Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 2018

This Week's Highlights:

  • Following last week’s events in the Kerch Strait, Professor Robert Legvold argues that the U.S. should at the very least be aware that a large-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine could spark, while Ambassador Tony Brenton cautions that Western military help and supportive rhetoric does not propel Ukraine down the same path that Georgia took in August 2008. In the longer term, the U.S. needs to craft a comprehensive, and realistic, strategy for the Black Sea that would either deter Russia or incentivize a change in its course, according to Professor Nikolas K. Gvosdev. The U.S. needs to engage Russia not only on Crimea and the Donbass, but also on Europe's future security architecture, according to Dr. Thomas Graham.
  • Around 40 percent of Ukraine's population resides in the 10 provinces under martial law in the country’s Russian-speaking south and east—the same provinces where opposition to Petro Poroshenko is strongest, write professors Keith Darden and Lucan Ahmad Way. There, martial law could have the paradoxical effect of undermining national security by alienating citizens most vulnerable to Russian expansion, Darden and Way argue. Journalist Konstantin Skorkin warns that the introduction of martial law represents an attempt to divide Ukraine into “us” and “them” that may backfire for Poroshenko.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drop in popularity will likely prove he is more resilient than the West would like, writes Nate Reynolds, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Putin has many means of preserving power, and he is betting that he’ll be around for a long confrontation with the West. Washington should bet on that, too, writes Reynolds.
  • Many Russians praise George H.W. Bush for having treated Russia with respect during the Soviet Union’s final years in contrast to what many see as a disregard for Russian interests under the administrations that followed, writes Anton Troianovski, Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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:

“War With Russia? The New Cold War is more dangerous than the one the world survived,” Stephen F. Cohen, The Nation, 12.03.18: The author, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history and politics, writes:

  • “The new U.S.-Russian Cold War is more dangerous … The chances are even greater that this one could result, inadvertently or intentionally, in actual war between the two nuclear superpowers. … During the preceding Cold War, the possibility of nuclear catastrophe was in the forefront of American mainstream political and media discussion, and of policy-making. During the new one, it rarely seems to be even a concern.”
  • “In order to change Cold War policy fundamentally, leaders are needed. … But given the looming danger of war with Russia, is there time? Is any leader visible on the American political landscape who will say to his or her elites and party, as Gorbachev did, ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Russia Insists It Is in Compliance With the INF Treaty,” Pavel Podvig, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog, 11.26.18The author, an independent analyst, writes:

  • “On Nov. 26, 2018, Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister, held a briefing … to outline Russia's official position on the INF treaty. … Ryabkov strongly rejected U.S. allegations of non-compliance and said that Russia is committed to preserving the treaty.”
  • “Ryabkov … insisted that Russia hasn't tested the 9M729 missile to the INF range. Moreover, it appears that this is how Russia has built its defense—since the missile hasn't been tested to the prohibited range, it is treaty-compliant.”
  • “According to Ryabkov, 9M729 is a modification of the 9M728 missile of the Iskander-M system. … [In testing its maximum range] the missile flew to the range of ‘less than 480 km.’ … [H]e said that the modernization ‘dealt with … the missile warhead.’ This, however, contradicts other data that suggest that the 9M729 is about 1.8 meters longer than 9M728.”
  • “[H]e said that at some point the United States suggested that the tests were treaty-compliant only because the missile was not fully fueled. To answer that, Russia apparently ‘illuminated specific features of the missile's fuel system that rule out experiments like that.’”
  • “Ryabkov effectively confirmed … that the United States believes that 9M729 was tested from the Iskander-M launcher … This, of course, would make any discussion of returning to compliance extremely difficult.”
  • “Since Russia hasn't tested the missile to the INF range it believes that it is in compliance or at least that it has plausible deniability. The United States appears to have some pretty solid intelligence data that show that 9M729 has the INF range capability … But … intelligence data cannot be used as a proof for the purposes of the treaty.”
  • “While Russia may be technically in violation, this violation is not nearly as grave as it is portrayed and is definitely not serious enough to warrant dismantlement of the INF treaty.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

“Russian Cyber Operations: State-led Organized Crime,” James Sullivan, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 11.28.18The author, a research fellow in cyber threats and cyber security at RUSI, writes:

