Russia Analytical Report, June 29-July 6, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- A New York Times article on June 26 revealed U.S. President Donald Trump was informed in March that Russia allegedly offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and reportedly the president ignored the matter. Why might Russia mount such an operation, asks Stanford’s Asfandyar Mir, if not to enable the Taliban in taking over Afghanistan? One explanation, according to Mir, is that this is a calculated Russian ploy to coerce the U.S. away from either harming Russian personnel or encroaching on Russian interests. A second explanation is that Russia is using Afghanistan in its asymmetric strategy of raising the costs for the U.S. across the Middle East and South Asia. And third, writes Mir, this could simply be the work of rash Russian local operatives.
- Kremlin watchers say it makes scant political sense for the Russian government to offer bounties to the Taliban for the lives of Americans in Afghanistan, reports Alan Cullison for the Wall Street Journal. Moscow has a record of killing its enemies abroad, Cullison writes, but they have been perceived traitors and former rebels from Chechnya, not outsiders. Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan in Moscow, told the New York Times that Russia has no real desire to see the United States leave Afghanistan. All the same, he said, Russia has been preparing for an eventual pullout by cultivating ties to the Taliban as well as to various Afghan warlords.
- Russia will not disappear, of course, and so it is essential to develop a revised approach to U.S.-Russia relations, argue Kennan Institute director Matthew Rojansky and Prof. Michael Kimmage Instead of friend or foe, it’s time for Russia to be viewed as the third neighbor of the United States. For Americans, Russia should be made less foreign, with all the irritations and all the benefits of connection. However unavoidable, conflict should be contained and balanced against cooperation. Russia, our third neighbor, must be a country with which the United States can manage to live.
- Perhaps the key question about the July 1 nationwide vote on changing the Russian constitution is why President Vladimir Putin needed it at all, writes Carnegie’s Tatiana Stanovaya. The referendum was intended by Putin as a way to renew his political mandate in order to impose decisions on the elite, but its legitimacy is dubious. In his quest to put the clans in their place, Putin is unilaterally drawing new red lines, making the relationship more pragmatic and less of a team effort, according to Stanovaya. Deprived of their claim to the future, the elites will inevitably continue to look around for a successor, just without distracting Putin from his “normal work routine.”
- Something very unusual is unfolding in the run-up to Belarus’s presidential election on Aug. 9, writes journalist Artyom Shraibman. President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Russian puppet masters of interference, and has in turn been criticized by the EU and United States for arresting those “puppets.” Consequently, the election threatens to ruin Minsk’s relationship with both Moscow and the West, just at a time when the dire state of the country’s economy means it is in serious need of external support.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant developments.
New Cold War/saber rattling:
“Why Didn't the US Rebuke Russia for Its Taliban Bounty Deal? Four Things to Know,” Asfandyar Mir, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, 07.01.20: The author, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, writes:
- “President Trump is in the middle of another controversy involving Russia. A New York Times article on June 26 revealed Trump was informed in March that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and reportedly the president ignored the matter. Trump insists he was never briefed on it, and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Saturday [June 27] said that intelligence officials had not briefed the president.”
- “Here are things to know. Moscow's ties to the Taliban have deepened. The Russian role in Afghanistan has grown steadily since 2015, when Moscow started developing a relationship with the Taliban.
- “Even if Russian involvement in Afghanistan is not new, the Trump administration's response seems unusual. Previously, the U.S. government has responded sharply to deliberate targeting of U.S. personnel in war zones.”
- “The bounty operation does not further Russia's Afghan policy: … In the near term, Russia's policy is to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while maintaining influence with the Afghan government and other factions, in addition to the Taliban.”
- “Why might Russia mount such an operation, if not to enable the Taliban in taking over Afghanistan? One explanation is that this is a calculated Russian ploy to coerce the United States away from either harming Russian personnel or encroaching on Russian interests. … A second explanation is that Russia is using Afghanistan in its asymmetric strategy of raising the costs for the United States across the Middle East and South Asia. … Third, this could simply be the work of rash Russian local operatives. … On the other hand, disclosures about bank transfers by Russian military intelligence to the Taliban and the shifting of an Afghan intermediary involved in the operation to Russia leave open the possibility that it might be more than a local operation.”
“Russia Denies Paying US Troop Bounties, but Offers No Condolences,” Andrew E. Kramer and Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 07.04.20: The authors, the Moscow bureau chief and a reporter for the news outlet, write:
- “A deep well of bitterness created by past and current conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine and more recently Syria, where U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries in 2018, help explain why Russia, according to U.S. intelligence officials, has become so closely entangled with the Taliban … Russian officials have scoffed at the idea they would hire killers from a radical Islamist group.”
