Russia Analytical Report, May 28-June 3, 2019

This Week’s Highlights:

  • In Venezuela, as elsewhere, Russia is searching for leverage vis-à-vis the U.S., writes Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest, but Americans should not overestimate either Moscow’s interests or its capabilities there. Venezuela is no new Ukraine or Syria—and the latest news of a withdrawal of Russian military advisers suggests someone in Moscow understands this.
  • The political ties between Russia and China have reached a natural limit, writes Kommersant journalist Mikhail Korostikov: The sense of a common threat from the U.S. is unlikely to lead to a military alliance between the two, but it may well generate new forms of cooperation for which Moscow and Beijing are not ready now. Meanwhile, Michael Paul of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP, writes that today’s pragmatic Sino-Russian cooperation benefits both sides, letting them avoid a formal alliance that would require guaranteed military assistance in times of conflict, thus saving them from potential harm to relations with other countries and to their own political interests.
  • The Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without direct engagement between Moscow and Washington, writes Brett McGurk, who served as U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition in 2015-2018. He believes “the United States should isolate the Syrian problem from other aspects of its troubled and adversarial relationship with Russia.”
  • Russia is unlikely to stay neutral if the U.S. and Iran go to war, as such a conflict would give Washington “major leverage” in the Middle East, according to Abdolrasool Divsallar and Pyotr Kortunov, of the Tehran-based Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies and the Russian International Affairs Council, respectively. Although Moscow could financially gain from a politically isolated and less economically competitive Iran, the geopolitical fallout from regime change in Tehran would significantly outweigh the potential economic benefits.
  • Christian Brose, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a forthcoming book on the future of warfare, writes that a military revolution is unfolding today: “A harbinger of much nastier future battlefield has played out in Ukraine since 2014, where Russia has shortened to mere minutes the time between when their spotter drones first detect Ukrainian forces and when their precision rocket artillery wipes those forces off the map.”
  • NATO expansion committed Washington to defend weak and vulnerable new members, Harvard’s Stephen Walt reminds us, calling for a return to hard-nosed realism instead of unrealistic grand strategies like “liberal hegemony”: “U.S. efforts to promote democracy, the open-ended expansion of NATO, and the extension of the alliance's mission far beyond its original parameters poisoned relations with Russia. … The idea that the EU (whose roster includes two nuclear-armed powers) lacks the wherewithal to defend itself against a neighbor whose economy is smaller than Italy's is risible.”
  • The EU should change its rhetoric vis-à-vis Russia, writes Kadri Liik, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The author argues that "giving up the position of a paternalistic norm setter, acknowledging that, at the moment, the European worldview is losing out in the world market of ideas and admitting that the West has made some mistakes would make Moscow take Europeans a lot more seriously than eloquent moralizing that lacks policy to back it up.”

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“The New Revolution in Military Affairs,” Christian Brose, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:

  • “[A military] revolution is unfolding today. Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, advanced manufacturing and quantum science will transform warfare … And yet the U.S. government's thinking about how to employ these new technologies is not keeping pace with their development.”
  • “A harbinger of this much nastier future battlefield has played out in Ukraine since 2014, where Russia has shortened to mere minutes the time between when their spotter drones first detect Ukrainian forces and when their precision rocket artillery wipes those forces off the map.”
  • “The U.S. military assumes that its forces will be able to move unimpeded into forward positions and that it will be able to commence hostilities at a time of its choosing. It assumes that its forces will operate in permissive environments … that any quantitative advantage that an adversary may possess will be overcome … And it assumes that U.S. forces will suffer few losses in combat.”
  • “For the past two decades, while the United States has focused on fighting wars in the Middle East, its competitors—especially China, but also Russia—have been dissecting its way of war and developing so-called anti-access/area-denial (or A2/AD) capabilities to detect U.S. systems in every domain and overwhelm them with large salvos of precision fire. … Americans will naturally be apprehensive about trusting machines to perform what have traditionally been human tasks. But the greater danger right now is that Americans will move too slowly and not be trusting enough, especially as China and Russia are proceeding with fewer ethical concerns.”
  • “U.S. leaders simply do not believe that the United States could be displaced as the world's preeminent military power, not in the distant future but very soon. … If that attitude prevails, change could come not from a concerted plan but as a result of a catastrophic failure.”

“Trump Needs to Stop Siding With Our Adversaries Against Other Americans,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 05.28.19The author, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, writes:

  • “Thankfully, the Cold War is over, and has little chance of returning: Neither Russia nor China will ever challenge us in the way the Soviet Union did. … It's time we recall why our leaders once followed certain unspoken rules during the Cold War—and to consider re-adopting those same standards of behavior.”
  • “First and most importantly, U.S. presidents … never expressed personal approval of our communist adversaries. … Second, U.S. presidents engaged not only with governments of our enemies, but also sought to appeal directly to the people who live under these autocratic regimes, including especially Soviet citizens. … Third, U.S. presidents and other politicians have embraced the practice of leaving our domestic squabbles at home when traveling abroad.
  • “We need a return to Cold War decorum in the conduct of presidential diplomacy. Leaders from the party of Reagan could take the lead in pressing for this return to thoughtful and ethical presidential conduct, especially while traveling abroad. If they don't, then maybe voters in 2020 will be have to complete the task.”

