Russia Analytical Report, Sept. 25-Oct. 2, 2023

7 Ideas to Explore

  1. The U.S. and its allies should avoid “optimism in regard to nuclear risk” emanating from “Russian nuclear coercive diplomacy,” according to Stephen Cimbala of Penn State University and Lawrence Korb of Georgetown, who have three concerns about such optimism. “First, the United States and NATO cannot and should not assume that Russian reasoning about nuclear deterrence and escalation will follow a logic similar to that of their Western counterparts,” they write in BAS, criticizing the Western scholars who “dismiss[s] too abruptly the possibility of Russian escalation to nuclear weapons use.” “Second, escalation need not be the outcome of deliberate forethought,” they write, “no one should underestimate what Ukraine and NATO have already accomplished in this war ... without provoking nuclear escalation.” This commentary appeared after the publication of multiple reports in Western media warning that Russia has increased construction on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, which was one of the USSR’s nuclear weapons testing locations. Last week, director of Russia’s Kurchatov Center Mikhail Kovalchuk said Russia should consider resuming nuclear tests and called for revising Russia’s nuclear deterrence guidelines.*
  2. When assessing signaling from Moscow, one should avoid interpreting recent saber-rattling by figures such as the Kurchatov Center’s Kovalchuk and SVOP’s Sergei Karaganov as a “decisive shift within the [Russian] leadership” on the use of nuclear weapons, according to Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik. Putin values Kovalchuk’s input but may disagree with his views, she writes. As for Karaganov, “while his provocative suggestions are frequently used in certain quarters to push an agenda (such as the Security Council), his interventions cause irritation among others (such as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs),” according to the founder and head of R.Politik.
  3. “Never before has [the U.S.] faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own,” Robert Gates warns in his article for FA. The former U.S. secretary of defense warns that “dysfunction has made American power ... unreliable,” hindering Washington’s efforts to deter Beijing and Moscow. “To ensure that Washington is in the strongest possible position to deter its adversaries from making  ... strategic miscalculations, U.S. leaders must first address the breakdown in the decades-long bipartisan agreement with respect to the United States’ role in the world,” according to the ex-CIA director.
  4. Ukraine will not be able to win the war and regain all its territory “in the absence of a collapse of either the Russian government or the Russian army’s morale, neither of which seems imminent,” according to Niall Ferguson of Stanford University. Thus, “[r]ather than risk a protracted war with the added danger of waning Western support, Ukraine needs to lock in what it has already achieved,” taking a cue from South Korea, according to this senior Belfer Center fellow’s column in Bloomberg. According to the Sept. 26 issue of the Russia-Ukraine War Report Card published by the Belfer Russia-Ukraine War Task Force, Ukraine endured a net loss of 15 square miles of its territory in the preceding month.
  5. In an effort to clarify his recent statement on Russia’s conditions for peace with Ukraine, which some interpreted as a shift toward recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity,  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov granted an interview on Sept. 28 to signal that Moscow has not abandoned its demands for recognition of its land grabs in Ukraine.  Speaking at the U.N., Lavrov said on Sept. 23: “Of course, we recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine back in 1991, on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. One of the main points for us in the declaration was that Ukraine would be a non-bloc, non-alliance country; it would not join any military alliances. In that version, on those conditions, we support Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” Five days later, however, Lavrov told TASS that “our position remains the same: we are ready to come to terms, taking into account the realities on the ground.” “It is also imperative to take into account our security interests and prevent the creation of a hostile ... regime on our borders,” he added.
  6. Ivan Arreguin-Toft traces the origins of Russian brutality in Ukraine to the Soviet-era “totalizing view of war that ignores distinctions between soldiers and civilians.” In his commentary for NI, this former Belfer Center associate argues that “we are likely to see more, rather than less, military barbarism in the future due to two factors.” First, “the world is becoming more urban, and urban environments complicate infantry tactics,” he writes. Second, “a trend toward political polarization” has accelerated, according to Arreguin-Toft, currently an associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross.
  7. The Nagorno-Karabakh independence project has ended, but the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is not over,” The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen writes, citing Arman Grigoryan of Lehigh University. “Azerbaijan has the military capability to take over southern Armenia, possibly on the pretext of needing a corridor to Nakhichevan,” Grigoryan told Gessen. Russia may have an interest in maintaining a military presence in the region, and further conflict could serve as the pretext, according to Gessen herself. “Russia’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s attack” completes the shift of Russia’s positioning “from regional hegemon to a partner and stakeholder in Azerbaijani-Turkish connectivity,” according to Laurence Broers of Chatham House.

NB: Next week’s Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, Oct. 10, instead of Monday, Oct. 9, because of a U.S. federal holiday.


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

Nuclear security and safety:

  •  See nuclear arms section

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

“Russia and North Korea are baring their teeth,” Andrei Lankov, FT, 10.01.23.

  • Last month, two strongmen met in the wilderness of Russia’s far east. The second summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un took place at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a major long-range rocket and missile base. This time, the military implications were much emphasized.
  • The summit’s martial emphasis and the barrage of thinly veiled hints and innuendo make one suspect that the Russian government actually wants the world to believe that it is going to cooperate with Pyongyang.
  • So, why the martial theatre? Most likely, to send a signal to Seoul. There has been talk of South Korea shipping lethal aid to Ukraine. Seoul officially says it will not send weapons, but some conservatives in South Korea want to do so. Pressure is mounting from Washington, too. Such a decision by Seoul would have consequences. South Korea is an industrial giant and the world’s seventh largest arms exporter. Its ammunition would make a real difference. Now Seoul — and Washington — is being given a warning: if it sends ammunition, Russia can impose a cost.
  • Will South Korea ignore the warning? Will Russians make good on these threats? Overall, the Kim-Putin summit probably means less than most people think.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant developments.

Humanitarian impact of the Ukraine conflict:

“The Source of Russian Brutality,” Ivan Arreguin-Toft, NI, 09.30.23.

  • We may continue to debate whether allowing Russia to reclaim the USSR’s sphere of influence is acceptable as a tradeoff to prevent a global conflict. Still, there can be no question that Russia’s continual rape, torture and murder of noncombatants is illegal and damages Russia’s reputation on the world stage. The question, then, is, what explains Russia’s behavior? ... Russia’s military operates on a Soviet, totalizing view of war that ignores distinctions between soldiers and civilians.
  • We are likely to see more, rather than less, military barbarism in the future—not only from Russia, North Korea, Iran and the PRC but also from the United States and its democratic allies. This is for two reasons.
    • First, the world is becoming more urban, and urban environments complicate infantry tactics.
    • Second, in the global north, our increasing interactions in cyberspace—including social media algorithms that trade rage for profit—have accelerated a trend toward political polarization—not just in the United States but everywhere.
      • It’s clear that all militaries—especially in the prolonged conflicts that have become the norm—suffer from the dilemmas of conducting combat operations without harming noncombatants. But for the Russian Federation, whether in Syria or Ukraine (or in cyberspace), respect for noncombatant immunity in war or military occupation isn’t a dilemma; it died in the October Revolution of 1917.

“How to rally support for Ukraine on bond markets,” Moritz Kraemer, FT, 09.27.23.

  • For Ukraine to directly issue securities to Western retail investors, as Israel has done for decades with its successful diaspora bond program, seems far-fetched. ... But with enhancements the instruments can still fly. If Ukrainian reconstruction bonds (URBs) are secured by commitments from top-rated entities, such as the EU or the World Bank, they could be marketed to institutional and retail investors alike.
    • URBs can follow the tried and tested and successful blueprints of the Vaccine Bonds issued by the International Facility for Immunization or, indeed, the vast NextGenerationEU (NGEU) pandemic recovery program.
    • Where could the URB credit enhancements come from? The most obvious source of highly rated future financial flows could be funds the EU has committed through the Ukraine Facility. ... Alternatively, URBs could be partly secured through a windfall tax on the profits of Euroclear, the securities depository where much of the frozen foreign reserves of Russia’s central bank sit. In the first half of 2023 alone, Euroclear earned more than €1.7 billion of interest on Russia’s sanctioned assets.
  • URBs are a win-win proposition. First, Ukraine benefits by receiving necessary reconstruction funds more rapidly. Deploying resources quickly reduces the economic and social fallout from the war. EU governments also benefit from propping up what has turned out to be the key frontline ally standing up for our joint values. Today, Europe is defended at the Dnipro river. As the war moves towards its second winter, the time has come to think out of the box.

Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts:

“Biting Off What It Can Chew: Ukraine Understands Its Attritional Context,” Robert Rose, War on the Rocks, 09.26.23.

  • The U.S. military should not push the Ukrainian military to conduct a high-risk form of warfare in the hope of a spectacular victory. … [Hans] Delbrück contrasted a strategy of annihilation with a strategy of exhaustion, which sought to gradually wear down an enemy across military, political and economic fronts until continuing a war was no longer worthwhile. In its current context, Ukraine, with the support of all countries that are against wars of imperial conquest, should pursue an attritional operational approach as part of a broader strategy of exhaustion.
  • Some might fear that such a theory of victory plays into the Russian military’s strategy, but there is no perfect alternative. Prematurely pursuing maneuver will only allow Russia to attrit Ukrainian forces. Ukraine will need to destroy Russian artillery and inflict casualties that thin Russian reserves at a favorable rate that outstrips Russia’s ability to replace those losses. It will be slow and grinding with constant competitive adaptation. It may not produce spectacular victories for social media consumption.
  • At some point, vulnerabilities might begin to appear in the Russian lines and present Ukraine with an opportunity for spectacular victories. Such an opportunity previously arose with Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive in 2022. … Any attempt to conduct large-scale maneuver before then would be suicidal.
  • It can be hard to convey the context in which Ukraine fights. … Ukraine does not have the luxury of conducting maneuver. It needs to pursue unglamorous attrition, and we must be prepared to support it until it exhausts the Russian invaders. And the United States should not forget how poorly its last attempt to remake an army in its image fared.

“Francis Drake’s swashbuckling spirit lives on in Kyiv’s Black Sea battles,” Glen Howard, FT, 09.27.23.

  • At first glance, 37-year-old Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov may not seem to share much in common with Sir Francis Drake, the privateer and prominent figure in Britain’s maritime warfare tradition. But the head of Ukrainian military intelligence is rapidly assuming a legendary status in Western intelligence circles for his attacks on the Russian navy in the Black Sea.
  • Ukraine’s use of autonomous vessels is revolutionizing naval warfare. While surface drones have been in existence in many major navies around the world for over a decade, they had never been used in combat until Budanov and his colleagues spotted their potential. British naval expert HI Sutton has said that before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, USVs were still “a technology without a war”. Now, it seems, their time has come. Since the start of the invasion, Kyiv has attacked 18 Russian ships. Moscow’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, was sunk in a strike by anti-ship missiles.
  • As a result, Kyiv, whose own navy was largely scuttled or destroyed in the early days of the war, has nevertheless managed to erode Russian dominance of the Black Sea. Just as Ukraine’s use of aerial drones has been hailed for revolutionizing land warfare, the deployment of USVs has implications for marine battles everywhere. “Drones will definitely make the operations to liberate our territories easier. Drones have no fear. You don’t feel sorry for them,” Budanov said in a recent interview.
  • Certainly the Russian navy has a significant advantage over Ukraine in the Black Sea and remains the predominant naval power. However, Ukraine’s use of USVs is changing the environment just enough to force Moscow to modify its strategy and pull back its naval force to bases in Sevastopol to avoid attacks. This might be just enough to allow Ukraine resume its grain exports to the West.

“Spider Boots, Boxers, Hoverboards: When Ukrainian Troops Ask, We Deliver,” Anna Husarska, NYT, 10.01.23.

  • This past summer, Britain's defense minister at the time, Ben Wallace, chided Ukraine for not showing enough gratitude for the West's weapons supplies. ''We're not Amazon,'' he said. No, but there is a kind of Amazon for the Ukrainian military, in analog form: a network of civilian volunteer groups that deliver an array of goods to soldiers in the field, on request.  I know because I'm one of those volunteers.
  • The Ukrainians are committed because their lives depend on it. In order not to run out of people to defend their country, they do whatever they can to support those on the front lines. So, many civilians in Ukraine find it easier to be volunteers than to do nothing at all. As for me, a journalist who has thrown impartiality to the winds, I feel a little less guilty knowing I tried to do something to stop this madness. So once in a while I bring supplies, always for small groups, always items that were specifically requested. I'm just fulfilling orders.

Punitive measures related to Russia’s war against Ukraine and their impact globally:

“The increasing absurdity of staying in Russia,” Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, FT, 09.30.23.

  • Russia may not yet be North Korea but for the expats running Western businesses there a similar sense of unease must be starting to creep in. Eighteen months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a significant number of Western brands are still operating in Russia and some have no intention of leaving, including German retailer Metro and U.S. cigarette maker Philip Morris
  • If these Russian operations happen to be profitable, the money may not be accessible—the Kremlin last year imposed a ban on dividends to businesses from countries deemed “unfriendly”, including the U.S., U.K. and all EU members. The amounts at stake are not insignificant: the Kyiv School of Economics, which keeps close tabs on the Western corporate presence in Russia, estimates that companies from such countries amassed $18 billion in Russian profits and $199 billion in revenues in 2022 alone. The Kremlin somewhat relaxed the rules in August but with stringent conditions, among them that payouts cannot exceed a company’s committed investment in the country. In effect it is Vladimir Putin’s regime that decides who gets their money.
  • Any Western company still nurturing the hope of recouping its investment in the country is mistaken. “Beyond moral considerations ... it is clear in hindsight that it made more sense for Western firms to leave Russia immediately than to adopt a wait-and-see approach” said Agathe Demarais, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia has proved resilient to Western sanctions, says Oleg Deripaska,” Max Seddon, Polina Ivanova and Benjamin Parkin, FT, 09.26.23.

  • Russia has weathered Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine, the oligarch Oleg Deripaska has said, admitting “surprise” at the country’s resilience after a war he thought would bankrupt the Kremlin.
  • Deripaska, one of Russia’s richest men, told the Financial Times that Moscow had survived the effort to isolate its economy by developing new trade ties with the Global South and ramping up investment in domestic production.
  • The private sector, meanwhile, proved more robust than he had expected only months earlier. “I was surprised that private business would be so flexible. I was more or less sure that up to 30% of the economy would collapse, but it was way less,” he said.
  • The comments by Deripaska, the founder of leading aluminum producer Rusal and its parent energy company En+, indicate growing confidence among Moscow’s elite that Russia has emerged relatively unscathed despite fears sanctions would crater the economy early in the war. … To explain the “resilience” of the economy, Deripaska pointed to Kremlin investment in industry and efforts to force inefficient state enterprises that dominate the economy to increase capacity, partly in support of the war effort.
  • Deripaska was one of the few oligarchs to have offered — albeit guarded — criticism of the invasion in its early months. But though he said he saw “no value” in the conflict, he has toned down his anti-war statements more recently amid growing pressure on oligarchs to pay more taxes and, in some cases, surrender their assets to the state. “I can’t see why it shouldn’t be stopped from both sides [ . . .] I can’t see that anyone will reach its declared goal,” Deripaska said.

Ukraine-related negotiations:

“The West's Patience Is Running Shorter Than Ukraine's War,” Niall Ferguson, Bloomberg, 09.24.23.

  • It is true in a narrow sense that, for Western taxpayers, the war in Ukraine is a remarkably cost-effective way to degrade Russia’s military capabilities without risking a single life. Is it nevertheless realistic to expect Western support to increase or even hold steady in the next 12 months, never mind the next nine years?
  • Most media discussion of this question focuses on the ebbing enthusiasm among Americans—especially Republicans—for funding Ukraine’s war effort. A recent CBS poll showed a decline in GOP voters’ support for sending weapons to Ukraine, from 49% in February to 39% now. Republican support even for sending aid and supplies has fallen from 57% to 50%.
  • Yet European attitudes may matter more and somehow receive less attention. There have been two major Eurobarometer surveys of EU citizens’ attitudes since the Russian invasion, one in April 2022 and one in August 2023. On the whole, Europeans remain supportive of Ukraine, but there too enthusiasm has diminished.
  • In principle, we should all want Ukraine to win this war and regain all the territory seized by Russia since 2014. In practice, that outcome will not be attainable in the absence of a collapse of either the Russian government or the Russian army’s morale, neither of which seems imminent. Rather than risk a protracted war with the added danger of waning Western support, Ukraine needs to lock in what it has already achieved. It has exposed the limits of Russian military power. It has established credible claims to EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership. It has transformed its international image from a den of corruption to a land of heroes.
  • One of Stus’s poems begins: “You’re still alive. You’re at the very bottom / of dimming ashes, and you’ve finished burning.” Ukraine is still very much alive. Alas, it has not finished burning.

