Russia Analytical Report, March 26-April 2, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • Using “Cold War” as common denominator for everything we don’t like makes no sense, argues Odd Arne Westad. Instead, we should try to understand how perceived lessons from the past influences thinking about the present. If we want to apply history to policymaking, we must learn to be as alert to differences as we are to analogies.
  • Downing Street decided to condemn Putin without even bothering to put forward corroborating evidence in the Skripal poisoning, writes Robert Service.
  • Putin is ready to offer Russia generational change as a substitute for political change, writes Ivan Krastev.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

“Has a New Cold War Really Begun? Why the Term Shouldn't Apply to Today's Great-Power Tensions,” Odd Arne Westad, Foreign Affairs, 03.27.18The author, a professor of U.S.-Asia relations at Harvard University, writes: “At its peak, the Cold War was a global system of countries centered on the United States and the Soviet Union. … At its core was an ideological contest between capitalism and socialism … . It was a bipolar system of total victory or total defeat … . The Cold War was intense, categorical, and highly dangerous: strategic nuclear weapons systems were intended to destroy the superpower opponent, even at a cost of devastating half the world. Today’s international affairs … are a far cry from Cold War absolutes. … Today’s international affairs have moved beyond the Cold War. Bipolarity is gone. … Ideology is no longer the main determinant. … Whatever international system is being created at the moment, it is not a Cold War. … [U]sing ‘Cold War’ as common denominator for everything we don’t like makes no sense. Instead, we should try to understand how perceived lessons from the past influences thinking about the present. If we want to apply history to policymaking, we must learn to be as alert to differences as we are to analogies.”

“A New Cold War Is Not Inevitable. Top NATO and Russian military commanders have agreed to meet. Here's what they need to discuss,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 03.27.18The author, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, writes: “When I served as Supreme Allied Commander at NATO …, I developed a friendly relationship with the head of the Russian armed forces, Gen. Nikolai Makarov. … We argued about a variety of things … . We also developed a series of cooperative programs … . [T]hose sorts of top-level relationships have been dormant for some time. I was therefore heartened by recent reports that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, and the current Supreme Allied Commander, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, are in serious discussions with the current head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov. Phone conversations are occurring with some regularity, and … Scaparrotti and Gerasimov have tentatively scheduled a face-to-face meeting in Europe. … Tactically, the two generals need to create an effective regime to avoid unintended confrontations between NATO and the Russians. … Operationally, the conversations should look at where forces are being assigned broadly. … In terms of operational exercises, more transparency and visibility would be good. … Scaparrotti should be prepared to discuss the Donald Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy … . Gerasimov should be able to help the West understand why President Vladimir Putin is launching a series of new, dangerous weapons … . [T]he two generals should think together about possible areas of cooperation … . By taking an approach that says we should confront where we must, but cooperate where we can, these two leaders can propose intelligent and realistic zones of collaboration in the current sea of confrontation.”

“We're Prepping for the Wrong War,” Max Boot, The Washington Post, 03.29.18The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes: “Everywhere I go, I hear that the military is switching its focus from counterinsurgency to conventional conflict. … While we still face terrorist and guerrilla threats, we also confront unconventional challenges from countries such as China, Iran and Russia that wage what is known as ‘asymmetric,’ ‘gray-zone’ or ‘hybrid’ warfare. … Russia is particularly adept at this type of warfare. … The Internet Research Agency and the Wagner Group are owned by the same man: Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is known as President Vladimir Putin's ‘chef.’ … Generals are often accused of fighting the last war. Actually, they are more likely to prepare for a future war that never arrives while neglecting a current conflict. The Pentagon will be repeating that mistake if it focuses its energy on conventional wars rather than the hybrid threat.”

