Russia Analytical Report, Nov. 5-13, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The Financial Times’ Moscow bureau chief paints a compelling picture of why Western sanctions have failed to isolate Russia. “Boosted by new oil supply deals, agriculture and defense shipments, trade with China accounted for 15.5 percent of Russia’s total turnover last year, up from 10.6 percent in 2013,” he writes. “At the same time, the EU’s share fell from 49.6 percent to 43.8 percent.” (China’s president is famously the only foreign leader with whom Vladimir Putin has celebrated his birthday.)
  • While arms sales by the U.S. to India have increased significantly as Russia’s have declined, the sizeable defense-equipment portfolio still connecting New Delhi and Moscow “ensures that there is sufficient stake in the relationship to prevent a lurch toward the U.S. by India or toward China by Russia,” according to Aaditya Dave of the Royal United Services Institute.
  • The “so-called elections” in the unrecognized separatist regions of eastern Ukraine are evidence that “the Kremlin plans to hang on to the territories,” writes Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, essentially telling the world “that Russia is moving on from the notion of a peacekeeping force and even from the Minsk agreements” and is willing to negotiate only on its own terms.
  • While “Russia’s recent imposition of sanctions on Ukrainian politicians and businessmen is all about Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election,” Ukrainian businessmen won’t see them “as an invitation to a big, mutually rewarding game,” choosing instead “to look to new markets and … other, more predictable directions,” writes journalist Konstantin Skorkin for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
  • International security expert Nikolas Gvosdev outlines the four important lesson modern Russia has learned from WWI, including the need to avoid both war and “blank checks” for allies and partners.

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/saber rattling:

“Bring the Tanks Back: It Is Time to Put a U.S. Armored Brigade in Germany,” Ryan Van Wie, War on the Rocks, 11.06.18: The author, a West Point graduate who most recently served as a company commander in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, argues that in light of “valid concerns over a large American base in Poland, a middle-ground approach of an armored brigade based in Germany would maintain deterrence against Russia, improve NATO interoperability and strengthen the Army’s armored fleet readiness.” Three major concerns regarding a base in Poland include “the need for NATO consensus, the ongoing erosion of democratic values in Poland and non-combatant evacuation considerations,” writes Van Wie. Moreover, “the Army’s current task organization and rotational commitments … preclude the possibility of moving an armored division to Europe,” while “an armored brigade would be the most plausible option the Defense Department could consider.” Germany already has two U.S. bases, providing the necessary infrastructure and land requirements, and 35,000 permanently stationed Americans, he adds, noting that expanding on that would save tens of millions of dollars in rotational costs and would be far cheaper than building a new base in Poland. The author writes that he served as a mechanized infantry and headquarters company commander on one of the U.S. Atlantic Resolve rotations to Europe and witnessed a “significant amount of time” devoted to “deployment mobility operations” rather than “enhancing readiness.” He also describes the important “institutional knowledge” gained from permanent basing instead of rotation. In conclusion, the author writes: “Based on Russia’s routine aggression over the last decade, it is likely President Vladimir Putin will continue challenging American and NATO interests in the years to come. The need for the United States to efficiently maintain its conventional deterrent capabilities is clear.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant commentary.

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

Elections interference:

“Russian Hackers Largely Skipped the Midterms, and No One Really Knows Why,” Dustin Volz and Robert McMillan, Wall Street Journal, 11.12.18: Reporting from San Francisco, the authors write that voting in the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm elections “largely came and went without major incident, according to U.S. officials and cybersecurity companies looking for evidence of Russian interference. According to various analysts and officials cited in the article, several possible “factors [that] may have reduced Moscow’s impact” include: the fact that “the diffuse nature of congressional and state races makes them a harder target than a single presidential election”; the effectiveness of “efforts to deter foreign hackers and send a message to Russia that election meddling wouldn’t be tolerated”; and the possibility that “Russian President Vladimir Putin, figuring he had successfully inflamed political divides and undermined confidence in American democracy, may have been content to kick back and watch others do the work for him. … Current and former U.S. officials say it is hard to know which factor was most important.” And, the reporters write, “U.S. officials and technology companies say that while there was some Russia-linked activity this year, it was nowhere near the scope of 2016.” Nonetheless, they add, “current and former officials cautioned that it may be too early to declare victory” against Russian interference efforts.

