Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 16-23, 2020

This Week’s Highlights

  • It cannot be beyond possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now considering whether his regime's best interests lie in another four years in open conflict with the West writes Financial Times associate editor Philip Stephens. If there was ever going to be a time to consider some sort of accommodation, this must surely be it, according to Stephens. Matthew Rojanksy of the Kennan Institute and Prof. Michael Kimmage, meanwhile, argue that diplomacy between Russia and the United States is necessary. This should not imply a rush to presidential summit meetings or misplaced hopes for a grand bargain [during Joe Biden’s presidency], they write. Rather, a good start would be to build steady, sustained mid-level connections between the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense. The Biden administration should [also] prioritize people-to-people ties, according to Rojansky and Kimmage.  
  • With Biden, greater transatlantic unity will be possible with regard to autocrats and countries that seek to enhance their power by undermining international or regional order, write French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. But a principled approach does not exclude dialogue and cooperation. They write that they hope the United States and Russia will succeed in extending New START beyond February 2021, and they are ready to engage with Moscow on issues relevant to European security, and they expect a constructive response. The European Union must prepare for this, Drian and Maas write.
  • China and Russia are the like-minded collaborators that Iran needs as it aspires to be a powerful player within a new world order, write Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy of Indiana University. They write that with those powerful regimes on his side, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can gamble that U.S. global dominance “will not last long,” as he has said, and Zarif can shuttle between Tehran, Beijing and Moscow to strengthen the new triple axis and ensure that Iran will remain comfortably at its center. 
  • Russia’s decision not to employ leverage to stop the conflict in its early stages made a lasting impression on its CSTO allies, writes Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of Russia Matters. In fact, [they] may already be wondering why participating in all the Kremlin-led multilateral integration initiatives in post-Soviet Eurasia, like Armenia does, does not prevent Russia from being “equidistant” to you and your adversary, even if the latter has initiated hostilities against you and, unlike you, is not Russia’s military ally. Countries prefer to participate in alliances that are built on mutual respect for each other’s military and security interests of existential importance and mutual aid when these interests are threatened, Saradzhyan writes. Such military and security alliances typically prove to be more lasting than those based on the premise that there is simply no alternative great power to either ally or bandwagon with, per the Russian saying “there is no running away from a submarine.”  
  • The experience of Belarus is the latest in a long line of bipartisan U.S. policy failures  everywhere from Syria to Kyrgyzstan, writes Mark Episkopos of The National Interest. Policymakers and analysts sometimes ask why a particular color revolution failed, and what Western institutions can do to help the next one succeed. But the record is abundantly clear: color revolution is itself a failed policy, Episkopos writes, driven by a misguided focus on enforcing liberal-democratic values rather than pursuing concrete strategic ends. 


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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant developments.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant developments.

Iran and its nuclear program:

“China and Russia Have Iran’s Back. Tehran May Be Less Open Than Ever to Threats or Persuasion,” Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy, Foreign Affairs, 11.17.20The authors, a professor and a senior lecturer at Indiana University, write:

  • “Iran did not sit still the last four years, passively awaiting the nuclear deal’s resumption. Rather, the Islamic Republic has joined forces with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation to improve its military position and shore up its economy. China and Russia are now integrally involved in Iran’s affairs, from its oil and port infrastructure to its defense capabilities. The result of this deepening collaboration has been to make Iran far less susceptible than it once was, either to Trump’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ or to Biden’s hoped-for engagement.”
  • “China and Russia are the like-minded collaborators that Iran needs as it aspires to be a powerful player within a new world order. With those powerful regimes on his side, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can gamble that U.S. global dominance ‘will not last long,’ as he has said, and Zarif can shuttle between Tehran, Beijing and Moscow to strengthen the new triple axis and ensure that Iran will remain comfortably at its center.”

“Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal Will Be Harder Than It Looks,” Henry Rome, The Washington Post, 11.23.20: The author, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, writes:

  • “Even if Biden decides on an immediate return to the JCPOA, Iran may not be ready to reciprocate.”
  • “First, Iranian leaders are unlikely to appear overeager to negotiate. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains profoundly suspicious of dealing with Washington, and Trump's withdrawal from the deal apparently validated his long-held views about American duplicity. The possibility that a Republican could win the 2024 U.S. election and repudiate the agreement once again will contribute to Iranian caution.”
  • “Second, Iran's presidential elections in June 2021 may prove an added barrier. For President Hassan Rouhani, securing a quick reentry to the JCPOA before the elections could help rehabilitate his legacy and benefit his allies. But Khamenei and other hard-liners will probably try to block this from happening, as a return to the JCPOA could upset their advantage heading into the election.”
  • “After Jan. 20, we may see the White House send some positive signals to Tehran. Biden has promised to repeal Trump's ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries (including Iran), and the administration may issue licenses or additional guidance to ease the barriers to Iran accessing medical supplies. But the path back to the Iran nuclear deal remains complex.”
  • “Biden may instead pursue a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ policy aimed at rolling back some of Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief. As with most issues between the United States and Iran, the next steps will not be straightforward.”

