This Week’s Highlights:

  • The latest round of U.S. sanctions on Russia may serve as the impetus for a new wave of property redistribution in Russia based upon state interests as opposed to economic ones, according to a preview of Putin’s fourth presidential term by Tatyana Stanovaya, one of Russia’s leading political analysts. Putin believes Russia is, for now, over the worst effects of U.S. and EU sanctions and that higher oil prices will help buffer against any future penalties, according to a Wall Street Journal article on Putin’s May 7 inauguration.
  • Russia will be the key to preventing the Syrian civil war from splintering into an even more chaotic and deadly phase, argues Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director for International Crisis Group. In the past three years, the United States has been reduced to playing little more than a spoiler role in Syria, Hiltermann writes. De-escalating the war there may no longer lead to a political settlement involving the opposition, but Russia would need a degree of stability to be able to declare victory and reduce its military footprint.
  • Michael McFaul writes in his new book that there is a “new ideological struggle . . . between Russia and the West, not between communism and capitalism but between democracy and autocracy.” As a generalization, that is unconvincing, writes Archie Brown, emeritus professor of politics, in his review of the book. Brown notes that Washington has embraced allies more autocratic than Russia, such as Egypt under Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and warns that perceptions have political consequences.
  • Putin seems to have decided that it was better to sacrifice Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan than to risk losing Armenia itself, writes columnist David Ignatius. Armenia’s basic political dilemma over the past 25 years has been how to reconcile its pro-Western political sympathies with its military dependence on Russia, according to this Washington Post columnist.
  • To avoid a Cold War in the Arctic, the U.S. should invest in the international institutions that provide forums for dialog between Russia and the rest of the Arctic nations the Pentagon must increase its ability to monitor and operate militarily in the Arctic and Washington should seek zones of cooperation with Russia (and eventually China, if it becomes a regional player), according to James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School.

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:

  • See “Who Can Prevent a War Between Israel and Iran? Russia,” Joost Hiltermann, New York Times, 05.03.18 in Conflict in Syria section below.

New Cold War/Sabre Rattling:

“How Did the End of the Cold War Become Today’s Dangerous Tensions With Russia?” Archie Brown, The Washington Post, 05.04.18In this book review for Michael McFaul’s “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” the author, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford, writes: “Russia no longer has such a distinctive politico-economic model as the communist system constituted … To slide into a comparable confrontation now would be to replace a real cold war, following a short interval, by an unnecessary cold war. For Michael McFaul … there is a ‘new ideological struggle . . . between Russia and the West, not between communism and capitalism but between democracy and autocracy.’ As a generalization, that is unconvincing. During the Cold War … many people in the West … felt that what they were defending was precisely democracy. … Russia has become substantially more authoritarian in the post-Soviet era … but it retains far more freedom and elements of pluralism than were to be found in the pre-perestroika U.S.S.R. … Washington has embraced allies more autocratic than Russia, a contemporary example being Egypt under Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. … How did we get from the relative amity of the negotiated end of the Cold War to the mutual distrust and dangerous tensions of today? McFaul takes that issue seriously … But I find it only partly convincing. He notes three possible explanations: ‘the structure of international relations between great powers, our foreign policies and Russian domestic politics.’ … McFaul places the most weight on … Russian domestic politics and, more specifically, the role of Putin. But these are more closely interlinked with … American foreign policy, than he allows. … Perceptions have political consequences. McFaul’s list of real and perceived Russian grievances adds up to a great deal. … The United States and Russia remain the two countries that have the military means utterly to destroy each other … This remains reason enough for prioritizing the U.S.-Russian relationship, for paying attention to perceptions on both sides as well as to their concrete behavior and for not stumbling, blindly or fatalistically, into a second cold war—or worse.”

“Avoiding a Cold War in the High North. Russia and now even China are pushing ahead of the US and NATO in the Arctic,” James Stavridis, Bloomberg, 05.04.18The author, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, writes: “Today, as we watch U.S. and Russia continue to confront each other around the world … the High North is no exception. … ‘Our goal is to make it a truly global and competitive transport route,’ Putin said of the Arctic … [Chinese] President Xi Jinping recently met with Putin to discuss a collaborating on a kind of ‘frozen Silk Road.’ … Clearly, the Arctic is dangerously close to becoming a zone of conflict. How can we achieve what our Canadian allies wistfully call ‘high north but low tension?’ … While it will be a decade or more before shipping truly burgeons in the Arctic, China and Russia are planning and building infrastructure to dominate the trade routes. Meanwhile, under the ice, submarines operate continually … Finally, there is also a great deal of oil and natural gas below the sea floor that will become more accessible over time … So, how can we avoid a truly cold war in a part of the world where we have … avoided combat? First, the U.S. should invest in the international institutions that provide forums for dialog between Russia and the rest of the Arctic nations. …  Second, the Pentagon must increase its ability to monitor and operate militarily in Arctic. … Third, Washington should seek zones of cooperation with Russia (and eventually China if it becomes a regional player). … Finally, Americans simply need to pay more attention to the vast stretches of ocean and ice at the top of the world.”

