Russia Analytical Report, May 26-June 1, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • The assertion by Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s arms-control envoy, that the U.S. “know[s] how to spend the adversary into oblivion” seems slightly deranged in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, writes Ankit Panda of the Federation of American Scientists. Panda concedes that the administration’s stated focus on multilateralizing arms control with Russia and China isn’t a bad one. At some point, China will have to come to the table, Panda writes, but holding New START hostage to Beijing’s participation—a nonstarter in the short time remaining before the treaty’s lapse—suggests an entire lack of good faith in the White House.
  • If New START is not extended, or if it is replaced by some kind of system of multilateral negotiations, this exclusive channel of cooperation with the U.S. will be eroded and will lose its value as an instrument for advancing Russian interests, writes columnist Vladimir Frolov. From this perspective, it is clear why Moscow is not exactly happy about the U.S. initiative to invite China to talks on replacing the bilateral New START with a new trilateral agreement.
  • Defenders of the status quo are right to point out that one cannot boil down all of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War to debacles such as Iraq and Libya, but some less bellicose policies have been just as detrimental, writes Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute. NATO expansion comes to mind. So, too, does American support for the “color revolutions” in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, which did little to promote democracy and much to worsen U.S. relations with Russia and China, according to Ashford. Then there are the extraterritorial sanctions that the United States has imposed on Iran, North Korea and Russia. Critics may argue that only Trump’s incompetence has pushed allies to this extreme, Ashford writes, but his administration is using tools popularized and perfected during the Bush and Obama years.
  • No, Russia is not abandoning Syria or Assad—it is an almost sixty-year relationship and here to stay permanently, writes Kamal Alam, a teacher of Syrian military history. Additionally, Russia has made it clear to all actors that the Syrian regime’s stability is a red line, writes Prof. Robert Rabil. In this respect, writes Rabil, one could safely argue that Russia’s policy in Syria is more in sync with that of Israel than with that of Iran in Syria. Both Russia and Israel are at one in seeing Syria becoming stable and posing no threat to regional peace.
  • Putin has neither covered his system in glory nor wholly discredited it by his management of the pandemic crisis. His supporters expected a strong show of leadership that never came; his detractors expected a display of mendacity and cruelty that Putin forwent, writes Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov. By the reticence of his response, Putin has lost some political advantage and even seeded future problems for his rule. Russia has not managed to make geopolitical use of the pandemic crisis, Baunov argues, and domestically, the pandemic has weakened Putin’s vertical of power and intensified conflict within the country’s ruling elite. 
  • Despite Russia's status as a reemerging global military power, its ground force deployment capability is strong only near its western border and within range of its air defenses, according to a new RAND report. Although it poses a credible threat to Eastern Europe, its ability to deploy ground combat units drops off sharply as geographic distance increases, according to the report. Russia's deployment capability near its western and southwestern borders is significantly better than elsewhere, the report says.


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“India Is a Natural US Ally in the New Cold War,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 05.28.20: The author, a professor and columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Not since the early Cold War, when promoting economic recovery in Europe and Japan was a critical element in the effort to contain the Soviet Union, has the economic performance of a foreign country mattered this much to the U.S. Helping democratic India lift its long-term growth rate enough to narrow the gap with China should be one of America's top foreign-policy goals.”
  • “America won its most important Cold War victories by helping democracies become rich in ways that advanced its own security and prosperity. It's high time to revive that approach. India is the place to start.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Impact of the pandemic:

“Where Is Russia’s Strongman in the Coronavirus Crisis?,” Alexander Baunov, Foreign Affairs, 05.27.20The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of, writes:

  • “Putin has neither covered his system in glory nor wholly discredited it by his management of the pandemic crisis. … By the reticence of his response, Putin has lost some political advantage and even seeded future problems for his rule. Russia has not managed to make geopolitical use of the pandemic crisis, and domestically, the pandemic has weakened Putin’s vertical of power and intensified conflict within the country’s ruling elite.” 
  • “Putin has consistently worked to strip power from local strongmen and vest it in his own hands. Now … Putin has chosen the local governors to play the bad guys responsible for the health-care failures and personal constraints. For himself he has chosen the role of benefactor, bestowing gifts in the form of nonworking days and financial assistance.”
  • “The trick hasn’t worked as planned. Putin’s approval rating has fallen to a historic low of 56 percent from a peak of 86 percent. Russian citizens … had imagined that in the event of a disaster, a powerful and generous Putin would take full control, overcome the crisis and help the people. That vision has turned out to be far removed from reality. … Putin receded into the background, allowing others to take responsibility for tackling the epidemic and issuing less financial assistance than people expected.”
  • “Back in March, Putin had cleared his own way to run for two more terms in power. … But the day Russians should have been at the polling stations voting to extend his power, they were instead locked in their homes, watching Putin’s unconvincing fight against the second-largest outbreak in the world. Now, the Russian president is trying to return to that more optimistic past and bring the people out to vote for his plans at the end of June—but he does so from a position he has weakened.”

