Russia Analytical Report, May 10-17, 2021
This Week’s Highlights
- The Biden administration has its sights set on a June summit with Russia, writes RAND's Samuel Charap, and although the administration's narrow agenda for the summit is reflective of the state of the relationship, it also stems from the fundamental continuities in U.S. Russia strategy since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. That strategy, Charap writes, is extremely pessimistic about what negotiations can achieve with Russia today, and unduly optimistic that America’s problems with Russia may be easier to solve in the future. America needs to employ statecraft to stabilize the relationship, reduce problematic Russian behavior and better manage conflicts, according to Charap.
- A major security incident between Russia and the West in the Arctic remains less likely than elsewhere in Europe, write Paul Stronski and Grace Kier of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But spillover into the Arctic certainly is possible given the seemingly never-ending downward spiral in relations between Russia and the West. Biden appears eager to prevent that from happening, but the potential for tension in the region depends not only on the U.S. administration, but on the actions of Russia (and China) too, they write. Any Russian effort to tone down its rhetoric and curb some of its military muscle-flexing in the north would be a key step to helping Biden to manage competing stakeholders, Stronski and Kier argue.
- When it comes to arms control, numbers still matter greatly, writes the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon; when they increase, someone’s sense of security decreases, prompting compensatory actions. “If arms reduction treaties are out of reach, we can still bring the numbers down, as I have argued elsewhere, by championing and extending norms and codes of conduct,” Krepon writes. If we focus on the end state of abolition [of nuclear weapons], we are likely to be disappointed every day, but if we focus on extending norms critical to human wellbeing, we can succeed every day, he writes.
- The cyber-attack on the Colonial Pipeline once again raised the “cursed question” many law enforcement agencies around the world are asking these days, writes investigative Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov: How they are supposed to cooperate with their counterparts in countries where there isn’t a clear line between the criminal police and political police? What if all the doors to cooperation, both government and private, remain shut and sealed, except the door of the FSB—the very agency which is accused of carrying out repressions, poisonings, and cyber-attacks, Soldatov wonders.
- The attacks on [director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute Matthew] Rojansky suggesting that his views are unacceptable and therefore that they should bar him from U.S. government service are as untrue as they are injurious, according to an open letter signed by scores of high-profile Russia scholars and policy experts. The letter urges scholars, experts, and policymakers to carefully assimilate new evidence and regularly challenge old assumptions, stating that the only guarantee of doing so is a range of perspectives expressed through vigorous debate. At issue is nothing less than the process by which U.S. policy is made, the letter states, and to succeed the process must be open; many of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy followed from the stovepiping of information or from the silencing or sidelining of one or another school of expert opinion.
- William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, surveyed 812 international relations (IR) scholars at U.S. colleges on Biden’s foreign-policy performance during his first 100 days, and published their findings in Foreign Policy. When asked about the likelihood of the use of military force, more than 30 percent of respondents thought Russia would use force against Ukrainian military forces or in Ukrainian territory where it is not currently operating in the next year, the poll revealed. Nevertheless, IR scholars have little appetite for the United States formally guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine (28 percent), according to the poll.
- The Second Karabakh War crystallized a long-accumulating and now decisive shift: the sweeping aside of the multilateral diplomacy represented by the Minsk Group by multipolar power dynamics, writes Laurence Broers of Conciliation Resources. The OSCE Minsk Group’s experience reflects poorly on 1990s beliefs, both naïve and hubristic, that hegemonic norms of liberal ordering would disseminate across global “peripheries,” Broers argues. Instead, the multi-facing periphery of the South Caucasus reverted to a recursive historical pattern whereby local strategies intersect with hegemonic ambitions of regional powers to reproduce a fractured region.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant developments.
Great Power rivalry/New Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:
“The Case Against a New Concert of Powers: An Old Remedy Won’t Help Today’s Troubled Global Order,” Nicu Popescu, Alan S. Alexandroff, Colin I. Bradford, Richard N. Haass and Charles A. Kupchan, Foreign Affairs, 05.11.21.
- Nicu Popescu, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes: “Global politics today is a mess, and it can be tempting to turn to history for clues about how to clean it up, as Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan did recently in ‘The New Concert of Powers.’ But one must be careful to learn the right lessons. Haass and Kupchan argue that the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe provides a model for managing great-power relations, avoiding major wars and balancing an imbalanced world. These are worthy goals, but the Concert of Europe failed to achieve them—and so would any new organization inspired by it.”