“What Does Victory Look Like in Ukraine? Ukrainians differ on what would keep their nation safe from Russia,” Kathleen J. McInnis, FP, 09.27.23.

  • [While in Ukraine] I had the opportunity to ask dozens of people from around the region what, to them, “victory” looked like.
    • Some argue that in order to reach a peace agreement, Russia should be allowed to continue its occupation of Crimea, and Ukraine should adopt a neutral stance toward NATO. Eliot Cohen argues that the shortest path to a cessation of conflict is through the collapse of the Russian military.
    • Others maintain that an immediate cease-fire is needed.
    • And still others maintain that peace can be achieved by bringing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin together to talk.
  • But what kind of world do we want to live in..., do we want to live in a world wherein an authoritarian state can massacre its democratic neighbors? Ukrainian children are being separated from their families and deported to Russia.  The horrors of this war are mind-bogglingly terrible. Do we really want to look the other way? The line must be held, and the line is now in Ukraine.

“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s interview with TASS News Agency,”, 09.28.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • [When asked “Western press increasingly mentions the likelihood of talks as early as this autumn. Do any conditions exist for this?”] We do not see any. President Vladimir Putin, your humble servant and Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov have commented on this extensively. When starting to circulate provocative rumors like this, the West is obviously testing us for willingness to accept its terms … They want to take a break for a few months without signing any agreement except a temporary ceasefire in order to gain time and pump more weapons into Ukraine in addition to what has already been sent and is systematically being destroyed by the Russian armed forces. Their logic is the same as it was with the Minsk agreements.
  • We are ready for talks and will consider any realistic proposal. But it is out of the question to impose a ceasefire during talks, because they already used this trick to deceive us once. 
    • We were ready for a settlement not only during the effort to draft the Minsk agreements but also in April 2022, when Ukraine proposed ceasing hostilities and settling the crisis based on providing reciprocal, reliable security guarantees. But this proposal was recalled at the insistence of Washington and London.
  • As for a likely ending to all of this, we do not see a single meaningful proposal from the West. ... Today, the West is hinting at the possibility of talks, while peremptorily claiming for all to hear that “Zelensky’s peace formula” is the only basis for a negotiated solution. But this is unrealistic, even for discussion, being an ultimatum, pure and simple.
  • Our position remains the same: we are ready to come to terms, taking into account the realities on the ground, and based on our well-known position. It is also imperative to take into account our security interests and prevent the creation of a hostile ... regime on our borders.

Great Power rivalry/new Cold War/NATO-Russia relations:

“The Dysfunctional Superpower. Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?” Robert M. Gates, FA, 09.29.23.

  • The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. … [A]t the very moment that events demand a strong and coherent response from the United States, the country cannot provide one. Its fractured political leadership—Republican and Democratic, in the White House and in Congress—has failed to convince enough Americans that developments in China and Russia matter.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have much in common, but two shared convictions stand out.
    • First, each is convinced that his personal destiny is to restore the glory days of his country’s imperial past.
    • Second, both leaders are convinced that the developed democracies—above all, the United States—are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline.
  • [T]he prospects for Putin seem grim. With his hopes for a quick conquest of Ukraine dashed, he appears to be counting on a rough military stalemate to exhaust the Ukrainians, betting that by next spring or summer, the public in Europe and the United States will tire of sustaining them. … As long as Putin is in power, Russia will remain an adversary of the United States and NATO.
  • U.S. leaders must first address the breakdown in the decades-long bipartisan agreement with respect to the United States’ role in the world.
    • Americans need to understand why U.S. global leadership, despite its costs, is vital to preserving peace and prosperity. They need to know why a successful Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion is crucial for deterring China from invading Taiwan. … They need to know why Chinese and Russian influence in the global South matters to American pocketbooks. … They need to know why a Chinese-Russian alliance threatens the United States.
  • Xi and Putin … have already made serious errors that have cost their countries dearly. … For the foreseeable future, however, they remain a danger that the United States must deal with. … To contend with such powerful, risk-prone adversaries, the United States needs to up its game in every dimension.

“What the world should expect from a second Trump term,” Janan Ganesh, FT, 09.26.23.

  • Under Trump, the U.S. will reduce the scope or enforcement of sanctions against Russia. It will also slow the traffic of materiel to Ukraine. This will be justified as putting the U.S. first. It will have the opposite effect. Nothing has done more for America’s global clout since the first Gulf war than its support for Ukraine. The world now knows that it can tie down the third costliest military on Earth for an indefinite period with donations from the Pentagon arsenal. Imagine being a state that hedges between China and the U.S., and seeing this exhibition of almost insouciant power. In other news, Vietnam upgraded its relations with America this month.
  • The trouble is that nationalists are the worst readers of the national interest. And so Trump and his fans in Congress will jilt Ukraine. What else? He will step up his past menaces against America’s international treaties.
    • In security, this means NATO and the bilateral guarantees with South Korea and Japan.
    • In economics, the World Trade Organization is the natural target. A legislative plot of his against it in 2018 came to little. But age, and the constitutional bar on a third term, would free him to act without restraint.
  • Elsewhere, expect more continuities than ruptures. This is because, on protectionism, on Iran, on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Joe Biden hardly deviated from Trump in the first place. Even his detachment from Saudi Arabia on ethical grounds has given way to the more transactional approach of his predecessor.
  • In fact, only one Trump policy will catch the world out. It just happens to be the most important. Trump is well placed to take some of the sting out of U.S.-China relations. It is true that he made U.S. policy more hostile. But something has been forgotten in the flow of events since then. His grievance with the People’s Republic was narrowly economic. ... It is a Trump-led detente that might stun us in a second term that is otherwise all too guessable.

“Why 'problems without passports' especially worry the CIA director,” George F. Will, WP, 09.27.23.

  • In November 2021, when the U.S. intelligence community clearly saw Russia's preparations for invading Ukraine, [William] Burns went to Moscow and spoke with Putin. The CIA director was alarmed when he went, and more so when he left Moscow convinced of Putin's "tragic and brutish fixation" on Ukraine, a fixation unaltered by "the clarity of our understanding of what he was planning."
  • Putin's invasion has been, Burns says, a strategic blunder with Russia's "military weaknesses laid bare; its economy badly damaged for years to come; its future as a junior partner and economic colony of China being shaped by Putin's mistakes; its revanchist ambitions blunted by a NATO which has only grown bigger and stronger."
  • Putin thought his window of opportunity regarding Ukraine was closing. Chinese President Xi Jinping, contemplating what he might think is an opening regarding the seizure of Taiwan, is surely watching what Burns calls Ukraine's "breathtaking determination and resolve" — and the possible weakening of U.S. support for Ukraine.
  • We are, Burns says, in a "profound transformation of espionage tradecraft": "We recently used social media—our first video post to Telegram, in fact—to let brave Russians know how to contact us safely on the dark web. We had 2.5 million views in the first week." There are and always will be, however, "secrets we need a human to collect, and clandestine operations that only a human can execute." "That requires intensive training, an intensive team effort to support operations, and immense creativity and appetite for risk. It still, however, remains central to our mission."

“Russia’s Gray Zone Threat after Ukraine,” Daniel Byman and Seth G. Jones, NI, 09.29.23.