“Past Crises Spurred International Cooperation. Now Each Country Is Going It Alone,” G. John Ikenberry and Charles A. Kupchan, The Washington Post, 05.28.20The authors, professors at Princeton University and Georgetown University, respectively, write:

  • “The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis tailor-made for a global response. … Traditionally, a catastrophe like this—something that touches everyone—triggers an ordering moment in international politics. Nations should be aligning their efforts to develop a vaccine, contain the disease, produce and allocate medical equipment, and stabilize the global economy. They should be strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO).”
  • “But nothing of the sort is happening. Countries are competing for, and hoarding, medical equipment as they engage in a biotech arms race to find a vaccine. They are closing their borders and scapegoating foreigners. The United States is treating the WHO like a punching bag.”
  • “Why is a global health emergency that should result in global solidarity producing such disarray? A look back at previous instances of cooperative ordering provides the answer.”
  • “Three attributes turn an international emergency into a geopolitical realignment: the existence of a wartime alliance that morphs into a peacetime coalition, an identifiable end to the crisis that begins a new chapter, and the presence of a powerful and visionary country to guide the effort. Today, all three of these attributes are missing.”
  • “For now, the best hope for jump-starting global cooperation on the pandemic is Trump's defeat in November. Following in the footsteps of Wilson and Roosevelt, a few Democrats in Congress are already doing some planning. The stakes go well beyond developing a vaccine and sharing vital medical equipment. If nothing else, the pandemic underscores that we live in an irreversibly interdependent world that can be effectively managed only through common effort. Whether the task is fighting disease, preventing war or battling climate change, the coronavirus should serve as an urgent wake-up call for a new era of international teamwork.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Arms control:

“The US Can’t ‘Win’ an Arms Race With Russia and China,” Ankit Panda, The New Republic, 05.27.20: The author, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, writes:

  • “Last week, Donald Trump made a half-baked, ill-advised decision to pull the United States out of its Open Skies Treaty with Russia; now, his administration is signaling plans to blow up the last major security accord standing … New START … and thus open the door to an arms race.”
  • “In a little over seven months, New START is set to expire, and the Trump administration is threatening to disregard the agreement’s five-year extension provision—a no-brainer renewal that would be routinely approved under a normal administration—unless China joins the talks and Russia makes additional concessions.”
  • “Despite the Soviet Union’s demise, neither Washington nor Moscow ‘won’ the Cold War–era arms race. Instead, to manage the costs … and to reduce the risks of an undesired nuclear war—the two parties saw fit to discuss mutual limitations and sign multiple treaties. … But more troublingly, Billingslea’s [Trump’s arms-control envoy] assertion that the U.S. ‘know[s] how to spend the adversary into oblivion’ seems slightly deranged in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic that’s caused the highest U.S. unemployment rate since the Great Depression.”
  • “Of course, Billingslea knows a thing or two about spending into oblivion. After starting his career as a defense adviser … Billingslea worked in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, helping to spend an estimated $6.4 trillion on post-9/11 overseas wars … [A]s an unelected presidential envoy, Billingslea simply has no standing to argue that the U.S. will spend lavishly on nuclear weapons ‘if we have to’—that is, if he fails at his primary job, negotiating.”
  • “In fairness, the administration’s stated focus on multilateralizing arms control with Russia and China isn’t a bad one. … But holding New START hostage to Beijing’s participation … suggests an entire lack of good faith in the White House. … This sort of unilateral, I’m-the-grown-up-here dictating of terms hasn’t worked for the U.S. with Iran or North Korea: It certainly won’t work with China or Russia.”

“How a US Withdrawal From the Open Skies Treaty Would Benefit the Kremlin,” Gustav Gressel, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 05.27.20The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:

  • “For nations with big space programs—particularly Russia and the U.S.—the value of the [Open Skies] treaty was always somewhat questionable, as they had large numbers of satellites that provided better, more quickly accessible intelligence than the reconnaissance flights did.”
  • “Like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty has raised legitimate concerns about Russian behavior. Russia has incrementally restricted Open Skies Treaty flights by banning those from the Caucasus bordering Georgia; restricting flight time over Kaliningrad; banning flights over Crimea; and blocking flight inspections around the Centre 2019 exercise. These steps clearly violate the treaty. In addition, Russia appeared to use some of its inspection flights—such as those over the White House and one of Trump’s Gulf Estates—simply to goad the U.S. rather than as confidence-building measures. But U.S. withdrawal from the agreement will solve none of these problems.”
  • “Nonetheless, Russia’s antics seem to have worked—if they drove Trump’s reported decision on the Open Skies Treaty. A U.S. withdrawal from the agreement would shift the blame from a non-compliant Moscow onto Washington, fueling anti-Americanism and, perhaps, calls for a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe—at a time when one party in Germany’s ruling coalition questions the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on the continent.”
  • “There is little Europeans can do to persuade Russia to stay within the treaty framework, if the U.S. withdraws from it. However, they could reach out to Belarus, to determine whether it wanted to remain within the framework.”