- “In remarks to a state news agency on Monday [June 29], Zamir Kabulov, Mr. Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan … dismissed the Taliban bounties report as 'outright lies' generated by 'forces in the United States who don't want to leave Afghanistan and want to justify their own failures.'”
- “Aleksei Zhuravlyov, a member of the Russian Parliament recalled Operation Cyclone, the CIA's secret program to arm Moscow's enemies in Afghanistan during the 1980s … While dismissing reports of Russian bounties for American scalps as 'fake news,' he said, 'Let's suppose we paid' the Taliban, and then asked how many Americans had perhaps been killed as a result. 'At most 22,' he responded.”
- “Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan in Moscow, said Russia has no real desire to see the United States leave Afghanistan. All the same, he said, Russia has been preparing for an eventual pullout by cultivating ties to the Taliban as well as to various Afghan warlords. … Russia, he said, 'decided that if we can create lots of problems for Americans in Afghanistan, they will create fewer problems for us in Ukraine and Syria.'”
- “Mark Galeotti … said 'some old war horses' in the GRU could have hatched a scheme to kill Americans as payback for Russians killed with American weapons in Afghanistan. But … he doubted that such a plan would have been approved by the Russian leadership or executed without approval as a 'maverick operation.'”
“How Kremlin's View of US's War in Afghanistan Has Shifted; Deteriorating U.S.-Russian ties adversely affect a once-shared goal, leading to a U.S. intelligence assessment of bounties paid to Taliban,” Alan Cullison, Wall Street Journal, 07.06.20: The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes:
- “For years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. and Russia shared a goal of deposing the Taliban government and hunting down its remnants in the countryside. But that common purpose crumbled in recent years amid mutual suspicion and U.S. plans to leave Afghanistan with the Taliban undefeated.”
- “Today, amid a furor in Washington over intelligence assessments that Russia allegedly paid bounties to the Taliban to attack U.S. soldiers, it may have seen an epitaph. In Moscow, officials have vehemently denied that any bounty program existed. … The Trump administration has likewise cast doubts on the existence of a bounty program, saying that intelligence about it was unverified and leaked for political purposes. … Democrats on Capitol Hill have signaled that the alleged bounty program will be an issue going into presidential elections, when Mr. Trump is expected to be attacked for his friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
- “Kremlin watchers say it makes scant political sense for the Russian government to offer bounties to the Taliban for the lives of Americans in Afghanistan. Moscow has a record of killing its enemies abroad, but they have been perceived traitors and former rebels from Chechnya, not outsiders, said Mark Galeotti.”
- “Galeotti said that the Russians, because of their long war experience in Afghanistan during which they were frequently double-crossed by locals, would have known such a bounty program would be leaked to the U.S. sooner or later. "It is still hard to understand any reason for the Kremlin to take such a dangerous step," Mr. Galeotti said. "To target Americans would seem to be a major escalation, inviting retaliation."
- “Thomas Graham … said it would be a challenge for U.S. intelligence agencies to learn what, precisely, the money or weapons was for, or whether it went to its intended purpose.”
“Trump Remains Silent on Putin Despite Uproar Over Alleged Russian Bounty Payments,” Paul Sonne, The Washington Post, 07.04.20: The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes:
- “The possibility that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants to target U.S. forces—and that the president received intelligence reports about the activity but did little about it—has revived allegations, particularly among Democrats, that Trump is loath to confront Russia, even when it comes to an issue as fundamental as protecting American troops.”
- “‘It is bringing [Russia] back to the center of the election not so much as a foreign policy challenge but as a tool for domestic political struggle,’ said Thomas Graham, a senior adviser at Kissinger Associates who served as senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council under President George W. Bush.”
“Trump Doesn't Understand That Putin Is in the Payback Business,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 06.29.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “A basic truth about Russian President Vladimir Putin, which President Trump evidently doesn't understand: Putin is in the payback business. He believes the United States destroyed his former country, the Soviet Union. He likes the United States to feel pain, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.”
- “Gen. John ‘Mick’ Nicholson Jr., who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan for more than two years, revealed the secret Russian aid for the Taliban in a March 23, 2018, interview with the BBC. … Nicholson's 2018 interview was a rare public protest by a U.S. official. Trump didn't press the Russians to stop, and so they continued. The GRU military-intelligence units that were helping smuggle weapons to the Taliban in 2018 may have been the forerunners of GRU operatives who U.S. intelligence analysts suspect are the new bounty hunters.”
- “Through this January and February, as the CIA and military surveillance gathered reports about a cash stockpile in northern Afghanistan and other indicators of a possible Russian operation, U.S. military and intelligence officials became increasingly concerned, several told me. By March, they were pressing for a top-level review by senior Trump administration officials of this still-unconfirmed threat to U.S. soldiers.”