“A Colder War With Russia?” Editorial Board, The New York Times, 03.31.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “During the original Cold War, Moscow and Washington recognized that their ideological hostility and nuclear arsenals needed to be contained, so they talked through back channels and across a ‘hotline’ … and held regular meetings at all levels, up to the top. … António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, suggested it was time to revive the Cold War channels of communication and control. … Throughout Russia's slow slide into authoritarianism, there has lingered a hope that relations with Moscow can be reset. … Russia has also undergone a considerable transformation since 1991. … More significantly, there is no Western consensus on Russia of the sort that held against the Soviet Union. … All that makes the current confrontation less predictable than the showdowns of the Soviet past. Both Britain and the United States have left open further actions against Russia, to which Moscow would inevitably respond, and the deterioration in relations could affect efforts to find common ground on Syria or Islamist terrorism. That, however, is not an argument for looking the other way when Russia violates the most elemental norms of international behavior. … it must be made clear to him [Putin] that the West will unite in fury—yes, including Mr. Trump's America—when Russia's most fearsome weapons are deployed in a peaceful English town.”

“John Bolton's Appointment Reveals This Much Bigger Problem. And that problem could lead to war,” Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, The Washington Post, 03.29.18The author, an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, writes: “In an age of overwhelming U.S. military dominance, there is no other country to push back when the United States gets aggressive. As a result, militant and assertive views have more scope to shape policy. Without international pushback, American leaders can follow their own instincts, limited only by domestic attitudes. For the three reasons below, that could lead to war. U.S. power has a troubling side … . Because the United States is more powerful and secure than any other country in modern history, it can often do what it wants with comparatively few direct costs. Bolton's appointment reflects this. … Unchallenged U.S. dominance means individual leaders have enormous influence on foreign policy. … Bolton's appointment is a reminder that countries play to their strengths. While it is true the United States is the world’s dominant power, U.S. supremacy is not absolute. The United States is facing a rising China, the prospective rise of countries such as India and Brazil and a variety of challenges from Russia. … The United States continues to have an unchallenged military advantage. … Policymakers focus on the use of force because that is where the United States outcompetes the rest of the world. … With U.S. power dominant but waning, Bolton's elevation reminds us there are few limits to—and some momentum behind—a militaristic U.S. foreign policy.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Preventing Escalation in the Baltics: A NATO Playbook,” Ulrich Kühn, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 03.28.18The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes: “The risk of escalation sparking a wider conflict—deliberately, inadvertently or accidentally—between Russia and NATO is dangerously high. This is particularly the case in the Baltics, a region that would be difficult for NATO to defend because the military balance there very much favors Russia; moreover, Moscow could instigate unrest among the Russian minorities living there. … NATO members must complement deterrence with resilience and risk-reduction measures better tailored to addressing Russian behavior below the threshold of outright conventional and nuclear conflict. … The alliance’s need to reinforce troops in a crisis and the positioning of some of its forces in the [Baltic] region could spark inadvertent or deliberate escalation. … Ambiguities in NATO’s and Russia’s nuclear policies create the potential for deliberate escalation. … Moscow’s efforts to influence Russian minorities … could lead to a crisis in which neither NATO nor Russia would be able to manage subsequent escalation. … Russia’s continued military brinkmanship (by its aircraft, in particular) coupled with inadequate crisis communication tools could trigger accidental escalation.” The author’s recommendations for NATO fall into three categories: deterrence and assurance, resilience and risk reduction.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Russia Is Trying to Limit Its Casualties in Syria. Here's why that is bad for Syrian civilians. Today's autocrats are less willing to send their forces into harm's way,” Lionel Beehner, The Washington Post, 03.28.18The author, an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, writes: “Russia has more than 4,000 troops based in Syria yet has lost fewer than 50 (excluding private military contractors). Russia has so successfully avoided war casualties that the world was shocked by the news of several hundred Russian mercenaries killed, with the Kremlin scrambling to deny their very existence. … Autocrats, once indifferent to military casualties, today seem less willing to see their troops killed. But force protection has led to less discriminate military tactics that result in high levels of civilian fatalities. … [This] helps to explain the starve-or-surrender tactics employed by the Syrian military, but also its strength and strategy. The reliance on imprecise airstrikes, artillery barrages and siege warfare are presumably meant to inflict as much pain as possible on opposition-held areas to hasten their surrender. These types of tactics shift the cost of war from troops to civilians. … This makes the likelihood of civilian casualties during wartime higher, yet, presumably, also makes outsiders' use of coercive diplomacy backed by sticks more effective.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Focus on Actual US-Russia Relations, Not the Hysteria of Russia-gate,” James Kirchick, The Brookings Institution, 03.30.18: The author, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes: “Trump supporters, up to and including Trump himself, have tried to delegitimize Mueller’s necessary investigation for crassly partisan purposes … . But it’s also true that Trump’s opponents … are rapidly delegitimizing the presidency, our government and democratic processes. … While Russia clearly preferred Trump to Clinton, so far no one has produced conclusive evidence showing that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. … But while Trump’s rhetoric leaves him open to suspicion, his policies are a different matter. … The internal incoherence of Russia-gate was most clearly revealed by Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. … If Trump and his die-hard followers … exist on one extreme … much of the so-called Resistance exists on the other … . While Moscow’s dirty tactics should be exposed and countered, the notion that Twitter bots and ersatz Facebook posts swung an American presidential race in which more than 135 million ballots were cast and more than $2 billion was spent … demonstrates a remarkable lack of faith in the decisionmaking capacities of the American public. … Just as likely, the Russians favored Trump because he espoused a transactional foreign policy more amenable to Moscow’s aims than the liberal internationalism of his opponent, denigrated American allies and alliances and behaved so appallingly on the campaign trail as to make a mockery of American global leadership. … Whatever the real story is … it’s all speculative. Mueller should be given time to complete his investigation, and both sides should be prepared to accept findings that diverge from their assumptions.”