“The Trump Administration Is Jettisoning Arms Control Treaties That Help Keep Us Safe,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 05.28.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The administration says it has lost confidence in Russia’s adherence to the [Open Skies] treaty. The reasons given in a briefing May 21 include complaints about Russia’s behavior elsewhere. State Department Assistant Secretary Christopher A. Ford faulted Russia for its military actions against Georgia and Ukraine, including the seizure of Crimea, and for forsaking the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea raised the Novichok poisoning. Each of these has validity. But to pile them atop the Open Skies treaty is to impose a burden the pact was never intended to carry.”
  • “The administration also resurfaced complaints about Russian limitions to treaty overflights. These are real implementation issues, but they do not defeat the purpose of the treaty, and should be resolved—as they have been in the past—by the treaty’s Consultative Commission.”
  • “Billingslea announced that talks with Russia on arms control will resume soon and ‘our expectation’ is that China will join. Having China at the table is a worthwhile goal. So far, Beijing has refused. It should be constantly asked, but China’s answer should not hold up extension of the New Start strategic nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States, which expires next year. The treaty serves the interests of both countries. Both ought to show some willpower and extend it for five years.”

Interview With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov,” The National Interest, 05.29.20In this interview, the Russian deputy foreign minister said:

  • “Chances for the New START Treaty to be sustained are rapidly moving close to zero, and I think that on Feb. 5, 2021, this treaty will just lapse, and it will end … It looks like America doesn’t believe in arms control as a concept altogether. Instead, it tries to find pretexts to depart from as many arms control treaties, agreements and arrangements that Russia is also a party to. This is very regrettable. But make no mistake: we will not pay any price higher than the one we would pay for our own security in order to save something or keep the U.S. within this system.”
  • “We will never, ever allow anyone to draw us into an arms race that would exceed our own capabilities. But we will find ways how to sustain this pressure, both in terms of rhetoric and also in terms of possible action.”
  • “We don’t believe the U.S. in its current shape is a counterpart that is reliable, so we have no confidence, no trust whatsoever. … I don’t know who drives U.S. policy toward Russia … the current, almost one-hundred percent watertight anti-Russian bipartisan consensus in the U.S. doesn’t promise much good for this relationship for the future, irrespective of who wins the next election.”
  • “We cherish our close and friendly relations with China. We do regard this as a comprehensive strategic partnership in different areas, and we intend to develop it further.”

“Trump’s Foreign Policy Doctrine? The Withdrawal Doctrine,” Richard Haass, The Washington Post, 05.28.20: The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “President Trump has been in the Oval Office for more than three years and has yet to claim a foreign policy doctrine of his own. The time may have come to bestow one upon him. Call it the Withdrawal Doctrine.”
  • “He has pulled the country out of every manner of multilateral agreement and institution overseas in the name of going it alone. Going it alone, though, makes little sense in a world increasingly defined by global challenges that can best be met through collective, not individual, action.”
  • “Most recently, the Trump administration cut off funding and threatened to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) amid a pandemic. Days later, it announced that it would be leaving the Open Skies Treaty, an agreement among three dozen countries that allows for reconnaissance flights over one another's territory in order to reduce uncertainty and the chance for miscalculation. And there were a host of other withdrawals, including the Paris climate accord, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), UNESCO and the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
  • “The question to ask is not whether an arrangement is flawed, but whether it is less flawed than an alternative arrangement that could be negotiated, or preferable to living with no agreement and acting unilaterally. So far, at least, evidence is scant that withdrawal has paved the way to something better; to the contrary, as a doctrine, it is leading to diminished U.S. influence, prosperity and security.”

