Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 15-21, 2016

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/saber rattling:

“The New Red Scare: Reviving the art of threat inflation,” Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s Magazine, December 2016: The author examines U.S.-Russian tensions in the context of what he calls a “tradition of Cold War threat inflation” in Washington, particularly in the defense sector. (He cites a Pentagon official who once described his field with the phrase “where we program weapons that don’t work to meet threats that don’t exist.”) Cockburn, the magazine’s Washington editor and the author of “Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins,” begins by shedding some doubt on allegations that Russia was behind the infamous hacks of the U.S. presidential campaign. He then examines some of the exorbitantly priced defense responses of the past five decades: “A post-Vietnam downturn had spawned the B-2 bomber and the MX intercontinental missile. Now the post-Cold War drought incubated the F-22 and F-35 fighter programs, not to mention a fantasy-laden Army project, replete with computers and sensors, called Future Combat Systems. The cost of these projects would explode in later years, even when there were no tangible results. … The F-35 program staggers on, with an ultimate budget now projected at $1.5 trillion,” while the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces has a projected estimated cost of $1 trillion. “The Russians have plenty to modernize,” says the author: “A Russian military ‘more or less’ back in working order doesn’t sound much like an existential threat, nor like one in any shape to ‘erode the principled international order.’ That has not deterred our military leadership from scaremongering rhetoric, as typified by Philip Breedlove, who stepped down as NATO’s commander in May. … In one sense, the new Red Scare has had the desired and entirely predictable result. Defense spending, though hurt by troop wind-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now exhibiting renewed vigor. Introducing its upcoming $583 billion budget in 2016, the Pentagon specifically cited ‘Russian aggression’ as a rationale for spending. … Despite all the rhetoric, practical responses to the ‘existential threat’ have been curiously modest.” Most worrying is that, according to one interviewee, “‘We’re in a low-grade nuclear escalation that’s not even necessarily apparent to ourselves.’ … Excepting a few scattered individuals in intelligence and the State Department, Blair continued, ‘so few people are aware of what we’re getting into with the Russians,’” no one on the National Security Council, no one at Defense.

“How World War III Could Begin in Latvia,” Paul D. Miller, Foreign Policy, 11.16.16: The author, an American academic, blogger and former White House staffer for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, predicts that Russia will soon wreak havoc in the Baltics, “probably in the next two years,” and will thus “pose one of President-elect Donald Trump’s first and greatest tests.” The invasion won’t be a conventional deployment of “large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border—even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Instead, Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years.” The author argues that the move will be driven by the Kremlin’s “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny and messianism” and that Russian President Vladimir “Putin now has the most favorable international environment since the end of the Cold War to continue Russian expansion.” The possible outcomes of such a conflict seem like lose-lose options: If NATO does not invoke Article V to protect the Baltics, its “mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless”; if it “does invoke Article V, it will be tantamount to a declaration of war by the West against Russia. And that’s when Trump will have to decide if the defense of Latvia is worth risking World War III.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  •  No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“In our new Cold War, deterrence should come before détente,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 11.15.16: The author, a foreign-affairs columnist for the paper, describes “a new Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia—this time in cyberspace. He reports that on Oct. 31 “the White House sent a secret ‘hotline’-style message to Russia … to warn against any further cyber-meddling in the U.S. election process.” A senior Obama “administration official said Russia gave a ‘noncommittal’ response to the Oct. 31 message, neither acknowledging the U.S. charges nor denying them. But the official confirmed reports by other high-level sources that after the public and private warnings, Russia did not increase its cyber-activity and may have reduced it. … The White House feared a last-minute Russian cyber-onslaught right up to Nov.8, but it apparently never came. … The Obama administration is ready to explore these issues further with Russia through a little-known ‘working group’ [which last met in April in Geneva] created under a defunct ‘presidential bilateral commission.’” Overall, however, “the Obama administration has grappled with how to establish norms of deterrence in cyberspace that check destabilizing actions by an aggressive, risk-taking Russia.” That becomes even harder in light of the mutual mistrust between the two sides. The incoming U.S. administration, says the author, will have to “think carefully about how to establish clear norms of deterrence in this new domain.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Trump marks the end of America as world’s ‘indispensable nation,’” Robert Kagan, Financial Times, 11.19.16: The author, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The World America Made,” argues that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump “has little interest in continuing to shoulder [the] burden” of “U.S. responsibility for global order,” bringing us closer to the end of a 70-year era. Trump’s call for “America First” predates him; it became a “national phenomenon” after “the Iraq and Afghan wars and the financial crisis.” And Trump’s victory marks a “decisive break” with the U.S. internationalist tradition as the world’s “indispensable nation.” But this, writes the author, “does not mean a ‘return’ to a mythical American isolationism. This powerful, commercially minded nation has never cut itself off from the rest of the world, not even in the 1930s. What it does mean is a return to national solipsism, with a much narrower definition of American interests and a reluctance to act in the world except to protect those narrow interests. To put it another way, America may once again start behaving like a normal nation.” This would mean redirecting foreign-policy resources away from protecting allies and upholding “some principle of global order” to fighting immediate threats—in America’s case, radical Islamist terrorism—and judging other nations in terms of their willingness to help. “Most countries, by this calculus, are irrelevant”; exceptions include Russia, Syria, Egypt and Israel. “The rest is a matter of money. Foreign policy should serve U.S. economic interests, and where it doesn’t should be changed. … This narrow, interest-based approach to foreign policy … is the preferred strategy of many American academics … [and] plays well with [the] American public.” No one knows how long this era will last; before WWII the U.S. had “managed to avoid global responsibility for two decades.” Eventually America “will discover, again, that there is no escape. The question is how much damage is done in the meantime and whether, unlike in the past, it will be too late to recover.”

