Conflict, Migration, and Demography in Russia and Its Border Regions


Despite the absence of a clear definition of “ethnic group,” the term generally refers to people with a common history, culture, and ancestry. Russians are widely considered the largest ethnic group in Europe, and historically they have lived in a multiethnic state where they formed a majority of the population. Within the country’s vast territory, imperial Russia and later Soviet authorities often encouraged internal migration to help populate barren regions for economic exploitation, typically resulting in cooperation and assimilation between ethnic and social groups.

But cultural fusion has not always been possible nor desired, and conflicts and forced population transfers have occurred both internally and in Russia’s border regions for centuries. Since the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin has attempted to enforce a sense of patriotism among its diverse citizenry by synthesizing Russia’s ethnic and national identities, while weakening the links between the two in other post-Soviet states.

Early Russia to Tsardom

The Russian identity begins with the Slavs, a diverse collection of tribal societies with common linguistic, religious, and other cultural ties who settled across Eastern and southeast Europe in the 5th Century AD. The first Slavic-majority state was the Kievan Rus, declared in 882 and centered around Kyiv. Its Viking and Finnic minorities steadily Slavicized through intermarriage and cultural assimilation, and the Rus adopted Orthodox Christianity from the neighboring Byzantine Empire in 988. But the Slavic-majority state soon became weakened by internal political divisions and in 1240 was destroyed by the expanding Mongol Empire. This left Moscow, a small city on the Rus’ periphery, subservient to the Mongol yoke.

After the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or Muscovy, was established in 1263, the young Russian state, defined largely by its Eastern Slavic and Orthodox heritage, expanded across its sparsely populated territories in the west and north over the next two and a half centuries. It steadily absorbed other Slavic and Orthodox communities, as well as several others, into the developing Russian identity.

By the 15th century, expansion into what is now southern Russia and Ukraine brought the Duchy into significant contact with Cossacks. Typically a mix of runaway serfs, hunters, bandits, mercenaries, and fugitives from Eastern Europe, Cossacks lived in militarized yet lightly organized settlements across border regions in Russia’s south and east. Their diverse ethnic origins and semi-nomadic societies prevented Cossack groups from developing a strong national identity. Many, however, belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church and spoke “in dialects of Russian.”

Following the establishment of the Tsardom of Russia under Ivan the Terrible in 1533, Cossack groups became essential to wider Russian military campaigns against regional Tatar groupsWhile Tatar origins are often debated, they have generally been portrayed as descendants of Turkic nomadic tribes who invaded Eurasia with the Mongol Empire and remained there after the empire dissolved in 1368.

The Russian state also sought to reunify what it saw as “Russian lands,” namely the Orthodox and Eastern Slavic populations in modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, including the Cossacks living in these lands. In 1654, Russia signed the Pereiaslav Agreement, facilitating the absorption of parts of eastern Ukraine, and in 1686 it gained additional former territories of the Kievan Rus. Education, intermarriage, and government service also instigated the “Russification” of Ukrainian nobility. However, there was significant tension between the relatively autonomous Cossacks and the organized states that sought their assistance and incorporation, including Russia. Cossack groups launched several rebellions against Russia in the 1600s and 1700s, which often spurred Russian serfs and other minority groups to join. Cossack military campaigns against Russia, sometimes in coordination with other states, were also common.

But Russian authorities could offer Cossacks something other states could not—an open frontier. In return for military service, Cossacks enjoyed vastly reduced taxes, freedom of movement, and significant autonomy. Cossack groups steadily helped conquer smaller, often warring Finnic, Turkic, Ugric, and Tatar tribes across Siberia and into Alaska, establishing many settlements that later became major cities. Russian expansion was often brutal, but agreements with local elites permitted conquered communities to retain elements of their culture and assimilate into the empire by accepting Tsarist rule. Russians and Cossacks would also adapt to local cultures, and intermarriage between groups was common.

Russian Empire

Following the establishment of the Russian Empire in 1721, Cossack groups steadily became integrated into Russian military command and proved integral to Russian campaigns to expel local Muslim populations to Russia’s south and west. Between 1784 and 1790, 300,000 Crimean Tatars (out of a population of roughly 1 million) left or were forced to leave the peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians also left or were forced to leave the mountainous Caucasus region in the 1800s.

