Russia Analytical Report, July 16-23, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Trump is correct to say that U.S.-Russian relations are in a bad place and that it would be better if they could be improved, argues Harvard professor of international relations Stephen M. Walt. Yet that doesn’t require a U.S. president to ignore the possibility that another state actively interfered in America’s own electoral process, according to Walt.
  • Putin appears to be placing all his bets on the conviction that Russia will prevail in the long term, because Western democracy is in irrevocable decline, according to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen of Harvard’s Belfer Center. Proving him wrong requires remembering that American success does not flow from our military or economic might, but from the core values that have ennobled and sustained our system since the American Revolution, according to Mowatt-Larssen.
  • If the U.S. is to avoid the worst possibilities in its increasingly perilous relations with Russia, the arduous process of reestablishing channels of communication and rebuilding trust is essential, according to George Beebe, director of the Center for the National Interest’s intelligence program.
  • Other than the International Space Station, the Far North is perhaps the only setting in which the United States and Russia cooperate today on a wide variety of issues, write Arctic experts Michael Sfraga and Lawson Brigham.
  • Perhaps the safest approach for Russia in its relations with the United States, would have been strategic patience, based on the conviction that getting involved in the internal affairs of other states, particularly large and powerful ones like the United States, is dangerous, argues Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
  • Putin may enjoy working with all three of Russia’s intelligence agencies—the correct and diplomatic SVR, the cunning and commercially-minded FSB and the forceful and risk-seeking GRU—but the rifts between them are likely to make the agencies vulnerable to adversaries, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky.

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

Trump-Putin summit on July 16:

“Russia Continues to Shape Narrative of Helsinki Summit,” Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 07.20.18: The author, associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the news outlet, reports that “Russia provided additional details Friday of what it said were agreements made at the presidential summit in Helsinki … shaping a narrative of the meeting with no confirmation or alternative account from the Trump administration. … Russia already has sent formal proposals to Washington for joint U.S.-Russia efforts to fund reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria and facilitate the return [of refugees] … [Russian] Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev [said]. … Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, said separately that Syria had been the primary topic … along with ‘the removal of the concerns that the United States has regarding … alleged interference in the elections.’ … [A] National Security Council spokesman said: ‘As President Trump stated, the two sides agreed that their national security council staffs will follow up on the presidents’ meetings, and these discussions are underway. There were no commitments to undertake any concrete action, beyond agreement that both sides should continue discussions.’ … [T]he NSC and its Russian counterparts were [also] … [continuing] to review suggestions by Putin for a new ‘cyber-group’ and ‘restarting a counterterrorism group.’ The two leaders also discussed forming groups of businesspeople and of retired diplomatic and military officials to provide ideas for cooperation, the administration has said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo … said that ‘there was a discussion … about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back’ … both Trump and Putin said they were working to address Israel’s concerns about Iranian forces close to its border … On Thursday, representatives in Washington from … Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand … were briefed by an NSC official who reassured them that ‘no agreements were made’ in Helsinki and no ‘negotiations’ took place … [A]n NSC official did not mention what Putin said Thursday was his suggestion to Trump that a referendum be held in the separatist regions of Ukraine. On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Trump administration is ‘not considering supporting a referendum.’ … Antonov … said that ‘the Ukrainian issue was not at the center’ of the Trump-Putin talks.”

“The Helsinki Summit: A Good Idea Turns Bad,” George Beebe, The National Interest, 07.19.18The author, director of the Center for the National Interest’s intelligence program, writes that “Expectations were low heading into the Helsinki summit, but the United States and Russia still managed to sail their listing bilateral ship directly into the rocks of the Russian cyber-meddling controversy. … The chief challenge the two countries now face is not normalizing relations, but preventing tensions from spiraling disastrously out of control. … Trump’s ambivalence at the summit press conference poured gasoline on America’s simmering domestic political fire and narrowed his already slim room for maneuver with Moscow to almost nothing. … Agreeing to disagree with Moscow over its cyber misdeeds while focusing on rules for preventing future transgressions is probably no longer viable during his presidency. The alternative—an exclusively punitive response to cyber operations—could overwhelm the broader bilateral relationship. … As the prospect of U.S.-Russian détente recedes, the dangers of an unintended spiral of confrontation will grow. … When a state believes its very existence is at stake, its resolve and willingness to take risks in conflict situations run startlingly high. And when strong resolve and high risk-tolerance are overlaid against a background of increasingly unconstrained ‘shadow warfare’ between the world’s foremost nuclear powers in the cyber, military, economic and information domains, the chances of a crisis are great. … Deep mistrust on both sides has made them question the utility of diplomatic discussions of their strategic goals. Each side believes the other habitually lies about its activities and intentions. The Helsinki summit has reinforced these perceptions.”

