Russia Analytical Report, May 4-11, 2020
This Week’s Highlights
- While Russia’s relations with the West have sharply deteriorated since the annexation of Crimea, much of the rest of the world regards Russia as a large, authoritarian state with which they can do business, writes Prof. Angela Stent for a survey by Foreign Policy on how Putin has changed Russia during his 20 years in power. Nevertheless, Stent writes, Russia’s ability to continue extending its global reach may be constrained in the coronavirus era. Meanwhile, Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group writes that the real change Putin has wrought is to establish a system that appears extraordinarily dependent on him personally, both for its own sustainment and to make decisions and take action. By definition, Oliker writes, that lasts only as long as Putin remains in power, while former Financial Times correspondent Catherine Belton argues that in Putin, everyone saw what they wanted to see. Putin was a chameleon, Belton writes, and therein lay his power.
- How long will Vladimir Putin rule Russia? Until recently, the prevailing view in the United States was for life. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price collapse, commentators see a more dire future that could erode his power or end his presidency, writes Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly the senior expert on Russia on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration. But it is far too early to predict a significant erosion of Putin’s power, let alone his demise, Graham argues. If Russia weathers the pandemic much better than Western countries, Putin will be able to tout his leadership at a time of supreme national crisis.
- The Russian and American presidents have each suggested at different times that ISIS has been eliminated and that it was their respective militaries that had contributed the most to achieve that result. These claims of victory raise at least two important questions, writes Domitilla Sagramoso of King’s College London: First, to what extent has ISIS been defeated and, second, which country deserves credit for contributing the most to this cause? The short answer would be this: The U.S.-led coalition did far more to clear ISIS out of Iraq and Syria; however, the group’s fighters continue to carry out deadly attacks there, showing that any purported victory over ISIS is extremely “fragile.”
- European efforts to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to behave differently have proven to be a waste of time, writes ECFR Council member Bassma Kodmani. Europe should instead engage with Russia with greater determination. Unlike Assad, Putin understands the implications of an incremental process and conditionality, Kodmani argues. Until Putin decides that Assad’s time is up, Europe should encourage Russia to work around the Syrian regime, thereby empowering constructive actors within society.
- During the pandemic, Russia and the U.S. have these three things in common, writes Prof. Caress Schenk: reliance on local decision-making, national-level policies dependent on many government leaders and reporting incomplete figures.
- China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups will remain top U.S. adversaries through 2030, according to a new RAND report. In Europe, traditional U.S. allies' will and capacity to exert force, particularly overseas, will likely decline. As American adversaries become more assertive and push up against U.S. allies' redlines, the United States could be faced with the difficult choice of entering into a war it does not want or abandoning an ally, according to the report.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- No significant developments.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- No significant developments.
Iran and its nuclear program:
- No significant developments.
Impact of pandemic:
“Kto-Kogo: Putin vs. COVID-19” Thomas Graham, Russia Matters, 05.07.20: The author, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly the senior expert on Russia on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration, writes:
- “How long will Vladimir Putin rule Russia? Until recently, the prevailing view in the United States was for life. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price collapse, commentators see a more dire future that could erode his power or end his presidency. It’s not that simple.”
- “Putin’s goal this year was to reassert his authority. In January … Putin promised to jump-start the economy and raise living standards … He also proposed constitutional amendments to redistribute power at the top of the political system. These amendments, ultimately revised to enhance presidential power and allow Putin to serve at least two additional six-year terms as president, were to be ratified in a national plebiscite on April 22, thereby underscoring Putin’s mastery of domestic politics.”
- “In March, COVID-19 intervened to upset those plans. … Putin’s own conduct has exacerbated the challenge. His assurances into April that Russia had the COVID-19 crisis under control now look far off the mark … He arguably mismanaged negotiations with OPEC+ in early March in an effort to force cutbacks in U.S. shale oil production, producing volatility in markets and driving prices lower than would otherwise have been the case.”
- “But it is far too early to predict a significant erosion of his power, let alone his demise. Much will depend on how the situation evolves over the next several months, and the comparison with Western leaders will be critical. If Russia weathers the pandemic much better than Western countries, Putin will be able to tout his leadership at a time of supreme national crisis.”
- “Of course, the situation could evolve in a bleaker direction, eroding Putin’s authority and enticing elites to consider alternatives … But, for the past twenty years, Putin has been a skillful and a lucky leader. That has kept him at the top of the system. This year will tell whether his skill or his luck—or both—have run out.”
“During the Pandemic, Russia and the US Have These 3 Things in Common,” Caress Schenk, The Washington Post, 05.05.20: The author, an associate professor of political science at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, writes:
- “In the process of collecting data on Russia's response to COVID-19 for the CoronaNet Research Project—an initiative tracking government responses worldwide—I observed three broad similarities with the United States that have little to do with authoritarian personalities or the politics of President Trump and Vladimir Putin.”