In both instances, most displaced Muslims settled in the nearby Ottoman Empire, paving the way for Russian settlers to move in. Yet population transfers in primarily Muslim lands were not universally carried out. In the Caucasus, Russian authorities created alliances with some local communities between the 16th and 18th centuries, who were wary of Ottoman and Persian influences in the region. Russian authorities also sought to use the empire’s Muslim minorities to expand into other Muslim regions. Tatar communities who accepted Tsarist rule, for example, were used as cultural emissaries in Central Asia, building relationships with the local populations as the Russian Empire spread further into this region in the 1700s and 1800s. Additionally, many “noble Russian families were of Tatar descent and there was frequent intermarriage between the Russians and Tatars.”

Lacking the population to hold territory as Russia’s empire continued to expand, Catherine the Great’s second manifesto in 1763 invited European settlers to Russia. Without requiring citizenship and enticed by tax breaks, loans, land grants, and religious freedom, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Germany, the Balkans, and other parts of Europe moved to the sprawling empire and its new territories over the next few decades, often maintaining their distinct cultures.

However, the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 1800s began to threaten the loose national identity that Russian authorities had nurtured for centuries. Following the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, integration problems also arose as the Russian government began giving land only to citizens and began to more forcefully promote Russification. This included introducing conscription and other obligations for non-Russians, expanding the use of the Russian language among ethnic groups, and identifying “potential Russians” in the European part of the empire. Violence against the Jewish population meant that roughly 2 million Jews also left the empire between 1881 and 1914. But because the Russian Empire required a larger population to sustain industrialization and its enormous territory, a net migration of 4.5 million people arrived in Russia from 1860 to 1917. Immigration and territorial expansion meanwhile meant that ethnic Russians went from roughly 77 percent of the population at the time of the establishment of the Russian Empire to roughly 44 percent at the time of the 1897 census.

In addition, Russification policies caused tension with some minority communities and were one of the major causes of the Russian Revolution in 1905. Ethnic violence among minority groups also broke out across the empire, such as the Armenian-Tatar massacres from 1905 to 1907.

World Wars and the Soviet Union

Ethnic tensions persisted even after Russia became embroiled in World War I in 1914. Disputes between Russian authorities and local populations in Central Asia, including over the unfair distribution of land to Russians and Ukrainians, conscription in the Russian army, and other issues, resulted in the 1916 Central Asian Revolt. Thousands of Slavic settlers were killed, while reprisal attacks, famine, and disease saw 100,000 to 270,000 deaths of mostly Kazakhs and Kyrgyz afterward. Ethnic tensions persisted throughout the empire, and many countries and ethnic groups declared their independence from Russia after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The ensuing Russian civil war saw the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, in 1922. Though Soviet forces were able to recapture much of the Russian Empire’s territories by the early 1920s, Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland gained their independence, while resistance to Soviet rule continued throughout the 1920s in Central Asia.

After consolidating power, Soviet authorities kickstarted a more calculated and ruthless management of the country’s sprawling, multiethnic society. Smaller clan and region-based identities were homogenized in accordance with Soviet nation-building policies, and “by the end of the 1920s people who had not really thought in national terms before the World War [I] found that they now had a national language, a national culture, national histories and national political structures—in short, they had become members of a nation.” Internal borders were established based on ethnic identity under a policy known as national delimitation, followed by Korenizatsiya, or “indigenization,” where minority nations and populations were given significant autonomy as well as power in the national government.

Eventually, 15 major Soviet republics emerged. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the largest, was further divided into autonomous ethnic minority territories. Both inside the RSFSR and the Soviet Union, Russian cultural dominance was reduced considerably. However, in the 1930s, Soviet political leader Joseph Stalin reversed much of this process to harness Russian nationalism and consolidate power against separatist-inclined republics and regions. While the specter of “Great Russian chauvinism” was carefully repressed in the Soviet Union until its collapse, power began to be recentralized in Moscow and the “petty bourgeois nationalism” of smaller ethnic groups was also curtailed.

Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin also began large-scale forced population transfers of entire ethnic groups, which continued during World War II. Mass rail transit systems allowed Soviet authorities to deport more than 3 million people between 1936 and 1952 belonging to 20 social and ethnic groups. Several were largely removed from their “ancestral homelands,” including the Volga Germans, Kalmyks, Karachai, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetians. And whether true or not, many minority groups—among them Chechens, Ingush, and Cossacks—were accused of working with Nazi Germany during the war. Like others, they were sent to Siberia and Central Asia to labor camps or “special settlements,” where hundreds of thousands perished.

Slavic migration to Central Asia also increased during WWII, as populations sought to avoid the encroaching German army. Additionally, the redistribution of industrial capacity to Central Asia during WWII, as well as urbanization, further changed the ethnic layout of the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s death in 1953 largely ended massive, forced population transfers, and most groups were able to return to their ancestral homelands over the next few years. But Soviet authorities maintained the Stalin-era borders to divide and weaken ethnic groups. By avoiding the creation of homogenous republics, they could more easily suppress separatism and compel ethnic groups to require the assistance of the Kremlin to manage their territorial disputes. Soviet authorities also sought to continue redistributing the labor force, and in the years following WWII until the mid-1970s, 2.7 million Russians left the RSFSR to Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Central Asia. However, by the 1970s this trend reversed, and 2.5 million Soviet citizens flocked to the RSFSR from 1975 to 1991.

While Russians (and their culture) enjoyed a privileged position of “first among equals” in the Soviet Union, overt Russification policies were mostly abandoned in favor of “Sovietization,” which instead promoted a non-ethnic national identity. By the 1960s, Soviet sociologists advocated for the existence of a Soviet people “with a shared identity based on common territory, state, economic system, culture, and the goal of building communism.” Yet despite a rise in interethnic marriages, traditional ethnic and cultural ties, as well as grievances, proved difficult to dislodge. Tied by a common east Slavic and Orthodox heritage, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians dominated the Soviet Union’s political structures. Ethnic solidarity could also affect foreign policy—Central Asian soldiers, for example, were initially used during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but due to fraternization with local Afghans, were largely replaced by Slavic troops in 1980.

The synchronization of Russian cultural identity with that of the Soviet one meant Soviet culture steadily lost its appeal among the non-Russian population, while many Russians also grew disenfranchised by the 1980s. And by 1989, the ethnic Russian majority of the Soviet Union had fallen to roughly 51 percent. Growing avenues for ethnic nationalism among minority groups as a result of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, as well as ethnic Russian frustration with these policies, played an essential role in the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Russian Federation

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the 15 republics became independent countries. Millions of ethnic Russians returned to the Russian Federation in the 1990s from across the former Soviet Union, in addition to non-Russians who sought to live and work in Russia. Initially from European former Soviet states, migrant groups have increasingly arrived from former Soviet states in the Caucasus region and Central Asia in recent years.

Government authority was decentralized away from Moscow to Russia’s other regions throughout the 1990s. And like other post-Soviet states, Russia was afflicted by demands for greater autonomy from ethnic and social groups, as well as outright secession movements. In Chechnya, Russian troops were forced to secede from the region in 1996 following their defeat in the first Chechen war.

Upon his rise to power in 1999 as acting President Vladimir Putin began reestablishing centralized, top-down rule over Russia. His path to the presidency coincided with the launch of the second Chechen war that brought the region back under Russian control in the 2000s. And while Cossack groups were permitted to reemerge as distinct cultural entities in the 1990s, Putin took more formal steps to reintegrate them into national military command, including using them in Chechen counterinsurgency operations.

Russian officials also became increasingly critical of Western-style multiculturalism. Though cultural and political rights were afforded to non-Russians and Putin warned against promoting Russian ethno-nationalism, the Kremlin has supported the need to build a patriotic identity within Russia through a civic identity of common values and traditions—notably the widespread adoption of the Russian language. Non-Russians would be welcomed in the Russian Federation, but it was ethnic Russians that would “cement this civilization.” The ethnic Russian population has declined slightly since 1989, the year of the last Soviet census. Ethnic Russians composed roughly 81.5 percent of Russia’s population in 1989, 79.8 percent in 2002, and 77.7 percent in 2010. The 2021 census showed a remarkable drop to 71.7 percent, though this can largely be explained by “the declining importance of ethnicity as an identifier in ethnically homogeneous areas, such as the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts of central Russia”, and the rising number of ethnic Russians declining to declare their nationality.