- Alan Alexandroff and Colin Bradford, the director of the Global Summitry Project at the University of Toronto and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write: “To operate as a global concert, the G-20 would have to do more than just change its processes. Instead of limiting itself to economic, social and environmental issues, the group would also need to function as a forum for heads of state, foreign and defense ministers, and other officials to discuss strategic and political security matters. Although the body occasionally raises such issues, those discussions are the exception rather than the rule. By expanding its role, the G-20 could become a focal point for easing geopolitical tensions. Plurilateralism can work. … [T]he G-20 could serve as a model of plurilateralism—one that would make it unnecessary to build a new global concert from scratch.”
- Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, write: “Clinging to the status quo or tinkering with existing institutions are far less preferable options as great-power rivalry mounts and international cooperation fades. Should a great-power steering group fail to materialize, the most likely result would be either a more unruly world managed by no one or the return of spheres of influence—outcomes that would make the task of organizing collective efforts to address global issues even more challenging than it already is.”
“Poll: Biden Gets High Marks for Foreign Policy: A survey of academics shows early and overwhelming support for the U.S. president, but he will be tested by China, Russia and national security issues,” Irene Entringer Garcia Blanes, Alexandra Murphy, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers and Michael J. Tierney, Foreign Policy, 05.14.21. The authors of the survey write:
- “In late April, the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, surveyed IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities on Biden’s foreign-policy performance during his first 100 days. The results we report below are based on responses from the 812 IR scholars who participated in our survey.”
- “We asked experts to make predictions about two foreign-policy flash points where tensions have risen in recent months: relations between China and Taiwan and between Russia and Ukraine. … When asked about the likelihood of the use of military force, respondents indicated direct conflict between Russia and Ukraine is much more likely than between China and Taiwan. … [M]ore than 30 percent of respondents thought Russia would use force against Ukrainian military forces or in Ukrainian territory where it is not currently operating in the next year.”
- “If conflict does break out in either case, those surveyed largely agree that the United States should exercise caution. In both cases, the overwhelming majority of IR scholars would support sending of U.S. military aid to Ukraine and Taiwan and sanctions on Chinese and Russian leaders, but the experts oppose U.S. military action against Russian and Chinese forces. There is a split regarding sending U.S. forces to each region.”
- “Nevertheless, IR scholars have little appetite for the United States formally guaranteeing the territorial integrity of either Taiwan (36 percent) or Ukraine (28 percent). In the latter case, few experts see the issue as a bellwether for U.S. allies or potential adversaries.”
- “Despite lingering concern about potential conflict with Russia and China, these results show remarkable consensus among IR experts that Biden is managing U.S. foreign policy well, and this consensus is much stronger than among the general U.S. public. Compared to 80 percent of scholars who strongly approved or approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, only 48 percent of Americans overall feel the same way, according to a recent Politico survey.”
“Expanding the Scope for Statecraft in U.S. Russia Policy,” Samuel Charap, War on the Rocks, 05.14.21. The author, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, writes:
- “The Biden administration has its sights set on a June summit with Russia. Given the new lows plowed in the bilateral relationship … talks at the presidential level are an important channel of communication. … [However,] it is also not likely to change the downward trajectory of the relationship, even if the administration’s proposal to start arms control and strategic stability talks succeeds.”
- “The Biden administration’s narrow agenda for the summit is reflective of the state of the relationship, but it also stems from the fundamental continuities in U.S. Russia strategy since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.”
- “A revised U.S. strategy should begin with revised assumptions. First, Russia is a significant, enduring challenge to U.S. interests that will not fade away over time. Second, in its current state the U.S.-Russian relationship runs considerable risks for the United States, its allies and partners. … Third, the Kremlin is unlikely to repent and seek forgiveness for its geopolitical sins. … The implications for strategy are clear: America needs to employ statecraft to stabilize the relationship, reduce problematic Russian behavior and better manage conflicts.”
- “A stable relationship would provide several tangible benefits to Washington compared to the status quo. First, it would open the possibility of mitigating the damage being done to U.S. interests by the current state of the relationship. … Second, the current instability increases the likelihood that both countries could mismanage their response to a crisis. … Third, a stable relationship would allow for more effective engagement with Russia on issues that require some degree of bilateral interaction.”
- “The United States should continue calling out Russian actions that violate human rights or international norms, and those that prove injurious to international stability or the security of Russia’s neighbors. However, Washington should recognize that active pressure and deterrence measures are a necessary, but not sufficient, instrument to curtail problematic Russian behavior.”
