller powers may abandon their hopes for a peaceful international order and instead submit to the bullies in their neighborhoods.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Into Africa: Prigozhin, Wagner and the Russian Military,” Kimberly Marten, PONARS Eurasia, January 2019The author, a professor and director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, writes:

  • “Yevgeny Prigozhin, the corrupt military contractor … who funds the informal armed organization known as the Wagner Group, expanded his lucrative foreign adventures into Africa in 2018 with Russian state support. His fortunes continued to rise even after scores of his fighters were killed and wounded by a United States air strike in eastern Syria.”
  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin may have arranged the collaboration of the Russian military in Prigozhin’s corrupt deals in Africa in order to mend a dispute within the Kremlin elite.”


  • No significant commentary.


“Prosecutors Examining Ukrainians Who Flocked to Trump Inaugural,” Kenneth P. Vogel, Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Iuliia Mendel, New York Times, 01.10.19The authors, reporters and correspondents for the news outlet, write:

  • “At least a dozen Ukrainian political and business figures made their way to Washington for the inauguration of Donald Trump. Representing a range of views … they positioned themselves as brokers who could help solve … the ugly military stalemate between Russia and Ukraine.”
  • “Federal prosecutors have asked witnesses about how some of the Ukrainians gained access to inauguration events, whom they met with while they were in the United States and what they discussed … As recently as last month, prosecutors were asking witnesses about illegal foreign lobbying related to Ukraine. … Another subject of questions has been whether foreigners from Ukraine and other countries used straw donors to disguise donations to the inaugural committee.”

“This Comedy Star Wants to Be Ukraine’s Donald Trump. Volodymyr Zelensky has launched a clever populist campaign in a presidential race that’s wide open,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.10.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “If any country has good reason to be disappointed with its elite, it’s Ukraine. That’s why the anti-elite candidate, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who has launched a populist campaign with Donald Trump-like flair, shouldn’t be written off in March’s presidential election.”
  • “Despite President Petro Poroshenko’s formidable effort to secure a second term on a nationalist platform … the race is wide open. … This atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust is fertile ground for a populist effort, and Zelensky is nothing if not clever at pandering to his audience.”
  • “[H]e began his career on KVN, a comedy contest on Russian TV … In the mid-2000s, he and his team, known as Kvartal 95, launched their own comedy show on Ukrainian TV. One of Kvartal’s most successful TV series, ‘Servant of the People,’ cast Zelensky in the role of a schoolteacher who becomes president of Ukraine after his anti-corruption rant goes viral on the internet. So, it has long been rumored that he coveted the role in real life, too.”
  • “Asked in a December interview if he could do well in talks with Trump … Zelensky replied with a laugh, ‘Sure, we’re from the same business!’ When it comes to TV, Zelensky’s credentials beat those of the U.S. president: He isn’t just a celebrity, but a successful professional.”
  • “Given Zelensky’s media savvy and his appeal to a key Ukrainian trait—respect for society’s collective wisdom—he will be a formidable competitor both for the unpopular incumbent and for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who leads in most polls.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Money or Sovereignty? What an Oil Dispute Portends for Russian-Belarusian Relations,” Artyom Shraibman, Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.10.19The author, a journalist and political commentator for, writes:

  • “[I]t appeared that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had settled all their major differences. The two countries then signed documents resolving a slew of economic disputes … But the oil issue … remained unsolved. And it has driven a potentially irreparable wedge between the two allies.”
  • “Starting in 2019, Russia will gradually reduce its oil export duty, while also increasing its mineral extraction tax and introducing a negative excise tax … That ‘tax maneuver’ … deprives Minsk of oil revenues, the key benefit from its integration with Moscow.”
  • “Lukashenko echoed that ‘no equal conditions, no union’ refrain at the EAEU summit in St. Petersburg on Dec. 6. … Putin ultimately voiced what would soon become Moscow’s new official position: different gas prices require a different level of integration between the two countries. … Moscow last took such a categorical stand in 2002, when Putin proposed that Belarus’s six provinces become regions of the Russian Federation.”
  • “Everyone realizes that Minsk’s threats to turn to the West are unrealistic because no one there will embrace the Belarusian regime in the foreseeable future. However, a compromise with Moscow that would require Belarus to cede some of its sovereignty is also doubtful.”
  • “[A] drastic break with Russia will be impossible for many years to come, regardless of who’s in power in Minsk. No reasonable Belarusian politician will reject the remaining economic advantages of ties with Russia. … After regular disputes, Belarus and Russia are gradually abandoning the brotherhood rhetoric. Instead, the two ruling classes are starting to think pragmatically in terms of real interests, not imagined ones.”