“Russians Meddling in the Midterms? Here’s the Data,” Jonathon Morgan and Ryan Fox, New York Times, 11.06.18: The authors, who run a cybersecurity company, write that the “consensus among researchers monitoring the 2018 midterm elections is that there has been less of the specific sort of interference the Russians engaged in two years ago, when they attempted to aggravate social tensions in the United States and foster distrust of our democratic institutions.” However, they also write that “an analysis by Kris Shaffer, a senior analyst for our cybersecurity company, suggests that while these measures may have rendered some of the Russian tactics of 2016 less effective, they haven’t fully stopped Russian influence operations.” In fact, the writers note, the “consensus among academic researchers and Russia experts in the intelligence community is that Russia does not take a timeout from information battles. It considers itself to be in a constant state of information warfare. Its online influence operations are inexpensive and effective, and afford Russia an asymmetric advantage given the freedoms of expression afforded to Western democracies.”

“Mueller Was Running on Borrowed Time. Has It Run Out?” Editorial Board, New York Times, 11.07.18: The newspaper’s editorial board writes that “Robert Mueller, the special counsel, always knew he was running the Russia investigation on borrowed time. That time may have just run out on Wednesday afternoon [Nov. 7], when President Trump ousted his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, less than 24 hours after Republicans lost their eight-year lock on the House of Representatives. … Trump has made clear that he thinks the attorney general should function as a president’s personal lawyer… In the days before Mr. Sessions recused himself last year, Mr. Trump tried desperately to stop him… The president may believe that in Mr. [Matthew] Whitaker he’s found his Roy Cohn,” whom the authors describe as “an infamous mob lawyer and fixer.” Trump “may also believe that the Republican majority in the Senate … is prepared to embrace such a corrupted standard for American justice.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“The United States, Russia and Europe in 2018: Chipping Away at Four Gordian Knots,” Olga Oliker and Andrey Kortunov, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)/Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), 11.08.18: The authors—respectively, the director of CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program and RIAC’s director general—describe the results of discussions in October 2018 among a select group of Russian and American experts who covered “four topics central to U.S.-Russian relations: the conflict in Ukraine, the future of the European security order, the war in Syria and the question of interference in other states’ political processes.” Below are the key takeaways on each one:

  • “In Ukraine, … all the stakeholders see problems with any conceivable path toward resolution, at least in the short term. If Ukraine regains the Donbas, it must integrate it, at great economic and likely political cost. From Moscow’s perspective, resolution means the loss of an important bargaining chip and the danger that domestic and foreign audiences will see the Kremlin as having backed down.
    • “Experts who participated in the workshop agreed that it would be helpful to integrate the United States into the Normandy process for resolving the conflict rather than maintain separate channels through which Washington negotiates directly with Moscow.
    • “The group also agreed that a peacekeeping agreement in Donbas should continue to be pursued, even in the absence of a broader settlement.
  • “The group’s discussion of European security echoed that regarding Ukraine.
    • “Participants saw the current situation as dangerous, with a high risk of crisis and an arms race. Moreover, resolution of both the Ukraine conflict and the current impasse between the United States and Russia are necessary but not sufficient for progress on broader issues of European security.
    • “Critical questions include the prospects and parameters for bringing the conventional arms control framework up to date and revisiting the Helsinki Final Act, such that these can be truly useful to all parties. At a minimum, it would be necessary to define what the ‘substantial’ combat forces mentioned in the NATO-Russia Founding Act look like. Moreover, new weapons and military technologies must be integrated and geographical constraints.
  • “Experts were generally pessimistic about progress in Syria. Moscow has attained some of its goals in that country, such as the continued tenure of the existing government and the establishment of Russia itself as a regional player. However, any hopes that Syria might be an arena for cooperation with the United States have been largely dashed.
    • “Despite the lack of U.S.-Russian cooperation, there is overlap between Moscow’s and Washington’s goals in Syria. Both want to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and al Qaeda. Both have strong relationships with Kurdish groups. Neither wants a war between Iran and Israel. Both want to limit their own presence and commitment.
  • “The final topic on the group’s agenda was political interference. This conversation was in many ways the most frustrating of the two days of discussions. Some participants felt that agreements or arrangements on at least a few specific topics were possible; for example, that the two countries could commit not to release information gleaned through intelligence activity in ways likely to affect political outcomes. But not all agreed. Some suggested that agreements intended to regulate activities that are in fact illegal (that is, intelligence collection by various means) were unlikely to be negotiated or signed.”

