Russia Analytical Report, March 11-18, 2019

This Week's Highlights:

  • Five years ago, Russia’s “little green men” began a not-so-covert military intervention in Ukraine, stoking a conflict that has killed 13,000. Considering whether Vladimir Putin’s gamble has paid off, Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan writes that the costs for Moscow have been manageable so far, but there is a chance they will eventually become prohibitive—not only due to the cumulative impact of expanding Western sanctions, but because of Russia’s lackluster economic growth model.
  • New evidence shows not only that talk of NATO expansion to central Europe began among top policymakers early in 1990, but also how vocally and effectively the Czechs, Hungarians and above all Poles campaigned for accession (with an inadvertent assist from Mikhail Gorbachev), writes historian Mary Sarotte.
  • Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili predicts that Russia’s next military intervention will take place in Finland or Sweden.
  • The TurkStream pipeline—already a commercial and geopolitical coup for Russia—may strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand in the Balkans, while placing a financial and political burden on local governments, writes Dimitar Bechev of UNC at Chapel Hill. Washington, meanwhile, is preparing to enact sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, driving a wedge deeper into the transatlantic alliance, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has come from behind to become a front-runner in Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election because he is essentially the only noteworthy politician appealing to patriotic voters, journalist Konstantin Skorkin writes for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
  • In what several sources called a clearly political project, Russia’s Rosneft oil giant has poured around $9 billion into Venezuelan projects since 2010 but has yet to break even, a Reuters investigation has found.
  • Putin is poised to sign four bills into law allowing him to clamp down on the last vestiges of press freedom. Under the blatantly unconstitutional laws, the Kremlin wouldn’t need to look for pretexts to close a website or jail a blogger: Any piece of news could be declared fake and dangerous to public safety without the need for even the fig leaf of a court ruling, writes Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky; any criticism of the government could be interpreted as disrespect.

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:

“50+ Retired Generals and Diplomats Urge the United States to Reenter Iran Deal,” The American College of National Security Leaders, The National Interest, 03.11.19: In an open letter organized by the college, the signees argue that, “The United States should rejoin the Iran nuclear deal” because “[s]ubsequent to the United States’ withdrawal from the deal, Iran’s continued compliance is not ensured and the benefits from the agreement risk being lost.” Specific reasons for reentry include:

  • “Iran is complying with the agreement.”
  • “Under the JCPOA regulations, Iran’s enterprise lacks the nuclear weapons-development activity necessary to produce a nuclear device and is subject to unprecedented international monitoring.”
  • “Our European allies are firmly committed to the agreement.”
  • “Re-entry into the nuclear deal will contribute to establishing a broader U.S. national strategy for the Middle East.”
  • “We must recall that the initial agreement was a strategic, long-term, high-stakes endeavor focused on one goal: preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Reentering the agreement and lifting the sanctions will greatly enhance the United States’ ability to negotiate improvements and enable us to address our concerns with the existing agreement.”

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

“The Convincing Call From Central Europe: Let Us Into NATO,” Mary Elise Sarotte, Foreign Affairs, 03.12.19: The author, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a research associate at Harvard's Center for European Studies, writes that:

  • “Twenty years ago today, the first major post–Cold War expansion of NATO took place in an unlikely locale: Independence, Missouri. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland officially entered NATO in a ceremony at the Truman Library organized by the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, herself a refugee from Czechoslovakia. … [T]he Polish foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, expressed his gratitude to Albright. He told her that NATO enlargement was ‘the most important event that has happened to Poland since the onset of Christianity.’”
  • “Today historians hotly contest the matter of when, exactly, the idea arose to include central and eastern Europe in NATO. The timing is of more than academic interest, because Moscow’s grievance about when the West decided to make allies out of the countries in the region remains a hot-button issue in U.S.-Russian relations to this day. Some scholars have dismissed the notion that the issue arose soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989, saying it only came up much later, in the nineties.”
  • “But evidence now available—including documents that I have gotten declassified from the George H. W. Bush Library and, most recently, the Clinton Presidential Library—shows that speculation about the role of the alliance in central Europe began early in the year 1990 among top policymakers. The evidence also shows that in the early to mid-nineties, the Czechs, the Hungarians, and above all the Poles campaigned vocally for accession, particularly after the Clinton team came into office.”
  • “Central and eastern European states wanted to become members of the Western community and its institutions—rather than exist in a gray zone between the West and Russia—and to guard against a resurgent Russia. … But first, they had to overcome Western hesitations. In fact, one of the earliest documented mentions of post–Cold War NATO expansion to central and eastern Europe was a German comment that it should not happen.”
  • “[A]t a meeting of Warsaw Pact foreign ministers in March 1990, when the Soviet foreign minister indicated his opposition to NATO’s moving eastward across Germany, he found himself completely alone, with no support from his central and eastern European colleagues.”
  • “[B]y March 1990 an early assessment had reached the desk of the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker. In it, the secretary’s staff advised caution. While central European states were understandably looking for guidance at a tumultuous time, the interest of the United States might not lie in taking on ‘the burden of “organizing” this region,’ it read, because ‘we alone do not have the means but … NATO and the EC surely do.’”
  • “Put bluntly, the U.S. priority at the time was not helping central Europe; it was achieving German unification as swiftly as possible, in conjunction with German chancellor Helmut Kohl. But questions about the broader future of European security kept coming up.”
  • “Using the theory that the best defense is a good offense, [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had personally pressed the issue with Baker in May 1990, raising the astonishing thought that perhaps the Soviet Union might join NATO.”
  • “Once the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting started, on May 31, 1990, it became clear that the fulcrum of the meeting was, indeed, the issue of whether NATO could move eastward beyond the 1989 line. Arguing that it should be able to do so, [President George W.] Bush skillfully cited the so-called Helsinki principle—the idea that countries had a right to choose their own security alliances, as stated in the Helsinki Final Act, which Moscow had signed. Gorbachev conceded the point, to the great consternation of his own delegation members, who were unable to counter Bush’s argument in any meaningful way.”
  • “At that moment Bush and Gorbachev were negotiating over Germany, but Gorbachev’s endorsement of the Helsinki principle had implications for central and eastern Europe as well, since they had also signed on to the same accord.”
  • “A delegation from the think tank RAND, visiting Warsaw shortly after the summit, was surprised when a Polish general asked how his country could get U.S. forces stationed on Polish territory. The question led to an extended debate over the costs and benefits of potential Polish membership in NATO.”
  • “The combination of Bush’s success at the Washington summit and Kohl’s financial generosity toward Moscow later that summer ultimately secured the necessary Soviet approval for German unification in October 1990—without the concessions over NATO.”
  • “In fact, the final settlement on Germany, which Moscow signed in September 1990, explicitly allowed NATO to begin moving eastward over the 1989 line. But by then, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had reoriented U.S. priorities away from Europe.”
  • “With Clinton in office, central and eastern European leaders took every opportunity to bring the question of their region’s future in NATO to the new administration’s attention. In April 1993, for example, the United States invited leaders from the region to the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Leaders such as Czech President Vaclav Havel and Polish leader Lech Walesa met with Clinton behind the scenes. … Walesa was blunter [than Havel] in his own talk with Clinton: ‘We are all afraid of Russia … If Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed toward Ukraine and Poland.’ Over the course of the next year, Walesa’s language grew increasingly insistent with every conversation he had with the Americans.”
  • “[In August 1993] Walesa got Yeltsin to issue a statement indicating that Russia would not oppose Polish membership in NATO. … Washington still hesitated, and Yeltsin’s aides soon found ways to walk the agreement back.”
  • “[Central European arguments] planted seeds that would later bear fruit.”
    • “Members of the RAND group who had visited Warsaw in 1990 … would go on to write a series of influential papers and articles calling for NATO expansion throughout the early 1990s.”
    • “The Republican Party voiced support for enlargement in its 1994 midterm campaigns.”
    • “And, most important, the appeals from leaders in central and eastern Europe made a deep impression on the U.S. president. Ever the consummate domestic politician, Clinton signaled his support for NATO expansion by giving a major speech in a heavily Polish suburb of Detroit in late 1996.”
  • “Once both Yeltsin and Clinton were safely elected to second terms and reinstalled in office, Washington worked together with NATO leaders to ensure that, in 1997, the alliance would invite Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to begin the necessary political and military preparations for accession two years later, during the alliance’s fiftieth-anniversary year.”
  • “Today we speak of NATO expansion almost exclusively in the context of tensions between the United States and Russia. But that history should not obscure the one that belongs to central and eastern Europeans, whose own actions in the decade after the fall of [the] Wall in 1989 had much to do with their countries’ accession to the alliance in 1999.”

