Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 8-16, 2018

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.

NATO-Russia relations:

“NATO's Problem in Europe Is Mobilization,” Jeffrey Rathke, The Wall Street Journal, 01.11.18The author, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues: “The alliance's most pressing challenge is to spend new resources wisely—in ways that generally improve trans-Atlantic security and specifically make NATO's deterrence of Russia more effective. The Trump administration is overlooking other substantial contributions Europe could make.” NATO has deployed a small number of “multinational forces in the Black Sea region.” However, these “are meaningful only if, during a crisis, NATO is able to reinforce them promptly with larger forces. … Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has failed to ensure that large-scale reinforcement can happen quickly and efficiently. … The U.S. needs a two-pronged strategy to address these shortcomings and make deterrence in Europe credible and effective. The first element is to address regulatory impediments and expedite national approvals … . The more crucial shortcoming is Europe's logistical capacity to move heavy military equipment and troops at scale.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  •  No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Dancing to Russia’s Tune in Syria. As the United States Stands Back, the Saudis and Even the UN Special Envoy Are Now Open to a Greater Russian Diplomatic Role in Shaping the Future of Syria," Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, 01.08.18The author, the publication’s U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter, writes: “On Dec. 24, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, called together a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders to deliver a blunt message: Riyadh would be throttling back its military support for their efforts to overthrow Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. It was time … to devote their energies instead to securing a political deal with Damascus at a peace conference in January in Sochi, Russia … . Jubeir’s appeals mark another reversal for Syria’s beleaguered anti-Assad forces, who already lost the covert military backing of the United States in July. … the Saudi message underscores the success of Russia’s diplomatic push to shape the future of postwar Syria, which is quickly coming to rival the official, U.N.-led process that has sputtered along for five years in Geneva. Even the United Nations is now torn over whether to take part in Russia’s peace plan … . Moscow’s growing diplomatic clout in the Syrian endgame has been made possible, in part, by Washington’s passivity.”

“Americans and Russians Agree on Priorities for Syria, Differ on Urgency of North Korea,” Dina Smeltz, Lily Wojtowicz and Stepan Goncharov, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 01.15.18: This report, based on surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Center in Moscow, looks into U.S.-Russian public opinion about foreign policy issues. It found that when asked about priorities for U.S.-Russia cooperation, the U.S. public tended to name an issue related to nuclear proliferation over issues in the Middle East. Regarding the Middle East, “Both Russians and Americans believe their country’s military priority in Syria should be to combat violent extremist groups rather than to take sides in the civil war. … More Russians support (48 percent) than oppose (36 percent) the use of Russian troops to fight against violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, more Russians oppose (49 percent) than support (27 percent) using Russian troops to prevent the overthrow of Assad. Russians seem unsure of the benefits from Moscow’s military involvement in Syria. … Russian interest in events in Syria is also waning. … A majority of Americans support airstrikes against violent Islamic extremist groups in Syria (68 percent), but only 45 percent support the United States conducting airstrikes against Assad. Even fewer Americans support sending U.S. combat troops into Syria to remove Assad from power (28 percent). … Asked their perception of current joint efforts, Americans are decisively more likely to say that Russia is working at odds with the United States” on a variety of issues.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for US National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, January 2018The authors of the report write: “In semi-consolidated democracies and transitional governments on Russia’s periphery, the Kremlin most aggressively targets states that seek to integrate with the EU and NATO or present an opportunity to weaken those institutions from within. … In consolidated democracies within the EU and NATO, the Russian government seeks to undermine support for sanctions against Russia, interfere in elections through overt or covert support of sympathetic political parties and the spread of disinformation and sow discord and confusion by exacerbating existing social and political divisions through disinformation and cultivated ideological groups. … By implementing the [following] recommendations … the United States can better defend against and deter the Kremlin’s malign influence operations and strengthen international norms and values to prevent such behavior by Russia and other states: assert presidential leadership and launch a national response … support democratic institution building and values abroad and with a stronger congressional voice … expose and freeze Kremlin-linked dirty money … subject state hybrid threat actors to an escalatory sanctions … publicize the Kremlin’s global malign influence efforts … build an international coalition to counter hybrid threats … uncover foreign funding that erodes democracy … build global cyber defenses and norms … hold social media companies accountable … [and] reduce European dependence on Russian energy sources.”