“The US Needs a Russia Strategy Now More Than Ever: The Real Lesson From the Helsinki Summit,” Michael McFaul, Foreign Affairs, 07.18.18The author, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, writes: “In the face of a growing Russian threat to the interests of the United States at home and around the globe, Washington still lacks anything resembling a grand strategy to meet it. … Trump’s approach to engagement, at least as practiced in Helsinki, was different from the Cold War encounters in two important ways. First, no American president during the Cold War lavished praise on his Soviet counterparts as being great or strong leaders. … Second, previous American presidents … used summits to pursue concrete U.S. foreign policy objectives … [T]he absence of a coherent, unified grand strategy for dealing with Russia makes it difficult to forge bipartisan support at home or allied support abroad. … To be effective over the long run in containing Putin’s Russia, the United States needs unity at home and support from allies abroad. A necessary step for advancing this united front is agreement on the basic tenets of the strategy. Conceptual work for devising such a grand strategy needs to be done now more than ever … even if the product of such strategizing might become usable only after the Trump administration.”

“Parsing the Surreal From the Sensible in Trump's Helsinki Performance,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, 07.18.18. The author, editor of The Nation, writes: “Trump … used the global stage to savage Democrats and attack his own intelligence officials and the Mueller investigation, while once more boasting about his election victory. … Trump's bizarre comments on Russian interference in our elections made it clear that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation should continue. … What is surreal about Trump's performance Monday is less his manic defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election victory than his apparent disinterest in defending our elections going forward. … Still, while Trump lies so frequently, just because he says something doesn't mean it is false. He began the news conference by making the sensible case that it is better to negotiate than to isolate … The United States and Russia have a common stake in reducing tensions. Trump should not be scorned for simply convening a summit. If the two powers continue to talk and, as Putin summarized, restart the arms-reduction talks, revive a working group on international terrorism, work together to forge peace and provide humanitarian relief in Syria and seek to enforce the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, important progress might be possible.”

“Russia Already Gave Up on ‘Normal Relations’ With the US,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, The Washington Post, 07.22.18The author, director of the Intelligence and Defense Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a former CIA officer, writes: “When Russian President Vladimir Putin approved what U.S. authorities say was a GRU operation to meddle in the 2016 election, he undoubtedly expected it to deal a death blow to U.S.-Russian relations. … In the risk-vs.-gain calculation intelligence officers use, the veteran KGB officer would probably have decided that the opportunity to influence the election was too good to pass up. … Clearly, the Russian risk calculation is the same now as in 2016: Putin believes Russian interests are better served by confrontation than cooperation with the United States and its NATO allies. … If Putin thinks Trump lacks the power to change policy on Russia, then he is expendable. Which means supporting Trump is less important than sowing discord in the United States. … Putin appears to be placing all his bets on the conviction that Russia will prevail in the long term, because Western democracy is in irrevocable decline. … If we are to prove him wrong, we must remember—and remind him—that American success … [comes] from the core values that have ennobled and sustained our system since the American Revolution. The same core values that Putin disparages as evidence of a corrupt and broken governance model can save us, but only if we hold fast to them.”

“The Intelligence Community Has Never Faced a Problem Quite Like This,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 07.20.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes: “What Trump offers Russia isn't the information he knows but his role as a human wrecking ball against America's traditional allies and trading partners. What will be different in the spy world in the aftermath of this jaw-dropping week? Probably not much. … The president remains the first customer, and most veterans of the spy world can't imagine withholding information from him. Officials may be more cautious, briefing especially sensitive details first to the national security adviser, say, or cautioning the president that he doesn't want to know how a piece of information was obtained. What about the agents who are risking their lives in Moscow or Beijing to spy for America? Will they balk now? Again, probably not … Agents who have helped America because it represented something different from Putin's authoritarianism may have second thoughts, however. That's the hidden intelligence cost of Trump's presidency: We're a less admirable nation. Will foreign spy services that share sensitive intelligence through what's termed ‘liaison’ reduce the flow? Once again, probably not. … If Trump continues to speak of the European Union as a ‘foe’ … that cooperation could eventually change. But our foreign partners need U.S. intelligence, however much they dislike Trump.”