  • “The recent activities of … Russia’s military intelligence, otherwise known by its traditional … acronym of the GRU—on the territories of the U.K. and other European countries are by now well documented.”
  • “However, less media and public attention is paid to the GRU’s hostile cyber activities, despite the fact that last month, the U.K. and its allies directly attributed a series of hostile cyber attacks to the Russian military intelligence service.”
  • “The GRU has been deploying malware with delivery mechanisms commonly used in cybercrime campaigns, which meant that the recent cyber attacks were initially perceived to be criminal in nature (rather than state-led). Added to this, Russian organizations have been part of the collateral damage … making attribution even more complicated. The GRU may seek to outsource more of its malicious cyber activity to organized criminals for greater plausible deniability.”
  • “Attribution alone is unlikely to deter the Russian state from carrying out cyber attacks.”
  • “[T]he most effective tool to tackle the threat will be robust cyber risk-management strategies at both national and organizational level, together with diplomatic, legal and economic measures to deter future attacks.”

Elections interference:

“Cohen Lied. Here’s Why It Matters,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 11.29.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes:

  • “The facts to which Mr. Cohen admitted on Thursday don’t establish that Mr. Trump conspired with Russian efforts to win him the election, but they refute Mr. Trump’s frequent, vehement claim that he had nothing to do with Russia as he sought the White House. It was that falsehood that Mr. Cohen sought to protect by lying himself.”
  • “Well into the presidential race and as Mr. Trump’s chances of becoming the Republican nominee appeared certain, Mr. Cohen worked hard to get into the good graces of the Russian government—procuring meetings with high-ranking officials, planning trips for himself and Mr. Trump and briefing the then-candidate and his ‘family members’ on his progress.”
  • “These revelations, which Mr. Cohen concealed or obfuscated from congressional investigators conducting their own look into Russian election interference, put Mr. Trump at the center of an elaborate operation to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.”
  • “If investigating the Trump Organization and his business dealings was a ‘red line’ for Mr. Mueller not to cross—as Mr. Trump told The Times last year—the special counsel blew right past it with Thursday’s charges.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“A Foreign Policy for All. Strengthening Democracy—at Home and Abroad,” Elizabeth Warren, Foreign Affairs, 11.29.18The author, a U.S. senator, writes:

  • “[W]e need to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few. We need strong yet pragmatic security policies, amplified by diplomacy. And the United States can no longer maintain the comfortable assumption that its domestic and foreign policies are separate.”
  • “[E]fforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out. Russia became belligerent and resurgent. China weaponized its economy without ever loosening its domestic political constraints.”
  • “As a candidate, Trump promised to rebuild the military, but as president, he has gutted the diplomatic corps on which the Pentagon relies. … When it comes to nonproliferation, we should replace the current bluster and hostility … with a reinvestment in multilateral arms control and nonproliferation efforts for the twenty-first century.”
  • “[T]he United States is entering a new period of competition. … China is on the rise … To mask its decline, Russia is provoking the international community with opportunistic harassment and covert attacks. Both nations invest heavily in their militaries and other tools of national power. Both hope to … ultimately remake the global order to suit their own priorities.”
  • “The dictators who run those countries … also maintain control through corrupt economic policies … President Vladimir Putin attacks free speech and fans nationalism, but his real power derives from the careful intertwining of his government with state-run corporations conveniently overseen by friendly oligarchs.”
  • “President Trump … shamefully kowtows to Putin, even in the face of Russian attacks on American democracy.”
  • “In Europe, we should work with our allies to impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia for its attempts to subvert elections, and we should work to help our European allies develop energy independence. In Asia, we should encourage our allies to enhance their multilateral cooperation and build alternatives to China’s coercive diplomacy.”

“Russians Held Bush in High Regard as a Statesman,” Anton Troianovski, The Washington Post, 12.01.18The author, Moscow bureau chief for the news outlet, writes:

  • “George H.W. Bush's presidency will be forever linked with the Soviet Union's collapse. But in Moscow, his death provoked an outpouring of nostalgia Saturday for an American leader who chose careful diplomacy over brinkmanship.”
  • “Russians recalled bygone days of summits, treaties and transatlantic statecraft—a contrast to a present tableau of disruptions and uncertainties from the Trump White House.”
  • “‘George Bush Sr. was well aware of the importance of a constructive dialogue between the two major nuclear powers and took great efforts to strengthen Russian-American relations and cooperation in international security,’ Putin said.”
  • “Konstantin Kosachyov, a Russian lawmaker who heads the foreign relations committee of Russia's upper house of parliament, described the Bush era as ‘probably the peak of trust between our two states.’”
  • “And former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev … praised ‘the attention, amiability and ease in communication’ of the entire Bush family.”
  • “Many Russians laud Bush for having treated their country with respect during the painful last years of the Soviet Union, drawing a contrast with what they often see as a disregard for Russian interests under the administrations that followed.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russia After Putin: Where’s the Vision of Something Better? Opposition leaders shouldn’t give up on the idea of integrating Russia into Europe,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.27.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the wealthiest of … Putin’s Russian opponents, gathered Russian intellectuals … for a conference in Prague and presented a vision of ‘the Russia of his dreams.’ It looked a lot like Putin’s vision.”
  • “As a Russian, I find it more depressing that no one appears to have a compelling plan for the post-Putin future.”
  • “I’m looking for a credible vision that doesn’t replicate Putin’s delusional great-power ambitions. The Russia of my dreams is a country working on the goal of membership in the European Union. This Russia doesn’t mind giving up some of its sovereignty for permanent peace, a realistic shot at economic prosperity and a place in a security architecture not based on isolation and constant tension.”
  • “Until at least 2009, a majority of Russians said that European Union membership should be the country’s goal. Now, only a quarter do, while 60 percent are against it. So opposition leaders appear to have given up on a European future for Russia, accepting that Putin’s propaganda of exceptionalism and resentment has won.”
  • “That doesn’t make me optimistic about Russia going forward. Unless the country retraces some of the steps Putin took down a messianic, solitary path and reimagines itself as part of a bigger whole, it’s doomed to keep falling behind.”

“Putin Is Throwing His Weight Behind the Euro. Even as Russia steadily cuts holdings of US assets, it’s planning to sell bonds denominated in the EU currency,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.28.18The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes:

  • “Russia is preparing to sell bonds denominated in euros for the first time since 2013. … [T]he bond placement is a test of the ‘dedollarizarion’ program … If the test and the plan are successful, the European Union will get an unlikely but important ally for its efforts to bolster the global role of its common currency.”
  • “Russia has reduced its U.S. Treasury holdings from $96.1 billion in March to $14.4 billion in September. … The Treasury sell-off, then, would have reduced those [the Russian Central Bank’s] holdings by about 60 percent.”
  • “Russia is not doing this entirely by choice; dollar-denominated assets are still the most liquid. Rather, the Kremlin fears that U.S. sanctions may end up freezing a significant portion of the country’s international reserves.”
  • “[Russia’s planned eurobond] is meant to test whether there’s enough demand, primarily among big Russian investors worried about sanctions, for euro-denominated bonds with a lower yield than Russian dollar-denominated bonds have offered. If the sale goes as well as the $4 billion placement did in March, Russian officials will be more secure in hoping the country can shift its liabilities as well as its assets out of the dollar.”
  • “Even if Western investors shy away, no matter what currency Russia tries to borrow, at least Russian companies and wealthy individuals will have an opportunity to shield their investments from the U.S. government.”
  • “Russia’s experiments with the euro as the most viable alternative to the dollar should please EU officials, who have called for a special effort to increase the global use of the common currency.”

"Why Did Greece Turn Against Russia?" Dimitar Bechev, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), November 2018The author, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes:

  • “In the summer of 2018, Greece and [the] Russian Federation went through one of the worst crises in their traditionally friendly relations. The falling out was triggered by allegations of Russian meddling in Greek domestic politics aimed at undermining the settlement of the so-called name dispute with [the] neighboring Republic of Macedonia. But it also reflects a strategic turn towards the West overseen by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, once dismissed as a Kremlin ally. At the same time, Russia and Greece have taken care to keep tensions under control. A reset of ties is likely.”


  • No significant commentary.