“Russia’s relations with Europe and the USA are at the worst I have seen in 20 years!” Interview with CSIS president and CEO John J. Hamre, Faces of Democracy, 11.08.18: “The current era poses far more complex security challenges than did the Cold War. The prospect of major war for the United States is low, though we are back into a world of peer competitors,” said the head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a wide-ranging interview. “The more likely security threats come from hybrid warfare and cyberattacks,” he said, singling out the latter as “the most challenging single problem.” Hamre also said that “Russian aggression in … Ukraine has brought a focus back to NATO,” which had been “drifting” for many years. On President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty Hamre said that “Russia has been violating the INF Treaty for several years. Personally, I wish we had mounted a more vigorous effort to confront Russia with the violation and hold on to the treaty. But it appears we are walking away from it. I do not think it will trigger a new arms race.” Unfortunately, he added, “Russia’s relations with Europe and the USA are at the worst I have seen in 20 years. Russia has chosen a path of covert interference in the political institutions of Europe and America. That is very real and sustained. We are in a long-term competition with them again.”

“What’s Bad for Trump Is Worse for Putin: The Kremlin can expect more sanctions and more investigations from a Democratic House,” Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, 11.07.18: The authors, reporters for Foreign Policy, write: “The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is promising more investigations into Russian meddling … and both parties are likely to push for more sanctions… ‘There is a decent chance that we will see the center of gravity on Russia sanctions and Russia policy shifting from the Senate to the House,’ said [former Obama administration official ] Peter Harrell… New sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of who won the elections. … [T]he Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act … would impose sanctions on Russian sovereign debt, Russian energy projects, oligarchs and national banks. … Another significant piece of legislation to watch is the Deter Act.” Congressional aides also “expect the new Democratic majority to reintroduce several key bills aimed at cracking down on Russian election meddling in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

“How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy: A Playbook for Capitol Hill,” Brian McKeon and Caroline Tess, Foreign Affairs, 11.07.18: The authors, a former national security official and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center, offer various recommendations on Washington’s Russia policy in the wake of this month’s midterm elections: In January, they write, the congressional committees “that cover national security … should hold hearings on U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Central America” among other issues. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should take “a close look at the Chinese and Russians who have bought Trump properties … as well as the lavish spending by foreign governments at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.” Congress should also highlight “how U.S. foreign policy toward China, Russia and the Persian Gulf is affected by Trump family business interests. … The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence … should focus on standard oversight of the intelligence community” rather than on Mueller’s Russia investigation. “Building on the Russian sanctions it passed in 2017, Congress should also promptly consider the Defending American Security From Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018.”