“A Fresh Start on U.S. Arctic Policy Under Biden,” Paul Stronski and Grace Kier, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 05.17.21. The authors, a senior fellow and a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, write:
- “[There’s a] greater U.S. willingness to treat the Arctic as a zone where multilateral and cooperative approaches … can be brought to bear. … Given the Biden team’s overriding focus on challenges arising from the pandemic, it is unlikely to make massive investments in new military capabilities or the creation of a new fleet of nuclear icebreakers in the name of Trump-era policies about the return of great power competition.”
- “To be sure, U.S. policy will continue to recognize Russia as a key Arctic state and take note of the abiding importance of the region for Russia’s economic development and security. U.S.-EU sanctions on unconventional Russian energy projects, including in the Arctic, have impeded—but not completely derailed—the Kremlin’s ambitions to tap the region’s vast mineral wealth.”
- “Furthermore, although China has no actual territory in the Arctic, it designates itself as a ‘Near-Arctic State’ and pursues scientific, investment and trade endeavors across the region, including in Greenland … Yet the United States under Biden still refrains from acknowledging any of China’s claims to Arctic legitimacy and continues to stress the importance of counterbalancing Beijing’s influence there.”
- “The Biden administration does not want conflict in the Arctic, but … the potential for tension in the region depends not only on the U.S. administration, but on the actions of Russia (and China) too.”
- “A major security incident between Russia and the West in the Arctic remains less likely than elsewhere in Europe, but spillover into the Arctic certainly is possible … Any Russian effort to tone down its rhetoric and curb some of its military muscle-flexing in the north would be a key step to helping Biden to manage competing stakeholders, including aggressive ones, in U.S. Arctic policy and find areas to cooperate in the Far North that are in both countries’ interests.”
“The Long Arm of the Strongman: How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies,” Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, Foreign Affairs, 05.12.21. The authors, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy and a senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, write:
- “Democracies have struggled and autocracies have grown in strength in the past decade and a half. … Two major powers in particular, China and Russia, have led the way in tightening control domestically, adapting their techniques for the digital era, and exerting greater influence abroad with the aim of making the world safer for autocracy. … Thanks to globalization, autocracies and democracies have become tethered to each other in complicated ways that, more often than not, have harmful effects on the democracies.”
- “Authoritarian regimes have attempted to remake the international organizations charged with safeguarding democracy and human rights. Led by China and Russia, illiberal powers seek to sideline the participation of independent groups and undermine official observers … in the human rights and democracy mechanisms of the United Nations and similar institutions.”
- “Authoritarian powers have deftly exploited the openness of democratic systems. They probe the integrity of a democracy by turning features once seen only as strengths … into vulnerabilities in the media, by appropriating the systems through which scholars and students exchange ideas in the education sector and by trying to exercise greater control and define standards in the realm of new technologies.”
- “The leaders of critical institutions in democracies should find strength in numbers when fending off the authoritarian threat. … Similarly, universities, publishers and think tanks should devise industry guidelines to avoid making ad hoc concessions to authoritarian governments … Likewise, private-sector firms in open societies must consider adopting business strategies that do not allow authoritarian regimes to pressure them to revise public positions, sanction their employees, alter maps to reflect the regimes’ territorial claims and the like. … In the technology sphere, democracies need to stimulate a race to the top.”
- “Democracies must simultaneously address their own weaknesses and protect their institutions from external threats in mutually reinforcing ways if they want to prevent authoritarian rivals from making a world safer for autocracy.”
“Bullying Russia yearns to be treated as a great power,” Lilia Shevtsova, Financial Times, 05.16.21. The author, a member of the Liberal Mission Foundation, writes:
- “Despite the crackdown on domestic dissent and the anti-Western rhetoric of state propaganda, the Kremlin’s policies are aimed at preventing Russia from turning into a sealed-off fortress. For in order to be a great power, Russia has to sit at the same table as its peers. To satisfy its global aspirations and conform with the logic of its domestic power arrangements, Russia has to be simultaneously with the West and against it.”
- “In a sense, Putin is getting what he wants. Biden has suggested holding a U.S.-Russian summit, and EU leaders are trying to keep open lines of dialogue with Moscow despite low levels of mutual trust. However, if Western governments hope to find a modus vivendi with Russia, they may be disappointed.”
