Russia Analytical Report, Sept. 4-10, 2018

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The Vostok-2018 war games may offer clues about where Russia and China may utilize their capacity for combined military operations in order to project power, according to RUSI’s Jack Watling. Vostok-2018 also sends a very strong message to China, saying that Russia doesn't see China as an adversary or a military threat anymore, according to Carnegie analyst Alexander Gabuev: " It also sends a signal to Washington, DC, saying that if the U.S. continues on its current course by pressuring Russia and imposing more sanctions, Russia will fall even more into the firm embrace of China,” Gabuev told AP.
  • The U.S. has no obligation to rebuild Syria, the New York Times editorial board writes, but it can aid recovery in areas liberated from Islamic State fighters, while working with Russia to obtain reconstruction financing from the Gulf States and to prod Assad into a less despotic political model. But, the editorial board notes, Putin needs to know that none of that is possible if Syria’s rebel-held Idlib becomes a blood bath.
  • Allying with Moscow to combat cybercrime would be like hiring a burglar to protect the family jewels, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes.
  • The nationalism of the Russian public makes it difficult to imagine a trade of territory with Japan—especially territory taken in the Great Patriotic War—in return for merely economic incentives, argues J. Berkshire Miller, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior fellow for the EastWest Institute.
  • Even more worrying than a blinkered focus on the GRU is a new narrative emerging that paints the body’s operatives as a bunch of murderous morons, Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Affairs Prague argues. Believing this would be a serious mistake, Galeotti writes.
  • Contrary to Timothy Snyder’s claims, the Kremlin does not live in an ideological world inspired by Nazi Germany, according to professor Marlene Laruelle.

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

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

“This Is What Moscow’s Recent Crop of Nuclear and Hypersonic Weapons Actually Means for Washington,” Angus Ross and Andrew Savchenko, The National Interest, 09.05.18The authors, a professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College and an expert on political risk in the post-Soviet space, write: “In his March 1 speech, Putin listed a baffling array of weapons that were in the process of being added to Russia’s arsenal. … Two of them … stand apart from the rest: the heavy ICBM, successor to the long-serving Satan missile, and the Kinzhal, air-launched, pseudo-ballistic missile. These represent the two faces of Russia’s nuclear ambitions. … These developments and Russia’s strenuous pursuit of hypersonics and nuclear capabilities as an integral part of these systems, only make matters worse for the United States. As hypersonic speeds dramatically reduce both the time required to reach a target and the probability of a successful interception, they can seriously affect the overall strategic balance—in effect acting as ‘destabilizing agents.’ … This is not the time for America to fall behind in this crucial hypersonic arena. … With Russia seemingly intent on continuing to develop and deploy sophisticated, and in some cases, unique nuclear-delivery systems, there is an urgent need for the United States to reassess its position.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“Russia and NATO Show War Games Aren’t Just Games: As military tensions heat up, both sides will be flexing their muscles from Iceland to China,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 09.06.18The author, former military commander of NATO, writes: “Over the coming weeks, both NATO and Russia will launch a series of super-high-end war games. … [T]he messages … are crystal clear: We are prepared for war. Russia’s exercise is called Vostok … and will be held principally east of the Ural Mountains. It is the largest military exercise by Russia since Soviet times … Of note, China will participate with thousands of its troops operating alongside the Russians … The message to the West is obvious: Russia and China might work together militarily against NATO in the East or the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. … NATO will conduct its own huge military exercise, named Trident Junction 2018. … In the Russian case … the games signal the high capability and professionalism of the nation’s troops.  As for NATO, the message is similar, and directed toward the front-line states that border Russia … and NATO partners Finland and Sweden. … The Russian games were originally conceived as a deterrent not to NATO, but to China. … While the longer-term relationship is fraught, it is a partnership (and a war game) of convenience at the moment. … The good news from a Western perspective is that our land, air, maritime, cyber- and special-operations forces will work together and emerge more capable and interoperable. The bad news is that Russia’s forces will as well, and their odd alignment with China … will cause further concern globally.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