“The Russian Missile that Could End the U.S.-Turkish Alliance,” Aaron Stein, War on the Rocks, 03.12.19: The author, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “At a U.S. Air Force base in Arizona right now, Turkish Air Force pilots are learning how to fly American jets that may never be delivered to Turkey – and a Russian missile could be to blame. The Turkish government’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system has prompted serious backlash in the United States … [where some] worry that Turkey’s operation of the American F-35 aircraft in range of the S-400’s powerful radar – which is reportedly capable of collecting electronic intelligence – will allow Russia to collect and exploit data about America and NATO’s future front line fighter. As a result, the United States seems to be considering blocking the export of the F-35 to Turkey, whose air force is set to receive the first two jets in late 2019.”
  • “Turkey has dismissed American concerns, telling the United States that it will not allow Russian technicians to service the S-400 in Turkey, that it will design the missile’s operating system to prevent built-in Russian backdoors, and that the system will not be “plugged in” to NATO networks.”
  • “But according to my interviews with U.S. officials in the legislative and executive branches, Ankara’s reassurances have failed to assuage the concerns about sensitive information on the F-35 ending up in Russian hands. Indeed, it seems increasingly likely that Washington will block the transfer of the jets to Turkey, formalizing the temporary measures in two recently passed appropriation bills to freeze funding for the transfer.”
  • “[T]he delivery of the S-400 to Turkey could prompt sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).”
  • “The contentious negotiations over U.S.-Turkish defense industrial cooperation symbolize a broader and uncomfortable geo-strategic issue: Ankara and Washington no longer have overlapping interests or a common understanding of how to solve regional problems. The two sides oppose one another in Syria and, since the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, view the Russian threat differently. Accordingly, they have adopted conflicting policy goals.”
  • “The S-400 is a microcosm of this reality… The F-35’s secrets, for Ankara, are not as important as the relationship it has forged with Russia, and the cost of cancelling a questionable procurement decision outweighs the benefits of fixing the spat with the United States. This Turkish choice, in turn, is a clear signal that Ankara is not willing to prioritize its relationship with Washington, a reality that will have repercussions far beyond defense procurement.”
  • “The Turkish decision to purchase the S-400 has baffled many in Washington. Though the Turkish government has long-pursued long-range air and missile defense, it has always prioritized the transfer of technology and work share arrangements to ensure robust local industrial participation. Russia has not reached any substantive agreement with the Turkish government on any of these criteria. … This has led to speculation that the purchase of the S-400 stems from a top-down political decision made between two men: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin.”
  • “The United States has threatened sanctions, but also offered to replace the S-400 with the U.S.-made Patriot air and missile defense system. Turkey has, thus far, refused to budge, saying it will go ahead with the purchase of the S-400.”
  • “Ankara’s approach may stem from recent changes in domestic politics, the serious downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations, and a longer-term change in how the Turkish national security elite makes decisions. Events in Syria – specifically, serious disagreement over how to address the civil war and fight Islamic State, as well as U.S. support for a Kurdish ground force that Turkey opposes – have made clear that Washington and Ankara have vastly different interests in the Middle East.”
  • “One result of these shifts has been the Turkish government’s efforts to bolster relations with Russia.”
  • “This dynamic has shaped the dueling negotiations with Russia for the S-400 and with the United States for the Patriot system.”
  • “In 2017, Erdogan and Putin met face-to-face eight times, leading to a mid-December announcement that an agreement had been reached on the S-400 and, eventually, the signing of a bilateral accord. Ankara has maintained that the agreement included arrangements for joint development, without going into any detail. Putin has reaffirmed a willingness to cooperate with Turkey on commercial ventures, but the head of Russia’s state-owned Rostec, Sergey Chemezov, told reporters that the agreement does not include any technology transfer arrangements. For now, it appears that the only specific agreement details the financing terms and a delivery timeline.”
  • “The State and Defense Departments have outlined in a series of non-binding documents — summarized in an unclassified summary of a congressionally mandated Department of Defense report — the risks the S-400 purchase poses for bilateral relations and Turkish participation in the F-35 consortium.”
  • “The American “carrots” are designed to entice Ankara to cease cooperation with Moscow and reach an agreement for the export of a long-range air defense system. From the outset of these talks, the United States has tried to meet the Turkish demand for the rapid delivery of a missile system. … However, at the time of this writing, the Turkish government has indicated that they have failed to reach agreement with the U.S. on financing. Meanwhile, Erdogan has made clear that the ‘deal is done’ for the S-400 and that Ankara will explore cooperation with Russian on future air defense systems.”
  • “Turkey has made clear that it will absorb the political costs and put its own jet at risk to take ownership of the S-400. This uncomfortable reality should force significant introspection: What is the future of the U.S.-Turkish alliance?”
  • “The S-400 saga is a microcosm of broader, structural changes driving the United States and Turkey apart. Beyond personality politics, it is now simply a fact that Washington and Ankara have different interests in the Middle East and view one another as hindrances to realizing national goals.”
  • “If a [NATO] member chooses to disregard the shared security concerns of future F-35 operators, the long-lasting issue will outweigh narrow security concerns. It signals a broader political rupture that will be hard to overcome and the future [is] unclear.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“Russian Trolls Can Be Surprisingly Subtle, and Often Fun to Read,” Darren L. Linvill and Patrick Warren, The Washington Post, 03.11.19: The authors, associate professors at Clemson University, write: 

