Russia Analytical Report, March 25-April 1, 2024

3 Ideas to Explore

  1. As spring turns to summer, the fear that Russia will mount a big new offensive fuels Ukraine’s effort to beef up its defenses along the current frontline, The Economist writes. “The idea that this line might become the basis for a future peace negotiation is exactly what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has wanted to avoid.” “But the dangers are now so great that it is the least bad option,” according to this British newspaper’s editors.
  2. The Russian-Ukrainian war “has not reached a stage where a negotiated termination is possible,” because “neither Russia nor Ukraine can swallow each other’s requirements,” write Branislav L. Slantchev and Hein Goemans. As such, “any durable peace must thus be based on deterrence, not satisfaction with the status quo,” the two professors write in FA, predicting that “Kyiv will remain independent, as will most of the country.”
  3. The deadly terrorist attack by ISIS-K outside Moscow on March 22 was a major security lapse, which was caused by “distrust of foreign intelligence, a focus on Ukraine and a distracting political crackdown at home,” according Paul Sonne, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz of NYT. “The base emotions, misperception and mistrust fueled by the concert attack underscore just how precarious the U.S.-Russian relationship has become,” according to George Beebe of the Quincy Institute 

 

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

Nuclear security and safety:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Russia’s Veto: Dismembering the UN Sanctions Regime on North Korea: Critical Questions” Victor Cha and Ellen Kim, CSIS, 03.29.24. 

  • On March 28, Russia vetoed a UN resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts (PoE), which monitors UN member states’ enforcement of the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. 
  • Q1: Why is Russia’s veto significant? A1: Russia’s veto is arguably the third step in a systematic effort to undermine the UN sanctions regime on North Korea. Russia previously had supported the most robust sanctions regime in history against North Korea through its agreement to 10 UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on North Korea. Moscow now has (1) stopped complying with sanctions mandated by these UNSCRs and (2) actively blocked new UNSCRs in response to North Korean ballistic missile tests. Most importantly, it appears to be embarking on new steps to (3) permanently dismantle this regime by ending the mandate of the PoE with yesterday’s veto as well as calling for a “sunset clause” for the existing sanctions regime.
  • Q2: Why is Russia doing this? A2: Russia’s actions reflect deeper strategic cooperation with Pyongyang that has emerged as a result of North Korean support for Putin’s war in Ukraine. 
  • Q3: What are the implications of the Russian veto? A3: Absent the PoE, UN member states will lack a third party that monitors compliance and closes loopholes in the current sanctions regime. It falls on key member states like the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other like-minded partners to coordinate intelligence, counter-proliferation efforts, and relevant legislation to enforce sanctions policy. Without Russian or Chinese compliance, this is a tall order. 

“Blood and Oil: Russian Oil Deliveries Follow North Korean Weapons Transfers,” James Byrne, Joseph Byrne, Ino Terzi and Denys Karlovskyi, RUSI, 03.26.24.

  • Satellite imagery shows North Korean tankers have begun loading oil from a Russian port in the Far East, likely in exchange for the transfer of munitions and missiles to Russia to aid its war in Ukraine.
  • At least five large North Korean tankers made multiple visits in March 2024 to an oil facility at the Vostochny port in Russia, violating UN sanctions that cap North Korea's annual oil imports. After loading oil, some tankers returned to North Korea.
  • The regular tempo of these oil deliveries means North Korea could quickly exceed the UN's annual 500,000 barrel cap on its oil imports, enabling largely unrestricted oil flows into the country.
  • The Russian port of Vostochny has also been a key transhipment hub, with Russian cargo ships picking up containers likely filled with North Korean munitions and artillery shells bound for Ukraine.
  • The ability to receive oil directly from Russia provides North Korea a secure supply line that will significantly aid its military, weapons programs, and economy after years of struggling under sanctions.
  • Russia's provision of oil to North Korea, along with both countries' sanctions evasion activities, further undermine the UN Security Council's sanctions regime intended to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

“Why Russia Is Protecting North Korea From Being Monitored,” David E. Sanger, NYT, 03.29.24. 

  • Through the most tense encounters with President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia over the past decade, there has been one project in which Washington and Moscow have claimed common cause: keeping North Korea from expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Now, even that has fallen apart.
    • On Thursday, Russia used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to kill off a U.N. panel of experts that has been monitoring North Korea's efforts to evade sanctions over its nuclear program for the past 15 years.
  • Russia's discomfort with the group is a new development. Moscow once welcomed the panel's detailed reports about sanctions violations and considered Pyongyang's nuclear program to be a threat to global security. But more recently, the panel has provided vivid evidence of how Russia is keeping the North brimming with fuel and other goods, presumably in return for the artillery shells and missiles that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is shipping to Russia for use against Ukraine. The group has produced satellite images of ship-to-ship transfers of oil, showing how the war in Ukraine has proved to be a bonanza for the North.
  • The partnership on containing nuclear threats, even from North Korea, whose nuclear facilities pose a safety challenge to both China and Russia, has vanished. Russia is now helping North Korea evade sanctions, and neither Russia nor China is actively working to pressure Iran to slow its accumulation of enriched uranium, the critical step needed if it ever decides to build nuclear weapons.
  • The Russian government made no apologies for killing off the panel. ''It is obvious to us that the U.N. Security Council can no longer use old templates in relation to the problems of the Korean Peninsula,'' a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ''The United States and its allies have clearly demonstrated that their interest does not extend beyond the task of 'strangling' the D.P.R.K. by all available means,'' she added.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict:

  • No significant developments.

Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:

“Russia is gearing up for a big new push along a long front line. Ukraine must prepare,” The Economist, 03.27.24. 

  • As spring turns to summer, the fear is that Russia will mount a big new offensive, as it did last year. And Ukraine’s ability to hold it off this time looks much less sure now than it did then. That is why it urgently needs to mobilize more troops and build more robust front-line defenses.
  • Ukraine cannot simply blame its allies. It is guilty of mistakes too. One has been its failure on manpower. Russia is gearing up for another wave of mobilization, with an eye to its next big push. ... But in Ukraine attempts to raise fresh recruits are still stuck in the coils of the democratic process; more than 1,000 amendments have reportedly been tabled to a bill in Parliament that would give the government more scope to raise the army it needs. Short of cash and fearing unpopularity, President Volodymyr Zelensky has not tried hard enough to get his way.
  • Ukraine has also been very late in reinforcing its own defensive positions. In a way, this is understandable. The government still dreams of a new counter-offensive, and dreads the idea that the current front line may harden into something very like a border, one that lops off a fifth of the country and deprives it of most of its sea access. The idea that this line might become the basis for a future peace negotiation is exactly what Mr. Zelensky has wanted to avoid. But the dangers are now so great that it is the least bad option

“The Russian Armed Forces have changed their attack tactics, and this led to serious consequences. Military report from Nikolai Mitrokhin,” Republic.ru, 04.01.24. Clues from Russian Views. 1

  • The situation on the front line has ... stabilized compared to the events of the previous two months, which is partly due to the spring thaw, but to a much greater extent due to the depletion of resources of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which is experiencing an acute shortage of ammunition and a chronic shortage of personnel. 
  • The strikes of the Russian Armed Forces on the Ukrainian energy system have moved to another level. The most important event of the week was the consistent destruction by Russia of the Ukrainian system of production and distribution of electricity, for which a new strategy and tactics are being applied.
    • Missiles fly into the area where turbines and generators are located, which leads to a complete shutdown of some stations. Recovery may take years. ... An indicator of the effectiveness of such tactics was the temporary or permanent blackout of entire areas.
  • An unexpected, if not sensational, event of this week was a major purge in the circle of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s closest advisers. On March 26, 2024, the head of the National Security Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, was removed from his post. ... In addition, on March 30, the resignation of the president’s longtime friend and ally, Serhiy Shefir, who served as his first assistant, followed. Then an entire group of advisers was dismissed: freelance presidential advisers Oleh Ustenko, Sergei Trofimov and Mykhailo Radutskyi, presidential adviser on ensuring the rights of defenders of Ukraine Alona Verbytska, presidential plenipotentiary for volunteer work Natalia Pushkareva, deputy heads of the presidential office Andriy Smirnov and Oleksiy Dniprov left their posts.
    • We are talking about an attempt to rebuild the entire outdated system of military propaganda.

“Russian Women in the Face of War Against Ukraine,” Egle E. Murauskaite, FPRI, 03.26.24.

  • Russia’s war against Ukraine has revealed stories about the heroic resistance efforts of Ukrainian women… However, comparable stories have been entirely lacking on Russia’s side.
    • Stories of rape and abuse in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories have shaken the world, with male Russian soldiers featured as systematic perpetrators. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until stories of Russian women involved in these crimes start to emerge.
  • Throughout 2023, stories had started to emerge of Russian servicewomen being forced into sexual relations by their superiors. This paints a picture of Russian servicewomen less like heroic combatants…and more like the victims of life’s circumstances pushed into the army ranks.
  • [Russian] government efforts have recently extended to try and [recruit] more women [into the military] … though the proposed roles were for only cooks and medical staff.
  • Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate has published a list of members of the 64th motorized rifle brigade [allegedly involved in the massacre in Bucha town]. Among those 1,648 names, sixty-five (or 4 percent) were women.
    • Ukrainian women veterans recounted numerous Russian women in the fighter ranks…being particularly brutal torturers.
  • [Following the Soviet training of civilian women as snipers], the notion seems to have deeply permeated the Russian psyche that any civilian woman of the opposing side could be an undercover sharpshooter—and thus a legitimate target.
  • In 2022, Ukrainian security services have made public a telephone conversation between a Russian serviceman and his wife, who encouraged him to rape Ukrainian women.
    • It may be helpful to realize a not-uncommon complicity of civilian women in war crimes in recent historical contexts. 
  • It is important to note the prominent role of the traditional anti-war activism of women whose husbands or family members have been called to serve in Ukraine.
    • The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (CSM) has been particularly active. 
    • In anti-mobilization rallies, women comprised 51 to 71 percent of all protesters.

“Troop-Starved Ukrainian Brigades Turn to Marketing to Attract Recruits,” Constant Méheut, Daria Mitiuk and Brendan Hoffman, NYT, 03.30.24. 

  • Many [Ukrainian military] units, which say the official conscription system is dysfunctional and unwieldy, have started their own recruitment campaigns to fill ranks depleted in the war with Russia.
    • Skyscraper-sized billboards show assault troops in battle gear emerging from a ball of flames. On street posters, soldiers urge passers-by to enlist, proclaiming that ''victory is in your hands.'' Take a seat on a high-speed train and chances are high that a television will be advertising jobs for drone operators.
  • ''These campaigns are much more effective because we're getting exactly the people we need,'' said Dmytro Koziatynskyi, a combat medic turned recruiter in the Da Vinci Wolves battalion, which started as a paramilitary wing of a coalition of far-right political parties after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. The battalion, which has now been absorbed into Ukraine's armed forces, is currently seeking about 500 new members and has advertised jobs as varied as medics, mechanics and sappers, combat engineers who clear minefields. Recruiters conduct lengthy interviews, trying to find positions that match candidates' skills. People can opt out after a few days of training if they do not like it.
    • ''It's like a date,'' Mr. Koziatynskyi said in the battalion's recently opened recruitment office in central Kyiv, which is covered with logos of three wolves baring their fangs. ''We're trying to explain as much as possible what we are expecting from those people, and what they can expect from us.''