- “1. Russia relies on local decision-making: Russia is a federal system that divides power between the government in Moscow and more than 80 regions. Some regional leaders are competent and relatively independent from the Kremlin. Others are not. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, local leaders have initiated raids on Chinese citizens, created digital pass systems and even closed borders between regions. These types of policies make international headlines because they fit into the ready-made box of authoritarianism.”
- “2. National-level policies depend on many government leaders: While Russia lacks U.S.-style checks and balances, many policy areas depend on the input of numerous decision-makers. Like in the United States, policymaking involves many levels of government bureaucracy and official input.”
- “3. Russia is reporting incomplete figures: As in the United States, when government officials report on numerical minutiae such as the quantities of protective gear delivered to prisons, the goal is to show that the government is doing something—even if the figures have little connection to concrete results. While the reporting of numbers is crucial for transparency, numbers on their own don't produce accountability.”
“COVID-19 Crisis Could Spur Post-Soviet Fixes: Five practical steps in the post-Soviet space could improve healthcare and effective governance,” Denis Corboy, William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz, The Moscow Times, 05.08.20: The authors, former diplomats, write:
- “Much of the post-Soviet space remains afflicted with authoritarian rule, inefficient economies, corruption and regional tensions. The COVID-19 crisis could be the kick in the pants that prods countries to address key issues, but they will need help. Targeted Western aid could help willing countries make progress, such as by improving public health and wider support for it, fostering governmental transparency and promoting interstate cooperation.
- “Five practical steps in the post-Soviet space could improve healthcare and effective governance. First, reform of healthcare systems can bring broad benefits. … Second, post-Soviet states could improve healthcare services by relying more on technology and transparency … Third, post-Soviet states could increase the delivery of healthcare services to rural and impoverished areas, including separatist regions. … Fourth, the COVID-19 crisis could increase awareness of the value of cooperation across state boundaries. … Fifth, the COVID-19 crisis underscores the value of openness and candor in informing publics.”
“How Kremlin Propaganda Destroyed Russian Healthcare: Russian physicians are quitting en masse while receiving only empty sympathy from state media,” Ilya Shepelin, The Moscow Times, 05.11.20: The author, a journalist at the Russian independent television channel Dozhd, writes:
- “To get an idea of what’s really happening in Russia, just do an Internet search for ‘doctors quitting.’ Every day, a new story unfolds: Doctors in Novosibirsk quit over concerns for their personal safety … 350 physicians in the Kaliningrad region refuse to work during the pandemic … Dozens of anesthesiologists, pulmonologists and nurses submit their resignations after their hospitals were told to treat coronavirus patients … The head doctor of a hospital in Omsk resigned after dozens of medical workers lined up to get tested for COVID-19.”
- “Every day, an even greater number of stories emerge of hospital doctors issuing video appeals about their plight, explaining how they still lack personal protective equipment (PPE) and how the money that President Vladimir Putin promised them winds up in other people’s pockets.”
- “In fact, today’s doctors are heroes not only for risking their lives during an unprecedented pandemic, but for working within Russia’s long-dilapidated medical system. … Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova admitted last year that Russia’s healthcare reforms had failed and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov added that the country’s medical facilities were in terrible condition. But, instead of discuss[ing] this in hopes of finding a solution, state TV scandalized viewers with gay marriages in Europe and transgenderism in the U.S.”
- “The epidemic revealed that Moscow has the only decent outpatient services in the country, but also that even the flagship hospital in Kommunarka failed to pay dozens of nurses the salary supplements Putin had promised them. … Only now are many Russians learning the true results of their country’s healthcare reforms: the closing of hospitals in favor of smaller branch facilities and the consequent dismissal of thousands of medical personnel in every region.”
“At Long Last, Russia Nears Peak Coronavirus,” Kenneth Rapoza, Forbes, 05.11.20: The author, a senior contributor for the media outlet, writes:
- “Few emerging markets were hit by the new … coronavirus as hard as Russia. The good news is that it’s approaching peak, the World Health Organization says. According to the WHO, the increase in fresh cases of the coronavirus in Russia since May 6 fell below the daily rise of more than 7 percent and is now rising by 5.5 percent.”
- “‘There are still cases of the disease, but the growth rate is stabilizing. We really hope we are looking at the last few days of the coronavirus and that the increase in the incidence rate has plateaued,’ WHO Russia spokeswoman Melita Vujnovich was quoted saying in the press this weekend.”
- “From a market perspective, Russia is still in a bear market. The VanEck Russia (RSX) exchange traded fund is down 27 percent from its 12-month high reached on Jan. 21. Year-to-date, RSX is down 22.4 percent, underperforming its peers in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.”