“Russia's Massive Nuclear Weapons Arsenal Is a Threat,” Mark B. Schneider, The National Interest/Real Clear Defense, 05.29.19The author, a senior analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy, writes:

  • “The U.S. mainstream view of Russia has changed quite a bit in the last twenty years, particularly in the last five. We have moved from the fantasy that there was no threat from Russia … to a recognition of a serious Russian threat to the U.S. and its allies, including a nuclear threat in the last two years of the Obama administration and the Trump administration.”
  • “However, characterizing the relationship … as ‘competition’ … does not go far enough. Lockheed and Boeing compete; Russia threatens preemptive nuclear attack. It is unilaterally trying to create a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states in the classic 19th century sense while building the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.  There is no competition here but rather a serious threat from Russia.”

“Risk of Nuclear Weapons Use Still Lower Than During Cold War,” Sam Dudin, RUSI, 05.28.19The author, the U.K. Nuclear Policy Research Fellow at RUSI, writes:

  • “Renata Dwan, director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research … told reporters in Geneva on 21 May that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest since World War II. This is not ‘use’ in the sense of ‘the nuclear deterrent is in use every day of every week all around the year,’ … this is ‘use’ in the sense of nuclear warfare.”
  • “The main problem with Dwan’s position is that, although the risk of nuclear weapons use has increased in recent years, the risk was higher at several points during the Cold War.”
  • “While the Cuban Missile Crisis is arguably the most well-known nuclear crisis, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 is probably the least. On 2 March 1969, Chinese soldiers killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, a disputed island in the Ussuri River. … Nuclear threats were part of the Soviet strategy to resolve this conflict, but China did not think the threats were credible … until Aug. 27 when CIA Director Richard Helms told the press that the Soviet Union had approached foreign governments to gauge their reactions to a potential Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike on China.”
  • “By mid-October, China’s fear of a Soviet nuclear attack was such that the central leadership, including Mao Zedong, fled Beijing. China’s fledgling nuclear forces were ordered to full alert on Oct. 18, the only time this has occurred. Two days later, negotiations with Russia began, ending the conflict.”
  • “Despite increasing nuclear risks in recent years, there have been no reports of national leaders fleeing their country’s capital city out of fear of a nuclear strike. Fighters with air-to-air nuclear missiles are not being scrambled to protect aircraft from enemy interceptors.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


“Options for Dealing With Islamic State Foreign Fighters Currently Detained in Syria,” Brian Michael Jenkins, CTC Sentinel, May-June 2019The author, a former soldier and current senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, writes:

  • “The destruction of the Islamic State has left the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces holding thousands of foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State’s ranks from abroad as well as members of their families.”
  • “What happens to these detainees will impact the continuing jihadi campaign in the Middle East and beyond, but legal constraints, fears of terrorism, already overburdened security forces, widespread public hostility toward Muslims in general, intensified by the barbaric behavior of the Islamic State, complicate discussions of what to do next.”
  • “A study by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization … at King’s College in London reported that by June 2018, 41,490 persons from 80 countries had joined the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria … More than 17 percent came from Eastern Europe, including many from the Russian Caucasus.”
  • “According to one report in March 2019, the SDF held 8,000 Islamic State fighters, including 1,000 foreign fighters in its prisons. … There have been reports that some women in the camps are ‘being threatened by more militant Russian and North African wives of ISIS fighters, who they said were trying to enforce ISIS rules within the camp.’”
  • “Simply letting the foreign fighters go is not an option. Allowing them to escape must be prevented. … Most likely, the issue will be handled at the national level, which means different approaches will co-exist. That leaves some combination of repatriation, uncoordinated muddling and potentially unilateral U.S. action aimed at the American and a few of the other identified detainees.”

Conflict in Syria:

“Hard Truths in Syria,” Brett McGurk, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019The author, the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, writes:

  • “Trump's decision to significantly reduce the American footprint in Syria is unlikely to be reversed. The task now is to determine what should come next—what the United States can do to guard its interests in Syria even as it draws down its military presence.”
  • “The strategy that Trump dismantled offered the United States its only real chance to achieve a number of interwoven goals in Syria: preventing an ISIS resurgence, checking the ambitions of Iran and Turkey and negotiating a favorable postwar settlement with Russia. With U.S. forces leaving Syria, many of these goals are no longer viable.”
  • “Washington must now lower its sights. It should focus on protecting only two interests in Syria: preventing ISIS from coming back and stopping Iran from establishing a fortified military presence there that might threaten Israel. Without leverage on the ground, reaching even those outcomes will require painful compromises.”
  • “Washington must [therefore] accept some hard truths. … Assad is not going anywhere. … [T]he Arab states will now reengage with Damascus. … The United States must also accept that Turkey, although a treaty ally, is not an effective partner. … Finally, the United States must recognize that Russia is now the main power broker in Syria. … The Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without direct engagement between Moscow and Washington, and the United States should isolate the Syrian problem from other aspects of its troubled and adversarial relationship with Russia.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“How Russia Found a Disinformation Haven in America,” Rawi Abdelal and Galit Goldstein, The National Interest, 05.28.19The authors, a professor and at researcher at Harvard Business School, write:

  • “Americans continue to discuss Russia’s information operations efforts in the wrong way. We have wasted time debating whether ‘Russia’ or ‘Russians’—the government or government-connected individuals—meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. … Framing the disinformation issue through this debate misses the point.”
  • “The goal of the information operations campaigns was not simply to elect Donald Trump president. Nor was it only to polarize American politics further. The point was, rather, to continue undermining America’s ability to agree on the true and not-true. … Russia’s strategy hinged on the fact that it is nearly impossible for people stuck in alternate realities with competing, incompatible truth claims to undertake civil discourse.”
  • “Policymakers should expect that tech sector regulatory proposals, in calling for reform on their own terms, are going to be inadequate. … Even strong regulation paired with pan-democratic cooperation will not be enough. What the United States—and indeed, what every nation, needs—is a fundamental recalibration of public discourse.”
  • “Minimally, we must develop societal literacy around how disinformation campaigns function … We must also acknowledge that American elites of all stripes have failed for decades to make sense of the rising tides of both the populist Left and populist Right.”
  • “Until we take real steps to address the structural and intellectual weaknesses that leave societies vulnerable to online disinformation efforts, political systems invested in balancing privacy, security, free speech and democratic practice will continue to invite inexpensive, trivially easy interventions encouraging internal disagreement over what is true and not-true.”

“Mueller's Report Is Done and So Is Mueller,” Editorial Board, The Boston Globe, 05.30.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Mueller spoke about the investigation for the first time on Wednesday [May 29] and made it clear that there's nothing more to wait for—and that expecting a definitive recommendation from him was a mistake all along. He has investigated the facts, finished his report and had his say.”
  • “While he found no evidence to establish a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, he could not clear the president of obstruction of justice. His exact words: ‘If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that. ... The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.’”
  • “The ‘process other than the criminal justice system’ is impeachment. What Mueller is saying is that if Congress feels that Trump's actions are unacceptable, its remedy is to impeach him.”
  • “If Mueller's public statement accomplishes anything, it should be to reframe the debate over Trump's actions in the Russia probe to one of presidential conduct rather than criminality. Is it OK for a president to fire the FBI director to derail an investigation into his actions? Do we want to live in a country where presidents criticize witnesses who cooperate with the government, and praise the ones who don't? Those are not questions that Robert Mueller should try to answer—they are political questions for Congress.”

“Robert Mueller's Parting Shot,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 05.29.19The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Mr. Mueller's analysis of the obstruction evidence in his own report makes clear that no investigation was obstructed. Not the FBI's counterintelligence probe, and not his own. No witnesses were interfered with, and Mr. Mueller was allowed over two years to issue nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants and interview anyone he wanted, including anyone in the White House.”
  • “Mr. Mueller would have better served the country and his own reputation if he had simply done what he claimed he wants to do and let his report speak for itself. Instead he has weighed in for the Democrats who want to impeach the president, though he doesn't have to be politically accountable as he skips town. This is the core problem with special counsels who think they answer only to themselves.”

“The American People Need Answers From Robert Mueller,” by W. James Antle III, The National Interest, 05.31.19The author, editor of The American Conservative, writes:

  • “Americans have a right to know whether Mueller or his team genuinely viewed obstruction as a close call or whether other considerations were in play. Mueller, unlike Starr, reported to an attorney general who was appointed by the president he was investigating and who also disagreed with both his legal theories on obstruction and his reading of the evidence. That attorney general, not Congress, was going to be the initial recipient of the report. Did Mueller fear that a more direct accusation against Trump would not be made public intact?”

“How ‘Reset’ Man McFaul Helped Torpedo U.S.-Russia Relations. To get a sense of why Putin meddled in our elections one need go no further than the Obama administration's hijinks,” Scott Ritter, The American Conservative, 05.28.19The author, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, writes:

  • “Americans have every right to be concerned about the prospects of Russian interference in elections which serve as the foundation of American democracy. However, in seeking to find a solution to the problems that plague the relationship, it is imperative that the American people understand how we got to where we are today. … [I]f anything, the Russians were reacting to a lengthy history of U.S. interference in their internal affairs since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
  • “One of the key players … was Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who, while serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, oversaw a policy of engagement with Moscow on behalf of the Obama administration and, when that policy failed, facilitated U.S. interference in the 2012 Russian presidential election in an effort to keep Vladimir Putin out of office.”
  • “Under the ‘reset,’ the Obama administration, at McFaul’s urging, provided funding through the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the NED, NDI, and other non-governmental organizations to Russian civil groups that had coalesced into a political opposition to Putin’s 2012 presidential ambition. McFaul also encouraged Secretary of State Clinton to speak out in support of the Russian opposition.”
  • “When McFaul was appointed by Obama to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Russia … one of his first actions was to invite the leaders of the various Russian opposition groups to the U.S. embassy to meet with him. After Putin won his bid for election in March 2012, he immediately set about to ban foreign funding for Russian non-governmental organizations. USAID, the NED, NDI and other organizations … were evicted from Russia. McFaul, whose entire ambassadorial persona was built around the kind of societal engagement produced by these NGOs, never recovered.”
  • “It was McFaul’s role in the U.S. interference in the Russian 2012 election that put in motion everything that followed.”