“The Do's and Don'ts of Fighting Russian Interference. A Major Report by Senator Ben Cardin Suggests a Broad Response to Russian Interference in the West. Only Some of His Recommendations Make Sense,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.11.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, argues that while U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s “mammoth, 200-page report on ‘Putin's asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe’ … provides valuable insight into the current Washington thinking on Russian interference and how to counteract it … not all the recommendations in the report make sense. … According to the report, the U.S. should increase spending on countering Russian influence operations in Europe and Eurasia ‘to at least $250 million over the next two fiscal years.’… The European nations where Russian strategies have been thwarted haven't neutralized it by outspending Russia but by relying on their civilizing traditions—like German parties, which agreed not to use social network bots and paid trolls against each other. … Another recommendation that doesn't make much sense is a new adversary status for the U.S. government to establish for meddling nations like Russia—‘State Hybrid Threat Actor’—to set up a system of escalating sanctions in response to cyberattacks and, presumably, other ‘asymmetric’ actions. … The report also suggests added effort to reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia—something the U.S. is already doing as a matter of economic interest by trying to sell more liquefied natural gas.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“From Siberia to Crimea: The Revenge of History in US-Russian Relations,” Lyle J. Goldstein, The National Interest, 01.13.18The author, professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College, writes that at the end of World War I, “the intervention [into the Russian Civil War] by a large group of allied powers was not simply anti-Bolshevik, but was premised at the outset as a wartime operation to prevent Germany from gaining access to Russia’s resources and especially Allied supplies and material. … As an impressively detailed English-language account of the U.S. mission in the Russian Far East records, these operations extended well beyond Vladivostok … and U.S. forces engaged in quite extensive combat. On the bloodiest day, June 25, 1919, twenty-five American soldiers were killed when ‘partisan units’ attacked their encampment … . Many examples of atrocities are given [in the account]. Four men, accused of being partisans, are alleged to have been buried alive. The wife of a partisan is said to have been ‘pierced by bayonets and drowned in a garbage pit’ … .The author acknowledges that the Americans were not alone in allegedly committing such atrocities, suggesting that the Japanese were hardly inferior in this respect. … I am not a historian and the point here is not to dig up old wounds from a century ago. Moreover, I should note that the Russians I met in Vladivostok could not have been more friendly and welcoming to our American delegation. … A more thorough knowledge of history could help American policymakers draft more responsible policies to stop the ‘free fall’ in U.S.-Russian relations that now imperils Ukraine, Europe and the entire world.”

“As US-Russia Tensions Rise, Rekindle People-to-People Relations,” Paul J. Saunders and Kristin M. Lord, The National Interest, 01.10.18The authors, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest and the president and CEO of the international education and development NGO, IREX, write: “As President Donald Trump approaches his first anniversary in office, tensions between the United States and Russia continue to escalate … . Meanwhile, efforts to promote mutual understanding have withered amid disinterest and mistrust. … The first step [forward] is in improving our understanding of one another’s points-of-view, goals and actions as well as the intent behind them. This is a much harder task given the existence of fewer broad and deep personal contacts that extend beyond the U.S. and Russian governments … U.S. and Russian government officials have demonstrated no appetite to re-energize the exchange of people-to-people contacts.” One study shows that “universities have reduced their overall support for Russia expertise. And, with very limited exceptions such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, private foundations and other donors have long since moved away from supporting such efforts. … The question is whether U.S. and Russian leaders today will show the strategic foresight shown by earlier American presidents and Congressional leaders of both parties in concert with their Soviet counterparts. Private institutions will be quite sorely pressed to sustain sufficient levels of U.S.-Russia engagement entirely on their own.”

“US-Russian Relations in 2017: Extreme Disappointment,” Robert Legvold, Valdaid Discussion Club, 01.09.18: The author, professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University, writes: “Disappointment—extreme disappointment—marks what the year 2017 has been in U.S.-Russian relations. … Each side had hoped for better.  Moscow … momentarily deluded itself into thinking the fuzzy campaign talk of Donald Trump heralded a fresh U.S. approach to the relationship. Figures in the new administration, including Trump himself, rather cavalierly assumed they could cut deals with the Putin leadership … and, thus, set relations on a more constructive path. … Scarcely three weeks into the new administration, senior cabinet officials were sounding themes, including criticism of Russia, hardly different from their predecessors. Soon after, the relationship settled into its current fractious pattern … the toxic issue of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election exploded … . The damage done was greater still, because the Russian side refused to recognize its seriousness and viewed it as an artifice of American politics … . Unattended, the issue has immobilized the Trump administration and … hardened the [Russian] view that the Americans are hopeless and there is no reason to change anything Russia is doing. As a result the relationship bounces erratically from one issue … to the next, none yielding progress, each framed increasingly in the tendentious language of the past. It is difficult to see how 2018 will change much, if any of this—not when neither side is willing or able to rise above its current narrow preoccupations, serious as some of these are, and weigh the consequences of failing to address together a multipolar nuclear world threatening to spin out of control, a European security picture once again descending into a dangerous military confrontation, the resource conflicts to come from climate change and the tragedy of the United States and Russia translating the rise of new great powers, in particular, China, into strategic rivalry, rather than strategic cooperation.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia Is Looking to Engage With the Taliban. Here's Why,” Samuel Ramani, The Washington Post, 01.15.18The author, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, writes: “In December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Indian diplomats that Moscow supported diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. … He argued that no Afghan peace settlement could proceed without the Taliban's participation—and that dialogue with the Taliban would reduce the risk of terrorism diffusing from Afghanistan to Central Asia. … Russian policymakers support engagement with Taliban factions that support a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan, while eschewing factions that seek to destabilize the war-torn country.” Contrasting “with Washington's historical resistance to engagement … . Russia's selective engagement with moderate Taliban members challenges U.S. negotiating strategies … . And by facilitating a peace settlement in Afghanistan and gaining international acceptance for its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, Russian policymakers can help bolster Moscow's status as a great power and indispensable arbiter in crisis situations around the world.”


“Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations,” Peter Mattis, War on the Rocks, 01.16.18The author, a fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks, writes that “the discussion of Chinese intelligence and information operations invariably raises the question: ‘How do the Chinese compare to the Russians?’” The author attempts “to describe the differences with three distinctions between Russian and Chinese influence operations: set-piece operations vs. playing the man; service-led operations vs. service-facilitated operations; and agents of influence vs. influenced agents. … The operational differences … may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business,” unlike the U.S. “By mapping how an adversary’s system framed problems and processed information, Russian planners could design operations to shift that adversary’s decisions in an advantageous direction. The Chinese, however, seem to focus … on shaping the personal context rather than operational tricks. … For Moscow, intelligence services play a leading role, in part because they possess the skills to operate clandestinely. For the Chinese, intelligence services seem to facilitate meetings and contacts rather than handling the dirty work … . Russia relies heavily on intelligence officers … [and the] Russian services appear perfectly willing to recruit agents simply for active measures, and they also cultivate collaborators who may not understand with whom they dealing or why. … The CCP approach generally appears much softer, perhaps because the formal intelligence organizations play a less visible role. … If these judgments of Chinese and Russian information operations are accurate, the necessary policy responses vary quite dramatically.”


“To Understand Ukraine,” Dmitri Trenin, Russia in Global Affairs/Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.10.18The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes that the Ukraine crisis “resulted in a political confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and Russia’s alienation from EU countries. … concluded the post-imperial period in Russian history, when Russia pinned its hopes on deep reintegration of the former Soviet republics. … [and] opened up an era where the Russian Federation is establishing itself as a separate and self-sufficient state, seeing the other post-Soviet countries as close neighbors, but not as parts of a unified geopolitical space headed by Moscow. … The conflict in Donbass is localized, but the confrontation around Ukraine … has become the trigger for a new confrontation between Russia and the U.S., [which] reflects a fundamental contradiction between Moscow’s and Washington’s concepts of world order. … The outcome of this conflict will be of principal importance for the future standing of both Russia and the United States.” Currently, Moscow’s main political task is to avoid “an effective ‘surrender’” of the separatist republics, while for Ukraine and the West, it is “to provide some form of effective international control over … Donbass.” For Russia, the lessons of Ukraine include: “Ukraine’s separation from Russia was … the result of the political process of forming a Ukrainian nation state. … The establishment of independent Ukrainian and Belarusian statehood facilitates the development of Russia’s own national project, which is oriented towards the future … . At the beginning of the 21st century, the Russian Federation is restructuring itself within the emerging Greater Eurasia, making use of its unique geopolitical situation for the benefit of its own development. …  The ‘Russian world’ concept has the right to exist, but for the most part in the sphere of language, culture, religion and other humanitarian issues. … The policy of resisting NATO’s eastward expansion requires a serious and careful reevaluation. … The main lesson in Ukraine for Russia, therefore, is the need to attentively observe, deeply analyze and try and understand Ukraine which, even if it is oriented towards the West, will be an important neighbor for Russia.”