Strategic stability:

“Right of Launch: Command and Control Vulnerabilities After a Limited Nuclear Strike,” Bruce G. Blair, Sebastien Philippe and Sharon K. Weiner, War on the Rocks, 11.20.20The authors, the founder of Global Zero, an associate research scholar at Princeton University and an associate professor at American University, write:

  • “Imagine a rapidly escalating conflict between Russian and NATO forces. Compensating for Russia’s perceived conventional inferiority, Russian commanders execute a limited nuclear strike—a small number of low-yield weapons intended to change conditions on the battlefield. The U.S. president, in turn, authorizes a limited nuclear response just before being evacuated from the White House. While rushing toward their helicopter, he or she wonders what Russia’s next move will be and hopes they will not have to authorize additional nuclear strikes. The problem is they may have unintentionally done so already.”
  • “America’s nuclear command and control system focuses on securing nuclear weapons until authentication of a president’s orders. But right of launch—immediately after the president’s first orders have been executed—the system is primed to allow additional strikes instead of resetting the launch codes or putting the launch keys back in their safes.”
  • “As a result, after that first limited strike the danger of unauthorized launch is worse in crisis situations where controlling escalation is critical. No command and control system can reconcile the adaptation and flexibility required by war with the tight control over nuclear weapons that is vital to preventing unauthorized launches and clearly signaling intentions to limit rather than increase the scale of conflict. In order to maintain robust command and control in a crisis, the United States should place less reliance on limited nuclear options.”

“Whatever You Think Ails This Nation, a New Generation of ICBMs Is Not the Answer,” Tom Collina and William Perry, The Washington Post, 11.17.20: The authors, the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund and a former U.S. secretary of defense, write:

  • “The incoming Biden-Harris administration will face unprecedented challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to systemic racial injustice to global warming. It will take mountains of money to tackle these crises, and we will need each dollar. Are any of these challenges addressed by nuclear weapons? Clearly not. Yet the United States is planning to spend well over $1 trillion to rebuild its nuclear arsenal, complete with a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
  • “Many have suggested that the Pentagon, with its $740 billion budget, is a good place to look for savings. … And if we want to save big bucks by canceling new nukes we don't need, there is an obvious place to start: the Trump administration's plan to spend roughly $264 billion on a new generation of ICBMs.”
  • “These dangerous missiles are not needed for deterrence, as we would use survivable weapons based on submarines at sea for any retaliation. Yet ICBMs increase the risk that we will blunder into nuclear war by mistake. … The United States can move to a smaller but more secure second-strike nuclear force whose sole purpose is to deter nuclear attack. We do not need to spend hundreds of billions more in a dangerous and futile attempt to ‘prevail’ in a nuclear conflict.”
  • “The best policy would specifically rule out preemptive nuclear attacks, as such attacks have a high risk of starting nuclear war by mistake, and should not be considered under any circumstances. Similarly, a sole-purpose policy should prohibit launching nuclear weapons on warning of attack, as such launches increase the risk of starting nuclear war in response to a false alarm. The Biden-Harris administration can make a sole-purpose policy more credible and further reduce the risk of accidental launch by retiring the ICBMs.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant developments.

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Arms control:

“The Looming US Withdrawal From the Open Skies Treaty,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 11.19.20: The author, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “The Trump administration’s antipathy toward arms control will strike again on Nov. 22, when the United States withdraws from the Open Skies Treaty. That is a mistake. While Russia has violated the treaty, the United States has reciprocated. NATO allies support the treaty—which focuses first and foremost on enhancing European security—and wish the United States to remain a party.”
  • “If Moscow decides to withdraw from Open Skies, perhaps citing the treaty’s decreased value because it can no longer overfly American territory, the treaty will collapse. NATO allies will see little point in overflying other allies or partners such as Sweden and Finland. Alternatively, Moscow could decide to remain in the treaty, at least for a time, in part to score propaganda points over the U.S. withdrawal.”
  • “If, however, the treaty can be sustained into 2021, the Biden administration could consider reentering. The advantages offered by the treaty remain valid, despite Russian violations.”
  • “The treaty serves U.S. interests. That is what NATO allies want. And within the treaty, Washington can push to get Russia back into compliance while continuing restrictions that deny Russia the full benefits of overflying the United States. The new administration should make clear its intention to rejoin the treaty and put some clever lawyers to work figuring out a way to make that happen.”