“What Helsinki Wrought,” Dov S. Zakheim, The National Interest, 07.17.18The author, former undersecretary of defense and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense, writes: “Not surprisingly, the Helsinki Summit has left America’s allies and friends … in a state of confusion. … It is not that Trump’s seeming willingness to accommodate Putin is without precedent; Franklin Roosevelt was guilty of far more when he met with ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin at Yalta. Yet, as Isaiah Berlin once wrote of Roosevelt, ‘He made the majority of his fellow citizens prouder to be Americans than they had been before. He raised their status in their own eyes—immensely in those of the rest of the world.’ After this summit, can one say the same about Donald Trump?”

“Why Trump Is Getting Away With Foreign-Policy Insanity: The only people who can stop his sucking up to Russia have lost all their credibility,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 07.18.18: The author, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, writes: “Trump is correct to say that U.S.-Russian relations are in a bad place and that it would be better if they could be improved. More controversially, I also think he is correct in acknowledging that the United States bears much (though not all) of the responsibility for that situation … Yet none of these considerations require a U.S. president to ignore the possibility that another state actively interfered in America’s own electoral process and continues to do so today. … Why does he act this way? … Maybe Russia really does have compromising material on Trump’s personal conduct. Maybe there was collusion … Maybe there’s real dirt about the Trump Organization’s alleged involvement in money laundering by Russian oligarchs. Maybe Trump just admires Putin as a strong leader … Or maybe the president is genuinely interested in improving relations for sound strategic reasons … but he is too ignorant, unskilled, impatient and erratic to know how do that effectively. Or maybe he believes admitting that Russia did in fact interfere would tarnish his victory over Clinton, undermine his legitimacy as president and wound his fragile ego. … Although ‘the Blob’ has reined Trump in to some degree, the relentless drumbeat of criticism from angry liberal interventionists and equally vehement ‘never Trump’ neoconservatives hasn’t had much impact on Trump’s support or on the president’s own convictions. The question is, why?”

“Stranger Things in Helsinki,” Michael Kofman, War on the Rocks, 07.23.18The author, a research scientist at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, writes that the Helsinki summit “was a misfire in what should be a dual-track approach to Russia … Washington may have overreacted to Trump’s statements while underappreciating the need for a plan to deal with Russia. Russia is not going anywhere, the competition is not going to get easier at some arbitrary future date and the confrontation needs to be set on a footing that leverages U.S. structural advantages … The goal of summits, and negotiations, should be to bound the competition … Yet it is impossible to derive value from high-level interactions, and build on lower-level government contacts, given the circus that has become U.S.-Russia relations. I remain deeply skeptical about what U.S. strategic thinking has to offer when it comes to great power competition. Today it is too ideological, too inexperienced in dealing with rival powers, and intellectually unable to offer a vision for U.S. leadership in a changing international order. If the summit is any indicator of what American diplomacy or statecraft has to offer, we are in even bigger trouble than we thought. The next episode in this series is set for October, when Putin comes to Washington to once again have his foreign policy validated. “

“Donald Trump Put Himself First, America Last,” Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller, Time, 07.17.18The authors, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program and a vice president and Middle East Program director at the Wilson Center, write: “In the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents, Donald Trump had three options regarding his upcoming summit with Vladimir Putin: cancel, confront or cave. He chose the last option. … The president crossed lines incompatible with our conception of the presidency and what the office and the person who holds it are supposed to stand for. … What is unmistakably clear—and was demonstrated again in Helsinki—is that Trump lacks the character, competence and moral compass to be president.”

“Russia Must Show Caution Now That It Has Publicly Sided With Trump,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.23.18The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “The main impression from the meeting … in Helsinki is that Vladimir Putin has apparently decided to back Donald Trump in his confrontation with most of the American political establishment. … This is a new phenomenon that significantly broadens the concept of the Hybrid War that the United States and Russia have been waging for the last four years. … Only time will show how justified the Kremlin’s public bet on the current occupant of the White House turns out to be. … There are precedents for this. In the nineteenth century Russia pointedly supported the northern U.S. states against the slave-owning south, and for much of the twentieth century Moscow retained its own political entity across the ocean: the Communist Party of the U.S.A. For its part, the United States organized a military intervention in the Russian North and Far East during the Civil War that followed the 1917 revolutions, and … got closely involved in Russia’s post-Communist transformation. The current situation is different in that the field of combat is the corridors of power of the main world power. The stakes could hardly be higher. Perhaps the safest approach for Russia in its relations with the United States would have been strategic patience, based on the conviction that getting involved in the internal affairs of other states, particularly large and powerful ones like the United States, is dangerous.”