“Moscow’s Military (In)effectiveness: Why Civil-Military Relations Have Hampered Russia’s Performance on the Battlefield in Ukraine,” Kirill Shamiev, PONARS 03.27.24. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • The root cause of Russia’s problems in Ukraine lies in the civil-military domain, which conditions the Russian government’s ability to use its resources to build a powerful military. Despite Russia’s comparative advantages in economy, technology, population size, and human capital, its government has failed to generate a sufficiently effective military power. However, these underlying problems could potentially be solved with organizational measures and change of mid-level military bureaucracy, which would likely significantly increase Russia’s military effectiveness, even if—due to the loss of modern equipment, strained production, and Western sanctions— its military were less technologically advanced than before the invasion. In the absence of regime change in Russia, Western governments should closely monitor institutional and social changes in Russia and be prepared for a resurgent Russian military that can use its current know-how, organizational innovations, and hundreds of thousands of experienced soldiers to make dangerous use of its material resources.

Military aid to Ukraine:

“Denying Russia’s Only Strategy for Success,” Nataliya Bugayova and Frederick W. Kagan with Kateryna Stepanenko, ISW, 03.27.24. 

  • The United States must restore its strategic clarity and get the big idea right: the best course of action for US interests is to support Ukraine to its victory, as the only path to a durable peace rather than a temporary respite, and then help Ukraine rebuild, putting the largest combat-effective friendly military in Europe at the forefront of NATO’s defense.
  • The United States needs to surge and then persist in support of this objective. A sustained US effort, rather than a one-time surge, will grant Ukraine the certainty about resourcing that it can expect from international partners so Ukraine can plan for future operations. The US decision to persist should also stem from a recognition that Russia is a persistent challenge that requires persistent effort. The costs of persistence are minor compared to the catastrophic and irreversible consequences of letting Russia prevail in Ukraine.
  • The United States and other Ukrainian allies need to take several specific and immediate steps:
    1. Provide Ukraine with sufficient military aid and other support required for Ukraine to restore maneuver to the battlefield.
    2. Support Ukraine’s effort to expand its defense industrial base (DIB) but also ramp up the US and allied DIB to support Ukraine in the medium term and to strengthen our own deterrence capabilities against Russia and other US adversaries. 
    3. Target Russia’s capability to sustain the war against Ukraine.

“Vladimir Putin's Biggest Weapon Is Western Fear,” Editorial Board, Bloomberg, 03.27.24.

  • The Taurus missiles would doubtless boost Ukraine’s ability to strike Russian supply lines and better defend against the kind of attacks on cities and vital infrastructure the country is again experiencing. 
  • In fairness, Scholz’s government has also come a long way in the past two years. Germany provided Ukraine with Leopard tanks last year and is now the second-largest supplier of military equipment to Kyiv, after the US. It has welcomed over a million Ukrainian refugees. Germany announced another €500 million of military support this month, including artillery shells and armored vehicles.
  • That is to be welcomed. But given its size and geopolitical importance, Germany punches well below its weight. Deliveries of weapons systems are slow and too few. Among NATO members, it ranks only 11th in military contributions as a share of gross domestic product and 16th in financial commitments as a share of GDP.
  • With the US Congress blocking additional military aid for Ukraine, it’s critical Germany play a more assertive role. Berlin should work with other European governments to get more weapons to the front lines. 
  • Above all, those who wish peace for Ukraine and Europe must first be prepared to show Putin that he cannot win. That this war is existential for Ukraine has been evident since February 2022. Failing to stand firm against Russian aggression would be a mistake that Germany, and Europe as a whole, will come to regret. 

“Zelensky: 'We are trying to find some way not to retreat',” David Ignatius, WP, 03.29.24.  

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a stark message to Congress in an interview on Thursday as Russian missiles were pounding southern Ukraine: Give us the weapons to stop the Russian attacks, or Ukraine will escalate its counterattacks on Russia's airfields, energy facilities and other strategic targets.....The congressional delay in approving a $60 billion military aid package has been costly for Ukraine, Zelensky said. The military has been unable to plan future operations while legislators squabbled for nearly six months. He warned that hard-pressed Ukrainian forces might have to retreat to secure their front lines and conserve ammunition.  "If there is no U.S. support, it means that we have no air defense, no Patriot missiles, no jammers for electronic warfare, no 155-millimeter artillery rounds," he said. "It means we will go back, retreat, step by step, in small steps."
    • To describe the military situation, Zelensky took a sheet of paper and drew a simple diagram of the combat zone. "If you need 8,000 rounds a day to defend the front line, but you only have, for example, 2,000 rounds, you have to do less," he explained. "How? Of course, to go back. Make the front line shorter. If it breaks, the Russians could go to the big cities." "We are trying to find some way not to retreat," Zelensky continued. After the Russian capture of Avdiivka in February, he said, "we have stabilized the situation because of smart steps by our military." If the front remains stable, he said, Ukraine can arm and train new brigades in the rear to conduct a new counteroffensive later this year.
  • When I asked whether Ukraine was running short of interceptors and other air-defense weapons to protect its cities and infrastructure, he responded: "That's true.... We are increasing our own air-defense systems, but it is not enough."
  • What Zelensky wants urgently are long-range ATACM-300 missiles, which he said could strike targets in Russian-occupied Crimea, especially the airfields from which Russia launches planes with precision-guided missiles that are doing heavy damage. These missiles recently hit Odessa and several other targets.
  • I asked Zelensky whether he thought President Biden was too cautious in supplying weapons, as hawkish critics sometimes charge. "I think he's cautious about nuclear attack from Russia," Zelensky answered. His own view is that Vladimir Putin wouldn't risk a nuclear exchange, but he conceded that the Russian leader is unpredictable: "He's crazy. There is nobody in the world who can tell you 100 percent what he will do. That's why Biden is cautious."
  • The lesson of war for Zelensky...  is that Putin should have been stopped sooner.
  • Looking ahead, Zelensky said Ukraine's options depend on what Congress decides. Until Ukraine knows it has continuing U.S. support, "we will stay where we are now in the East." He said Ukraine might conduct limited offensive operations, but "to push them out, we need more weapons." "We lost half a year" while Congress bickered, he said. "We can't waste time anymore. Ukraine can't be a political issue between the parties." He said critics of aid for Ukraine didn't understand the stakes in the war. "If Ukraine falls, Putin will divide the world" into Russia's friends and enemies, he said.
  • Zelensky has been the X-factor in this war, mobilizing his country and much of the world to resist Russian aggression. I wish members of Congress who balk at aiding Ukraine could have listened to the Ukrainian leader talk about the price that Ukraine has paid for its defiance - and the risks ahead for the United States if it doesn't stand with its friends.

For more analysis on aid to Ukraine, see: 

Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine and their impact globally:

“We understand that there will be a scorched desert in the Western direction,” interview with Ivan Timofeev, RIAC, 04.01.24. Clues from Russian Views.

  • Indeed, the Russian economy has proven to be much more resilient than many expected.
    • It would be an exaggeration to believe that the Russian economy is growing primarily due to weapons production. Other factors are much more important.
    • First, due to the flight of Western companies from Russia, domestic production began to revive in several industries. Importing civilian aircraft from the United States and the EU to Russia is now prohibited. We simply have no choice but to restore our aviation industry. Supplies from China partially replace them. However, there are also Russian enterprises that had been losing competition before the sanctions.
  • There is almost no unemployment in Russia. The economy sucks up labor like a vacuum cleaner. We are seriously discussing inviting workers from India and other countries to Russia. Migration from Central Asian countries is no longer enough.
  • Trade with China has long exceeded $200 billion. With India, it has already exceeded $50 billion.
  • The year 2023 shows that secondary sanctions are imposed mainly on small intermediary companies involved in circumventing export controls in military and dual-use goods. This does not have a significant impact on the economy as a whole.
    • Secondary sanctions also have a psychological effect. Big business fears the very word and the prospect of introducing secondary sanctions.
  • Few people in Russia believe in the lifting of sanctions. We understand that sanctions will scorch a desert in the Western direction. Perhaps for decades.
  • The end of hostilities [in Ukraine] alone is unlikely to lead to a return to normal [trade] relations.
    • In these conditions, any pragmatic business will look for alternatives – other suppliers, markets and payment methods.

Ukraine-related negotiations: 

“The Obstacles to Diplomacy in Ukraine. Russia’s Extreme Demands—and Ukraine’s Desire to Survive—Make Negotiations Unlikely,” Branislav L. Slantchev and Hein Goemans, FA, 04.01.24. 

  • It is impossible to entirely rule out a Russian-Ukrainian agreement. Leaders do not often lie about their demands, but they are strategic in what they say out loud, and Putin and Zelensky may be privately willing to settle for less than they claim. Wartime events could also push the two states to reconsider their stances. The extraordinary casualties on the Russian side, for example, could lead to mutinies, and if the war seems to be at an impasse for very long, a palace coup could install more accommodating leadership. A Ukrainian attempt to mobilize hundreds of thousands of new troops might lead to a significant decline in support for the war effort, which could make that country’s government willing to contemplate territorial concessions.
  • But such outcomes are improbable. Both Kyiv and Moscow have been remarkably consistent in reiterating their key demands, and neither has backed off promises of absolute victory. They are digging in for the long haul, cultivating supportive external sources of aid—in Russia’s case, Iran and North Korea (and potentially China), and in Ukraine’s case, the West. Neither state appears poised to change course.
  • The most likely outcome, then, is continued fighting. Moscow will keep attempting to conquer much of Ukraine. Kyiv will keep fighting back. ... Russia may gain control of some Ukrainian territory, but Kyiv will remain independent, as will most of the country.
  • This war has not reached a stage where a negotiated termination is possible, even in principle. To make peace in a conflict, both parties have to be willing to accept each other’s minimum demands... despite the mutual lack of progress, neither Russia nor Ukraine can swallow each other’s requirements. ...The Russian regime will, therefore, remain dissatisfied with its borders, much as it has been since 1991. It will continue to be a revisionist state bent on expanding its territory—by force if necessary. Any durable peace must thus be based on deterrence, not satisfaction with the status quo. It requires that Ukraine be strong enough, both internally and through its partnerships, to repel Russian attacks. Putin is right about one thing: Ukraine’s sovereignty exists only as far as it can be defended from Moscow’s grasp.

 

“The Ukraine-Russia war needs to end now, at the conference table,” Alex Beam, BG, 03.29.24. 

  • Where are we now? It is deemed semi-treasonous to state the obvious: This bloody, avoidable war, which has claimed the lives of at least 90,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, needs to end now, at the conference table. There is zero chance that Ukraine will emerge even partially restored in a cease-fire. At a minimum, Crimea and swathes of the fake “people's republics" in eastern Ukraine will become Russia-controlled.
  • Does that mean Putin “won"? Not really. Russia is a pariah nation and likely to remain one for a long time. A younger Putin dreamed of Russia allying with the civilized industrial democracies of Europe. Now he's currying favor with the likes of North Korea and a contemptuous China. That's not what he had in mind.
  • And yes, his brutal dictatorship will live another day. He's an S.O.B. — Biden's right about that. The Russian president's rivals “end up dead, or close to it," as Chris Wallace indelicately noted in a famous 2018 sit-down with Putin. But he's not crazy. If only he were.