  • “On Sept. 10, 2018, @PoliteMelanie tweeted to her more than 20,000 followers: ‘Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It's like criticizing the Amish on television.’ The next day, this tweet won the Chicago Tribune's ‘Tweet of the Week’ contest. What the Tribune's readers didn't know when casting their votes, however, was that ‘Melanie’ was a Russian troll.”
  • “Most Americans probably believe that they could spot a Russian troll from a mile away — and that they would certainly never engage with one. These assumptions, however, do not give credit to what [suspected funder Yevgeny] Prigozhin's people have built. … [T]he IRA's work is much subtler, often more palatable and always seemingly more organic than Americans may imagine.”
  • “We've spent the past year studying Russian IRA disinformation on Twitter with the goal of better understanding its strategy and tactics. Like KGB disinformation operations of the past, this campaign has two overt goals. First, it seeks to further divide and polarize the United States along ideological lines. … Second, it attempts to undermine our trust in the institutions that sustain a strong nation and a strong democracy.”
  • “[M]any troll messages are not negative. Instead, they are cute, or educational, or uplifting, all in an attempt to gain credibility and followers. PoliteMelanie won the ‘Tweet of the Week’ because Americans found her funny. They spread her messages and followed her account for that same reason. Before Twitter suspended PoliteMelanie's account, her winning tweet had more than 125,000 retweets and likes — and this wasn't even her most popular post.”
  • “Tweets from other accounts that were part of the PoliteMelanie network had similar success: We found them cited by The Washington Post, CNN, BuzzFeed, Al Jazeera, the New York Post and Essence magazine, to name a few. One of these accounts, @Blk_Hermione, had a tweet with cross-platform success, gaining more than 40,000 ‘upvotes’ to make the front page of Reddit.”
  • “An analysis of 2 million English-language IRA tweets released by Twitter last July shows that the trolls had at that point gained 30 million likes and 22 million retweets among 1,866 English-language accounts active between 2014 and 2017. And the data shows they have gotten better with each passing year.”
  • “We've seen debates that they helped foment move quickly from Twitter to mainstream print media. On topics ranging from vaccines to Colin Kaepernick, they can speak vehemently to the extremes of both sides. … That's why IRA accounts have differing target audiences and differently tailored messages.”
  • “Twitter continually shuts down accounts… [but the IRA] can afford to routinely lose accounts, given the low cost of replacement and the efficiency with which they can build followers.”
  • “Other nations clearly view these asymmetrical tactics as fruitful, since new troll factories are spreading, to countries as diverse as Iran, Venezuela and Bangladesh.”

Elections interference:

“Releasing the Mueller Report,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 03.17.19: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The House voted 420-0 late last week on a resolution urging the public release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to Attorney General William Barr. That sounds good to us, as long as the AG releases everything related to the Trump-Russia probe.”
  • “Congress doesn’t know whether Mr. Mueller will disclose new information beyond what has been in his indictments and court filings. Mr. Mueller’s charges against former Trump associates have been for crimes unrelated to the Russian investigation or for lying to the FBI. But his indictments and sentencing memos have been littered with Russian names and extensive redactions, and Democrats hope he will provide a narrative that connects the disparate facts into a story that warrants impeachment. Justice Department rules require only that Mr. Mueller file a ‘confidential report explaining [his] prosecution or declination decisions.’”
  • “Once Congress has the report, it is sure to leak, perhaps selectively without proper context. The better course is for Mr. Barr to release the report and everything else that is relevant to the Russia probe. That includes investigative materials that accompany the report, and all documents related to the FBI counterintelligence investigation that began in 2016.”
  • “Once the Mueller probe is over, there is no excuse for not giving the public a full accounting of the Trump-Russia collusion story well before the 2020 campaign is at full speed.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Russia’s Pipe Dreams Are Europe’s Nightmare,” Dimitar Bechev, Foreign Policy, 03.12.19: The author, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe” (2017), writes:

  • “In the ongoing showdown between Russia and the West, Russia has a trump card: natural gas exports. … [I]n 2018, gas shipments from Russia to Europe and Turkey hit an all-time high of 201.8 billion cubic meters (bcm).”
  • “Now Russia may be using another major project—TurkStream—to deepen its influence in Europe’s backyard. … [T]he first shipments of gas are expected toward the end of this year. TurkStream is a commercial and geopolitical coup for the Russians … [and it] may strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand in the Balkans too. In its second phase, if Putin gets his way, the pipeline will transport 15.75 bcm of gas through Bulgaria and then on to Serbia, Hungary, and Austria.”
  • “The Kremlin has failed spectacularly in its efforts to stop countries like Montenegro and newly renamed North Macedonia from joining NATO. But its ability to co-opt politicians and businesspeople by dangling lucrative infrastructure contracts and hydrocarbon profits in front of them is unparalleled.”
  • “Because TurkStream will terminate in the EU, Gazprom needs to bring it into conformity with European anti-monopoly rules. These rules, largely crafted after Russia shut off gas shipments to Ukraine in 2009, are geared toward diversifying energy supplies to avoid dependence on Russia. One such rule—that energy companies can’t simultaneously own transit infrastructure and sell gas through it—presents a particular challenge for Moscow, which would otherwise allow Gazprom to both build the pipeline and then supply it. … That’s why Putin has been out courting partners for Gazprom in the Balkans.”
  • “The EU may be willing to allow Berlin to break the anti-monopoly rules for Nord Stream 2 … but it appears ready to be much more stringent in enforcing its law in the Balkans.”
  • “To smooth things over with Europe, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has suggested that TurkStream will be only one pipeline coming into a new Balkan Gas Hub that will also be fed by supplies from Azerbaijan and offshore fields in the Black Sea. … Unfortunately for him, Medvedev and Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller have nixed his idea. … In other words, it will be the Bulgarian taxpayer underwriting the venture.”
  • “Sofia does hold one trump card in its negotiations with Russia. … The Bulgarian government can sue Gazprom for compensation over lost revenue from transit fees [for the Trans-Balkan Pipeline]. … Serbia and Hungary should be able to join with Bulgaria to pressure Russia. This, of course, is easier said than done.”
  • “For now, they believe they can find a way to work with Russia without running afoul of the European Commission and EU law. Who can blame them? … [But] unless they play their cards well, they will be expending scarce resources on mammoth ventures with doubtful profitability for everyone except Russia.”

“Russian Gas Plan Divides US, Allies,” Bojan Pancevski, Wall Street Journal, 03.11.19: The author, Germany Correspondent for the news outlet, writes:

  • “When the German chancellor took her seat at the Oval Office table [last spring], … President Trump left her nowhere to hide. ‘Angela,’ he said, according to people in the room, ‘you got to stop buying gas from Putin.’ A year later, work continues on [Nord Stream 2] the gas link under the Baltic Sea financed by several Western firms and PAO Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy company. The dispute is coming to a head, in a graphic example of how Russia's estrangement from the West … is driving a wedge between the closest of allies.”
  • “Trump told Ms. Merkel at the meeting that Germany should buy American gas.”
  • “Berlin says the pipeline would improve the continent's energy security.”
  • “Washington is preparing to enact sanctions against the pipeline. A U.S. security official who briefed Mr. Trump on the issue said the president saw Nord Stream 2 as incompatible with the military shield America maintains over Europe. The president's thinking, the official said: ‘If you want us to protect you from the beast, why are you feeding it?’ Berlin officials say Germany would perceive sanctions as aggression on a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member."
  • “Gazprom officials said the project's most complex part had been completed. Should specialized pipe layers be forced out, the project would be delayed and costs would rise, but Gazprom would be able to complete the work, they said. Without Western investors, Russian state-controlled banks would take over, possibly with some Chinese financing.”
  • “Merkel sees the pipeline as in Germany's long-term interests because it is hooked on gas, said a Merkel aide. In 2011, following Japan's Fukushima-reactor meltdown, she accelerated Germany's phasing-out of nuclear power. Her government has also set a 2038 target to shut remaining coal-fired power plants. Germany's industry-heavy economy can't rely on renewables alone, so gas will play an increasingly central role in its energy mix. Germany is the world's biggest natural-gas importer, government figures show. BASF SE, the German chemicals group and co-investor in Nord Stream 2, consumes more gas than Denmark. … Russian gas offers a price advantage, currently around 20% lower than American liquefied natural gas, according to the German government.”
  • “France's Emmanuel Macron in February contemplated backing proposed European legislation to give the EU oversight of the project, effectively wresting control from Germany, until the chancellor dissuaded him in a telephone call, said French officials. … Merkel called other EU leaders critical of the pipeline, trying to torpedo the legislation… [Her] offensive worked. EU governments approved a watered-down version of the legislation leaving pipeline oversight to Germany.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Trump Is Winning, Putin's Losing in Global Arms Sales,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.12.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “The world has grown significantly less violent since 1950, but there has been an marked uptick in the number of armed conflicts in recent years. … The number of fatalities has increased even more dramatically, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Between 2011 and 2017, the average annual death toll from conflict neared 97,000, three times more than in the previous seven-year period.”
  • “That helps to explain the 7.8 percent increase in international arms transfers from 2014 to 2018 compared with the previous five-year period seen in the latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the global authority on the weapons trade.”
  • “Russia … was the only one of the world’s top five exporters, which together account for 75 percent of the business, to suffer a major loss in market share. It remains the world’s second-biggest arms exporter. SIPRI has its own, rather complicated, system for calculating transfer volumes based on the military value of the equipment traded rather than on its market price. But in dollar terms, too, Russia trails the U.S.”
  • “Yury Borisov, Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, said last month that Russia “steadily reaches” $15 billion in arms exports a year… By contrast, the U.S. closed $55.6 billion of arms deals in 2018, 33 percent more than in 2017, thanks to the Trump administration’s liberalization of weapons exports. According to the SIPRI figures, U.S. exports were 75 percent higher than Russia’s in 2014 through 2018 – a far wider gap than in the previous five-year period.”
  • “Arms sales are perhaps the best reflection of a major military power’s international influence. The market isn’t all about price and quality competition; it’s about permanent and situational alliances. The growing gap between the U.S. and Russia in exports shows that Putin’s forays into areas such as the Middle East are failing to translate into Russian influence in the region.”
  • “Many tears have been shed in the U.S. about the collapse of the American-led global order. But if you take arms sales as a proxy for influence, the U.S.’s global dominance looks to be resilient. In a more conflict-prone, competitive world, America is doing rather well while its longstanding geopolitical rivals stumble.”

“Authoritarians' corruption is a weapon—and a weakness,” David Petraeus and Sheldon Whitehouse, The Washington Post, 03.08.19: The authors, the former director of the CIA and a U.S. senator, write about the clash between rule of law and corruption in government: 

  • “Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the world is once again polarized between two competing visions for how to organize society.”
  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian rulers have worked assiduously to weaponize corruption as an instrument of foreign policy, using money in opaque and illicit ways to gain influence over other countries, subvert the rule of law and otherwise remake foreign governments in their own kleptocratic image. In this respect, the fight against corruption is more than a legal and moral issue; it has become a strategic one—and a battleground in a great-power competition.”
  • “Yet corruption … is also, in many cases, what sustains these regimes in power and is their Achilles' heel. For figures such as Putin, the existence of the United States' rule-of-law world is intrinsically threatening.”
  • “Ironically, one of the reasons 21st-century kleptocrats are so fixated on transferring their wealth to the United States and similar countries is the protections afforded by the rule of law. Having accumulated their fortunes illegally, they are cognizant that someone more connected to power could come along and rob them too, as long as their loot is stuck at home.”
  • “[T]he United States should make it more difficult for kleptocrats, and their agents, to secretly move money through the rule-of-law world, whether by opening bank accounts, transferring funds or hiding assets behind shell corporations. Failure to close loopholes in these areas is an invitation to foreign interference in America's democracy and a threat to national sovereignty.”
  • “Congress should tighten campaign-finance laws to improve transparency, given that U.S. elections are clearly being targeted for manipulation by great-power competitors. At the same time, the United States must become more aggressive and focused on identifying and rooting out corruption overseas. Just as the Treasury Department has developed sophisticated financial-intelligence capabilities in response to the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it is time to expand this effort to track, disrupt and expose the corrupt activities of authoritarian competitors and those aligned with them.”

“Congress Makes a Move Against Russia’s Worst Human Rights Abuser,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 03.14.19: The author, vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, writes:

  • “[On March 12] the House of Representatives passed a resolution that aims to bring at least a measure of accountability for the organizers of Russia’s most high-profile political assassination, the February 2015 murder of opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov.”
  • “The most hard-hitting measure … urges the secretary of state ‘to investigate the business activities of [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov and any entities controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov outside the Russian Federation.’ The congressman [who introduced the amendment] made clear which countries he wants to see scrutinized above all: the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.”
  • “[Earlier] moves by Western countries to counter Kadyrov’s impunity with visa and financial sanctions had profound symbolic importance. Their practical effect, however, was limited by the fact that Kadyrov had no interests and no presence in the democracies of Europe and North America.”
  • “The Middle East, however, is a different matter. Kadyrov’s Instagram feed is filled with reports of his frequent visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These three countries are now reported to be the largest investors in Chechnya. UAE investments alone total more than $350 million, with funding for airports, hotels, shopping malls and skyscrapers. Kadyrov’s relationship with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has been described as a ‘blossoming friendship.’ He has also met on several occasions with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.”
  • “Close ties with Arab monarchies have benefited not only Kadyrov’s regime but also his own pocket. A recent report by Transparency International showed that the Chechen leader made nearly $1 million in winnings from his racehorses in the UAE (none of it reported on his government declarations).”
  • “Kadyrov’s initial reaction to the passage of H. Res. 156 echoed his earlier swagger: He has written that he does ‘not care in the least about the decisions of the U.S. Congress.’ If the will of the House translates into executive action, however, the Chechen strongman could soon lose quite a lot of his customary brashness.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia’s Next Land Grab Won’t Be in an Ex-Soviet State. It Will Be in Europe,” Mikheil Saakashvili, Foreign Policy, 03.15.19: The author, a former president of Georgia, writes:

  • “Not many observers would consider the world’s coldest shipping lane a geopolitical hotspot. But that may be about to change. Last week, reports emerged that a new Kremlin policy will require all international naval ships to give Russia 45 days’ notice before entering the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic waters north of Siberia. Every vessel on the route, where Russia has invested heavily in sophisticated military infrastructure, will also be required to have a Russian maritime pilot on board. Ships found in violation of these restrictions may be forcibly halted, detained, or—in unspecified ‘extreme’ circumstances—‘eliminated.’”
  • “Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive. … If we have learned anything from the past two decades, a new crisis is on the horizon. According to a March 7 poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Russian voters’ trust in Putin has fallen to 32 percent—the lowest level since 2006.”
  • “It is not a question of whether he will attack, but where. … I have had the misfortune of getting to know Putin better than most people. Drawing on this firsthand knowledge, I predict a different direction of escalation.”
  • “Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden; although both are members of the EU, they are not members of NATO. By attacking a non-NATO country, Putin does not risk a proportional response in accordance with Article 5. But by targeting a European country, he can expect to reap the rewards of public approval at home from voters who are desperate for a victory.”
  • “I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm unopposed. But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra? NATO wouldn’t, but Putin would—because the stakes are higher for him.”