  • Training and aid packages must focus not only on stopping Russian conventional aggression but also on fighting gray zone warfare. Russia’s efforts are most successful when a country has weak border controls, poor counterintelligence, internal divisions, is awash in firearms, and is unprepared for Russian machinations, according to a RAND study. All these conditions can be countered or at least reduced.
  • The specifics will vary by country and area. Efforts to combat corruption, improve border security, fight low-level insurgencies, and encourage political reform are vital for reducing Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. In Europe, assistance should focus on intelligence coordination, cyber defense, and border control measures. Europe must prepare for a surge of migrants facilitated by Russia, especially in such frontline states as Finland, Poland, the Baltics, and Romania.
  • Moscow’s cyber and AI skills, while impressive, are far less than those of the United States and its European allies, and bolstering cyber defenses will reduce some dangers. Intelligence sharing and training of allied militaries can diminish the impact of Russian support for insurgency and terrorism. Public exposure of Russian election manipulation can, in some cases, reduce its impact, and U.S. influence operations may prove more effective given the shaken condition of the Russian regime today. Most of all, the United States and its allies should link sanctions relief and other current punishments to Moscow’s gray zone meddling as well as its invasion of Ukraine.
  • The United States and its allies should also prepare efforts to discredit Russian private military companies around the world and counter Russian propaganda that promotes Putin as a successful leader. This would involve highlighting increases in terrorism in areas where groups like Wagner are used in Africa, the corruption of Russian officials, and videos that highlight the challenges for ordinary Russians due to Putin’s rule.
  • Allies need to stand firm against Russian gray zone warfare—and Washington must back them. … Russia is not down and out. The most effective way to contain Putin is to limit his ability to operate in the gray zone.

“Ukraine aid is a great investment. Don’t let MAGA Republicans end it,” Max Boot, WP, 10.02.23.

  • Aid to Ukraine still has the support of roughly two-thirds of both houses — something you can’t say about many other issues — but a dangerous milestone was reached last week when more House Republicans voted against Ukraine aid (117) than voted for it (101). That reflects a broader turn in Republican opinion, with only 39 percent of Republicans saying in a recent CBS News-YouGov poll that the United States should send weapons to Ukraine and 61 percent saying it shouldn’t.
  • To do the right thing for Ukraine, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will now have to go against a growing portion of the Republican base. I
  • Yes, in absolute terms, Washington has given a lot of money to Ukraine: $76.8 billion in total assistance, including $46.6 billion in military aid. But that’s a tiny portion — just 0.65 percent — of the total federal spending in the past two years of $11.8 trillion. With U.S. and other Western aid, Ukraine has been able to stop the Russian onslaught and begin to roll it back.
  • In the process, Russia has lost an estimated 120,000 soldiers and 170,000 to 180,000 have been injured. Russia has also lost an estimated 2,329 tanks, 2,817 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,868 trucks and jeeps, 354 armored personnel carriers, 538 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 310 towed artillery pieces, 92 fixed-wing aircraft and 106 helicopters.
  • That’s an incredible investment, especially compared with U.S. involvement in other recent wars. 
  • Once upon a time, Republicans understood the need to resist the “evil empire.” As a former Republican, it sickens me to see so many Republicans so eager to do Moscow’s bidding. But, mercifully, the vast majority of members of Congress — including many Republicans — still staunchly support Ukraine. McCarthy cannot let the MAGA caucus block the best investment the United States can make in its own security.

“DeSantis Keeps Dodging on Ukraine,” Editorial Board, WSJ, 09.29.23.

  • Ron DeSantis did well overall at Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate, with one glaring exception that could cost him support as the alternative to Donald Trump. To wit, he keeps ducking and covering on U.S. aid for Ukraine against Russia's invasion. "It's in our interest to end this war. And that's what I will do as President," the Florida Governor said. "We are not going to have a blank check. We will not have U.S. troops, and we're going to make the Europeans do what they need to do," details unavailable. He then careened into the non-sequitur of talking about the U.S. border.
  • A better election strategy is to prosecute Mr. Biden's handling of the war. The Biden Administration has calibrated its support on fear of Vladimir Putin's response, a cowering that GOP voters don't like.
  • Mr. DeSantis is competing with Nikki Haley and perhaps one or two others to see who can emerge as the main challenger to Mr. Trump in Iowa and beyond. Ms. Haley is gaining support because she shows conviction. A bob and weave on Ukraine doesn't look good by comparison.

“Ukraine-Poland row exposes history, limits of devotion,” Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 09.26.23.

  • The vitriolic dispute between Poland and Ukraine brings out some aspects of the West’s approach to the war in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government would do well to study carefully. The dispute originated in charges by Poland and other central European governments that Ukraine’s greatly increased grain exports to Europe … were flooding European markets and depressing prices for Polish and other farmers.
  • The EU imposed a temporary ban, which, however, it refused to lift when it expired on Sept. 15. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have however continued the ban, in defiance of EU rules.
  • In a move widely interpreted as retaliation for Ukraine’s protests against the grain ban, moreover, Poland has halted arms shipments to Ukraine, insisting that it will now concentrate on equipping its own armed forces to defend Poland.  What makes this so extraordinary is that Poland has long portrayed itself as Ukraine’s greatest friend in the West, and has accused other Western governments of cowardice for not doing more to arm and support Ukraine.
    • The first lesson … is that even in countries whose populations are most supportive of Ukraine, that support will have limits when it imposes high and visible costs on themselves.
    • The other thing … is that, as dramatized by Poland’s latest actions, hatred for Russia and real sympathy for Ukraine are not at all the same thing and may even contradict each other.
  • Ukrainians should ask themselves how much of U.S. support for Ukraine is motivated by real sympathy for them, and how much is devoted to killing as many Russians as possible and weakening Russia as much as possible, no matter how many Ukrainians die and how much Ukraine is weakened in the process—as some statements by U.S. politicians and officials have tended to suggest.
  • An indefinite war with no clear victor will indeed weaken Russia; but it will also ruin independent Ukraine—something that now appears to be a key Russian war aim … That is not an outcome that the West should be working towards, however much Russia may also be hurt in the process.

“The Promise and Peril of EU Expansion. The Bloc Must Add Ukraine—but It Won’t Be Simple,” Carl Bildt, FA, 09.28.23.

  • For Ukraine, joining the EU is more than just a matter of stability. It is also a matter of its future prosperity. Becoming a part of the EU’s integrated single market and an adherent to its rules will foster more investment in the country, including in its factories. The result will almost certainly be strong economic growth, as it was in other post-communist states that joined the bloc. In 1990, when the Soviet empire was falling apart, the per capita GDPs of Poland and Ukraine were roughly the same. Today, Poland’s GDP per capita is more than four times as large. And although Poland quickly made impressive economic reforms, especially by comparison with Ukraine, it was EU membership that helped most.
  • The outcome of the war will certainly play a major role in Ukraine’s growth. But if the country can become secure, there is no reason why the EU cannot help it make a journey similar to Poland’s in the decades ahead. The EU, after all, has a history of great achievements: reconciling longtime foes in Western Europe, anchoring democracy in southern Europe, and propelling reform and prosperity in central Europe and the Baltic states.
  • To be fair, the task ahead is probably harder than these achievements—perhaps the EU’s most challenging one yet. But it is also the most consequential. Russia is threatening the peace and stability of Europe, and bringing Moldova and Ukraine into the EU is critical to strengthening the continent’s east. That, in turn, will protect Europe as a whole.

“World Disorder Is Spreading Fast,” Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 09.25.23.

  • The most important fact in world politics is that 19 months after Vladimir Putin challenged the so-called rules-based international order head-on by invading Ukraine, the defense of that order is not going well. The world is less stable today than in February 2022, the enemies of the order hammer away, the institutional foundations of the order look increasingly shaky, and Western leaders don't yet seem to grasp the immensity of the task before them.
  • This isn't just about the military threats to the international system in such places as Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait. Even as the global geopolitical crisis becomes more acute, the core institutions and initiatives of the American-led world order and the governments that back them are growing progressively weaker and less relevant.
    • The United Nations was supposed to be the crown jewel of the rules-based order, but lately the power and prestige of this perennial underperformer has sunk to new lows.
    • Messrs. Xi and Putin also ditched this month's Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.
    • The World Trade Organization is a shadow of its former self.
    • Arms-control and disarmament negotiations, another pillar of the rules-based order, are off the agenda.
    • States are imploding and the rule of law is disappearing across large parts of the world.
  • Threatened by powerful and relentless adversaries from without, undermined by political decadence and institutional decay from within, the rules-based international order has not been this imperiled since the 1930s.

“Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley Speaks at Farewell Ceremony,” Gen. Mark Milley, C-SPAN, 09.29.23.

