Russia Analytical Report, June 18-25, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • U.S. commanders are worried that if they had to head off a conflict with Russia, the most powerful military in the world could get stuck in a traffic jam, writes Michael Birnbaum for The Washington Post. The delays could enable Russia to seize NATO territory in the Baltics while U.S. Army planners were still filling out the 17 forms needed to cross Germany and into Poland.
  • U.S. President Bill Clinton and his advisers naively challenged Russia’s security perimeter, not realizing that “each inch of eastward expansion was bound to increase Russian distrust of the West,” writes Professor Melvyn Leffler, quoting from Ben Steil’s new book. Steil, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that whereas the architects of the Marshall Plan and NATO “acknowledged that a line was being drawn, and were willing to bear the necessary costs to defend it,” the Clinton administration “was denying the line’s existence.”
  • While Moscow could easily defeat any of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space, its military cannot sustain a prolonged conflict, writes Dave Majumdar, defense editor for The National Interest. He also writes that arms control experts agree Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory.
  • In his proposal for a U.S. grand strategy in dealing with Russia, Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, notes that as recently as 2010, around half of Americans saw Russia as a friendly country and some 60 percent of Russians viewed the U.S. the same way. He also believes that although Putin held open the possibility of close cooperation with the West in the early years of his presidency, the Western intervention in Libya confirmed Putin’s old suspicions about U.S. intentions of regime change.
  • Could Russia be poised to flip Egypt? While perhaps unimaginable to diplomats who, for a generation, have taken Egypt’s Western orientation for granted, the answer is "unfortunately yes," writes Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute.
  • There are almost too many holes to plug to stop the Russians from causing massive harm in the coming elections, writes Nick Bilton, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.

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:

“How America Can Counter Russia and Iran,” Michael McLaughlin, The National Interest, 06.21.18The author, a naval intelligence officer at United States Cyber Command, writes: “Russia wants a destabilized Middle East. A unified front by the United States and the European Union is key to success in Iran—and in countering Russia. … Given the vulnerable economic and political position in which the Iranian regime currently finds itself, a unified pressure campaign against Iran would check Russian regional influence and force Iran to the negotiating table. ... [W]ithout European involvement in unified economic sanctions to punish Iranian malfeasance, a peaceful outcome in the Middle East will not be possible, and Russian influence will continue to expand unchecked.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“Divide and Invest: Why the Marshall Plan Worked,” Melvyn Leffler, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018: In his review of Benn Steil’s new book, "The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War," the author, a visiting professor of world politics at the University of Virginia, writes: “The Marshall Plan was the most successful U.S. foreign policy program of the Cold War," but it "also ratcheted up Cold War tensions," rekindling fears in eastern and western Europe about renewed German power. "That, in turn, led to the establishment of NATO and the division of Europe. … The Marshall Plan worked, Steil concludes, ‘because the United States aligned its actions with its interests and capacities in Europe, accepting the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate.’" Later in the book, "Steil emphasizes the misguided strategic thinking of U.S. officials over the past quarter century. … Steil writes that U.S. President Bill Clinton and his advisers naively challenged Russia’s security perimeter , not realizing that 'each inch of eastward expansion was bound to increase Russian distrust of the West.' Whereas the   the architects of the Marshall Plan and NATO ‘acknowledged that a line was being drawn, and were willing to bear the necessary costs to defend it,’ the Clinton administration ‘was denying the line’s existence.’ … Steil suggests that the United States must realistically accept a Russian security sphere in Europe. … But where do legitimate Russian interests cease, and where should realistic red lines be drawn today? … Through careful study, these policymakers [who worked on the Marshall plan] came to the conclusion that the real threats to U.S. interests in Europe were economic disarray and political upheaval, not Soviet military capabilities. … They set U.S. priorities accordingly … [a]nd when it became necessary, they changed their approach.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“If They Needed to Fend Off War With Russia, US Military Leaders Worry They Might Not Get There In Time,” Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post, 06.24.18: The author, Brussels bureau chief for the newspaper, reports that “U.S. commanders are worried that if they had to head off a conflict with Russia, the most powerful military in the world could get stuck in a traffic jam. … NATO has just a skeleton force deployed to its member countries that share a border with Russia. Backup forces would need to traverse hundreds of miles. And the delays — a mixture of bureaucracy, bad planning and decaying infrastructure — could enable Russia to seize NATO territory in the Baltics while U.S. Army planners were still filling out the 17 forms needed to cross Germany and into Poland.” NATO leaders will try to address the problem at their upcoming summit in July, but it will take years to fix.