- “Some of its biggest companies are selling at bargain basement prices. Yandex YNDX (YNDX), known primarily for its search engine but also known as the Russian Uber, trades at just nine times earnings while Google GOOGLtrades at 28 times. ‘There are some good names to buy in Russia at these discounts,’ says Arent Thijsen, a fund manager … ‘We’re adding Yandex in the crisis.’”
“What Trump Has in Common With Napoleon: A brash outsider who knew his terrain like nobody else, he succeeded until he faced a new kind of enemy,” Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal, 05.06.20: The author, a professor and a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “Russia is the country that, more than any other, has haunted Donald Trump's presidency. It began when allegations of Russian collusion first appeared during the 2016 campaign and continues as a glut of Russian crude drives U.S. frackers into bankruptcy. There was another world leader over whose career Russia loomed like a specter: Napoleon Bonaparte.”
- “The question for Trump watchers today is whether the coronavirus will do to his presidency what the 1812 Russian invasion did to Napoleon's empire. Has Mr. Trump found an enemy that he can't defeat, and will it enable his opponents to bring him down at last?”
- “In Russia, Napoleon's greatest skills were largely useless. He couldn't destroy enemy forces in a decisive battle, as the enemy kept retreating. His ability to execute brilliant tactical maneuvers using intricate road networks wasn't useful in a country with few maps and fewer roads. And the survival of his army would ultimately depend on something he could not provide: an adequate supply line with hay for the horses, and food and winter clothing for the men.”
- “The pandemic puts Mr. Trump at a similar disadvantage. He can't hold mass rallies in a time of social distancing. He can't find a cure. He can't cast the blame on his opponents. And personal protective equipment and tests remain obstinately scarce.”
- “Napoleon wasn't finished when he returned to Paris from the Russia disaster. And the president is by no means finished today. But there is no doubt at this point that the pandemic marks an important transition for Mr. Trump. COVID-19 remains the greatest threat his presidency has faced, and to date he hasn't found a way to address it.”
“From the Pentagon’s ‘4+1’ Threat Matrix, to ‘4+1 Times 2’” Michael E. O’Hanlon, The Hill/Brookings Institution, 05.11.20: The author, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes:
- “For half of a decade, the Defense Department has organized thinking and planning around the five main threats of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and transnational violent extremism or terrorism. In the quarter century before that, the Pentagon built forces more narrowly around a regional war framework that prioritized addressing extremist states such as Iraq and North Korea and, later, the struggle against terrorism.”
- “The shift started with former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, who depicted it as a ‘four plus one’ framework because the last threat is more diffuse than the others. Some have reconstrued the framework slightly … as a ‘two plus three’ list to focus on the competition with Russia and China as the highest concerns.”
- “Yet the coronavirus crisis should make one thing abundantly clear to us if it was not before. That list of scenarios, while reasonable for the Defense Department, is inadequate for the country as a whole. We must keep that earlier list because nothing about the pandemic lessens all the dangers of traditional geopolitics. But the grand strategy of the United States needs to complement those threats … with a second base of ‘four plus one’ dangers crossing a separate dimension or axis.”
- “The new ‘four plus one’ list needs to include biological, nuclear, climatic, digital and internal threats. Just like the first list had a final entry that was different, the new ‘four plus one’ list focuses on domestic cohesion. So if Americans do not see the benefit of a strong global leadership role for the United States and elect officials as such, we will be missing the domestic prerequisite to operate effectively on the world stage. Moreover, the other threats will not be properly addressed.”
“The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy: The Pandemic Bodes Ill for Both American and Chinese Power—and for the Global Order,” Kevin Rudd, Foreign Affairs, 05.06.20: The author, former prime minister of Australia, writes:
- “As with other historical inflection points, three factors will shape the future of the global order: changes in the relative military and economic strength of the great powers, how those changes are perceived around the world and what strategies the great powers deploy. Based on all three factors, China and the United States have reason to worry about their global influence in the post-pandemic world.”
- “[T]he uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished. Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins. Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad. And the result will be a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy across everything from international security to trade to pandemic management.”
- “With nobody directing traffic, various forms of rampant nationalism are taking the place of order and cooperation. The chaotic nature of national and global responses to the pandemic thus stands as a warning of what could come on an even broader scale.”
- “There are better alternatives to this scenario [of a new Cold War]. They depend, however, on significant political and policy change in Washington; a reformist and internationalist readjustment in Beijing; the development of a new architecture of détente between the United States and China (drawing on the U.S.-Soviet experience), which places clear parameters around competition in order to avoid military disaster; and efforts by other countries to pool political and financial resources to preserve the essential multilateral institutions of the current system … History is not predetermined. But none of this will come about unless political leaders in multiple capitals decide to change course. With the wrong decisions, the 2020s will look like a mindless rerun of the 1930s; the right decisions, however, could pull us back from the abyss.”