  • Joint Force…is the most lethal and capable military in the world. And our enemies know it. We currently stand and watch on freedom's frontier, with a quarter of a million troops deployed in 150 countries.
    • In the last four years, we've executed countless operations, exercises and training around the world. We've destroyed ISIS and served justice to Baghdadi. We have supported Ukraine in their fight for freedom against Putin's war of aggression and strengthened the NATO alliance.
    • Right now…there are 60 to 100 United States Navy warships sailing the seven seas to ensure freedom of navigation. And we do that every day to protect our homeland, support our allies and keep the skies safe.
    • Our space force is rapidly expanding into that new domain, and our army and Marines are currently forward deployed to maintain peace and stability throughout the world.
    • We're investing in capabilities to sustain our military overmatch and modernize the force, and our pace forward will not stop.
  • We, in uniform, are unique. We are unique among the world's armies. We are unique among the world's militaries. We don't take an oath to a country. We don't take an oath to a tribe. We don't take an oath to a religion. We don't take an oath to a king or a queen or to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don't take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America and we're willing to die to protect it.
    • Every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, guardian, and coast guardsman, each of us commits our very life to protect and defend that document, regardless of personal price.

“Zeitenwende: The Bundeswehr’s Paradigm Shift Focus,” Léo Péria-Peigné and Elie Tenenbaum, IFRI, September 2023.

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, marked a turning point in German defense policy. After thirty years of military downsizing, the Bundeswehr found itself at an extremely low capability level just as a high-intensity war involving a great power was breaking out on Europe’s doorstep for the first time since 1945. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s response was to embrace this “turning point” (Zeitenwende) by launching a major program to reequip Germany’s armed forces.
  • The Bundeswehr faces three major structural challenges. The first is a low readiness rate caused by a maintenance backlog and inadequate implementation processes. The second relates to human resources: despite funding for the creation of more than 20,000 additional posts, the Bundeswehr is unable to recruit and retain its personnel. The country’s dwindling population and the perception of an underfunded and underequipped organization significantly undermine the ability to retain recruits. The third and final challenge lies in a strategic culture that is still struggling to take on board the new duties of a warfighting military.
  • It must be acknowledged that, despite numerous attempts to revitalize the Franco–German defense relationship, it currently generates more frustration than cooperation. However, there is too much at stake for France’s credibility in Europe for it not to respond to the challenge posed by the Zeitenwende.

China-Russia: Allied or aligned?

“Exorbitant privilege and economic sanctions,” Maxim Chupilkin, Beata Javorcik, Aleksandra Peeva and Alexander Plekhanov, EBRD, September 2023.

  • The dominance of the U.S. dollar (USD) “makes international sanctions more effective as firms engaged in international trade overwhelmingly require payments to be cleared through the U.S. banking system.”
  • However, excessive use of sanctions may “over time reduce the attractiveness of the USD as a vehicle currency and hence its dominance.”
  • The study results “are consistent with the use of trade sanctions gradually weakening the exorbitant privilege enjoyed by the USD and leading to the fragmentation of international payment systems, with the emergence of alternative global currencies such as CNY.”
  • Before March 2022, up to 80 percent of Russia’s imports had been invoiced in the USD or euros (EUR).
    • By the end of 2022, invoices in CNY accounted for 20 percent of Russia’s imports, up from 3 percent a year earlier, while the share of USD and EUR declined to 67 percent.
  • The share of CNY invoicing increased differentially more for trade in goods under EU sanctions. … The share of USD-denominated imports from China dropped by around 30 percentage points more than could be otherwise expected in the post-invasion period.
    • At the same time, the volume of Russia’s imports from neutral economies has increased significantly owing to the diversion of trade in sanctioned goods. As a result, the overall share of USD in Russia’s trade remained broadly constant in 2022.
  • The rise of CNY was most notable in payments for goods coming from China, where CNY overtook USD in the second half of 2022. However, CNY also started being used for settling trades with third countries. … This trend is also observed in Russia’s exports.
  • In Russia, “there is some indication that the use of local currency became less common after the invasion.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant developments.

Nuclear arms:

“Putin’s ‘bluff’: a cautionary note about underestimating the possibility of nuclear escalation in Ukraine,” Stephen J. Cimbala and Lawrence J. Korb, BAS, 10.02.23.

  • The arguments of [Yale’s Timothy] Snyder (and others) assume that the United States and NATO have fallen victim to “analysis paralysis” that has created unnecessary concern about escalation. ... From this perspective, the United States and NATO should provide as much additional support as quickly as possible to enable a decisive Ukrainian military victory, notwithstanding Russian nuclear coercive diplomacy. ... We have three major concerns about this optimism in regard to nuclear risk—concerns that should be loudly raised by policy makers, analysts, and media commentators.
    • First, the United States and NATO cannot and should not assume that Russian reasoning about nuclear deterrence and escalation will follow a logic similar to that of their Western counterparts.
    •  Second, escalation need not be the outcome of deliberate forethought: Inadvertent escalation could lead to a crossing of the nuclear threshold under circumstances that were not planned for or foreseen. 
    • And third, no one should underestimate what Ukraine and NATO have already accomplished in this war, both in terms of strategy and in policy—significant accomplishments won without provoking nuclear escalation.
  • U.S. and NATO aspirations for a Ukrainian military victory are understandable and laudable. But concerns about the possibility of nuclear escalation are not to be dismissed, and they go beyond accepting any obviously tendentious Russian propaganda. In addition to high-end conventional military performance by Ukraine and NATO political unity, another requirement for success in defending Ukraine is escalation control. Russian nuclear threats should not paralyze Ukrainian or NATO determination to persevere in the conventional war, which has existential stakes for Western democracy. But Western leaders should also remember that war is the least predictable of human activities, and nuclear war has unacceptable and irreversible consequences for all of humanity.

“How to Prevent a Third World War,” Sergei Karaganov, Russia in Global Affairs, 09.26.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • Western elites’ need for a rude awakening [is rapidly increasing.] ... By downplaying the nuclear threat, the American deep state is giving itself carte blanche to conduct an aggressive and plainly reckless foreign policy. ... We must … reinstate the fear of nuclear war that saved the world during the Cold War
  • The situation is further aggravated by the evident degradation of Western elites. Even Henry Kissinger ... acknowledged this degradation and sounded the alarm in his most recent book ... We need to restore belief in hell for those who have lost it. … The automatic escalation from limited nuclear weapon use to a global thermonuclear conflict is a myth.
  • On actual use of nuclear weapons:
    • If nuclear weapons will have to be used (God forbid), the strike should be of a sufficiently large proportion. ... If nuclear weapons are used on a small scale, with a yield of several kilotons, it could potentially win us a war but would modernize the fear that had preserved relative peace for three-quarters of a century. Nuclear weapons would become “usable.” ... Fear would be restored if it were to be used in Europe, since it still plays the key role in the global media agenda.
    • [One] step that is widely discussed in the open press and behind the scenes involves a demo nuclear explosion. Prior to that, we would withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ... I am not sure about the wisdom of our Foreign Ministry’s recent statement to the effect that we will refrain from resuming tests if the United States does the same.
    • If, as some high-ranking Western experts are bluffing (and their arguments are being echoed by our experts), the U.S./West attacks the Russian armed forces with non-nuclear means “in retaliation” … the adversary must be warned privately through corresponding military-technical channels and publicly that a second wave of nuclear strikes against the European countries will follow.
    • If … the Americans can forget and sacrifice their allies and continue the aggression, then Washington must be warned that nuclear strikes will follow against U.S. bases in Europe.
    • If strikes … are carried out on our territory or the territory of the Republic of Belarus, Americans and their allies should be aware of the fact that, of course, limited retaliatory strikes will follow on the territory of the United States and those countries that dare to attack.
    • I don’t see any other way to prevent a global war and, before that, an exhausting and costly military operation in Ukraine.