“The Rise of Russia's Military,” Dave Majumdar, The National Interest, July-August, 2018: The author, defense editor for The National Interest, writes: “In many ways, this new conflict with Moscow can be explained by Russia’s geography and lack of natural defensive terrain features. … Now, the borders are the closest to Moscow they have been since 1650. … [Bill] Clinton hoped to expand the NATO alliance while simultaneously building a new partnership with Moscow. … [George W.] Bush continued Clinton’s push to expand NATO into key republics of the former Soviet Union—Ukraine and Georgia. That ran afoul of Moscow’s red lines. … Russia’s weapon of choice against what it sees as Western encroachment into its former territory has been its military. … Russia today … tends to try to avoid costly conventional military operations in favor of asymmetric means that fall below the threshold of war. … The reason for Moscow’s reluctance about engaging in major conventional military operations is simple—the Russian military is not able to sustain a prolonged conflict. … Moscow could easily defeat any of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space. … The Russian military might even be able to defeat the NATO alliance in a short, sharp, high-intensity war. It would more than likely lose a prolonged conflict … [although] Moscow’s conventional forces could inflict significant damage to the United States and Europe. … Russia ultimately relies on its nuclear arsenal—both strategic and nonstrategic—to offset NATO’s conventional military superiority. … There is much debate about exactly how and when Russia might use its nuclear weapons—particularly its nonstrategic warheads. The real answer, as Kristensen explained, is that Western analysts simply do not know. ... The consensus among arms control experts is that Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory." Shorn of its strategic buffer, the author writes, Russia "is deeply insecure and much more prone to acting provocatively than the Soviet Union was during much of the original Cold War.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  •  No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“‘The Russians Play Hard’: Inside Russia’s Attempt to Hack 2018—And 2020,” Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair, 06.22.18The author, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, writes: “2018 will likely be a testing ground for 2020." All of Russia’s tactics "have the same sinister goal of breaking the system … by sowing discord through technology platforms and services. … ‘Having the U.S. at war with itself is giving Russia credit internationally,’ explained Andrew Weiss, the vice president for research on Russia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace … ‘Just creating mistrust, and throwing a question mark over the legitimacy of our government, is a pretty big prize for Russia.’ …  In the coming months … Russian operatives will likely start creating fake accounts on social media … but with much more advanced algorithms and snakier and more aggressive tactics. … Russia will try to go after actual voting booths in smaller, more contentious districts…" Last year, "white-hat hackers (the good kind) demonstrated that it takes about 90 minutes to hack into a voting booth. … [T]here are almost too many holes to plug to stop the Russians from causing massive harm in the coming elections. … [C]oncerns about voting-booth safety were just one tiny part of the problem. … Imagine … that the websites and reporting systems … are hacked, and Trump is briefly marked as the winner before the election is accurately called for his opponent? Trump and his surrogates would seize on such a moment like piranhas to blood. … Russia and Putin want to drive a wedge deeper and deeper into the United States, pitting Americans against Americans, breaking the system from within and helping us destroy ourselves. … Trump is also playing to the same drum as the Russians, only louder.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