Great Power rivalry/new Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

“What Ukraine Needs from NATO. Advanced Weapons—and Clarity on What Membership Will Require,” Ivo Daalder and Karen Donfried, FA, 03.26.24.

  • Ukraine is bleeding. Without new U.S. military assistance, Ukrainian ground forces may not be able to hold the line against a relentless Russian military. The U.S. House of Representatives must vote now to pass the emergency spending package that the Senate overwhelmingly approved last month. The most urgent priority is to appropriate funds to resupply Kyiv with artillery shells, air defense missiles, deep-strike rockets, and other critical military needs.
  • But even once Ukraine receives this much-needed support, a fundamental question remains: how to help Ukraine secure its future. 
  • To create consensus among allies, NATO leaders should agree on two conditions that must be met before they formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance. 
    • First, Ukraine should complete the democratic, anticorruption, and security sector reforms outlined in Ukraine’s Annual National Program, the formal structure that prepares Ukraine for membership. At the Washington summit, NATO leaders should commit to working together to help Kyiv finalize these reforms within a year.
    • Second, the fighting in Ukraine must end. As long as there is an active military conflict in Ukraine, Ukraine’s membership in the alliance could lead to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia—a gamble most NATO members are not prepared to take.
      • Before the second condition can be met, NATO must stipulate what it would consider a satisfactory end to the fighting. It cannot be an end to the war, for that presupposes a peace agreement, which would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish any time soon. The common belief that all wars end through negotiations is wrong. Most wars end through mutual exhaustion or one-sided victory; very few end with a negotiated peace. For the foreseeable future, the most that can be hoped for is a frozen conflict—a cessation of hostilities without a political solution.
  • After Ukraine joins NATO, the alliance’s collective defense commitment under Article 5 would apply only to the territories under Kyiv’s control. 
  • For as long as Russia continues fighting, NATO will not accept Ukraine as a new member. That is why Kyiv and its allies must demonstrate their resolve; they must convince Moscow that it is fighting an unwinnable war. To that end, NATO leaders should agree on three additional measures, all aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defense and helping it build a modern military.
    • First, NATO must take over from the United States in leading the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
    • Second, NATO must work with Ukraine to articulate a long-term vision for the country’s military. 
    • Third, NATO should establish a Ukraine training mission
  •  The day Ukraine formally joins NATO will be Russia’s ultimate strategic defeat—and Ukraine and all of Europe will be the safer for it.

“NATO Is Unprepared for Russia’s Arctic Threats, Liselotte Odgaard, FP, 04.01.24.

  • As it marks its 75th anniversary, NATO should come to an agreement on an Arctic strategy. For starters, it should revisit and update its minimum force requirements and allow members states to count the development of special capabilities, such as ice-strengthened frigates, as contributions to the NATO spending targets. As U.S. leaders increase pressure on other NATO member states to meet the defense spending target—ultimately requiring those states to cancel other investments in areas such as public welfare—few states can justify taking on defense expenses that do not count as part of the minimum force requirements.
  • Although Finnish and Swedish membership has seemingly enhanced NATO’s Arctic posture, the alliance still has a long way to go in the region. NATO must increase its footprint in the Arctic to credibly deter Russia’s military force posture.

“Putin’s Next Escalation Is Coming,” Hannah Note, NYT, 03.29.24.

  • Despite ISIS claiming responsibility for the attack, the Russian leadership has repeatedly blamed Ukraine and its Western backers.
    • Even when President Vladimir Putin grudgingly acknowledged on Monday that the attack was carried out by ‘radical Islamists,’ he suggested they were operating at somebody else’s behest.
  • From Mr. Putin’s perspective, escalation in Ukraine — involving an intensification of attacks on Ukrainian troops across the front lines with the aim of claiming as much territory as possible, along with increased aerial bombardment on Ukraine’s cities to wear down the population — makes a lot of sense.
  • Since invading Ukraine two years ago, Russia has reoriented its entire foreign policy to serve its war aims.
  • Russian officials have worked tirelessly to integrate non-Western states into structures of allegiance, reducing the risk that these partners might pressure Moscow to scale back the war.
  • After February 2022, Russia was quick to convince non-Western audiences that in Ukraine it is fighting a proxy war with the United States.
  • The Russian government has also become more brazen in inciting anti-Western forces across the globe. It has cozied up to North Korea, supported the military dictatorships in Africa’s Sahel region south of the Sahara, and encouraged Iran and its network of proxies.

“Europe’s leaders have woken up to hard power,” Janan Ganesh, FT, 03.27.24.

  • Whatever Europe lacks as it tries to become a hard power, it isn’t leadership. Even aside from  Donald Tusk, Ursula von der Leyen has been a strong wartime president of the European Commission. With the zeal of a convert, Emmanuel Macron now sees the Kremlin is implacable. Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are so as one on Ukraine that the subject never arises in British politics. As an Italian populist, Giorgia Meloni could be a Russia apologist. She isn’t. Even Olaf Scholz, the alleged ditherer, has seen Germany become easily Europe’s largest donor of military aid to Ukraine on his watch.
  • To militarize as much as it needs to, Europe needs its citizens to bear higher taxes or a smaller welfare state. .... There is little to suggest their electorates are willing to accept a rupture of the welfarist social contract in order to tool up.
  • The bad news is that leaders can only ever do so much against public sentiment. Scholz’s “historic turning point” took place in chancelleries. We don’t know if it took place in households. I can’t shake from my mind a quote attributed to another European leader, in another era, in another context. “We all know what to do. But we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

“Why a European Army Makes No Sense,” Bart M. J. Szewczyk, FP, 03.27.24.

  • Trump’s potential return to power should not be used as a pretext to resurrect old debates about a centralized EU defense policy, an idea that has roamed the halls of Brussels like an undead creature for more than half a century. This debate might grab headlines, but it is a sideshow to the real action taking place in and between individual European countries, with Brussels taking up a useful but circumscribed supporting role. Beefing up national capabilities and holding member states responsible are where the focus should be if Europe is to be an effective military power capable of providing for its own security—regardless of what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine or at the ballot box in the United States.

“The Eastern Front by Nick Lloyd — truth bombs,” Margaret MacMillan’s review of “The Eastern Front” by Nick Lloyd, FT, 03.28.24. 

  • Who outside central Europe knows the first world war battles of Przemyśl, Lemberg (now L’viv) or the dozen or so on the Isonzo river? For most of us the war is epitomized by Verdun or the Somme, the images those of the trenches on the western front. Some may know about Tannenberg, the great German victory over the Russians in 1914, or the Allied failure at Gallipoli in 1915. But for the most part the eastern front is seen as a sideshow to the main event. 
    • Drawing on a wide range of sources, Nick Lloyd, professor of modern warfare at King’s College London, shows just how wrong that view is. We are used to the casualty figures in the west: 900,000 dead from the British empire; more from Germany or France. The number of those who died in the east may be even larger if civilians are included. Some two million Russian soldiers alone died there and 1.2mn from Austria-Hungary. Serbia started its war with Austria-Hungary with an army of 420,000; by 1915 it had 140,000 left. At the end it had lost more men in proportion to its population than France.
  • The first world war came to an end in the autumn of 1918, but peace did not come to the east. Fighting continued in the Baltic states as well as among competing forces in Ukraine, and also between Russia and the newly emerged state of Poland, until the mid-1920s. And the war’s legacy lasted much longer. Austria-Hungary disappeared, to be replaced by often antagonistic nation states; Russia went down the road of a brutal and paranoid dictatorship; Italy chose fascism; and in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s some, including Adolf Hitler, saw the east as Germany’s future empire.   The second world war brought large-scale war again to the east as well as the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin dreams of regaining the territories including of course Ukraine that Tsar Nicholas and his ancestors once ruled. The Eastern Front is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of that troubled region up to and including the present.

“The New Autocratic Alliances. They Don’t Look Like America’s—but They’re Still Dangerous,” Hal Brands, FA, 03.29.24. 

  • Ties between Eurasian revisionists may not look like alliances as Americans typically understand them, but they have plenty of alliance-like effects. This isn’t an entirely bad thing for Washington: the closer U.S. antagonists get, the more one’s bad behavior tarnishes the others. Since 2022, for instance, China’s image in Europe has suffered because Beijing tied itself so closely to Putin’s war in Ukraine. The opportunity, then, is to use adversary alignment to accelerate Washington’s own coalition-building efforts, just as the United States used the blowback from Russia’s invasion to induce greater European realism about China. Doing so will be critical, because today’s revisionist pacts are increasing the freedom of action U.S. rivals enjoy and the capabilities they wield. The United States must get used to a world in which the links among its rivals magnify the challenges that they individually and collectively pose.
  • This is an intellectual and analytical challenge as much as anything else. For example, the United States may need to revise assessments of how long its adversaries will take to reach key military milestones, given the help they are receiving—or could receive—from their friends. Washington must also rethink assumptions that it will face adversaries one-on-one in a crisis or conflict and account for the aid—covert or overt, kinetic or nonkinetic, enthusiastic or grudging—other revisionist powers could render as tensions escalate. The United States especially needs to wrestle with the risk that adversary relationships will promote a certain globalization of conflict—that the country could end up facing multiple, interlocking regional struggles against adversaries that cooperate in important, sometimes subtle ways.
  • Finally, U.S. officials should consider how these rivals’ partnerships could evolve in unexpected or nonlinear ways. Recent history is instructive. Although the Chinese-Russian strategic relationship has arisen over decades, that relationship—to say nothing of Moscow’s ties to Pyongyang and Tehran—has ripened considerably during the war in Ukraine. How might a future crisis over Taiwan, which triggers sharp U.S. sanctions on China, affect Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis regarding a still deeper alliance with Russia? Or how might a more thorough breakdown of order in one region tempt revisionist powers to intensify their campaigns in others?
  • Thinking through such scenarios is, unavoidably, an exercise in speculation. It is also an intellectual hedge against a future in which relationships—many of which have already exceeded U.S. expectations—continue to develop in disturbing ways. In the years ahead, the challenge of adversary alignment may well be inevitable. The degree to which it surprises is not.

“Trump’s anti-Ukraine view dates to the 1930s. America rejected it then. Will we now?” Robert Kagan, WP, 03.28.24. 