“R.Politik Weekly Digest, Sept. 25 - 1 Oct. 1, 2023,” Tatiana Stanovaya et al., R.Politik, 10.02.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • Some figures within the Russian establishment have suggested using nuclear leverage to force the West out of Ukraine.
    • On Sept. 29, Mikhail Kovalchuk, the hawkish President of the Kurchatov Institute National Research Center and brother of Putin friend Yury Kovalchuk, advocated for revisions to Russia’s policy on nuclear deterrence to stop the West raising tensions further. He also emphasized the need to resume nuclear weapons testing if it becomes necessary.
    • Recently, prominent foreign policy commentator Sergey Karaganov also asserted … that increasing the level of nuclear threat is the only way of cowing Western elites into backing off. He remarked, “should the use of nuclear weapons become inevitable (God forbid), the strike needs to be significantly proportionate.”
  • However, these statements should not be interpreted as a decisive shift within the leadership. Mikhail Kovalchuk, while close personally to Putin and a significant non-official player in the regime, is not seen by the president as an important actor in Russia’s nuclear strategy. As such, it is a personal opinion without any binding element. According to R.Politik’s sources, Putin values Kovalchuk’s input but may disagree with his views.
  • Karaganov’s stance is well-known too. However, while his provocative suggestions are frequently used in certain quarters to push an agenda (such as the Security Council), his interventions cause irritation among others (such as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs).
  • It is crucial to understand that there is lack of any real strategic discourse within the Kremlin. No one is permitted to ask questions or propose alternative courses of action during interactions with Putin. Individuals are limited to stating their opinions in public, but these do not reflect an official state-endorsed position.

“Why a stalling NPT is a wake-up call for global security. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at a dangerous point in its 50-year history. Its failure carries a risk we cannot afford,” Marion Messmer, Chatham House, 10.02.23.

  • The NPT remains pivotal for maintaining the non-proliferation norm and associated safeguards and inspection regimes, guaranteeing access to vital nuclear technologies for NNWS, and holding NWS accountable for disarmament. Nevertheless, the treaty is imperfect; four nuclear-armed states remain outside it and progress on delivering treaty goals has slowed over the past two decades. Regrettably, the procedural changes needed to address these challenges often encounter roadblocks due to numerous other political issues in the international arena.  
  • Global access to peaceful nuclear technologies remains crucial – for mitigating climate change, broadening access to medical treatment, and for ensuring agriculture and food safety. Many technologies that states in the Global North have long taken for granted, such as radiological cancer treatments, remain out of reach for countries in the Global South due to barriers accessing nuclear technologies. The NPT offers a viable avenue to rectify this disparity, but it requires improved cross-country collaboration.
  • The status quo may no longer suffice in this evolving security environment and innovative approaches are needed to preserve the integrity of the treaty. 
  • The failure of the NPT carries a price we cannot afford – one that includes the catastrophic potential for nuclear proliferation and use.


  • No significant developments.

Conflict in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Cyber security/AI:

  • No significant developments.

Energy exports from CIS:

“Diesel/Russia: oil sanctions help tighten supply for industrial fuel,” Lex, FT, 09.26.23.

  • Diesel supplies in Europe and the U.S. are now tight. Refiners everywhere cannot make enough as the spread of diesel prices with other fuels and crude oil has opened wider—known as the crack spread. Indeed, the sanctions on Russian fuels have finally played their part, as has an attempt by Russia to conserve its own fuel supplies by cutting exports.
  • Russia remains a key supplier of diesel to global markets. Its exports make up about a fifth of total seaborne trade, travelling through Turkey, north Africa and the Middle East since European sanctions took hold.
  • Low European inventory and limited spare capacity to produce diesel has kept traders bullish. Diesel crack spreads have doubled since July to $40 per barrel. Rising prices might explain why Russia decided to resume exports of dirtier diesel this week, after instituting a “temporary” export ban on fuels.
  • Diesel’s bull run could lose steam should expectations of resumed Russian supply and increased output come true. For now, Russia can take advantage of the oil sanctions against it.

Climate change:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant developments.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • No significant developments.


II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Regime Change in Russia Won’t Lead to Chaos or Collapse,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.25.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • When President Vladimir Putin leaves office—however that happens—we will enter the post-Putin era. Much about this next period in Russian history is uncertain, and many fear what it could bring: perhaps a more brutal leader will emerge, perhaps Russia will disintegrate, or descend into chaos.
  • It’s odd to try and scare the world with the specter of a leader more terrible than Putin. What could be worse than the biggest military conflict in Europe of the twenty-first century, and greater repression in Russia than the late Soviet Union? … Who is this future monster who would take the reins from Putin?
    • Perhaps Security Council head and notorious hawk Nikolai Patrushev? But is he worse than Putin? He’s just one voice of the current regime; a spokesperson for conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism.
    • Would a military commander like the deceased Prigozhin be worse?
    • Is a coup possible? It’s not in the political culture.
  • Widespread indifference in Russia will help an orderly transition to a new regime: ordinary people will obey any ruler who appears to be legitimate. Beloved Putin will no longer be beloved as soon as a power transition takes place. That’s how it has always been.
  • There are compelling economic, budgetary, and political-management reasons why Russia will not disintegrate in the post-Putin era. Russia is not a particularly rich country, and wealth inequality is compounded by regional inequality—making many regions dependent on federal subsidies.
  • A relatively optimistic scenario for a power transition is one in which Putin’s successor is a technocrat. It’s not a given that he will be replaced by someone often tipped for the role (from Patrushev’s son, Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev, to United Russia leader Andrei Turchak, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, or Kremlin deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko). It could just as easily be someone like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin … or Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Mishustin and Sobyanin have both striven to preserve their reputations as pragmatic managers.
  • Given the gradual, inevitable exhaustion of Putin’s governance model—financially, socially, economically, psychologically and politically—a technocratic or temporary leader will need to be able to ensure a transition toward normalization. There’s no way things can be worse… 

“The costs of Russia’s war are about to hit home: Vladimir Putin will be unable to protect citizens from the pain,” The Economist, 09.28.23.

  • Over the past year few currencies have done worse than Russia’s ruble. Last September an American dollar bought just over 60 of them. These days it will buy almost 100. The drop is both a symbolic blow to ordinary Russians … and the cause of tensions in the Russian state. It has blown apart the consensus that existed among Russian policymakers last year, when the central bank and finance ministry worked hand in glove. Now, as inflation rises and growth slows, the two institutions are turning against one another. At stake is the country’s ability to wage war effectively.
  • Short of raising rates, the only workable way to support the ruble is to boost energy exports. In theory, two factors are working in Russia’s favor.
  • However, Russia’s oil-export proceeds will probably not rise more. Higher prices may depress consumption in America; China’s recovery from zero-covid seems over. … Futures markets suggest that prices will fall during much of 2024. Although Russia could export more oil to make up for this, doing so would accelerate the slide.
  • The other bad news for Russia is that it must now earn more from oil merely to keep its total export revenue flat, owing to declining gas sales after the closure of its main pipeline to Europe. In the fortnight to September 19th these were a paltry €73 million ($77 million), compared with €290 million last year. There is talk in the EU of curbing imports of Russian liquefied natural gas. Europe’s nuclear-power generators are also cutting their dependence on Russian uranium.
  • All this means that, as Russia’s inflation troubles persist, the tussle between the government and the central bank will only intensify. The temptation to splurge ahead of the presidential vote next year will fan tensions, forcing the central bank either to crank up rates to debilitating levels or to give up the fight, leading to spiraling inflation. Alternatively, Mr Putin could cut military spending—but his plans for 2024 show he has little interest in doing that. The longer his war goes on, the more battles he will have to fight at home.

“What Explains the Russian Economy’s Robustness?” Yuri Danilov, Russia.Post, 09.29.23. Clues from Russian Views. 

  • Below are four explanations for the robustness of the economy, including an assessment of how much the factors have run their course and what the outlook for them is.
  • Fundamental factors:
    • Russian businessmen, having dealt with an unfavorable business and investment climate for many years, are very adaptable.
    • Another fundamental factor is the economy’s size: many firms do not depend on external markets (and are therefore less affected by sanctions). 
  • “Man-made” factors after Feb. 24, 2022:
    • The result of the massive fiscal support for the economy was a spike in demand from the defense industry and army. Now, a potential war of attrition is creating ever-increasing demand, though that brings a sharp rise in fiscal risks – in the medium term, it could transform the budget into a pyramid scheme.
    • On the whole, the actions of the financial and economic bloc of the government and the Central Bank have made it possible to reduce or postpone risks – for example, fiscal ones.
  • Behavioral factors:
    • Long-term optimistic expectations of households and business are based on the objective factors mentioned above, such as the adaptability of Russian business and effective actions by the government’s financial and economic bloc and the Central Bank. In addition, optimistic sentiment is ginned up by propaganda.
  • In the short term, there are practically no risks of a “collapse” of the Russian economy. But it is no less obvious that in the medium term and especially in the long term, the economy will continue to lose its robustness as crisis phenomena gradually rear their heads. The most important element of the robustness – macroeconomic stability, the establishment of which took many years of titanic efforts by economic and financial regulators – has been significantly undermined. Therefore, even though in the short term, the risks of a crisis scenario taking hold in the Russian economy are relatively small, they are now becoming chronic, and should a “black swan” appear, they might materialize quite quickly, transforming the crisis into a catastrophe.