- “To preserve the West as a resource, Russia needs the trust of Western partners. Instead, the Kremlin’s Hitchcock-style games of suspense provoke Western suspicions and an instinct to fall back on deterrence.”
- “There is a potential trap for the West, too. Its dual-track policy helps Russia’s power structures, as they have evolved under Putin, to limp on. The Kremlin and its agencies engage in international behavior that the West finds disagreeable. But the West can hardly try to undermine them without running the risk that Russia would plunge into instability. Is the West really prepared for the huge uncertainties of a world in which the existing power structures in Moscow unravel before any domestic alternative is available to take their place?”
“Russia’s Nuclear Activity in 2020: A Show of Strength Despite COVID-19,” Maxim Starchak, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), May 2021. The author, a fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University in Canada, writes:
- “There is nothing new about the activity of Russian nuclear weapons forces near the borders of NATO member states. These exercises are at a minimum needed to maintain the combat readiness of servicemen and equipment. However, the continued intensity of such activity and the lack of trust and communication between Russian military commanders and the West must be evaluated in the bigger picture of Russia’s policy of confrontation.”
- “There is no reason to expect a decrease in nuclear activity without improving all aspects of relations between Russia and the West. In the absence of a new arms control mechanism and as the latest strategic weapons forces are delivered, nuclear weapons will remain an active mechanism in Russian foreign policy.”
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
“Nuclear Grand Strategy (sic) and Abolition,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 05.12.21. The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:
- “We can’t solve the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose intellectually; like all other existential threats, it has to be solved politically and geopolitically. And because this is a very hard problem to solve, it has to be managed until political and geopolitical conditions point toward solutions.”
- “One form of management is the avoidance of dangerous military practices and harrowing crises. Success on both fronts facilitates the reduction of nuclear excess. Another form of management is by means of threat reduction treaties. A successful track record exists for bilateral nuclear arms reduction, but further reductions from New START will be challenging, given the state of U.S.-Russian relations and the current level of partisanship in Washington … Multilateral nuclear arms reduction treaties will be far more difficult to negotiate.”
- “Numbers still matter greatly. When they increase, someone’s sense of security decreases, prompting compensatory actions. If arms reduction treaties are out of reach, we can still bring the numbers down, as I have argued elsewhere, by championing and extending norms and codes of conduct.”
- “The most essential form of management is no use. The norm of no battlefield use is reinforced by the norm of not conducting nuclear tests. The norm of nonproliferation is another essential management tool. The longer we can extend these norms, the more we clarify nuclear excess. Since these norms are the hardest to break, they are the easiest for us to defend and extend.”
- “If we focus on the end state of abolition, we are likely to be disappointed every day. If we focus on extending norms critical to human wellbeing, we can succeed every day. The implications of success may seem imperceptible on a daily basis, but they can be profound as time passes.”
- No significant developments.
Conflict in Syria:
- No significant developments.
“Russia's Hackers Unwisely Mess With U.S. Gas Prices,” Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal, 05.14.21. The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “Russia's behavior is best understood in terms of your favorite mafia show. By multiple reports, DarkSide malware uses language filters to avoid attacking victims who might be protected by the Russian government. Cyberattacks on outside interests, however, are useful to the Kremlin as one more way to make it necessary for the West to deal with Vladimir Putin. President Biden spoke carefully on Thursday [May 13]: The Colonial hack wasn't a Russian government operation but the Russian government was in a position to do something about it.”
- “Meanwhile, U.S. government advice not to pay ransom goes unheeded and unenforced because the U.S. government has yet to offer a better alternative. Colonial is reported to have paid $5 million. Now its pipeline is painstakingly coming back to life. But the biggest lesson of the episode belongs to Russia's hacking godfathers: if they didn't know before, the extreme sensitivity of gasoline prices and availability to U.S. presidents and voters. The response they risked was not worth the $5 million they collected from Colonial. In the meantime, I doubt the secrecy that surrounds the U.S. action in this realm, and our own interactions with cybercriminal groups, will be sustainable or scandal-free in the long run.”
“Russia’s Complicity in Cybercrime Jeopardizes U.S. National Security,” Alex O’Neill, The National Interest, 05.15.21. The author, coordinator of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Korea Project, writes:
- “The revelation that an Eastern European group is responsible for the massively disruptive ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline should spur U.S. policymakers to confront Russia’s brazen enabling of cybercrime.”