“A new Franco-German narrative for Europe,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, Brookings Institution/Financial Times, 03.12.19: The author, the inaugural Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings writes:

  • “[W[hat is stirring here is a new European narrative forged in the crucible of great power competition among Russia, China, and the United States—a competition that is global in scope, but in which Europe is a key strategic prize.”
  • “February’s Munich Security Conference provided ample evidence of this new strategic landscape. American vice-president Mike Pence harangued Europeans and demanded that they abandon the Iran nuclear deal. A senior Chinese official offered flowery homages to multilateralism that were utterly at odds with Beijing’s attempts to pit EU member states against one another. And the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran sneered at the audience for being dupes of Donald Trump’s America.”
  • “Now, the French president and [Annegret] Kramp-Karrenbauer are laying out what might be called a fourth narrative for a united Europe… about the protection of what Mr. Macron terms ‘civilization’ and Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer calls the “European way of life”: representative democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom and a social market economy. They are talking, in other words, about preserving the extraordinary achievements of three-quarters of a century on a continent previously riven by war.”
  • “Hence their joint focus on Europe’s ability to act: improving its ability to innovate and compete, securing its borders, fending off predators, and creating a European security council that works with the U.K. Both affirm their commitment to the transatlantic alliance, Mr. Trump notwithstanding. No mention is made of either “strategic autonomy” or an “EU army.” There are detailed ideas here that most other EU member states could get behind.”
  • “Yet to be credible this pragmatic push for a stronger Europe has to avoid three pitfalls. The first is hypocrisy. Standing up to the authoritarians at the gate is a worthy goal, but it will be measured against the deals Europeans make with the likes of Huawei or Gazprom. The second danger is opportunism. European values must also be defended against the authoritarians within, such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The final pitfall lies closer to home. Mr. Macron is attempting to fix France’s problems, while Germany is staring at a decade of under-investment in infrastructure, competitiveness, and defense. Those are the challenges to be met if Europe is to be a diner rather than dinner in the new zero-sum world order.”

“A Foot in the Door? Russia’s International Investment Bank Moves to Hungary,” András Rácz, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 03.18.19: The author, an associate professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest, writes:

  • “On 14 March 2019, a Hungarian law on moving the headquarters of the Moscow-based International Investment Bank (IIB) to Budapest came into force. In its current form, the law could create serious security problems for not only Hungary but every member of the European Union and NATO.”
  • “The bank was founded in 1970 with the objective of fostering trade and other economic cooperation within the Soviet Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. … [A]s the bank had a wide-ranging and well-functioning international network, the KGB frequently used it as a cover organization.”
  • “At present, the IIB has nine members: Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam. … The IIB is registered among the official state organs and governing bodies of the Russian Federation. This means that the bank is an integral part of the Russian state administration. Thus, pro-Orbán media outlets’ argument that the IIB is ‘partly Hungarian’—due to Budapest’s investment in it—are unfounded.”
  • “Hungary’s draft law provides the IIB with a wide range of immunities and exemptions. Under the legislation, neither the bank nor its transactions or operations are subject to financial or regulatory oversight. … Under the law, people operating from the IIB headquarters building will be covered by diplomatic immunity. … [T]he Hungarian authorities will have no right to enter the building or perform any official duties there, unless the bank waives its immunity.”
  • “Similarly, the bank’s governors will have diplomatic immunity, while its chairperson and directors will be eligible for numerous benefits, including full tax exemption. Many such perks are available to high-ranking personnel at other multilateral investment banks, but IIB staff will receive several exceptional forms of protection.”
  • “Moreover, the law sets no limit on the number of IIB employees or guests in Hungary. In theory, the bank could host hundreds of foreign citizens who would be able to move freely within the Schengen Area. The same applies to IIB-owned vehicles, which will be protected from search, expropriation, seizure and disposal.”
  • “Budapest’s new law on the IIB seriously undermines the Hungarian authorities’ capacity to take action should a threat arise. Therefore, it poses serious risks to both internal security, not least counter-intelligence, and financial security. These risks extend beyond Hungary to the rest of NATO and the EU.”

“Special Report: How Russia sank billions of dollars into Venezuela quicksand,” Christian Lowe and Rinat Sagdiev, Reuters, 03.14.19: The authors, journalists with the news agency, write:

  • “At the end of 2015, managers at Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil firm, sounded the alarm to their bosses about the company’s investments in Venezuela. Rosneft’s local partner, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, owed it hundreds of millions of dollars, according to internal documents, and there seemed no prospect things would get better.”
  • “‘It will be like this for eternity,’ a Rosneft internal auditor wrote in an email to a colleague in November 2015, complaining there was no progress in getting PDVSA to explain a $700 million hole in the balance sheet of a joint venture.”
  • “The email was among scores of internal Rosneft communications - including presentations, copies of official letters, memos and spreadsheets – reviewed by Reuters. They cover the firm’s operations in Venezuela between 2012 and 2015.”
  • “Rosneft has poured around $9 billion into Venezuelan projects since 2010 but has yet to break even, Reuters has calculated, based on Rosneft’s annual reports, its public disclosures and the internal documents.”
  • “The Rosneft documents also reveal: … Oil output at the joint ventures [with PDVSA] was far lower than projected; [and] the Russians believed PDVSA spent millions of dollars from one joint venture on ‘social projects’ in a remote area where just a few hundred people lived.”
  • “The reason Rosneft kept doubling down on its bet was political, according to two people close to the firm and two others with links to the Venezuela projects. State-owned Rosneft was expected to help prop up Moscow’s allies in Caracas, these sources said.”
  • “‘From the very beginning it was a purely political project. We all had to contribute,’ said an executive at a Russian oil firm that partnered with Rosneft in Venezuela.”


  • No significant commentary.