- “Through this agonizing period, Trump kept up a buzz of happy talk about improving relations with Putin, including the possibility of inviting him back into the Group of Seven. Were Trump's commanders too afraid to warn him off this folly?”
- “Trump is an obstacle to good policy. Either people don't tell him the truth, or he doesn't want to hear it. Whichever way, he's defaulting on his most basic responsibility as commander in chief.”
“This Time, Russia Is in Afghanistan to Win: Putin is replicating his success in Syria in a new theater of conflict—and part of his plan is to hurt American interests once again,” Sajjan M. Gohel and Allison Bailey, Foreign Policy, 07.01.20: The authors, the international security director and a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, write:
- “The recent revelations … that U.S. intelligence officials believed a Russian military intelligence unit had offered secret bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan renew deep concerns about the nefarious agenda Vladimir Putin’s Russia has not only in Afghanistan but also to destabilize the West.”
- “Russia has been accused of funding and arming the Taliban. … Russian night vision sniper scopes have been discovered in the hands of the Taliban. … In 2017, Abdul Jabar Qahraman, who then oversaw the security situation in Helmand province for the Afghan government, said Russia had collaborated with Iran to create training camps for Taliban fighters in Iran, who in turn would then deliver Russian weapons throughout western and southern Afghanistan.”
- “Perhaps more alarming are reports that Russia is funneling resources into Afghanistan that can be sold for profit by the Taliban. This includes shipping fuel tankers from Uzbekistan through the Hairatan border crossing, where they are delivered to Taliban front companies that sell fuel worth $2.5 million per month.”
- “While Russian intelligence services smuggle weapons and resources to the Taliban, the Russian government continues to present itself as a suitable alternative to the United States in terms of political guidance and aid for Afghanistan.”
- “The temporary relief in leaving the region will eventually give way to the stark reality that Western nationals will be traveling to Afghanistan for terrorist training. This will mirror the situation in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State. However, this time the West will find it much harder to go back into Afghanistan with the crowded field of Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, all of which will be very reluctant to let in anyone else. There is an emerging Great Game Redux in Afghanistan—and Russia is in it this time to win it.”
“Why Does Trump Put Russia First?” Susan E. Rice, New York Times, 06.30.20: The author, national security advisor and U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations during the Obama administration, writes:
- “Since at least February, and possibly as early as March 2019, the United States has had compelling intelligence that a committed adversary, Russia, paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan. American service members were reportedly killed as a result.”
- “To this day, the president of the United States has done nothing about it. Instead, President Trump dismissed the intelligence as not ‘credible’ and ‘possibly another fabricated Russia hoax, maybe by the Fake News’ that is ‘wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!’”
- “At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”
“Trump Would Do Anything for Putin. No Wonder He's Ignoring the Russian Bounties,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 07.01.20: The author, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, writes:
- “Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have paid Taliban rebels in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers. Having resulted in at least one American death, and maybe more, these Russian bounties reportedly produced the desired outcome.”
- “While deeply disturbing, this effort by Putin is not surprising: It follows a clear pattern of ignoring international norms, rules and laws—and daring the United States to do anything about it. Putin sees the United States as his central enemy. He fears our democratic values; believes that we actively promote these values to undermine autocrats, including himself; and loathes the liberal international order, which, in his view, serves American hegemony and weakens Russia. This latest act is designed to keep the United States bogged down in Afghanistan.”
“The Report of Russia Putting Bounties on US Soldiers Is Disturbing. Trump's Response Is Stupefying,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 06.30.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “The reported plot by Russia's military intelligence service to pay a bounty to the Taliban in Afghanistan for killing U.S. and coalition forces, if confirmed, will mark another escalation of Russia's conflict with the West, a turn in the shadow wars that would seem to cry out for a forceful response.”
- “The intelligence reports, if true, demand a serious response. With Mr. Trump once again immobilized in the face of Russian provocation, Congress will have to step up. It could start by approving the long-pending Deter Act, aimed at discouraging Russian interference in this year's election, and investigating the latest intelligence and U.S. nonresponse.”
“A New Superpower Competition Between Beijing and Washington: China’s Nuclear Buildup,” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, New York Times, 06.30.20: The authors, senior writers for the news outlet, write:
- “When negotiators from the United States and Russia met in Vienna last week to discuss renewing the last major nuclear arms control treaty that still exists between the two countries, American officials surprised their counterparts with a classified briefing on new and threatening nuclear capabilities—not Russia’s, but China’s. The intelligence had not yet been made public in the United States, or even shared widely with Congress.”
- “Marshall Billingslea, Mr. Trump’s new arms control negotiator … describe[ed] the Chinese program as a ‘crash nuclear buildup’ … The American message was clear: Mr. Trump will not renew any major arms control treaty that China does not also join. … [T]here are many reasons to believe that even if the three superpowers are not yet in a full-scale arms race, what is taking place in negotiating rooms around the world may soon start one.”