“Trump Wants a Nuclear Deal. Why Is This Bad News for Moscow?” Vladimir Frolov, The Moscow Times, 05.29.20: The author, a Russian political analyst and columnist, writes:

  • “The United States has announced it is to renew negotiations with Russia on nuclear arms control … An agreement to hold a meeting of Russian and American delegations on strategic stability was reached on May 8 during the course of a telephone conversation between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Washington’s new special presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea.”
  • “This would appear to be good news for Moscow, which has long sought talks on the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty … However, judging by the signals coming from Washington on the U.S. administration’s true attitudes to the upcoming talks, the likelihood of achieving any kind of agreement are close to zero, with the exception of a strictly technical agreement on a short-term (6-12 months) extension of START to facilitate the continuation of negotiations on a new treaty. But even this is not yet guaranteed.”
  • “A more realistic scenario is the final collapse of the architecture of arms control and the loss of Russia’s most prestigious channel of interaction with the U.S. … It is this goal of ‘exclusive partnership’ with the U.S. that is … the aim of Vladimir Putin’s strategic initiative to organize an arms control summit for the permanent member states of the UN Security Council, and attempts to revive the “spirit of alliance” of Russia and the U.S. from the ‘time of the Encounter at the Elbe.’”
  • “If START is not extended, or if it is replaced by some kind of system of multilateral negotiations (the U.S. wants to include China, in which case Moscow will insist on the inclusion of the U.K. and France as U.S. allies, in order to block the possibility of a multilateral format), this exclusive channel of cooperation with the U.S. will be eroded and will lose its value as an instrument for advancing Russian interests.”

“Don’t Resume Nuclear Testing,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 05.28.20The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Senior U.S. officials reportedly have discussed conducting a nuclear weapons test for the first time in 28 years.  Some apparently believe that doing so would provide leverage to persuade Russia and China to agree to Washington’s proposal for a trilateral nuclear arms negotiation.”
  • “In fact, a U.S. nuclear test would most likely have a very different effect: opening the door for tests by other countries to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons. A smarter policy would maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing, and ratify and seek to bring into force the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).”
  • “The testing moratorium and the CTBT, if ratified and entered into force, would seem to lock in an area of U.S. advantage regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear effects.  Why would we want others to test and erode that advantage?”


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

“Why America Has Misdiagnosed Russia’s Role in Syria," Robert Rabil, The National Interest, 05.27.20: The author, a professor of political science, writes:

  • “Essentially, Putin has pursued a policy strengthening Russia’s credibility without being beholden to exclusive regional alliances. Russia’s ability to expand its influence in many Middle East countries and simultaneously supporting conflicted parties lies in its readiness to speak to all parties and to try to serve as an intermediary at the right moment. As such, Russia’s partnerships or alliances in the Middle East are not part of a grand strategy or shaped by binary strategies.”
  • “Despite political and/or ideological differences with Middle East countries, Russia has negotiated economic, military and/or political agreements with Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, among others, while supporting the Assad regime and establishing military bases in Syria.”
  • “At the same time, Russia has made it clear to Hezbollah and Iran that their political and military cooperation in support of the Syrian regime does not translate turning Syria into an Iranian military satellite threatening regional peace. … Russia has made it clear to all actors that the regime’s stability is a red line. In this respect … Russia’s policy in Syria is more in sync with that of Israel than with that of Iran in Syria.”
  • “[T]o postulate that Russia is turning against Assad and, by extension, Iran is an illusory exercise. … What’s happening in Syria today is an attempt, pushed by none other than Putin himself, to clamp down on all Mafia-like figures in Syria who operate outside the purview of the state, thereby handicapping the Syrian economy.”
  • “Washington’s misreading of both Russian policy in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular and Syria’s palace dynamics is a recipe for other serious blunders. If these egocentric and haphazard views of Russian policy in Syria become the drivers of American foreign policy, then one should not be surprised if Russia (potentially supported by China) supplants Iran as the leader of the anti-American ‘Resistance Axis’ in the Middle East.” 

“Russia Is Not Abandoning Syria or Assad: The talk of a Russian rift or frustration with Damascus fundamentally overlooks Russia’s historic role in Syria, ” Kamal Alam, The National Interest, 05.30.20: The author, a teacher of Syrian military history at various Middle Eastern Army Staff Colleges, writes:

  • “The doom merchants have been predicting the demise of Assad since he lost his four most senior security officials to a bombing in 2012. … Now the same analysts and media outlets are going on hyperbole as to how Russia is ‘tired’ of Assad and the rift with the richest man in Syria, Rami Makhlouf is a sign of the end.”
  • “As a matter of fact, Russia has at each time in Syria’s history even predating the Assad family backed the military to dominate affairs. As Assad focuses on economic stability for a cash-strapped Syria, the Russians are just recalibrating ways to consolidate their military gains into the political and economic domain.”
  • “Putin once he had consolidated Russia after the Chechnya war went after the same oligarchs who supported him earlier but were a hindrance to progress Moscow further beyond military consolidation. Similarly, Assad knows for him to win the economic battle he must get rid of corrupt names even if they are family members. In this, he has Russia’s support and his own military. Russia is not abandoning Syria or Assad, it is an almost sixty-year relationship and here to stay permanently.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Build a Better Blob. Foreign Policy Is Not a Binary Choice Between Trumpism and Discredited Elites,” Emma Ashford, Foreign Affairs, 05.29.20: The author, a research fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, writes:

  • “[The Blob] has become a shorthand for the D.C. foreign policy community—sometimes as a token of pride, more often as an epithet for those who occupied positions of power during some of the United States’ biggest foreign policy debacles since the end of the Cold War. … For the most part, the Blob clings to a narrow set of views about the United States’ global role and paints a far too rosy picture of the last few decades of American foreign policy.”
  • “A strategy and force posture that were perfectly reasonable when facing a hostile superpower such as the Soviet Union was entirely out of proportion after that threat had disappeared. Yet Washington used its unchallenged power in the unipolar moment to set off on a series of crusading missions … In the process, it squandered much of its military and political primacy.”
  • “To describe the United States’ military interventions as mishandled … is to criminally underplay their impact. … Defenders of the status quo are right to point out that one cannot boil down all of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War to debacles such as Iraq and Libya. But some less bellicose policies have been just as detrimental. … NATO expansion comes to mind.  … So, too, does American support for the “color revolutions” in eastern Europe and the Caucasus … Then there are the extraterritorial sanctions that the United States has imposed.”
  • “The notion that American withdrawal from global leadership is the real culprit behind these failures—that the world would be a better place if the United States just leaned in more—doesn’t pass the sniff test. … U.S. forces overseas still number almost 230,000, compared to 300,000 during the last year of the Cold War. … Defense spending in 2019 was about 3.4 percent of GDP … To call this disengagement is laughable. … Instead of criticizing the Blob, reformers should work to replace it.”

A New Transatlantic Strategy on Russia,” Discussion with Michael Carpenter Nicholas Burns and Torrey Taussig, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 04.30.20: Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, says:

  • I think this is going to be the most profound test of Putin's legitimacy since coming to power. Particularly the COVID crisis and the economic repercussions of it. … He's shown that he's mishandling it.”
  • Russia's financial and corrupt influences [are] perhaps the greatest weapon that Russia deploys against Western democracies to try to subvert and weaken them. And this is a vulnerability that  … we have really failed to address. …  There's a lot of things we can do domestically here in the United States like strengthening the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. … For a potential Biden administration, this has to be front and center.”
  • “Another issue that should be front and center in a transatlantic strategy toward Russia is on arms control and strategic stability. …  This is an area where it seems that the West, the U.S. and Russia need to cooperate. … We have to take the Russians up on their offer to extend New START.”
  • “There can be a contingency that causes some sort of incident that that sours relations between China and Russia in the next five years, but I really see their relationship expanding and continuing to deepen over that time frame. I think eventually … there will be more friction in relationship, but not anytime soon.”
  • “The transatlantic relationship is fraying. … We really have to get in the room together and talk strategically about what are our … goals, and tactically, how do we go about achieving them.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Responding to a Pandemic, Putin Trades Russia’s Future for His Own,” Cyrus Newlin and Heather A. Conley, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 05.27.20: The authors, an adjunct fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program and director of the Europe Program at CSIS, write:

  • “In April, a simultaneous collapse in oil prices and a 33 percent drop in economic activity resulted in a staggering GDP contraction of 28 percent. The Russian Central Bank forecasts a 4-6 percent reduction in GDP in 2020. Several macroeconomists expect the economy to shrink by more than 10 percent this year. … How long will $156 billion last? … Deutsche Bank estimates two years under a pessimistic scenario of $15/barrel while other economists estimate three years.”
  • “In order to maintain spending plans, the Kremlin could attempt to cover some of the budget gap by shifting a greater share of the tax burden onto its citizens—just as Russians are becoming poorer as a result of COVID-19. … To avoid shifting the tax burden, the Kremlin could consolidate spending by cutting back on long-awaited investment in infrastructure, Putin’s signature ‘National Projects.’”
  • “For many businesses, the COVID-19 economic damage is already done. … The Russian Chamber of Commerce estimates that one in three small businesses will not last more than a quarter, while Natalia Orlova, the chief economist of Alfa Bank, estimates just 3 percent of GDP has gone to business in direct payments. … The anticipated loss of the SME sector will further concentrate wealth in the hands of large, Kremlin-connected businesses … undoing whatever modest progress has been made since 2008 in creating a more dynamic and diverse economy just as the dangers of Russia’s vulnerability to oil price fluctuations are most apparent.”
  • “As protest sentiment mounts, the Russian government will have to navigate the competing mandates of refilling Russia’s wealth fund to prepare for the next crisis while it confronts greater demands for social spending from economically vulnerable populations. … Ironically, Putin’s ‘Fortress Russia’ is highly economically dependent on the rest of the world. His best chance to strengthen Russia lies in a more resilient and diversified economy. But what strengthens Russia weakens Putin’s hold on power, and as he rewrites the constitution to allow himself another term as president, we know his power will be what is preserved.”