  • Imagine that Kyiv falls a year or two into a second Trump presidency and that instead of responding by rushing to bolster the alliance’s defenses with a more substantial American commitment, Trump expresses relative indifference. How will the nations of Europe respond? Russian troops will be hundreds of miles closer to NATO countries and will share a nearly 700-mile border with Poland, but if Republicans have their way, the United States will do nothing. It will be a historic geopolitical revolution.
  • Under those circumstances, Europeans will have to make a choice. They must either adjust to the expanding hegemony of a militarized Russia led by a proven aggressor — accepting the world “as it is” in prescribed “realist” fashion. Or they must prepare themselves to stand up to it — without the United States. 
    • The stakes will be highest and most immediate for the Baltic nations, which in the eyes of traditional Russian nationalists such as Putin are mere appendages of Russia, with significant Russian-speaking populations that may at any time demand “protection” from Moscow, as the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia demanded protection from Berlin in the 1930s.
    • Then there is Poland, which during the Cold War and repeatedly in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was either subjugated or partitioned by Moscow. 
    • The most important nation in this transformed Europe will be Germany. Germans will quickly find themselves faced with a terrible choice. Either they try to remain in a fundamentally pacifist mode, as they have been since 1945, or they once again become a great military power. .... Will the Germans rely on British and French nuclear capacities to deter Russia, since they can no longer count on the American nuclear umbrella? Or will they choose to become a nuclear power themselves?
      • Indeed, should the United States make clear that it is no longer bound by its security guarantees, the likelihood is that other industrialized nations will quickly turn to nuclear weapons to try to make up for the sudden gap in their defenses. Japan could build hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time if it chose — or do the new America Firsters believe that the Japanese will find reassuring America’s abandonment of the similar treaty commitments in Europe? We will be living in a world of many heavily armed powers engaged in a multipolar arms race, ever poised for conflict — in short, the world that existed in the 1930s, only this time with nuclear weapons. But yes, they will be spending more than 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

“Visit to Russian Federation Defense Ministry’s 344th Centre for Combat Employment and Retraining of Army Aviation Pilots,” Kremlin.ru, 03.27.24. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • Did we move towards the borders of the NATO bloc’s member countries? We did not bother anyone. They were moving towards us. Did we cross the ocean and approach US borders? No, they are the ones who are closing in on us, and they have reached our borders. What are we doing? We are only defending our people on our historical territories. It is therefore complete nonsense when people say that we intend to attack Europe after Ukraine.
  • They are intimidating their own population in order to extort money from them, from their own people at a time when the economy is sagging and living standards are declining. 
  • NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I repeat – North Atlantic. Where is it now heading? It is entering the Asia Pacific region, the Middle East and other regions, even including Latin America. 
  • It is ... complete nonsense when they claim that we can attack some other countries, including Poland, the Baltics and they are scaring the Czech Republic, too. This amounts to ravings, and this is another way of deceiving their own population, forcing the people to spend more money and to shoulder this burden. This is it. 
  • If they [West] supply F-16s (they are talking about this, and it looks like they are training pilots; I believe that you realize this like no one else and better than others) [to Ukraine] , this will not change the situation on the battlefield. We will destroy their aircraft just like we are now destroying their tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment, including multiple launch rocket systems. Of course, we would see them as legitimate targets if they operate from the airfields of third countries, no matter where they are located. F-16 aircraft can also carry nuclear weapons, and we will also have to heed this while organizing our combat operations.

“Putin is waiting for Washington to go silent,” Gideon Rachman, FT, 04.01.24. 

  • Even if Trump loses to Biden, there is a strong chance of political turmoil in the US. Who can believe that Trump or his supporters would accept defeat? A replay of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 — only this time with added support from politicians and courts at the state level — seems quite likely. All of this would be a recipe for turmoil in the US and for what Putin called, in the Soviet context, “the paralysis of power”. A paralyzed Washington would then spell opportunity for Moscow and Beijing. 
  • America’s alliance system in Europe — unlike the Soviet bloc in 1989 — rests on consent. It is an “empire by invitation”, in the phrase of the political scientist Geir Lundestad. While the Poles and Czechs longed for Soviet troops to withdraw in 1989, EU nations would be appalled if American troops pulled back today. 
  • A great deal has changed since 1989, in Moscow, Washington, Berlin and Warsaw. But one thing that remains constant is the determination of Europeans to resist Russian domination. The EU nations are painfully aware of how dependent they have become on US military power. But they are determined to do something about it. It is possible that Washington will fall silent in the coming year. But that does not mean that Moscow will be able to turn Europe’s clock back to 1988.

“The Trouble With ‘the Global South.’ What the West Gets Wrong About the Rest,” Comfort Ero, FA, 04.01.24. 

  • The recent spike in chatter about the global South has at least done the service of highlighting mounting problems faced by countries beyond the West—problems that will require a global effort to address. To head off future instability, the United States and its allies must work to ease the international debt crisis and help vulnerable states resolve internal conflicts and governance issues. Progress will require multilateral negotiations to reform the global financial architecture—during which developing countries will likely continue to work as a bloc—and increased attention to each country or region’s specific economic and political circumstances. With Chinese initiatives such as the South-South Cooperation Fund and the BRICS New Development Bank presenting alternatives to Western public finance, genuine efforts from Washington and its partners to address these countries’ concerns will be particularly important. 
  • But the terminology problem remains. Although many Western policymakers think they know better than to treat the non-Western world as an unvariegated whole, they should use the phrase “global South” with particular care. Specific dynamics within and among the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America will shape their political futures more than their identity as a group. The West must see these states as they are, not fall for the fallacy that they operate geopolitically as a single entity.

China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

“Russia and China: Strategic Comrades in Challenging the Existing World Order,” Lutgard Lams and Hedwig de Smaele, Jordan Center, 03.27.24. 

  • While Russia may not share China’s ambition or even agree with it on what the world ultimately should look like, the two nations share common grievances about the present world order and have jointly succeeded in shaking up the balance of power. Even if both powers were united in promoting genuine multilateralism without aspiring to leadership, it remains unclear whether such an arrangement would truly benefit the globe. One possible alternative would be a distributed world order based not on nations, but on global institutions like the WTO, World Bank, or IMF—an option potentially less likely to produce anarchic disorder.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms:

“Putin’s nuclear warnings: heightened risk or revolving door?” Stephen J. Cimbala and Lawrence J. Korb, BAS, 03.28.24. 

  • Why is Russia making nuclear threats? Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a variety of commentators have put forward at least five explanations for Putin’s propensity for nuclear saber rattling. 
    • First, some contend that Putin is bluffing. 
    • A second explanation for Putin’s nuclear threats is that they constitute a probe. Russian leadership is, as it were, taking the temperature of the United States and NATO, to see their reactions. 
    • A third perspective on Putin’s nuclear rhetoric sees it as a response to Russia’s political and military setbacks since the war began in February, 2022. 
    • A fourth perspective on Putin’s nuclear diplomacy asserts that he is laying the predicate for escalation to nuclear first use if unexpected battlefield reverses threaten to destabilize Russia’s operational-tactical position for the defense of important objectives. 
    • A fifth possible interpretation of Putin’s propensity for nuclear rhetoric is that it reflects the reasoning of some Russian military and political thinkers about the management of escalation toward favorable outcomes by the manipulation of risk. 
  • Notwithstanding the rationale, the decision to move from nuclear deterrence to nuclear first use in Europe or Asia would be a world-historical marker—and not one of progress. The firebreak between non-strategic and strategic nuclear warfare has never been tested under exigent conditions, and indeed, part of the deterrent efficacy for tactical nuclear weapons lies in their potential coupling to strategic nuclear war.  Putin’s assertive nuclear rhetoric is strategically unhelpful and politically dangerous.

“Russia and the Global Nuclear Order,” Nicole Grajewski, CNA's Center for Naval Analyses, March 2024. 

  • The war in Ukraine has prompted serious questions about Russia’s commitment to the regimes and principles that have governed nuclear technology. Rather than disengaging from the global nuclear order, Russia has continued to emphasize its role in the fundamental regimes of this order while challenging the validity, applicability, and interpretations of many of the norms and principles espoused by the West. Moscow’s contestation of these norms involves casting doubt on, or offering alternative interpretations of, agreements that underpin the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime. 
  • Russia maintains active participation and financial commitment in these regimes, underscoring its preference to shape the nuclear order from within established structures. 
  • As demonstrated prominently in recent rounds of NPT Preparatory Committees, Russia’s engagement with like-minded states represents a concerted effort to mobilize a collective front. 
  • Russia has chosen to disengage selectively from Western-led initiatives while maintaining its participation in UN-led processes concerning WMD. 
  • Rather than pursuing a linkage with broader issues, Washington should be realistic about the realization of any bilateral nonproliferation cooperation while maintaining dialogue with Russia via UN processes such as UNSCR 1540 and organizations such as the CTBT. 
  • As Russia continues to prioritize its own interests, including in Ukraine, the downgrading of nonproliferation in its foreign policy reflects a broader trend of assertive and strategic behavior on the global stage. The implications of Russia’s actions within the global nuclear order extend beyond the realm of nonproliferation. They raise concerns about Moscow’s broader geopolitical objectives and its willingness to leverage international organizations to advance its interests, even when such actions run counter to established norms.

“Interview with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,” Izvestia Multimedia Information Center, Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry, 03.28.24. Clues from Russian Views.

  • [When asked “To use the Doomsday Clock metaphor, how much time do we have left before a direct possible clash between the armies of Russia and NATO countries – 5-10 minutes, one hour?”] I will not speculate on this topic. In general, I think that this Doomsday Clock idea is inconsistent and not really useful. They try to stir up the public opinion at a time when it is necessary to project calm and reason.
  • [When asked: “Are we on the brink of a no less global threat than a third world war because countries fail to work together?”] Many talk about this. They directly use the term of “a third world war.” President of Russia Vladimir Putin has responded to these Western statements on multiple occasions. Our position was described in abundantly clear terms. We are ready to engage in talks, as long as they are serious about it, and if they take into consideration the reality and lawful security interests of the Russian Federation and other countries which are involved. Our President made it very clear. You may recall how this issue developed, in particular, as regards NATO. Initially, before the start of the special military operation and immediately afterwards, the West unanimously called for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO as soon as possible because Russia would never attack a NATO member. As time went by, they changed the tune. Now they are saying that Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine because as soon as it wins it will attack NATO countries. There is no logic in this at all. Only yesterday, speaking in the Tver Region, President Vladimir Putin again dismissed as nonsense all this discourse about us hatching some invasion plans. These allegations have only one purpose – to compel the parliaments and people of Europe to reconcile with the desire of the EU and the European Commission to continue sending more weapons to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Europe is one of the main victims in this conflict.

“Tailoring Deterrence for the High North: Nuclear Consequences of Sweden’s Accession to NATO,” Karl Sorenson, Ifri Memos, Ifri, 03.26.24. 

  • The Finnish and Swedish accessions   to NATO enable the Alliance to play a more active role in the Baltic region.  The underpinnings for a comprehensive NATO general deterrence posture in the High North with Sweden and Finland is, to a large degree, already in place.
  • Russian behavior is increasingly relying on its nuclear weapons to further its security political aims in order to establish a new security order in Europe: from its leadership’s rhetoric to its self-suspension from New START and possible basing of nuclear weapons in Belarus.
  • For an integrated and tailored deterrence in the High North, Sweden and Finland must come to terms with the challenge of immediate deterrence with a nuclear dimension. A strategy that includes participation  in the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), flying conventional support for nuclear operations (CSNO), and, for Sweden, enabling dispersed basing would create the space needed for NATO to act in times of crisis. A more engaged approach would also add dual capable aircraft (DCA) and nuclear sharing arrangements (NSA) for Sweden and possibly for Finland, given that the latter makes the required adjustments to its current legislation.
  • The Finnish and Swedish accessions  to NATO enable the Alliance to play a more active role in the Baltic region. The underpinnings for a comprehensive NATO general deterrence posture in the High North with Sweden and Finland is, to a large degree, already in place.  Russian behavior is increasingly relying on its nuclear weapons to further its security political aims in order to establish a new security order in Europe: from its leadership’s rhetoric to its self-suspension from New START and possible basing of nuclear weapons in Belarus.

 “A World Full of Missiles: What Mass Proliferation Means for Global Security,” Andrew Metrick, FA, 03.28.24.

  • Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the proliferation and use of ballistic and cruise missiles. Much of this increase stems from Tehran and its large network of proxies.
    • The war in Ukraine also contributes to this trend, with the Russian military launching large-scale missile attacks against military and civilian targets.
    • More state and nonstate actors today have access to these weapons, and in greater numbers than many predicted. In turn, states and militias are using them as powerful coercive tools.
  • Missiles have been used as coercive terror weapons for over 80 years. The world’s first ballistic missile—a rocket-propelled weapon with a parabolic trajectory—was the Nazi V-2.
    • The Soviet Union’s Scud was a short-range ballistic missile first deployed in 1955 that spread to over 20 states, making it the Kalashnikov of the missile world.
  • Missile attacks in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s featured small numbers of Scuds and were often unsuccessful, but recent attacks have been larger, more complex, and appear to have had a greater effect.
  • Recently, both Iran and North Korea have begun supplying Russia—the nation that gave them their first ballistic missiles—in its ongoing war against Ukraine. This support has, according to reports by Conflict Armament Research and Reuters, included advanced short-range ballistic missiles such as the North Korean 'Kimskander' and the Iranian Fateh-110. 
    • Moscow is now relying on a mix of missiles and Iranian drones to impose costs on the Ukrainian people, which is the same strategy adopted by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and global shipping.
  • The modern missile age is more akin to guerilla warfare than to nuclear deterrence, strategic bombing, or even the large-scale precision strike approaches favored by U.S. planners.

Counterterrorism:

“Why Russia’s Vast Security Services Fell Short on Deadly Attack: The factors behind the failure to prevent a terrorist attack include a distrust of foreign intelligence, a focus on Ukraine and a distracting political crackdown at home,” Paul Sonne, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz, NYT, 03.28.24. 

  • A day before the U.S. embassy in Moscow put out a rare public alert this month about a possible extremist attack at a Russian concert venue, the local C.I.A. station delivered a private warning to Russian officials that included at least one additional detail: The plot in question involved an offshoot of the Islamic State known as ISIS-K. American intelligence had been tracking the group closely and believed the threat credible. The adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow prevented U.S. officials from sharing any information about the plot beyond what was necessary, out of fear Russian authorities might learn their intelligence sources or methods. Within days, however, President Vladimir V. Putin was disparaging the warnings, calling them “outright blackmail” and attempts to “intimidate and destabilize our society.” 
    • The United States has been tracking ISIS-K activities very closely in recent months, senior officials said. In the course of the monitoring, which has involved electronic intercepts, human informants and other means, American operatives picked up fairly specific information about plotting in Moscow, officials said.
  • What made the security lapse seemingly even more notable was that in the days before the massacre Russia’s own security establishment had also acknowledged the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. Internal Russian intelligence reporting that most likely circulated at the highest levels of the government warned of the increased likelihood of an attack in Russia by ethnic Tajiks..., according to information obtained by the Dossier Center.
  • U.S. and European officials, as well as security and counterterrorism experts, say the failure most likely resulted from a combination of factors, paramount among them the deep levels of distrust, both within the Russian security establishment and in its relations with other global intelligence agencies. .
  • The number of Islamist-related organizations on the register of extremist organizations listed by Russian Federal Service for Financial Monitoring has declined since 2013. At the same time, hundreds of organizations have been added related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has its worldwide headquarters in the United States and is viewed with suspicion by the F.S.B.
  • Security experts said the expanding focus wasted resources and diverted the attention of senior leaders. The head of the Second Service, for instance, was increasingly involved in areas far afield from counterterrorism; in 2020, according to the U.S. government, he and his branch of the F.S.B. were involved in the poisoning of Mr. Navalny. 
  • Experts said Russia’s intelligence services have traditionally been focused on domestic terrorist threats emanating from separatist and religious extremist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Large terrorist attacks on Russian soil attributed to international groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda have been rare, and the country’s domestic security services have less experience tracking those threats and are less skilled at penetrating Central Asian extremist cells. 

“Washington’s Best Response to the ISIS-K Attack May Be No Response,” Jennifer Kavanagh, CEIP, 03.28.24. 

  • The day before ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) carried out a deadly attack on a concert hall in Moscow, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla testified before Congress about the threat posed by the group. The leader of U.S. Central Command told the House Armed Services Committee that ISIS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State, “retains the capability and the will to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad in as little as six months with little to no warning.” He made a similar assessment one year earlier in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he also warned that additional funding to support expanded intelligence activities and strike operations would be required to counter the group’s rise.
  • President Joe Biden’s administration should resist calls to expand the scope of its counterterror operations overseas, even by a little. 
    • Increasing overseas military operations is not the most efficient way to protect the U.S. homeland in this instance—and in fact, it may do more harm than good. U.S. intelligence capabilities appear able to track the group proficiently, even without forces deployed in Afghanistan. 
    • The risk of an ISIS-K attack inside United States is limited, despite the assault in Moscow. 
    • In addition, evidence is minimal that a degradation of U.S. core intelligence capabilities has occurred after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, at least as it pertains to ISIS-K. Instead, U.S. intelligence on the group is robust, timely, and specific, suggesting continued strong capabilities and extensive networks even in the absence of boots on the ground. 
  • Even if a credible ISIS-K threat to the U.S. homeland were to emerge, expanding counterterror operations would probably not be the most effective response. 
    • First, ISIS-K’s most active cells are now spread across Central Asia, making them difficult to target or eliminate and undermining the rationale for renewed airstrikes in Afghanistan. 
    • Second, as the war in Gaza and the U.S. global war on terror have demonstrated, ground-based military campaigns also cannot wipe out diffuse and networked terrorist groups. 
  • The United States should maintain its current focus on “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism. This strategy may include some drone strikes, but they would be limited and aimed at containment, not elimination, of groups like ISIS-K. 
  • In an era of constrained resources and major power adversaries, the United States should prioritize its military investments, and this will require choosing what not to do. Withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021was a good step in that direction, and Washington should avoid being pulled back into yet another counterterror campaign while more pressing threats from Russia and especially China loom.

“Crocus Attack Ends Lull of Six Years, Raises Question About Law-Enforcers’ Focus,” Simon Saradzhyan, RM, 03.28.24. 

  • Does the March 22 attack signal a return of recurrent large-scale terrorism to Russia? Hopefully not and there are multiple ways to lower the probability of such recurrence. Doing so requires 
    • drilling down into what drove and drives those behind the terrorist attacks,11 including not only those carrying them out, but also the actual organizers—rather than the ones the Kremlin finds it politically expedient to blame. 
    • Subjecting suspects to torture (which has been only recently become a subject of a separate article in Russia’s Criminal Code) of the kind we have seen the suspects in the Crocus attack subjected to, may produce instant gratification for a public demanding revenge as well as some investigative results, but in the longer-term such practices can fuel more 
    • The Russian authorities would also do well to have an independent review examine not only the actions of the terrorists, but also what Russia’s law-enforcement, security and other agencies did or did not do to prevent and to respond to this attack, including whether the fact that these agencies’ counter-terrorism and counter-extremism branches have increasingly focused on the Kremlin’s political opponents may have come at expense of maintain a robust capacity to go after non-state actors seeking to commit acts of political violence against Russian civilians.
    • Finally, the review can also, perhaps, explore how and why these agencies have acted on own intelligence as well as intelligence shared by other countries, such as the U.S.16 Dismissing warnings from such countries as provocation would be wrong if only, the new Cold War notwithstanding, these countries also have a vested interest in degrading the capabilities of ISIS, which have been targeting them in addition to Russia. After all, efforts at degrading this international threat have higher chances of success if those involved in it do not just accept, but also act on intelligence on this threat.

“No, Putin, the ISIS-K attack in Moscow wasn’t about Ukraine,” Mark N. Katz, Atlantic Council, 03.29.24. 

  • Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility for the horrific March 22 attack on a Moscow concert hall, which killed more than 130 people. Russian President Vladimir Putin, though, has claimed that the attack was somehow linked to Ukraine (which the Ukrainian government has hotly denied).
  • This attack is a reminder that Ukraine is not the only entity Russia is at war against. Although Moscow’s war against the Muslim breakaway region of Chechnya officially ended in 2009, Russia has experienced a number of jihadist attacks. This one is just the latest.
  • Putin’s reaction to the March ISIS-K attack in Moscow is eerily similar to his response to the September 2004 jihadist attack in Beslan. Even then, Putin claimed that the West supported—and even sought to benefit from—the attack.
  • This suggests that Putin may be a “worst case” thinker, believing that if the West and Ukraine are opposed to Russia, and if jihadists are opposed to Russia, then the West, Ukraine, and the jihadists must all be working together. On the other hand, Putin may not care so much whether this is true, but believes that linking ISIS-K to Ukraine and the West will resonate with the Russian public. Opposition to his war in Ukraine can then be equated not just to support for Russia’s Western enemies, but its Muslim ones as well.
  • Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and its conflict with jihadist groups like ISIS-K, though, are separate. And as horrific as it was, the ISIS-K attack on a Moscow theater is not nearly as much of a challenge to Putin as the war in Ukraine, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians have been killed or wounded. But the potential for an expanded Russian conflict with Sunni jihadists exists as long as Russia supports those such jihadists oppose—such as the Assad regime in Syria, oppressive rulers in the former Soviet Muslim republics and the Muslim “autonomous” regions inside Russia itself, Shia Iran, and the Taliban. Putin may have not just one war on his hands, but two.

“Connecting dots: What Russia can learn from the US after 9/11,” George Beebe, Responsible Statecraft, 03.26.24. 

  • If there were ever a time when American intelligence officials could empathize with their Russian counterparts, it would be now, in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on Moscow concertgoers a few days ago.  The sense of failure and frustration that Russian security officials must be feeling should be all too familiar for Americans whose job it had been to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks by al-Qaida radicals on the United States. A shocked American public wondered why the CIA and FBI had failed to “connect the dots” that could have revealed the plot. Russian President Vladimir Putin had even telephoned President Bush a few days before the attacks to warn that Russian intelligence had detected signs of an incipient terrorist campaign, “something long in preparation,” coming out of Afghanistan. 
  • Given Putin’s unrivaled dominance of the Russian government apparatus, as well Russia’s deep mistrust of Ukraine and the United States, investigators will be sorely tempted to connect the dots in this case in a particularly anti-Ukrainian and anti-American way. 
  • The base emotions, misperceptions, and mistrust fueled by the concert attack underscore just how precarious the U.S.-Russian relationship has become. If officials in Moscow and Washington are unable to manage such a seemingly straightforward matter as the duty to warn each other about the plans of a common terrorist foe, how can we expect them to defuse the dangers that an unintended clash over Ukraine might escalate into direct — even nuclear — combat? 

“The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan is at war with the world,” The Economist, 03.27.24.

  • No government formally recognizes the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, partly because its restrictions on female education are the world’s most oppressive. Yet even the Taliban are not radical enough for the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an offshoot in Afghanistan of the group that established a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
  • During its nine-year existence, ISKP has mainly killed Afghans. The group’s global ambitions burst into view on March 22nd, when at least four gunmen killed 139 people at a concert in Moscow. 
  • Russia is in ISKP’s crosshairs because it maintains an embassy in Kabul and has accepted a Taliban military attaché in Moscow. It also provides aid to Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime helped dismantle ISKP’s parent organization. The attack in Moscow may also reflect ISKP’s recruiting among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kazakhs. 
  • Estimates of the ISKP’s strength vary from fewer than 2,000 to 5,000. Taliban offensives have taken back territory the group once held in Afghanistan. According to Riccardo Valle, director of research at Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based group, ISKP’s strength these days is “its ability to find and connect with small numbers of disaffected people”. The current leader is believed to be Shahab al-Muhajir, a 29-year-old of Arab descent. He is rarely heard from, but he can be certain that his disparate organization will now be at the center of global attention. 