“Survey: What Will a Trump Presidency Mean for US-Russia Relations?” Russia Matters, 11.17.16: Five Russia experts weigh in on the question posed in the title. Thomas Graham of Yale University and Kissinger Associates points to at least four areas where the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric runs into internal contradictions or major on-the-ground obstacles, exacerbated by entrenched anti-Russian attitudes in Washington. He advises Russia watchers to keep a close eye on Donald Trump’s national security picks. Andrew Kuchins of Georgetown University warns that “President-elect Trump must not underestimate the challenge he faces” in trying to improve relations with Russia: “There is no easy fix or ‘magic bullet’ or ‘grand bargain’ for Ukraine, Syria and the multitude of issues besetting the relationship, and President Trump will find in Vladimir Putin a very experienced and challenging partner as his predecessors have.” Columbia’s Robert Legvold raises the crucial question about Russia’s willingness to offer something in return for concessions from the U.S., as does former Ambassador Steven Pifer, now of the Brookings Institution. Pifer also wonders how Trump will handle differences on Russia policy within the Republican establishment. Finally, Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that, “whatever Russia policy emerges, America’s credibility as a standard for freedom is badly shaken.”

“Enough Hysterics: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Reckless or Radical..Despite the hand-wringing of the Trumpophobes, there’s a lot of rationality and realism behind the president-elect’s evolving strategy,” Edward Luttwak, Foreign Policy, 11.17.16: The author, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, lays out his predictions about President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policies and tries to allay fears that they will be terrible. On Russia he writes that “a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine would release U.S. military resources for the containment of China” and that “if Trump’s Russia policy is successful, it will reduce tensions and thus the need to send more U.S. forces to Europe to strengthen the NATO alliance.” The author, who has also worked as a consultant to various government bodies including the NSC and Secretary of Defense’s office, touches on a broad range of other policy questions: from NATO funding and Euroskepticism to Saudi Arabia and Iran. On trade he writes that, although Trump “would not sanction the Trans-Pacific Partnership … he will not withdraw” the U.S. from the WTO or “cancel any existing trade treaty,” including NAFTA. “It is all very reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s arrival,” Luttwak writes: “Nobody believed that the United States could renounce coexistence—going totally against the establishment consensus—but Reagan did that, simply refusing to endorse détente. The outcome was not a nuclear war and the end of the world but rather the end of the Soviet Union. This time there is something else to end: the enormously costly pursuit of wars in countries where the United States keeps failing.”

“Our allies are afraid. Here’s how Trump can reassure them,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 11.17.16: The author, a Stanford professor and former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, argues that, “as his first order of business regarding foreign policy, President Trump should reset relations with all U.S. allies before thinking about a reset with Russia or anyone else.” He calls on the president-elect to “state clearly that our resolve to defend our allies is not conditioned by what our allies pay us for security,” “moderate his hostile campaign pronouncements about free trade” and “utter the words ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ when describing what makes our alliances special.” The author argues that such a reset with allies “would be cheap, requiring mostly rhetorical statements, confirming existing commitments and adding very few new resources. So, for an easy and early win in his new administration, President Trump should focus first on resetting relations with our allies; Russia can wait.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

General developments and “far abroad” countries:

“New Presidents Who Tilt Toward Russia,” New York Times editorial, 11.16.16: The editorial says that “after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it seems alarming that Bulgaria and Moldova, two states formerly under the Kremlin's yoke, both elected pro-Russian presidents on Sunday. The reasons may have been largely domestic, but the outcome is bound to further fray European cohesion.” While Bulgaria is an EU and NATO member “and is not likely to quit either… the swing [in both countries] away from pro-Western candidates toward those urging better relations with Moscow offers more evidence of growing disenchantment in Eastern Europe with Western liberal attitudes, exacerbated by the tide of immigrants. … Whatever the individual voters in Bulgaria and Moldova had in mind, their receptivity to warmer relations with Mr. Putin is another blow to Western cohesion at a critical juncture. That makes it all the more important for Western leaders who understand the importance of unity to resist all attempts to turn back the clock.”