Energy exports from CIS:

“There Is the Nagging Sense That Russia Is Starting to Control OPEC Just a Little Too Much,” Julian Lee, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 06.03.19The author, oil strategist at Bloomberg News, writes:

  • “Has OPEC reached the point where the benefit of bringing in outsiders to achieve its goals is outweighed by the difficulty of managing the expanded group? It certainly seems so. Six months ago, the group couldn’t reach a deal on production levels without help from Russia. Now it can’t even agree on the date of a meeting, and Russia seems to be the problem. So much for any hope members might have of putting a floor under oil prices.”
  • “[T]here is the nagging sense that Russia is starting to control OPEC just a little too much. Its level of influence over the group is out of all proportion to its participation in the collective output cuts. Four months into the current deal, Russia’s compliance was still only around 80%, compared with 150% for the whole of OPEC. … It is still only the OPEC countries that are making the sacrifices to try to prop up oil prices.”
  • “Most of the non-OPEC contribution to the production cuts are from natural decline that will happen anyway. The group may be better served by cutting the ties now and getting on with the job on its own.”

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Toward the Possibility of a New US-Russian ‘Reset’: Does Their Hot and Cold Past Foretell Their Future?” Ivan Kurilla, PONARS Eurasia, May 2019The author, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, writes:

  • “Based on the first two years of the Donald Trump presidency … the main conclusion is that increased cooperation [between Russia and the U.S.] is unlikely in the current phase of relations. However, very recent meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin indicate both sides are searching for common ground.”
  • “The problem is that Moscow and Washington need to find ‘problems to solve’ that do not involve making large concessions—such as those involving sanctioned entities or the Donbass (for Russia) or Venezuela (for the United States). There are productive bargaining areas such as those pertaining to arms control and threats in Eurasia. However, after two years of heated exchanges, quality cooperation would be highly difficult to attain. Even if an agreement can be reached on a particular question, spreading this détente to other issues would hardly be feasible.”
  • “The current crisis in U.S.–Russian relations will most probably continue for several years, but if history provides any lessons, it is that bilateral relations will have an upswing. Considering that the Russian domestic situation will remain unchanged until the next presidential election in 2024, the next U.S. election might provide an opportunity for at least a new détente.”

“Leveraging Venezuela: How Russia Sees Its Interests in US Backyard,” Paul Saunders, Russia Matters, 06.03.19. The author, a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, writes that Vladimir Putin understands leverage as well as President Trump and Russia’s support for “Venezuela’s damaged President Nicolas Maduro” is part of its continuous search “for leverage relative to the United States, which the Kremlin demonstrably considers to be its greatest foreign policy challenge.” He goes on to say:

  • “Russia’s principal interest in Venezuela is most likely economic; reports suggest that the state-controlled energy firm Rosneft has up to $20 billion in assets (investments and loans) at stake there and that Venezuela owes the Russian government another $3.1 billion. Other companies, including the state technology firm Rostec and Kalashnikov, the well-known Russian arms manufacturer, are also said to have facilities in Venezuela.”
  • “Russia’s leaders probably also welcome the opportunity to position themselves as reliable (and successful) defenders of their allies and partners from American pressure—as in Syria—and to demonstrate their nation’s global military and economic reach.”
  • “Still, Americans should not overestimate either Russia’s interests in Venezuela or its capabilities there. … [S]ome appear to view Venezuela as a potential new Ukraine or Syria. It isn’t.”
  • “Ukraine shares a border with Russia’s heartland regions and, as a result, Moscow sees an existential threat to its national interests in Ukraine’s potential NATO membership or the possible deployment of U.S. or NATO forces there…”
  • “Moscow did not and does not have existential interests at stake in Syria. Russia has had important national security interests there, however, especially in combatting terrorism. … [Syria] is close enough that the Russian military can conduct long-term operations there—barely. Anton Lavrov, a defense analyst with Moscow’s highly respected Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, has said that ‘Syria pushed Russian logistics to its limits’ and that Russia ‘does not have the ability to sustain forces far from the border.’”
  • “Kremlin officials may enjoy poking the United States in its backyard, particularly if they think the marginal cost is low, but have little to lose in Venezuela other than Rosneft’s billions. On one hand, that isn’t inconsequential… On the other… Moscow is probably not choosing between $20 billion and nothing.”
  • “Russia’s conduct in Venezuela does have one thing in common with its intervention in Syria: The Kremlin appears in part to be trying to force open bilateral dialogue with the United States following America’s post-Ukraine disengagement.”
  • “The Trump administration is quite unlikely to respond to such logic, however—Moscow’s involvement in Venezuela is ultimately more irritating than threatening… The real danger in Venezuela is … that Moscow will overestimate the leverage it may be able to gain there, underestimate the Trump administration’s willingness to confront Russia and thereby provoke a needless conflict. Nevertheless, Rostec’s withdrawal of Russian military advisers suggests that someone in Moscow has taken a sober view of the situation.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