To complement the country’s political and cultural restructuring, the Kremlin merged several territories in the 2000s, and with the addition of Crimea in 2014, Russia boasted 85 federal subjects. Forty-six are ethnic-Russian dominated oblasts, with 22 republics that are home to an ethnic minority. Additionally, there are four autonomous okrugs or districts (with significant ethnic minority populations), nine krais (similar to oblasts), three federal cities, and one Jewish autonomous oblast.

Ethnicity and 21st Century Post-Soviet Conflicts

Russia’s relatively successful efforts to foment patriotism among its multiethnic population and reforge a powerful, centralized state since 2000 contrasts to some other post-Soviet states. Ethnic rivalries within them have been exploited by the Kremlin to challenge their stability and sovereignty. Alongside using ethnic Russians living outside Russia to achieve these aims, Russia’s own ethnic and social minorities have been primary participants in various conflicts and disputes abroad.

From 1989 to the early 1990s, for example, two Georgian separatist territories populated by ethnic minorities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, waged wars against Georgian forces. Russia provided Abkhazians and South Ossetians with considerable military and economic aid, which increased after Georgia began drifting toward the West following the 2003 Rose Revolution. As Abkhazia and South Ossetia gained increasing autonomy from Georgia, tensions culminated in the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. In addition to aiding the ethnic separatists, the Russian military employed Cossack and Chechen militant groups against the Georgian armed forces in 2008. In the aftermath, the remaining ethnic Georgian populations were largely expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Both Cossacks and Chechens were also utilized by Russia during the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the launch of the proxy war in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Russian-speaking Ukrainians (including Ukrainian Cossacks), ethnic Russians in the south and east Ukraine, as well as those from across the former Soviet Union and beyond, filled the ranks of the pro-Russian separatist groups. These militants maintained a proxy conflict for Russia in Donetsk and Luhansk until the official Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, and continue to take part in Russia’s ongoing “special military operation.” Additionally, Russia has used non-ethnic Russian minorities within Russia to fight at the frontline of the conflict, and they are reportedly dying at higher rates in Ukraine than their Slavic counterparts.

After reigniting conflicts in Georgia and launching one in Ukraine, Russia has also taken steps to annex their separatist territories. In the years before Russia’s 2008 campaign in Georgia, the Kremlin steadily gave Russian passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians, a tactic now known as passportization. The need to protect Russian citizens helped Russia justify the war and allowed it to more easily absorb these territories by granting them freedom of movement to Russia. Days after the war had concluded, the Kremlin recognized Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence in August 2008, and in 2022, South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov declared the region’s intention to join Russia, its “historical homeland.”

And following Ukraine’s lurch to the West in 2014, significant passportization took place in Ukraine. Days before the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, likely in anticipation of future calls to join Russia. These two regions were annexed by Russia in September 2022, joining Russia as republics, while two oblasts (Kherson and Zaporozhye) were also annexed from Ukraine by Russia. Russian forces, however, have been unable to establish complete control over all of the claimed territories.

But the Kremlin also sees the Ukrainian war as an opportunity to “integrate” the country’s population with its own amid Russia’s declining population. For centuries, Russian strategists have believed that Ukrainians, viewed as a subcategory of the Russian ethnic identity, could help Russify parts of the country where ethnic Russians do not form a dominant majority. In 2014, more than 1 million Ukrainians fled the country’s southeast to Russia, mostly just across the border. However, in keeping with the Kremlin’s desire to populate other regions, Ukrainian refugees began moving to the Volga Basin, the Ural Mountains, the Far East, and other areas. Since the outbreak of full conflict in 2022, millions of Ukrainians have fled to Russia or been forcibly removed, and have been resettled across the country. Thus, while the war in Ukraine is central to Putin’s foreign policy ambitions, encouraging Ukrainian immigration to Russia is also an important domestic imperative.

