Russia Analytical Report, May 21-29, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • It is unrealistic to think that sanctions and threats will lead North Korea to rethink its commitment to nuclear weapons or its opposition to intrusive inspections in part because DPRK can count on a degree of help from China and Russia, according to Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass.
  • If Europe stays in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the combined economic strength of Europe, China and Russia may thwart the U.S. on Iran, according to Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, former state secretary in the Danish Foreign Ministry. That would be the first time since 1945 that the U.S. has not been able to impose its will on the rest of the world.
  • There might be grounds for a broad anti-Trump coalition of international leaders, but it will never coalesce around Russian President Vladimir Putin, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky.
  • When it comes to Russia’s conventional military power, there is little to suggest, looking ten years out and even beyond, that this country will suffer from severe shortages of either manpower, money or material which would reduce its ability to underwrite its foreign policy with military strength, according to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation.
  • In signs of warming relations between Sofia and Moscow, Bulgaria declined to support Romania’s initiative to permanently station NATO’s fleet in the Black Sea and also refused to join EU and NATO partners in expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, writes Maxim Samorukov, deputy editor of However, Samorukov notes that in due time, Sofia’s rapprochement with Moscow will raise traditional fears of subjugation by Russia, and new politicians will come forth promising to rescue Bulgaria from humiliating bondage.
  • Analysts and policymakers increasingly argue that Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko has to go, write Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander J. Motyl, co-director of the Ukraine in Europe Project of the Atlantic Council and a professor of political science. While doing so, however, the advocates of Poroshenko’s departure overlook the fact that systemic anti-corruption reform is always a complex process highly dependent on changing structural relationships and institutional practices and not on changing the personalities that head them.

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

Nuclear security:

“Nuclear Terrorism: Did We Beat the Odds or Change Them?” Graham Allison, Prism, May 2018: The author, former director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, looks back on his book “Nuclear Terrorism: the Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe” and writes that in 2004 “the likelihood that terrorists would successfully explode a nuclear bomb … in the decade ahead was ‘more likely than not.’ … the failure to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, as well as the collapse of U.S.–Russian nuclear security cooperation, have created new significant risks. … the odds of a successful nuclear terrorist attack somewhere in the world before the end of 2024 are 51 percent or higher. … In the past decade, the United States and its international partners have … closed what had been open doors to terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb, or nuclear materials … post–Cold War U.S.–Russia cooperation has been decisive in securing loose fissile material. … Dangerously, these cooperative U.S.–Russia initiatives … were suspended after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. … At the multilateral level, the most consequential nuclear security initiative of the past decade was the series of Nuclear Security Summits … the Obama Administration’s other major achievement … [was] the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). … Obama’s success in Iran is offset by his failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear advance. … Another major long-term challenge is the relentless advance of science and technology and the accelerating diffusion of nuclear and radiological know-how. … Perhaps most concerning … is what has happened in U.S.–Russia relations. … Ninety percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world remain in the United States and Russia. … If the Saudis develop an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle and the [Iran] deal … falls apart, we should expect to see an arms race in the world’s most volatile region … it is imperative that the [Trump] administration revive nuclear cooperation with Russia. … [and] find ways to keep its constraints on Iran. … the Trump administration must [also] develop a coherent strategy for deterring North Korea from selling nuclear technology. … find a way to institutionalize the Nuclear Security Summit process … continue to invest in new technologies to enhance our ability to detect and prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials … [and] address the geopolitical conflict that fuels nuclear danger in South Asia.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Avoiding Catastrophic Failure and Catastrophic Success,” Richard N. Haass, Foreign Affairs, 05.25.18The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes: “In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Pyongyang … [carried] out its sixth … nuclear test and a number of ballistic-missile launches. Trump reacted by criticizing his predecessors …; aiming tough (and at times insulting) talk at … Kim Jong Un, while also expressing a willingness to meet with him directly; and organizing … United Nations–backed sanctions … For a while, this effort appeared to be working. … the White House announced that a summit between Trump and Kim was scheduled for June 12 … North Korea instituted a freeze on nuclear and ballistic-missile tests, shut down a nuclear testing site and released three American prisoners. … on May 24 … Trump called off the summit.  … Going forward, it is unrealistic to think that sanctions and threats will lead North Korea to rethink its commitment to nuclear weapons or its opposition to intrusive inspections. … It [North Korea] can also count on a degree of help from China and Russia. … the most they [the U.S. and North Korea] can be expected to sign and bring about for the foreseeable future is something relatively limited. … The central question is whether the Trump administration is prepared to rethink U.S. policy toward North Korea and pursue strategies that could stabilize the situation rather than solve it. That outcome is less than ideal, but good policies are not just desirable; they must also be doable.”