New world order or not:

“The Open World,” Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019The authors, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center and an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College, write:

  • “Since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, it has become commonplace to bemoan the fate of the U.S.-led liberal international order … Many experts blame Trump for upending an otherwise sound U.S. grand strategy. They hope that once he is gone, the United States will resume the role … as the uncontested hegemon … It won't.”
  • “For nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States had no significant geopolitical rivals. Today, it has two. … Russia, is a revanchist power … With an acute dependency on oil and a projected economic growth rate hovering around two percent, Russia is likely to see its international power decline over the next decade. Yet Russia is far more economically and politically stable today than it was in the 1990s … And Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a bad hand well.”
  • “Moscow will never truly challenge U.S. dominance, but it will disrupt the democratic processes of EU and NATO members and threaten former Soviet states for the foreseeable future. … Moscow still has formidable military capabilities—particularly its nuclear arsenal … Ultimately, however, Russia lacks the ability to craft a closed sphere of influence.”
  • “The United States' second rival, China, is on track to become its only real peer competitor. … To defend against traditional forms of aggression, the United States must retain the military strength to deter China from making a violent bid for dominance in Asia and Russia from forcibly upending the status quo in Europe.”
  • “Even as U.S. relations with China and Russia become more adversarial, however, it would be a mistake to allow them to become completely zero-sum. The world is not entering a new Cold War pitting liberal democracies against authoritarian regimes: China and Russia are revisionist participants within the existing international order, not enemies standing outside of it.”

“The End of Hubris,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019: The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, writes:

  • “The United States was not solely responsible for all adverse developments, but it played a major role in most of them. And the taproot of many of these failures was Washington's embrace of liberal hegemony. … [T]hat strategy expanded U.S. security obligations without providing new resources with which to meet them.”
  • “U.S. efforts to promote democracy, the open-ended expansion of NATO and the extension of the alliance's mission far beyond its original parameters poisoned relations with Russia. And fear of U.S.-led regime change encouraged several states to pursue a nuclear deterrent. … The best strategic road map for the United States is a familiar one. Realism—the hardnosed approach to foreign policy that guided the country throughout most of the twentieth century and drove its rise to great power—remains the best option.”
  • “If Washington rediscovered realism, the United States would seek to preserve the security and prosperity of the American people and to protect the core value of liberty in the United States. Policymakers would recognize the importance of military strength but also … counsel restraint in the use of force. The United States would embrace a strategy of ‘offshore balancing’ and abstain from crusades to remake the world in its image.”
  • “Where possible, Washington would encourage foreign powers to take on the primary burden for their own defense … The idea that the EU (whose roster includes two nuclear-armed powers) lacks the wherewithal to defend itself against a neighbor whose economy is smaller than Italy's is risible.”
  • “Diplomacy would return to its rightful place, and Americans would promote their values abroad primarily by demonstrating democracy's virtues at home.”

“This Time Is Different,” Daniel Drezner, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019: The author, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes:

  • “It is all too easy to dismiss the current angst over U.S. President Donald Trump as the latest hymn from the Church of Perpetual Worry. … But this time really is different. Just when many of the sources of American power are ebbing, many of the guardrails that have kept U.S. foreign policy on track have been worn down.”
  • “Despite the remarkable consistency of U.S. foreign policy, behind the scenes, some elements of American power were starting to decline. As measured by purchasing power parity, the United States stopped being the largest economy in the world a few years ago. Its command of the global commons has weakened as China's and Russia's asymmetric capabilities have improved. The accumulation of ‘forever wars’ and low-intensity conflicts has taxed the United States' armed forces.”
  • “It remains quite possible now that Trump's successor can repair the damage he has wreaked. And it is worth remembering that for all the flaws in the U.S. foreign policy machine, other great powers are hardly omnipotent. China's and Russia's foreign policy successes have been accompanied by blowback … that will make it harder for those great powers to achieve their revisionist aims.”
  • “The trouble with ‘after Trump’ narratives, however, is that the 45th president is as much a symptom of the ills plaguing U.S. foreign policy as he is a cause. Yes, Trump has made things much, much worse. But he also inherited a system stripped of the formal and informal checks on presidential power. That's why the next president will need to do much more than superficial repairs.”
  • “One hopes that the Church of Perpetual Worry does not turn into an apocalyptic cult. This time, however, the sky may really be falling.”

“The Lost Art of American Diplomacy,” William J. Burns, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019: The author, a career diplomat and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:

  • “I remember clearly the moment I saw American diplomacy and power at their peak. It was the fall of 1991, and I … was seated behind Secretary of State James Baker at the opening of the Madrid peace conference … On that day in Madrid, global currents all seemed to run toward a period of prolonged U.S. dominance. The liberal order that the United States had built and led after World War II would, we hoped, draw into its embrace the former Soviet empire, as well as the postcolonial world … Russia was flat on its back, China was still turned inward and the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia faced few regional threats and even fewer economic rivals.”
  • “Although the era of singular U.S. dominance … is over, the United States still has a better hand to play than any of its rivals. The country has a window of opportunity to lock in its role as the world's pivotal power.”
  • “The next administration will have a brief window of possibility to undertake imaginative transformations that can move the State Department into the twenty-first century and reorient American diplomacy toward the most pressing challenges. Trump's disregard for diplomacy has done substantial damage, but it also underscores the urgency of a serious effort at renewal.”
  • “What I learned time and again throughout my long career is that diplomacy is one of the United States' biggest assets and best-kept secrets … [I]ts rebirth is crucial to a new strategy for a new century—one that is full of great peril and even greater promise for America.”