“Democracies Have an Edge in Fighting Wars. That Will Help Them Fight Diseases, Too,” Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam, Foreign Affairs, 05.07.20: The authors, professors of political science and public policy, write:
- “Past studies have found that citizens in democracies are healthier than citizens living under tyranny and that democracies suffer lower mortality rates than dictatorships in epidemics. Analyses of responses to the current pandemic have already found that once the tenth coronavirus case was reported, democracies were faster than dictatorships to close schools. There is good reason to think that the attributes that make democracies perform better in wars—especially accountable leaders and superior information flows—make them more effective in fighting the coronavirus as well.”
New Cold War/Saber rattling:
“A Cold War With China Would Be a Mistake: Beijing poses some real challenges, but the most formidable threats the U.S. now faces are transnational problems like the coronavirus,” Richard Haass, Wall Street Journal, 05.07.20: The author, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
- “A rising chorus of American voices now argues that confronting China should become the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, akin to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. But this would be a major strategic error. … Today and for the century ahead, the most significant threats that we face are less other states than a range of transnational problems.”
- “Of course, China poses both an actual and a potential threat—but it's one that can be addressed without making China the focal point of American foreign policy. Some U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry is inevitable, and the U.S. should push back against China where necessary to defend American interests. As much as possible, however, this competition should be bounded so that it doesn't preclude cooperation with China in areas of mutual interest.”
- “The U.S. should criticize China over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and back calls for international investigations. … We must also rethink our approach to trade with China. … Given China's growing military strength and its proximity to U.S. allies and partners in Asia, we should define success in terms of deterring China from using force or intimidating its neighbors. … The U.S. should continue to demonstrate its right to sail through waters that China, contrary to international law, claims as its own. … And we must shore up our ties with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Australia, Taiwan and others, even as we avoid forcing them to choose between us and China.”
- “Our overall goal should be to foster a framework that makes clear to China that aggressive unilateral action on its part will fail—and that its interests, more often than not, would be better served by cooperating with us on regional and global challenges. … China is not the Soviet Union, and a world defined by globalization demands new strategic thinking.”
“The United States Forgot Its Strategy for Winning Cold Wars: The plan that worked to defeat the Soviet Union can work today against China—it’s just not what you think,” Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 05.05.20: The author, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard, writes:
- “First, the proper role and size of the U.S. national security establishment depend on the distribution of power in the key regions. If there is no potential hegemon in sight, there is little reason to deploy U.S. ground or air forces in distant areas and less need for a military establishment that far outstrips those of the other great powers.”
- “If a potential hegemon does appear, the United States should rely on local forces in the threatened region as the first line of defense … If these regional states cannot contain a potential hegemon on their own, then the United States must commit its own military power to the region to make sure the potential hegemon cannot overawe and dominate its neighbors while at the same time making sure that its local partners bear a fair share of the costs of containment.”
- “During the Cold War, the essential features of containment followed this basic logic perfectly. … What does offshore balancing prescribe today? … As I and others have argued at length elsewhere, there is no potential hegemon in Europe, and we are not likely to see one emerge anytime soon. The United States should gradually disengage, therefore, and let the Europeans provide for their own security.”
- “The situation in Asia is dramatically different. China is a potential hegemon in Asia, and it will remain one long after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. … Buck-passing will not work. Although U.S. military forces will have to be onshore in a number of places in Asia, this policy is still fully consistent with the grand strategy of offshore balancing.”
- “An accurate understanding of offshore balancing will reveal that it provided the foundation most of America’s foreign-policy successes, while departures from that strategy lie at the root of some of the country’s biggest missteps.”
“The Future of Warfare in 2030,” Raphael S. Cohen, Nathan Chandler, Shira Efron, Bryan Frederick, Eugeniu Han, Kurt Klein, Forrest E. Morgan, Ashley L. Rhoades, Howard J. Shatz and Yuliya Shokh, RAND Corporation, May 2020: The authors of the report write:
- “Who will the United States fight against and who will fight with it? Where will these future conflicts be fought? What will future conflicts look like? How will they be fought? And why will the United States go to war?”
- “The list of U.S. adversaries is likely to remain fixed, but the list of U.S. allies is likely to change … China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups will remain top U.S. adversaries. … China's growing influence likely will alter the list of U.S. allies in Asia … In Europe, traditional U.S. allies' will and capacity to exert force, particularly overseas, will likely decline.”
- “Location of U.S. conflicts can be parsed by likelihood or by risk … Three major regions—the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East—are all likely areas for the next war; the Middle East appears most likely, although the Indo-Pacific might pose the greatest danger. … Future conflicts will probably stem from four basic archetypes, namely counterterrorism, gray-zone conflicts, asymmetric fights and high-end fights.”
