Russia Analytical Report, July 2-9, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Taking a page from Nixon and Mao, Trump and Putin should acknowledge sharp differences between the two countries in the communique that they are expected to sign at the end of the Helsinki summit, writes Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates. The communique should call for talks on compliance with the INF treaty and extension of New START to prevent further erosion of strategic stability, as well as for cooperation in the sphere of counterterrorism and nonproliferation, according to Graham.
  • An agreement to begin talks on the future of strategic stability is essential during next week’s summit between Trump and Putin, according to the Financial Times. However, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is a longtime critic of New START, once calling it “unilateral disarmament” by the U.S., writes Alex Ward, a writer for Vox and a former associate director in the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
  • John Bolton’s comment that the Trump-Putin summit could yield an agreement on getting Moscow’s help in evicting Iranian forces from Syria is wishful thinking, if not outright delusion, writes Michael Sharnoff, an associate professor of Middle East Studies. Moscow has a limited bilateral working relationship with Damascus, Sharnoff writes, something the Russians acknowledged privately, saying that a limited relationship was preferable to no relationship at all.
  • Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief for the Washington Post, reports that NATO leaders are worried about a full crackup of the alliance. Some diplomats are making dark jokes about whether Trump and Putin could unveil a globe-shifting alliance of the sort that helped lead to World War I, Birnbaum writes, while others are considering the legal architecture for a NATO in which the U.S. is no longer the preeminent player. The established international order and its institutions—based on cooperation and compromise and built largely by the U.S. and its allies—are struggling to survive, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov. In fact, the very concept of the West is now in question, writes Trofimov.
  • Professor Kimberly Marten offers a new explanation for Russia’s behavior during the February 2018 clash in Syria involving the Wagner group: Perhaps the uniformed Russian military leadership, or some segment of its command, chose not to stop the Wagner group even knowing full well that superior U.S. forces would fight fire with fire. The Russian Defense Ministry may resent Prigozhin’s independence, Marten writes, as military forces everywhere have tensions with those not under their command who take actions in their area of operations.
  • The Russian regime today is readier than ever before for changes, and it needs them, argues Tatyana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of a political analysis firm.

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:

“Despite the Helsinki Summit, the Hybrid War Is Here to Stay,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.04.18The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “As Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump prepare to take part in the July 16 Helsinki Summit—their first meeting to not take place on the sidelines of a broader summit—expectations in both capitals are low. … Following a near-collision between Russian and U.S. forces in Syria earlier this year, both countries see a need to at least stabilize the relationship. … high-level dialogue between presidents is required. If the upcoming summit lays the groundwork for such a dialogue, it will have served a useful purpose. … One should be realistic in attempting to stabilize the relationship. Russia believes that the U.S. must first resolve its domestic political crisis, which has a salient and highly toxic Russian dimension at its heart. … The motto for Moscow should be strategic patience. The U.S.-Russian confrontation, now a hybrid war, is real. But it is not eternal.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Ahead of NATO Summit, Allies Wonder: Will NATO Survive Trump?” Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post, 07.08.18The author, Brussels bureau chief for the newspaper, reports that “NATO leaders … [are] worried about … a full crackup of the alliance … NATO diplomats are making dark jokes about whether Trump and Putin could unveil a globe-shifting alliance of the sort that helped lead to World War I. Others are considering the legal architecture for a NATO in which the United States is no longer the preeminent player. … Leaders and diplomats worry that Trump could … halt U.S. participation in military exercises in eastern Europe to avoid ‘provoking’ Russia … a move that could poke holes in the U.S. security umbrella that reaches up to Russia's border. Their nightmare is that Trump could … recogniz[e] Russia's annexation of Crimea, emboldening nations around the world to redraw borders by force. … U.S. diplomats … say they have received no instructions that would depart from decades of U.S. foreign policy. … But Trump himself appears to want to take a different direction. At last month's G-7 summit, he suggested that the 2014 annexation was legitimate because most residents of the Crimean Peninsula were Russian-speaking. … [European policymakers] fear that he [Trump] could be reelected, giving him enough time to make many of his policy shifts permanent.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Trump and Putin Face Nuclear Options at Helsinki Summit. Crumbling Arms Control Treaties a Priority at Meeting of US and Russian Leaders,” Henry Foy, Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo, Financial Times, 07.09.18The authors, correspondents for the news outlet, report that “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will have plenty on their plate when they meet … in Helsinki … including … how to avoid a nuclear war. … Security experts in Russia and the U.S. agree … the two nuclear superpowers [are] at risk of unmanageable escalation in case of a crisis …  An agreement to begin talks on the future of strategic stability … is essential during next week’s summit … Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said the leaders were likely to discuss New START and [its extension] … Last week, a U.S. congressional delegation visiting Moscow raised the issue of arms control during meetings … but were rebuffed by their hosts … merely extending old agreements … might not be enough, according to experts who cite new threats such as cyber warfare and hypersonic weapons not currently covered. Others argue that Moscow and Washington must include other military powers, such as China, when setting new rules.”