“Adieu, Open Skies?” Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk, 11.21.20: The author, co-founder of the Stimson Center, writes:

  • “This weekend, the Trump administration’s notice of withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty is supposed to take effect. I cling to the possibility that the incoming Biden administration will direct the State Department’s lawyers to examine whether there are grounds to reverse this decision, as Team Trump’s exit disregarded Public Law. The Open Skies Treaty’s Consultative Commission would be wise not to act on Trump’s action until the Biden administration reviews it.”


“The Death of Ayman al-Zawahri and the Future of Al-Qaida,” Daniel L. Byman, Brookings Institution, 11.17.20: The author, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes:

  • “Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri may be dead or at least appears to be ‘completely off the grid,’ according to journalist and veteran jihadi-watcher Hassan Hassan. These reports come at the same time as the killing of another very senior al-Qaida leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in Tehran, reportedly by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States.”
  • “One of the biggest question marks about Zawahri’s leadership is now in play: What kind of movement will he bequeath to his successor? Much depends on who takes the helm. Leaders matter tremendously for terrorist groups, especially jihadi ones, which often rise and fall based on the fortunes of their emir.”
  • “Any successor will also benefit from the decline of ISIS, which is far weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate. … The new leader will also need to ensure the loyalty of local affiliates, like al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. These affiliates have their own incentives to stay loyal and keep the al-Qaida name. But if the global al-Qaida brand remains weak, there is less incentive for new groups to join and more for existing affiliates to defect.”
  • “Zawahri’s successor may find himself in charge of the al-Qaida name and a small group of fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and little else. … Whoever emerges as al-Qaida’s leader is likely to preside over a turning point in the broader jihadi movement. The United States is seeking to draw down in the Middle East. The Arab Spring and associated civil wars no longer grab headlines or inspire volunteers. New venues for jihadism in Africa and Asia are emerging. Al-Qaida’s new leader, however long he survives, will have his hands full.”

Conflict in Syria:

“A Plan to End the War in Syria: Competing With Russia in the Levant,” Aaron Stein, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 11.19.20The author, director of research at FPRI, writes:

  • “The United States has an interest in allowing the Russian Federation to ‘win’ an outright victory in Syria, so long as it secures from Moscow an agreement that is favorable to the Syrian Kurds, builds in negative consequences for an external actor targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces, and establishes a ‘deconflict plus’-type mechanism to continue to target Islamic State- and Al Qaeda-linked individuals in Syria.”
  • “A forward-looking policy that the incoming Biden administration could consider is to deprioritize the nascent threat of the Islamic State as a key factor in driving U.S. national security strategy, and instead focus more intently on long-term competition with great powers. This approach would seek to shape how Moscow spends finite defense dollars—at a time of expected global defense cuts stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic—in ways that are advantageous to the United States. It also would seek to limit the cost of the U.S. presence in Syria—to include secondary and opportunity costs not accounted for in a basic cost breakdown of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.”
  • “This approach is not without risk, particularly from a nascent Islamic State insurgency in Russian-controlled territory, but seeks to match U.S. strategic priorities with action and to impose upon a long-term competitor the costs of victory for its intervention in Syria.”

“Russia Wants to Trade Syrian Refugees for Money,” Anchal Vohra, Foreign Policy, 11.17.20: The author, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy, writes:

  • “Russia’s goals in Syria were never altruistic. It wanted to preserve a military base in the Middle East to guard its regional interests, and it sought postwar reconstruction projects for its companies as a payoff for backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Moscow has achieved the first goal, but the second is proving much more difficult.”
  • “Two diplomatic visions of Syrian reconstructions continue to clash. The West insists on linking reconstruction funds to a domestic political process deemed widely legitimate, the release of thousands of political prisoners, and guaranteed safety for all Syrians. Russia, for its part, wants to make reconstruction a precondition for the return of Syrian refugees. It has tried to sell the idea that the country’s 6 million-plus refugees will only be able to go back home if the West is willing to pay to rebuild Syria.”
  • “In Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin is unable to seek any concessions from Assad that could persuade the West to back an international conference for refugee return, such as repealing mandatory conscription, releasing prisoners, and giving unhindered access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. But the other very important reason that many Syrians do not wish to return is the economic crisis in Syria. People don’t have enough to eat, their cities have been pulverized, and their homes are mere rubble in a vast wasteland.”
  • “Most countries have made it clear that they don’t want to legitimate Russia’s attempt to exploit the refugee issue for its own diplomatic and economic gain. But that’s not to suggest they have any plausible ideas of their own for reducing the suffering either of Syrians inside the country or those scattered elsewhere.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant developments.