“In Dealing With Russia, Washington Should Embrace Reason, Not Passion,” Paul Saunders, Russia Matters, 03.29.18: The author, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, writes that “since Putin has led Russia for nearly all the last 20 years, one cannot easily separate his leadership from the realities of present-day Russia’s assertive foreign policy … . Setting aside some significant U.S. errors in dealing with Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Americans have good reason to consider Russia an adversary … . Nevertheless, as Henry Kissinger has said, ‘the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.’ … America’s domestic discourse about Russia has veered … toward a near-hysteria founded in no small part on outlandish stereotypes. … such attitudes rapidly distort not only public debates, but also deliberations in Congress and the executive branch that produce U.S. foreign and security policy. Perhaps the best recent example … is in the process leading to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. … a comparable error in judgment in dealing with the Kremlin could have grave implications for the United States. … [S]ome Russian opposition activists are sufficiently eager for Washington to change Russia’s system of government … as to be unreliable sources of information about Russia’s politics or policy. Some of Russia’s European neighbors have even more to gain or lose … . Americans would do well to take a deep breath and silently count to 10 (or perhaps a much higher number) before taking further important decisions on U.S. policy toward Russia. … [D]espite his expectations about America’s future power, [George] Washington admonished that ‘nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies toward particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.’ … [C]ontinuing reflexive hostility toward Russia won’t help the United States to develop an effective foreign policy toward Moscow or toward any major challenge in which Russia plays a significant role. On the contrary, it is likely to make each of these problems worse.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“How Not to Pressure Putin. Britain needs strategic patience, not shrill denunciations, to keep Russia in check,” Robert Service, Foreign Policy, 03.29.18The author, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes: “If anything, the British authorities reacted too fast and too furiously to the attack on Skripal. … Downing Street decided to condemn Putin without even bothering to put forward corroborating evidence. … it would have been wiser to lay out a trail of feasible suspicions and establish investigative arrangements that would more easily earn public trust both at home and abroad. … The way to hit Russia where it hurts is to make clear to Putin that Russia’s need for engagement with the West is much greater than the West’s need for Russia. … If Russia wants to sustain itself as a great power, it must become a serious ‘technological power’—and Russia’s rulers know it. … The Crimean land grab also robbed Russia of the chance to act as a balancing force between America and China. Now, Beijing is able to call the shots in negotiations with Moscow. … The decline of Russian economic growth is something that Russian rulers will eventually need to tackle … . The world’s many other countries have yet to be convinced of May’s position—and that is more likely to be achieved if, instead of denouncing the appalling Putin at every opportunity, Britain presents the evidence as fully as it is safe to do and then shows the patience and firmness that this situation is going to require.”