- “Russian authorities and top-level cybercriminals have long shared an informal understanding, buttressed by state co-optation and coercion, that criminal hackers occasionally lend security services their expertise in exchange for a near-free rein to hack, extort, and steal from foreign entities, especially those in the West—just not any in Russia or the near abroad.”
- “The fuel crisis the Colonial Pipeline shutdown has caused underscores the serious, real-world consequences that bargain has for Americans. As the Biden administration begins to implement its national cybersecurity strategy, it must take steps to address Russia’s strategic negligence toward cybercrime.”
- “Earlier this month, President Joe Biden acknowledged that Russia bears ‘some responsibility’ for cybercrime staged within its borders and suggested he would raise the issue in his upcoming summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But his administration should go further. Until policymakers take more direct action, Russian authorities will continue providing cover to friendly cybercriminals who prey on targets in the United States and around the globe.”
“Can the U.S. Still Cooperate With Russia's Security Agencies? How to cooperate when you can't tell the cops from the robbers?” Andrei Soldatov, The Moscow Times, 05.14.21. The author, a Russian investigative journalist, writes:
- “The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline once again raised the ‘cursed question’ many law enforcement agencies around the world are asking these days: How they are supposed to cooperate with their counterparts in countries where there isn’t a clear line between the criminal police and political police?”
- “Russia has been the largest supplier of a highly skilled workforce of hackers for several generations … Many were targeting the West, a target that was always considered safer to attack than something closer to home.”
- “At some point, it looked like it might be possible to have well-functioning cooperation between law enforcement agencies outside of politics. The Americans were especially keen to keep the cooperation alive when thousands of Americans came to the Olympic games in Sochi. The most important moment of cooperation was reached in the summer of 2016, when in early June the Russian police arrested members of the criminal group known as Lurk. … The operation was a joint effort of the Russian Interior Ministry, the FSB and the investigative unit at Kaspersky lab. But 2016 was also the year that saw Russian cyber interference in the U.S. election, and the contact people at the FSB and Kaspersky lab were promptly locked up in jail by the FSB.”
- “What if all the doors to cooperation, both government and private, remain shut and sealed, except the door of the FSB—the very agency which is accused of carrying out repressions, poisonings, and cyber-attacks? Is cooperation with this agency feasible? If so, to what extent and at what level? … Treating the FSB as a possible partner is again on the agenda. And that means that … every major cyber-attack attributed to Russian criminal hackers will play into the hands of the Kremlin.”
Energy exports from CIS:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
“Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details,” Michael D. Shear, Katie Rogers and Annie Karni, New York Times, 05.14.21. The authors, correspondents for the news outlet, write:
- “It was late March, and President Biden was under increasing pressure to penalize President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for election interference and the biggest cyberattack ever on American government and industry. ‘I have to do it relatively soon,’ he said to Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser. … Mr. Biden had already spent the first two months of his presidency debating how to respond to Mr. Putin … He convened another meeting in the Situation Room that stretched for two and a half hours, and called yet another session there a week later.”
- “Quick decision-making is not Mr. Biden’s style. His reputation as a plain-speaking politician hides a more complicated truth. Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic ‘journey’ before arriving at a conclusion.”
- “[A]s the decision loomed to impose sanctions on Russia for its election interference and its SolarWinds cyberattack, Mr. Biden was true to form, repeatedly insisting on hearing directly from his experts. At one point, Mr. Biden lectured a group of veteran Foreign Service officers and policy advisers on the nuances of Mr. Putin’s personality and tried to channel the Russian leader’s thinking. His conclusion: Mr. Putin wants his rivals to be blunt with him. In the end, Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin directly and then delivered a public statement on Russia sanctions that lasted only five minutes and 49 seconds.”
- “We, the undersigned, watched with worry the recent flurry of media and social-media speculation about a possible appointment to the National Security Council. This concerned Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Woodrow Wilson’s Kennan Institute … The personal attacks on Mr. Rojansky were intended simultaneously to damage Mr. Rojansky’s reputation and to shut down policy debate. We see all of this as very dangerous.”
- “The media coverage and the social-media activity on this topic failed to meet the criteria of real journalism and of reasoned public debate. Baseless accusations were levied, some outlandish … and some deceptively moderate, the claim, for example, that Mr. Rojansky is “controversial,” as if his analyses and opinions are commonly considered beyond the pale. This is not the case. Mr. Rojansky is a respected member of the expert community in Washington, D.C. His ideas are well within the scope of serious debate about U.S. Russia policy.”