“OPEC, Russia Promise More Oil, but Can They Pump Enough?” Benoit Faucon and Summer Said, Wall Street Journal, 06.20.18The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write: “Saudi Arabia and Russia have promised they will lead OPEC and other big oil producers in a deal ... to boost output and lower prices. … [O]il demand has actually been growing, and a series of big, unexpected supply outages is making the calculations over how much OPEC should boost output particularly tricky. … [B]y the end of next year, the IEA forecasts the loss of about 1.5 million barrels [a day] of production in Venezuela … and sanctions-hit Iran. … A crucial consideration is ‘spare’ capacity'... At the end of May, OPEC had about 3.42 million barrels a day of it, or roughly 3.5% of global daily demand. … That is a formidable arsenal in the very short term. Further out … it may not look as robust… If OPEC starts to eat into its cushion of spare capacity now, it doesn’t leave much wiggle room… Russia, despite its aggressive stance on raising output, could probably only boost output by about 155,000 barrels a day by the end of the year… Russia has signaled it favors a big increase—as much as 1.5 million barrels a day. Saudi Arabia, as recently as last month, was pushing for a much more restrained response—well under 500,000 barrels a day. … If Riyadh and Moscow are able to orchestrate a relatively disciplined approach to boosting output … oil prices could ease further. … [I]f markets don’t see the group acting aggressively enough in opening up the taps, prices could start to climb higher again.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“A Grand Strategy for Confronting Putin,” Michael McFaul, Foreign Affairs, July/August issue:  The author, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, writes: “Washington must accept that Putin is here to stay and won’t end his assault on Western democracy and multilateral institutions anytime soon. To deal with the threat, the United States desperately needs a new bipartisan grand strategy. It must find ways to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military and political influence and to strengthen democratic allies, and it must work with the Kremlin when doing so is truly necessary and freeze it out when it is not. But above all, Washington must be patient. As long as Putin remains in power, changing Russia will be close to impossible. The best Washington can hope for in most cases is to successfully restrain Moscow’s actions abroad while waiting for Russia to change from within.”

“Trump’s ‘Grand Bargain’ With Russia Is an Illusion,” Alexander Vershbow, The Washington Post, 06.21.18The author, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, a former NATO deputy secretary general and a former ambassador to Russia, South Korea and NATO, writes: “President Trump … still seems to believe there’s a grand bargain to be forged with Russia … The grand bargain is a grand illusion. … A durable improvement … is only possible if we stick to our principles and insist on changes in the Russian behavior that led to the breakdown in relations. … Putin defines Russia’s interests in opposition to the West and isn’t interested in compromising on the issues of concern to us. … [Russia’s] siege mentality will remain in place for the foreseeable future, since the Putin system can no longer deliver on prosperity or improve living standards without … reforms that would mean liberalizing the regime more than Putin believes would be safe. … [W]e should give up on the fantasy of a grand bargain with Putin in favor of strategic patience. … We should continue to stand up for our values and support what’s left of civil society in Russia. We should engage in dialogue with the Russian government and try to cooperate … where our interests may overlap … And we should continue to provide off-ramps on issues such as Eastern Ukraine. … On most issues, however, we should expect Russia to be more interested in playing the spoiler. ... the president … should tell Putin that our governments should work on preparing realistic deliverables before we set the date for a summit meeting.”

“These Are the Benefits of a US-Russia Summit,” Matthew Rojansky and Andrey Kortunov, The National Interest, 06.21.18The authors, director of the Kennan Institute and director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, write: “[W]hat should be in the forefront of the minds of both presidents [ahead of their upcoming summit] is the dangerous state of U.S.-Russia relations, and its consequences … Both Russia and the United States are set to invest billions in modernizing their nuclear arsenals, which … create the impression of a new ‘arms race …’ An especially worrying new dimension to the nuclear risk is the possibility that cyberattacks by states or non-state actors could lead either party to raise its nuclear alert level … Neither leader would or should make unilateral concessions on matters ... critical to his country’s national security. However, the meeting might open a path toward stabilizing the relationship … [T]he two presidents [should] reiterate the joint view of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev from their 1986 Reykjavik summit, that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won, and so should never be fought.’ … [B]oth must now confront the urgent negative consequences of stalled U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control for global nuclear nonproliferation. … Washington and Moscow each control resources and levers of influence vital for managing and ultimately resolving [the wars in Syria and Ukraine] … policies of mutual isolation have atrophied relations between ordinary Americans and Russians to an unacceptable degree … The point of [the] meeting … should be to send a clear message and create the space necessary for the two governments to restart a cooperative engagement that is in the clear interest of both sides.”