Iran and its nuclear program:

“The End of the Atlantic Alliance,” Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, The National Interest, 05.28.18The author, a former state secretary in the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry, writes: “President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from JCPOA … is one more step in dismantling the edifice built after the end of World War II by the U.S. and Britain. … Traditional American allies are considered no longer indispensable for projecting U.S. power and their friendship is no longer treasured. … the U.S. has confronted its European allies with an unpalatable choice. … If Europe ends up with the U.S., the other JCPOA signatories will find it difficult to maintain economic and trade links with Iran as U.S. and Europe controls the global financial system and host most global financial institutions. … If … Europe stays in the JCPOA the combined economic strength of Europe, China and Russia may thwart the U.S. If this is successful, it will be the first time since 1945 that the U.S. has not been able to impose its will on the rest of the world. … Traditional diplomacy tells that some kind of compromise will be sought behind the curtain. But traditional diplomacy has no place on the Trump agenda. … Even if successful a new compromise is successful, European attitudes towards the 2003 Iraq war and the current Iran question indicate that one way or another the Atlantic alliance is breaking up.”

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Can the US and Russia Find a Path Forward on Arms Control? How to Prevent a Dangerous Escalation,” Sergey Rogov, Foreign Affairs, 05.22.18The author, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, writes: “The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty … and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe … are dead. Meanwhile, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty … is in big trouble, with both sides accusing each other of violations. … it’s necessary to resume a Russian-U.S. dialogue that will lead to official negotiations. For now, the agenda should be …  prioritizing three key issues: the preservation of the INF Treaty, the prolongation of the New START treaty and the prevention of dangerous military accidents. At present, the INF Treaty is in danger of collapsing because of accusations of violation on both sides. Addressing these accusations is the first step to ensuring that the treaty continues. Moscow claims that Washington committed three violations of the [INF] treaty. … The United States …  has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by testing, producing and deploying a new type of ground-launched cruise missile with a prohibited range. … Today, there are no official negotiations on deeper cuts of strategic nuclear weapons. … if the [New START] treaty is allowed to expire in 2021, there will [be] no limitations on nuclear arsenals at all for the first time since 1972. … Moscow and Washington should resume regular contacts to revisit those agreements [on the prevention of military accidents], modernize them and adapt them to the new situation.”

“Crippling the Open Skies Treaty Punishes Allies and the US, Not Russia,” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 05.23.18: The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes: “Steve Liewer of the Omaha World-Herald … reports that [House Armed Services Chairman Mac] Thornberry has struck funding in the Fiscal Year 2019 Defense Authorization Act for two replacement Open Skies aircraft and upgraded sensors because Moscow is misbehaving. … Among the demands Thornberry lists before new Open Skies aircraft can be procured are: ‘the extradition of Russian citizens involved in undertaking unlawful activities against the United States incident to the 2016 presidential election, it has withdrawn from Crimea and ceased support to Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine and has ceased all military and financial support for any state that uses or has used against its civilian population any agent or substance banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.’ All of these are worthy objectives, warranting countermeasures. None appear achievable anytime soon. … sound U.S. national security strategy mandates continued ride-sharing with friends and allies over Russian territory … Ideally, the United States would execute its entire quota of sixteen Open Skies missions over Russian territory in the company of friends and allies, but this isn’t possible with aging aircraft. … Who loses when U.S. Open Skies flights are grounded? Certainly not Russia.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Putin’s Endgame in Syria Has Arrived: It's not an Assad victory—it's a frozen conflict,” Jonathan Spyer, Foreign Policy, 05.24.18The author, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, writes: “Syria increasingly seems to be moving toward de facto partition accompanied by ongoing low-level military conflict and a functional, but sluggish politics—a so-called frozen conflict. … Russia, having largely achieved its aims in Syria, now wishes to balance its support for the Assad regime with other interests: namely, the continued undermining of the West elsewhere in the world and the maintenance of working relations with other regional powers … The United States and Israel, meanwhile, are primarily focused on the challenge to Iranian regional advancement. The result will be a divided Syria that serves as the arena for the playing out of non-Syrian agendas a geopolitical situation that Russia has plenty of experience navigating.”