- “The attacks on Mr. Rojansky suggested that his views are unacceptable and therefore that they should bar him from government service, suggestions that are as untrue as they are injurious. Scholars, experts, and policymakers must carefully assimilate new evidence and regularly challenge old assumptions … At issue is nothing less than the process by which U.S. policy is made, and to succeed the process must be open. Many of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy followed from the stovepiping of information or from the silencing or sidelining of one or another school of expert opinion.”
- “The Biden administration is navigating an exceptionally complicated period of conflict and engagement with Russia. It deserves access to an expert community dedicated to the ideal of free inquiry and discussion and not to social-media insinuation, smear campaigns and ad hominem invective. … We the undersigned wish with this letter to defend the ideal of free inquiry and discussion. We encourage others as well to defend and uphold it. The consequences of doing otherwise will be dire for experts and non-experts alike.”
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“Let’s Wait Until After the Elections. Many believe the recent clampdown on the Russian opposition will ease up after the September Duma elections. I am not so sure.” Ilya Klishin, The Moscow Times, 05.17.21. The author, founder of KFConsluting and former Digital Director of the New York-based Russian-language RTVI channel, writes:
- “This year’s political season has added another, similar phrase to that worn out expression… ‘Let’s wait for after the elections.’ This refers to the State Duma elections in September. Most observers believe the upcoming elections are what’s causing the Russian authorities to behave so nervously, to hang the ‘extremist’ label on ever more opposition politicians and activists, and [to brand] a growing number of journalists as ‘foreign agents.’”
- “The problem, though, is that this is all just idle speculation. Neither President Putin nor anyone in the Kremlin has explained why political repression is on the rise and why the siloviki are growing more powerful. It’s really anybody’s guess what our leaders have planned. Their motives are unclear and the irrational fear this causes is the worst.”
- “If we knew, for example, that everything would return to normal after the September elections, we could just lay low until then. Unfortunately, though, we would probably just be fooling ourselves to think that the situation would improve after the elections. There is absolutely no reason why the siloviki would give up their newfound powers or stop conducting searches and arrests now that they’ve started.”
“Vladimir Putin and the Myth that Just Won’t Die,” Ben Noble, The Moscow Times, 05.14.21. The author, a lecturer in Russian politics at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, writes:
- “‘Governance in Russia is a one-man show.’ … In a recent Chatham House report, Ekaterina Schulmann and I join the long list of critics of the ‘one-man show’ model.”
- “Some might argue that the ‘one-man show’ model is a straw man—that nobody actually believes Putin controls everything. He is, rather, in control of all key decisions, they might say. But this softer version of the model still misses the mark. And here are three reasons why: First, even in cases when Putin is the central decision-maker, he does not work in a vacuum. Second, even if Putin is involved in all important decisions, he does not necessarily impose his own settled preferences… A plethora of accounts portray Putin as an arbiter, acting as a judge between competing interest groups, rather than as somebody who simply dictates policy. Third… Putin’s behavior can be both enabled and constrained by popular opinion in Russia.”
- “Acknowledging nuance and complexity shouldn’t be controversial. And yet, it can be. The vicious debate around Matthew Rojansky’s possible appointment to the U.S. National Security Council is a vivid example. Portrayed as insufficiently hawkish—somebody willing to entertain shades of grey—some suggested Rojansky was a ‘useful idiot’ or paid agent of the Kremlin. A [May 12] open letter rightly called out the attacks on Rojansky as attempts to discredit him and ‘shut down policy debate.’”
- “This politicized suspicion of nuance is not new—nor is it likely to go away soon. But its effects might be less pernicious if people felt more able to decouple complexity and criticism. It should be possible to judge Putin harshly whilst acknowledging that he does not govern Russia alone. And it should be possible to note the nuances of governance in Russia without being accused of condoning the Kremlin.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant developments.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant developments.
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
"Macron’s Dialogue With Russia: A French Attempt to Fix the European Security Architecture," Juliette Faure, Russia Matters, 05.12.21. The author, a PhD candidate in political science at Sciences Po Paris and a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, writes:
- “In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron put forward the idea of engaging a strategic dialogue with Russia as a necessary step to create an “architecture of trust and security” on the European continent. … With this initiative, Macron aimed to seize leadership in fixing Europe’s critically ailing security architecture. The French president thereby took stock of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s disregard for transatlantic partnership and put forward France as a balancing power able to stir a broader European strategy for dealing with Russia.”