“What Will the Political Fallout Be From the Moscow Terrorist Attack?” Mikhail Vinogradov, CEIP, 03.27.24. Clues from Russian Views 

  • Right now, neither radical anti-terrorist measures [in the wake of the March 22 terrorist attack on the Crocus Concert Hall] nor any kind of “retribution against Ukraine” looks likely. Among those trying to guess the authorities’ next steps, two proposals are most often voiced: the return of the death penalty and a stricter migration policy (the four men arrested on suspicion of having carried out the attack are all nationals of Tajikistan). Still, neither of those initiatives is guaranteed or imminent.
  • The topic of the death penalty comes up regularly in Russia, where it has not been abolished but has been subject to a moratorium for decades. The Russian elites, however, are wary of its return. Many people remember that in Soviet times, it wasn’t terrorists who were executed, but underperforming managers. Besides, there is no shortage of opportunities for extrajudicial reprisals against “enemies,” even without the death penalty.
  • A drastic change in migration policy also looks doubtful. Shortages on the labor market have only worsened over the past two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine: Russia has lost some of its appeal as a work destination for people from other former Soviet nations due to the depreciation of the ruble and the risk of ending up at the front.
  • While the topics of the death penalty and immigration policy will likely remain in the news for some time, and certain regulations may be tightened, no drastic decisions are likely, and any activity will be unrelated to the heart of the issue. Such steps will not help solve real problems, whether terrorism, the war against Ukraine, or the feeling of helplessness experienced by ordinary Russians. What they can do, however, is give the regime time to adapt to new stressors without changing its worldview.

“Moscow Terror Attack Spotlights Russia-Tajikistan Ties,” Temur Umarov, CEIP, 03.28.24. Clues from Russian Views

  • Responsibility for the March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City concert hall near Moscow has been claimed by the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), and most of the suspects in the attack are from Tajikistan.
  • Radicalization among some Muslims in Central Asia has been ongoing for many years, and organizations like ISIS-K—which had been largely forgotten in Russia until last week’s deadly attack—have learnt to take full advantage. This process is particularly acute in the region’s poorest country, Tajikistan. 
  • Leaked videos of Russian security officers torturing the Tajiks arrested in connection with the attack—and the extent of the men’s injuries when they were brought to court—will legitimize more generalized cruelty toward those from Central Asia. The Tajik Embassy in Russia has taken the step of telling its nationals to stay at home, while the Kyrgyz Embassy currently advises its nationals against travel to Russia.
  • At the same time, the terrorist attack is unlikely to alter the close relationship between Moscow and Dushanbe. Russia is already facing an acute labor shortage, and can hardly afford to jeopardize a remaining source of inexpensive labor. 
  • Rahmon has also spoken to Putin and disowned the Tajiks allegedly responsible. The two presidents also pledged to deepen security ties—though it’s hard to imagine how they could get much deeper. The effectiveness of those ties, though, is a different question. Are both of these aging, authoritarian regimes really able to prevent terrorist attacks? Or are they more interested in imaginary threats and cementing their grip on power?

“Moscow’s Lies in a Crisis Don’t Just Mask Failure. They Reinforce It,” Gavin Wilde, CEIP, 03.27.24. 

  • Putin and his circle are hardly the first to willfully conflate regime security with national security. Political leaders and bureaucracies of all stripes—including in the United States—engage in perfidy, cynicism, spin, and demagoguery all the time. Unfortunately, these seem to have become features, rather than bugs, of modern statecraft. However, Moscow’s experience these past several days illustrates a much deeper point about the consequences of such impulses when left unchecked. When national leaders (or aspirants to such positions) conflate compliance with competence, or patronage for proficiency, it is not just political discourse that suffers.
  • The loss of life at Crocus City Hall is heartbreaking. It is impossible to know, of course, if it was ultimately avoidable. However, the Kremlin’s reflexive turn to the machinery of smoke and mirrors with every crisis suggests that little else in the mechanics of government is functioning. For all the attention paid to Moscow’s propaganda and deceitfulness on the international stage, the Kremlin’s perfidy continues to exact a cost on its domestic institutions. Those failures inevitably bring a human toll as well.

“Who Is Blowing Up Russia?” Bret Stephens, NYT, 03.27.24. 

  • There are two plausible hypotheses regarding Friday's terrorist attack at a concert hall outside Moscow, in which at least 139 people were killed. The first is that it was an inside job -- orchestrated by Russian security services, or at least carried out with their foreknowledge.
  • The second is that it wasn't.
  • As Washington has retreated from (or been forced out of) its efforts to confront global disorder, the disorder has grown. What happened in Moscow is reminiscent of what happened at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015, where 90 were murdered. ISIS seems to have a taste for concert halls.
  • The word ''pivot'' gets used a lot in foreign policy discussions, as in the Obama administration's ''pivot to Asia'' or the ''pivot to great-power competition'' under Trump and President Biden. But if the lesson of the first pivot is that we neglected NATO and European security at our peril, the lesson of the second is that we have lulled ourselves into the belief that our Islamist terror problem is largely behind us. As Israel found out on Oct. 7, a country's mortal enemies aren't tamed or vanquished just because leaders have other priorities.
  • The American security challenge today is global: a resurgent ISIS, a revanchist China, a regionally aggressive Iran and a Russia where the lines between grandiosity and paranoia blur. Whether what happened in Russia was Islamist terror, an F.S.B. conspiracy, or some appalling combination of both, it augurs ill for us.

“Russia-Afghanistan relations in the aftermath of the Moscow attack,” Vanda Felbab-Brown , Brookings, 03.28.24. 

  • Although the ISKP attack may complicate Russia’s relations with the Taliban, it is unlikely to alter them fundamentally. While the Taliban’s repeated promise that it would prevent international attacks from Afghan soil is further discredited, ISKP is the one terrorist group that the Taliban has been fighting with determination and consistency even after coming to power. Russia might ask the Taliban for further specific actions, but it has adjusted itself to Taliban rule, supporting the Taliban at multilateral fora, and it doesn’t really have alternatives in Afghanistan.
  • Moscow’s effectiveness with the Taliban is as constrained as everyone else’s, and its leverage is even more limited. Russia provides virtually no humanitarian aid to Afghanistan—not that the West has been able to translate it into inducing less odious internal Afghan policies—and its economic engagement with Afghanistan is small. Russia may threaten the Taliban with opposition to lifting sanctions and travel bans against the Taliban, but since there is no current prospect for their removal anyway, little leverage results. And building up Afghan alternatives, i.e., the very weak National Resistance Front that has been flailing in its efforts to fight the Taliban, would take a long time and bring uncertain payoffs. Russia may feel frustrated with the Taliban over the Crocus attack, but its false-flag Ukraine propaganda aside, it has few cards to play with the Taliban.

“The Terrorist Attack in Moscow? The Russian President has a long history of spinning lapses in security for his own political gain,” Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker, 03.24.24.

  • For what Putin does now, the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan may be instructive. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Putin moved not to reform Russia’s security agencies, for example, or to hold an independent inquiry on the security forces’ decision to fire heavy explosives at the school but, rather, to roll back nascent democratic reforms. The Kremlin cancelled direct elections of regional governors in favor of Presidential appointments; it also abolished single-mandate districts in the Duma, removing the last independent voices in parliament. All of which is to say, an attack does not have to be a planned provocation for Putin to look to spin it to his political advantage.
  • Still, it’s hard to imagine the Kremlin doing more to empower the FSB in its hunt for enemies, real or imagined, or to further erode Russia’s democratic institutions. Similarly, can Russia realistically escalate its attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure, given that, on Friday, hours before the terror attack, dozens of Russian missile and drone strikes hit energy facilities across the country? Putin could instead try to have Russians forget about the horrors at Crocus City Hall, or at least move on without much fanfare, lest they arrive at difficult questions for him and the state. Or he may attempt, as he did in the first hours after the attack, to replace the prospect of real evil with a more suitable enemy. Wartime creates its own logic of expediency; the same is true for late-stage autocracies obsessed with their survival. Putin, then, may well indeed find a response to the massacre, even if it has little to do with those who carried it out. 

“Moscow Terrorist Attack Undercuts Putin’s Strongman Image,” Amy Mackinnon, FP, 03.27.24. 

  • Now, having failed to stop Friday’s [March 22] brazen attack, some in Russia are openly questioning Putin’s vast security apparatus. “What happened is unique in that for the first time in Russia, during a terror attack of this scale, security forces were unable to prevent the terrorists’ action in any way: they freely entered the building, killed and wounded scores of people, and calmly left the scene of the massacre,” political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote in a commentary. “Years of tightening security and trillions of rubles were spent in vain.” 
  • Maria Pevchikh, an associate of the late opposition figure Alexei Navalny, accused the security agencies of being “too busy fighting politicians, activists, and journalists, so they didn’t have time left to deal with terrorists.”

“The Bitter Choices in Fighting Terrorism,” Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 03.25.24.

  • So far [President Vladimir Putin] is doing all he can to blame Ukraine and the U.S. for ISIS-Khorasan’s raid [on March 22, 2024] on a concert hall near Moscow. This is neither surprising nor particularly effective.
    • What…Putin must now face is a problem for everyone.
  • Not that the terrorists are all on the same side. The Sunnis are divided among themselves. ISIS hates al Qaeda and they both hate the Shiites.
    • But none of that stops Shiite Iran from… funding Sunni Hamas to murder Jews, nor will it stop other forms of tactical cooperation when it comes to slaughtering Americans, Russians, Europeans or Indians.
  • When ISIS-K murdered more than 130 people in the heart of Putin’s Russia, morale in both terrorspheres soared.
  • The fight against the re-energized forces of fanaticism won’t be easy. While never giving up on the compassion that is part of what makes us human, we must not let concern for their captives stand in the way of breaking the power of the guilty.

“Propaganda and the Moscow Terror Attack,” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., WSJ, 03.26.24.

  • It would be a good time for an American president to show himself, to take the lead in advancing U.S. interests in the wake of the Moscow terrorist attack. Use U.S. intelligence resources aggressively to make sure the facts are known to undermine [President Vladimir Putin’s] self-serving spin.
    • Such moments are turning points. They are also disinformation extravaganzas.
  • Early in the Trump administration, when officials sent an unprecedented signal hinting at opening U.S. files on the 1999 apartment bombings, [President Donald] Trump was contending with fabricated claims about a sex act in a Moscow hotel room. 
    • If the message to Putin was to stay out of our messy domestic infighting, it worked and served U.S. interests.
  • A difference, of course, is that the [President Joe Biden’s son] Hunter laptop was real, the Russian involvement [alleged by 51 U.S. intelligence veterans] was a lie and the signal to Putin was “don’t sabotage an effort to aid Mr. Biden’s election.”
  • Whatever the reason for 20 years of U.S. restraint, which has only continued under Biden, the moment is ripe to use our intelligence efforts to change Putin’s calculations about a Ukraine war that will end only when he believes not ending it endangers his position in Moscow.
  • [Putin’s] war isn’t popular at home. His rigged fifth presidential election can’t conceal the fact. 
  • Expose the truth about [March 22, 2024] terror attack. Expose the truth, likely long hidden in U.S. files, about the 1999 bombings and about Putin’s many other depredations against the Russian people so he will know the bill for his Ukraine war is going up.