Cyber security:

“The West Is Ill-Prepared for the Wave of ‘Deep Fakes’ That Artificial Intelligence Could Unleash,” Chris Meserole and Alina Polyakova, Brookings Institution, 05.25.18The authors, fellows in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, write: “Policymakers in Europe and the United States should focus on the coming wave of disruptive technologies. Fueled by advances in artificial intelligence and decentralized computing, the next generation of disinformation promises to be even more sophisticated and difficult to detect. … As more and more decentralized applications come online, the web will increasingly be powered by services and protocols that are designed from the ground up to resist the kind of centralized control that Facebook and others enjoy. … the security and decentralization they [decentralized applications] provide will be a boon for privacy advocates and human rights dissidents. But it will also be a godsend for malicious actors. Most of these services have anonymity and public-key cryptography baked in, making accounts difficult to track back to real-life individuals or organizations. … To get ahead of these emerging threats, … the EU and the United States should commit significant funding to research and development at the intersection of AI and information warfare … should also move quickly to prevent the rise of misinformation on decentralized applications … [and] legislators should continue to push for reforms in the digital advertising industry. As AI continues to transform the industry, disinformation content will become more precise and micro-targeted to specific audiences.”

Elections interference:

“What Did Russian Trolls Want in 2016? A Closer Look at the Internet Research Agency’s Active Measures,” Tricia Jenkins, War on the Rocks, 05.22.18The author, a professor of film, television and digital media, writes: “This article re-examines Russian active measures to gauge whether the Russians were trying to assist Trump, as the Senate suggests, or simply attempting to undermine democracy and stir up discord without favoring any candidate, as the House states. … Drawing from Russian and American reporting, congressional hearings, criminal indictments and my research team’s own content analysis of Russian-backed social media content … contrary to the House committee’s findings, the Russians did seek to explicitly promote Trump (and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders) and to prevent, or at least delegitimize, a Clinton presidency. … the House report is still accurate in claiming that the Russians’ primary objective was—and still is—to stir up discord and distrust in American society … While the line between promoting such a controversial and, arguably, divisive candidate and generating broader social friction is certainly blurry, more knowledge of the motivations and strategies behind Russian active measures will help policymakers, industry leaders and the public avoid susceptibility to these efforts, which are very much ongoing.”

“Stefan Halper Is Just Another Middleman: The professor is just one of the unlikely figures who populate the edges of the Trump-Russia investigation,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 05.23.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes that in the Russia investigation, a recurring theme “is the role of would-be influencers. They start off as connectors and facilitators, but gradually (and implausibly) they move to the center of the story. That's true with Stefan Halper, the retired American professor at Britain's Cambridge University who has become the object of President Trump's counter-witch-hunt to expose a supposed FBI mole who infiltrated his campaign. … But it's laughable to imagine Halper as a superspy, infiltrating the heart of the Trump campaign. Those who know Halper describe someone closer to a gregarious busybody and academic eccentric … Like many underemployed ex-professors, he likes to gossip, and perhaps that made him a good intelligence source. But this is not James Bond. … The Russia investigation … is becoming a version of the butterfly effect, where seemingly random, distant events have large consequences—thanks to the pro-Trump echo chamber. It's Mueller's job to keep the strands of the central narrative in his hands so that they can be understood and, where necessary, prosecuted.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“Europe Has Tamed Gazprom, Not Let It off the Hook: The settlement of an antitrust suit will stop the Russian gas giant from abusing its market power,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 05.25.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “The European Commission has settled a seven-year antitrust dispute with Gazprom, which was required to make concessions but avoided a fine. … the settlement … shows that the company has been defanged and is no longer a threat to Europe’s energy security. … Gazprom has abandoned its attempts to ban customers from reselling its gas across borders … the settlement … forces Gazprom to make up for the lack of interconnector pipelines in Bulgaria and the three Baltic states by letting customers buy gas at lower prices set for other countries and have it delivered … Gazprom customers with long-term contracts now have the right to demand lower prices if they’re paying more than West European customers with competitive markets … In addition, Gazprom has agreed to eight years of close supervision by the EU … Vestager [the EU competition commissioner] and her successors can fine the company up to 10 percent of its global revenue if it violates the settlement terms. If Gazprom intended to monopolize the gas markets in Eastern and Central Europe, that goal is now out of reach. … The settlement also provides evidence that it might make sense for both Germany and Russia to let the EU regulate Nord Stream 2.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Putin’s Anti-Trump Support Group Fails to Jell: The global leaders meeting in St. Petersburg had little in common except their growing exasperation with the US president,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 05.25.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “President Vladimir Putin assembled the most impressive panel ever seen at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum … He had a non-attendee to thank for the full house, Donald Trump. Usually, one or two foreign leaders attend the forum to act as foils for Putin … This year, however, Putin shared the stage with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and the Chinese vice president, Wang Qishan. They all had something in common: They’ve been slighted, rebuffed or otherwise aggravated by Trump. There would be grounds for a broad anti-Trump coalition, but it will never coalesce around Putin … That they all came together in Russia would be an alarm signal to any U.S. leader except Trump. But he’s too focused on domestic politics and his promises to his base. … The meeting … doesn’t give the appearance of the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Not yet, at least. Trump still has enough time in office for that to start changing. Obstacles to ‘mutual trust,’ the leitmotif of the leaders’ speeches in St. Petersburg, could fade if the U.S. remains as unpredictably intractable as it has been in the past 16 months.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“The Balkan Cycle: Why Russo-Bulgarian Relations Are Growing Again,” Maxim Samorukov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.25.18The author, deputy editor of, writes: “The Bulgarian public and the country’s major political parties regret the deterioration of Russo-Bulgarian relations since 2009, when, under Western pressure, Sofia withdrew from almost all of its joint projects with Moscow … Now, calls for a more pragmatic and self-centered approach to Bulgaria’s relations with Russia are gaining momentum. … Recent developments in Bulgarian politics point to warming relations between Sofia and Moscow. Rumen Radev, a politician known for his pro-Russian views, replaced Rosen Plevneliev, a staunch Atlanticist, as Bulgarian president in early 2017. Shortly thereafter, [in] parliamentary elections … pro-European liberals ceded their positions in the ruling coalition to right-wing nationalists, some of whom even support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Bulgaria declined to support Romania’s initiative to permanently station NATO’s fleet in the Black Sea. It also refused to join EU and NATO partners in expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter … Finally, it postponed plans to acquire fighter jets from a NATO partner and resumed negotiations with Moscow concerning a $40 million contract to repair MiG aircraft. … Russia is skeptical … In due time, Sofia’s rapprochement with Moscow will raise traditional fears of subjugation by Russia, and new politicians will come forth promising to rescue Bulgaria from humiliating bondage.”