NATO-Russia relations:

“The Black Sea: How Russia Is Looking to Cause Chaos for NATO,” Angus Ross and Andrew Savchenko, The National Interest, 05.03.18The authors, a professor of joint military operations and a senior lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design, write: “The Black Sea region is vitally important to Russia, sitting as it does at a nexus between her geopolitical, economic and cultural interests. … the sea itself sits right in the middle of what Russia currently sees as a necessary security or ‘buffer’ zone that stretches from Azerbaijan in the East, across the Caucasus and Georgia, over the waters of the Black Sea and into Ukraine and Moldova to the West. … since they cannot exist independent of their stronger patron, should they ever decide to part, they effectively have to become a part of another strong competitor’s satellites. This is one of the reasons why Moscow fears NATO’s encroachment into its near abroad … To combat these ‘break-aways,’ Russia has developed a combination of military pressure and aggressive political interference on the ground … to destabilize any political entity within these states that Russia deems to be a threat to its erstwhile control. … Russia views such actions as being purely defensive in nature. Georgia (2008) and the Crimea/eastern Ukraine (2014) are both examples of this. … Russia sees it as vital to keep pressure on the coastlines and activities of her nearest NATO member states … The Black Sea is destined to play a crucial part in Russia’ economic plans, too. It represents an important transit corridor for goods and energy into Europe … we can expect Russia to assert itself with vigor in the Black Sea region, taking every chance to embarrass and discredit Western inroads and offering physical challenges to Western forces operating there.”

Missile defense:

  • No significant commentary.

Nuclear arms control:

  • No significant commentary.

Counter-terrorism:

  • No significant commentary.

Conflict in Syria:

“Who Can Prevent a War Between Israel and Iran? Russia,” Joost Hiltermann, New York Times, 05.03.18The author, the Middle East and North Africa program director for International Crisis Group, writes: “The key to preventing the Syrian civil war from splintering into an even more chaotic and deadly phase will be Russia … But the United States, too, could still play an important role … Russia is ideally placed to prevent an outright war between Israel and Iran … Moscow has strong working relationships with nearly everyone … [and] an overriding interest in preventing a war in Syria between Israel and Iran, if only to preserve its own gains … But is Russia able and ready to play this role? The best way to prevent a confrontation … would be to establish a communications channel for all parties directly with the Kremlin and Russian military. … It’s also unclear if Washington and its European allies would support a Russian mediation effort. They should. … In the past three years, the United States has been reduced to playing little more than a spoiler role in Syria. … Relations between Russia and the United States may have taken a turn for the worse, but neither country seems to want a volatile region to spin further out of control, with unpredictable consequences. This offers common ground, however thin, for cooperation on at least two fronts. One is de-escalating the Syrian war. This may no longer lead to a political settlement involving the opposition … but Russia would need a degree of stability to be able to declare victory and reduce its military footprint. … A second area … is de-escalating surging tensions between Israel and Iran. … the Trump administration could support Russia-led mediation, but this would require not only active engagement with Moscow but also an altogether different approach toward the Syrian government’s other ally: Iran. If the United States pulls out of the nuclear accord, as it appears set to do by the May 12 deadline, it will put itself on a path of military confrontation with Iran. If … the Trump administration pursues the same approach with Iran as it has with North Korea … it could help defuse tensions in the Middle East.”

“Russian and American De-Confliction Efforts in Syria: What’s the Endgame in the Civil War?” Col. Robert E. Hamilton, FPRI, April 2018: The author, a U.S. Army colonel and a Black Sea fellow at FPRI, writes that “the battle for influence over the final settlement in Syria is heating up. This … is characterized by shifting and sometimes surprising coalitions of states and non-state actors. … the United States and Russia have been effective in what both sides call the ‘de-confliction’ of operations in Syria, but it’s doubtful that these efforts can serve as a foundation for more meaningful efforts to put Syria back together. … preventing the war there from further destabilizing the region—and possibly escalating into a regional war—will require new ideas. It will also require all parties … to compromise on their objectives—something that no side looks ready to do.”

Cyber security:

  • No significant commentary.

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:

  • No significant commentary.