- “Four overarching trends could shape when and why the United States might go to war … U.S. ability to use sanctions in lieu of violence will decline as U.S. and allied economic power declines in relative terms. … The rise of strongmen … could decrease checks and balances and create incentives for future conflict. … As American adversaries become more assertive and push up against U.S. allies' redlines, the United States could be faced with the difficult choice of entering into a war it does not want or abandoning an ally. … External forces could generate conflict, such as accidents and inadvertent escalation, a crisis resulting from climate change, or conflict over scarce resources.”
- No significant developments.
- No significant developments.
Nuclear arms control:
- No significant developments.
“Who ‘Defeated’ ISIS? An Analysis of US and Russian Contributions,” Domitilla Sagramoso, Russia Matters, 05.06.20: The author, a lecturer in security and development at King's College London, writes:
- “The Russian and American presidents have each suggested at different times that ISIS … has been eliminated and that it was their respective militaries that had contributed the most to achieve that result.”
- “President Donald Trump, for example, effectively announced the group’s defeat by U.S. troops on July 16, 2019: ‘We did a great job with the [ISIS] caliphate. We have 100 percent of the caliphate and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria,’ he said at a Cabinet meeting.”
- “President Vladimir Putin has made similar comments about the role of Russia and its soldiers. In early December 2017, a few days after the Defense Ministry officially told him that ‘all ISIS gangs on Syrian territory have been destroyed and the territory itself has been liberated,’ Putin travelled to Syria and addressed Russian troops at the Hmeimim military base, saying that, ‘in a little more than two years, Russia’s Armed Forces, together with Syria’s army, routed the most battleworthy group of international terrorists [there was].’”
- “These claims of victory raise at least two important questions: First, to what extent has ISIS been defeated and, second, which country, the United States or Russia, deserves credit for contributing the most to this cause? The short answer would be this: The U.S.-led coalition did far more to clear ISIS out of Iraq and Syria than Russia and its allies; however, even though the terror group no longer controls significant territory in these countries, its fighters continue to carry out deadly attacks there, waging what the Institute for the Study of War recently called ‘a capable insurgency’ with ‘a global finance network,’ showing that any purported victory over ISIS—whether claimed by Washington or Moscow—is extremely ‘fragile.’”
Conflict in Syria:
“The Path Through Moscow: How Europe Can Help Syria,” Bassma Kodmani, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 05.07.20: The author, an ECFR Council member and a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, writes:
- “Russia has tried to bring a semblance of normalcy to the lives of some ordinary Syrians. One example of this is its recent decision to finance and directly oversee the repair of the electricity grid covering Damascus and its suburbs. But Assad chose to sell this newly recovered production capacity to Lebanon—leaving Syrians, including those who supported him throughout the war, with access to barely a few hours of electricity per day.”
- “Russia is also frustrated with the discriminatory way in which the Syrian Red Crescent distributes humanitarian assistance—to the extent that, in some areas, it has deployed Russian military police to oversee the process. There are signs that Moscow is losing faith in Assad and fears a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime.”
- “Russia now expresses its impatience with Assad publicly. Moscow recently unleashed a campaign of criticism in various government-controlled media outlets targeting Assad’s inner circle, denouncing corruption, and disseminating pseudo-opinion polls indicating Assad’s unpopularity. While it would be premature to read this as a prelude to the withdrawal of Russian support for Assad’s rule, the campaign certainly aims to, at the very least, signal his vulnerability and convey the message that Russian President Vladimir Putin will decide his fate. This is new. And Europeans ought to monitor such signals from the Russian establishment.”
- “European efforts to persuade Assad to behave differently have proven to be a waste of time. Europe should instead engage with Russia with greater determination. Unlike Assad, Putin understands the implications of an incremental process and conditionality—even if he continues to be a tough negotiator.”
- “Europe doesn’t hold Assad’s fate in its hands. Only Putin does. Until he decides that Assad’s time is up, Europe should encourage Russia to work around the Syrian regime, thereby empowering constructive actors within society.”
“America on the Wane, Russia's Scavenger Diplomacy Is Succeeding in the Middle East,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 05.08.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “Russia has been opportunistic toward the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The combatants are exhausted, but efforts to negotiate peace deals have failed. The result may be de facto partitions in all three—and frozen conflicts that leave the nations fragmented and vulnerable. Russia is likely to emerge with several important military bases in the Mediterranean, achieving a centuries-old dream.”
- “Whatever its recent successes, Moscow is confounded in its hopes of bringing order to this fractious region, much as the United States was … Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok, in an essay published last month by the Russian International Affairs Council, trashed the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, describing its corruption and ‘outrages’ by its security services.”
- “But the Russians have less at stake. Their investment of blood and treasure is relatively small, and they've left much of the dirty work in Syria and Libya to a private militia known as the ‘Wagner Group,’ … This is empire on the cheap.”