“Want to Improve Relations With Russia? Here’s a START,” Steven Pifer, Brookings Institution, 09.06.18The author, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes: “President Trump has repeatedly made clear his desire to improve the troubled U.S.-Russia relationship. There is a straightforward proposal that he could make that would do so … Extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). What’s stopping Mr. Trump? Perhaps his own national security adviser. … If the presidents do not extend New START, and the endangered 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty collapses … for the first time in nearly 50 years—there would be no agreed limits constraining U.S. and Russian strategic forces. … Mr. Putin raised the issue of New START extension in his phone call with Mr. Trump in January 2017. The issue arose at the Helsinki summit … and again during the … meeting between … Bolton and his Russian counterpart. … Extending New START’s limits and transparency measures would cap the strategic nuclear arms competition and enable the United States a continuing flow of information about Russian strategic forces … It would allow Washington and Moscow more time to figure out their future strategic relations. It would have the support of the U.S. military, giving Mr. Trump the political cover he may need for any agreement with Mr. Putin. And it would score a positive on the difficult U.S.-Russia agenda.”


  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“On Syria, the US Can Drive a Hard Bargain With Russia,” Dennis Ross, Wall Street Journal, 09.10.18The author, a counselor at the Washington Institute, writes: “Syrian President Bashar Assad has launched his opening salvo to take back Idlib … The unmistakable reality is that the Russians, because of U.S. inaction, have become the key arbiter in Syria. … But Vladimir Putin does nothing free. The question is whether the Trump administration is willing to apply the requisite leverage. … The U.S., Turkey and Israel share an interest in containing Iran and its Shiite militias in Syria. Russia has the capacity to deliver that, but it would want the U.S. out of Syria in return. The Trump administration could condition an American withdrawal on the following limits for Iranian and allied militia activity: No military bases in Syria; no more surface-to-surface missiles; no fabrication of missiles or advanced guidance systems in Syria or Lebanon; no qualitatively new air defense radars or missiles; and buffer zones with no Iranian or proxy presence near Turkey, Israel or Jordan.”

“A Grim Endgame Looms in Syria,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 09.09.18The news outlet’s editorial board writes: “Mr. Trump, who months ago said he wanted bring U.S. troops home, has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the military mission in Syria and launches a major diplomatic push to ensure all Iranian military and proxy forces leave Syria. … While Mr. Putin bears significant responsibility for breaking Syria, he has neither the skills nor the resources to fix it. He will need help from the United States and other major countries to accomplish his goals of rebuilding Syria and reintegrating it back into the world. The United States has no obligation to rebuild Syria, but it can aid recovery in areas liberated from Islamic State fighters, while working with Russia to obtain reconstruction financing from the Gulf States and to prod Mr. Assad into a less despotic political model. But Mr. Putin needs to know that none of that is possible if Idlib becomes a blood bath.”

Cyber security:

“Working With Russia on Cybercrime Is Like Hiring a Burglar to Protect the Family Jewels,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 09.04.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes: “The Russians are aggressively hacking U.S. and European political parties and infrastructure, according to U.S. intelligence reports. At the same time, they are pushing for international regulation of cyberspace—on their own terms. Russian plans to offer new U.N. cyber-regulation pacts were floated last month by Anatoly Smirnov, a top computer scientist at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations … He said Russia would soon introduce a cyber “code of conduct” and a pathway to a new cybercrime convention to replace one signed in Budapest in 2001. … Russia has tailored its new cybercrime convention to fit its authoritarian needs. … [I]t includes 72 articles that experts say would allow countries to censor internal debate, without adding significant new measures to curb malicious cybercriminals. …  Russia may offer a blander U.N. proposal to study an update to Budapest, as a first wedge. … It’s been clear for years that the United States doesn’t want an arms-control approach that would mandate unverifiable and potentially counterproductive rules. … Putin touted his plan for a “working group” with the United States on cybersecurity at the Helsinki summit in July. President Trump has signaled enthusiasm in the past, but this time wiser heads apparently prevailed. Even this administration understands that, for now, allying with Moscow to combat cybercrime would be like hiring a burglar to protect the family jewels.”

Elections interference:

  • No significant commentary.

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” Senior Official in the Trump Administration, New York Times, 09.05.18The anonymous author writes: “[M]any of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. … [M]any Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses … Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un … On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior. But his national security team knew better—such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.”

