Russia Analytical Report, Jan. 9-23, 2017

I. US and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • No significant commentary.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • No significant commentary.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

“What Makes Putin Tick, and What the West Should Do,” Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Brookings, 01.13.17: The authors, the director of the Brookings Institute’s Center on the United States and Europe and an economist specializing in Russia, offer their advice on dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin based on their 2015 book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” and what they have learned since. The authors note that the conflict over Ukraine has highlighted dangerous misconceptions about Putin in the West. These include an underestimation of Putin’s willingness to fight and the ruthlessness with which he will pursue his goals, as well as the common misprision that Putin is merely a tactician and not a strategist. Putin will use any means necessary to achieve his goals, and as a result, must be taken seriously. “Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist. He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.” His tactics both abroad and at home are meant to gain advantage over his opponents. The Kremlin maximizes this advantage through making Putin “as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible.” His priorities today are the same as when he took office in December 1999, and Russia’s greater interests are now also his own. By limiting the number of actors Putin engages with, he simplifies his leadership. The few contacts he has with Western insiders, however, leaves him with an “incomplete grasp of what motivates or drives Western leaders. Finding himself too far outside their political perspectives and interactions, Putin falls back on his (and Russia’s) age-old threat perceptions.” The authors also note that the sovereignty of other states in Russia’s neighborhood is “contingent.” “The only question for Putin is which of the real sovereign powers (Russia or the United States) prevails in deciding where the borders of the New Yalta finally end up after 2014.” However, this does not mean a complete severing of ties between Russia and the West, as Russia still wants business dealings with the West, necessitating some political collaboration. Until this “new Yalta” is determined, the war between the West and Russia will continue, via both military and non-military means. The authors warn that while sanctions hurt, Putin is willing to deter the West by means of escalation. Putin’s next steps will include continuing the conflict in Ukraine, as well as “contingency operations elsewhere in the neighborhood,” and Eastern Europe is particularly vulnerable. “Putin’s operational aim will continue to be to find the weaknesses, to goad and intimidate and to make sure everyone knows he will make good on his threats.”

“Russia and the West After the Ukrainian Crisis. European Vulnerabilities to Russian Pressures,” F. Stephen Larrabee, Stephanie Pezard, Andrew Radin, Nathan Chandler, Keith Crane, Thomas S. Szayna, RAND, January 2017: The authors, political scientists at and contributors to the RAND Corporation, have created a report the impact of the Ukraine conflict on European security. A Russian threat to the Baltic states would likely be met with counteraction by NATO, and while Europe and the U.S. are vulnerable to Russia’s nuclear forces, the reverse is also true. However, while Russia supplies Europe with “a not-insignificant share of its energy,” even those European states disproportionately reliant on Russian gas could turn to other sources in the event of a permanent cutoff. Russia may have an opportunity to foster some instability in Europe through the continent’s domestic politics. This includes manipulating Russophone minorities and exploiting economic trouble. EU sanctions are fragile but continue to hold for now. While right-wing parties have seen a resurgence in Europe, none have “enough domestic popularity to gain control over foreign policies.”

NATO-Russia relations:

  • No significant commentary.

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  •  No significant commentary.

Counter-terrorism:

  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Putin and Erdogan’s Marriage of Convenience,” Henri J. Barkey, Foreign Policy, 01.11.17: The author, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, writes that relations between Russia and Turkey are changing quickly. In November 2015, when a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace was shot down, Ankara proudly took credit. This was quickly followed by “stinging economic sanctions” from Russia and an apology from Ankara to Moscow, along with a new narrative, blaming exiled clerical leader Fethullah Gulen for the incident. The December 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was similarly blamed on Fethullah Gulen, and in both instances Moscow accepted the “fantastic story.” This abrupt change in the two countries’ relationship stems partly from the conflict in Syria. “Frustrated by the Syrian opposition’s loss of ground against President Bashar al-Assad, and fearing the empowerment of the Syrian Kurds, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan began to tack toward Moscow and away from its Western alliance partners.” As a result, Turkey has been included in the Syrian cease-fire negotiations, whereas the U.S., a traditional ally to Turkey, has not. This change “paradoxically lies more in Erdogan’s pique at the United States than anything Putin may have done.” While the U.S. and Turkey disputed Operation Euphrates Shield, which currently targets Islamic State in the Syrian town of al-Bab, Russia’s bombing runs of the same targets “signaled that there were benefits to working with Moscow.” This appears to have been followed by an okay from Turkey for Assad to remain in power. Ankara has also began to hint that the U.S. may have overstayed its welcome at the Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey, a base “which is vital to the campaign in Syria and power projection elsewhere in the Middle East.” However, Turkey is still dependent on the protection from Russia that NATO can offer. “By signing up to the ongoing cease-fire, however tenuous it may be, Turkey has validated Putin’s overall stance and reaffirmed his importance in world politics.” Even the Russian ambassador’s assassination “could not be allowed to spoil this.” If the Trump administration joins the Russia-Turkey alliance, it may discover that it has validated their idea that the U.S. can be pushed around. If the U.S. pursues its own goals and plays for time, it could make sure “Ankara does not take the United States for granted.”

Cyber security:

“Russia’s Radical New Strategy for Information Warfare,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 01.18.18: The author, a journalist, writes that in February 2016, senior Kremlin cyber adviser Andrey Krutskikh warned his audience, “We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.” Krutskikh likened the unidentified “something” to the Soviet Union’s “first atomic bomb test.” These comments, the author says, might explain Russia’s hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and interference in European politics. Krutskikh’s comments stressed the importance of maintaining strength in the cyber arena in order to “dictate to the Western partners [the United States and its allies] from the position of power.” A senior Obama administration official described the difference between the U.S. and Russian ideas of warfare as a binary versus a continuum, respectively. Where the U.S. sees itself as either at peace or at war, Russia “can be at different levels of conflict, along a sliding scale.” Having realized that cyber capabilities can be used to pursue foreign policy goals, Russia’s interest in developing these capabilities has grown. The author notes that “In Putin’s mind, the United States attacked first in the information war.” Sanctions and warnings do not appear to deter Russian cyber experts. “Krutskikh’s comments highlight the emerging world of information warfare, where ‘fake news’ and hacking are tools for covert warriors in many nations.” And Russia, the senior U.S. official warns, is “particularly advanced—in technology, organization and doctrine. They’re at the head of the pack. But there will be others.”

Energy exports from CIS:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • No significant commentary.

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

“Trump Doesn’t Know What He Doesn’t Know About Foreign Policy,” Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy, 01.08.17: The author, a professor of international affairs, writes while U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters believe he will provide the U.S. with something resembling realist foreign policy, the author remains unconvinced, as foreign policy is only one factor for measuring a president, and as an academic, the author has “a high regard for facts and a deep commitment to truth.” Trump’s early foreign policy actions do not inspire confidence. His phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen picked at the U.S. relationship with China, the only country that could replace the U.S. as the top global power. Questioning Russia’s demonization in the West, as Trump does, is correct. Russia’s actions in Syria and Ukraine are “typical great-power behavior,” not unlike the U.S.’s actions in Iraq. Repairing relations with Moscow could also keep the Russia-China relationship from growing stronger. However, these things do not necessitate that Trump “ignore the unsavory nature of Putin’s Russia…or turn a blind eye toward possible Russian interference in U.S. domestic politics.” This puts Trump in the position of being thought of “as a pawn” by Putin and it encourages Moscow to increase support for Europe’s authoritarian movements. In addition, “Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been the antithesis of realism.” He exaggerates the threat posed by the Islamic State, has embraced Israel’s settler movement and his denunciation of the Iran nuclear deal leaves open the possibility that he will abandon the deal once president. More needs to be done that simply calling past U.S. foreign policy a “disaster,” and questioning old foreign policy doctrines needs to come with an offer of something better. The author writes that a president “needs a clear sense of what U.S. interests are, a decent understanding of how international politics works, a sound knowledge of the basic mechanics of international trade, a certain empathy for how others view the world even if one doesn’t share their views and enough consistency to elicit reliable cooperation from others over time,” as well as “the discipline and management skills to assemble the right team, set clear priorities and not be thrown off course by unexpected events.”