“Why Putin Isn’t Sweating the Midterms,” Dmitri Trenin, Politco, 11.06.18: The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “Some are advising the Kremlin to stay clear of Trump’s White House… Yet, Putin is determined to continue his face-to-face contacts with Trump. … In his recent public remarks … Putin suggested that when Trump wins his second term in 2020, he will be freer to stabilize and normalize relations with Russia. … The new Congress promises more of the same: more sanctions, more investigations, more accusations about the Trump-Russia connection. Thus, they [analysts] say, engaging with Trump is futile… [T]his line of analysis … totally misses what Putin sees in Trump. … To Putin, Trump represents a new departure in U.S. foreign policy. What Putin considers positive for Russia is the disruption that Trump is creating for the global system… In this, Trump, for all his idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, is the most avowedly Russia-friendly American leader Putin is likely to encounter. … Trump wants a ‘great America,’ the world’s mightiest power that is focused mostly on what it regards as its own national interests. … [S]uch an America would be ideal for Russia.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Russian Sanctions: Why ‘Isolation Is Impossible,’” Henry Foy , Financial Times, 11.12.18: The newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief writes that “arguably the most dangerous aspect of Russia’s S-400 Triumph missile defense system is the damage it has inflicted on the clout of Washington’s anti-Moscow sanctions program and concerted efforts by the U.S. to isolate Russia from the rest of the world. … Over the past year, Turkey and India have signed deals to buy S-400s, China has received its first deliveries and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq have begun negotiations over deals to acquire the sanctioned systems. If the West’s sanctions regime, first introduced in March 2014, was designed to cut off Moscow from the rest of the world and isolate its critical industries, the truck-mounted missile launchers are a $400-million-a-piece example of how that effort has failed,” Foy writes. “An ever closer friendship with China has provided Moscow with international finance, new trade opportunities and diplomatic heft. Moscow has also deepened its ties with a host of countries in the Middle East, from Turkey to Israel, Saudi Arabia to Iran, expanding its influence in the region at a time of American hesitation. At the same time, a steady stream of EU leaders visiting the Kremlin, foreign direct investment from European corporates and continued demand for Russia’s oil and gas exports belie the rhetoric of belligerence from Brussels.” The author points out that “while major defense deals like the S-400 agreements have drawn the ire of Washington, … U.S. aerospace giant Boeing opened a production plant in central Russia this summer to manufacture titanium components.” Meanwhile, “Europe is buying more gas from Russia than at any time in history” and, in general, “all of the EU’s biggest economies have quietly continued to do business with their eastern neighbor.” As examples, Foy includes Berlin’s steadfast support for Nord Stream 2 and Daimler’s construction of “a factory close to Moscow that will start producing Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans early next year.” He likewise notes that “French president Emmanuel Macron was … Putin’s special guest at the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum earlier this year, telling his host: ‘Dear Vladimir . . . let us play a co-operative game.’ Total, the French energy group, … has been one of Russia’s largest foreign investors in recent years,” buying “a 10 percent stake in Russia’s $25.5 billion Arctic LNG 2 project” and just last month opening “a new oil-blending plant close to Moscow.” The UK, Foy writes, “is one of the most hawkish toward Moscow, but British energy group BP is one of Russia’s biggest foreign investors through its 19.75 percent stake in Rosneft, the Kremlin-controlled oil company subject to sanctions.” (The article points out that, “compared with 2014 [when sanctions were imposed], Rosneft has doubled the amount of oil it produces from joint projects with foreign companies … thanks to partnerships with Norwegian, Vietnamese and Indian groups.”) A senior executive at a major international energy company told Foy: “‘You cannot isolate a country as big and as important as Russia. It was never going to work.’” Meanwhile, China and Russia have pledged “to stand together against U.S. sanctions and trade tariffs.” One Western diplomat in Moscow said to Foy “that although historical distrust between Russia and China would mean the countries could never build a full geopolitical alliance, ‘it is an easy way for both of them to gain some small advantages from each other and have a pop at the U.S.’” A Russian official noted that China is ‘the world’s most important growth market.’” Foy points out that “it is Russia’s relationships with China and Saudi Arabia that have seen the most dramatic, and effective, changes in the sanctions era. … Boosted by new oil supply deals, agriculture and defense shipments, trade with China accounted for 15.5 percent of Russia’s total turnover last year, up from 10.6 percent in 2013. At the same time, the EU’s share fell from 49.6 percent to 43.8 percent. … With Saudi Arabia, too, the S-400 deal has come as part of a wider diplomatic and trade push. … Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state oil producer, is keen to follow Total’s lead and buy a 30 percent stake in the same gas project, and is also in talks to set up a petrochemicals plant with Russian company Sibur.” Moscow has also publicly backed Riyadh during the scandal over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and “was rewarded with a deal for the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund to join a joint Russia-China development fund. … The pivot away from the West does not sit well with all of Russia’s elite. Sanctions are slowly cutting off some of Russia’s clique of billionaire oligarchs from access to Western countries and their banks, lawyers, schools and hospitals that have become part of their lifestyles. … ‘The new partnerships are all well and good, but frankly the elite here are more comfortable in the south of France, not on some island in the South China Sea,’ says one sanctioned Russian businessman.”