- “Without question, the Chinese are improving their arsenal, and may be rethinking the idea of holding a ‘minimal deterrent’ … But they have only 300 long-range nuclear weapons deployed, compared with 1,550 each that the other two superpowers are allowed under New START. So there is the very real possibility, experts say, that in any negotiation, Beijing will insist on quintupling its nuclear force before it agrees to any constraints. So far, China has said it is not interested in discussing any limitations.”
- “[I]n some ways he [Trump] is replaying a moment from the 1960s, when Mao Zedong was seeking nuclear weapons. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration briefly considered inviting the Soviets to participate in a joint strike at Lop Nor, the Chinese nuclear testing site, to prevent the country from joining the nuclear club. But the Americans abandoned the idea, determining it was simply too dangerous.”
- “Billingslea thinks he succeeded in getting the Russians to think about what is happening in China. During his meeting last week, the Russians were taking copious notes on China’s buildup, while reviewing classified slides. He insists they want to sit down and talk more later in the summer. They will do so without the Chinese.”
- No significant developments.
Impact of the pandemic:
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
“Unattainable Conditions for New START Extension?” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution/ Freeman Spogli Institute's Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, 07.01.20: The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:
- “President Donald Trump’s chief arms control envoy last week acknowledged the possibility that the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) could be extended, but … ‘only under select circumstances.’ He then put down conditions that, if adhered to, will ensure the Trump administration does not extend the treaty.”
- “From the perspective of U.S. national security interests, extending New START is a no-brainer. … On June 24, … Marshall Billingslea, the president arms control envoy, briefed the press on his meeting with his Russian counterpart two days before in Vienna. Asked about extending New START, … Billingslea … left the option open. However, he described three conditions that will block extension.”
- “Billingslea’s first condition focused on China, which he claimed had ‘an obligation to negotiate with [the United States] and Russia.’ Beijing certainly does not see it that way …. China has less than one-tenth the number of nuclear warheads of each of the two nuclear superpowers.”
- “Billingslea’s second condition dealt with including in a new negotiation nuclear arms not constrained by New START, especially Russia’s large number of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Again, this is laudable goal, but getting there will require much time and unpalatable decisions that the Trump administration will not want to face. Russian officials have regularly tied their readiness to discuss non-strategic nuclear arms to issues of concern to them, particularly missile defense.”
- “[Billingslea] made verification measures for his desired U.S.-Russia-China agreement the third condition for New START extension. … Verification measures are critical… Working out agreement on those measures will prove a long process, even in just a bilateral negotiation, especially if it addresses issues such as stored nuclear weapons. … Russian officials have reiterated their readiness to extend New START now. … Billingslea’s conditions will thwart extension for the foreseeable future. That’s unfortunate. By not extending New START, the Trump administration forgoes a simple action that would strengthen U.S. national security and make Americans safer.”
“Count Every Warhead: A Critique,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 07.06.20: The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:
- “What do we want arms control to accomplish? What should this practice be about? The Founding Fathers (Schelling, Halperin et. al.) said that arms control was about stabilization and risk reduction. Numbers became a means to this end, as did stabilizing forms of transparency. But the heart of the matter was stabilization and risk reduction. You don’t reduce nuclear dangers and weapons without stabilization and a mutual willingness to reduce nuclear dangers.”
- “How does the Trump/Bolton approach measure up to these fundamentals? Poorly. The Trump/Bolton approach is about transparency—the means to worthwhile ends—but not stabilization and risk reduction. Counting every warhead—assuming we could reach agreement on this with Moscow and Beijing—doesn’t stabilize anything. Nor does it reduce nuclear dangers and risks. It’s a measuring stick, and nothing more.”
- “A count-every-warhead approach … succeeds as a transparency measure, but fails as arms control. It also fails to strengthen deterrence. To succeed at strengthening deterrence, an adversary’s warhead count would need to be combined with stabilizing and reassuring limits on their means of delivery. The Trump/Bolton proposal is silent about means of delivery. What limits and ceilings would they propose for U.S., Russian and Chinese delivery vehicles for warheads?”
- “China will not join a three-power control regime limiting launchers as well as warheads that consigns it to a second tier. Insisting that China join Russia and the United States as a second-tier power would encourage Beijing to do exactly what Moscow did while awaiting the beginning of strategic arms limitation talks in the late 1960s—to rush to catch up.”
- “Insisting that China and Russia join a count-every-warhead regime fails as an arms control measure. It succeeds only as a diversion from true arms control. It’s a non-starter. It’s also a way to bury New START.”
