Russia Analytical Report, May 7-14, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • In his fourth term, Putin will likely focus on Russia’s relationship with China as Moscow’s major global partner, writes leading Russia expert Angela Stent, and Russia will also seek to solidify its position as the major great power in the Middle East. According to Nabi Abdullaev of Control Risks, Putin is opting for continuity for his fourth term.
  • Russia may not qualify under Robert Dah’s definition of what constitutes a mature democracy, writes national security affairs professor Nikolas Gvosdev, but the ability of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to peacefully retire and not face arrest, detention or exile contrasts favorably with the experience of other post-Soviet states. Putin might test a number of younger governors as possible successors, according to Gvosdev.
  • For the future of New START, perhaps the best outcome that could be hoped for in the near-term is its extension to 2026 with some commitment by Washington and Moscow to begin exploring the issues that they would have to address in a new negotiation, write arms experts Anatoli S. Diakov, Daryl G. Kimball and Steven Pifer.
  • The United States and Russia should actively try to improve cooperation on the more noncontroversial issues on the nuclear agenda, such as strengthening global nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism, according to scholar Sarah Hummel and consultant Andrey Baklitskiy.

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/Sabre Rattling:

“Putin Is Playing With Fire and We All May Get Burned:  The tactics that worked in Ukraine and Syria would bring spectacular consequences if Russia takes them too far against the US or Europe,” Hal Brands, Bloomberg, 05.08.18The author, a professor of global affairs, writes: “Putin has displayed a knack for the asymmetrical approach that pits Russian strengths against an adversary’s vulnerabilities. … Equally important is … his attraction to the bold, unexpected stroke that catches the opponent off-guard. … Western observers would be foolish simply to dismiss some of the scarier scenarios involving Russia that are often discussed today. Yes, it would quite a provocation for Russian operatives to tamper with U.S. voter rolls or actual vote counts in 2018 or 2020 … Likewise, it would be incredibly dangerous for Russia to launch a limited war in the Baltics in hopes of fracturing NATO. Yet such a gambit might nonetheless appeal to a leader who loathes that alliance, relies on the hostility of the West for political purposes and believes he has a temporary military advantage in the region. … [Putin] has been adept at identifying and taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities, yet he has also been prone to provoking stronger-than-expected blowback. … At some point, we may see a bold Russian gambit … that pushes America and its allies to respond far more forcefully than Putin anticipates. The question then will be whether … [he] rein[s] himself in, or responds in a way that brings us to the brink of the first major-power conflict in decades.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Nuclear Arms Control and US-Russia Relations,” Andrey Baklitskiy and Sarah Hummel, Working Group on the Future of US-Russian Relations, May 2018The authors, a consultant for the PIR Center and an assistant professor of political science, write: “Public fears over the occurrence of nuclear conflict have declined since the Cold War. This, together with broader shifts in relative power, makes it more difficult … to insulate the issue of nuclear arms control from … domestic politics and the broader relationship between the two countries. … Non-nuclear weapons now have indisputable implications for the strategic effectiveness of nuclear weapons. If the United States and Russia fail to address these issues in future treaties, we open the door to a new arms race in these nuclear-adjacent arenas. … The United States and Russia no longer understand each other’s views of nuclear war-fighting. This generates misperceptions … [and] leads countries to overestimate particular threats, which, in turn, affects how they develop their own nuclear policy. … we offer five policy recommendations … First, the leadership of Russia and the United States must reaffirm their commitment to maintaining strategic stability and preserving bilateral arms control. … even if they cannot immediately agree on terms for a new treaty. Second, … [they] should revive the INF’s verification provisions to allow the investigation of alleged violations. … all future treaties must include robust verification provisions. Third, … [they] need to improve dialogue … they must commit to taking each other’s concerns more seriously. ... Fourth, the arms control discussion must be broadened to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons and related conventional weapons and technologies. … Fifth, … [they] should actively try to improve cooperation over the more noncontroversial issues on the nuclear agenda, such as strengthening global nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism.”