“Martial Law in Ukraine: A Presidential Pyrrhic Victory?” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.28.18The author, an independent journalist specializing in the Donbass, writes:

  • “The armed clash in the Kerch Strait has opened a new chapter in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. On Nov. 25, Russian gunboats fired on a Ukrainian naval convoy; rammed a Ukrainian tugboat; and captured this tugboat, two other boats and all their crew. President Petro Poroshenko responded by … declaring martial law.”
  • “The imposition of martial law … in ten regions of the country and for thirty days—is unprecedented. It owes more to Poroshenko’s own political situation, four months ahead of presidential elections, than it does to the confrontation in the Kerch Strait. … No Ukrainian leader before Poroshenko took this step, even in 2014.”
  • “In the short term, Poroshenko has undoubtedly wrong-footed his political opponents. His main adversary, Tymoshenko, was forced to support the imposition of martial law. The president has also outwitted the Opposition Bloc, which voted against the measure.”
  • “Yet any attempt to divide Ukraine into ‘us’ and ‘them’ also summons up a melancholy sense of déjà vu. For many years before 2014, Ukrainian elections were framed as a fierce battle between the more nationalist west and center of the country and the supposedly more pro-Russian east and south.”
  • “Speculation that the president was planning to use the crisis to postpone elections have already fostered suspicion of his intentions. His Western partners are also skeptical, insisting that nothing justifies a deviation from democratic norms.”
  • “Poroshenko is more likely to succeed … if Russia escalates tensions. An escalation will prove that martial law was the correct response. It will not be so good for Ukraine as a whole, however.”

“Why Putin Is Pressuring Ukraine: The United States needs to decide how much of a threat Moscow’s regional revision is to US interests,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 11.27.18The author, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, writes:

  • “In 2014 … [t]he Kremlin shifted gears—adopting a geopolitical strategy of weakening the Ukrainian state as well as seizing direct control of the Crimean Peninsula—and a geoeconomic one of bypassing Ukraine as a keystone interconnector between Russia and Europe.”
  • “[T]he Kerch Strait Bridge is about reattaching Crimea … to the Russian mainland. … The Nordstream II and Turkish Stream pipelines are about removing Russian dependence on Ukraine as a transit state for its energy while also removing the economic influence Ukraine has on key Russian partners.”
  • “Years ago, … [people said] Russia lacked the financial wherewithal, the engineering capacity or the will to overcome the realities of Ukrainian geography. Now, with the Kerch Strait Bridge open, and pipe being laid on the seabeds of the Baltic and Black Seas, those comforting platitudes are no longer a reality.”
  • “Russia has been pursuing the military capabilities needed to defend them [these developments] from interruption. This was made abundantly clear in the clash in the Sea of Azov … What the incident also suggests is that the Russians are hyper-vigilant towards any action which might pose a threat to the bridge.”
  • “[W]hat Russia has been doing in the Sea of Azov over the past few months is to push for the creation of a new normal.”
  • “[T]he Russian government seems to expect that, over time, the furor will die down. … Russia continues to gamble that Crimea, over time, will become like North Cyprus.”
  • “The problem that the United States now faces is that the cost of opposing Russian revisionism has gone up. … Russia has a strategy for creating a new normal in the Black Sea. The United States needs to decide how much of a threat Moscow’s revision is to U.S. interests. … More than ever, a comprehensive, and realistic, strategy for the Black Sea is needed.”

“Russia and Ukraine Had A Short Naval Battle. Here’s What You Need To Know,” Dmitry Gorenburg and  Michael Kofman, The Washington Post, 11.26.18The authors, senior research scientists at CNA, write:

  • “Last week’s encounter was Ukraine’s first attempt to bring armed naval ships through the Kerch Strait since the completion of the bridge. … The naval battle was brief. The Russians gave the Ukrainian ships the order to halt, and when they refused to comply, a series of dangerous maneuvers culminated with the Don patrol ship ramming the Ukrainian navy tug. Subsequently Russia called in air power reinforcements … along with several other ships. It also blocked the channel under the bridge with a tanker. … Russian ships pursued the Ukrainian vessels and a brief gunfight left six wounded before the Russians captured the three Ukrainian ships.”
  • “According to Ukrainian accounts, the Russian Border Guard vessel fired directly at one of the Ukrainian ships, while the Russian account claims that direct fire was initiated only after … warning shots [were] ignored. The Ukrainian account claims the ships were captured outside … Russian territorial waters, while the Russian side argues that the ships were still within Russia’s maritime boundary.”
  • “Based on these accounts, it seems clear that Russia violated the terms of the 2003 bilateral treaty on the status of the Sea of Azov, since Russia adopted rules on advance notification of passage through the Kerch Strait in 2015 unilaterally … The treaty itself clearly states that warships belonging to both countries have freedom of navigation through the strait and does not specify any notification procedures for such ships.”
  • “For Russia, the quick victory is a reminder of its military dominance in the region … Ukraine seeks to contest the emerging status quo, where post-annexation Russia controls access to the Sea of Azov in practice.”
  • “Neither side is likely to back down … so tensions will remain high and additional skirmishes in the coming months cannot be ruled out.”