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“The Third Neighbor: Can America Live With Putin's Russia?” Matthew Rojansky and Michael Kimmage, The National Interest, 07.03.20: The authors, the director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center and department chair of history at Catholic University of America, write:
- “Russia will not disappear … so it is essential to develop a revised approach to U.S.-Russia relations. Instead of friend or foe, it’s time for Russia to be viewed as the third neighbor of the United States.”
- “An American ‘third neighbor’ strategy toward Russia should rest on several pillars. The first requires knowing Russia far better, as well as developing a nuanced awareness of its history, and of the patterns and perceptions that have shaped the U.S.-Russian relationship over time. … The second pillar is a keen understanding of what each neighbor wants or believes is its entitled lot. … Finally, a new U.S.-Russia strategy should balance resilience toward Russian intrusions with an acceptance of, and engagement with, Russia as a near neighbor in world affairs.”
- “Moscow and Washington share a basic interest in limiting the costs of adversity … In the best case, U.S. strategy towards its Russian neighbor would reflect the sum total of U.S. interests, balanced against the risks of opposing interests Russia considers vital and against the potential gains of cooperation, limited as they may be. … Washington must consistently advocate and actively defend its own vital interests. It should clearly communicate its redlines to Russia … [and] be willing to enforce them in ways that will be taken seriously by Russia.”
- “A successful American strategy will be sufficiently guided by an awareness of Russian interests and perspectives.”
- “Russia will never be irrelevant to American interests. Nor can it be made subservient to them. Moscow cannot be bludgeoned into compliance with anyone else’s values or notions of world order, and Russians will not accept involuntary isolation from the Euro-Atlantic civilization … However unavoidable, conflict should be contained and balanced against cooperation. Russia, our third neighbor, must be a country with which the United States can manage to live.”
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“The Taming of the Elite: Putin’s Referendum,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.01.20: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “Perhaps the key question about the July 1 nationwide vote on changing the Russian constitution is why President Vladimir Putin needed it at all. Generally the explanation is that he needs to legitimize his new constitution—which will allow him to remain in power after his current term ends in 2024—and renew the social contract. These are reasonable deductions, but they fail to take into account another important factor: how the vote will affect Putin’s relationship with the elite.”
- “The much-vaunted ‘Putin majority’ has long been not so much a pillar of Putin’s rule as an argument he can use in his debates with his own circle. The vote is an attempt to obtain a certificate of public trust that Putin can thrust in the faces of the elites, who are the real source of his worries.”
- “The referendum was intended by Putin as a way to renew his political mandate in order to impose decisions on the elite, but its legitimacy is dubious. In his quest to put the clans in their place, Putin is unilaterally drawing new red lines, making the relationship more pragmatic and less of a team effort. Deprived of their claim to the future, the elites will inevitably continue to look around for a successor, just without distracting Putin from his ‘normal work routine.’”
- “Putin’s general aim in holding the nationwide vote is to cement the state of affairs that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which sent his approval ratings soaring. In reality, that world has long been eroded. This attempt to remain in a vanishing past scares many, not just among the opposition but also within the establishment, where there is desire to move forward. For now, we are not talking so much of an elite rebellion as of their instinct for self-preservation as they see that old political tools are worn out and can no longer guarantee stability.”
“Russia's Referendum Could Keep Vladimir Putin in Power Until 2036. What Do High-Ranking Russians Think?” Sharon Werning Rivera and Henry E. Hale, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, 07.01.20: The authors, professors at Hamilton College and George Washington University, respectively, write:
- “Russians vote … on constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until the year 2036 … Putin recently justified these reforms as necessary to prevent a disruptive succession struggle. Is his plan working? Not entirely, according to data from the Survey of Russian Elites (SRE). As lame ducks go, Putin is now a little less lame than before, but only in some ways.”
- “Thanks to lucky timing, the 2020 SRE serves up a unique opportunity to assess how elites view Putin's proposals. Just as it did four years ago, the SRE interviewed Moscow-based elites connected in some way with foreign policy issues … In four key ways, we find that Putin's constitutional gambit has paid off in terms of mitigating his lame duck problem.”
- “First, the share of respondents who think Putin initiated the constitutional reform process to improve governance fell from 31 percent before the March 10 announcement to 19 percent, while the share stating it was about preserving Putin's power rose from 32 percent to 38 percent. … Second, more respondents think Putin intends to hold onto power. … Before March 10, 29 percent thought he would hand off power to a successor. Afterward, just 10 percent held this view.”
- “Third, more respondents are confident of Putin's and his United Russia Party's hold on power. … [B]efore March 10, a surprisingly high 61 percent of elites thought it likely or very likely that someone other than Putin would come to power in the next decade, while 32 percent believed a party other than United Russia would become dominant. Afterward, these figures were just 40 percent and 21 percent, respectively. … Fourth, and perhaps most importantly to Putin, the share of respondents who viewed a succession struggle as an ‘utmost danger’ to Russia diminished from 22 percent to just 6 percent.”