“A Trump Foreign Policy,” Dimitri K. Simes, The National Interest, July-August 2018: The author, president of the Center for the National Interest, argues that, “[a]fter a year and a half in office, Donald Trump’s foreign policy appears poised for success, though some major challenges in approach and execution remain. … America’s international conduct has become noticeably more muscular, relying on a significant increase in the military budget and a demonstrable willingness to use force.” As examples the author cites the “[l]imited but psychologically effective air strikes against Syria, as well as the decision to supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles. … But there is a lot to worry about too. So far, the administration has struggled to complement appropriate pressure with equally creative diplomacy. Moreover, the president and other key players in his administration often act and speaks inconsistently.” Also, “Trump’s treatment of Russia has become a special problem that has handicapped the first part of his presidency. The president is not responsible for … the numerous and demonstrable flaws in Russian foreign policy and domestic governance or the fact that Moscow tends to deny every accusation… Moreover, when one looks closely at the matter, Russia’s interference in American politics during the 2016 election campaign appears half-hearted and inept—less a product of careful design and more a series of uncoordinated responses to what the Kremlin thought the United States and its European allies were undertaking to influence Russian politics. … The perception among some that Trump won the election only with help from Moscow put the new president and other advocates of a more pragmatic policy toward Russia in a very difficult position. … In the absence of any real evidence of collusion, however, Russia’s actions are Russia’s, not Trump’s. More serious is that too many of his associates had business contacts with shady Russian tycoons. Even if legal, these contacts often did not pass the smell test. Trump’s failure to lay out a clear blueprint for establishing better relations with Moscow either during the campaign or since is also problematic. Trump has not yet explained why improved relations with Russia would be in America’s national security interest, how such an improvement can be accomplished, what precautions must be taken to avoid abandoning other key U.S. interests, and how to protect America if overtures to the Kremlin are not successful.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Could Russia Flip Egypt?” Anna Borshchevskaya, The National Interest, 06.21.18: The author, the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute, writes: “[C]ould Russia be poised to flip Egypt? While perhaps unimaginable to diplomats who … have taken Egypt’s Western orientation for granted, the answer is unfortunately yes. … [As] Putin seeks to dislodge American influence in the Middle East and raise Russia’s great power status, Cairo is increasingly in Moscow’s crosshairs. … [Putin] has agreed to resume Russian flights to Egypt [a huge boon economically, while] …  at the same time … the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee holds up $300 million in aid… [T]he Egyptian economy is heavily dependent on tourism… Russia has been the single most significant source of tourists to Egypt for years. … The return of Russian tourists also helps … Sisi resist stringent International Monetary Fund demands for Egyptian reform. … In December 2017, Putin and Sisi agreed on a $30 billion deal for Russia to build a nuclear power plant for Egypt. … [C]onstruction is scheduled to begin by the tenth anniversary of Obama’s decision to scrap a U.S.-Egyptian nuclear partnership… Cairo increasingly looks to Moscow for military cooperation and weaponry… Where the U.S. Congress often holds up arms deliveries due to human-rights concerns, Russia has no such qualms. … Finally, the two countries have held joint naval drills and broader military exercises and, in March 2017, Moscow deployed Special Forces to help Egypt on the Libyan border. … Too often, analysts dismiss Egypt’s flirtation with Russia as posturing. This would be a mistake.”