“Vladimir Putin’s Increasingly Precarious Future,” Herman Pirchner Jr., The National Interest, 05.26.20: The author, president of the American Foreign Policy Council, writes:

  • “Since its outbreak earlier this year, the coronavirus has exacted a massive human toll around the world. The biggest political price, however, could end up being paid by none other than Russia’s long-serving strongman president. … A 2019 American Foreign Policy Council study found that just 35 of 120 post-WWII dictators who ruled countries of 10 million or more stayed in power that long [two decades or longer].”
  • “Of course, Russia’s president is no doubt well aware of these figures. He has so far succeeded in staying in power because he has understood the dangers to his rule and successfully mitigated them through the effective use of: 1) internal repression and 2) external distraction (Ukraine, Syria) that fed his domestic propaganda. At the same time, he has enriched the elites whose support, or at least acquiescence, are essential to his continued rule.”
  • “A late April poll by Russia’s Levada Center found that only 46 percent of Russians thought Putin’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic have been correct. In fact, there is good reason to conclude that Putin’s real approval numbers are likely significantly worse.”
  • “Putin hoped to shore up his domestic support through propaganda based upon the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany … The onset of the current pandemic not only removed this option, but continues to erode Putin’s strength—and to lessen his elite’s perception of it.”
  • “The public has become acutely aware of the Kremlin’s subpar federal response to the pandemic, embodied in ‘videos showing ambulances lined up for miles waiting to deposit patients in overcrowded Moscow hospitals.’ … Should Russia’s elite split, it may become possible to bring enough people into the streets to truly challenge Putin’s rule. Such a split could occur because those who cumulatively keep Putin in power feel their privileges threatened as a result of his mishandling of multiple issues … which has begun to undermine regime stability.”

“Khodorkovsky Marks the Spot: Russia’s Turning Point From Economic Freedom to State Control,” Sergei Guriev, Russia Matters, 05.28.20: The author, a professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris, writes:

  • “This month fifteen years ago, Russia’s richest person, CEO and main shareholder of YUKOS oil company Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to nine years in prison in what became a turning point in the development of Russian political and economic institutions on Vladimir Putin’s watch.”
  • “After the turmoil of reforms in the 1990s and the 1998 financial meltdown, Putin came to power with an agenda of restoring rule of law and relaunching economic growth. … This contradiction between Putin’s economics (in favor of economic freedom) and politics (against political liberties) was resolved in October 2003 when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested. … Putin disliked the fact that Khodorkovsky publicly criticized corruption in the top ranks of Putin’s administration and established a pro-democracy philanthropic organization among other things. … This is why the YUKOS affair was a turning point. Foreign and domestic investors received a clear signal: whatever happens, the government has an upper hand and there is no impartial court.”
  • “Did Putin’s post-2003 vision deliver to ordinary Russians? Backed by unprecedented oil price growth—as well as by prior market reforms—the Russian economy continued to perform strongly; in 1999-2008, it was growing at 7 percent per year. The sovereign wealth fund helped to weather the 2008-09 financial crisis. However, after the crisis, Putin’s state capitalism exhausted its growth potential. … His economic model does not generate income growth anymore. Putin needs investment, but given sanctions and the domination of the state, he is unlikely to see private and foreign investment boom.
  • “Russia’s fiscal and monetary policies remain conservative, and Russia still has a sovereign wealth fund that would cover oil revenue shortfalls at least for two to three years. But it is also highly unlikely that Russia will relaunch fast economic growth—this is what this particular economic model cannot deliver.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia's Limit of Advance. Analysis of Russian Ground Force Deployment Capabilities and Limitations,” Ben Connable, Abby Doll, Alyssa Demus, Dara Massicot, Clint Reach, Anthony Atler, William Mackenzie, Matthew Povlock and Lauren Skrabala, RAND Corporation, May 2020The authors of the report write:

  • “By the time it invaded Crimea in 2014, Russia seemed to have regained a significant portion of the military power it lost after the fall of the Soviet Union, reemerging as a perceived threat to democracy. But how capable is Russia of deploying and sustaining ground combat forces farther from its borders?”
  • “Despite Russia's status as a reemerging global military power, its ground force deployment capability is strong only near its western border and within range of its air defenses. Although it poses a credible threat to Eastern Europe, its ability to deploy ground combat units drops off sharply as geographic distance increases. … Russian ground forces have a sharply limited effective deployment range.”
  • “Russia's deployment capability near its western and southwestern borders is significantly better than elsewhere, a product of robust lines of communication, transport infrastructure and air defense, as well as easier-to-negotiate terrain. … Far deployments (more than two countries away or across large bodies of water) are particularly challenging for Russian ground forces, with capability gaps and poor support for basing, overflight and naval access leaving them vulnerable to interdiction.”
  • “The size and capability of Russia's military transportation fleet is a major limiting factor in its ability to deploy ground combat forces, and it must rely on nonmilitary assets to transport forces and equipment in some scenarios. … Russian armored and support vehicles tend to be lighter and smaller than many of their Western counterparts. However, this does not make air transport practical in most cases, so slower movement by ground, rail or sea is necessary, reducing deployment speed to far contingencies.”

“Russia and Collective Security: Why CSTO Is No Match for Warsaw Pact,” Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia Matters, 05.27.20: The author, a senior research scientist at CNA and an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, writes:

  • “This month 65 years ago, the Soviet Union announced the formation of the Warsaw Pact. For the next three and a half decades, the pact remained the security alliance of the Communist world, designed to counter NATO in Europe, before becoming defunct in 1991. Almost immediately, however, post-Soviet Russia laid out a new collective defense organization. Officially known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), that post-Soviet pact has proved to be no match for the Warsaw Pact. Neither CSTO nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the other collective security pact of which Russia is a member, pose a real threat to the U.S. and its allies above and beyond the threat posed by their individual member states.”
  • “What does Russia’s participation in present-day collective security organizations mean for the United States and its allies? NATO has long refused to deal directly with the CSTO, preferring to reach out to individual member states in order to avoid legitimizing the organization. Overall, none of the three organizations discussed above pose a real threat above and beyond the threat posed by its individual member states.”
  • “Both the CSTO and the SCO are too organizationally weak and insufficiently integrated to serve as a capability multiplier for its members in the way that NATO does for the United States and its European allies. Furthermore, because of the weakness of their military forces and in some cases because of political dysfunction and internal weakness, the other member states of the CSTO are of limited value to Russia as military allies. Even Belarus, the strongest of these states, is primarily valuable for its geographic location between Russia and NATO territory, rather than because of its forces. As we contemplate the 65th anniversary of the formation of the Warsaw Pact, it is clear that from a military perspective, Russia is more alone now than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.”

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:

“The Putin 'Brand' Has Taken a Beating This Year: A Q&A With Fiona Hill,” Tobin Harshaw, Bloomberg, 05.30.20: In this interview, Hill says:

  • “Twenty years in power, two presidential terms, a term as prime minister, coming back as president again. And now, preparing for yet another two sets of six years that could take him [Putin] up to 2036. You've got to be constantly showing the Russian public that you're offering something new each time, and you're competing against your past self. Putin has hit high points in the past that he's not likely to hit again. And he's always had particular problems in Moscow. He's never been especially popular there.”
  • “Putin's doing quite a lot of blaming other people. He's blamed the West for the virus, at least the transmission into the country. It is actually true that quite a lot of the cases coming into Russia have come from Russians returning from Europe, not directly from China.”
  • “The oil price is a big problem. The one thing that they really should have paid more attention to over the last decade or so was genuine diversification away from oil and gas. But you have to admit, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe … made that quite difficult.”  
  • “I think, actually, the [Russian-Chinese] relationship has become a bit more intense over time. A lot of that has to do with U.S. policy. … But we've kind of welded them more tightly together than they had been before with the Russia sanctions policy and all kinds of different moves that we've made in different places…. Russia would be very uncomfortable with the scenario where they are most definitely playing second fiddle to China.”
  • “A lot of that also depends on how the Europeans re-engage, too. I see, actually, a possibility here of Russia finding ways, post-pandemic, to try to improve its relationship with Europe at large, particularly if Europe starts getting involved in any larger public-health or vaccine initiatives. … I don't see so much prospect for a turnaround in U.S.-Russia relations at this juncture.

“Turkey and Russia: No Birds of the Same Feather,” Dimitar Bechev and Suat Kınıklıoğlu, SWP, May 2020The authors, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a fellow at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at SWP, write:

  • “Since Turkey’s controversial acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia, the narrative that the EU is facing a twin challenge from the East has been gaining currency in European capitals. Turkey and Russia are often portrayed as two authoritarian regimes led by strong leaders who favor an omnipotent state at the expense of fundamental freedoms and liberal democratic institutions.”
  • “Yet, putting these two countries into the same basket and formulating policies accordingly is problematic. The EU has separate sets of relations with Russia and Turkey. Ankara remains part of NATO and the EU’s Customs Union. That said, Turkey is quickly approaching a critical crossroad on its turbulent political journey: The country will either consolidate its authoritarian regime or return to democracy. The EU has a high stake in this matter, and thus it needs to take a proactive stance in favor of pro-democracy forces.”