- “Overall, the 2020 SRE indicates Putin's constitutional gambit doesn't fully solve the succession issue. More jockeying among elites to position themselves for success in an eventual post-Putin era seems likely.”
“Vladimir Putin Has Just Done a Brezhnev: The president has secured his future rule but he is straining his social contract with the Russian people,” Tony Barber, Financial Times, 07.02.20: The author, Europe editor for the news outlet, writes:
- “Unwittingly, perhaps, President Vladimir Putin has just done a Brezhnev. In a week-long theatrical performance directed by the Kremlin, voters have approved a long list of amendments to Russia’s 1993 constitution. They create the illusion of a modernized, law-based state, but it is as detached from Russian reality as was the 1977 constitution from Soviet life.”
- “As with votes in the communist era up to 1989, all Russians knew that the result was never in doubt, from the moment in January when Mr. Putin announced his intention to make the changes. But the exercise was not devoid of political purpose. It was a ritual designed to make citizens complicit in the shrunken political freedoms and degradation of the rule of law.”
- “Things did not go completely to plan. It appears that Mr. Putin’s amendments did not secure majority support from voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia’s two largest cities are bastions of middle-class opposition to Putinism, just as they served as incubators of political discontent in the late tsarist era and under communism. There was also a palpable restlessness during the campaign among younger Russians.”
- “The original social contract between Mr. Putin and the Russian population is coming under strain. It was, in essence, an unwritten pact under which people enjoyed a better quality of life than under communism, and were subjected to less turmoil than in the Boris Yeltsin era of the 1990s, but agreed not to question Mr. Putin’s political supremacy, and the power and riches of his entourage. This contract was coming apart even before coronavirus.”
- “Putinism displays a policy paralysis and enthusiasm for empty political rites that echo those of the later years of Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 to 1982. The parallels may go further. The constitutional amendments permit Mr. Putin to stay as president, if he chooses, until 2036, by which time he would be in his early eighties, the same age at which Brezhnev died in office.”
“How a Great Power Falls Apart. Decline Is Invisible From the Inside,” Charles King, Foreign Affairs, 06.30.20: The author, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, writes:
- “Governments are good at recognizing the faults in other places and times but terrible judges of the injustices built into their own foundations. … This was especially the case for great powers such as the Soviet Union, Soviet dissident writer Andrei Amalrik believed. If a country could sail the seas unrivaled and put humans into outer space, it had little incentive to look inward at what was rotten at the core.”
- “Amalrik identified four drivers of this process. One was the ‘moral weariness’ engendered by an expansionist, interventionist foreign policy and the never-ending warfare that ensued. … Another was the economic hardship that a prolonged military conflict … would produce. … A third was the fact that the government would grow increasingly intolerant of public expressions of discontent … It was a fourth tendency, however, that would spell the real end of the Soviet Union: the calculation, by some significant portion of the political elite, that it could best guarantee its own future by jettisoning its relationship to the national capital.”
- “He turned out to be especially insightful on what would emerge after the Soviet demise: a congeries of independent countries, a new quasi commonwealth dominated by Russia, the entry of the Baltic republics into ‘a Pan-European federation,’ and, in Central Asia, a renewed version of the old system, combining bits of Soviet-style ritual with local despotism. American conservatives came to cite him as a kind of Cassandra of the steppe.”
- “In working systematically through the potential causes of the worst outcome imaginable, one might get smarter about the difficult, power-altering choices that need to be made now—those that will make politics more responsive to social change and one’s country more worthy of its time on the historical stage.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant developments.
“Chechen Exiles Are Being Hunted Down. Often, the Trail Leads Back to Russia,” Robyn Dixon, The Washington Post, 07.06.20: The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:
- “The assassins come with pistols, hammers and knives. They ambush cars or plant bombs. The hunted: Chechen bloggers critical of President Vladimir Putin's protege, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, or Chechen rebel veterans who fought for independence from Russia.”
- “The latest victim, 43-year-old Mamikhan Umarov, who posted frequent criticism of Kadyrov on YouTube, was gunned down outside a shopping center in the Austrian town of Gerasdorf north of Vienna late Saturday [July 4]. A 47-year-old Russian fled by car, was tracked by police helicopter and was arrested about 100 miles from the scene of the crime. A second suspect … was also arrested.”