“India and Russia: Ties that Bind,” Aaditya Dave,, 11.12.18: The author, a research analyst focusing on South Asia at the Royal United Services Institute, writes that “the joint statement released during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India last month emphasized Moscow and New Delhi’s ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.’” While the phrase had been used before, the author notes, both countries “have broadened their strategic horizons in recent years” and “both states appear to be drifting apart even in terms of arms sales, which has been the lynchpin of their bilateral relationship. This shift is particularly visible in India’s increasing defense and security cooperation with the U.S., as it seeks to steadily move away from its long-espoused stance of ‘non-alignment’ and diversify its defense imports. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia provided 62 percent of India’s total arms imports—down from 79 percent between 2008 and 2012. Over the same periods, the U.S. increased its arms exports to India five-fold, and grew to become India’s second-largest supplier, accounting for 15 percent of its total arms imports between 2013 and 2017. The evolving India-U.S. relationship is part of a longer-term strategic realignment, which is motivated in part by China’s expanding role in the Indian Ocean and the emergence of a constellation of international actors seeking to balance this influence, a process in which it is difficult to see Russia playing a significant role. … On the other hand, the continuing importance of India in Russia’s defense exports is highlighted by the fact that India accounted for 35 percent of Russia’s total arms exports from 2008 to 2017,” Dave writes. “Russia has started exploring a deeper military relationship with India’s neighbor, Pakistan, signing an agreement that enables the training of Pakistani troops at Russian institutions and engaging in joint military drills. … In spite of these shifts, it is unlikely that India and Russia will disentangle their defense relationship beyond a certain point. … Russia has delivered equipment that Western partners may be more hesitant to provide. INS Arihant, India’s nuclear submarine and the final piece of its nuclear triad, is based on Russia’s Akula-1-class submarines and was built in India with assistance from Russian scientists. Discussions are currently underway to expand this program to include joint design and construction for the next generation of India’s nuclear submarines. In addition, India’s space program has benefited from Russian assistance for several decades, and it continues to do so as India prepares to launch its first crewed space mission.” Close Russian-Indian ties since the 1960s, Dave adds, “have also led to the development of trust among key civilian and military stakeholders in India, which does not yet exist between New Delhi and Washington. The numerous highs and lows of the India-U.S. relationship mean that there is some skepticism about the reliability of the U.S. as a defense equipment supplier. This is compounded by concerns that the U.S. can leverage its security relationship in order to achieve political objectives, like it appears to be doing at the moment in its relationship with Pakistan.” With India potentially falling afoul of the CAATSA sanctions against Russia, “apprehensions about further U.S. pressure, along with India’s critical need for defense equipment and modernization, is why India was willing to risk the prospect of indirect U.S. sanctions and sign an agreement worth $5.4 billion for the supply of Russia’s S-400 Triumf air defense missile system during President Putin’s visit.” In conclusion, the author writes that “there is a strategic imperative for both India and Russia to sustain a strong bilateral relationship. For India, this provides the foundation for an increased focus on energy, particularly liquified natural gas and nuclear reactors. It also represents a close link with a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and one that has expressed its support for India’s accession to both the UNSC and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. For both India and Russia, the sizeable defense equipment portfolio ensures that there is sufficient stake in the relationship to prevent a lurch toward the U.S. by India or toward China by Russia.”

“Moscow Shows It's Back in the Great Game by Hosting Taliban-Afghan Peace Talks,” Amie Ferris-Rotman, The Washington Post, 11.09.18: Reporting from Moscow, the author writes about “landmark talks” hosted on Nov. 9 by Russia between Afghan envoys and “their Taliban foes.” While “there were no significant breakthroughs during the Moscow meeting, which was attended by representatives of 11 countries, including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan,” the reporter notes that Moscow used it “to showcase its drive to reassert influence in the region … almost 30 years after it pulled out of Afghanistan in disgrace, ending a decade-long Soviet occupation that was seen as another chapter in what historians called the ‘great game’ by world powers to hold away over Afghanistan and nearby areas. … Taliban delegates [at the Nov. 9 talks] said they laid out the Islamist insurgent group’s demands for a peace process. They also reiterated their wish to speak to the U.S. government. … A representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended, but only as an observer. Bringing both sides of the Afghan conflict to Moscow is still a major success for Russia as the Kremlin seeks to reclaim its clout and influence on the world stage. … The talks come after years of back-channel diplomacy between Moscow and the Taliban. The Taliban has spoken to a range of countries in recent years, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but often under the shroud of secrecy. … [The] meeting in Moscow was the first of its kind to take place publicly.” Kabul did not send diplomats but members of the High Peace Council, a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process. Ferris-Rotman writes that “strained ties between Washington and Moscow are influencing decisions on who should join the Afghan talks, according to a former senior U.S. official. … In recent months, the U.S. special adviser on Afghan peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban representatives in Qatar, where both sides agreed to continue dialogue. … Besides serving as a potential peace broker, Russia has considerable worries of its own about an unstable Afghanistan” since “groups affiliated with the Islamic State have gained footholds in northern Afghanistan near countries with close Moscow ties, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.”