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

“Putin Wants a Shining Legacy. He Has to Solve 3 Big Problems First,” Philipp Casula and Camille-Renaud Merlen, The Washington Post/NYU Jordan Center, 05.03.18: The authors, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich’s history department and a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent, write: “In his fourth and likely last term, he [Vladimir Putin] will be working on establishing himself as the leader who returned Russia to international grandeur, stabilized the economy and increased the urban standard of living. … while Putin’s assertive foreign policy has been popular at home, it has also embroiled Russia in complex predicaments that may undo that popularity. Let’s look at the key international challenges that will help define how Russia will remember Putin … Russia now seems locked in a costly and lengthy confrontation with the United States and its allies … To establish a positive legacy, Putin likely needs U.S. recognition and the end of sanctions to help the Russian economy thrive. … Europe is angry that eastern Ukraine is embroiled in ongoing conflict … Russian intervention succeeded in preventing Ukraine from associating itself with the EU as an intact country. … As relations with the West have disintegrated, Russia has improved ties with other parts of the world, which some call Russia’s ‘pivot to the East.’ … it has dramatically reshaped its position in the Middle East—particularly in Syria … Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict could be one of Putin’s major international achievements—but only if the intervention does not turn out to be too costly in economic and diplomatic terms, and if the Syrian regime is stabilized enough to carry on for the foreseeable future. … It’s hard to see how Putin will untangle these knotty conflicts, all of which could undermine his domestic reputation.”

China:

“Avoiding US-China Competition Is Futile: Why the Best Option Is to Manage Strategic Rivalry,” Timothy R. Heath and William R. Thompson, Asia Policy, April 2018: The authors, a RAND Corporation researcher and a professor emeritus at Indiana University, Bloomington, write: “Rising tensions between China and the U.S. have spurred fears that the two countries could end up in conflict or recreate the Cold War. … Conflict is not inevitable, however, and aggressive strategies that unnecessarily aggravate the sources of rivalry are likely to prove dangerously counterproductive. The best option … [is] for the U.S. to accept the reality of the growing strategic rivalry and manage it at a lower level of intensity. … Maintaining a technological edge is critical for the U.S. to successfully manage the rivalry with China. … To compete with China’s narrative about leading regional integration, the U.S. should both put forth a compelling vision for the region … and continue to bolster its diplomatic and military positions in Asia. … the United States has strengthened its military alliances and partnerships, while China has strengthened ties  with Russia an  argued that regional security is best protected  through … Chinese-led institutions. … To maintain the U.S.-China rivalry at a stable level, policymakers in both countries should prioritize measures that discourage the mobilization of popular sentiment against the other country and encourage cultural exchanges. U.S.-China competition will likely become increasingly entwined with rivalries between China and U.S. allies and partners.”

Ukraine:

“Ukraine’s Democracy Is Approaching ‘Make or Break’—And the West Is Missing in Action; Putin is at war with democracy there,” Michael McFaul, The Washington Post, 05.01.18: The author, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, writes: “The front line of this ideological war between Putinism and democracy … remains Ukraine. … I can see why Ukraine today frightens Putin. This Slavic nation with some shared historical and cultural legacies with Russia is building democracy. … If Ukrainians can make democracy work, they might inspire Russians to want the same. … Putin remains deeply committed to undermining Ukraine’s still-fragile democratic project. … The next major battle in this international war of ideas will occur during next year’s presidential election in Ukraine. … the Kremlin and its surrogates will support candidates, sow division within Ukrainian society and fuel doubt about the freedom and fairness of the vote. … We cannot sit on the sidelines and just hope for this outcome. … This means … funding robustly anti-disinformation projects, campaign transparency initiatives and election-monitoring programs … as well as a massive international election-monitoring effort … the Group of Seven … must commit publicly, and in advance, to use sanctions and other means to punish Russian interference … Western leaders must state unequivocally that they are not supporting any individual candidate in this election, only the process. … Western democratic leaders must start now on putting together a new … assistance package to be delivered immediately after the election. … all of these steps must be repeated for the equally important parliamentary elections occurring months later.”