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

“In Russia’s Shadow: China’s Rising Security Presence in Central Asia,” Bradley Jardine and Edward Lemon, Kennan Institute, May 2020The authors, fellows at the Wilson Center, write:

  • “Central Asia is undergoing a significant geopolitical transition as Russia and China each work to strengthen their influence in the region. While Moscow’s economic dominance recedes in favor of Beijing, dropping from 80 percent of the region’s total trade in the 1990s ($110 billion) to just two-thirds that of Beijing’s today ($18.6 billion), it nevertheless remains the dominant security guarantor in the region.”
  • “Russia has accounted for 62 percent of the regional arms market over the past five years and maintains substantial military infrastructure in three out of five of the republics. Moscow has also rapidly expanded its security drills and training in strategic Tajik border regions, and it launched its first lethal strike on Afghanistan since 1989 from Tajikistan in 2018.”
  • “Yet China is making significant inroads in the security sector. It has provided 18 percent of the region’s arms over the past five years, a significant increase from the 1.5 percent of Central Asian arms imports that it provided between 2010 and 2014. In 2016, China constructed its first military facilities in the region, high in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, and in recent years, it has begun projecting the operational capabilities of its paramilitary units into the region.”
  • “While Moscow retains a strategic edge over Beijing, the gap is closing, and, if trends continue, Moscow may find its influence undermined in the coming decade.”
  • “In the short term, Russia and China share core strategies in the region and they are unlikely to react to one another’s movements with hostility. But their relationship looks set to be tested in the medium term as China’s security role in the region becomes stronger.”


  • No significant developments

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“The Least Predictable Belarusian Election in Decades,” Andrew Wilson, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 05.28.20: The author, a senior policy fellow at ECFR, writes:

  • “Belarus plans to go ahead with its presidential election on Aug. 9, after bringing it forward by three weeks. But Belarus has the added difficulty of being one of the only two countries in Europe to have taken a minimalist approach to combating the virus. The other one, Sweden, saw its death-per-capita ratio rise to the highest in Europe in the third week of May; on infections, Belarus is now in eighth place.”
  • “Even without the virus, the presidential election comes at a difficult time for Belarus … since 2018, Russia has cut subsidies for Belarus and pushed hard for the country to join an ‘economic confederation.’ One reason for the Belarus authorities’ risky approach to the virus was that the economy was already slowing down before it hit.”
  • “These tensions have produced a much more interesting field of presidential candidates this time. The situation presents the authorities with a difficult choice between allowing some freedom in the election as a safety valve for public discontent … or organizing the traditional fix, which will lead to other problems. An early and relatively open election also creates plenty of possibilities for Moscow to interference and even support opposition candidates.”
  • “The most interesting aspect of the 2020 race is the fact that there are at least three candidates the government cannot control or ignore … The biggest initial impact was made by a blogger, Siarhei Tsikhanowski, who uses YouTube channel A Country for [Real] Life to talk to ordinary Belarusians airing their grievances.”
  • “As such, the election may end up being another foregone conclusion, with Lukashenko once again taking more than 80 percent of the vote. Yet, even if the outcome is not interesting, Belarusian politics suddenly is.”

“Pandemic Heightens Need to Reset Belarus-Russia Ties,” Yauheni Preiherman, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.27.20: The author, founder and director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, writes:

  • “Russia and Belarus’s old grand bargain has now lost its value for both sides. Moscow cannot get the degree of geopolitical loyalty that it wants, and Minsk has little else to offer Moscow to sustain the economic relationship from which it has benefited so much. This is not to say that Belarus is about to suffer the same fate as Ukraine, but Moscow and Minsk will now have to redefine the meaning of their union.”
  • “The coronavirus pandemic has already taken a further toll on the relationship between the two allies. Their border is closed for the first time in almost three decades. Their uncoordinated responses to the outbreak have fueled new tensions, and their main television channels have engaged in a war of words, accusing each other of failing to deal with the pandemic and spreading disinformation. The economic fallout from the pandemic is bound to leave everyone worse off. Moscow will expect more from Minsk in exchange for economic aid, while Europe and the United States will be distracted with their own problems.”
  • “The best alternative may be to hammer out a new bargain—not necessarily a grand one—through a series of smaller deals, relying on the wisdom of the two countries’ leaders, who between them have over fifty years of experience managing the bilateral relationship. To many in the West, this will seem like a highly unsatisfactory arrangement, but does anyone have a better one?”