“A Milestone, Not a Turning Point: How China Will Develop the Russian Far East China’s Way,” Ivan Zuenko, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.08.18: The author, a research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for Asia Pacific Studies, writes that in September “Chinese President Xi Jinping attended Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok for the first time, bringing an impressive official delegation with him. … All eyes were on the Putin-Xi summit: The two leaders baked Russian crepes by the Sea of Japan coast. Distracted by this spectacle, many observers missed the news that the countries also signed a key document on Russian-Chinese interregional cooperation to replace the 2009-2018 border region development coordination program, which will soon expire. … So why are government officials not rushing to brag about the new document? There are several important reasons. First, it’s clear that the parties didn’t sign the agreement expected of them. The new program is not an extension of the 2009-2018 program but a completely different agreement. And a source in the Far East Development Ministry said that ‘no other program will be signed’ and that this document will serve as the one road map for Russian-Chinese regional economic cooperation.” The changes in the agreement, writes Zuenko, “are substantive rather than cosmetic. New government agencies are now responsible for the program. The Russian Far East Development Ministry and the Chinese Commerce Ministry have replaced the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and the Chinese State Committee for Development and Reform. And while the old program focused on developing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East along with northeastern China, the new program targets the Russian Far East only. Second, the new program is missing many high-profile projects that the Far East Development Ministry and potential Chinese investors have long been discussing. It makes no mention of a ‘transborder priority development area’ and fails to include the issue of constructing high-speed transborder freeways… The new document only briefly alludes to joint development of the transborder Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island near Khabarovsk, which obviously understates the territory’s importance in the eyes of Russia’s Chinese partners. The program only states that ‘the Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island is a unique territory that is capable of becoming a tourist hub.’ In essence, Russia is not yet ready to create visa-free and tariff-free regimes on its part of the island, as the Chinese suggest. … Why did so many projects not make it into the agreement? … According to informed sources, the Russian Foreign Ministry recommended not including these projects, since the Russians cannot be sure that they are economically feasible and the country’s security agencies are unlikely to approve them. As a result, the final version of the text resembles a memorandum of intent or a ‘navigator for Chinese investors,’ as some officials have called it. … The current level of regional cooperation between the two countries, as well as its abominably low results, is far out of sync with the closeness of the two leaders.”

“The Next Great War,” Graham Allison, The Washington Post, 11.09.18: Ahead of the 100-year anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI, the author, who is Douglas Dillon professor of government at Harvard Kennedy School and a member of Russia Matters’ editorial board, asks whether a conflict as devastating as the Great War could happen again today. He notes that the intensifying rivalry between a rising China and a ruling United States could lead to a war that neither side wants and that both know would be even more catastrophic than World War I. But it is a familiar contest, for which we can look to history for some lessons.” Faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, then President John F. Kennedy “explicitly applied lessons from what statesmen had done, and failed to do, in World War I,” thus helping to prevent “the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever seen” from becoming a full-blown military conflict. Allison argues that the top three lessons for today’s leaders in Beijing and Washington are: “realistic recognition of risks inherent in the current … rivalry, collaborative initiatives to defuse or prevent the most dangerous potential crises and preparation to manage crises that nonetheless occur.”


“Why Putin Encouraged Sham Elections in Eastern Ukraine,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.13.18: The author, a columnist and long-time Russia analyst, writes that “the so-called elections on Nov. 11 in the unrecognized ‘people’s republics’ of eastern Ukraine wouldn’t be worthy of discussion if they weren’t further evidence the Kremlin plans to hang on to the territories. In the absence of any international deal he could accept, President Vladimir Putin can only move toward the full recognition of the puppet states, on the model of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The elections conferred a questionable legitimacy on Denis Pushilin, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and his counterpart Leonid Pasechnik of the Luhansk People’s Republic. Both were already running the self-proclaimed Donbas statelets. … The election essentially tells the world that Russia is moving on from the notion of a peacekeeping force and even from the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which called for local elections under Ukrainian law.” Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for eastern Ukraine, tweeted: “‘The people in eastern Ukraine will be better off within a unified Ukraine at peace rather than in a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidized by Russian taxpayers.’ … Volker is right about Russian taxpayers being on the hook. South Ossetia, a region of 54,000 people that is considered part of Georgia by almost the entire world, but is recognized by Russia as independent, receives about 6 billion rubles ($89 million) a year from Moscow; eastern Ukraine, with its much bigger population, must be far costlier. And yet the elections suggest that Putin is leaning toward a South Ossetian scenario for eastern Ukraine. The only reason the Kremlin hasn’t recognized the statelets is that Putin finds it hard to admit the failure of his earlier plans to use eastern Ukraine as a bargaining chip in a deal with the U.S. and its Western allies that would involve handing back Donbas to Ukraine in exchange for recognition of the Crimea land grab. No such agreement seems forthcoming, and even Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election offers Putin no chance to trade eastern Ukraine for anything useful: Voters reject any kind of compromise with Moscow. This means the Russian dictator must resign himself to institutionalizing the statelets and making sure people there can survive the long haul. The manipulated elections are a reluctant step in that direction as much as a signal to Western powers that Putin will only negotiate on his own terms.”