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

“Armenia Escapes Its Post-Soviet Malaise,” David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 05.03.18The author, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, writes: “Armenia appears at last to be breaking with its post-Soviet malaise and embracing democratic change, thanks to a grass-roots movement that has found a way, for now, to straddle Russia and the West. … The movement’s mass street demonstrations over the past month have deposed the prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan … On Tuesday, the Armenian parliament, controlled by Sargsyan’s party, had narrowly defeated Pashinyan’s bid to form a new government. But another vote is scheduled for May 8, and the ruling Republican Party signaled it won’t oppose the reformer. If Pashinyan succeeds, it will be in large part because the police and army refused to open fire on the protesters … Armenia’s basic political dilemma over the past 25 years has been how to reconcile its pro-Western political sympathies with its military dependence on Russia. The popular uprising has been tolerated, so far, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He seems to have decided that it was better to sacrifice Sargsyan than to risk losing Armenia itself. … Pashinyan’s movement promises change, but as is often the case with grass-roots uprisings, the details are fuzzy. … Even his supporters admit they aren’t sure yet what that agenda might include. But in the excitement of Wednesday’s mass protest, the details could wait.”

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

“Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline?” Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev, Russia Matters, 05.04.18The authors, director of the Russia Matters project and a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, write: “Is Russia a rising, declining or stagnating power? How does its standing in the global order compare to other nations … ? While some scholars have expressed the view that 21st-century Russia is in decline, others have dubbed it the No. 2 nation in the post-Cold War world. … [Russia] continues to have a profound effect on America’s vital national interests and on the global order in the 21st century. … To determine whether Russia is rising, declining or stagnating, the authors … measured changes in Russia’s national power (during Putin’s rule—1999-2016) by analyzing a broad range of data, including economic output, energy consumption, population, life expectancy, military expenditures, government effectiveness, patents and even tourist visits. … Two of the three models used to measure the country’s power vis-à-vis the world as a whole indicate that it has grown in the 21st century, while the third showed a decline of less than 1 percent. All four methods used to compare Russia to … [its] comparands show that it has gained on its five Western competitors while remaining behind the U.S. in terms of absolute national power. … Russia’s gains, however, were not continuous over the research period and appear to be petering out … according to most of these measures, Russia has lagged behind China and India both in the rate of growth of national power and in absolute power. The authors posit that Russia’s decline relative to China and its rise relative to its Western competitors could have been among the factors that made Moscow more accommodating toward Beijing … and more assertive in its competition with the West … If that proposition holds true, then monitoring changes in national power can help to predict nations’ behavior toward their competitors and peers. … The authors’ research reaffirms the proposition … that the world is returning to an era of competition among great powers. … It remains to be seen whether the emerging multi-polar global order will be a new edition of the Concert of Nations among great powers … or will be based on relentless competition among these powers.”

“How Western Sanctions Will Alter Ties Between Russian Big Business and the Kremlin,” Tatyana Stanovaya, Carnegie Moscow Center, 05.03.18The author, a founder and CEO of a political analysis firm, writes: “America’s latest round of sanctions has … impacted not only government officials, but also influential business elite. … the newest sanctions will affect budget and tax policies, property distribution, relations between government and the business community, macroeconomic indicators and the public’s sense of social well-being. … Amplified by domestic political trends, the sanctions may serve as the impetus for a new wave of property redistribution based upon state—rather than economic—interests. … Putin and his entourage … view the 1990s privatization of state assets as unfair and an irreparable consequence of the Russian state’s weakness under President Boris Yeltsin. And although Putin has repeatedly opposed revisiting privatization’s outcomes, that does not mean he considers them legitimate … conservatives in Putin’s circle see these oligarchs … as potential allies of the West.  At a time of increasing sanctions pressure, these businessmen are the most vulnerable. … When Putin’s elite believes the country is in a state of geopolitical war, the regime will inevitably be tempted to take control of resources it feels were distributed with no concern for state priorities.”

“As Putin Starts Fourth Term, Higher Oil Prices Give Him Some Security; The Russian leader has used the country’s energy bounty to rebuild the military, could serve as buffer for sanctions,” Thomas Grove, Wall Street Journal, 05.07.18The author, a reporter for the news outlet in Moscow, writes: “Russian President Vladimir Putin began his fourth term on Monday with an unexpected weapon in his arsenal against Western sanctions: higher oil prices. The price of oil is the highest it has been since 2014 … Putin believes Russia is for now over the worst effects of U.S. and EU sanctions and that higher oil prices will help buffer against any future penalties … The Russian leader is still broadly popular after two decades in power and has taken credit for pulling his country out of recession in part thanks to the recovering oil price. … Speaking after the swearing-in, Mr. Putin said he would guarantee Russia’s security while boosting living standards with breakthroughs in technology, education and medical services. … Rising oil prices could help Mr. Putin shore up support among Russians who … want to see greater social spending. Protests against the start of Mr. Putin’s fourth presidential term saw police detain as many as 1,000 people across the country over the weekend. Analysts, however, remained doubtful that domestic dissent … would force an increase in social spending.”

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