“The New German Question,” Robert Kagan, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019: The author, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:

  • “Fifteen years ago, most Europeans were comfortable playing Venus to the United States' Mars and criticized Americans for their archaic reliance on hard power. But Europe was able to become Venus thanks to historical circumstances—not least the relatively peaceful liberal order created and sustained by the United States.”
  • “With Russia more willing to use force to accomplish its objectives and the United States retreating from its foreign commitments, that world is vanishing. Setting aside the possibility that human nature can be permanently transformed, there is nothing to stop Europeans from returning to the power politics that dominated their continent for millennia.”
  • “If the Germany of today is a product of the liberal world order, it is time to think about what might happen when the order unravels.”

“Back to Basics,” Kori Schake, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019: The author, Deputy Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, writes:

  • “The pillars of U.S. strategy for the past 70 years—committing to the defense of countries that share U.S. values or interests, expanding trade, upholding rules-based institutions and fostering liberal values internationally—have achieved remarkable successes and will continue to serve the country well going forward. … When Trump announced that U.S. forces would be removed from Syria, other members of the coalition against the Islamic State … scrambled for the exit, too. This dynamic plays into the hands of U.S. adversaries, chief among them Russia and China.”
  • “Russia is on the decline demographically and economically, but it is far from a failing state. It has excelled at sustaining authoritarians … destabilizing eastern Europe; and weaponizing the openness of free societies through covert meddling … Some hope this subversive activity will subside when … Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves office.”
  • “The United States must develop more cost-effective approaches. For instance, rather than countering Russia's threat to NATO by deploying conventional forces in Europe … Washington could ramp up its military presence along Russia's Pacific coast and islands at far lower cost. … [O]pponents tend to view any U.S. actions as ideologically motivated. The Russian government, for example, believes that Washington seeks to overthrow it, because, in Moscow's eyes, hostility to Russian power is an unalterable element of American political culture.”
  • “The Chinese Communist Party, for its part, seeks access to markets and technology to power the economic development on which its claim to legitimacy rests.”
  • “Washington doesn't need to reinvent the wheel, but it does need to improve on the things that have worked in the past. Although challengers to the existing order pose dangers, returning to the tried-and-tested principles of U.S. foreign policy provides the most promising and cost-effective approach to managing those threats.”

“This Is Not a Great-Power Competition. Why the Term Doesn’t Capture Today’s Reality,” Michael J. Mazarr, Foreign Affairs, 05.29.19The author, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, writes:

  • “Great-power competition describes a specific pattern of relations between states—the sort practiced by the great empires and nation-states from the seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. China’s rise as an economic and political power and Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage have understandably fueled analogies to that time. But the emerging era does not match the patterns of the past. Treating it as though it does risks misunderstanding both the character of today’s threats and the source of the United States’ competitive advantages.”
  • “The current structure of the international system is not fundamentally multipolar. It does show growing signs of multipolarity … Yet it also retains many elements of the post–Cold War period of unipolarity.”
  • “[W]hen states compete today, they do so mediated by institutions, rules and norms that differ starkly from the conditions during most periods of true great-power competition. … Because of the nuclear revolution, victorious wars of conquest are simply not a realistic option.”
  • “Conceiving of the emerging era as a classic great-power competition can not only obscure important differences between competitors but also lead policymakers to overemphasize military power as an instrument to advance U.S. interests. … Finally and most perilous, a great-power competition frame risks forfeiting the immense power that comes from heading a largely aligned group of rule-following states.”

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

“In Search of ‘Business Not As Usual’ With Russia,” Kadri Liik, European Council on Foreign Relations, 05.29.19The author, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

  • “In Europe’s conversation about Russia, ‘business as usual’ has become a loaded term. ‘We must not go back to business as usual,’ warn eastern European politicians.”
  • “The EU should change its rhetoric: giving up the position of a paternalistic norm-setter, acknowledging that, at the moment, the European world-view is losing out in the world market of ideas and admitting that the West had made some mistakes would make Moscow take Europeans a lot more seriously than eloquent moralizing that lacks policy to back it up.”
  • “The EU should begin to accept Russia ‘as it is,’ as Moscow has long wanted. But this would not have the implication of accepting Russia’s domestic arrangements as being as good as those of the EU … Democracies, even if in trouble, remain a special club. And the EU is perfectly capable of distinguishing and showing … the difference between those it considers its own and those it does not.”
  • “[T]he EU should stop treating dialogue with Russia as a reward. Fixation on dialogue, fear that its resumption means legitimizing Russia … is rooted in the humiliating trauma of the Russo-Georgian war, when Europe indeed failed to react. But now it has reacted to events in Ukraine: for five years, it has stuck to sanctions; it is working on its resilience in the cyber and information spheres; it has reshaped its energy market; it is slowly starting to tackle illicit Russian money; and … EU countries are providing military reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland. In these circumstances, contacts with Moscow would not show weakness and surrender.”
  • “The EU should stop fearing the return of ‘business as usual.’  One cannot return to the old model of the relationship … The way ahead is long and vague … But, in the end, it may result in a more sober, clear and functional relationship between the EU and Russia.”