“The Most Important Part of the Trump-Putin Summit No One Is Talking About: National Security Adviser John Bolton isn’t happy about it,” Alex Ward, Vox, 07.05.18The author, a writer for the media outlet and a former associate director in the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, writes: “President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin … will likely feature discussions about election meddling, the war with Syria and the North Korean threat. But the most important outcome … may be … [t]he extension of the New START nuclear treaty … The treaty is currently in effect until 2021, but there’s an option for the leaders … to extend the accord up to five years. If the treaty expires in three years, though, both sides lose crucial information about each other’s nuclear programs. … Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is  a longtime critic of the accord, once calling it ‘unilateral disarmament’ by the United States.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Russia and the US Have Common Interests in Syria. But It May Not Matter,” Michael Sharnoff, The Washington Post, 07.09.18The author, associate professor of Middle East Studies at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, writes: “National security adviser John Bolton said that the [Trump-Putin] meeting could offer a ‘larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria’ and that an agreement could be ‘a significant step forward’ for U.S. interests in the Middle East. But Bolton is engaging in wishful thinking, if not outright delusion. … the United States and Russia, despite sharing the goal of stability in Syria, fundamentally diverge on how to achieve it. The administration is also vastly overestimating how much sway Russia actually has in Syria. … Moscow, despite its intimate relationship with Damascus and the extensive financial and military aid it supplied, enjoyed a limited bilateral working relationship. The Russians acknowledged this privately but said that a limited relationship was preferable to no relationship at all. … The inability of either the Soviet Union or the United States to influence Syrian policy should be a sober warning to Washington … One area where American and Russian interests converge is maintaining a de-escalation zone in southern Syria. … [They] also have a strategic interest in preventing additional refugees from entering Jordan … [and] want to prevent another Israeli-Hezbollah war … However, there should be no illusions that the implementation of a buffer zone can be guaranteed. … Success may be possible as long as U.S. policymakers have clear expectations of the limited parameters involved … setting their sights any higher will probably ensure … [U.S.] failure in the region.”

“The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir al-Zour,” Kimberly Marten, War on the Rocks, 07.05.18The author, chair of the political science department at Barnard College, writes that in the February 2018 clash near Syria’s Deir al-Zour, the “four-hour battle killed 200 to 300 of the attacking [pro-Syrian] forces ... The casualties included a large number of fighters from the Wagner mercenary group … at a time of high geopolitical tension, the military forces of one nuclear superpower directly engaged hundreds of heavily armed and hostile citizens of another nuclear superpower … Why did Moscow initially deny any Russians’ involvement, and then downplay the casualty numbers? And why didn’t the Russian Defense Ministry stop the attackers … ? The first explanation … is that the Wagner group acted without Moscow’s knowledge or approval. … Perhaps instead Moscow … intentionally used the Wagner group to test Washington’s willingness to defend its Kurdish allies and maintain a presence in Syria. … The Russian Defense Ministry’s lack of concern about those fighting for Wagner suggests … [that] [p]erhaps the uniformed Russian military leadership, or some segment of its command, chose not to stop the Wagner group even knowing full well that superior U.S. forces would fight fire with fire. The Defense Ministry may resent Prigozhin’s independence—military forces everywhere have tensions with those not under their command who take actions in their area of operations. … U.S. and allied forces should consider the possibility that … they might end up inadvertently, and dangerously, ensnared in Russia’s internal power struggles." 