“Election Gambit: What’s Behind Russia’s Sanctions on Ukrainian Politicians and Businessmen?” Konstantin Skorkin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.31.18: The author’s argument, as summarized by the website’s editors, is that “Russia’s recent imposition of sanctions on Ukrainian politicians and businessmen is all about Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election.” According to Skorkin, an independent journalist focusing on the Donbas region, “essentially, Moscow’s behavior is not about getting Ukrainian oligarchs to support a hypothetical Russian candidate in the upcoming Ukrainian elections. Rather, the sanctions list is an attempt to return the pre-war status quo, consolidate the elites of Ukraine’s notorious southeast, possibly reintegrate the Donbas into Ukraine and end the war that hinders the business community. … However, these methods for influencing the Ukrainian political and business elite work poorly after 2014. While Russia and its model were quite attractive to the Ukrainian elite in the 2000s and early 2010s, Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine—with its irrationality and imperial phantoms—simply doesn’t mix well with modern capitalist principles. It has scared this elite away from Russia. And attempts to expropriate the assets of ‘anti-Russian oligarchs’ in Crimea and the Donbas, as well as the looming secondary sanctions against businesses cooperating with the ever-increasing ranks of toxic Russian companies, don’t help matters. In this context,” the author concludes, “the Russian sanctions won’t be seen as an invitation to a big, mutually rewarding game. Rather, they will prompt Ukrainian businessmen to look to new markets and consider reorienting their country’s exports in other, more predictable directions.”

A Political Power Struggle for the Soul of the Orthodox Church: The War of the Patriarchs in Russia, Ukraine and Istanbul Is About More Than Religion,” Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 11.06.18: The author, the newspaper’s deputy editor, writes that “Russia is mourning a new wound. To the dismay of church officials and the government of Vladimir Putin, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based church, last month paved the way for Ukraine to have its own church independent of Moscow. Although the Orthodox Church is decentralized, with no single higher authority, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople lends a certain spiritual leadership, so his position matters. His move dealt a blow to Russia’s religious supremacy in Ukraine and opened another chapter in the long-running battle between Kiev and Moscow. … The feud is a convenient distraction for Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian president, who is up for re-election next year and doing badly in the polls. … With the Ukrainian priests going their own way, Russians fear their own churches will be under pressure to switch their allegiance. They are vowing to defend them. I worry about clashes in Ukraine… Russia’s next move will be to try to undermine Bartholomew and bring other independent Orthodox churches around the world to its side.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Ethnic Nationalism Gave Georgia Freedom. Now It Needs Civic Nationalism to Survive,” Mike Gonzalez, Foreign Policy, 11.08.18: The author, formerly a journalist and State Department official and now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes that “whoever emerges the victor next month [in the second round of presidential elections in Georgia] will have to figure out how to help return Georgia to its pre-invasion borders.” He goes on to argue that while “civic nationalism … is the national glue” in the U.S., ethnicity tends to bind people together “in much … of the globe… Ethnic Hungarians [for example] who are citizens of adjacent states are thought to form part of the Hungarian nation, even though they or their ancestors have never lived in present-day Hungary. … Georgia is closer to the Hungarian case but must now gravitate toward the U.S. model if it wants to imbue all its ethnic communities with pride in a Georgian identity—a transition that will not be smooth.” Gonzalez writes that “forging a civic Georgian identity will not be easy in a mountainous region with the greatest density of languages anywhere on earth, but “gradually—and with a soft touch—it [the country] must extend the idea of a shared culture and language to all within its borders. The use of Georgian as a national language will be particularly hard, as Georgia is finding out in trying to get residents of Javakheti to learn it and use it, but a national language is generally a sine qua non of national unity.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:
“The Lessons of World War I Still Haunt Russia Today,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 11.10.18: The author, a contributing editor at the magazine, notes that the Nov. 11 centenary of the armistice that eventually ended WWI “doesn’t resonate in Russia. … Current Russia sees little to celebrate or reminisce about [in] the events of a century ago. After all, by the time the guns fell silent on the Western front, a Russia gripped in the frenzy of the [Bolshevik] revolution had already been knocked out of the war, losing more than one-third of the territory of the former Russian Empire in the process. What was left of the country was plunged into a bloody, destructive civil war that would not end for three more years. What followed was a series of famines, purges and the immense human costs wrought by rapid industrialization and the Second World War. This does not mean that the current Russian political and strategic establishment ignores the lessons of World War I and the Revolution—but it sees in those events a cautionary tale of what the Russian leadership at the beginning of this century must do to avoid repeating those disasters. The Kremlin today is well aware of the dangers of ignoring how and why Russia so catastrophically failed the last time. In 2018, as in 1918, the leadership remains concerned with the possibility of Russian state collapse brought about either by internal factors or through the machinations of external enemies. … History has vindicated the Witte/Rasputin position that war would strain the Russian state to its breaking point. It is those lessons which today guide the strategic rationale of the Kremlin. First is the need, as Nicholas himself had raised in a conversation with officials, that ‘everything that might lead to war must be avoided’ in order, as was the case a century ago, to give time for the completion of military reforms and the construction of new infrastructure. … Second is the emphasis on using coercive measures that fall well below the threshold of war. Major conflict must be avoided, but Russia will continue to pursue its interests by modulating the tools it uses to prevent triggering a major conflict. While much has been written and debated about the concept of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ when it comes to Russian nuclear strategy, this catch-phrase also captures the overall mindset derived from the lessons of the past: that in 1914, Russia escalated but could not de-escalate to prevent war. Related to that point is the third key lesson: no blank checks for allies and partners. Russia's binding alliance with Serbia, but even more importantly, its entente with France, constrained its freedom of maneuver. In contrast, as we have seen in the Russian efforts in the Middle East, Moscow will back its clients but impose very clear limits on the extent of Russian support. Finally, there has been clear messaging by the Kremlin to Russian civil society on the centennial of the Revolution and the end of World War I: As much as people may be dissatisfied with the course of political and economic life in contemporary Russia, there is always a worse path one can be on.”