“Friendship at An Arm’s Length: How Moscow and Beijing have determined the boundaries of permissible,” Mikhail Korostikov, Kommersant, 05.31.19The author, a journalist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Cooperation between Russia and China after 2014 allowed us to get rid of the illusions that existed for many years.  The relations of the two countries did not transform into [alliance] … China did not become a backbone of Russia’s efforts in reforming the economy … In many cases, Beijing was happy to take advantage of the situation … in order to gain access to where Moscow had previously been afraid to give it access, especially with regard to oil and gas projects and the military technology sector.”
  • “Nevertheless, one cannot say Russia has lapsed into dependency … Moscow has so far successfully blocked Beijing’s attempts to make it a ‘junior partner.’ … [T]he leadership of the Russian Federation has made it clear that in some areas it is ready to live with a complete lack of cooperation rather than cooperate on Chinese terms. Perhaps, due to the stagnation of the Russian economy, this circumstance will change.”
  • “In their present form, the political ties between Russia and China have reached a natural limit … The feeling of a common threat from the United States is unlikely to lead to a military alliance between the countries, but it may well generate new forms of cooperation for which Moscow and Beijing are not ready now.”
  • “As for economic cooperation, the Chinese leadership made it clear: in its eyes Russia is no different from Greece, Myanmar or Angola, and no ‘special’ conditions are foreseen for it.”

“Partnership on the High Seas. China and Russia’s Joint Naval Maneuvers,” Michael Paul, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, June 2019The author, a senior fellow at SWP, writes:

  • “On the occasion of the 70th founding anniversary of China’s national navy, a big naval parade with more than 30 Chinese ships sailed off the coast of Qingdao. A few days later … the ‘Joint Sea 2019’ Russian-Chinese bilateral naval exercise began.”
  • “In numbers, China’s navy now has the world’s biggest fleet—also thanks to decades of Russian naval armament. From Beijing’s point of view, however, the Chinese armed forces have a serious shortcoming: a lack of operational experience. Here, too, Moscow fills some gaps. Since the first joint maneuver in 2005, cooperation has increased at many levels. Sino-Russian sea maneuvers now also serve as a menacing signal of support for China’s claims in the South China Sea or in the Sino-Japanese disputes in the East China Sea.”
  • “Moscow and Beijing use the joint naval exercises to set geopolitical signals. Despite all historic mistrust, Sino-Russian cooperation seems to rest on a relatively stable foundation of partnership.”
  • “Pragmatic cooperation is beneficial for both because it avoids the uneasy compromise between obligation and sovereignty. Therefore, a formal alliance is unnecessary—an alliance with a guarantee of military assistance in times of conflict can even negatively affect relations with other countries and harm one’s own political interests.”
  • “It is up to Beijing to enhance strategic stability by creating transparency in its naval strategy and future fleet armament. Beyond maritime arms control, not only Brussels and Washington, but also Moscow and Beijing must be interested in confidence—and security—building measures to avoid crisis instability, even if their chances of success currently can be regarded as quite low.”

“When China Massacred Its Own People,” Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, 06.01.19The author, an opinion columnist for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Thirty years have passed since that bloody night. Beijing has patched up the bullet pockmarks along the Avenue of Eternal Peace and repaired the tank damage to Tiananmen Square. Chinese propaganda has scrubbed the democracy movement and massacre from history, so that many young Chinese have no idea that the Communist Party massacred its own people.”
  • “President Xi Jinping may feel reassured. Authoritarianism has flowered around the world. The American president defends a Russian autocrat, a Saudi Mad Prince, a Philippine ruler who presides over a dirty war, a Hungarian authoritarian and others.”
  • “One day I believe we will witness the arrival of freedom in the world's most populous country. In my mind's eye, I envision a memorial erected on Tiananmen Square to the heroes of 1989, perhaps taking the form of a weeping rickshaw driver with a wounded student.”