“America’s Credibility Is on the Line in Syria: Trump must stick to his word and tell Russia to stop violating a critical cease-fire,” John Podesta and Brian Katulis, Foreign Policy, 07.06.18The authors, the chair of the Center for American Progress and one of the Center’s senior fellows, write: “Can Trump stand by his own word on the agreement he personally signed with Russia and Jordan for a cease-fire in southern Syria? Moscow is already undermining the deal … In the past week, Russia has been bombing hospitals and targeting civilians from the air to support the Bashar al-Assad regime’s attacks against opposition-held areas in southern Syria. … These violations not only hurt Syrians but also threaten the security of two of America’s closest partners in the Middle East, Israel and Jordan. … Trump has done almost nothing in response to these violations … Whatever promises Putin makes to him in Finland, there is little reason to believe that Trump will hold him to his commitment. Putin has played Trump like a fiddle on Syria, and other countries, including North Korea, will be watching closely what happens. America’s credibility will be on the line—not just Trump’s.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“What Russia Did in 2016,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 07.08.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “A new bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee … counters the bluster of the Trump camp with a dose of reality. The Senate panel … examined the methods behind the intelligence community assessment, published on Jan. 6, 2017, by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. … The new Senate report calls this a ‘sound intelligence product.’ The Senate assessment reveals that, on the second intelligence finding, there was a Russian preference for Mr. Trump, the existence of which the CIA and FBI had ‘high confidence’ in and the NSA ‘moderate confidence.’ … Mr. Putin has repeatedly and disingenuously denied that Russia intervened. … Mr. Trump ought to forcefully warn the Russian ruler against further interference in U.S. politics when they meet in Helsinki … Unfortunately, the pre-summit signs are not good. At a rally in Montana last Thursday … ‘Putin's fine,’ Mr. Trump said, adding that getting along with Russia is a ‘good thing.’ It is a good thing for adversaries to talk to each other, but it is not wise for Mr. Trump to remain in denial about the Kremlin's active measures during the 2016 election.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Time for a Helsinki Communique,” Thomas Graham, The National Interest, 07.07.18: The author, managing director at Kissinger Associates, writes: “American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to issue a joint statement at their summit meeting … [A model to follow is] the Shanghai Communique of 1972, which set China and America on the path to normalization … a U.S.-Russian Helsinki Communique … would begin with the observation that the two countries are major powers that intend to play significant roles in global affairs for years to come. They see each other as competitors … Each side, however, recognizes the dangers of turning a competitive relationship into a permanent confrontation … [and] are, therefore, determined to find ways to compete that reduce that risk. The statement would then sharply and succinctly lay out the essence of the differences on many vital matters … they would commit themselves from this point onward to act with respect for the principles of nonaggression, mutual benefit, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and noninterference in each other's internal affairs. … The next section … would focus on possible areas for cooperation. At the top of the list should be strategic stability … counterterrorism and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction could be identified as promising areas of cooperation … the statement would end with a commitment to the steady normalization of relations … The odds against such a Helsinki Communique are, of course, great. Time is short, and Trump is probably looking for a dramatic bargain while Putin is prepared to pocket any concessions.”

“In Helsinki, Putin Can Grant Trump Great Success, Of Sorts,” Pavel K. Baev, Brookings Institution, 07.06.18The author, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, writes: “There are plenty of difficult and demanding matters … for the Helsinki agenda. The problem is that real progress isn’t possible on any of them. … Rather than address this bothersome agenda, Putin would prefer to make a pile of promises. On Syria … he can promise to reduce Russian forces … He can easily pledge not to interfere with Israeli air strikes on Iranian forces in Syria, since in fact Russia has never attempted to intercept them. Putin … can give any number of reassurances that Russian troops are not present in the Donbass war zone, since he has recycled this lie many times before. On North Korea … Putin can promise to maintain the sanctions regime, even if he never liked it, claimed that it would never work and experimented with various violations.”

