Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 19-26, 2018

This Week's Highlights:

  • The skirmish in the Kerch Strait shows Moscow’s resolve to hold on to the spoils of its actions in Ukraine, as well as the lengths to which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will go to remain in power, writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. However, neither Putin nor Poroshenko are interested in all-out war, Bershidsky argues.
  • Russia has no desire to territorially expand into the Baltics, but it does have several tools—likely to remain confined to the business and intelligence spheres—at its disposal to influence these states, argues Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
  • The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov asks why the Russian regime risks taking actions that threaten the wealth of Putin’s associates, such as annexing Crimea and the resulting sanctions, or damage Putin’s popularity? Because the Russian elite has global ambitions, Baunov writes, and even on domestic matters, they are driven by securing Russia’s place in the world.
  • The U.S. cannot become complacent following the low level of Russian interference in the 2018 election, the Washington Post’s editorial board writes. “But it also cannot allow reports of interference to sow unwarranted doubt in the legitimacy of the vote and discord in society,” the editorial board warns.

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:

  • No significant commentary.

NATO-Russia relations:

“Probing the Baltic States: Why Russia’s Ambitions Do Not Have a Security Dimension,” Emily Ferris, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 11.21.18The author, a research fellow in RUSI’s international security studies department, writes:

  • “On 7 November, NATO conducted military training drills with Poland which included … contingents from … Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. … However, it is not clear that military exercises of this kind reflect the real security needs of the Baltic states.”
  • “While Baltic state leaders are apprehensive about Russia’s intent towards their countries, it is unlikely that Russia has serious territorial ambitions there.”
  • “Russia will not risk directly engaging with a NATO member … Russia already exerts significant influence over the Baltic states, through its high penetration of the Baltics’ political and intelligence processes, as well as business networks. … Russia still considers these countries to be within its historic sphere of influence.”
  • “One of the most frequently discussed levers of Russian influence in the Baltics is through the significant Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia—around a quarter of the population in Latvia. … However, these ethnic Russian communities are not a united movement seeking regime change.”
  • “Ultimately, Russia has no desire to territorially expand into the Baltic states, but it does have several tools at its disposal to influence these states.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


“The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat: Current and Future Challenges From the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Other Groups,” Seth G. Jones, Charles Vallee and Danika Newlee, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 11.20.18The authors, members of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, write:

  • “Despite the Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, an increasingly diffuse Salafi-jihadist movement is far from defeated. … The number of Salafi-jihadists in 2018 declined somewhat from a high in 2016, but is still at near-peak levels since 1980.”
  • “Attack data indicates that there are still high levels of violence in Syria and Iraq from Salafi-jihadist groups, along with significant violence in … Yemen, the Sahel, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Somalia.”
  • “These findings suggest that there is a large pool of Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters willing and able to use violence to achieve their goals. Every U.S. president since 9/11 has tried to move away from counterterrorism in some capacity, and it is no different today. Balancing national security priorities in today’s world needs to happen gradually.”
  • “For the United States, the challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention and resources to dealing with state adversaries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. … Rather, the mistake would be declaring victory over terrorism too quickly and … shifting too many resources and too much attention away from terrorist groups when the threat remains significant.”

Conflict in Syria:

“Fragile Syria Cease-Fire Tests Russia-Turkey Ties,” Sune Engel Rasmussen and Thomas Grove, Wall Street Journal, 11.25.18The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write:

  • “Turkey and Russia … have for weeks said the [Idlib cease-fire] deal is working … But in recent days, Russian-backed forces of Mr. Assad have intensified artillery barrages on rebel-held towns in southern Idlib. … Russia's defense ministry said Sunday its warplanes struck rebels … responsible for a chemical attack around … Aleppo … No independent evidence corroborated the claim, but Russia's defense ministry said it would talk to Turkey.”
  • “Russia has … call[ed] into question the prospects for a continued cease-fire … Moscow hasn't ruled out a major offensive, as the Syrian regime can't take Idlib without Russian air power. … Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu [has] pressed his Turkish counterpart … to separate moderate and radical rebels in Idlib.”
  • “Given the size of Idlib's population … [s]ome warn the fighting could be worse than the 2016 battle for Aleppo.”
  • “Mr. Putin has shown an understanding that Turkey would be destabilized militarily and politically from potential droves of migrants and extremists that would likely try to enter the country if Idlib were attacked. … Erdogan has promised Mr. Putin to rid Idlib of militants they both consider terrorists.”
  • “The potential spoiler in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is recruiting ‘elite forces’ over social media. … The Turkey-Russia deal reopened the main highway … allowing the [extremist] group to tax commercial and private traffic in the checkpoints it still holds … The group also profits from control over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Idlib into Turkey.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Russian Election Hacking Wasn't as Bad in 2018. That's No Excuse to Sit Back and Relax,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, 11.24.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “Russia did not sit out 2018. … [O]n the eve of the midterm elections, … Facebook removed 115 accounts the company believes were linked to an influence operation. … [W]hile Russia did not sit out 2018, the entities defending the election against incursions from abroad didn't, either. And compared with 2016, that is progress.”
  • “Companies and their partners in civil society and the government have made the simplest malign tactics … harder to pull off. They also managed to disrupt some coordinated campaigns before they had the chance to spread too widely … As a result, Russian-linked accounts … appear to have failed to reach 2016 levels of engagement.”
  • “Russia also had less success than in 2016, and launched fewer salvos, in hacking election infrastructure—at least as far as is known. … But those who would undermine democracy have evolved their tactics in an effort to stay ahead of platforms' policing work.”
  • “The United States cannot become complacent … But it also cannot allow reports of interference to sow unwarranted doubt in the legitimacy of the vote and discord in society. That, after all, is exactly what the Russians want.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant commentary.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“What Drives the Russian State,” Alexander Baunov, New York Times, 11.22.18The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “[A]nalysis of Russia, both inside and outside the country, has largely focused on two interpretations of his [Putin’s] regime. The first argues that Russia is a mafia state … The second … that whatever is done in or by Russia is done for the sake of his [Putin’s] approval rating.”
  • “These theories provide a convenient framework for making sense of Russia; they are also tinged with moralism. For these reason, many politicians, analysts and scholars both in Russia and in the West have embraced them. But these explanations fundamentally clash with reality.”
  • “If the Russian elite were really just a mafia state … it would never do anything that got in the way of its overseas investments and spending. Yet Mr. Putin’s bold foreign policy adventures … have received the support of most of the Russian elite despite … stinging sanctions.”
  • “And certainly, Mr. Putin, like most politicians … cares about his popularity … But that is not all he cares about. … In July, Russia’s Parliament voted to raise the retirement age, sparking a wave of discontent. … Yet the Kremlin pushes forward with the reforms.” 
  • “Why does the Russian regime risk … taking actions to threaten the personal wealth of Mr. Putin’s associates or damage the president’s popularity? Because Russia is not the Philippines or Guatemala. The Russian elite has global ambitions.”
  • “Even on domestic matters, Mr. Putin and his allies are driven by securing Russia’s place in the world.”
  • “He [Putin] and his backers … have found that it’s not only impossible to catch up with the West but also impossible to overtake it. They want to build an alternative.”

“Russia and Japan Could Finally End WWII: The two countries seem determined to reach a deal on disputed islands that has eluded them for decades,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.19.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “For decades, every sign Russia and Japan had made progress in talks on disputed territories and a post-World War II peace treaty turned out to be a false alarm. This time may be different.”
  • “Putin and Abe met in Singapore last week and agreed to speed up talks on a peace treaty their two countries negotiated after World War II but the Soviet Union refused to sign. The talks will be based on a joint declaration the Soviet Union and Japan signed in 1956 … that required the Soviet Union to hand over to Japan the island of Shikotan and the Habomai islets once a peace treaty was signed. In recent years, Japan has insisted on the handover of two more islands, Etorofu (Iturup) and Kunashiri (Kunashir), and Russia has refused to cede any territory at all.”
  • “Both sides have strong misgivings about a compromise based on the 1956 declaration. … [However,] [b]oth Abe and Putin really want to put the matter behind them. Abe’s primary interest is his legacy. … Putin’s interest is both economic and geopolitical.”
  • “Russia will likely discuss handing over the islands without losing sovereignty, on the basis of a lease or a joint governance deal. There will also be demands for firm guarantees that the U.S. will keep away from the islands and that certain Japanese investment projects and energy deals will follow the peace treaty.”
  • “Whether Abe can live with any of the Russian demands is uncertain … But, knowing how difficult it can be, the Japanese prime minister has agreed to speed up the talks and hold additional meetings with Putin. It’s still likely that they’ll produce another dud — but less likely than on any previous occasion during Putin’s long rule.”


  • No significant commentary.