- “The United States' dilemma this year will be how and when to extract U.S. forces from Syria. … [A]t some point, the Russian and Syrian regime forces that have been fighting rebels in the western province of Idlib will move east. U.S. commanders would probably prefer a withdrawal deal with Russia to a shooting war over territory they plan to leave eventually anyway.”
- “Russia is picking up the pieces in the post-pandemic Middle East, not so much to further a grand strategy as to poke its deflated rival, the United States. This is scavenger diplomacy, feeding off the carcasses of these broken states.”
- No significant developments.
“The Vindication of Michael Flynn,” Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal, 05.08.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “The Justice Department dropped its case against Michael Flynn on [May 7] … in a legal filing that should echo far beyond this tragedy of justice delayed. The latest evidence further undermines the credibility of James Comey's FBI, special counsel Robert Mueller and the entire ‘Russia collusion’ investigation.”
- “The retired Army general had initially pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI on Jan. 24, 2017 … But he later reversed his plea as new information emerged that the FBI may have tried to entrap him. … The documents filed on [May 7] in federal court vindicate the general's reversal. Justice said the FBI's interview of Mr. Flynn was ‘untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn,’ and that the interview was not ‘conducted with a legitimate investigative basis.’”
- “The filing recounts how the FBI had concluded in late 2016 that there was no evidence that Mr. Flynn had colluded with Russia. But the FBI kept the investigation open after it received a transcript of Mr. Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Comey and his loyalists then set up Mr. Flynn in an interview despite having no legal basis. The documents show that Mr. Comey told his deputies not to inform the White House general counsel … and not to tell the White House about his conversation with the ambassador.”
- “At the time the agents admitted they did not think Mr. Flynn was lying to them. But … without a legitimate investigative purpose … He should never have been prosecuted. … Yet Mr. Mueller … pursued Mr. Flynn, threatening him and his son with ruin until he got the guilty plea. … Mr. Mueller's reputation … stands self-besmirched, and the entire Russia collusion probe looks even more illegitimate and political.”
- “All of this came to light after Attorney General Bill Barr assigned another U.S. Attorney, Jeffrey Jensen, to look at the Flynn case anew. The partisan press will portray this as a political decision done to please Mr. Trump. But Mr. Jensen is a long-time veteran of Justice and the FBI. He is not someone who would seek to damage those institutions for political purposes. … For now, at least Michael Flynn can get his life and reputation back.”
“If Michael Flynn Did Nothing Wrong, Why Didn't He Tell the Truth?” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 05.08.20: The author, a columnist for the news outlet, writes:
- “With the Justice Department’s move [May 7] to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, it’s useful to go back to a basic question: If Flynn did nothing wrong when he called the Russian ambassador on Dec. 29, 2016, the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for interfering in the presidential election, why did he conceal it?”
- “I wrote on Feb. 11, two days before he resigned: ‘Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.’”
- “We know the FBI made some serious mistakes in the Russia investigation. The misstatements and omissions by FBI officials in their applications for surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page were egregious. The recent disclosures about how they prepared to question Flynn in 2017 should trouble anyone who worries about abuse of power by federal investigators seeking damning information from a suspect.”
- “But none of that addresses the fundamental question that got this story rolling in the first place: Why was the incoming national security adviser telling the Kremlin’s man in Washington not to worry about the expulsion of 35 of his spies, because when the new administration took office, ‘we’ll review everything’?”
“Don't Forget, Michael Flynn Pleaded Guilty. Twice,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 05.08.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “Mr. Flynn, who served less than a month as the national security adviser before resigning in disgrace, pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI investigators about his communications with the Russian ambassador. When asked about the plea at the time, Mr. Trump said, ‘I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI.’”
- “That was true, of course. Mr. Flynn did lie, as he admitted to under oath in a court of law—twice. He told investigators, falsely, that he had not communicated with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, about possible changes to American foreign policy toward Russia even before Mr. Trump took office.”
- “Yet on [May 7], the Justice Department, under Attorney General William Barr, suddenly dropped all criminal charges against Mr. Flynn. … The attorney general is supposed to work for the American people, not as a personal fixer for the president.”
Energy exports from CIS:
“The 2020 Oil Crash’s Unlikely Winner: Saudi Arabia,” Jason Bordoff, Foreign Policy, 05.05.20: The author, a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council, writes:
- “Indeed, as COVID-19 sets the stage for tighter oil markets and higher prices, Saudi Arabia, along with a few other Gulf states and Russia, will not only benefit from higher prices but actually find opportunities to grow market share and sell more oil.”
- “By leading the effort to craft an OPEC+ production cut, Saudi Arabia also reminded Moscow that Russia cannot go it alone, as it attempted to do when it walked out of OPEC+ negotiations in March and set off the price war. Moscow is more dependent on Riyadh in managing the oil market than vice versa, strengthening Saudi Arabia’s hand in their relationship—with likely repercussions in the Middle East, where Moscow has a growing military presence and cultivates allies including Syria and the Saudis’ archenemy, Iran”
U.S.-Russian economic ties:
- No significant developments.