“Britain Has No Clue Why It’s Punishing Russia. Before you sanction Putin, it would help to know what you're after,” Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, 03.27.18The author, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, writes: “Britain has leapfrogged the most fundamental one [question]: Precisely, what is it that it wants? … Is the main goal [of sanctioning Russia] deterrence? To punish Russia with a display of retaliatory resolution intended to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin that the costs of further adventurism outweigh any possible advantages? In that case, the aim ought to be a broad barrage of measures, some of which have serious implications and others of which may be essentially symbolic. … Perhaps, though, Britain’s primary aim is to protect itself from the corrupting influence of Russian kleptocracy. … Britain actually already has a solid array of legal instruments at the authorities’ disposal. What it needs is greater political will to apply them. … This is also a project in which further international cooperation would be crucial. … Going after this sovereign debt, not the glitzy penthouses of the oligarchs, would represent a serious systemic attack on the Kremlin. … The point is that there needs to be a clear, explicit, firm commitment to a strategic goal. Rather than consider what Britain can do (and do easily and cheaply, at that) and then cobble a strategy around those measures, it needs to finally decide what it wants and let that drive the process.”

“Putin’s Favorite Tactic Has Finally Backfired,” Kadri Liik, New York Times, 03.26.18The author, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes: “It is true that Mr. Putin doesn’t tolerate traitors, but exchanged spies like Mr. Skripal have traditionally been immune. … It’s also doubtful that the attempted murder would be motivated by domestic Russian politics. The crime happened too late to feed into the elections, and it wasn’t employed in the campaign. A more logical explanation is that an assassination attempt was carried out by some powerful actors outside the Kremlin—perhaps sanctioned in broad terms but not specifically. But even that raises many questions … . ‘Patriotic hackers’ or ‘patriotic trolls’ can act independently, but if someone walks around using a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia, that becomes a problem for Moscow, regardless of the circumstances of the case or the identity of the people involved. … Now, the successful use of ‘plausible deniability’ in all the previous cases collides with the Kremlin’s current interests and contributes to the verdict: guilty until proven innocent.”

“The Russian Expulsions Are a Good First Step. But Only a First Step,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 03.26.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “The expulsions [of Russian diplomats] were a needed response to the nerve-agent attack on a former spy and his daughter … . But because they do not touch Mr. Putin's real power base, he will probably shrug them off. … Russia's malign operations in the West extend far beyond the agents it dispatches under diplomatic cover. It has an army of hackers and trolls operating online … . Mr. Putin depends on a network of government ministers and business owners to fund these operations and others—like the paramilitary force that recently attacked U.S. troops in Syria. That is the real foundation of his regime, and so far it has barely been touched. Both the British government and the Trump administration have potentially potent leverage. … Getting along would be good, on the right terms. But it's not feasible as long as the Kremlin is dedicated to disrupting Western governments and elections, subjugating neighbors such as Ukraine and murdering its opponents in Western cities using banned chemical agents. Mr. Putin must be deterred. Expelling a few dozen of his spies is a step, but it's not likely to suffice.”


  • No significant commentary.