Elections interference:

“How to Defeat Disinformation. An Agenda for the Biden Administration,” Nina Jankowicz, Foreign Affairs, 11.19.20: The author, a fellow at the Wilson Center, writes:

  • “After four fractious years of politicization and polarization … it will take more than official pledges to address the degradation of public discourse in the United States and the manipulation of information by self-interested charlatans. The next administration will do better in this fight only if it pushes for new governmental structures and legislation.”
  • “The Biden administration must first ensure that all levels of the federal government take the threat of disinformation seriously. … The British government convenes foreign and domestic policy officials to develop plans for mitigating online threats and to respond to specific crises, such as the onslaught of Russian disinformation that followed the 2018 poisoning in the United Kingdom of the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. The United States should take a similar approach.”
  • “Biden must push for new governmental structures and legislation to fight disinformation. … Serious efforts to combat disinformation will require a commensurate budget.”
  • “The Biden administration should bolster public media in order to provide more sober alternatives to the fire and brimstone of cable news. … These measures will only begin to address the phenomenon of online disinformation. Public trust in the United States has broken down to such a degree that disinformation is likely to proliferate even in the face of concerted government efforts to combat it.”
  • “Without a serious injection of urgency at the highest levels and an understanding that fighting disinformation starts with good governance, the chaos of the Trump era will prove to be the norm, not the exception.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Trump May Be Leaving, But Russia Sanctions Will Stay,” Fyodor Lukyanov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.20.20: The author, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, writes:

  • “There are two fundamental reasons for the increased use of sanctions. One is linked to the domestic political situation in the United States; the other is a consequence of global political and economic changes.”
  • “To start with the first reason: … The history of the erosion of the procedure by which the United States makes foreign policy decisions is important in the context of sanctions. Trump’s opponents in Congress quickly discovered they lacked instruments to rein in the head of state’s despotic tendencies with regard to foreign policy. The most prominent and functional instrument they did have was sanctions, hence the sharp rise in legislative activity in this area. The focus of that activity was Russia, since it was at the center of the Democrats’ conflict with Trump.”
  • “The second reason for sanctions remaining in place indefinitely [is as follows]. ... Sanctions are becoming a form of economic regulation in this era of new protectionism. By virtue of its unique position in the international system, the United States has the most opportunities to exercise this kind of regulation in its own interests. Until another universally recognized system of rules appears (and for now, the world is only moving further away from that), there is no reason not to believe that the United States will make full use of those opportunities.”

“Joe Biden's Oncoming Headache Over Vladimir Putin,” Matthew Rojansky and Michael Kimmage, CNN, 11.20.20: The authors, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and a professor of history at the Catholic University of America, write:

  • “When it comes to Russia, Biden will face a series of challenges. His administration will have to contend with a Russian military presence in Ukraine, in Georgia, in Syria, in Libya and now in Azerbaijan. Russia is likely to grow closer with China in the coming years, as U.S.-China tensions rise, posing a serious strategic dilemma for Biden.”
  • “Nevertheless, Gorbachev's soothing phrases about normalization are not delusional. … Consider Gorbachev's basic idea. Diplomacy between Russia and the United States is necessary. … [A] good start would be to build steady, sustained mid-level connections between the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense. In fact, those mid-level connections would mirror the way in which the U.S. pursues diplomacy with other competitors today and the kind of constructive communication that the U.S. and the Soviet Union practiced throughout much of the Cold War.”
  • “Under Biden, the U.S. would do well to show willingness to give if Russia does too. To accomplish any of this, though, the United States must have access to Russian interlocutors, and the conversations held must be credible on both sides. That takes effort and time.”
  • “A sobering lesson from the past is that the United States and Russia have often mistaken the other's defense for offense. … Finally, the Biden administration should prioritize people-to-people ties.”
  • “Putin exploits anti-Americanism for domestic political gain, and while he might struggle to deal with a less contentious, less zero-sum U.S.-Russian relationship, his eventual successor might be grateful for that, if it can be attained in the next four years.”

“The Case for a Biden-Putin Thaw: Warmer relations with Moscow make sense only if the Kremlin is willing to play by the rules,” Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 11.19.20The author, associate editor of the news outlet, writes:

  • “Donald Trump's departure from the White House will be an obvious moment to turn the screws on the Kremlin to raise the cost of Mr. Putin’s myriad breaches of the rules-based international order. Another response would be to test if there is an opportunity to recast the relationship. The two approaches are not as far from each other as they might seem.”
  • “It cannot be beyond possibility that Mr. Putin is now considering whether his regime's best interests lie in another four years in open conflict with the West. If there was ever going to be a time to consider some sort of accommodation this must surely be it.”
  • “Reset, of course, is not Mr. Biden's favorite word. … And yet Mr. Biden is also a pragmatist. He has signaled that, as Mr. Putin suggested, the New START strategic arms treaty … should be extended beyond its February expiry.”
  • “The logic is straightforward: whatever the state of relations between Washington and Moscow there will be occasions when the two sides would do best to cooperate. Climate change might be another area; so, too, the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The West, after all, did business with Moscow at the height of the Cold War.”
  • “Whether such cooperation could be the prelude to a general thaw is the more difficult question. I have my doubts. … Much as it makes sense for Mr. Biden to explore the possibility of warmer ties, too many Europeans have been ready to bow to Mr. Putin’s terms. In truth, a reset would have a useful chance of success only if Moscow committed to an enduring change in its behavior. The way to persuade Mr. Putin is to be implacably tough from the outset.”

“Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy and Russia,” Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.19.20: The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “[T]his promises to be one of the coldest personal relationships between the U.S. and Russian leaders. … In terms of foreign policy, President-elect Biden is often compared in Russia to his former boss Barack Obama, but although many of the people likely to get top [foreign policy] positions [in his administration] … are former members of the Obama administration, Biden’s foreign policy experience goes back much further. For the seventy-eight-year-old, the Cold War is … something he lived through.”
  • “Biden does not believe that the attempt made at the end of the Cold War to integrate Russia into the U.S.-dominated system was a mistake. He rejects any notion that the failure of that effort was the result of NATO’s eastern enlargement: Russian paranoia, in his view, should not be condoned. Rather, the problem was the takeover of the Russian state by its security services. However, Biden is not giving up on Russia. … Eventually, Russia will come back to its senses, ditch Putin’s policies and recognize that it cannot rebuild itself unless it engages with the West.”
  • “Such a conclusion provides an insight into Biden’s future policy toward Russia … For the Biden White House, everything will be part of a strategy. Russia will not be central to it, but neither will it be absent. The ultimate goal appears to be to undermine Putin’s nationalism, destroy Russia’s near-alliance with China and return the country to the position of an adjunct to the West.”
  • “Biden’s term will overlap with the rest of Putin’s current one. It will be during that time that Putin has to make his fateful decision about the 2024 elections, and a lot will happen between now and then. It is good that the master of the Kremlin understands whom he will be facing in the White House.”

“Robert Gates’ Insights on How to Employ Instruments of US National Power,” Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters, 11.18.20: In this book review, the author, founding director of Russia Matters, writes:

  • “Robert Gates’ ‘Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World’ constitutes the most coherent of recent attempts to catalogue the key instruments of modern America’s national power and then discern how the use of these instruments has evolved following the end of the Cold War and to what effect.”
  • “While post-Cold War America’s non-military tools have been underutilized, their military counterparts have been overused, constituting, among other things, mission creeps in the greater Middle East, according to Gates. … Having diagnosed the ills of America’s utilization of power on the world scene, Gates then prescribes a nuanced treatment.”
  • “[W]hile I also largely agree with Gates’ analysis of the outcomes of Bush Jr.’s campaign to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and of Putin’s intervention in Syria, I cannot agree with Gates’ repetition of a talking point that remains popular inside the Beltway that Russia has no allies. … Nor can I fully share Gates’ skepticism that a Marshall-like plan for newly-independent Russia could have facilitated its transformation into a Western-style democracy.”
  • “Gates’ assessment of U.S.-Russian relations after the end of the Cold War and Russia itself is much more solid and sound than that of some other former senior U.S. government officials who squarely focused on post-Soviet Eurasia in their government work. As important, Gates, unlike some of these experts, concedes that the U.S. is yet to craft a strategy of how to deal with Russia. That such a strategy is lacking even though it is much needed, I fully agree with. The incoming Biden administration would do well to consult Gates’ book for crafting its foreign policy strategy, especially when it comes to deciding when whether and when to use military means to attain desired ends.”


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Talk of an Early Retirement for Vladimir Putin Is Premature,” Henry Foy, Financial Times, 11.22.20: The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “Perpetual whispers of the Russian leader’s departure from the Kremlin rose in volume this week, after the country’s parliament rubber-stamped a law granting immunity from investigation or prosecution to former presidents and their families.”
  • “However speculation over whether the move signals an early retirement for Mr. Putin ignores another law, also passed this year, allowing the 68-year-old president to rule for 12 more years after this term—his fourth—ends in 2024.”
  • “Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, reckons that while it is natural for Mr. Putin to seek the comfort of protection should his presidency end, there is no connection between the new legislation and his possible retirement plans.”
  • “‘He could find a successor before, and he can today, and he is aware that he can never be sure that it’s not a mistake,’ said Ms. Stanovaya. ‘You will never be protected by your choice.’ Until Mr. Putin finds a way to solve that conundrum, talk of transition is premature. But for now, there is no harm in keeping his options open.”