“America Must Rethink Its Assumptions About Russia,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The National Interest, 01.17.17: The author, a scholar of U.S.-Russia relations, writes that he finds himself agreeing with Masha Gessen’s critique that the U.S. government’s “Russia expertise is weak and throws into question their ability to process and present information.” The Trump administration’s national security team lacks “a unified view of Russia.” The extent of the threat Russia’s current actions pose to the U.S. and well as what Washington should do in response both remain unclear. The new administration’s Russia policy needs to be “rooted in rigorous analysis of Russian realities” as opposed to ideologies or “mirror imaging.” To the surprise of some, Russia has been able to withstand sanctions, low energy prices and “the strains caused by military action.” One possible reason is that Russia’s status as world power connects to many Russians’ personal sense of worth, enough so that they will bear a certain decline in the standard of living. A lack of numbers makes it difficult to tell the Russian public’s tolerance for casualties in combat, both in Ukraine and in Syria; however, the author believes “that missions defined either as vital to Russia’s homeland security or as waged in defense of Russian interests and commitments … can retain public support for a time.” The “mobilizing power of Russian nationalism” has also been underestimated, as even highly anti-Putin Russians “took great offense at the apparent glee of American commentators publicizing every last fault and mistake” of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A reassessment of Russia’s energy industry is also necessary. Last year’s predictions that Western sanctions along with low energy prices and the drains of Russia’s military campaigns “would force the Russian government to change course” did not come to pass, suggesting “that some of the analytical assumptions about Russia were flawed.” “The American analytic community has to help the new administration come to grips with” the fact that Russia is neither a menacing giant nor simply a pesky flea.

“What Would Trump Presidency Mean for Russia: Risks and Opportunities,” Dmitri Trenin, Euronews.com, 01.19.17: The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes that U.S. President Donald Trump is no friend to Russia. Relations with Trump will be difficult in a different way from U.S.-Russia relations during the Obama administration. Many of those in the new administration are “skeptical” or “even hostile” toward Moscow. In addition, “the U.S. political elite has offered Trump a Faustian bargain of acknowledging the legitimacy of his election in exchange for a consensus from his administration that Russia is an enemy of the United States.” If Putin and Trump can find common national interests, in that case, the “adversity may become more manageable.”

“Russia Had Plenty to Work With: The Crisis in American Democracy,” Paul R. Pillar, The National Interest, 01.08.17: The author, an academic and CIA veteran, writes that Americans who have no interest in the expansion of democracy still have reason to be troubled by the recent events in American democracy. One of the likely motives for Russian interference in the U.S. election was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” That this faith was already a “vulnerable target” should be of concern.

“What We Got Right,” John Kerry, New York Times, 01.19.17: The author, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of State, writes that he remains “convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America’s leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever.” The U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State illustrates this. The negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal also “made our nation, our allies and the world safer.” Unlike the mostly rhetorical response to Russia’s actions in Georgia, Russia’s 2014 actions in Ukraine were met with sanctions worked out with U.S. partners “that have isolated Russia and badly damaged its economy.” The U.S. has also increased its support to Baltic and Central European allies. The author writes that diplomacy, humanitarian access, “marginalizing terrorists” and promoting “Syrian-led talks” remains the only formula “with a realistic chance to end the war” in Syria. “Diplomacy requires creativity, patience and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight.” While results are not immediate, they have paved the way for a better world. As the new administration takes office, it will face challenges, but it is also “armed with enormous advantages in addressing” these challenges.