“Media Guilt by Russian Association,” Charles G. Boyd and Dimitri K. Simes, Wall Street Journal, 09.04.18The authors, chairman of the board of the Center for the National Interest and the center's president and CEO, write: “Every time President Trump writes off the mainstream media as ‘fake news,’ members of the press are befuddled by how many Americans seem to agree. Yet we at the Center for the National Interest have been unable to ignore the media's widespread bias since April 2016, when our magazine, the National Interest, hosted Mr. Trump's first foreign-policy speech. Since then we have faced relentless biased attacks from supposedly objective media outlets. … Mr. Trump is wrong to call the mainstream media ‘the enemy of the people.’ Yet it's true that many in the media have cavalierly abandoned traditional journalistic standards when covering him and anything related to him. … Unlike some other think tanks, the center doesn't employ Russian citizens, take money from Russia or maintain an office there. Nor do we issue joint statements with Russian institutions or experts. Rather, we work to advance the commitment of our founder, Richard Nixon, to dialogue among major powers-including with U.S. adversaries like Russia.” 

“The Cost of American Retreat,” Robert Kagan, Wall Street Journal, 09.07.18: The author, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes: “The liberal world order established by the United States a little over seven decades ago is collapsing. … The long period of prosperity, widespread democracy and peace among the great powers was a dramatic departure from the historical norm. … Liberal ideals triumphed because, for the first time, they had power behind them. … We tend to view the decades after 1945 through the lens of the Cold War … Yet the response to the Soviet threat … produced a geopolitical revolution. Within the confines of that system, normal geopolitical competition all but ceased. … Since no balance of power was necessary to preserve the peace … they [countries] could shift substantial resources and energy from military to economic and social purposes. … The success of the order was critical to the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War. … [Today,] [a]utocracy, not so long ago dismissed as an anachronism, has shown a strength and resilience that Franklin Roosevelt's generation would have recognized, while the democracies suffer from paralysis and self-doubt, as they did in the 1930s. … None of this began with Donald Trump. His ‘America First’ is a pithier version of Barack Obama's call to focus on ‘nation-building at home’ … A new ‘realism’ is in vogue … It is time to accept the world "as it is," not as we might wish it to be. … The problem is that … we have forgotten what the world "as it is" looks like. … Today we know that Vladimir Putin has grand ambitions but not yet the capacity to realize them. … What would a less constrained Putin do? … We cannot yet know what an even more powerful and less constrained China will want or do as it expands its regional and global influence, especially if it does so by military means. … Our real choice is between maintaining the liberal world order, with all its moral and material costs, or letting it collapse and preparing for the catastrophes that are likely to follow.”

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“The UK’s Partial Triumph in the Skripal Case May Prove a High Point in Intelligence and Diplomacy,” Bronwen Maddox, Financial Times, 09.07.18The author, director of the Institute for Government, writes: “The week’s revelations in the Skripal case are a partial triumph for Britain. … Images of the two Russians whom Britain accuses of the poisoning were splashed over front pages and television news. CCTV cameras caught them smiling on the streets of Salisbury ‘an hour after’ they sprayed Novichok nerve agent on Sergei Skripal’s front door handle … The U.K. announced the names they travelled under … along with the charge that they were members of the GRU … Yet for all the strong words in the U.N. Security Council … there must be a question about whether the U.K. can really exact much in the way of retribution or change in behavior. … If there are further provocations, that might lead to still tougher sanctions. But many EU countries do not want a fight with their near neighbor. As the UK has made clear … it wants to hold out the hope of improving its own relations with Russia at some point.”

“Russia Won’t Budge an Inch on Islands Japan Claims,” J. Berkshire Miller, Foreign Policy, 09.05.18The author, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior fellow for the EastWest Institute, writes: “Moscow certainly would like to improve bilateral relations with Japan and welcomes greater investment from Japanese companies … But the bedrock nationalism of the Russian public makes it difficult to imagine a trade of territory—especially territory taken in the Great Patriotic War—in return for merely economic incentives. Meanwhile, Japan continues to have sanctions in place on Russia … and has riled Moscow through its decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in northern Japan … Moreover, Japanese multinational companies … are hesitant to invest their money in Russia. … Trying to bolster economic ties with Moscow is a new formulation of a carrot that Tokyo has long tried to dangle in hopes that it can induce Moscow into a closer partnership, premised on a deal on the Northern Territories and a peace treaty. In theory, this could also help Japan, which is energy-strapped and overly reliant on the Middle East for its energy supply. Japan’s stagnant nuclear power industry only magnifies these concerns and highlights the need to look at opportunities with Russia.”