“A Russian Writes to European Friends,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 06.19.18: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “Putin’s irrational politics have caused a deep mutual misunderstanding [between Russia and Europe] that now risks becoming a perpetual conflict. … Putin’s Russia is not the same thing as Russia itself. … [T]he so-called 80 percent approval rating stems from the answer to the question ‘Do you support the activity of the Russian president?’ The answer is ‘yes’ because … [Putin] is an eternal leader, a symbol of the country, a flag around which to rally. For the average Russian, it is more rational … to accept … anticipatory obedience to the state in exchange for some crumbs from the oil and gas pie. The essence of the mass support for Putin is total indifference—and fear of a worse life under a different leader. Sanctions … only mobilize his [Putin’s] core and periphery supporters. … Putin understands perfectly that he can’t touch the political foundations of his system, because if he does, it will collapse. … Putin is not a strong leader. … The role of a global spoiler is not equal to that of a real global player. Alexei Navalny … is not, however, the voice of the entire opposition movement, and he doesn’t represent all of Russia. … [F]or now, Putin … needs the same kind of successor that he was for Boris Yeltsin … chosen primarily to ensure the security of Yeltsin, his family and his political family.”


  • No significant commentary.


“My Goal Is to Defeat Corruption in Ukraine,” Petro Poroshenko, New York Times, 06.18.18: The author, the president of Ukraine, writes: “On June 7, Ukraine's parliament passed long-awaited legislation establishing a special anti-corruption court. … Ukraine's efforts to build this new future have been stymied at every turn… Russia's wrecking tactics and its hybrid warfare …  has meant a loss of an estimated $100 billion through economic destruction and occupation. But Ukraine's fight against corruption also has its internal enemies… [A]ll these opponents did their best to try to block the establishment of the anti-corruption court by introducing alternative bills, and nearly 2,000 amendments… Our next task is to ensure the anti-corruption court is operational as soon as possible. Foreign experts will oversee the selection of professional judges in an open and transparent manner, and candidates will be put through rigorous tests. … The system will not be fully effective, however, unless our European partners also play their part in ensuring high levels of diligence regarding capital flows from Ukraine, and no longer provide havens for officials and oligarchs seeking to evade justice in Ukraine's courts. … [B]y passing this law we have signaled that there can be no turning back in our efforts to become a peaceful, secure, corruption-free E.U. and NATO ally.”

“A Siberian Prisoner Spoils Putin’s Extravaganza,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 06.18.18: The newspaper’s editorial board writes that Russia playing host to the soccer World Cup is “a good reason to raise the case of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker … on a hunger strike for more than a month in a remote Siberian penal colony, to remind the Russian president that his costly sport show does not wipe away his government’s crimes. … [Sentsov] was arrested with three other Ukrainians on charges of ‘terrorism,’ … plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin and set fire to the door of a Russian political party. … Sentsov said he was beaten into a confession; during his trial, the main witness against him retracted his testimony, saying it was given under torture. No matter. … Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison… The case has raised an international outcry. … The Kremlin has … maliciously claimed that Mr. Sentsov’s bruises were … a result of his ‘sadomasochism.’ Kremlin-allied media … have claimed that Western protests over his incarceration are a ploy to undermine Russia’s World Cup tournament. … Putin’s regime alone is responsible for the assaults on Ukraine, for Mr. Sentsov’s torture and phony trial and for whatever shadow Russia’s actions cast over the soccer games.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Russia put World Cup stadiums in some surprising places. This is why,” Konstantin Ash, The Washington Post, 06.23.18The author, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, writes: “The distribution of the seven cities that got new stadiums in preparation for the World Cup suggests Moscow instituted a punishment-reward strategy targeting local officials. The federal government rewarded loyalty from local officials in non-ethnically Russian regions, while enticing less-supportive local officials in predominantly ethnically Russian regions. … There appear to be two broad patterns for why cities were chosen for bids: The percentage of voters that supported United Russia—Russia’s primary pro-regime party—in the 2007 elections; and the percentage of ethnic Russians in a given region. For cities with substantial populations of ethnic minorities, greater support for United Russia appeared to play a decisive factor in bid inclusion.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.