“Cut Off: What Does the Economic Blockade of the Separatist Territories Mean for Ukraine?” Brian Milakovsky, Kennan Institute, 01.09.18The author, who works on economic recovery issues at a humanitarian organization in Ukraine’s Luhanska Oblast, writes that the impact of the economic blockade of Ukraine’s separatist territories “appears muted” for the country as a whole. “In October … modest figures show[ed] that between U.S. $98 million and $151 million had been lost to Kiev in personal taxes, corporate taxes and the value-added tax (VAT). … however, … these losses reflect a drop from an already severely reduced level. … So much revenue had already been lost in three years of war and plundering that the blockade had little to finish off. … the National Bank estimates that the blockade has worsened Ukraine’s balance of trade by $1.8 billion … .  Unsurprisingly, the separatist ‘people’s republics’ have been much harder hit by the blockade … . Some Ukrainian politicians supported the blockade as a means to shift the economic burden of maintaining the occupied territories to Russia. But the strategy is questionable in light of Ukraine’s stated goal of reintegrating the Donbass.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union,” Edited by Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, RAND, January 2018In this volume of essays, the editors highlight the following key findings for former Soviet Union countries: “Religion has been used to increase social cohesion and support for the state within the population … . Opposition groups and non-state actors have also marshaled religion to mobilize supporters of their causes,” such as in the North Caucus. Additionally, most conflicts have not stemmed from religious disagreements. “Despite religion's secondary role, its use in the region's conflicts has frequently been destabilizing … . Religious life is particularly susceptible to manipulation in FSU countries, which share the Soviet legacy of disrupted religious traditions … . [Religious] restrictions may … have damaging longer-term effects.” The editors recommend that “leaders of the FSU should not count on repression and diversion [and] also should not boost radicals to undermine more moderate religious opponents. Leaders of the FSU should play close attention to external sponsors of extremist religious groups while permitting nonviolent religious groups and encouraging secular education and values. U.S. policymakers should use U.S. leverage to encourage FSU nations to adopt [these] recommendations, make conscious use of existing unilateral tools with the potential to influence radicalism in the FSU and improve the depth of understanding of religious issues in the FSU in the government and policy communities.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Do Russians Want Change?” Andrei Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov, Vedomosti/Carnegie Moscow Center, 01.16.18The authors, a Carnegie Moscow Center researcher and a sociologist at Moscow’s Levada Center, examine the findings of a joint “all-Russian quantitative poll measuring public support for reform.” The results show “a country where hope for change and concrete understanding of reform seldom coexist. As of August 2017, attitudes toward reform were split evenly: 42 percent of Russians supported decisive, large-scale change, while 41 percent favored minute, gradual improvements. … contrary to the standard narrative, Russians do not perceive change as inherently threatening … . But the majority of the population lacks a clear grasp of specific steps that might improve the situation. Generalized hopes dominate public opinion: a slightly higher standard of living, increased wages and more affordable goods in the stores. These respondents frequently said that the government should ‘take care of people’ … they expressed a sense that the state had abandoned the public and didn’t want to look after its citizens. … With few alternatives, the majority of respondents placed their hope for change in Vladimir Putin. … This is the long-standing model: Putin embodies the hopes of each disparate societal group. He is the main liberal, nationalist, imperialist and socialist. Thus, many view him as the main reformer, too. … Taking all this into account, Russians hardly express a clear desire for change. However, the majority of citizens …  recognizes that, without change, it is impossible to move forward. Or even stand still.”

“Why Russians Are Choosing Malta Over Putin,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 01.11.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “The list of new citizens of Malta, published by the island nation's government, has enough well-known Russian names to drive home an uncomfortable truth for the Kremlin: The Russian elite doesn't feel attached to Putin's besieged fortress project. Malta's so-called Individual Investor Program allows a non-resident foreigner to essentially buy citizenship in the European Union for a 650,000 euro ($779,000) payment to the state plus a 150,000 euro investment in government bonds. … Malta refuses to publish a separate list of passport buyers, but it names all new citizens—regardless of how they attained the status—in its official newspaper.” These include Yandex founder Arkady Volozh, along with other notable members of Russia’s business elite. “The Russian billions still hidden away abroad are perhaps the clearest evidence that Putin's system is inherently weak. He may be tolerated, even feared, but he's widely distrusted. If Maltese passports were cheaper, Russians might sink the island in a stampede to get them.”

“The Future of Navalny's Opposition Movement. Why It Will Continue to Challenge the Kremlin,” Anton Barbashin, Foreign Affairs, 01.16.18The author, managing editor of Russia’s Intersection journal, writes that Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s March 2017 video detailing the finances and property amassed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sparked a wave of anti-corruption protests throughout Russia. These protests “marked the unofficial start of [Navalny’s] campaign. From the beginning, however, it was clear that the Kremlin would not tolerate a Navalny candidacy and would retaliate to block his activities throughout Russia.” Despite Navalny’s name not appearing on the March 2018 presidential ballot, “the regime has nevertheless largely failed to suppress both Navalny’s and his followers’ political activities. … Navalny has already proved to be by far the most successful opposition politician in Russia today … . But considering his political aspirations, he will have to do much more than that to keep the attention of the people and to prepare himself for the next opportunity to get himself elected. The Kremlin in turn will face real dilemmas in how to contain Navalny and his growing political infrastructure throughout Russia going forward.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.