“Russia and China’s Growing Military Interaction; Surprised?” Peter Zwack, The National Interest, 09.09.18The author, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, writes: “The drums are already rolling for the upcoming Russian ‘Vostok’ (east) wargames … With its focal point in the Trans-Baikal region of eastern Siberia adjoining Chinese Manchuria and Mongolia, this is a nationwide Russian military and societal event. … One important wrinkle this year is that reportedly up to 3,200 Chinese personal with ninety vehicles, including tanks and thirty fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, will participate. … This will be the first time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will take part in this formerly purely Russian quadrennial Asia-oriented exercise. … Russia has no territorial claims in Asia. … Beijing, however, is distinctly revisionist in its behavior in Asia and the Pacific … A key generational question is how Russia manages the rising, resource-hungry hegemon that is looming China … While vulnerable to potential future problems … both nations have bigger fish to fry … Both needed calm borders and a more insulated trading relationship … Making increased military interaction more attractive is also the shared perception that the United States and its allies are squarely blocking their more autocratic aspirations and directly threatening their regimes. … U.S. and allied policy regarding both Russia and China should continue to be strong and predictable focused on the specific issues that both challenge and benefit relations. … We should watch and learn from these military exercises, assure allies and partners, but not overreact to their actions and rhetoric nor appear to try to drive a wedge between them. The wedges are already there … [and] will inevitably play out in the generations ahead.”

“US Policy Drives Russia, China Together Ahead of Summit,” James Ellingworth, AP, 09.10.18The author, a reporter for the Associated Press, writes: “When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet this week, they will have plenty to talk about thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump. Xi is traveling to Vladivostok … for an economic conference … while China joins vast Russian war games for the first time. … China is sending 3,200 troops to take part in Russia's vast Vostok (East) military exercises this month. … ‘It sends a very strong message to China, saying that Russia doesn't see China as an adversary or a military threat any more,’ says analyst Alexander Gabuev …‘It also sends a signal to Washington, DC, saying that if the U.S. continues on its current course by pressuring Russia and imposing more sanctions, Russia will fall even more into the firm embrace of China.’”


“Russia Unlikely to Walk Away From Ukraine Agreements, but Tense Times Lie Ahead,” Emily Ferris, RUSI, 09.05.18The author, a research fellow at RUSI, writes: “The assassination of rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, the ‘head of state’ of the self-proclaimed but internationally unrecognized ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in Ukraine, is likely to have implications for the internal politics within the rebel administration, as well as for any chances of progress on reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the eastern parts of Ukraine. … Zakharchenko is thought to have overseen many … lucrative import channels, which became an irritant for Moscow, since Zakharchenko was long suspected for siphoning off funds. … Several hours after the assassination, Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov reiterated in television interviews Moscow’s commitment to the Minsk agreements. … Russia has lost interest in the Ukraine conflict, but is unable to walk away from the Minsk negotiations. … The conflict rarely makes headlines in Russia, and Russia has also shelved any discussions on incorporating rebel territories and is pushing instead for the regions’ independence. So, notwithstanding Zakharchenko’s death, the peace talks will have to continue.”

“Ukraine: On the Front Line Of Europe’s Forgotten War,” David Bond and Roman Olearchyk, Financial Times, 09.06.18The authors, Security and Defense editor and a reporter for the news outlet, write: “This is Europe’s forgotten war, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives, almost one-third of them civilians, during the past four years, making it the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkans in the 1990s and one of the longest-running in almost a century. … Much of the fighting in Avdiivka takes place in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, where troops on both sides are well dug in. … There are no signs of a resolution in sight. The war was barely on the agenda at the Helsinki summit … And despite attempts by the U.S. and its allies to modernize and arm Ukraine’s 200,000-strong military forces, people in Avdiivka feel abandoned by the West. … Lt. Gen. Nayev says Western backing is necessary if Ukraine is to resist the Russian threat on Europe’s doorstep, but added that his own troops have already been transformed. He says Ukraine’s forces are now ‘not only capable but ready’ to repel Russian-backed separatists, which he claims have [over] 400 tanks—more than the U.K.”