"The American explanation for the Moscow terror attack doesn’t add up," Dmitri Trenin, RIAC/RT, 03.28.24. Russian Views. (RT is funded by the Russian authorities and routinely used for dissemination of propaganda.)

  • The US government’s version of an Islamic State connection to the .... heinous act of terrorism at the Crocus City Hall concert... has been met with skepticism by Russian officials and commentators. 
    • Firstly, they were surprised by how quickly – virtually within minutes – Washington pointed the finger at the group.
    • What also drew the attention of Russian observers was the US reference to an IS-linked news site which had claimed responsibility for the crime. Normally, all such sources are subjected to thorough checks. But not this time.
    • Figures in Russia have also noted that American spokesmen immediately, and without prompting, declared that Ukraine was in no way linked to the act of terror.
    • Other criticisms of the American version include the style of the attack (no political statements or demands were made); the admission by one of the captured attackers that he had shot innocent people for money; and the fact that this was not planned as a suicide operation. Many experts have pointed out that IS is far from its prime, and that Russian forces defeated its core elements in Syria years ago. This has allowed speculation to grow about a false flag attack.
  • The results of the Russian investigation will be enormously important. If Moscow concludes that the attack was conceived, planned, and organized by the Ukrainians – say, the military intelligence agency GUR – Putin’s public warning would logically mean that the agency’s leaders will not just be “legitimate” targets, but priority ones for Russia... If so, Moscow would be removing one of its most important self-imposed constraints – not to touch Kiev's senior leadership.
  • One thing that's important to note" The war in Ukraine is not considered by Russians to be a war againstUkraine. Rather, it is seen as a fight against the US-led West. Thus, if Ukraine’s complicity in Friday’s terrorist attack is indeed established, it would also suggest, at a minimum, US knowledge and de facto approval of it.
  • Escalation of the conflict, [can] lead to a head-on collision [between Russia and NATO countries) Unless, of course, Washington decides at some point that enough is enough, that what's happening is too dangerous, and that, unlike for Russia, the battle in Ukraine is not existential for the US itself – or even for its dominant position in Europe.

For more analysis on counterterrorism, see:

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security/AI: 

“It’s good for rival superpowers to talk. De-escalation channels akin to the Washington-Moscow hotline are needed long before a crisis hits,” Edward Geist, FT, 04.01.24.

  • This spring, the US and China are expected to start talks on artificial intelligence safety. Expectations are low. These might be no more than conversations between specialists and analysts, rather than senior government officials.  But early, unproductive talks aren’t a total loss — as illustrated by nuclear arms negotiations during the cold war. Failed attempts to negotiate with Moscow in the 1950s paved the way for vital breakthroughs with the Soviets a decade later.  Analogous US negotiations with Beijing on AI today could lay the foundation for the moment when both countries’ leaders realise how much they stand to gain from shared commitments.
  • In an atmosphere of deepening mutual suspicion, trying to engage with China on military uses of AI may seem pointless. But compared with US-Soviet tensions in the 1950s and early 1960s — an era marked by several crises that nearly exploded into nuclear war — present US-China relations actually aren’t so bad. If negotiations go somewhere, US security might be palpably improved. It they fail, there is little downside.
  • If China agrees to talk at any level about AI, American officials should treat the engagement as exploratory, with the expectation that near-term progress will probably be modest. But as history shows, such preliminary discussions are an essential precursor to meaningful diplomatic breakthroughs later.

Energy exports from CIS:

“The Oil Weapon Against Moscow,” Andriy Yermak, WSJ, 03.27.24.

  • In 1984, 613 million tons of oil were extracted in the Soviet Union -- 3 million tons less than in 1983 and well below that year's target of 624 million tons. The Soviets sustained enormous financial losses because of the shortfall, exposing the vulnerability of the economy, which was depleting old oil deposits. ... Then, the West saw an opportunity to erode Moscow's finances by lowering oil prices and increasing output -- as it should today. History shows that when Russia is flush with oil money, it tries to reassert its global dominance. Russia's growth under Mr. Putin is thanks to soaring oil prices. In 2011-14, oil and gas revenue in Russia exceeded 50% of federal revenue. In recent years, oil and gas have accounted for up to 60% of Russia's total goods exports and 40% of federal revenue. Billions of dollars in oil and gas profits fuel the Kremlin's imperialism and revanchism. 
  • The West must ratchet up sanctions to make Russia's oil trade less profitable, while also increasing Saudi and U.S. oil output. The West should also cut off Russia's access to technologies, including by imposing sanctions on intermediaries. Lowering oil's price to $30 a barrel would help. But without new supply sources, price caps won't work. Ukraine and the world need Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to take the lead. As in the 1980s, increasing production will tame both Moscow and Tehran, which is the key to peace in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Mr. Putin's Russia, fueled by oil revenue, has no incentive to pursue peace, but instead aims to restore the U.S.S.R. and its sphere of influence. Mr. Putin isn't bound by ideological principles other than a lust for power and will support extremists around the world to promote chaos. Pursuing this malign agenda requires oil revenue.
  • To save the world from another century of turmoil, the West must replicate the successful example from the 1980s. Once again, it can outmaneuver Moscow and Tehran and reclaim the initiative.

Climate change:

“Transboundary Arctic Issues at Stake,” Margaret Williams and Viktoria Waldenfels, Belfer Center, 03.28.24.

  • Many critical issues in the Arctic, such as maritime safety and security, commercial fisheries management, and climate change, are transboundary in nature and require collaboration with Russia to address effectively.
  • Despite geopolitical tensions, the U.S. and Russia have a history of cooperating on maritime safety in the Bering Strait region, and continued cooperation is essential to prevent and respond to oil spills, accidents, and search and rescue incidents in this strategically important area. 
  • The U.S. and Russia co-manage valuable transboundary fish stocks, such as the Bering Sea pollock fishery, and ongoing cooperation through scientific research and information sharing is crucial for ensuring sustainable harvests as climate change alters species distribution patterns.
  • Russia's involvement is vital for understanding and addressing the global climate crisis, particularly in areas like permafrost thaw, which has significant ramifications for Arctic communities and infrastructure, as well as for remaining global carbon budgets.
  • While Western nations have halted most cooperation with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, there is a recognition that the magnitude of transboundary issues in the Arctic necessitates some level of continued scientific collaboration with Russia, despite the moral dilemma it poses.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“In a Secret Game of Prisoner Swaps, Putin Has Held Most of the Cards,” Aruna Viswanatha, Bojan Pancevski, Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, WSJ, 03.27.24.

  • Washington wanted [President] Vladimir Putin to send home two Americans it deemed unlawfully jailed in Russia. Putin wanted Berlin to release Vadim Krasikov, a Russian hit man serving a life sentence in Germany for murder.
    • It would be a tough thing for the U.S. ally to deliver, but perhaps it could be sold to the German public if Russia agreed to free its most prominent dissident, Alexei Navalny.
    • [Hillary Clinton] accepted a proposal…to lobby the White House to include the imprisoned Russian opposition leader in negotiations, handing the Russians Krasikov in exchange.
  • The White House never had a chance to make a formal proposal to Moscow. Word of the discussions reached the Kremlin via a private intermediary. 
    • Momentum appeared to be growing but there was still no final U.S.-German agreement nor any proposal to the Russians. Seven days after Biden met Scholz [in the Oval Office talking about the swap], Navalny’s closest aides and his wife Yulia arrived at the global gathering of security officials in Munich, where they hoped negotiations could soon reach a breakthrough. It was not to be. On Feb. 16…Navalny died suddenly of unknown causes.
  • Both Presidents [Joe] Biden and [Donald] Trump found themselves facing the crude asymmetry between the U.S. and Russia, whose leader…can order foreigners…sentenced to decades on spurious charges.
  • The first time the name “Paul Whelan” landed in the American Embassy in Moscow, nobody knew who he was—just that he had been grabbed in a raid on his hotel room.
    • Days later, [U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman bypassed Russia’s Foreign Ministry to talk directly to Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s chief foreign-policy adviser.
    • Russia would be willing to trade [Maria Butina, accused of participating in a conspiracy to influence U.S. politics] for Whelan. Or it could trade him for a pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, sentenced to 20 years for drug smuggling.
    • There was another prisoner the Kremlin wanted more: Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trafficker.
  • The proposition of swapping Whelan for Butina or Yaroshenko never gained momentum. Trading Bout sounded so lopsided that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, dismissed it outright.
  • In August [2019], the score shifted again. Police in Russia arrested another former Marine, Trevor Reed. The State Department declared him wrongfully detained.
  • [In the 2021 meeting in Geneva] When it came to Whelan, Russia had a grim new demand: a spy for a spy. If Washington wanted Moscow to free an American convicted in a Russian court of espionage, the U.S. would have to secure the release of a Russian sentenced for an equivalent crime.
    • There was…one Russian that Putin was starting to ask about: Vadim Krasikov, the former FSB officer serving a murder sentence in Germany.
    • In the weeks that followed, U.S. officials watched as police at Russian airports and elsewhere began scooping up more Americans. None of those cases registered with the American public or with officials.
  • [After arresting Griner] Russian officials realized they had leverage and floated a possible deal: Bout and Yaroshenko for Griner and Trevor Reed.
    • Trading Griner for Bout would make it harder to free Whelan…because there were no other inmates left in U.S. prisons that Russia wanted, plus it could make other countries reluctant to extradite criminals to America. 
  • [After his arrest on March 29, 2023, Evan] Gershkovich was charged with espionage and jailed alone in a Lefortovo prison cell. Putin now had two Americans spuriously classified as spies.

“The world needs Evan Gershkovich,” Editorial Board, BG, 03.27.24.

  • Russia’s actions are part of a rising tide of authoritarianism worldwide, and a [President Vladimir] Putin on the march is a threat beyond Russia or Ukraine.
    • The one-year anniversary on Friday of Evan Gershkovich’s unjust detainment by the Putin regime is a painful reminder of as much.
    • His crime was telling the truth, an increasingly costly act in Russia and beyond. He is the first American journalist to be arrested under false charges of espionage since the Cold War.
  • Gershkovich, a news reporter, was detained for merely reporting back to his Journal readers about daily matters in Russia.
    • These are dangerous times, and we need people like Gershkovich more than ever. With authoritarians on the march, a free press is especially vital to serve as a bulwark against tyranny.

“Evan Gershkovich’s Year in a Russian Prison,” Editorial Board, WSJ, 03.26.24.

  • The Kremlin claims [Evan Gershkovich] is suspected of spying, but his real offense is honest reporting. If he does go to trial, any charges and evidence will be wholly invented.
  • The Biden Administration has worked actively for Evan’s release. Speaker Mike Johnson invited Evan’s parents to sit in his box at the State of the Union address, and President Biden noted their presence.
    • Members of both political parties have condemned his imprisonment. A notable exception, unless we missed it, is Donald Trump. Why the silence, sir?
  • One response that the Biden Administration hasn’t attempted is arresting or expelling Russian journalists operating in the U.S. 
    • As a practical matter this means [President Vladimir] Putin has paid no price for arresting an American journalist.