“The Kremlin Is Celebrating Helsinki. For Now,” Alexander Gabuev, Foreign Policy, 07.20.18The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “The reaction in Moscow [following the summit] was of a piece with the atmosphere after Trump’s victory in November 2016, when Russian officialdom celebrated for days. … But the Kremlin may soon come to regret that it held the summit in the first place. Trump’s disastrous performance is likely to lead to unintended consequences … Putin’s big win in Helsinki was undermined by its unexpectedly large margin. Trump’s remarks in Helsinki, which were far more deferential to Russia than anyone could have anticipated, have sent shockwaves through Washington and other Western capitals. Ironically, it is Trump’s over-the-top performance at the press conference that is likely to ruin the Kremlin’s gains from Helsinki. … In recent days, the U.S. Congress has started to mobilize and think about ways to undo the damage created by a U.S. president whose behavior has triggered a dramatic firestorm of criticism. … The U.S. Senate is now actively debating a bill … that would impose harsh economic sanctions if Russia interferes in the November midterm elections. On Wednesday, … [Republican senators] introduced a bill that targets Nord Stream 2 … With the anti-Russian consensus that unites the American elite only gaining strength, Trump’s zeal for detente with Putin seems destined to achieve the exact opposite result.”

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:

“Fears of World War III Are Overblown,” Dmitri Trenin, Politco Europe, 07.20.18The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “NATO is still very much exerting pressure on Russia. It’s considered more of an annoyance than an immediate threat in Moscow, but also keeps the country in permanent ‘war mode’ vis-à-vis the U.S. … There is no interest in Moscow in attacking the Baltic states or Poland. … Should Ukraine’s leaders decide to repeat Mikheil Saakashvili’s mistake in 2008 and launch a major offensive to retake Donbass … the Russian response could indeed be devastating and lead to Ukraine’s loss of sovereignty, as Putin recently stated. But does this mean Russia will move on Ukraine unprovoked? Most certainly not. Putin’s main concerns are largely domestic. … To move forward, he is looking to ease tensions with the EU and the U.S. What Putin wanted to get out of Helsinki was mainly to start a dialogue with Washington. Those hopes are now visibly going up in smoke. … The first détente in the hybrid war between Russia and the West was indeed nipped in the bud by Trump’s behavior and the vehemence of his domestic critics. … Moscow will not capitulate, and will indeed push back. But it’s not likely to take the form of an aggressive, overt military attack. … Moscow’s strategy should now be one of patience, leaving America and Europe to their own devices and focusing on relations with countries far more relevant to its future: Asia and the Middle East.”

“US-Europe vs. Russia Triangle,” Eugene Rumer, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 07.11.18The author, a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes: “The current state of affairs between Russia and the West is here to stay. It is a product of several important structural factors, personal experiences of key decision-makers and the legacy of the previous periods. Betting on Russia changing its policy under the press of economic difficulties is hardly a realistic proposition … Equally unlikely is the prospect of Russia’s internal change. … Neither Russia nor the West is interested in escalating the tensions. But neither is prepared to back down. … Perhaps, some lessons from the Cold War could prove relevant for managing the relationship. … [A]ccepting the situation and the need to manage it … maintaining communication channels; avoiding misperceptions; making every effort to understand the other side’s drivers and motivations … Other lessons of the Cold War include making sure that nobody on either side of the East-West divide has any doubts about the credibility of NATO’s deterrent and commitment to defend its neighbors. … A related lesson … is the  utility,  even  necessity, of two-track solutions … This calls for the allies to identify goals at the end of both tracks and policy approaches to accomplish them in a complementary, not contradictory manner. Last, but not least, one of the most important lessons … has to do with the ability of the allies to speak with one voice and maintain their unity.”