“Ukraine War a Financial Boon for Small-Town Russia, But Can It Last?” Alexey Gusev, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 09.27.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • It’s not difficult to predict a victory for Vladimir Putin in the 2024 vote, but there are still some unknowns. The most significant of these is: How has the war impacted public opinion in small-town Russia?
  • Officially, there are about 40 million people living in small and medium-sized towns in Russia (though unregistered labor migration to large cities means the real number is likely lower). Their political role is clear: small and medium-sized towns are a crucial part of the Kremlin’s myth about Russia’s salt of the earth always backing the regime
  • The war has changed surprisingly little in the day-to-day socioeconomic reality for small and medium-sized towns. Indeed, it has actually strengthened an economic model based on the energy and defense sectors, which has traditionally been kind to Russia’s regions.
  • In many ways, all this looks to be an encouraging picture for the authorities. But could the Kremlin become a hostage relying on this type of support?
  • Stability is currently guaranteed by low unemployment (according to official data, it’s 3.2 percent). Reasons for this include mobilization and the high demand for workers in the defense industry. In small towns with older populations, the shortage of workers is particularly acute. In other words, a classic unemployment crisis is not in the cards. Big salaries for mobilized men and contract soldiers have also been an economic boost to the regions, raising standards of living.
  • But this may not last. The outlook for the Russian economy is darkening, and inflation could become a serious problem. … Thanks to generous handouts in 2022, the authorities were able to buy off those in Russia’s regions who sought social justice. But the Kremlin’s financial resources are shrinking, and they may not always be able to keep these aspirations for social justice in check.

“The birth of the North,” Vladislav Surkov, Actual Commentaries, 09.27.23. Clues from Russian Views.

  • Once upon a time, the concept of "global North" was actually synonymous with "West" and because of the obvious duplication, it did not stick. Now, the outline of the Great North, although barely visible, stands out and carries a completely different meaning.
  • Speaking of “today's world geopolitical hallucinations.”
    • What can we see ahead if we try to look beyond the mirage? What will happen if we remove the false pieces from the chessboard? There will be the Great North – Russia, the United States, and Western Europe – forming a common socio-cultural space. A tripartite northern geopolitical cluster
  • The chance to create a Great Northern Alliance was lost in the early 2000s when our [Russian] president suggested to the Americans that Russia should be considered for NATO membership. The proposal was rejected. Most likely because of the fear that within the new security contour, Moscow would be able to challenge Washington's hegemony and snatch away the levers of influence of the “junior” members of the Alliance.
  • Such offers are not made twice. The U.S. continues to live with its chronic phobias and delusions. The EU is not yet independent and remains an enlarged version of the Bizone, the American and British occupation zones in post-war West Germany.
  • The three major northern civilizations, Russian, Western European and American, draw inspiration for their political development from the image of the Pax Romana.
  • Our victory will change us and the so-called West. It appears as a new step toward the integration of the Great North, where our country will act as a co-leader of the global triumvirate.

Defense and aerospace:

  •  See section Military aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their impacts above.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant developments.


III. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Whither Wagner? The Consequences of Prigozhin’s Mutiny and Demise,” Kimberly Marten, Survival, 09.29.23.

  • Following Prigozhin’s mutiny and demise “Moscow may now become even more dependent on similar security contractors as its financial and military resources become increasingly depleted from its invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions.”
  • Wagner group outside Russia
    • In Belarus “keeping a large group of battle-hardened Russian ex-convicts busy outside of Russian territory, but near enough for Russian intelligence to monitor and Russian military forces to reach if necessary, may provide passive domestic security benefits for Russia.”
    • In Syria, other Russian PMCs outnumbering Wagner may have “likely eased the subjugation of the Wagner Group in Syria to [Russian] Defense Ministry oversight.”
    • In Africa “the GRU [Chief Intelligence Office] might be a better overseer of the Wagner Group than the Defense Ministry as a whole, since its long-standing responsibilities for foreign-military training, arms sales and foreign-influence campaigns better match Wagner’s strengths.”
  • Future scenarios.
    • With Prigozhin gone, there are reports that various actors, ranging from Russia’s civilian foreign-intelligence agency (the SVR) to Prigozhin’s young son Pavel, are vying to seize parts of his complex business empire.
    • Alternatively, “the Wagner Group could be kept much as it is, with a new set of Kremlin-approved senior managers taking over Prigozhin’s roles.”
    • Another possibility is “to fragment the Wagner empire, with local commanders pledging direct loyalty to Putin or the Defense Ministry.”


“Leaked U.S. strategy on Ukraine sees corruption as the real threat,” Nahal Toosi, Politico, 10.02.23.

  • Biden administration officials are far more worried about corruption in Ukraine than they publicly admit, a confidential U.S. strategy document obtained by Politico suggests.
  • The “sensitive but unclassified” version of the long-term U.S. plan lays out numerous steps Washington is taking to help Kyiv root out malfeasance and otherwise reform an array of Ukrainian sectors. It stresses that corruption could cause Western allies to abandon Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion, and that Kyiv cannot put off the anti-graft effort. “Perceptions of high-level corruption” the confidential version of the document warns, could “undermine the Ukrainian public’s and foreign leaders’ confidence in the war-time government.”
  • That’s starker than the analysis available in the little-noticed public version of the 22-page document, which the State Department appears to have posted on its website with no fanfare about a month ago. The confidential version of the “Integrated Country Strategy” is about three times as long and contains many more details about U.S. objectives in Ukraine, from privatizing its banks to helping more schools teach English to encouraging its military to adopt NATO protocols. Many goals are designed to reduce the corruption that bedevils the country. 
    • The document says that fulfilling American objectives for Ukraine includes making good on U.S. promises of equipment and training to help Ukraine’s armed forces fend off the Kremlin’s attacks.
    • The confidential version also describes U.S. goals such as helping reform elements of Ukraine’s national security apparatus to allow for “decentralized, risk-tolerant approach to execution of tasks” and reduce “opportunities for corruption.”
  • The administration wants to press Ukraine to cut graft, not least because U.S. dollars are at stake. But being too loud about the issue could embolden opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine, many of them Republican lawmakers who are trying to block such assistance. Any perception of weakened American support for Kyiv also could cause more European countries to think twice about their role.

“Battling corruption in Ukraine,” Tony Barber, FT, 09.30.23.

  • Penny Pritzker, the newly appointed U.S. special representative for Ukraine’s economic recovery, was in Brussels this week discussing postwar reconstruction. ... Pritzker made an important point: Ukraine and its Western supporters must “ensure that recovery takes place in line with international best practices, and that includes reforms that bake transparency and accountability into the effort. So reform and recovery go hand in hand.”
    • This was a polite way of saying that Ukrainian politicians, military officers, the judiciary, officials in public administration, business leaders and society as a whole must vigorously continue their other war—the war against corruption at home.
  • The struggle to suppress corruption is essential for three reasons.
    • First, it will enable Ukraine to prosecute its war of self-defense against Russia more effectively.
    • Second, it will improve Ukraine’s prospects of joining the EU and taking its place in the world as a modern, democratic, prosperous country alongside its international partners.
    • Above all, it will dispel once and for all the image Ukraine acquired after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 as an unreformable country rotten with corruption, organized crime and general illegality. 
  • There are some concerns about the way Zelensky and his advisers are implementing the anti-corruption campaign. In a recent interview, the president disclosed that he wanted to change Ukrainian law in order to equate corruption with treason in wartime.
  • Michael Emerson of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies ... concludes that the budgetary costs of Ukrainian entry are manageable. If Ukraine were a full EU member today, it would benefit from about €18 billion-€19 billion a year in net receipts from the EU budget. … All central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in and after 2004 would remain net beneficiaries.
    • So the road ahead for the EU and Ukraine may be brighter than some imagine. If the financial challenge of Ukrainian membership isn’t insurmountable, then there is all the more incentive to get to grips with one of the other major obstacles — corruption.