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Russia’s Compatriots: Instrument or Responsibility?” Lincoln Pigman, RUSI Journal, May 2019The author, a postgraduate student of Russian and East European studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, writes:

  • “Russia has thus contributed to the growing problems of compatriot communities in two important ways. First, Russia has significantly undermined the utility of its greatest lever of regional influence by combining it with the coercive use of military force. Second, insofar as it does assume that its compatriots seek its assistance, Russia has mistakenly ‘presum[ed] that the entire compatriot community is homogeneous.’”
  • “In view of the record, Russia’s purportedly unconditional promise to intervene in defense of its compatriots can neither be considered a ‘Putin Doctrine,’ given that the practice predates Putin’s rise to power, nor seen as a genuine commitment to protecting Russia’s compatriots from discrimination and violence.”
  • “The compatriots, whose conceptualization by Russia is also in service of its domestic political and foreign policy needs, are demonstrably treated by Moscow as a foreign policy instrument, to be used when appropriate and regardless of the consequences of the Kremlin’s actions for its own compatriots.”
  • “It appears that a number of criteria must be met for Russia to use force in the name of its compatriots, the most important of these being an opportunity to achieve broader foreign policy objectives, not the possibility of alleviating its compatriots’ difficulties. Russia’s Ukraine strategy has not been applied elsewhere, not only because the circumstances elsewhere have been unfavorable but also because the broader national interest would not have been served.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Russia’s National Projects: Economic Reboot or Mucky Bog?” Ben Aris, Russia Matters, 05.30.19. The author, editor in chief of bne Intellinews, writes:

  • “While Moscow has been aggressively advancing its interests on the international stage, Russia’s stagnating economy means the country risks gradually falling behind the rest of the world and possibly facing social unrest at home. President Vladimir Putin is well aware of the danger and has launched a $390 billion spending program intended to ‘transform’ the Russian economy, with 12 so-called national projects at its core. While this new supply-side economic model is meant to boost the pace of Russia’s economic growth above the global average, and would build on impressive reforms in the banking and tax sectors, the effort’s success is far from assured. One obvious obstacle is Western sanctions, but potentially far more damaging to Russia’s long-term economic prospects is the crisis of confidence among entrepreneurs and investors. What’s worse, Putin’s national projects, if ever they get off the ground, are likely to ‘bake in’ some of the very problems leading to that lack of confidence—including the state’s heavy hand in the economy.”

“Hopelessness Reminds Russians of a Bygone Era. What was Brezhnev's trust rating? Did it matter?” Ivan Davydov, The Moscow Times, 06.03.19. The author, a Russian columnist and political commentator, writes:

  • “President Vladimir Putin’s trust rating has fallen below 32 percent. Even the Kremlin-friendly and fawning VTsIOM agency admits that his numbers have dropped by 15 percent this year.” (RM editor’s note: According to The Moscow Times, on May 31, a day after the Kremlin asked VTsIOM to explain how this figure coexists with Putin’s 65-percent approval rating in the same survey, the pollster published new figures showing trust in Putin skyrocketing to 72.3 percent.)
  • “Putin’s inner circle is in a fret: they have a fetish for these figures, seeing them as the foundation of their faith in their eternal hold on power. But maybe they are worried over nothing. After all, what approval rating did former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev have? The very question is absurd.”
  • “The longer Brezhnev postured at the podium with his star-spangled chest of medals, the less coherently did he convince anyone that socialism was coming and the more he turned from a participant in life to a figure in the background—just one more element in the Soviet still life of vodka, anchovies and a carpet hanging on the wall. What sort of approval rating does a carpet have?”
  • “Regarding vodka, by the way, the Health Ministry reported in April that Russians now drink 50 percent less of it, while VTsIOM reported in May that consumption had actually increased. For some reason, people tend to believe VTsIOM more. This also fits in with the eternal Soviet-Russian ‘landscape’ … littered with morning drunks, people unobtrusively sleeping off their buzz in the shade of public flowerbeds.”
  • “This has nothing to do with ratings. The problem is the growing sense of hopelessness. True, life in the capital and major cities is tolerable, though not as cheery as it was, say, seven or eight years ago.”
  • “They say the Soviet Union buckled under the weight of economic problems, an arms race it could not afford, the Cold War and a glaring backwardness in everything by which ordinary human life is measured. And perhaps those events were important, but more important now is the sense of futility and hopelessness, the impression that things are going nowhere and will continue going that way forever.”
  • “But then a crack appears. And then another. Soon, people are swarming over a mound of rubble, wondering what they can build from all the little pieces.”

“Russians Show They Can Resist Putin's War on Dissent,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 05.29.19. The newspaper’s editorial board writes:

  • “Two recent events in Russia show that despite President Vladimir Putin's intolerance for dissent, there are moments when people are willing to speak up, strongly.”
    • “In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, two local copper oligarchs, along with church and city officials, decided to build a cathedral.”
      • “Although the project had been long discussed, when a fence went up to mark the construction site, it infuriated many who loved the park.”
      • “When Mr. Putin was asked about the display of public anger, he said, ‘Are those people atheists?’ Then he suggested the matter be settled by conducting a poll.”
    • “In the second case, two journalists, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov, published an article based on unidentified sources in the Moscow business daily Kommersant, reporting that the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament might be replaced by Mr. Putin. The two journalists were fired. … In protest, about a dozen other Kommersant journalists quit … and more than 180 journalists have since signed an open letter backing their colleagues and decrying ‘direct pressure on journalists.’"
  • “Mr. Putin's years in power have been characterized by a gradual silencing of independent voices, often when owners friendly to the Kremlin take over news outlets, as occurred at Kommersant. Only a few truly independent organizations remain. It is extraordinary and encouraging to see so many journalists push back. Analyst Kirill Rogov correctly noted that such collective action ‘is the main enemy of despotism.’ And collectively, some Russians are stirring.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.