“More Than Meets the Eye: Who Benefits Most from Russia’s Ministerial Rotations?” Emily Ferris, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 11.20.20: The author, a research fellow at RUSI, writes:

  • “Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has just conducted a mini reshuffle of his cabinet, with five ministers variously promoted or moving horizontally to other government positions.”
  • “Many of the staffing changes replace ministers that former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had appointed … suggesting Mishustin might be conducting a clean break with his predecessor. But this does not imply that Mishustin’s authority might be increasing, or that he is anything but entirely loyal to Putin. Mishustin remains a Putin functionary and party loyalist, and there is no evidence to suggest he is attempting to reconfigure power in his favor.”
  • “One working theory is that these reshuffles could be testing the effectiveness of the constitutional amendments introduced at the start of the year. The changes stipulate that Mishustin must put forward ministerial candidates, which Putin would then officially appoint. If the reshuffle was a test of this process, it likely passed muster, as the five candidates were appointed within one day. This could be the Kremlin planning ahead; State Duma elections in 2021 are likely to herald much more significant rotations of government personnel, which will necessitate a smooth transition of portfolios.”

“Putin's Latest Election Dirty Tactic: Label the Opposition as 'Foreign Agents,'” Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Washington Post, 11.20.20: The author, a Russian democracy activist, writes:

  • “You can tell the ruling party is in trouble when one of its candidates loses to his own office cleaner during municipal elections. This is what happened in Russia's Kostroma region earlier this fall, when a local mayor, a member of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, put his cleaner on the ballot to have an ‘opponent’ to run against — just to have the farce backfire when the mayor was defeated in a landslide.”
  • “This week, Putin's party unveiled new legislative proposals allowing the authorities to label any opposition candidate as a ‘foreign agent.’ The designation, which in Russian is synonymous with ‘foreign spy,’ will be included on all signature petitions, campaign literature and on the ballot. To be labeled a ‘foreign agent,’ a candidate just has to have been associated with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or media organization designated by the Russian government as a ‘foreign agent,’ or have accepted ‘any form of organizational or methodological support from foreign sources.’ Participating in a seminar organized by an international NGO, for example, would qualify.”
  • “Any candidate backed by Navalny would be automatically affected as his NGO, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, is already designated by the government as a ‘foreign agent’ … The growing public fatigue with a corrupt and abusive regime won't disappear because of new bans, restrictions or vote-rigging. If society is unable to express its opposition through the ballot box, it will find another way.”

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:

“Joe Biden Can Make Transatlantic Unity Possible,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, Heiko Maas, The Washington Post, 11.17.20: Le Drian, the French minister of foreign affairs, and Maas, the German minister of foreign affairs, write:

  • “With Biden, greater transatlantic unity will be possible with regard to autocrats and countries that seek to enhance their power by undermining international or regional order. But a principled approach does not exclude dialogue and cooperation. … We are ready to engage with Moscow on issues relevant to European security, and we expect a constructive response. The European Union must prepare for this.”
  • “We must work together to deal effectively with China's growing assertiveness, and also to maintain necessary avenues of cooperation with Beijing. … But this requires that the United States and Europe consult each other to coordinate our approaches.”
  • “We, as Europeans, want to reengage the United States on a joint approach to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program and to deal with the other challenges Iran poses to our security and the region. We will have to address Turkey's problematic behavior in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And we must work together to fight terrorism and radicalization.”
  • “Already, Europe takes on much greater responsibility for security in its neighborhood. … In a few weeks, a group of high-ranking security experts will present its recommendations on how to make NATO more fit for purpose. We are committed to that idea as an investment in the future of the transatlantic partnership.”
  • “Security in the 21st century also depends on whether we find joint answers to the global challenges of our times. We welcome Biden's announcement that the United States will rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization. We see this as the starting point of a transatlantic endeavor to strengthen multilateralism and to adapt it to the challenges of today and tomorrow. It remains the only efficient response in a world where a growing number of actors seek to undermine the rules-based order.”