“Issue Brief #7: New START Treaty,” Anatoli S. Diakov, Daryl G. Kimball and Steven Pifer, Commission on Challenges to Deep Cuts, May 2018The authors, a professor of physics and technology, the executive director of the Arms Control Association and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write that “there are three general options for the future of New START. … First, the treaty could simply lapse on February 5, 2021. Assuming that the INF Treaty had also collapsed by that point, it would mean that no nuclear arms control arrangements would be in place to constrain U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the early 1970s. … The second option is agreement … to extend New START to 2026. … The third and more ambitious option is to supplant New START with a new treaty. Ideally, that treaty would involve reductions that go beyond those required by New START and would cover all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, including reserve and non-strategic. … Perhaps the best outcome that could be hoped for in the near-term is extension of New START to 2026 with some commitment by Washington and Moscow to begin exploring the issues that they would have to address in a new negotiation. … The United States and Russia should agree as soon as possible to extend New START until February 2026.”  


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Gina Haspel Is Tainted by Her Torture Involvement. But She Understands Russia,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 05.07.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes: “Haspel’s Russia experience is the most important detail in her biography, beyond her three years of work for the Counterterrorism Center … She appears to have spent much of the first 15 years of her career in Russia-related operations … Though she never served in Moscow, former colleagues say she ran operations against Russian targets in several postings. … Haspel also learned the special tradecraft that’s required to keep agents alive in hostile ‘denied areas’ such as Russia. … ‘She has a Ph.D. in the FSB, SVR and GRU,’ jokes Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief who worked closely with Haspel … ‘That gives her a gravitas within the building and with our foreign liaison partners.’ … A test of Haspel’s ability to manage sensitive Russia operations with the Trump White House came … after the poisoning of … Sergei Skripal … As CIA deputy director, Haspel … personally briefed Trump about the case — and recommended the expulsion of 60 Russian spies as punishment. …  Haspel has also helped oversee the delivery of highly sensitive Russia files to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the House and Senate intelligence committees.”

“The Quiet Americans Behind the US-Russia Imbroglio,” Keith Gessen, New York Times, 05.08.18The author, a journalism instructor at Columbia University, writes: “The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. … Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one … is the United States—that the country has never gotten past the idea that it ‘won’ the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life. … This new generation of Russia hands [those who work on Russia-related matters in the U.S. government] is deeply skeptical of the missionary impulse that has characterized American policy toward Russia for so long. … Despite some differences in politics, all are seeking a less chauvinistic approach to Russia policy. They are disgusted by American failures and want them to end. … As a group, they have opposed sending weapons to Ukraine as an unnecessary escalation of the proxy war there … and are concerned about the current hype over a potential Russian incursion into the Baltics. [Analyst Michael] Kofman compared American worries about a Russian invasion of the Baltics to equally far-fetched Russian worries about an American move into Belarus.”