- “Macron’s inclusive move toward Russia stood out as an innovative break from a strict containment policy. In that sense, it arguably challenged the U.S. interest in preserving cohesion among NATO’s allies in their approach toward Russia. However, with U.S. President Joe Biden’s determination to restore the transatlantic relationship, there are prospects for renewed cooperation between the U.S. and France in their attempt to address Europe’s security issues.”
- “Since the issue of Europe’s security is also at the core of the U.S. management of its relationship with Moscow, it would be in the U.S. and the EU’s interest to seek cooperation in organizing their strategic talks with Russia. Indeed, competition over dialogue ownership might prove a zero-sum game.”
- “France, the rest of the EU and the U.S. share strategic interest in jointly engaging with Moscow to keep Russia away from China, establish a new framework of arms control in Europe and foster cooperation on global security issues such as terrorism, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation and climate change. Biden’s trip to Europe in June, during which he will participate in G7 and NATO summits before meeting Putin, offers an opportunity to act on that interest.”
“Zelensky risks Putin’s wrath with swoop against Ukraine oligarch,” Roman Olearchyk, Financial Times, 05.16.21. The author, a Ukraine correspondent for the news outlet, writes:
- “Volodymyr Zelensky has gone out of his way since becoming Ukrainian president to avoid provoking Moscow. But one action has enraged the Kremlin: Kyiv’s swoop against Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch and politician who made Russian president Vladimir Putin godfather to his daughter.”
- “Zelensky’s move against the businessman, an expression of his frustration at a deadlocked peace process that has failed to end the war in eastern Ukraine, may have been a factor behind Russia’s saber-rattling and massive troop mobilization along Ukraine’s borders last month, analysts said.”
- “Undeterred, Ukrainian prosecutors last week sought Medvedchuk’s arrest on charges of treason. On Friday, Putin hit back saying Moscow would respond ‘promptly and properly, bearing in mind all the threats posed to us.’ Ukraine, he added, ‘is being turned slowly but surely into some antipode of Russia, some anti-Russia’.”
- “Mykhailo Pogrebinsky, a political analyst who describes himself as Medvedchuk’s ‘friend,’ said Zelensky was behaving like a ‘crook’ by silencing critical media and trying to squash the leader of a party backed by 3.5 million voters in the 2019 election.”
- “But the rise in the president’s poll ratings in recent months suggested that ‘stamping out these Russian proxies in Ukraine is widely supported in Ukrainian society,’ said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in London.”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
“Why Fears of a Russia-Belarus Merger Never Come True,” Dzianis Melyantsou, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.12.21. The author, who serves as coordinator of the Belarusian Foreign Policy program at the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, writes:
- “For years now, every time Lukashenko goes to Russia, there is speculation that he is preparing to relinquish Belarusian sovereignty. The fact that this has never happened does not stop this speculation from increasing in intensity every time.”
- “Belarus’s weakened position has not altered its traditional interests—or Minsk’s readiness to defend them. This is becoming increasingly obvious as the Belarusian regime regains control over the situation at home. During talks on further integration, Minsk continues to demand equal access to energy resources and an end to trade restrictions: ‘no equal conditions, no union,’ in Lukashenko’s words. In any case, negotiations have not yet even touched on real issues of sovereignty: a single currency and the integration of military organizations.”
- “Given the worsening standoff between Russia and the West, a more important question hangs over the deal between Minsk and Moscow, under which Minsk offers a close military alliance and takes into account Russian strategic interests in exchange for Moscow’s economic and political support. Paradoxical as it may seem, that deal is what guaranteed—and continues to guarantee—the preservation of Belarusian sovereignty and independence.”
“Inventing Crisis in Moldova: All Geopolitics Is Local,” Philip Remler, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.17.21. The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:
- “After Maia Sandu took [presidential] office in December, Igor Dodon’s allies in parliament rejected her first nominee to become prime minister and form a new government.”
- “Dodon has tried to enlist Russia in his struggle with Sandu and his efforts have fallen on fertile ground. Putin congratulated Sandu on her victory the day after her election (dashing Dodon’s hopes of Russian support to contest the election), but her reiteration of Moldova’s official position that the OGRF must leave Transdniestria was seen in Moscow as poor repayment for Putin’s courtesy.”
- “More significant, however, is how Moldova’s domestic politics fits into Russia’s existential—as it sees it—struggle with Ukraine following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. … Since Russia’s troops in Transdniestria must be supplied and replenished through Ukrainian airspace, its war with Ukraine has turned them into hostages to potential Moldovan-Ukrainian cooperation—including military cooperation.”