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:    

“Five Nations Bicker Over Whether the Caspian Is Lake or Sea,” Rahim Rahimov, Wilson Center, 09.05.18The author, an independent political analyst, writes: “Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan met recently to sign the convention on the legal status of the resource-rich Caspian Sea … [T]he leaders … hailed the summit as a historic success. However, experts pointed out that the convention formalizes the existing status quo rather than genuinely settling any disagreements … There are four significant takeaways from the signed convention document. … The convention essentially imprints uncertainty on whether the Caspian is a sea or a lake, which fundamentally blocks application of any relevant international laws or instruments applicable to seas or lakes. … Second, militarily, the most significant outcome of the convention is the ban on the presence of armed forces of nonlittoral states in the Caspian Sea … Nor … can any party to the convention offer its territory to other states for committing aggression or other military actions against any littoral state. These military aspects of the deal echo a narrative long propagated by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov … Third … the convention fails to offer any solution to the problem of seabed division. It simply reaffirms the existing status quo. Fourth … Under Article 14 of the convention, a trans-Caspian pipeline can be laid with the agreement of those littoral states through whose territories the pipeline crosses. However, … the construction … must satisfy environmental standards … This means that any Caspian state—which would most likely be Russia—may veto construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Is Russia Really ‘Fascist’? A Comment to Timothy Snyder,” Marlene Laruelle, PONARS Eurasia, September 2018The author, a research professor at George Washington University, writes: “Over the past decade, and even more overtly since the annexation of Crimea, there has been a growing tendency to describe Russia—or at least the Putin regime—as ‘fascist.’ … [T]his assessment has been articulated by everyone from Western policy leaders like former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Russian opponents of Vladimir Putin such as Garry Kasparov. The label has also made inroads into academic discourse, being deployed by scholars such as Timothy Snyder … Labelling Vladimir Putin’s Russia a fascist regime is a serious accusation, with policy and potentially legal implications. … The fact that Timothy Snyder is an influential public intellectual and respected historian is no reason for scholars not to challenge his facile and polemical analysis of the contemporary Russian state. … Contrary to his [Snyder’s] claims, the Kremlin does not live in an ideological world inspired by Nazi Germany, but in one in which the Yalta decades, the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years, and the collapse of the Soviet Union still constitute the main historical referents and traumas.

Defense and aerospace:

“Russia’s Vostok-2018 Exercise Is About a Lot More Than War With NATO,” Jack Watling, RUSI, 09.07.18The author, a research fellow at RUSI, writes: “Vostok-2018 is clearly designed to test the Russian military’s ability to coordinate its forces in the context of a war with NATO. … But the scale of Vostok-2018 is likely overstated, and the exercises serve a wider range of purposes. … NATO observers … have been concerned about the offensive doctrine and range of capabilities being developed [by Russia’s military]. The conduct of such a wide array of complex maneuvers in Vostok-2018 appears to be an attempt to embed operational experiences from Syria across the wider Russian military, in preparation for either a conflict in Europe or a mobilization following the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. … The exercises [also] emphasize close collaboration between ground and air units as well as the use of specialist units in mixed formations … Many of the specific drills … have replicated fighting insurgents, and with Russia heavily engaged in Syria and seeking further involvement in Africa … these exercises are valuable in preparing for a more assertive foreign policy. … Despite tensions in military cooperation, Vostok-2018 provides an opportunity to demonstrate the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing. China’s participation is not just a political statement, however. … Vostok-2018 presents valuable opportunities for the Chinese military to refine its expeditionary logistics in support of an assertive foreign policy. The key question is not whether Russia will launch a war against NATO, but where Russia—and China for that matter—aims to utilize their burgeoning capacity for expeditionary logistics and combined operations to project power.”