“The Dark History of US Presidential Summits With Putin,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 07.03.18The author, vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes: “For Putin … this will be his inaugural summit with a fourth different U.S. president. … As Trump prepares to travel to Helsinki, he would be wise to remember how his predecessors' attempts to seek accommodation with Putin ended. For an officer of the Soviet KGB … an interlocutor's willingness to compromise is a sign of weakness, never an invitation to reciprocate. Both Bush and Obama … ultimately came to the realization that there cannot be genuine partnership, let alone a convergence of interests, between a democracy and a corrupt authoritarian regime.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia's Turn to Its Asian Past: As nostalgia surges for the eastern conquest of Genghis Khan, Putin maps out his own empire,” Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, 07.06.18The author, a columnist and senior correspondent for the news outlet, writes: “Russia is increasingly looking East, toward an uneasy alliance with an illiberal and much more powerful China, and … with nations such as Turkey and Iran. But even more pronounced is a sentiment that Russia, so unique in its vastness, must remain a world unto itself. … the established international order and its institutions—based on cooperation and compromise and built largely by the U.S. and its allies—are struggling to survive. The very concept of the West is now in question. This unraveling has prompted a dramatic change in how Moscow sees its own place in the world. … Modern revisionists … see the Russian state as the heir and beneficiary of that Mongol empire. … The profound disillusionment also stems from the failure of policies that aimed to bring Russia closer to the West following the Soviet Union's breakup … While the forces pulling Russia apart from the West have long bubbled under the surface, the breaking point came with Mr. Putin's decision in 2014 to invade Ukraine. … Though Russia …  remains the largest nation on earth by landmass, it doesn't even rank among the world's ten largest economies. … Russia's political class naturally looks with nostalgia to … when Moscow was the feared and respected capital of one of the world's only two superpowers.”

“Hanging By a Thread: Russia’s Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro,” Reuf Bajrovic, Vesko Garčević and Richard Kraemer, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 07.03.18: The authors, a former energy minister in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former ambassador and a fellow of FPRI’s Eurasia Program, write: “In December 2015, Montenegro opted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in doing so categorically rebuffed two years of Russian efforts to secure a port there … Russia then embarked on a new strategy: stoking political and ethnic divisions to destabilize Montenegro and preclude further Western integration. … Russia coordinated with local opposition and Serb ethno-nationalists in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the democratically elected government of Montenegro in October 2016. Despite the coup’s failure, the future of Montenegro’s progress toward Western integration remains uncertain.”


“Donald Trump Has Sounded America’s Global Retreat: Russia and China will be the big winners from the end of US leadership,” Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 07.05.18The author, associate editor of the Financial Times, writes: “A shouting match with America’s allies might then be followed by a day of backslapping with Mr. Putin. … The more persuasive explanation of the U.S. president’s behavior is that … his instincts say that, as the world’s most powerful nation, the U.S. is better off setting its own, bilateral, terms with allies and adversaries alike. … They [Trump and Putin] share an outlook that says the prizes should go to the powerful, that multilateral institutions and rules are calculated to ensnare them and that norms, values and … moralism do not have a place in the conduct of relations between states. … On Mr. Trump’s present course … the concept of a western order will be drained of substance and meaning. U.S. allies … will have to find other ways to safeguard their security. Some may look to China; others may think about a nuclear deterrent; Europe may understand it has to be able to defend itself. The big winners of course are Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi.”

“Russian and Chinese Sharp Power Puts Democracies in Peril: Authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow are asserting control over the realm of ideas,” Christopher Walker, Financial Times, 07.08.18The author, vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, writes that Russia and China’s “ability to exert influence abroad has created a need for new concepts … Chief among them is the idea of sharp power. This describes an approach to international affairs that involves efforts at censorship and the use of manipulation to sap the integrity of independent institutions. … One well-known recent example of this is Russia’s interference in foreign elections … China is following suit. Australia and New Zealand have served as testing grounds for [Beijing] … The corrosive effects of sharp power are … increasingly felt in the cultural sphere, in academia, the media and publishing. … Democracies must draw upon their reserves of innovation and determination as free societies to meet this formidable challenge.”


“Trump Can’t Recognize Russia’s Crimea Grab: There are strong legal obstacles to such a move, so the president will need other bargaining chips for Putin,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 07.04.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “Whether non-recognition of the Crimean annexation is required of United Nations members is a complex matter of international law. … there’s no U.N. Security Council resolution … banning its recognition. Russia has vetoed a draft resolution to that effect, and a subsequent resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly didn’t have the legal force to forbid the recognition of Crimea as Russian; it only called on countries to refrain from it. That gives credence to the argument that non-recognition, including by the U.S., is merely a voluntary sanction that can be ignored. Russia holds to the latter interpretation, and so could Trump … Congress has explicitly declared Crimea part of Ukraine and condemned the annexation. … If Trump extends any kind of formal recognition to the Russian takeover, such a move would conflict with U.S. law. Congress and the courts would probably get involved. … There’s not much Trump can do on Crimea without triggering the checks and balances of the U.S. government. He can’t even drop Crimea-related sanctions against specific companies and individuals without asking Congress first. … On Crimea and Ukraine, … he’s hemmed in. Whatever concessions he may want from Putin, he’ll need different bargaining chips.”