“The Revolution That Wasn’t,” Paul Quinn-Judge, The New York Review of Books, April 2018: The author, who has reported on Russia and the former states of the USSR since 1986, writes: “Conversations in the government quarter [in Kiev] … often turn to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s late-night phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These are said to be quite frequent and quite relaxed for two presidents who have been unofficially at war in eastern Ukraine for the past four years. … Poroshenko seems to believe he can persuade Putin to let Ukraine off the hook … . I asked … half-jokingly whether … one night Putin might just offer Poroshenko a deal that would suit the two presidents, but not necessarily Ukraine. That could well happen, he [a government official] replied. … Poroshenko has fought hard to protect controversial figures like Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin … . The president’s personal wealth, meanwhile, reportedly reached the $1 billion mark in 2017 … . Another crucial part of Ukrainian society, the Ukrainian officer corps, has evolved over the past four years. … They frequently voice the suspicion that the Russian and the Ukrainian leaders are both comfortable with the current stalemate. … Officers also occasionally refer wryly to a newly formed elite military force, the National Guard, which many suspect has been created to protect the president from them. … [S]ome of Poroshenko’s rivals in the ruling elite admit that, by their own criteria, his performance is quite good—not as a democrat but as an autocrat. … If that is the case, Poroshenko and Putin may just continue to chat, spar a bit and discuss business, while looking for a way out that will preserve the systems that have brought them both great wealth.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Russia Bows to the Putin Generation,” Ivan Krastev, New York Times, 03.28.18The author, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, writes: “This election … signaled the beginning of post-Putin Russia. … [I]t is clear he [Putin] intends to open the system to loyal outsiders—in particular younger ones—in order to increase its chances of survival. He is ready to offer society generational change as a substitute for political change. … Mr. Putin, unlike Boris Yeltsin, does not think in terms of a successor but in terms of a successor generation. He envisions a transfer of power from his generation to the ‘Putin generation,’ comprising politicians who came of age during, and have been shaped by, his rule. … In the several months before the election, nine young politicians were appointed regional governors. … This new cohort includes young technocrats who have different backgrounds and experiences but one thing in common: They are loyal to the regime while aware of its deficiencies. … The irony is that … the Putin generation is just a collective Medvedev. And when it comes to what post-Putin Russia will look like, the president is back where he was when he put Mr. Medvedev in the Kremlin and then decided to return to his old office.”

“Putin Can't Feel Russia's Pain. A Siberian city is angry and grieving after a fire that killed dozens. So Putin paid a visit—and mostly ignored them,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 03.27.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “Putin kept his distance from grieving citizens during his trip to the Siberian city on Tuesday. In so doing, he drew attention to the wide chasm between the system he built and the people it governs. Had it not been for the Kremlin's skill at suppressing dissent, this gap would be a major opportunity for his political opponents. … Like everyone in Kemerovo, Putin knows what caused the tragedy. … The Russian leader is well aware that the system over which he presides is corrupt from top to bottom. But to him, and to every official from the hapless Kemerovo mayor on up, this is just a circumstance for which he bears no responsibility. He, and everyone in his chain of command, can comment on it like any critically-minded citizen. The result is a ‘common tragedy’ for which no one is to blame—and a checklist of photo and video opportunities for Putin to follow. Facing an angry crowd is not on that list, nor is genuine reflection about what needs to be fixed on a systemic level.”

“Billionaire’s Arrest Points to Kremlin Power Struggle,” Max Seddon and Kathrin Hille, Financial Times, 04.01.18The authors, correspondents for the news outlet, write: “Russian billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov … spent the night in jail … after investigators filed racketeering charges that carry a maximum 20-year sentence. … [T]he businessman appeared to have been caught up in a power struggle at the top of Russia’s elite … . The charges … have triggered a flurry of speculation about the fate of Dmitry Medvedev … . Mr. Magomedov is close to Arkady Dvorkovich, a deputy prime minister and Mr. Medvedev’s most senior aide. … Mr. Magomedov’s fortunes are often seen as a bellwether for Mr. Medvedev’s.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.