“Defense in Depth: Why US Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever,” Kori Schake, Jim Mattis, Jim Ellis and Joe Felter, Foreign Affairs, 11.23.20: The authors of the article write:

  • “As capable as the U.S. military is, the United States’ principal adversaries are more constrained by its network of alliances than by its military might. But continued failure to adequately invest in relationships with allies and partners and to cooperate with them to shape the international environment risks the erosion of this network—allowing a long-tended garden to become choked with weeds. Even worse, it could result in the emergence of other, competing networks, presaging an international order from which the United States is excluded, unable to influence outcomes because it is simply not present.”
  • “The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth. In practice, ‘America first’ has meant ‘America alone.’ That has damaged the country’s ability to address problems before they reach U.S. territory and has thus compounded the danger emergent threats pose.”
  • “The principal external threat the United States faces today is an aggressive and revisionist China—the only challenger that could potentially undermine the American way of life. The United States’ goal, however, should not only be to deter great-power war but to seek great-power peace and cooperation in advancing shared interests. For that, the United States’ alliances and partnerships are especially crucial.”
  • “The best strategy for ensuring safety and prosperity is to buttress American military strength with enhanced civilian tools and a restored network of solid alliances—both necessary to achieving defense in depth. The pandemic should serve as a reminder of what grief ensues when we wait for problems to come to us.”

Karabakh conflict:

“Has Russia Paved a Path for Turkey to Capitalize on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict?” Mark Episkopos, The National Interest. 11.18.20: The author, a national security reporter for the National Interest, writes:

  • “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was, in large part, conducted through the use of combat drones. A recent investigation by Russian publication Vzglyad found that Azerbaijan’s Bayraktar TB2 drone strikes against Armenian and separatist targets were coordinated by a Turkish major-general who has been in Baku since at least July.”
  • “Not only did Turkey wage the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through drones, military advisors, special forces commandos, and imported Syrian mercenaries, but there is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that Ankara played an outsized role in Baku’s decision to launch the September offensive. A panoply of high-ranked Turkish officials met with their Azerbaijani counterparts throughout the summer to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, and Turkish arms sales to Baku exploded in the months leading up to the September offensive.”
  • “Russian president Vladimir Putin tepidly acknowledged Baku’s lurch toward Ankara at a conference earlier this week. Describing Turkish support for Azerbaijan as a ‘geopolitical consequence of the Soviet collapse,’ Putin also noted that ‘Azerbaijan is a sovereign, independent government. Azerbaijan is within its rights to pick its allies as it deems necessary. Who can deny them this?’”
  • “Despite formally being a military ally of Armenia, Moscow has long attempted to play the role of neutral broker in conflicts between Yerevan and Baku. That approach may have run its course.”

“Putin’s Nagorno-Karabakh Calculus Can Undermine Russian Clout in FSU,” Simon Saradzhyan, The Moscow Times, 11.19.20: The author, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, writes:

  • “[Dmitri] Trenin infers … that Russia’s national interests no longer require anchoring ex-Soviet neighbors to Moscow. … I disagree. … One of post-Soviet Russia’s traditionally vital interests has been to keep formerly Soviet neighbors anchored to itself while preventing the emergence or arrival of alternative regional hegemons, so that Moscow can thrive in a friendly environment. ….the Nagorno-Karabakh war clearly threatened this vital Russian interest.”
  • “So, if Russia’s vital interests cannot quite explain why Putin chose not to employ Russia’s leverage to stop the Nagorno-Karabakh war early on, then what can? In the end, what tipped the balance of pros and cons of Russia’s early intervention in the war toward not intervening may have been Putin’s personal animosity toward Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.”
  • “Where the Armenian leader did, however, draw Putin’s ire, was in prosecuting Kocharyan, who remains Putin’s personal friend.”
  • “Russia’s decision not to employ leverage to stop the conflict in its early stages made a lasting impression on its CSTO allies in what may ultimately influence their geopolitical choices in the longer term should Russia’s national power decline substantially vis-à-vis alternative ‘guarantors of security’ in the neighborhood.”
  • “Russia’s response to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has been perhaps not the best way for a great power to incentivize such interest, to put it mildly. After all, countries prefer to participate in alliances that are built on mutual respect for each other’s military and security interests of existential importance and mutual aid when these interests are threatened.  Such military and security alliances typically prove to be more lasting than those based on the premise that there is simply no alternative great power to either ally or bandwagon with.”

“Five Ways the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Will Change the Map,” Gerard Toal, The Washington Post, 11.16.20. The author, professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech's campus in Arlington, writes:

  • “Azerbaijan captured a symbolic town. … The turning point in early November was the capture of a much-coveted strategic town of Shusi by the Azerbaijani army.”
  • “Nagorno-Karabakh will now be partitioned. … The nine-point cease-fire provides a template for a newly partitioned Nagorno-Karabakh, largely along the lines of Azerbaijan’s vision.”
  • “Armenia has in effect lost.”
  • “Azerbaijan now claims territorial integrity.”
  • “Regional strongmen triumphed in 2020. … The introduction of Russian peacekeepers to enforce the new map enhances the Kremlin’s leverage in the South Caucasus. But their mission may prove difficult and entangle Russia in the bitterness of an intractable conflict. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan also enabled the remaking of Karabakh and the South Caucasus.”


“Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Push Is Stalled. Biden Can Help Get It Going Again,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 11.19.20: The news outlet's editorial board writes:

  • “Once inaugurated, the Biden administration could take several steps to strengthen Mr. Zelensky's hand. One would be to prepare sanctions against the Constitutional Court judges who are complicit in tainted rulings; the Global Magnitsky Act provides for visa bans and asset freezes in such cases. A Biden Justice Department could also renew efforts to pursue criminal corruption cases against key Ukrainian oligarchs, including Dmytro Firtash and , who have been instrumental in blocking reforms and in promoting Russian interests in Ukraine.”
  • “Most important will be for Mr. Biden to resuscitate the political alliance between Washington and Kyiv, which enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress but was all but wrecked by Mr. Trump. Though he was induced to restore military aid to Ukraine, Mr. Trump continued to promote Russian disinformation that Ukraine rather than the regime of  interfered in the 2016 U.S. election—and he never invited Mr. Zelensky to Washington. Correcting that vindictive omission should be one of Mr. Biden's early foreign policy initiatives.”


“Why America’s Belarus Strategy Backfired,” Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 11.20.20: The author, a national security reporter for the National Interest, writes:

  • “Despite the continued recognition of Tsikhanouskaya and the Coordination Council as the legitimate representatives of Belarus by several Western states and institutions, it is abundantly clear that Lukashenko isn’t going anywhere—nor will he be quick to forget the role of Washington and Brussels in facilitating the abortive revolution against him. Not only is Lukashenko now more isolated from the West than ever, but he has spent the past few months consolidating his internal popularity and further reinforcing his levers of domestic control. Any future efforts at a reset with Minsk will now face an uphill struggle of the West’s own making.”
  • “The experience of Belarus is the latest in a long line of bipartisan policy failures everywhere from Syria to Kyrgyzstan. Policymakers and analysts sometimes ask why a particular color revolution failed, and what Western institutions can do to help the next one succeed. But the record is abundantly clear: color revolution is itself a failed policy, driven by a misguided focus on enforcing liberal-democratic values rather than pursuing concrete strategic ends.”

“Lukashenko’s Vicious Circle,” Artyom Shraibman, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.17.20The author, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Never in the modern history of Belarus have the siloviki, or security services, played such a large role at the top of government. Their support has enabled President Alexander Lukashenko to survive the peak of the political crisis that engulfed the country following the contested presidential election back in August.”
  • “But the presence in government of so many security officials is causing new problems. As the crisis continues, Lukashenko needs to retain the loyalty of his generals from various agencies while keeping them all under control. He must strike a balance, neither allowing them to go soft, nor to acquire any excessive ambition.”
  • “Lukashenko finds himself in something of a vicious circle. Having surrounded himself with siloviki and tasked them with managing everything, from the economy to domestic policy, he has become even less capable of launching the reforms needed to appease society. And an unhappy society will continue to prompt militarization and the toughening of the regime.”
  • “Unfortunately, one of the possible ways out of this impasse is a new escalation of violence. That could either turn the country into a full-fledged military dictatorship (propped up by Russia), or do what the first clampdown in August failed to do: split the authoritarian monolith of the Belarusian regime.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Moldova Has a New President. What Next?,” Stanislav Secrieru, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.19.20: The author, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, writes:

  • “Just like four years ago, the 2020 race saw Igor Dodon, a practitioner of patronal politics, face off against Maia Sandu, a fervent reformer. While all opinion polls put the incumbent Dodon in the lead, Sandu prevailed in the first round by a 3.5 percent margin. Instead of the expected close result in the runoff, Sandu triumphed by 15.5 percent.”
  • “The popular vote confers a high level of legitimacy to the president.”
  • “The president enjoys important powers in the field of foreign policy. The priority for Sandu will be to reopen the top-level dialogue with two key neighbors (Ukraine and Romania) and reach out to the EU.”
  • “Any government in Moldova will need an external cash injection to weather the coming winter. Russia may provide a loan, but it will have to calculate whether it is worth backing a sinking political ship or whether the time has come to throw its weight behind an alternative political project or actor. The IMF or the EU may provide financial support, but only in exchange for reforms. However, the majority that has emerged in parliament is more about muddling through politics and less about reforms.”
  • “Early elections in Moldova are probably unavoidable. The public pressure will keep growing with every passing day. The question, therefore, is not if, but when. PSRM will drag its feet in the hope of triggering elections at the best possible moment for the party, but that moment may never come. The Socialists may lose control over the political dynamics and agenda. Today there are too many uncertainties to try to foresee when early elections will take place and what the contours of the new power configuration might be. One thing is sure: Moldovan politics is bound to remain as chaotic and unpredictable as ever.”