“Putin Needed an American Enemy. He Picked Me,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 05.11.18The author, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, writes: “From the beginning of the Obama administration, we knew we wanted to reboot our relationship with Moscow. … By June 2010 … we were succeeding beyond our expectations … In September 2011, Putin announced that he was going to run for president … he didn’t believe in the win-win approach we’d developed with Medvedev. Massive demonstrations a few months later … intensified Putin’s sentiment … To rally his supporters and undermine the protesters, Putin would need an enemy, and he turned to the most reliable one in Russia’s recent history: the United States and then, by extension, me. … Moscow launched a full-scale disinformation campaign alleging that, under my direction, the United States was funding the opposition and attempting to overthrow Putin. … Russia’s domestic agenda … would drive its policy. Putin reversed the progress we’d made … because it was convenient for him to do so. … Putin’s first reaction to these demonstrators [in 2011] was anger. … His second reaction was fear … Even before the parliamentary vote, Putin began to develop the argument about American manipulation of Russia’s internal politics. … my plan for a slow, quiet start [to the role of ambassador] imploded when Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns decided to visit on my third day. … he would have roundtables with opposition leaders and civil society activists. … As our guests entered and exited the embassy, television camera crews swarmed them. … they were from a state-controlled network called NTV, and they had a special assignment: collect evidence that the United States was seeking to overthrow the Russian government. … Putin’s strategy was clear—depict opposition members as puppets of the West and rally his electoral base against these bourgeois intellectuals.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America,” Julia Gurganus, Carnegie Endowment, 05.03.18The author, a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia program, writes: “Russia is working to expand its presence in Latin America, largely at Washington’s expense … Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are going through political transitions this year with multiple openings for Russia to meddle. Souring attitudes toward the United States … over trade and immigration issues, the rise of populist candidates and the deepening internal economic and social challenges facing many Latin American countries create favorable circumstances for Russia to advance its interests. … To counter Russian activity … the United States can engage in three broad lines of effort that are likely to be well received by Latin American leaders and their publics: Demonstrate long-term commitment to the region. … Focus efforts on key partners and key values. … Highlight Russia’s malign activity.”


  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Armenians Should Grasp Their Chance to Transform Their Homeland,” Ruben Vardanyan, Financial Times, 05.10.18The author, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, writes: “On Tuesday, Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition politician who led this ‘velvet’ revolution, was declared prime minister … This closed a long, difficult chapter and opens a new one filled with opportunity and uncertainty. Armenia can become a beacon for other nations if it successfully transforms its government while remaining peaceful and abiding by its new constitution. … We have a rare and unexpected opportunity to transform our country into a vibrant, modern, secure, peaceful and progressive homeland for a global nation. … Pashinyan must harness the skills and enthusiasm of Armenians across the globe, and encourage them to contribute to accelerating Armenia’s growth. … Now is the ideal time for our homeland to tap its émigrés and ask for their help in building long-term prosperity. … Armenian citizens want a vibrant, affluent country committed to justice, freedom and equal opportunity. … The new government needs to be qualitatively different from the previous ones.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“What to Expect From Putin’s Fourth Term,” Angela Stent, The National Interest, 05.11.18The author, a professor of government and foreign service, writes that “the signs point to continuity both in personnel and policies [for Putin’s fourth term]. … It is not clear how committed Putin is to economic reforms … Putin gave hints about what the program for his fourth term would be in his [March 1 speech] … These [domestic policy goals] are now enshrined in his May 7 Executive Order on National Goals and Strategic Objectives … They include raising life expectancy … cutting poverty in half; speeding up the introduction of digital technologies and making Russia the fifth largest economy with growth rates exceeding international rates. Putin has also said that Russia will become the leader in artificial intelligence. These goals are indeed ambitious and probably not attainable. … The second half of Putin’s [March 1] speech might give some hints about foreign policy … Putin has clearly signaled that Russia intends to continue building its own military capacity. … Putin will likely focus on Russia’s relationship with China as Moscow’s major global partner. … Russia will also seek to solidify its position as the major great power in the Middle East … Russia’s relations with its neighbors will remain a priority. … it is unclear whether Moscow is seriously interested in resolving it [the Ukraine conflict], but negotiations continue. … Relations with Europe and the United States are likely to remain strained … [and] the issue of succession will inevitably hang in the air.”

"Continuity Is Putin's Choice for His Fourth Term,” Nabi Abdullaev, Forbes, 05.09.18The author, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and associate director at Control Risks, writes that at his inauguration, “Vladimir Putin called for economic and technological breakthroughs to propel Russia into fifth place among the world’s economies … however, his personnel decisions showed that Putin … opted for continuity over reform. Putin nominated Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev … as head of the cabinet; Medvedev named Putin’s top officials as his deputies. The only notable change was the replacement of Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of defense and space industries … with deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov. … the oil crisis of 2014 and increasing Western sanctions triggered by the annexation of Crimea have brought Russia’s economic growth to a virtual halt. … In his inauguration speech, Putin reiterated the importance of technological modernization … In reality, this … runs counter to government initiatives … Moreover, modernizing Russia’s economy … will be impossible without close cooperation with the West. … Many economic experts … warn that technological modernization in Russia is not possible without reforming state institutions and improving the business climate. … Putin has made it clear that reform of state institutions is not on the cards. … The domestic economy will not come close to the lows of the 1990s … with Putin’s trademark approach of solving economic challenges by throwing money at them through state banks and state-owned corporations, the state’s role in the economy will only grow. This will undermine both efficiency and competition.”