“Should the West Engage with Russia on Science and Conversation While the War in Ukraine Continues?” Viktoria Waldenfels and Margaret Williams, Belfer Center, 03.28.24.

  • In this study group’s fourth session, the question of whether the West should engage with Russia on topics related to science and conservation, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine. 
  • In examining the role that the rule of law should have in shaping relations between Western and Russian scientists, one side argues that the West should keep Russia in isolation for its violation of international norms. However, others argue that it is “worth it” to overlook this for the sake of addressing these ongoing transformations in the Artic.
  • While it possible that supporting environmental issues will harm Russian activists, activists in other parts of the world are also facing repressions for their support of these issues. As such, Russians should decide for themselves whether they will take the risk. 
  • By narrowly defining partnerships and carefully executing projects, it is possible to keep science separate from politics, developing trust and producing positive outcomes. However, science is always intertwined with politics, especially when the outcomes of research have high stakes for influencing policy.
  • Working “on the margins” – person-to-person collaboration outside official frameworks – may be a way forward to achieve common aims in science and conservation. However, attitudes within leadership circles in the West have changed significantly, and today there is less interest in and appreciation for enabling these relationships.
  • Building up a strong U.S. military presence in the U.S. Arctic is necessary to serve the dual goals of maritime safety and security and environmental protection. However, in this period of heightened tensions, increasing military presence in this region could lead to unintended outcomes, especially given the severe erosion of trust on both sides.

“No future? Cooperation with younger generation Russian experts,” Julia Berghofer, ELN, 03.27.24.

  • Some colleagues in the security community have made it clear to me that they think it is unlikely that even a single Ukrainian would agree to talk to Russian experts. According to some, Russian experts would only repeat Kremlin propaganda anyway, making any real exchange of views impossible.
    • A dividing line is often drawn between those Russian experts who have left Russia and those still in the country. The implication is that exchange is possible with the former but not with the latter.
  • In fact, it is too simplistic to categorically refuse any contact with Russian scientists and experts. One must decide on a case-by-case basis with which Russians it is still possible to have an open and constructive exchange.
  • There is another group of experts who appear to be more or less part of the Russian system, living either in Russia or abroad. It is unclear whether they maintain contact with their Western counterparts to gather information or to spread false information – or whether they believe they can undermine the system from within.
  • Russians who are well-connected on both sides can play a dual role as translators. On the one hand, the entire Russian nuclear doctrine requires a linguistic and contextual interpretation, which can be provided primarily by native speakers and excellent experts on Russian politics.
  • It will take many years to restore trust-building and normal dialogue in Europe. Russia’s invasion has become a point of no return to the relatively peaceful three decades that followed the Cold War. Divisions are already huge and will likely grow further.

 

II. Russia’s domestic policies 

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“‘Sticking to his principles’: Kremlin insiders on Putin’s next moves as he embarks on his fifth presidential term,” Andrei Pertsev, Meduza, 03.26.24. 

  • Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to Kremlin insiders and a high-ranking politician to find out what those close to the Russian president expect the next stretch of his reign to actually bring.
    • Russia’s “political elites” don’t anticipate any “unpredictable, far-reachin or fundamental” changes in the country during Vladimir Putin’s fifth presidential term, according to two Kremlin insiders, a source in the Russian government, and a high-ranking member of United Russia who spoke to Meduza said.
    • Meduza’s sources agree that the Russian government will intensify repression against dissenters and that Putin’s primary focus will remain the war in Ukraine. “This isn’t something new, though, just an escalation of what already exists,” said a source close to Putin’s administration. “In terms of events and changes, Putin’s new term began in February 2022, not now.” According to this source, “the onset of the war set a course for increased pressure and escalation [with the West].” “This is a state at war that lives by the words, ‘Everything for victory,’” he explained. “Or rather, that’s how the president would like it. There’s no room for dissenters, gays, and the like. The war takes precedence over everything.”
    • Meduza’s sources say that the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall is unlikely to bring about significant changes. “At first, I was in shock from the terrorist attack, and then from the potential consequences. For example, a serious escalation, possibly even resorting to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” said one Kremlin insider. “Currently, the top leadership isn’t articulating clear decisions, just reassuring citizens. There’s already an established formula: avoid making sudden moves if possible.”
    • Another source close to Putin’s administration believes that new developments in Russia’s political landscape will only be possible … after the end of the invasion, or “at the very least, some kind of ceasefire.” “It’s pointless to expect any changes while the war is still ongoing,” he said.
    • A political consultant who works with the president’s administration and regional authorities believes that a one-party system is emerging in Russia: “There isn’t much divergence in the parties’ agendas; the main thing is they all support [Putin].” He said that while the different parties will likely formally remain, they’ll function more as government departments with various responsibilities.

“Vladimir Putin Wants a Tax Hike,” Leon Aron, WSJ, 03.28.24.

  • Vladimir Putin is threatening to raise taxes. Earlier this month he broached the idea of a "progressive tax." The idea, which is sure to provoke widespread resentment from Russians, is one of the most telling signs of the tightening financial straits into which the war on Ukraine is pushing Moscow. The Kremlin's treasury is being drained by the "special military operation," which costs an estimated $300 million a day -- plus a massive rearmament and Western sanctions. 
  • The new rates of 15% and 20% would affect about 20 million Russians with annual incomes slightly above the national annual average of 860,000 rubles, or $9,500. The highest Russian earners are concentrated in large cities, where political trouble tends to originate. Hence Mr. Putin's uncharacteristically soft-shoe shuffle of a seemingly casual remark on a top-rated evening talk show. He's preparing the public for what Russian experts called "tax mobilization." The thin line between keeping social peace and paying for the war, which Mr. Putin has been navigating for two years, became narrower still.

Defense and aerospace:

“Will Prisoners Help Putin Win the War?” Alexander Goltz, Russia.Post, 03.29.24. Clues from Russian Views 

  • There are ... significant practical considerations against recruiting prisoners. Any army is built on a hierarchical principle, and those junior in position and rank are obliged to carry out the orders of those senior. But criminals are by definition people who refuse to live by the rules of society. In the army, they receive weapons and thus the opportunity to defend their “right” not to obey anyone.
  • It is all the more doubtful that criminals during hostilities will follow orders that could threaten their lives. It is more than likely that the massive inflow of convicted criminals into the Russian army today will result in a similar outflow of armed deserters who, fleeing back to Russia, will commit new serious crimes. And when the current war is over, it is possible that the surviving criminals, having been forgiven of their sins, will demand a place for themselves in the new Putin elite – and, to the misfortune of those around them, will fight for that place in their own, particular way.
  •  See section Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts above.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.

 

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

Russia’s external policies and relations with “far abroad” countries:

“A Russian Defector’s Killing Raises Specter of Hit Squads,” Michael Schwirtz and José Bautista, NYT, 03.31.24. 

  • The death in Spain of Maksim Kuzminov, a pilot who delivered a helicopter and secret documents to Ukraine, has raised fears that the Kremlin is again targeting its enemies.
  • The men who killed Maksim Kuzminov wanted to send a message. This was obvious to investigators in Spain even before they discovered who he was. Not only did the killers shoot him six times in a parking garage in southern Spain, they ran over his body with their car. They also left an important clue to their identity, according to investigators: shell casings from 9-millimeter Makarov rounds, a standard ammunition of the former Communist bloc.
    • “It was a clear message,” said a senior official from Guardia Civil, the Spanish police force overseeing the investigation into the killing. “I will find you, I will kill you, I will run you over and humiliate you.”

Ukraine:

  • No significant developments.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Russia’s Intended Naval Base in Ochamchire: Implications for Georgian and Black Sea Security,” Kornely Kakachia and Salome Minesashvili, PONARS, 03.27.24.

  • With the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive having forced Russia to withdraw much of its Black Sea fleet from the Crimean Peninsula and look for safer options, Russia plans to establish a permanent naval base at the Russian-occupied Abkhazian port of Ochamchire.
  • This plan poses an imminent threat to Georgian national security: not only would it cement Moscow’s control of the 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territories that Russia has long occupied, but it would also put Russian forces within striking distance of the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi. ....Politically, Moscow could use its military presence as a tool of coercion to deter Tbilisi from its Euro-Atlantic ambitions, while the fact that Kyiv would consider the base a legitimate military target in the ongoing war means that Georgia would likely be drawn directly into the conflict, shattering its current official neutrality. 
  • The Russia-Ukraine war has decreased Georgia’s resilience and increased its military and security vulnerability to Russian threats. Russia’s further pursuit of dominance in the Black Sea region by expanding its naval presence not only has troubling implications for Ukraine, but would provide Russia with leverage against Georgia and the rest of the countries in the Caucasus and Black Sea region, as well as affecting trade and transport routes between Asia and Europe. This reality reinforces the need for increased cooperation and coordination between the EU, NATO, the US, and the countries of the Black Sea region to address common security challenges. Such joint efforts will hinge significantly on how the new balance of power in the broader Black Sea region is reshaped as a result of the Ukraine war.

“Iran and Turkmenistan’s Relationship Steadily Improves,” Giorgio Cafiero, NI, 03.29.24. 

  • Since Ebrahim Raisi became Iran’s president, Tehran has pursued a “Neighbors First” foreign policy strategy. With the Islamic Republic under continued Western sanctions and other forms of pressure, Tehran has focused on improving its relations with states surrounding Iran to counter Western efforts to isolate and weaken it.
  • A flurry of diplomatic activities and cooperation in various domains has improved Iranian-Turkmen ties since Raisi’s presidency began in 2021. Nonetheless, bilateral trade levels are low at roughly $500 million. Therefore, despite Iran and Turkmenistan having the potential to grow their economic relationship, Iran’s trade with Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries can only do so much to decrease the financial pressures caused by Western sanctions
    • Natural gas is a critical part of Iranian-Turkmen relations. With the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves and an economy heavily dependent on this resource, Turkmenistan values the opportunity to sell its natural gas to Iran, which the Central Asian country has been doing since 1997. 
  • With the 2017 gas dispute now resolved, there are no major sources of tension between Iran and Turkmenistan. The Raisi administration’s quest to improve the Islamic Republic’s ties with neighboring countries has steadily improved Tehran-Ashgabat relations since 2021. Nonetheless, with changing circumstances at the regional and global levels, potential problems in bilateral affairs risk emerging down the line.
  • Iran is not concerned with terrorism emanating from Turkmenistan. Whereas many violent extremists that attack targets in Iran enter via Iraq and Pakistan, there have not been any major issues with armed groups coming from Turkmenistan to wage attacks inside Iran. There is hardly any Iranian-Turkmen counterterrorism cooperation.
  • Despite ....sources of potential tension, Iran and Turkmenistan favor the positive trajectory of their bilateral relationship for now. At a time in which Tehran remains on hostile terms with the United States and Israel while its relationships with EU members have deteriorated, Iran does not seek problems with Turkmenistan and other Central Asian states. For its part, Turkmenistan understands that Iran maintains a powerful military despite the heavy sanctions. Therefore, Ashgabat has no incentive to needlessly aggravate Tehran. 

 

Footnotes

  1. Translated with the help of machine translation.

The cutoff for reports summarized in this product was 11:00 am Eastern time on the day this digest was distributed. Unless otherwise indicated, all summaries above are direct quotations. 

*Here and elsewhere, the italicized text indicates comments by RM staff and associates. These comments do not constitute a RM editorial policy.

Photo by National Police of Ukraine shared under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.