“Annexing Crimea Was Egregious. Why Does Trump Disagree?” Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post, 07.09.18The author, deputy editorial page editor for the news outlet, writes: “Inside the U.S. government there is virtual unanimity on the question of Crimea … It was an egregious act of aggression and, as the first forcible transnational seizure of territory in Europe since World War II, should never be accepted by the United States. There's just one exception to this consensus: President Trump. … Trump has repeatedly said … that Crimea ought to be part of Russia because a majority of its people are Russian-speaking … By Trump's logic, Putin would have cause to seize the parts of Latvia and Estonia that are Russian-speaking, not to mention Belarus and Kazakhstan. … His crude and uninformed policy positions consistently outlast staff opposition and efforts at reasonable persuasion; this is particularly true when it comes to appeasement of Putin; and the steady growth of Trump's personal authority inside the White House and the Republican Party means that even on issues where he is a minority of one, he can compel his followers to line up behind him.”

“Ukraine’s ‘Creeping Advances’: A Win-Win Tactic?” Huseyn Aliyev, Russia Matters, 07.05.18: The author, the Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, writes: “Soon after the start of Russia’s official military involvement in Syria … Ukraine’s armed forces became emboldened in their war with separatists in the east. Under the radar, they have been retaking control of a narrow strip of contested, crime-ridden no-man’s land in the war-torn Donbas region using a tactic known as ‘creeping advances.’ … The slow-paced advances … have enabled Ukraine to take firmer control over the porous demarcation line with its separatist republics, to improve its military’s tactical capabilities … and to test Russia’s response—which, so far, has been minimal. … some analysts suspect that attempts to take bigger, strategically important settlements could provoke a large-scale Russian military response; on the other, Russia may be reluctant to deepen its involvement … whatever Russia’s response to the creeping advances, Ukraine’s leadership … stands to reap a net benefit from the tactic.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“The Specter of Revolution: Moldova’s Future Hangs on Protests,” Andrey Devyatkov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.05.18The author, a senior expert in the foreign policy and security program at the Center for Strategic Research, writes: “In the past few months, authoritarian tendencies, the dominance of oligarchs and state ineffectiveness have elicited protests in several former Soviet countries. … Now it is Moldova’s turn, where new pro-European parties from the opposition have taken to the streets in protest against the old pro-European parties in power. What triggered Moldova’s protests was the courts’ annulment of the results of Chișinău’s mayoral election. Andrei Năstase, one of the leaders of Moldova’s pro-European right-wing opposition, won the run-off, but his victory was ruled invalid on the grounds that Năstase had campaigned on election day. … The Moldovan authorities have decided that Năstase cannot be allowed to occupy the mayor’s office, which would provide him with a convenient platform for fighting the current government. … In the absence of a unified opposition, external support and economic incentives, Moldova’s protests are unlikely to succeed … If people come to believe that they are powerless, the protest electorate will show up at the polls in meager numbers, which will help the current regime hold on to power.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Illusory Stability: Putin’s Regime Is Readier Than Ever for Change,” Tatyana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.03.18The author, a founder and CEO of a political analysis firm, writes that “after six years … the state has suddenly started to become increasingly dynamic. This concerns not only pension and tax reforms, but also the new presidential decrees issued in May … The president is increasingly inclined to delegate responsibility, and that means that the system’s overall volatility and dynamism will grow. … When Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeats that Putin is not involved in the pension reform, he isn’t just saving his boss from a hit to his popularity; he’s indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. The head of state doesn’t want to deal with raising the pension age, or getting bogged down in dull accounting calculations about pensioners. … Delegating responsibility for untangling administrative knots … is becoming routine, which is impacting staffing policy. Another example of this is the revised approach to the informal system of running the North Caucasus … A bold experiment with personnel is underway in Dagestan … while federal siloviki are gaining influence there and powerful clans are being routed … The Russian regime today is readier than ever before for changes, and it needs them.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.