"Beware Sending Ukraine Down Georgia’s Path,” Letter to the editor by Tony Brenton, Financial Times, 11.28.18The author, British Ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, writes:

  • “Two points emerge from the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia in the Kerch Strait. The first is that the Russo-Ukrainian relationship … remains an unexploded bomb in the center of Europe. While the West pursues its policy of ineffectively sanctioning and lambasting Russia rather than talking to it, the ticking will only grow louder.”
  • “And the second is that the West needs to be very careful. The clear precedent is Georgia. Encouraged by mistaken but understandable expectations of Western support, that country launched a disastrous attack on Russian forces in August 2008 and received the predictable bloody nose.”
  • “A wise U.S. observer noted at the time that while the West did not give Georgia a green light, it did give it ‘an insufficiently red one.’ We need to be cautious that all our aid, military help and supportive rhetoric do not propel Ukraine down Georgia’s path. Unless of course we are ready this time to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine.”

“Nightmare: How the War in Ukraine Could Go Regional. Remember World War I?” Robert Legvold, The National Interest, 11.29.18The author, professor emeritus in the department of political science at Columbia University, writes:

  • “The violent incident on the approach to the Kerch Strait is not how many in the West envisage the path to war in Europe. … [T]he Kerch Strait crisis depicts a more realistic path to tragedy.”
  • “Russia will not … stop tightening the noose the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait represent for Ukraine. And Ukraine will not cease struggling to cut it. If doing that means seizing the tactical advantage elsewhere … the speed with which Ukraine's leadership declared martial law and placed its military forces on alert … provides more than a hint. Or, if the next flare-up over control of the waterways … occurs at the same time conflict in eastern Ukraine has heated up, the spark for large-scale conflict will be instant.”
  • “[T]hese events should remind everyone that the small-minded and lethargic approach … to the Donbass impasse is not as tolerable or risk-free as they appear to believe. Rather these events should open their eyes to the other dimensions of the Ukrainian-Russian standoff whose implications are starker and grimmer. And they should encourage leaders not only in Moscow and Kiev but in Washington and European capitals to open their history books.”

“Neither Russia Nor Ukraine Will Easily Give Up the Sea of Azov,” Thomas Graham, The National Interest, 11.29.18The author, managing director at Kissinger Associates, writes:

  • “Despite the mutual denunciations, neither side has an interest in escalation. The Ukrainians know they cannot stand up to the full might of the Russian military, particularly since they would have to stand alone. Neither the United States nor any European country … is prepared to enter armed conflict on the Ukrainian side.”
  • “The Russians … have nothing to gain by a direct military confrontation … when they are slowly achieving their strategic aims through constant low-level pressure … Both sides will, however, play up the incident to the hilt for domestic political purposes.”
  • “What should be clear is that there will be no resolution of the Donbass conflict without progress on Crimea, and both of those matters ultimately need to be discussed in the context of Europe's future security architecture. In short, the West needs to engage Russian on all three issues simultaneously. That does not mean that all three must be resolved simultaneously. It does mean that none can be resolved in isolation from the others.”

“Why Did Ukraine Impose Martial Law?” Keith Darden and Lucan Ahmad Way, The Washington Post, 11.29.18The authors, professors of politics, write:

  • “On Monday, the Ukrainian government imposed martial law in 10 of its 25 provinces—the first time the country's government took this step since Ukraine became independent in 1991.”
  • “Is this simply a response to external threats? … Ukraine faces a significant external threat from Russia.”
  • “Or is this a political solution to an electoral problem? Poroshenko's announcement of his intention to declare martial law prompted many Ukrainian observers to suspect that his motivations are more political than military. … Poroshenko may simply want to appear a leader in full command … However, the martial law decree included provisions to restrict constitutional guarantees of assembly and free speech that would seem to do little to bolster military preparedness.”
  • “Approximately 40 percent of Ukraine's population resides in the 10 provinces now under martial law. These are the same provinces—predominantly in the Russian-speaking south and east of the country—where opposition to Poroshenko is the strongest.”
  • “Given that the government has imposed martial law in those parts of Ukraine where Russian-language media is most popular, any Russian-language opposition media would seem to be especially vulnerable in the upcoming months. … [T]he fact that martial law is being imposed disproportionately on Russian-speaking regions is likely to further polarize an already deeply divided Ukraine.”
  • “[M]artial law could end up undermining national security against Russian aggression by potentially alienating those in the south and east that are most vulnerable to Russian expansion.”