  • No significant commentary.


“How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine. It Should Focus on Institutions, Not Individuals,” Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander J. Motyl, Foreign Affairs, 05.29.18The authors, co-director of the Ukraine in Europe Project of the Atlantic Council and a professor of political science, write: “Western aid programs designed to attack corruption in Ukraine are failing. Instead of acknowledging the significant degree to which Ukraine has changed for the better, Western-backed approaches misrepresent ongoing reforms as woefully inadequate. … The root cause of the failure of the West’s anticorruption effort is … the flawed belief that the key to change was individual politicians and not institutions. As analysts and policymakers increasingly argue that Poroshenko has to go, they overlook the fact that systemic reform is always a complex process highly dependent on changing structural relationships and institutional practices … Western policy should focus on building on the impressive institutional changes that Ukraine has already adopted and further reducing the structural incentives for corruption.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Where is Georgia Headed?” William Courtney, Daniel Fried and Kenneth Yalowitz, The National Interest, 05.22.18The authors, former diplomats, write: “The West has an interest in keeping Georgia’s EU and NATO membership prospects alive and advancing. … As Georgia does its part to align with European standards, the EU could be generous in offering Georgia more export opportunities. Visa-free travel to many EU countries, a recent development, and other benefits from the EU-Georgia Association Agreement offer a wider window into Europe and encourage Georgians to persist on a westward course. … Western military training and equipment, and combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, have bolstered Georgia’s defense capacity. The United States is now supplying advanced Javelin anti-armor missiles. Together with NATO allies, America could redouble efforts to help the country build modern territorial defenses. … The West could also urge Moscow to pursue peaceful ties with Georgia and accept its freedom to choose its path, while making clear that any renewed aggression would be costly. Georgia represents a key test of whether it is still possible for reforming countries in the former Soviet space to become integral parts of the Euro-Atlantic community.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • No significant commentary.

Defense and aerospace:

“The Durability of Russian Military Power: Moscow’s Prospects for Sustaining Direct Competition,” Michael Kofman, Russia Military Analysis Blog/Changing Character of War Centre at Oxford, 05.25.18The author, a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute, writes: “Political analysis in the West retains a strong bias towards measuring state influence and status according to economic foundations … yet Russia has demonstrated that military power remains an important instrument in international politics. … Russian foreign policy is increasingly underwritten either by the use of force, or threat of force … Russia’s successful resurrection of military power … enables the country to ‘bench press’ above its weight in the international arena. … indirect competition is often messy, indecisive and ineffectual without the weight of conventional military power supporting it. … many believe that demographic, economic and industrial trends are against Russia … Yet there is little to suggest, looking ten years out and even beyond, that Russia will suffer from those severe shortages of either manpower, money or material which would reduce Russia’s ability to underwrite its foreign policy. … Russia can retain the current degree of military activity, snap readiness tests, large strategic exercises, expeditionary operations in Syria and a rotating presence in Ukraine. The challenges Russia faces are consequential, often resulting in cycles of stagnation and mobilization, but they are not deterministic.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.