Security and intelligence:

“Russia’s Military Intelligence Agency Isn’t Stupid: Don’t let the reporting on the suspected Skripal attackers fool you: Moscow got what it wanted,” Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, 09.06.18The author, a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague, writes: “The fact of Putin’s likely involvement [in authorizing the poisoning of the Skripals] has led to a flurry of stories on the GRU … The agency … has been named in the U.S. election interference investigation, blamed for an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and even suspected of shooting down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014. … But the GRU is not alone. A different team, from either the SVR (Russia’s equivalent of the CIA) or the FSB (the domestic security service, which is increasingly active abroad), has also broken into Democratic Party servers. … Targeting the GRU alone is a little like going after Petrov and Boshirov: launching a war to take out a few foot soldiers. … Even more worrying than a blinkered focus on the GRU is a new narrative emerging that paints the body’s operatives as a bunch of murderous morons. Believing this would be a serious mistake. … The GRU’s ethos of completing the mission no matter what means that innocent lives lost or even the revelation of agents’ names are not blunders so much as irrelevancies. … [W]ith stories circulating that Skripal had …  breach[ed] … the implicit deal behind the pardon he got from the Kremlin in 2010, Moscow would have wanted to let London know it was not amused. … The GRU used a Russian-made nerve agent … in order to ensure that while the Kremlin maintained a certain nod-and-a-wink deniability, there could be little serious doubt of who was responsible.”

“Putin’s Swashbuckling Spies Are Hurting Him: A string of bungled operations, including the Skripal poisoning, is attracting too much attention,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 09.05.18The author, a journalist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “Twelve GRU officers are named in special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment … A GRU officer has been linked to the downing of a Malaysian passenger airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014. GRU officers were tied to an alleged coup attempt in Montenegro the same year. It’s not surprising the intelligence service is being blamed for the Skripal operation as Skripal himself once was one its spies in the U.K. All of these operations have been complete or qualified failures that have hurt the Kremlin’s interests more than they promoted them. … By comparison, the other two Russian intelligence services that work overseas, the SVR and the FSB, have spotless records. … If, like Stalin, Putin is interested in deniability, he’s not getting it with the swashbuckling GRU. It’s possible, of course, that the Russian president’s real interest is in enhancing his reputation as a fearsome enemy. May told Parliament … that she thought the Skripal poisoning was meant to send a message … If so, Putin should be fine with the publicity the military intelligence service is getting—but only up to a point.”

“A Turncoat Spy Went Free. Putin Never Forgave Him,” Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, New York Times, 09.09.18The authors, reporters for the news outlet, write: “Sergei V. Skripal was a little fish. This is how British officials now describe Mr. Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer they recruited as a spy in the mid-1990s. When the Russians caught Mr. Skripal, they saw him that way, too, granting him a reduced sentence. So did the Americans … But Mr. Skripal was significant in the eyes of one man—Vladimir V. Putin, an intelligence officer of the same age and training. … It is unclear if Mr. Putin played a role in the poisoning of Mr. Skripal … But dozens of interviews conducted in Britain, Russia, Spain, Estonia, the United States and the Czech Republic, as well as a review of Russian court documents, show how their lives intersected at key moments. … Putin’s friend Sergei Roldugin said he had never seen Mr. Putin so emotional as when he spoke about those East German informants whose identities had been revealed. … Scores of intelligence agents turned to the West at that time, as defectors or informants, and Mr. Putin cannot speak of them without a lip curl of disgust. … Treachery, he told one interviewer, is the one sin he is incapable of forgiving. It could also, he said darkly, be bad for your health.”

“The Hidden Resistance: Why Russian Prisoners Protest and What They Can Achieve," Olga Romanova, Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.07.18: The author, director of a prisoners’ rights organization, writes: “While the world watches the hunger strike of Oleg Sentsov, who is becoming Russia’s best-known political prisoner, most penitentiary protests have nothing to do with politics. … [T]hey are about improving conditions in prisons and human dignity. Their occurrence and their tendency to be covered up testif[ies] to the lack of true accountability in the Russian prison system. … The only solution is to investigate and prosecute cases to the very end and enlist the help of skilled human rights advocates. … To accomplish that, however, Russia will need to reform the prosecution service, which requires political will. Furthermore, penal colonies are located in Russia’s regions, and the tight-knit and interdependent regional elite won’t easily betray the supervising prosecutors and FSIN officials. Absent reform, the only resort left is public accountability … Most importantly, Russia must have a civilian penitentiary system. It is impossible to penetrate the current secretive, militarized system.”