“Will Trump Let Russia Take the Azov Sea?” Alexander Vershbow, The Washington Post, 11.28.18The author, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes:

  • “Russia’s illegal blockade and closure of the Kerch Strait on Sunday and its violent seizure of three Ukrainian ships are clear violations of international law and of bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreements.”
  • “Rhetorical condemnation by the United States and the European Union is necessary but not sufficient. The United States and its European allies need to impose real costs … including tighter economic sanctions on Russian shipping companies, banks and individual Putin cronies involved in trade with illegally occupied portions of Ukraine.”
  • “An essential first step should be seeking agreement by Germany to freeze or, preferably, cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline … The United States and its allies should also expand NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea … [Additionally,] [t]he United States and its allies should consider increased support to the Ukrainian navy as well, including provision of coastal defense systems for deployment along the Azov Sea coast.”

“Ukraine’s New Front Is Europe’s Big Challenge. There’s plenty Europe should do to push back against Russia’s latest attack on Ukraine,” Carl Bildt and Nicu Popescu, Foreign Policy, 11.27.28The authors, the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and the director of the Wider Europe Program at the ECFR, write:

  • “‘Crimea, Ukraine, Moldova.’ In late August 2008, with Russian troops in control of large chunks of Georgia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner voiced his fears about Russia’s next targets. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing his counterpart of having a ‘sick imagination.’ In retrospect, Kouchner’s imagination might have not been sick enough.”
  • “On Sunday, Russian gunboats opened fire on a Ukrainian naval convoy and rammed a tugboat before seizing it and two Ukrainian gunboats.”
  • “So, besides watching and expressing grave concern, what can Europeans and Americans do? … First, they can demonstrate diplomatic and symbolic support for freedom of navigation into and around the Sea of Azov. Sending non-military ships into the sea would help sustain this principle. … Second, Europeans and Americans can adopt something of an economic offset strategy for Ukraine. … Finally, … the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe … should start monitoring the Sea of Azov as well—with drones and ships.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Wildest Dream: A Costly Election For Georgia’s Ruling Party,” Tornike Sharashenidze, European Council on Foreign Relations, 11.30.18The author, a professor and head of the School of International Relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, writes:

  • “Despite being a still-immature democracy, … [Georgia] held a run-off vote and elected a woman president—both for the first time. … But the good news ends there.”
  • “Georgia’s peaceful transfer of power in 2012 seemed to indicate its readiness to embrace democratic practices. … However, its 2016 parliamentary election raised questions about the falsification of votes and the authorities’ use of administrative resources. The 2018 election has created far more acute concerns: there have been numerous reports of voter intimidation and bribery, as well as the misallocation of such resources.”
  • “It is now clear that the 2013 election went well simply because a Georgian Dream candidate was the clear favorite.”
  • “Interestingly, the new president … Salome Zourabishvili, formally ran as an independent candidate backed by the ruling party. From the start, it was clear that she would be an extremely problematic choice … Bidzina Ivanishvili—the billionaire chair of Georgian Dream and Georgia’s de facto ruler—most likely backed Zourabishvili to oppose Mikhail Saakashvili.”
  • “In familiar post-Soviet style, the government appeared to task officials and most law enforcement agencies with achieving victory for Zourabishvili.”
  • “Georgian Dream won a pyrrhic victory in the presidential election, gaining a controversial president at the expense of its reputation—and in return for a lot of new promises it will now have to keep.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Putin Doesn’t Sweat His Unpopularity. Whatever the Russian president is doing in Ukraine, it isn’t because of his falling poll numbers,” Nate Reynolds, Foreign Policy, 11.28.18The author, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:

  • “It’s likely that Putin’s dip in popularity will mostly prove that he is far more resilient than the West would like to think.”
  • “The Kremlin made the unpopular decision to raise the pension age, which sank Putin’s approval rating to the mid-60s for the first time since the 2014 illegal seizure of Crimea. … Regional elections in September delivered more bad news. … The vote reflected anger over pension reform but also a deeper shift in the popular mood.
  • “Three prominent Russian academics released a report in October that found a strong desire for change among Russians who are dissatisfied with the Kremlin’s domestic policies and have little hope for improvement. … A recent survey on consumer confidence reflects similar pessimism.”
  • “Russian politics have entered a new phase. The wave of national pride and patriotism that transformed Putin into an almost sacrosanct figure in 2014 has been slowly receding since at least 2016.”
  • “An approval rating in the mid-60s is not ideal for Putin, but he is unlikely to overreact, especially since the other pillars of the regime appear solid. The political, economic and security elites remain consolidated around the Kremlin. Oil prices are high enough to send cash into the state coffers. Selective repression and state control of the media ensure there is no visible viable alternative to Putin. The regime can handle atomized and amorphous dissatisfaction at current levels as long as there is no rival leader capable of channeling it into a political threat.”
  • “Putin has few means to resolve Russia’s long-term problems but many to preserve power … Putin is betting that he will be around for a prolonged confrontation with the West. Washington should probably bet on that, too.”

“Will the Kerch Blockade Make Putin Great Again?” Andrei Kolesnikov, Project Syndicate, 11.30.18The author, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes:

  • “Since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped precipitously, to 66 percent in October and November. Beyond ‘making Russia great again’ on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms.”
  • “By asserting that the [Ukrainian] vessels entered Russian waters illegally … Putin may be hoping to breathe new life into the siege narrative, thereby inspiring the kind of primitive patriotism on which he has long relied.”
  • “For a long time, the slogan ‘we can repeat’—a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory—was popular in Russia. But the truth is that we cannot. We lack not only the resources, but also the will to let our young people die fighting another country’s young people. Indeed, the last thing Russians want is to repeat a war that left 27 million of their countrymen dead.”

“Russia’s Revisionist History,” Alisa Ganieva, New York Times, 12.03.18The author, a Russian novelist and essayist, writes:

  • “My countrymen often say that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past. It’s true: Our history is often rewritten to match the political agenda and casual whims of those in power.”
  • “Accentuating Soviet accomplishments during the war [World War II] is a way for the government to give Russians what they most passionately crave after the painful humiliation of losing the Cold War: national pride. Polls consistently show that history is the main source of pride for many Russians.”
  • “The focus on the Soviet Union’s wartime victory also legitimizes Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.”
  • “Revisionism is not just a societal trend, though. It is law. Comparing the crimes of Nazi Germany to those of the Soviet Union is forbidden. … Even suggesting that the Nazis and the Soviets collaborated at all during the war is enough for a fine.”
  • “It seems as though Russia is not yet ready to acknowledge the dark pages of its history. Rather than take responsibility for its past, it just keeps reliving it. And this makes it so much more difficult to escape to the future.”

“How the Kremlin Ceded Control Over Russia’s Social Agenda,” Tatyana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.29.18The author, a founder and CEO of a political analysis firm, writes:

  • “Amid painful economic choices, political elites and government officials in Russia are growing distant from the public. Meanwhile, the mainstream media’s coverage of social issues is becoming increasingly alarmist, a sign that the Kremlin is losing control over Russia’s social agenda. … [I]t seems that the government’s new maxim and the defining principle of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term is ‘the state doesn’t owe you anything.’”
  • “As post-Crimea euphoria has receded, … the issues of social injustice and declining standards of living have come to the fore.”
  • “In his third presidential term, Putin drifted away from the people, focusing instead on protecting his inner circle. That process is now complete … This evolution has led to two practical consequences.”
  • “First, the Kremlin has lost all interest in managing the mainstream media’s coverage of social issues, inadvertently affording the press unprecedented freedom in reporting on the subject. … Second, government officials’ priorities have changed. The interests of voters have taken a back seat to those of their Kremlin superiors.”
  • “Simply put, the authorities are no longer able to respond to social needs. Nor will Moscow find it easy to restore control over the social agenda … The government has simply forgotten how to empathize with the public and understand its demands, which it increasingly perceives as excessive and politically untenable.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

“VIP Inmates: How Russian Prisoners Secure Luxury Conditions Behind Bars,” Olga Romanova, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.27.18The author, director of a Russian prisoners’ rights organization, writes:

  • “In Russia’s prisons, elite inmates obtain special conditions both through monetary payments and rendering services—guaranteeing order, cutting deals with the administration and even paying for improvements in the facilities. For its part, the Russian prison system is more concerned with keeping this corruption out of the public eye than actually preventing it.”