“Ukraine Takes On Corruption,” Jillian Kay Melchior, WSJ, 09.27.23.

  • As Ukraine fights a war, it's also battling corruption. The reputational clean-up continues, despite the risk that exposing graft will make the West reluctant to provide military support. Procurement scandals involving nonlethal military supplies have plagued Ukraine's Defense Ministry since January.
  • Public outrage preceded the recent replacement of Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. On Monday his successor, Rustem Umerov, announced a "complete reboot," including "significant personnel changes in the ministry." Six deputy ministers and the state secretary of the ministry were dismissed last week; none are accused of wrongdoing.
  • The procurement scandals haven't involved American aid. Inspectors general at the U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department and Pentagon have completed 33 reviews of aid to Ukraine and have 72 more in the works. As of this month, none had identified significant diversions, theft or misuse. Nonetheless, "I understand taxpayers in Britain or France or the U.S.A. are concerned," says Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, former executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, an anticorruption group, and now a lawmaker from the Holos party. "We -- as any democracy in transition -- have a problem with corruption, but there is a plan."
  • Ukraine has created a new procurement agency for nonlethal military supplies. It is headed by Arsen Zhumadilov, who helped clean up medicine and medical-equipment procurement at the country's Health Ministry. Mr. Zhumadilov wants to recruit professional procurers with impeccable reputations and to improve transparency. Much can be publicly disclosed without endangering state secrets, he says.
  • In 2022 Ukraine ranked 116th among 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, up from 144th in 2013.
  • Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union are spurring more change. The country became an EU candidate in June 2022, and of seven recent prerequisites for membership, five were related to addressing corruption or strengthening the rule of law.

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

“The Violent End of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Fight for Independence,” Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 09.29.23.

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh independence project has ended. But, Arman Grigoryan, an Armenian-born political scientist at Lehigh University told me, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is not over. “Azerbaijan has the military capability to take over southern Armenia, possibly on the pretext of needing a corridor to Nakhchivan.” Russia may have an interest in maintaining a military presence in the region, and further conflict could serve as the pretext. For now, the Russian media machine is working to destabilize the political situation in Armenia. Russia’s chief propagandists, at least two of whom happen to be ethnic Armenians, have blamed the defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh on Pashinyan. They have unleashed diatribes against him, employing obscene language. Under a special legal arrangement between the two countries, Russian television is widely broadcast in Armenia. “I have understood that Armenia should not insert itself in the games big countries play,” Martirosyan, the publisher, said. “Because the big ones will have a spat and kill a small country. Or at least hurt it very badly.”

“Russia concedes Karabakh for stake in new regional order,” Laurence Broers, Chatham House, 09.30.23.

  • Russia’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s attack tore up the “Putin’s frozen conflicts” script, the prevalent geopolitical narrative that stresses Russia’s instrumentalization of legacy conflicts in the South Caucasus and Moldova. For the first time (with the exception of its own conflict with Chechnya, and arguably Aslan Abashidze’s regime in the Georgian region of Ach’ara in 2004), Russia has taken the side of the “parent state” and forsaken the “de facto state” challenging it.
  • In three years, Russia’s positioning has shifted from regional hegemon and patron of conflict irresolution, to a partner and stakeholder in Azerbaijani-Turkish connectivity. This is a dramatic illustration of Russian decline and the realignment of regional power. Russia has abandoned a familiar policy – “frozen conflict” as a wedge against pro-Western development and liberal political order – for a new policy of “stake-building.”
  • However, it appears that this is a managed decline. In this particular case Russia has abandoned a familiar policy – “frozen conflict” as a wedge against pro-Western development and liberal political order – for a new policy of “stake-building” in an alternative regional order dominated by similarly illiberal states.

“Biden needs to act on Nagorno-Karabakh,” Simon Saradzhyan, The Boston Globe, 09.28.23.

  • The plight of Armenians is not of America’s doing. A string of poor leaders in Yerevan, Armenia, are at least partially to blame. Russia’s failure to live up to its formal and informal commitments to come to the rescue of Armenia and Artsakh played a significant role, too. But even though the current tragedy is not America’s fault, Biden should act to defend America’s values and interests by, at the very least, compelling Aliyev’s government to immediately offer legally binding, verifiable guarantees of security and safety for Karabakh Armenians as well as of their right to preserve their identity and culture.
  • Biden — who rightly criticized his would-be predecessor in 2020 for allowing Azerbaijan to impose a military solution and failing to “get involved personally” to “stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh” — should also use America’s leverage vis-a-vis Azerbaijan to force Aliyev to reverse his land grabs in Armenia. That leverage is significant, especially if combined with the punitive potential of America’s democratic allies in Europe. It includes an ability to credibly threaten and implement sanctions against key members of Aliyev’s corrupt regime, who park significant chunks of their wealth in the West and send their children to school there. In the longer term, it also includes the West’s ability to impose broader sanctions on Azerbaijan and to suspend aid to Azerbaijan.

“Nagorno-Karabakh’s Tragedy Can’t Be Ignored,” Editorial Board, Bloomberg, 09.29.23.

  • The U.S. and Europe can’t afford to stand by. As Azerbaijan assumes full control over the enclave, Western leaders should insist that the Baku government accept an international peacekeeping force to protect any remaining civilians, respect the rights of any prisoners (including Nagorno-Karabakh’s former state minister Ruben Vardanyan), and allow the safe transit of those seeking to leave. The rich Armenian cultural heritage in the region should be protected against further destruction. Since the most likely outcome is that all or nearly all Armenians will exit, increased humanitarian assistance will be necessary to help refugees find new lives in Armenia proper. The West should press Turkey to make clear to Aliyev that international law must be followed and that any unilateral attempts to redraw borders with Armenia will result in sanctions and other repercussions.

“The End of Nagorno-Karabakh: How Western Inaction Enabled Azerbaijan and Russia,” Thomas de Waal, FA, 09.26.23.

  • The next phase of the tragedy is now unfolding. In scenes reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s, convoys of cars are filling the mountain road from Karabakh to Armenia carrying thousands of Karabakhis leaving their homeland with as much as they can carry. Many or most of this isolated population seem likely to join them in the coming days and weeks, in what could amount to yet another round of de facto ethnic cleansing in a region that has witnessed many such upheavals over the years.
  • There is a bigger long-term failure here, that of successive Western governments to prevent the violence in the first place and get Armenians and Azerbaijanis to agree an equitable resolution to this bitterly contested conflict.
  • [S]ome older people might choose to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh, and thousands of Azerbaijanis who lived there up until 1991 might return. But little or nothing will remain of all the local institutions built there over three decades. This brutal outcome will also be a stark commentary on the role played by the region’s would-be overlord, Russia. Although the enclave had in theory been under the protection of Russian peacekeepers, Moscow’s guarantees ended up being worthless.

“This tiny European nation could collapse without U.S. aid—to Ukraine,'” Josh Rogin, WP, 10.02.23.

  • Those who want to pull U.S. aid from Ukraine fail to understand the devastating impact that such a move would have on many other countries—and especially those in Vladimir Putin's sights. For the small Eastern European nation of Moldova, international support for its neighbor Ukraine is the linchpin of its own security. Pulling it now would doom the region and set a terrible precedent around the world.  That was the main message of Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, whom I interviewed in New York last week on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings. "What happens in Ukraine does not stay in Ukraine," Popescu told me. "What happens in Eastern Europe does not stay in Eastern Europe. It has global repercussions."
  • "Unfortunately, the likely end of this war is not around the corner," he said. "But the Ukrainians have this amazing and tremendous capacity to resist. They will not give up. But the more support they have, the more likely it is that the length of this war will be shorter." Putin thinks of the military component as only one part of his multifaceted war on the West, so the United States and its allies must think about their response in a similarly hybrid way. Pulling U.S. aid to Ukraine now will lead to far greater costs down the road — and leave lots of other countries at Putin's mercy.

The cutoff for reports summarized in this product was 12:00pm Eastern time on the day this digest was distributed. Unless otherwise indicated, all summaries above are direct quotations. 

*Here and elsewhere, the italicized text indicates comments by RM staff and associates. These comments do not constitute RM editorial policy.

Slider photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.