  • No significant commentary. 


“Why Ukraine Is Losing the War on Corruption,” Mikheil Saakashvili, New York Times, 11.16.16: The author, a former president of Georgia, resigned earlier this month from his post as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. In this op-ed he explains his reasons, citing the Ukrainian government’s and, specifically, President Petro Poroshenko’s failure to crack down on corruption and usher in greater transparency. “While Ukraine’s soldiers are on the front line, heroically defending their country from Russian aggression,” writes the author, “Ukraine’s elite keeps stripping the country of all it has left. In their lifestyle and mentality, Ukraine’s kleptocrats are identical to their counterparts in Russia’s oligarchy. The final freedom for Ukraine would be to free it not just from Russian aggression but also from the Russian-style political class that holds Ukraine back from its European aspirations. … I decided to resign to found a new political party in Ukraine. This is an amazing country, full of hard-working, educated and talented people who deserve a much better future. Its greatest resource is the young, educated Ukrainians who, given the opportunity, would become effective, honest public servants and political leaders, eager to rid the country of corruption. … Until now, Ukraine’s old corrupt establishment has discouraged and blocked these young reformers from assuming leadership positions in the public sector. I am pledged to help change that.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Looks Beyond Election in Bid to Expand Authority,” Stepan Kravchenko and Evgenia Pismennaya, Bloomberg, 11.17.16: The authors report that Russian President Vladimir “Putin is setting up a team to ensure he wins a fourth term with a wide margin in 2018, according to five people close to the process. The effort is led by former nuclear-power chief Sergei Kirienko, who was appointed last month as the Kremlin’s head of domestic politics and is expected to lead the campaign when it’s announced publicly, probably late next year, said one of the people, all of whom asked not to be identified to discuss confidential deliberations.” Kirienko’s mandate “includes shaking off some of the conservatism that’s permeated the political system in recent years and to do that without threatening stability”—part of Putin’s drive to bring in a new generation of top officials, says the article. It adds that Kirienko may “also help the Russian leader reassert control over warring factions within his inner circle.” According to one analyst, “Kirienko has to ‘propose a new agenda for these difficult economic conditions’ that will set priorities for Putin’s next—and constitutionally his last—term.”

“Putin circle nervous as corruption probe widens: Fears over whether Ulyukaev arrest is power struggle or political move,” Kathrin Hille, Financial Times, 11.16.16: This analysis by one of the newspaper’s Moscow correspondents notes that “Russian government officials and investors fear that the arrest of economy minister Alexei Ulyukaev over alleged corruption could spark wider uncertainty amid signs that investigators are broadening their probe.” A source from the Federal Security Service (FSB) told the paper he had heard of “up to eight additional suspects.” Ulyukaev was arrested last week after a Russian version of the FBI said he’d “been caught red-handed … receiving a $2 million bribe extorted from state oil company Rosneft for supporting its acquisition of a stake in smaller peer Bashneft”; he has been put under house arrest for two months. Despite Ulyukaev’s denials of wrongdoing, President Putin fired him “citing loss of trust. … In private, some investors and government officials said the move against Ulyukaev could undermine the authority of those in Putin’s government who have helped to steer the economy through an oil price drop, ruble devaluation and Western sanctions over the past two years.” Both Russian media and three individuals interviewed by the newspaper have speculated that Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin “was involved in the move against Ulyukaev as a warning to other proponents of liberal economic policies not to oppose him.” Russian media has also reported that Rosneft’s security chief, Oleg Feoktistov, who joined the company in September from the FSB, “had led the sting operation” resulting in Ulyukaev’s detention late Nov. 14 at Rosneft’s offices. Analysts told the paper that “Ulyukaev’s fall was unlikely to signal a change in economic policy,” but could mean that the president had decided his entire “‘team and inner circle [must] be paralyzed with fear.’” Nervousness after the arrest deepened Nov. 16 “when investigators searched the offices of Anatoly Chubais’s Rusnano, a state-owned technology company, and initiated a criminal case against managers at a pharmaceutical company in which Rusnano has invested.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.

Selection of commentary for this digest is curated by Simon Saradzhyan.