“No Left Turn in Russia,” Andrei  Kolesnikov, RBC/Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.08.18: The author, head of the think-tank’s domestic politics program, contends that a protest vote is growing in Russia. “The success of opposition candidates in September’s regional elections across Russia was much more a vote against the Kremlin-backed ruling party, United Russia, than in favor of the Communists,” he writes. “It wasn’t just that people were angry with the government about its pension reforms; they were angry that the government had revoked a fundamental item in the unwritten Putin-era social contract—do not touch the social benefits system. Paradoxically, United Russia’s ratings are falling, but the left is not gaining popularity at its expense. … This suggests that we aren’t witnessing the growing demand for a party of the left, but a more general crisis of the party system. … The Russian public wants social justice, but its political enthusiasm is dulled by an absence of political and economic competition and, in particular, a lack of new faces.”

“The Illusion of Control: The Kremlin Prepares for Falling Ratings,” Tatyana  Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.13.18: The argument made by the author, the founder and CEO of a political-analysis firm, is summarized this way on the think-tank’s website: “However resilient the Putin regime might look to an outsider, it isn’t ready and isn’t preparing itself for a possible decline in its popularity ratings, which may unleash consequences beyond the fall of individual governors and the ruling United Russia party. The Kremlin doesn’t believe that Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime as a whole could become unpopular, so it considers the current decline in support for the government to be a natural and manageable outcome of the recent increase in the retirement age.” Stanovaya writes that “to maintain stability, the Kremlin is currently left with two potentially effective mechanisms. The first is to artificially inflate its ratings with the help of information campaigns and the institutional toughening up of the regime, eliminating the vestiges of real competition. That option looks far more realistic than the alternative: regime liberalization, which terrifies the Kremlin and is seen as capitulation to the West by a significant part of the Russian elite, especially among the siloviki. The regime is opting to create a corporatist state, which automatically equates corporate interests with the interests of the people, stripping the latter of their last remaining political rights. Only a lack of resolve among the ‘administrators’ and the absence of an order from above to tighten the screws leave any hope for pluralization, which will only come from below.”

Defense and aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.