“The Simple Reason Russia and America Keep Inching Towards Crisis,” Ted Galen Carpenter, The National Interest, 01.19.17: The author, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, writes that Russia sees its military actions in its neighborhood as “a defensive response” to provocations by the U.S. These provocations have been made worse by U.S. deployments in Eastern Europe. Where Russia sees these “as unacceptable intrusions” into the Russian sphere of influence, the U.S. rejects the idea of spheres of influence. While both are responsible, Washington, not Moscow, is more to blame for the deterioration in relations. “Rejecting any manifestation of spheres of influence is either naïve or supremely arrogant,” as Russia is not alone in its adherence to this concept.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Inside Russia’s New Foreign Policy Master Plan,” Areg Galstyan and Sergey Melkonyan, The National Interest, 01.04.17: The authors, Russia experts, write that Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, updated for the first time in three years, is more systemic and emphasizes “the need to strengthen Russia’s position as a major center of influence in the modern world.” The document mentions for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse “discrepancies in the world’s uneven development” including the gap between states’ welfare and the increased competition for resources. It also discusses the threat posed by international terrorism and mentions that “systemic problems in the process of globalization” are to blame for the spread of extremist ideology, and that the emergence of ISIS has given the terrorist threat new features. In response to the conflict in Ukraine, the Concept also features a point regarding the Kremlin’s willingness to oppose “any attempt to using human rights as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of any state in order to unseat legitimate governments.” Notable points regarding Russia’s regional priorities include: a bump in importance to strategic cooperation with Belarus, placing it above the expansion of the Eurasian Economic Union; additional significance given to improving the contract of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and strengthening relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The sections dealing with Russian-European relations include: changes to Russia’s main partners, which now stand as Germany, France and Italy, with the addition of Spain and the removal of the U.K. and the Netherlands. While Russia is “ready to build equal relations with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic institutions” the Concept does not contain any points on peacekeeping or stability goals. Due to the Arctic’s increasing importance, the document features a paragraph emphasizing that Russia will oppose attempts at political and military conflict in the region. China remains Russia’s focus in the Asia-Pacific. Regarding the Middle East, the Concept notes a need to resolve the conflict in Syria, but for the first time it does not include a point on the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

China:

  • No significant commentary.

Ukraine:

“Ukraine’s Difficult Year Ahead in 2017,” Stephen Pifer, Brookings/Kyiv Post, 01.06.17: The author, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative, writes that “Ukraine faces two fundamental questions. Can it put an end to Russia’s aggression and reassert sovereignty over its territory? And can it put in place the critical mass of reforms and anti-corruption measures to launch a sustained period of high economic growth?” Although Ukraine has made some progress on both points since the ousting of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, neither has been resolved and 2017 will pose even more challenges. Donald Trump’s U.S. presidency begins in January, and the next steps for Brexit begin in March. The candidate favored to win France’s presidential election is pro-Russia former Prime Minister Francois Fillon. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is going up for a fourth term in a political climate that favors change, and even if elected, a new French president and Brexit “will complicate her leadership of EU strategy regarding Ukraine.” Other European countries are also looking to restore relations with Russia, particularly Greece, Hungary and Italy. The authors suggest that Kiev “engage the U.S. and European governments—especially Germany—with a strong, positive message.” This message should include a demonstrations of Kiev’s commitment to the Minsk agreements and an acceleration of anti-corruption and economic reforms.

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • No significant commentary.

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“When the Russians Fake Their Election Results, They May Be Giving Us the Statistical Finger,” By Kirill Kalinin and Walter R. Mebane, The Washington Post, 01.11.17: The authors, political scientists, write that in the furor following the U.S. presidential elections, Russia’s own 2016 election and its questionable “democratic legitimacy” has been forgotten. While the Kremlin denies interfering in the election, there is evidence to the contrary, such as a large number of precincts reporting United Russia victories of “more than 50% of the vote in numbers that can be evenly divided by five: 55%, 65%, 70%, 75%, 80%, 85%, 90%, 95% or even 100 %.” This type of fraud can act “as a signaling mechanism by which regional governors display their loyalty to the Kremlin.” Using a positive empirical model of election frauds, incremental and extreme fraud indicators were much higher in the 2016 election than in previous years. “In 2016, we concluded that about 3.6% of votes recorded for United Russia (nearly two million votes) were fraudulent.”

Defense and Aerospace:

  • No significant commentary.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • No significant commentary.
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