U.S.-Russian relations in general:
- No significant developments.
II. Russia’s domestic policies
Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“The True Meaning of Victory Day: Today some shout ‘We can do it again!’ But in those days the motto was ‘Never again.’ A new war was unthinkable,” Dmitry Yakushkin, The Moscow Times, 05.09.20: The author, former deputy director of the Russian presidential staff and President Boris Yeltsin's press secretary, writes:
- “Inside Russia, the memory of events has also had its own history—with political fluctuations and ups and downs. Seventy-five years after the war [World War II], controversies about some episodes are not yet resolved.”
- “The debates about the beginning of the war and the tragic first months in 1941, the reasons for the unprecedented 900-day siege of Leningrad and on other events still continue, not the least because they are connected with the semiofficial interpretation of Stalin’s role as an ‘efficient’ leader of the country during the war and throughout the years of his rule. Discussions fueled by political opportunism are not mere academic disagreements.”
- “From our parents we inherited the spirit of joy that their families had felt on the very last day of the war. But at the same time, we viewed this special period in May more as a moment of respectful silence and reflection, humbled by the ordeal and human suffering that the older members of our families had gone through. Today some shout ‘We can do it again!’ But in those days the motto was ‘Never again.’ A new war was unthinkable.”
“How Putin Changed Russia Forever: President Vladimir Putin has transformed his country and its relations with the world. We asked 11 leading experts to look back at his 20-year reign and predict what the future may bring,” Foreign Policy, 05.07.20: The experts interviewed by Foreign Policy wrote:
- Olga Oliker, director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at International Crisis Group: “I would say the real change Putin has wrought is to establish a system that appears extraordinarily dependent on him personally, both for its own sustainment and to make decisions and take action. And that, by definition, lasts only as long as Putin remains in power.”
- Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute: “Russia and the West are not destined for confrontation forever because of the balance of power in the international system. A new leader in Russia might change Russia’s path. It happened before; it can happen again.”
- Yevgenia Albats, a Russian investigative journalist: “Only we Russians of the educated class are responsible for our inability to see Russia succeed on the road to democracy.”
- Catherine Belton, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times: “In Putin, everyone saw what they wanted to see. Putin was a chameleon, and therein lay his power. For the Russian oligarchs and much of the West, Putin was the president who would help secure the fragile gains of Russia’s market transition. For most of the Russian population, he was the leader who would help bring order to a country riven by chaos. Putin appeared to be a Russian Everyman.”
- Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University: “While Russia’s relations with the West have sharply deteriorated since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in southeastern Ukraine, much of the rest of the world regards Russia as a large, authoritarian state with which they can do business. Nevertheless, Russia’s ability to continue extending its global reach may be constrained in the coronavirus era. High oil prices from 2000 to 2008, and their rebound after the financial crisis, enabled Putin to consolidate power and expand Russian influence. The collapse of oil prices and the sharp decline in economic growth may well limit Russia’s ability to project power going forward.”
“Our Dark Past Is Our Bright Future: How the Kremlin Uses and Abuses History,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.05.20: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “Putin’s changed historical narrative is radically changing the Russian people’s perceptions of their own history. This is a two-stage process. … During the first stage, widespread knowledge of a historical event disappears. In 2005, 31 percent of respondents in a poll had ‘heard nothing’ about the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while in 2019 that number had increased to 40 percent.”
- “In the second stage, the general public learns about the event anew from official propaganda. When it comes to knowledge of World War II, this has reproduced a 1939 Stalinist cliché: 53 percent of a Levada Center poll respondents believed in 2019 that ‘the Red Army occupied part of eastern Poland in September 1939 in order to help the local Ukrainian and Belarusian population.’ Only 16 percent of people knew that Stalin and Hitler had carved up Poland between them, while as many as 30 percent found it hard to answer the question.”
- “The regime seeks to restore the country’s lost empire—in the public mind at least—through these historical reimaginings. The imperial narrative copies a strategy developed in 1941, when Marxist-Leninist discourse was no longer deemed sufficient to unite the Soviet people morally and politically, and the Soviet leadership rehabilitated heroic figures from Russian history.”
- “Today’s pantheon of Russia’s historical heroes consists of the same names that Stalin listed in his speech marking the October Revolution at the parade on Nov. 7, 1941, on Red Square, from which many of the soldiers on parade went directly to war. ‘Let the valiant images of our great ancestors—Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Kuzma Minin, Dmitry Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov—inspire you in this war!’”
- “Russia’s history over the last century has been so turbulent and traumatic that a failure to confront it honestly shuts down essential debate about what kind of society Russia needs and how it should build relations with its European neighbors to avoid staying trapped in a Stalinist understanding of its own national history.”