- “Russia’s outrage on the issue mystifies even Transdniestria’s leadership, which sees nothing new in Sandu’s rhetoric and no indication that she is contemplating any move against the Russian troops there. But that does not alleviate the anxiety of Russian generals, now focused on their Ukrainian enemy. Hence Moscow’s saber-rattling, warning Sandu that moving against Russian troops would have dire consequences. Sandu, who understood this message even before taking office, has dialed back her rhetoric.”
- “It is unclear how this drama will play out. Russia’s attitude and actions toward Moldova will have little to do with the crisis Dodon has manufactured inside Moldova to reverse a free and fair election, with Sandu’s rhetoric, or with the Transdniestria conflict—and everything to do with Russia’s crisis with Ukraine.”
“The OSCE’s Minsk Group: A unipolar artifact in a multipolar world. How did diplomacy become so irrelevant to resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict?” Laurence Broers, Eurasianet, 05.11.21. The author, who serves as the Caucasus program director at Conciliation Resources, a London-based peace-building organization, writes:
- “For 26 years, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) worked fruitlessly to bring the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to a peaceful resolution. Then, in just six weeks, the Second Karabakh War radically altered the conflict and the Minsk Group was shunted aside.”
- “Russia now dominates both the implementation of the November 10 ceasefire declaration it brokered with Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the security arrangements underpinning it. Turkey has managed to secure a supporting role. Reduced to trailing in Russia’s wake, the Minsk Group is now facing–like no other actor engaged in this conflict–a crisis of relevance.”
- “This crisis is often framed in terms such as ‘why did the Minsk Group fail?’ This, however, attributes more agency to the Minsk Group than it actually had–or at least had had for a very long time. Perhaps a more relevant question would be: Why did multilateral diplomacy become so irrelevant to the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict?”
- “The Second Karabakh War crystallized a long-accumulating and now decisive shift: the sweeping aside of the multilateral diplomacy represented by the Minsk Group by multipolar power dynamics.”
- “The OSCE Minsk Group’s experience calls into question end-of-the-20th-century assumptions about how conflicts would be dealt with. Its experience reflects poorly on 1990s beliefs, both naïve and hubristic, that hegemonic norms of liberal ordering would disseminate across global ‘peripheries.’ Instead, the multi-facing periphery of the South Caucasus reverted to a recursive historical pattern whereby local strategies intersect with hegemonic ambitions of regional powers to reproduce a fractured region.”
“State Department Lets Ball Drop on the South Caucasus,” Michael Rubin, The National Interest, 05.10.21. The author, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), writes:
- “At least 7,000 people died during the 44-day [Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict] that ended with the sudden announcement that [both countries] had both accepted a Russian-imposed cease-fire.”
- “The terms of the cease-fire turned decades of Minsk Group diplomacy on its head. The march of Russian peacekeepers into the region to separate Armenians and Azerbaijanis and Turkey’s dispatch of troops and intelligence agents to staff ‘monitoring’ centers obviated earlier understandings that no peacekeepers would come from among the countries co-chairing the Minsk Group or include Armenia or Azerbaijan’s neighbors. … That unilateral revisionism was bad enough but the State Department has subsequently dropped the ball on ensuring that Russian and Turkish monitors and Russian peacekeepers actually do what they say.”
- “Russia is the co-chair of the Minsk Group and Turkey is a member. Still, neither Turkey nor Russia has shared information and monitoring reports derived from their joint operation [in Agdam] with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-recognized parties to the conflict… nor with the U.S. and French co-chairs. …Secretary of State Antony Blinken should demand full and un-redacted monitoring reports or else declare the Russian and Turkish forces in Agdam as operating in violation of the cease-fire. [Second,] Russia has not provided any information gathered from its peacekeeping operation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. … In effect, Blinken allows Russian officials to reaffirm the role of the Minsk Group yet refuse to cooperate with it. … [Third,] Blinken should … explain before Congress the evidence that supported his decision to waive Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act and allow military aid to Azerbaijan to continue. … [The United States] has yet to explain whether … the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War represented an intelligence failure.”
- “As a candidate for president, Joe Biden castigated Trump—with reason—for being too soft on Russia and Turkey. It is ironic, then, that his administration now refuses to hold both countries accountable for their operations in the South Caucasus."