“5 Years Since Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine: Has Putin’s Gamble Paid Off?” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, 03.14.19: The author, founding director of the Harvard-based Russia Matters project, writes:

  • “In February 2014 Russia’s ‘little green men’ began a not-so-covert military intervention in Ukraine, stoking a conflict that has killed 13,000. … Five years later it is worth asking: Has President Vladimir Putin’s gamble in Ukraine paid off and, if so, for whom? The answer is of paramount importance as it can illuminate Russian leaders’ decisions on future interventions—whether to pursue them, where and how.”
  • “On balance … the intervention advanced one vital national interest for Russia, as seen from the Kremlin—preventing the growing proximity of a hostile military alliance—while doing damage to several others, primarily involving development of the economy and constructive relations with both post-Soviet neighbors and key Western countries. If Putin’s hope was that the costs imposed by the West on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine would be as fleeting as the costs imposed after Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, then he clearly erred in his calculations. These costs have been manageable so far, but there is a chance they can eventually become prohibitive—not only due to the cumulative impact of ever-expanding Western sanctions in the longer term, but because of Russia’s lackluster economic growth model.”
  • “Intervention advanced the Russian state’s interest, seen as vital by the country’s leadership, in keeping NATO at arm’s length, but also worked against the national interest in fostering trade and other ties with the West.”
  • “Vladimir Putin remains in control, but he needs to eventually stop a further decline of popular trust.”
  • “The fortunes of Russia’s ruling elite have hardly declined, if at all [sanctions notwithstanding].”
  • “Sanctions imposed in the wake of the Ukraine intervention did tangible damage to the Russian economy and that damage may increase with time, but the economy is far from imploding.”
  • “Ordinary Russians are the real losers, but many of them continue to support interventions in the post-Soviet neighborhood.”
  • “[I]t is clear that the surge in Putin’s popularity in the wake of annexation is over, and the recent decline in Russians’ confidence in their leader should worry both Putin and his key allies in the ruling elite, even if some of them have seen their fortunes increase since the intervention began. Moreover, the costs for Russia of continued alienation from the West … are growing and may eventually become unaffordable unless one or both of two things happen: either Russia finds a new economic model that will let its economy become competitive and grow at least as fast as the world’s as a whole—all while semi-isolated from the West—or Moscow reaches a compromise on issues of major disagreement, including the Ukraine conflict.”

“How Petro Poroshenko Became Ukraine’s Top Patriot,” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 03.12.19: The author, a journalist covering eastern Ukraine, writes:

  • “Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has surged ahead [in the polls] and become one of the front-runners in Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election. … [This became possible because he] is essentially the only noteworthy politician appealing to patriotic voters. … That may win him a second term as president, a significant feat in the country that has reelected an incumbent president only once.”
  • “Until recently, one of his top competitors for patriotic voters was Anatoliy Hrytsenko, leader of the center-right Civic Position party. … As of summer 2018, Hrytsenko held second place in the presidential polls—behind former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ahead of the incumbent president. … It even appeared he could win.”
  • “But that’s when the problems started. Ukraine’s protest electorate proved unreliable and easily changed its preference based upon the candidates’ personal charm. Hrytsenko—a morose introvert—simply could not compete with the populism of Tymoshenko or professional actor-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy.”
  • “Finally, Poroshenko delivered a surprising but crushing blow to Hrytsenko’s popularity among patriotic voters: he focused his campaign on military and patriotic themes, beginning by declaring a month of martial law in November 2018 after a naval confrontation with Russia. … He created a national Orthodox Church independent from Moscow and enshrined Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic path in the constitution.”
  • “By March, these steps had launched Poroshenko to third or even second place in the polls. Meanwhile, Hrytsenko fell to fifth place. Importantly, Poroshenko began leading in the country’s more nationalistic western region, a key source of legitimacy for a politician running on a patriotic platform.”
  • “Meanwhile, the position of the far right appears even weaker: the nationalists’ unified candidate, Ruslan Koshulynsky of the Svoboda Party, finds himself at the bottom of the top ten presidential contenders.”
  • “Indeed, the time for ‘national patriotic’ politicians has passed. … Both ideological groups [pro-Western and pro-Russian] failed to advance a single, strong candidate and essentially handed the political field over to populists.”
  • “Thus, having monopolized the patriotic vote, Poroshenko now aims to present himself as the only guarantor of both Ukraine’s European choice and its territorial integrity amid Russian aggression. Even the corruption- and nepotism-tinged roots of his political career cannot undermine this image.”
  • “In recent weeks, investigative journalists revealed that one of Poroshenko’s close associates was involved in a corrupt scheme to smuggle parts for military equipment from Russia and sell them at an inflated price to the Ukrainian military and state defense enterprises. … The scandal shined a rare light on the degree to which graft penetrates even the president’s inner circle.”
  • “Many supporters saw the scandal as a new chance for Hrytsenko. But … corruption is not the defining issue for patriotic voters in this election; rather, the war in Ukraine’s east is. Ukraine is choosing a leader at a time when being commander in chief is not simply a title and honorary regalia, but the president’s primary responsibility.”
  • “[M]any Ukrainians perceive their country as a besieged fortress and think it is currently unacceptable to replace the leader—despite his obvious flaws. It is particularly indicative that many of Poroshenko’s supporters believe that the illegal schemes discovered by investigative journalists served to strengthen the army and, thus, were acceptable for a country at war.”

“Five Years Later, Putin Is Paying for Crimea,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.16.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Five years ago, on March 16, 2014, the Kremlin held a fake referendum in Crimea to justify after the fact the peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine. It changed the course of history, luring Russian President Vladimir Putin into a trap from which Russia may still break loose. But Putin himself can’t. The Crimea operation itself went well for Putin, considerations of international law and human decency aside.”
  • “In exchange for the relatively small drain on Russia’s public finances and the contained Western outrage, Putin’s regime received a rare treasure: A genuine, emotional, vigorous jump in public support. … It was a blanket mandate to do anything he wanted domestically or internationally. … [T]he ‘Crimea Is Ours’ cause and the near-absence of economic, political or military cost to the annexation lulled Putin into a sense of invincibility familiar to any gambler on a remarkable roll.”
  • “The annexation was a crime; what followed was, from a realpolitik point of view, an error of judgment. Putin, egged on by military and intelligence analysts who believed Ukraine was divided into politically incompatible Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking areas, decided to try splitting off eastern Ukraine.”
  • “It was meant to be another low-cost operation … This time, though, the Ukrainian government put up a fight. … Russia sent troops to defeat the Ukrainian military at key junctions in 2014 and 2015—and, crucially, it also sent the missile launcher that accidentally downed a passenger plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, on July 17, 2014. The death of the 298 passengers and crew made sure Putin’s second Ukraine gamble would not be low cost.”
  • “I’m not even talking about the sanctions … No, the highest cost to Putin came in bargaining power rather than in cash. Immediately after Crimea, geopolitical bargains were still possible for Putin. In a recent interview, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili recounted how in 2014, Petro Poroshenko, then not yet president of Ukraine, told him Crimea could be traded for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO and the European Union.
  • “Whatever the truth of that, Putin could have wrangled a post-Crimea bargain with reluctant Western leaders, especially European ones; after the eastern Ukraine adventure, and especially after the downing of Flight MH17 and all the laughable Russian denials that followed, his credibility was shot. … Putin’s lack of credibility is an important reason he can’t build any alliances at all, even with China and other major emerging economies.”
  • “At the same time, Russians’ post-Crimea enthusiasm is gone, eroded by six years of falling incomes. … [J]udging by the lack of reaction in the polls to Putin’s recent promises, as well as pronounced apathy during recent elections, Russians don’t trust him, either.”
  • “Russia, the world and, likely, parts of the Russian establishment are waiting for Putin to go, even if no one can make him leave. Perhaps, with him out of the picture, deals, bargains, mutual concessions and all kinds of realpolitik games will be possible again, as they still were in the spring of 2014. Meanwhile, Fortress Russia is locked and no one’s coming to parley.”