- “The murder follows a long string of assassinations and attacks on Chechen exiles in Europe, Turkey and the Middle East since 2004 … Some of the attacks, including assassinations of former Chechen rebel fighters, have been linked to Russian security agencies. Others have targeted exiled journalists and critics of Kadyrov, who is accused by human rights advocates of abuses against political opponents, activists, LGBT people and others. He denies abuses or ordering assassinations. However, Putin has given Kadyrov a free hand to do whatever he deems necessary to stabilize Chechnya, where rebels fought two grueling independence campaigns against Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
- “The assassinations of Chechens in exile appear to be part of a broader pattern of brazen attacks by Russians in foreign countries—including the 2018 poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using the nerve agent Novichok in Britain, and the fatal 2006 poisoning of another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, using a radioactive agent, polonium-210.”
- “According to Bellingcat, in 2012 the FSB shared with German intelligence a wanted list including 19 Chechens, five of whom have since been assassinated.”
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“What Vladimir Putin Tells Us About His Relations With the West,” Nigel Gould-Davies, The National Interest, 06.30.20: The author, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, writes:
- “In his nine-thousand-word article on these pages last week, Vladimir Putin offered his view about the causes of World War II. Many Western commentators have dismissed it as tendentious propaganda. As a scholar who toiled in the Moscow archives and later served there as a diplomat, I disagree. Putin’s piece holds great interest and should be read. Understanding why can yield a more creative response from scholars and diplomats alike. To do so, we should ask four questions.”
- “1. What did Putin say, and does it have merit? Putin wants above all to justify the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939, and so absolve the Soviet Union of responsibility for World War II.”
- “2. Why did Putin write it, and what does this tell us? Putin wrote in response to a European Parliament resolution last September, on “Importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe.” The second of its twenty-two points condemns the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, its secret protocols, and the division of Eastern Europe that followed.”
- “3. Why did the EU parliament pass this resolution? Putin claims the EU resolution is part of “a deliberate policy aimed at destroying the post-war world order.” The truth is less dramatic and more illuminating….the resolution was not passed unanimously: 20 percent of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted against.”
- “4. What should the West say now? …Acknowledging the past, however difficult, is painful but ultimately healthy. Historical truth is not a zero-sum game. This is how the West should respond, not by finger-pointing or point-scoring. Say this publicly and honestly. A call for truth always plants seeds. And if Putin is unlikely to be swayed, there are audiences that will—and will outlast him.
“Unplugging the Baltic States: Why Russia’s Economic Approach May Be Shifting,” Emily Ferris, Russia Matters, 07.01.20: The author, a research fellow in the international security studies department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), writes:
- “Russia’s approach to the Baltic states is occasionally framed as an imminent territorial takeover. This view has become salient since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when other nearby countries became concerned that they may be in Russia’s sights. In fact, Russia is unlikely to be interested in a territorial incursion in the Baltics, not least because this would trigger NATO’s Article 5, its collective defense principle, and because Russia would be unlikely to win in a conflict against NATO allies.”
- “Russia has many other tools—more effective than covert or overt military aggression—at its disposal to influence the Baltic states. Their significant ethnic Russian populations and enduring dependence on Russia for energy enable Moscow to maintain its status as one the most powerful regional stakeholders.”
- “The Baltic states have clearly made significant progress in diversifying their trade, including energy imports, away from Russia. Moscow, too, has taken steps to reduce its own dependence on the Baltics for transit of its energy exports and other trade. In spite of this effort to reduce mutual dependence, Russia continues to maintain significant leverage over the Baltics, and it remains a key energy supplier and major trading partner.”
- “As long as this multi-pronged leverage endures, alongside the Baltic states’ membership in NATO, the probability that Russia would resort to a Crimea-style intervention in the region will remain low. While Russia is keen to retain its influence in the Baltics, it has more to gain by using non-military methods of doing so. It is therefore unlikely that the Baltics would become another flashpoint in the U.S.-Russian relationship like the Ukraine conflict.”
“It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute,” Olga Puzanova, The National Interest, 07.05.20: The author, a lecturer and researcher at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, writes:
- “The territorial dispute over the islands, referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, has been a toxic influence on Russian-Japanese bilateral relations ever since the end of World War II.”
- “Russia seems to be ready for a compromise … Moscow might agree to the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan under certain conditions, one of which would be that this transfer would be the final settlement. Japan would then recognize Russia’s sovereignty over the remainder of the disputed territory without attempting to further negotiate it.”
- “Japan’s position, however, suggests little willingness to compromise: Tokyo demands that Moscow recognizes Japanese sovereignty over all four islands, transfer two to Japan immediately and continue negotiations on the remaining two. This position has already resulted in failure on several occasions, with the most recent being in December 2016 at the Putin-Abe summit in Yamaguchi, Japan.”