“'He Is Honest—But Smart as Hell': When Truman Met Stalin,” Kristine Phillips, The Washington Post, 07.18.18The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes: “Harry S. Truman was never a friend of communism. … But at least one man, however, was different in Truman's mind, and that was Joseph Stalin … ‘I can deal with Stalin. He is honest — but smart as hell,’ the 33rd president of the United States wrote … This week when President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he faced bipartisan criticisms for what many saw as a show of weakness against a U.S. adversary. When Truman met Stalin … he had been president of the United States for only three months. … His relationship with his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was nearly nonexistent, and he had been kept in the dark about end-of-war negotiations that he was now taking part in. … By many accounts, Truman saw Stalin as a cordial ally. ‘I like Stalin,’ he wrote in a July 29, 1945, letter to his wife. ‘He is straightforward, knows what he wants and will compromise when he can't get it.’ … Truman also invited Stalin to the United States and said he would send the USS Missouri for the Soviet leader.”

“The Cuban Missile Crisis (Thanks to 1 Submarine) Could Have Ended Very Differently: Here is what happened,” Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest, 07.18.18The author, who writes about security and military history for War Is Boring, writes: “It is commonly accepted that the world has never come closer to nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis … [I]n popular imagination, the decisions for war would have come from national leaders … In fact, that decision was nearly taken out of Khrushchev and Kennedy’s hands by a group of men in the throes of dehydration and CO2 poisoning as they sat in a malfunctioning submarine surrounded by U.S. destroyers, unable to consult with Moscow. … Unable to communicate with Moscow, Capt. Valentin Savitsky concluded that war had already broken out. … Savitsky ordered the crew of his B-59 submarine to arm his submarine’s nuclear torpedo and prep it for firing at USS Randolph. … His political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, concurred with the order. Normally, the approval of these two officers would have sufficed to launch the torpedo. But by coincidence, Vasili Arkhipov, chief of staff of the Sixty-Ninth Brigade, happened to be on board—and he was entitled a say. According to some accounts, Arkhipov argued at length with Savitsky before the latter calmed down and ordered B-59 to surface. … It seems clear that a nuclear exchange was averted for reasons far more circumstantial than any would care to stake the fate of humanity on.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Containing Putin—and Trump,” Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, 07.18.18: The editorial board of the news outlet writes: “Mr. Putin wants to draw Mr. Trump into an arms-control negotiation that would revive the ABM limits while expanding Barack Obama's New START reductions in U.S. missiles. Mr. Trump is so confident of his personal deal-making skills, and so untutored in nuclear arms, that we hope the negotiations never begin. … This is where Congress needs a containment strategy—for Mr. Putin and for Mr. Trump's desire to cut deals with him. Members of both parties can make clear that no new arms deal is possible until Mr. Putin stops cheating on current treaties; that no limit on missile defenses is tolerable; and that any new deal must be submitted to the Senate as a treaty requiring a two-thirds vote for ratification.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“The Next Cyber Battleground. Defending the US Power Grid From Russian Hackers,” Rob Knake, Foreign Affairs, 07.19.18The author, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior research scientist at Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, writes that “what Russia does in cyberspace in its near abroad should be a warning about what can be done in the United States. In December of 2015, Russian hackers turned off the lights in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Western Ukraine, leaving some 230,000 customers in the dark. … It is possible that Russia intended to use the attacks to send a message to Ukraine … More ominously, they may have been trial runs to test Russian cyber-capabilities. … Those attacks relied on fairly basic tools … At this point, Russia has likely developed far more sophisticated cyber-capabilities … Just how vulnerable is the U.S. grid to an attack akin to the one in Ukraine? According to the U.S. intelligence community, very. … There’s already ample evidence that Russia has been carrying out reconnaissance against the U.S. electric grid. … Washington must take urgent action. … If there is a silver lining to the cozy relationship that Trump has built with Putin, it may be that he has bought the United States valuable time to secure its grid and other critical infrastructure against Russian cyberattacks.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“US, Russia Can Look North to the Arctic to Find Common Ground,” Michael Sfraga and Lawson Brigham, The Hill/Wilson Center, 07.18.18The authors, the director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative and a fellow and faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center, write: “[O]ther than the International Space Station, the Far North is perhaps the only setting in which the United States and the Russian Federation cooperate today on a wide variety of issues. … The U.S. and Russia could take the lead in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (now chaired by Finland) in exploring enforcement issues with the new IMO International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters. Renewed military-to-military cooperation could be feasible if the joint meetings were to focus on Arctic emergency operations … Presidents Trump and Putin could support renewed friendship flights and cultural exchanges between the indigenous communities that border our shared Bering and Chukchi Seas. … Addressing practical Arctic maritime issues, enhancing collaborative research and linking our two nations to the economic opportunities in the region have merit. The overarching goal is to maintain the Arctic as a peaceful region exemplified by broad cooperation among the Arctic states and perhaps serve as a foundation and framework for inching closer to a more productive relationship elsewhere in the world.”