“How Russia Took Over Crimea, and Crimea Took Over Putin,” Tatyana Stanovaya, The Moscow Times, 03.15.19: The author, founder of the political analysis project R.Politik, writes:

  • “Over the past five years, a new political leader has emerged — one who has little in common with the Putin the country had known and loved. Russia may have taken over Crimea, but Crimea, in turn, appears to have swallowed up Putin.”
  • “[A]fter Crimea, he adopted an entirely new mission in no way linked with his country’s social and economic needs. Putin’s course and focus as president subsequently took on a life of its own, at direct odds with the wants of the people.”
  • “With his continuing focus on foreign policy, the president moved away from his own political elite, resulting not just in an increasingly detached president, but also a power vacuum within the vertical. This has resulted in fierce infighting among the elite, as the high-profile arrests of former Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev and senator Rauf Arashukov demonstrated.”
  • “Vladislav Surkov’s notorious open letter sums it up well: never before has anyone described the lack of ideas and cynicism of Putin’s new Russia with such candor.”

“He Played a President on Ukrainian TV. Now He Wants the Real Thing,” Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, 03.16.19: The author, a reporter for the news outlet, writes:

  • “If opinion polls in Ukraine are even close to accurate, Mr. [Volodymyr] Zelensky, a comedian and actor, has a strong chance of winning this month’s [presidential] election.”
  • “If Mr. Poroshenko is unseated, a new leader in the capital, Kiev, could revive stalled negotiations to end Europe’s only current war, … Perhaps more important, the departure of the post-revolution leadership, which Russia has accused of coming to power on the back of a coup, could offer a face-saving means for Moscow to find a way out of the conflict with Ukraine—and relief from some Western economic sanctions.”
  • “A free election and a possible democratic transition of power in Ukraine would also underscore the country’s credentials for closer trade and political integration with the European Union.”
  • “Mr. Zelensky’s critics are not buying into his rags-to-riches tale, however, saying his success is indicative of the entrenched power of wealthy business interests in Ukraine. His shows were broadcast on the television channel of [oligarch] Ihor V. Kolomoisky … Mr. Kolomoisky is embroiled in a sprawling banking bailout scandal involving PrivatBank that cost Ukraine $5.6 billion — a staggering expense for a country whose government is propped up by loans from the International Monetary Fund.”
  • “He has denied that he is a puppet for the scandal-hit mogul and has defended his qualifications as a comedian to lead a country involved both in a shooting war and the broader conflict between the West and Russia.”
  • “Mr. Zelensky is all but openly running on the record of his fictional television character, the schoolteacher turned president. … Billboards have gone up in Kiev saying, ‘The President is the Servant of the People,’ referring to the name of the comedy show and promoting the candidate at the same time.”
  • “In past seasons, Mr. Zelensky as the fictional president has boldly confronted Ukraine’s oligarchic class, calling out corrupt officials and in one scene using a vulgar term to tell the head of the IMF to stop dictating economic policies to Ukraine.”
  • “In reality, the IMF for a time halted disbursements to Ukraine in the wake of the PrivatBank scandal. Through the IMF and bilateral aid, taxpayer money from Americans, Europeans and other donors … had effectively vanished into the bank bailout, rather than helping with hospitals, schools or the army that is fighting Russian-backed separatists.”

“Is the Risk of Ethnic Conflict Growing in Ukraine? New Laws Could Create Dangerous Divisions,” Elise Giuliano, Foreign Affairs, 03.18.19: The author, director of graduate studies of the MA program at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, writes:

  • “Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s leading presidential candidates are all running on platforms resisting Russia. … [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko differs from other candidates in that he couches his anti-Russian message in a national identity incorporating elements of Ukrainian ethnicity. Whereas his campaign slogan in 2014 was ‘A New Way of Living,’ his current slogan is ‘Army! Language! Faith!’”
  • “Given the persistence of the crisis in the east, is there a danger that cultural identities and practices will become politicized and lead to ethnic conflict? Although such an outcome is still unlikely, several new government policies could lead cultural identities to be redefined in a way that divides citizens where formerly no division existed. This development could both worsen political polarization and bolster Putin’s claims that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians face discrimination in Ukraine.”
  • “Analysts often refer to Russians in Ukraine as an ethnic minority. But this term is a red herring. … Rather, the category of personal ethnicity in Ukraine is a legacy of Soviet state policies.”
  • “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic identities have not become politicized in Ukraine. … Cultural boundaries are faint and porous … More and more people consider themselves Ukrainian based on their citizenship and regardless of their ethnicity. This trend has accelerated in the five years since the Ukraine crisis began.”
  • “Yet continued harmony among the country’s ethnicities is by no means guaranteed. People start to perceive ethnic boundaries when politicians and opinion leaders stigmatize certain cultural practices and attributes as immoral or alien. Unfortunately, recent Ukrainian government policies may have begun to do just that.”
  • “There is also a danger that the war in Donbass … could contribute to the politicization of ethnicity in Ukraine. … Alexander Hug, former deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, has not observed an ethnic or religious ‘undercurrent group dynamic’ as in other conflicts … [He] believes, however, that intergroup conflict is likely to develop the longer the violence persists.”
  • “[A]t this critical period for the country, its political and cultural leaders should not inadvertently further Putin’s goals of fomenting identity-based conflict by equating Russian cultural practices and affinities with a lack of loyalty to Ukraine. The people of Ukraine long ago moved beyond a simple Russian-Ukrainian dichotomy.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Can Putin Fix Russia’s Sputtering Economy? Why Stagnation Is the New Normal,” Chris Miller, Foreign Affairs, 03.13.19: The author, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes:

  • “[F]ive years have passed since the imposition of the first round of sanctions and the collapse of the price of oil, and for most Russians, things have scarcely improved. … In fact, they feel worse off. Adjusting for inflation, household disposable incomes have declined each of the past five years.”
  • “The Kremlin followed the pension change with a hike in the value-added tax from 18 percent to 20 percent… This, too, will hit household incomes, making Russians feel poorer still.”
  • “[I]n late February, Putin assured Russians that he would make things better. He mentioned foreign policy, but the bulk of the speech focused on domestic reforms. … It was a speech intended for struggling families, evidence that the Kremlin’s political advisers and spin doctors understand that they need to offer something more than geopolitical confrontation.”
  • “But if the message was on target, the substance was not. … Finance Minister Anton Siluanov predicted that [Putin’s] promises would cost … approximately $1.5 billion, per year. Divide that by Russia’s population, approximately 140 million, and Putin’s new handouts amount to slightly more than $10 per person per year. Even in … Russia … this is small beans.”
  • “Contrast the Kremlin’s promise of a $1.5 billion increase in social spending, for example, with the country’s $390 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Or consider the state-owned energy company Gazprom, which reported $15 billion in profits in the first nine months of 2018. Or the 58 Russians who, according to Forbes, each have personal fortunes bigger than the spending boost that Putin promised.”
  • “To really understand how underwhelming Putin’s spending promise is, however, compare it with the revenue this year’s tax hike will raise—around $8.9 billion, according to the Finance Ministry. In other words, Russia’s government is decreasing household incomes via a substantial tax hike, giving back a small portion of that revenue through new social spending, and hoping that nobody notices the Kremlin is pocketing the rest.”
  • “Putin made a similar series of pledges in 2012, around the start of his previous presidential term, when he promised that he would hike salaries but not increase the retirement age. Five years later, many of these vows remained wholly unfulfilled.”
  • “This time, fulfilling promises will be even harder. Russia’s provincial governments, which are often charged with implementing social programs, are in many cases now heavily indebted after five years of economic stagnation.”
  • “Russia’s elite believes it has little room for maneuver as the country’s confrontation with the West intensifies. … The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would sanction the issuance of new Russian sovereign debt, which in practice would limit Russia’s capacity to run a large budget deficit. Russia has long prepared for this type of foreign pressure with austere fiscal policies.”
  • “The only other option for the Kremlin is to improve the business climate in ways that attract more Russian and foreign investors. Such moves, however, would also threaten the Kremlin’s ability to control Russian domestic politics.”
  • “Given these constraints, Russia’s government believes its best option is to hunker down. … The Kremlin’s style of rule at home and confrontation with the West abroad have boxed it in.”
  • “New legislation tightening penalties for speech critical of the government is raising the cost of dissent. The risk of fines or arrest will dissuade most people from protesting against the dismal economic outlook. Russians are sadly used to economic stagnation and ineffective government—and they are unlikely to be offered an alternative anytime soon.”