“The Putin Regime Cracks,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.07.20: The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “From a distance, Russia’s elite may appear to be fully consolidated under President Vladimir Putin. His decision to reset the clock on his presidential term limits reinforces that first impression. The real picture is very different. Russia’s elite is extremely fragmented and riven by conflict. Competing groups fight not just over influence and property but also over ideology.”
- “The deep divisions within Putin’s team are a feature, not a bug of the way Russia is ruled. For most of his presidency, Putin appeared to relish playing the role of arbiter among competing groups and asserting his centrality. That state of affairs conformed to centuries of Russian political culture dating back to the beginning of the Romanov dynasty, if not earlier. Now it has largely disappeared. Indeed, Putin has put significant distance between himself and his subordinates, a form of self-isolation that predates the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, he risks being more captive to their initiatives, their shortcomings and their constant disputes and squabbles.”
“The Victor Who Lost the USSR,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center/Project Syndicate, 05.05.20: The author, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:
- “To this day, most Russians view the collapse of the Soviet empire, morally and economically bankrupt as it was, as President Vladimir Putin does: ‘a major geopolitical disaster of the century.’ In March 2019, a Levada Center poll found that 48 percent of Russians would prefer if everything had stayed as it was before perestroika.”
- “This works for Putin, whose greatest fear is pressure to pursue a ‘perestroika 2.0.’ Gorbachev granted his people freedom and suffered a crushing personal defeat. Putin—who has been busy setting himself up to remain president until 2036—is doing exactly the opposite.”
- “But rejecting perestroika’s legacy will deal Putin a hidden defeat. The current coronavirus crisis is demonstrating the extreme inefficiency of a non-democratic and bureaucratic capitalist state, and has revealed that society is not united by conservative and nationalistic values. Russians are much more pragmatic: they want a state that can reliably provide basic services. In this sense, Putin’s authoritarianism is failing, and the legacy of Gorbachev, who willingly or unwillingly gave Russia freedom, will be redeemed in the long run.”
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant developments.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant developments.
III. Russia’s relations with other countries
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
“Poll: Majority of Young Russians Distrust NATO, Don’t Consider Russia a European Country,” Thomas Schaffner and Angelina Flood, Russia Matters, 05.05.20: The authors, a student web assistant and the assistant editor for Russia Matters, write:
- “A majority of young Russians distrust NATO more than any other organization and disagree that Russia is a European country, according to a recent poll conducted by Russia’s independent Levada Center and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation. These organizations’ research on the opinions of Russia’s ‘Generation Z’ (aged 14 to 29) revealed that 80 percent expressed a strong to moderate degree of distrust toward NATO … This distrust of the West is mirrored in the general Russian population, but to a lesser degree. A January 2020 Levada poll found that just over half of respondents, 52 percent, agreed that Russia has cause to be wary of NATO, and 37 percent have a negative view of the EU.”
- “Few of the respondents expressed strong disagreements with the direction of Russian foreign policy … [O]nly 29 percent would support the cessation of ‘economic and military’ aid to the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics in Ukraine. … [T]he organizations attribute this lack of support … to the fact that ‘the majority … believes that further reduction of cooperation between Europe and Russia would not create serious problems and difficulties for Russia itself.’ There is even less support for such steps among Russia’s general population. … At the same time, young Russians seem to be disinterested in politics overall.”
- “[T]he respondents were divided on emigration. About half … expressed no desire to emigrate, and 42 percent expressed a moderate to strong desire to leave Russia … 39 percent named the U.S. as one of their top three destinations, 38 percent named Germany and 33 percent looked toward France … These numbers may, however, be deceiving, as 74 percent of those with a desire to emigrate said that they had taken no steps to actually move abroad.”
China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?
- No significant developments.
“New Evidence Reinforces the Suspicion That Russia Was Behind the Downed MH17 Plane,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 05.04.20: The news outlet’s editorial board writes:
- “A fair amount of detail has been gathered about the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, in eastern Ukraine, which killed all 298 people aboard. The plane was hit by a Russian-made Buk missile launched by the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade based at Kursk, Russia. An investigation has identified four men—three Russians and one Ukrainian—who helped bring the Buk launcher to eastern Ukraine. But a missing piece has been: Who was responsible, and who approved?”
- “A Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team, including Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2018 that the missile system belonged to a Russian brigade. Then in 2019, the investigative team named the four suspects, who are charged with murder in a trial just getting underway. They are all presumed to be in Russia, which has dismissed the international investigation, saying it is biased against Moscow.”
- “Mr. Putin, a former director of the FSB, surely knows exactly what happened. Yet when asked two years ago whether a Russian missile could have destroyed the plane, Mr. Putin said, ‘Of course not.’ How much longer will Russia continue to deny that it bears responsibility for this awful crime?”
Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:
- No significant developments.