“Putin and Poroshenko Don't Want All-Out War,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg/The Moscow Times, 11.26.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Sunday’s dramatic events in the Kerch Strait, where Russian troops seized three Ukrainian navy vessels, highlight the Kremlin’s resolve to hold on to the spoils of its aggression against Ukraine and flout its international obligations.”
  • “The clash had been brewing since April, a month before the opening of a new … bridge … between the Russian mainland and annexed Crimea. … The bridge was built without regard to Ukrainian shipping at two Azov Sea ports, Mariupol and Berdyansk.”
  • “The Russian coastguard has been holding up mainly Ukrainian merchant ships and conducting exhaustive checks … The checks are, indeed, illegal. In 2003, Russia and Ukraine agreed to the free movement of each other’s ships through the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov.”
  • “Sunday’s escalation came when Ukraine tried to move three navy vessels from Odessa … to Mariupol. … [T]he Russian coastguard rammed one of the vessels and seized all three, wounding six sailors.”
  • “Formally, there’s a reason to introduce martial law now that didn’t exist during the bloodiest fighting. … Russian forces have openly attacked Ukrainian ships in violation of a treaty. It’s no stretch to interpret this as an act of war.”
  • “The [Ukrainian] presidential election is scheduled for March 31… [Poroshenko is] highlighting … his success in ripping Ukraine from Russia’s orbit. According to recent polls, the strategy isn’t working. … Taking a stand against Russia just before the election could bolster the commander-in-chief’s chances.”
  • “On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin … isn’t averse to an escalation either to bring back some of the patriotic spirit kindled by Crimea.”
  • “Neither is interested in all-out war, however. … Both leaders will keep the confrontation simmering and the propaganda guns blazing, but they’ll be careful not to set off anything like the Russo-Georgian war of 2008.”

“Losing the Plot—Ukraine’s Opposition Seeks a Strategy,” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.20.18The author, an independent journalist specializing in the Donbas, writes:

  • “Up until 2014, the Party of Regions was Ukraine’s all-powerful ruling party, with a clear leader in Yanukovych and a loyal electorate in the south and east of the country. … By September 2014, the Party of Regions alumni had created an Opposition Bloc from the wreckage of the old party.”
  • “In the last parliamentary elections, the bloc’s performance was very modest, ending up with just 43 seats out of 450 in the Verkhovna Rada. With presidential and parliamentary elections imminent in 2019, what are its chances of doing better this time?  The bloc is already struggling with its big first challenge in agreeing on an opposition candidate for the presidential election next March.”
  • “The Kremlin is not enthusiastic about the Party of Regions veterans, seeing them as too prone to compromise. Yet it has few other options available, as the Opposition Bloc is the only viable pro-Russian organized movement in Ukraine. Moscow has also set its sights on parliamentary elections rather than the presidential ones.”
  • “The opposition is unlikely to fare well unless and until it can find a leader with a profile comparable to Yanukovych.”

 Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Why the Danske Bank Money Laundering Scandal Is a Problem for Putin,” Steven E. Halliwell, Reuters, 11.19.18The author, former corporate finance head of Central and Eastern Europe for Citibank and CFO of the U.S.-Russia Investment Fund, writes:

  • “The ever-widening Danske Bank money laundering scandal, involving 200 billion euros ($228.5 billion) of ‘suspicious transfers’ over eight years … points to the deep institutionalized corruption in Vladimir Putin’s Russia—and the political challenge facing the president himself.”
  • “The fact that many Russians … were laundering money through Estonia makes it clear that money laundering is a survival mechanism for Russian businesses and low-paid bureaucrats. … Time may be running out for that approach, however, as Russia’s economy falters and laundering becomes harder to hide.”
  • “Domestically, Putin’s popularity is dropping following his efforts to raise the retirement age … That could push him into making a choice: either another distracting foreign adventure, or a shift to market reforms. Both options are perilous … But a shift to market reforms … would undermine Putin’s feudal patronage system and destabilize politics.”
  • “The question now is what Putin will choose. Compliance with global money laundering rules might not end the illegal flow of Russian wealth to the West, but would start to reduce it. Market reforms at home would stimulate new investment. But it’s unclear whether he could rally popular support for such measures—and whether his political lieutenants will allow it.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“A Russian Won’t Be Leading the Global Police Organization. That’s good. But the group's credibility still isn’t assured,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.21.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “The election of South Korean Kim Jong Yang as president of Interpol put an end to fears that the global police cooperation organization would fall under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the controversy surrounding the election lays bare a more important issue: How does one keep international organizations inclusive without leaving them open to abuse?”
  • “I’m glad [Russian police general Alexander] Prokopchuk lost. In Russia, it’s prudent to cross the street when you see a cop. Appointing Prokopchuk, part of a service known for monstrous corruption and torture, as the titular leader of global police would be a mockery of any law-abiding citizen’s idea of law and order.”
  • “Like in all major international organizations, iffy regimes … make up the majority of Interpol members, and there’s no democratic way to curtail their voting power. … One way to ensure democracy without offending anyone is to curtail the powers of elected offices. The Interpol presidency, for example, is largely a figurehead job.”
  • “Another way to handle the built-in tension … would be with an unwritten rule that multilateral organizations should be run by people from countries not closely allied with any of the great military and economic powers. … Instead of pushing their own candidates, as Russia did with Prokopchuk at Interpol, they [major powers] could choose to pick from a pool of neutral ones. There’d still be clashes … but at least there’d be a workable general approach—that is, if global leaders still want an effective multilateral framework.”