- “More recently though it seems that the general approach under Abe has shifted slightly, and his statement in Osaka during a meeting with Putin in June 2019 is another indication of that. Tokyo now seems more inclined to support Moscow’s approach in calling for broad bilateral cooperation to precede the resolution of the territorial dispute, creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and making the involved parties more amenable to reaching an agreement … Such an approach also enabled Russia to resolve its territorial issues with China, and according to some experts, might influence other border dispute resolutions in the region, such as the Sino-Indian one.”
- “This is still rather far from the ideal, but the overall trend is encouraging, as is the willingness of the two current leaders to overcome the issue. Russia’s turn to the East, its interest in Asia and Japan, and its wish to avoid excessive dependency on China as a partner, along with Japan’s desire for a more independent position on the international arena and its fears of growing China, are some of the new tendencies that could bring the two nations closer together.”
“‘Engaged Opportunism’: Russia’s Role in the Horn of Africa,” Samuel Ramani, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 07.02.20: The author, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, writes:
- “Russia has engaged with all countries in the Horn of Africa and refused to take sides in the region’s most polarizing conflicts, so Moscow can be best described as an ‘engaged opportunist’ on the Horn of Africa. Russia is principally focused on establishing itself as the region’s leading arms vendor, but prospectively, has one eye on constructing a Red Sea base. Russia’s resurgence in the Horn of Africa has generally dovetailed with the People’s Republic of China’s regional aspirations, but has placed it increasingly at odds with France and the United States. Looking ahead, Russia’s ability to link its Horn of Africa strategy to its aspirations in the Middle East will shape the future trajectory of its involvement in the region.”
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“Embattled Lukashenko Loses Friends in East and West, “Artyom Shraibman, Carnegie Moscow Center, 07.06.20: The author, a journalist and political commentator, writes:
- “Something very unusual is unfolding in the run-up to Belarus’s presidential election on Aug. 9. President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Russian puppet masters of interference, and has in turn been criticized by the EU and United States for arresting those ‘puppets.’ Consequently, the election threatens to ruin Minsk’s relationship with both Moscow and the West, just at a time when the dire state of the country’s economy means it is in serious need of external support.”
- “Instead of its status as a peacekeeper between East and West, Minsk may soon find that it lacks a good relationship with either side.”
- “There’s always China, which the Belarusian government would like to be able to rely on in times of need, but that requires reciprocal interest, and in this relationship, feelings have always been stronger in Minsk than Beijing.”
- “A balancing act is a hard act to pull off for small countries wedged between rival blocs. Minsk’s attempts to do so look set to fail. What will follow is not necessarily a sudden break with one center of power, or absorption by the other. Belarus may stumble on in geopolitical isolation and poverty for years. Until, that is, there are no longer enough resources to fuel the section of society responsible for holding back the resentment of everyone else.”
“Love with Nuances: Kazakhstani Views on Russia,” Marlene Laruelle and Dylan Royce, PONARS Eurasia, June 2020: The authors, the co-director of PONARS Eurasia and a PhD student at George Washington University, write:
- “Kazakhstan is known as one of the countries most loyal to Russia—even more so, in many respects, than Belarus. … But what about Kazakhstani public opinion? What do Kazakhstanis think of their northern neighbor, and why?”
- “According to Central Asia Barometer (CAB) surveys conducted between 2017 and 2019, Kazakhstanis overwhelmingly have a positive opinion of Russia and of close relations with it. Eighty-seven percent have a favorable view of Russia (vs. 8 percent unfavorable), 88 percent support closer relations with Russia (vs. 6 percent who do not), and 72 percent think that joining the Eurasian Economic Union has benefitted the Kazakhstani economy (vs. 14 percent who disagree).”
- “CAB also asks respondents to provide up to two reasons why they hold the opinion that they do, and 82 percent of the reasons provided by those with positive opinions can be categorized. Of those categorizable positions, 57 percent admire Russia’s domestic qualities, mostly its development in general or its economic growth in particular. Ten percent cite a positive Kazakhstani-Russian relationship, describing Russia as a friendly neighbor. Nine percent cite innate bonds with Russia, referencing either the history, culture and mentality that it shares with Kazakhstan, or its perceived willingness to reunite the former Soviet states (implying a desire for such a reunion). And 3 percent cite the practical benefit of economic and business relations with Russia and membership in the EEU/Customs Union.”
- “Interestingly, this globally pro-Russian attitude does not necessitate negative views of the United States, or opposition to having ties with the United States. Nonetheless, Kazakhstanis are generally sympathetic toward Russia’s foreign policy and, in cases of Russo-U.S. tensions, they largely take the Russian side. Gallup surveys that we have cited elsewhere reported that, in 2014, an overwhelming majority of Kazakhstanis (72 percent) prioritized relations with Russia over those with the United States (vs. 7 percent who held the opposite opinion). Furthermore, our focus group participants overwhelmingly took Russia’s side in its conflict with the United States, praising its recovery and defense of its own interests.”