“Putin Takes a Swipe at US-Funded News Organizations,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 07.23.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “A central pillar of Vladimir Putin's political strategy is the propagation of false equivalences. The Kremlin tries to convince Russians, and the world, that there is really no difference between its autocratic and frequently murderous practices and the practices of the democratic world. … Since late last year, the Putin regime has required … U.S.-funded media outlets to register as ‘foreign agents’ under a hastily passed law that has been applied only to American organizations. The Russians claimed they were reciprocating for the Justice Department's requirement that the U.S. branch of RT … register under a law governing foreign government lobbyists. … By forcing RT to register, the Justice Department may have provided the Putin regime with an excuse to target the U.S. broadcasters. But that doesn't mean the State Department or Congress should accept that they are equivalent or tolerate the persecution. If the Kremlin does not back off, sanctions on Russians who seek to poison U.S. democracy with lies would be the right response.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Athens and Moscow’s Stunning Falling-Out,” Nikos Konstandaras, New York Times, 07.23.18The author, a columnist for Greek newspaper Kathimerini, writes: “For centuries … Greece and Russia have seen themselves as natural allies. … Yet a sudden dispute over alleged Russian meddling in Greek affairs has escalated rapidly. … This month, Athens informed Moscow that it was expelling two Russian diplomats and refusing entry to two others. Among the accusations: the four were trying stoke opposition to a recent agreement signed by Greece and a northern neighbor, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, ending a 27-year dispute over the latter’s name. … This unexpected turn of events could lead … to a re-evaluation of Greece’s relations with Russia. The result could be Athens playing a more prominent role in stabilizing the western Balkans and aligning itself more fully with European Union policies rather than deferring to Russia’s concerns and interests."


  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Gets a Reminder to Turn His Attention Back Home: Polls show a big drop in the Russian president’s approval ratings in response to unpopular reforms,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 07.20.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “The usually government-friendly polls are registering a significant drop in President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings. … [Putin is] under pressure to soften a pension reform that would sharply raise the retirement age. … The measure is widely unpopular. … Perhaps more worrying for the Kremlin, even the tame pollsters that have worked closely with the Putin staff, the state-owned VTsIOM and the government contract recipient FOM, are registering a drop in the president’s confidence numbers … The release of this polling data likely indicates that the establishment, and perhaps even Putin’s government and staff, aren’t united behind the retirement measure. Putin, whose instinct is always to limit spending unless it’s for his pet projects … faces a dilemma: Should he hold firm and hope Russians will get used to the idea of delayed retirement by 2024, or should he soften the proposal? … [T]he political tactic of appearing to stand up to the West appears to be exhausted for Putin … the Russian autocrat may have to start paying close attention to domestic economic issues if he wants the system he built to survive him.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“Putin's Spies Can't Even Get Along With Each Other,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 07.17.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, has been making headlines lately. … The increased Western awareness of the GRU’s activities may be the result of inter-agency competition inside Russia … All these GRU operations are, to some extent, failures. … It is not surprising that of the three Russian intelligence agencies engaged in foreign operations … it is the GRU that apparently has taken the lead in these risky adventures. … The three agencies all have their distinct operational cultures and styles that make for heated competition. The ultimate objective is to please Putin, who likes variety in his toolbox. The competitive environment could be the reason the GRU’s failures are on such public display. … Putin may enjoy working with all three intelligence cultures—the correct and diplomatic SVR, the cunning and commercially-minded FSB and the forceful and risk-seeking GRU—but the rifts between them are likely to make the agencies vulnerable to adversaries. The GRU is the most exposed, its rivals happy to exploit flaws in its tradecraft to make its failures public. … Russia often looks and feels like a fearsome adversary to the West, but its establishment, including its intelligence community, isn’t monolithic enough to avoid embarrassing public failures—even if Western rivals are torn by their own political divisions.”