“The Strongmen Strike Back,” Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, 03.14.19: The author, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony.”
  • “Metternich’s Austria and Alexander I’s Russia were the early prototypes of the modern police state. They engaged in extensive censorship, closed universities, maintained networks of spies to keep an eye on ordinary people, and jailed, tortured and killed those suspected of fomenting liberal revolution.”
  • “In Russia … we believed that communism had been defeated by liberalism, … [but the] liberal experiment of the Boris Yeltsin years proved too flawed and fragile, giving way almost immediately to two types of anti-liberal forces: one, the remnants of the Soviet (and czarist) police state, which the former KGB operative Vladimir Putin reestablished and controlled; the other, a Russian nationalism and traditionalism that … was resurrected by Putin to provide a veneer of legitimacy to his autocratic rule.”
  • “As Putin dismantled the weak liberal institutions of the 1990s, he restored the czarist-era role of the Orthodox Church, promised strong leadership of a traditional Russian kind, fought for ‘traditional’ values against LGBTQ rights and other gender-related issues, and exalted Russia’s special ‘Asiatic’ character over its Western orientation. So far, this has proved a durable formula — Putin has already ruled longer than many of the czars, and while a sharp economic downturn could shake his hold on power, as it would any regime’s, he has been in power so long that many Russians can imagine no other leader.”
  • “The examples of autocracies such as Russia and China successfully resisting liberal pressures gave hope to others that the liberal storm could be weathered. By the end of the 2000s … [a]n authoritarian ‘backlash’ spread globally.”
  • “The authoritarian governments of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran all worked to weaken liberalism’s hold. Their different ideological orientations, which Americans regard as all-important, did not make them lose sight of their common interest as non-liberal states. The result, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it in 2007, was that, for the first time in many years, there was real competition in ‘the market of ideas’ between different ‘value systems.’ The West had lost ‘its monopoly on the globalization process.’”
  • “The conservative thinker and writer Christopher Caldwell recently observed that the Russian leader is a ‘hero to populist conservatives around the world’ because he refuses to submit to the U.S.-dominated liberal world order. If the polls are to be believed, the number of favorable views of Putin has grown among Trump supporters. They are not simply following their leader. As the political scientist M. Steven Fish observes, Putin has positioned himself as the leader of the world’s ‘socially and culturally conservative’ common folk against ‘international liberal democracy.’”
  • “No … coalition has coalesced to oppose international authoritarianism or to make the case for liberalism today. A broad alliance of strange bedfellows stretching from the far right to self-described ‘realists’ to the progressive left wants the United States to abandon resistance to rising authoritarian power. They would grant Russia and China the spheres of influence they demand in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. They … would consign the democracies living in the shadow of the authoritarian great powers to their hegemonic control.”
  • “The world’s autocracies, even the “friendly” ones, are acquiring the new methods and technologies pioneered by Russia and China. And, as they do, they become part of the global surveillance-state network. They are also enhancing the power and reach of China and Russia, who by providing the technology and expertise to operate the mechanisms of social control are gaining access to this ever-expanding pool of data on everyone on the planet.”

“Disrespect Putin and You'll Pay a $23,000 Fine,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.14.19: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to sign four bills into law allowing him to clamp down on the last vestiges of press freedom.”
  • “Two of the bills will make it illegal to publish material ‘expressing in an indecent form a clear disrespect’ for the Russian state, introducing fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,600) or 15 days in jail for the offense. The other two will ban the spread of fake news deemed to endanger public safety on pain of fines of as much as 1.5 million rubles.”
  • “Who decides whether an offense has been committed? Not a court, but Roskomnadzor, the government agency charged with overseeing media and the internet. It will be able to demand that offending information be taken down immediately. Failing that, it will be able to block access to the resource that published it.”
  • “The bills are blatantly anti-constitutional; Article 29 of Russia’s constitution expressly bans censorship. The disrespect laws also violate the European Convention on Human rights, which the country has ratified. Putin’s own Civil Society and Human Rights Council, which includes several judges and defense lawyers, has warned the legislation opens the door to arbitrary persecutions. Even government ministries and the prosecutor general’s office have argued against the bills, saying the definitions in them are too vague.”
  • “Under the new laws, the Kremlin wouldn’t need to look for pretexts like “justifying terrorism” or receiving foreign funds to close a website or jail a blogger. Any piece of news could be declared fake and dangerous to public safety without the need for even the fig leaf of a court ruling. Any criticism of the government could be interpreted as disrespect.”
  • “The new bills are meant to send self-censorship into overdrive. Judging by past experience, the effort should work after the initial indignation dies down.”

“Why Russia Is Making Stalin Great Again,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center/OZY, 03.13.19: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “For Russian youngsters these days, Stalin is a figure from the distant past. … One of the paradoxes of Putin’s Russia is that the harsher the stance of the current regime, the higher the level of Stalin’s popularity within Putin’s electoral base and the more likely these Russians are to make excuses for the Soviet dictator.
  • “This pattern became more noticeable following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. According to data from the Levada Center, an independent pollster, 17 to 20 percent of respondents in 2014 had a negative view of Stalin. This figure dipped to 12 percent in 2018.”
  • “[T]hanks to the Kremlin’s well-crafted propaganda efforts, the dictator is once again becoming a symbol of Russian pride and military and industrial glory. For average Russians, Stalin is seen as an “effective manager” (as one history teachers’ handbook described him) or as a symbol of a glorious Soviet past whose image is routinely burnished in pop culture thanks to things like the popular television serials that present positive and romantic images of Stalin’s feared secret police, the NKVD.”
  • “In the absence of any national agreement on Stalin’s crimes, there is still plenty of room for the mythology of the Russian state to be framed around an official policy of simplifying the past and whitewashing the darkest pages of Russian history. Increasingly, this war over memory is spilling over into a war over monuments. A new wave of ‘people’s initiatives’ to commemorate Stalin has appeared in recent years.”
  • “Another ambitious project, titled ‘the Last Address,’ encourages people to remember Stalin’s victims by erecting memorial plaques on apartment buildings to which arrested victims never returned. … Recently in St. Petersburg, local authorities supported a denunciation [of the project]. It had been stated that the Last Address violates … the law on advertisements.”
  • “The war over historical memory for the minds and souls of the next generations is arguably Russia’s greatest battle.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.