“Putin’s Retirement Plan Depends on Belarus. To retain power, he is positioning himself as the leader of a closer union between Russia and its dependent neighbor,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.08.19The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “President Vladimir Putin has more than five years left in office, but he must already contemplate his next move. The transition among Russia’s leaders is seldom smooth, so Putin is looking at ways to ensure his continued influence by forging a closer union with neighboring Belarus.”
  • “Unification [of Russia and Belarus] is politically attractive to Putin, and not just because he could take over a much strengthened Supreme State Council in 2024, retaining a large measure of his power for life without changing the constitution. “
  • “This is a good moment for Putin to put pressure on Lukashenko without looking overly aggressive. … Belarus stands to lose billions of dollars from a perfectly reasonable tax reform going on in Russia today.”
  • “Though Lukashenko has publicly warned Russia against trying to swallow up Belarus and Putin’s spokesman … has said a Russia-Belarus merger isn’t the subject of discussion, the denials only concern a full takeover, rather than a deeper integration scenario with Belarus and Russia both formally ceding part of their sovereignty to the union state. That scenario—a single currency, a unified judiciary and a harmonized tax system—appears to be on Russian officials’ minds.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Latvia Opens Its KGB Archives—While Russia Continues to Whitewash Its Past,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 01.09.19The author, vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes:

  • “Shortly before Christmas, the National Archives of Latvia presented an unpleasant gift to the country’s ruling elite: a full alphabetical index of some 10,000 people recruited as agents or informants by the Soviet KGB.”
  • “In some central and eastern European countries, the opening of archives was accompanied by temporary or permanent restrictions on government service for operatives, informants and collaborators … Such policies were intended to guard young democracies against an authoritarian comeback. … In September 1991 … the government of President Boris Yeltsin agreed to an international commission of inquiry that would ‘objectively and comprehensively’ study Soviet archives, with subsequent publication.”
  • “A nationwide poll the same year showed a majority of Russians backing the idea of excluding former Communist Party apparatchiks from positions of power. The proposal was codified in a bill … The bill never passed; the commission was never formed; the Soviet archives were never fully opened.”
  • “By refusing to account for the Soviet past, Russia’s democratic leaders sealed their own fate. … On New Year’s Eve in 1999, a former officer of the Soviet KGB took Yeltsin’s place in the Kremlin. … [T]he same week as Latvia’s publication of its KGB documents … a Moscow court upheld the Vladimir Putin government’s de facto justification of Soviet state terror by dismissing a lawsuit against FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov.”
  • “Russia’s mistake in the 1990s offers a textbook example of how historical truth—or its absence—can impact the present. The post-Putin government in Russia, when it comes, must not repeat that mistake and must fully air all the past secrets.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia’s Avangard Hypersonic Boost-Glide System,” Michael Kofman, Russia Military Analysis Blog, 01.11.19The author, a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, writes:

  • “Earlier in March 2018, Vladimir Putin announced at his annual address to the federal assembly that a Russian hypersonic boost-glide system, named Avangard, would start entering serial production.”
  • “Despite rather questionable public statements about the technical characteristics of this weapon system … it is clear that Russian military science has made considerable advancements along one of the most sophisticated axis of weapons research. While claims pertaining to the readiness of this system to enter serial production, and operational service, are probably exaggerated, the more important questions are conceptual.”
  • “More than likely Russia will be able to deploy a hypersonic boost glide system in the 2020s … but the promise of this technology was always at the tactical-operational level of war, not strategic. … If anything, Russia has invested a substantial amount of money, and years of research, in overdoing its strengths.”
  • “Moscow has sought to leverage Avangard and similar novel systems to sell the notion of a qualitative arms race to Washington, D.C. … Yet while the world is genuinely witnessing a renewed period of nuclear modernization … there is no arms race in progress. The major nuclear powers of today are pursuing distinctly divergent strategies, concepts and requirements … Avangard, if completed and deployed, is unlikely to alter strategic military balance or elicit any meaningful response from Washington, D.C.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.