“Who Will Lead Russia After Putin?” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 05.10.18The author, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, writes: that “we again start discussions of who his [Putin’s] potential successor might be … unless the Russian Constitution is changed, he will run up against the prohibition of holding more than two consecutive terms … Moreover, there is the simple reality of biology … Russia may not qualify under Robert Dah’s definition of what constitutes a mature democracy, but the ability of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to peacefully retire and not face arrest, detention or exile contrasts favorably with the experience of other post-Soviet states … There is also a practical implication for U.S. policy. … Many of the rising members of the new political generation in Russia, while possibly having some exposure to the West in their younger years … are now no longer interacting with their American counterparts. Economic Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin—a thirty-five-year-old member of the cabinet—has made several trips to Washington, and is known to some members of the business community, but largely remains unknown to the larger policy community—even as he is said to be on the short list for future prime ministerial candidates. A number of the more prominent younger governors … are also unknowns. Dialogue with Russians is not a reward for good behavior, but an important tool of statecraft that can serve U.S. interests by giving us knowledge and exposure to those who are likely to be running Russia in the future.”

“Putin's Not as Powerful as He Looks,” Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post, 05.14.18The author, deputy editorial page editor for the news outlet, writes: “What the emerging local movements show … is that if Putin is seeking to create a model of 21st-century authoritarian government in Russia, he's not succeeding. … Wherever it [Putin’s regime) retreats—and under mounting economic pressure, the regime is retreating—an independent civil society springs up. That's especially true among younger people, who make up a large share of the opposition candidates in local elections. … Though they don't get much attention, popular protests are slowly growing around Russia. They are triggered by the abuses and disasters of a failing government—such as the shopping-mall fire that killed 64 people in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in March, or the landfill emitting toxic fumes in the Moscow suburb of Volokolamsk.”

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia’s New State Armament Program: Implications for the Russian Armed Forces and Miltiary Capabilites to 2027,” Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulegue, Chatham House, 05.10.18: The authors, an associate fellow and a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, write: “The newly approved state armament program (GPV 2027) will form the basis of Russia’s defense procurement and military priorities until 2027. … the Ministry of Defense will be allocated the vast majority of around 19 trillion rubles ($306 billion) … as inflation has eroded the value of the ruble since 2011, the new program is less ambitious than its predecessor [GPV 2020] … GPV 2027 is likely to focus on force mobility and deployability, military logistics and strengthening command-and-control systems. … The modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad is expected to remain a priority. While the navy is likely to receive less funding and prioritize the acquisition of smaller vessels, the ground forces can expect a larger share of funding than before. ... the country’s Aerospace Forces will probably concentrate on filling existing gaps in procurement … as well as on boosting power-projection capabilities and force mobility. … Issues such as production capabilities, adaptation and technological development will continue to present challenges … Key external factors [affecting implementation] will include 'lessons learned' from operational combat experience in Ukraine and Syria … as well as negative impacts of targeted international sanctions … Internal factors will include the struggle to modernize military equipment, the need to increase the effort around military R&D and the existence of long-term, unresolved issues relating to the internal workings of the defense industry. … By 2027, the Russian armed forces are likely to be considerably better equipped than they are today. Nevertheless, one should not overstate the pace of probable modernization. … the armed forces will probably still rely on a mix of legacy hardware and modernized Soviet systems alongside new designs.”

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.