Other regions across the former Soviet Union remain vulnerable to Russian attempts to use ethnicity to destabilize them. Since a 1992 ceasefire, Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, populated largely by Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, has been under the control of separatist authorities. Additionally, the Soviet 14th Army, which was stationed in Transnistria, was inherited by Russia after the Soviet collapse. Today, its remnants form Russia’s part of the trilateral peacekeeping force (with Moldovan and Transnistrian soldiers) and the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), which guards old Soviet arms depots in the separatist region. Cultivating pro-Russian sentiment among Transnistria’s Slavic majority, could quickly reignite the conflict. Russian military figures stated in April 2022 that the “second phase” of Russia’s military campaign would annex enough of Ukraine to connect it to Transnistria, though this appears unfeasible for the foreseeable future.

After annexing Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin’s declaration that it would protect ethnic Russians everywhere resonated with many of the millions of Russians scattered mostly in former Soviet states. In Central Asia and the Baltic states, where they are most numerous, ethnic Russians have faced restrictions on the use of the Russian language and other forms of cultural expression since the Soviet collapse, making exploitation easier. Kazakhstan’s roughly 3.5 million Russians make up roughly 18 percent of the total population. Most ethnic Russians migrated primarily to northern Kazakhstan beginning in the 19th century and during the Soviet period, and have significant economic and political power. In Estonia and Latvia, ethnic Russians largely migrated during the Soviet period, and today form roughly 25 percent of the populations in both these countries. In addition to higher rates of unemploymenthundreds of thousands of Russians remain stateless persons in the Baltic states, as their citizenship (and those of their descendants) was denied after the Soviet collapse. Russia has leveraged these realities to help inflame social unrest, such as Estonia’s 2007 Bronze Night incident, as well as wield indirect political representation through Estonia’s Center party and Latvia’s Harmony partySignificant passportization among Russians in the Baltic states has also taken place in the last few years.

Millions of ethnic Russians living in former Soviet states left for Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, reducing the Kremlin’s influence over these countries. However, the Baltic states have seen more Russians immigrate than emigrate in recent years, while more than 200,000 Russians avoiding conscription during the ongoing war fled to Kazakhstan in September 2022. How the Kremlin exploits these changing circumstances remains to be seen. And as in Transnistria, Ukrainian and Belarusian communities in these countries also look to Russia for protection, particularly, in defending the use of the Russian language in their societies.


Russia’s ability to use ethnicity for domestic stability and as a foreign policy tool is not without risk. Nurturing ethnic Russian nationalism is unnerving to minority groups and has occasionally led to the eruption of ethnic violence, such as in the city of Kondopoga in 2006 and in Stavropol in 2007. Historical persecution has led to significant emigration even in modern times, which occurred among Russian Germans and Russian Jews in the 1990s. Giving minority groups greater rights could meanwhile instigate secession attempts, while failed attempts to merge additional federal subjects in 2020 demonstrate the limits of Russia’s federal authority.

Russia’s birth rate has rebounded from a record low of 1.25 children per woman in 2000 and was expected to reach 1.8 children per woman by 2020. But it is still below replacement level and there has been a significant population decline in Russia for years. While the population grew slightly during the 2010s, it is again shrinking. Minority groups often have higher birthrates than ethnic Russians, and though no ethnic minority groups equate to greater than 5 percent of Russia’s total population, its various Muslim minorities amount to 10 to 15 percent of the population. Radical Islam came to partly define the Chechen independence movement in the 1990s, and many volunteer Muslim-Russians from across the country arrived to fight against Russian forces. The Kremlin is fearful of a similar situation in the future with its growing Muslim population.

The Kremlin will also have to contend with managing the delicate alliances it has with its minority groups. Clashes were reported in Ukraine between Chechen soldiers and those belonging to the Buryat minority group in 2022, while tension between Cossack groups and Russian nationalists has been evident since 2014. Russia will also inherit ethnic disputes as it seeks to expand its territory. More than 260,000 Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea after the Soviet collapse, reviving historical animosity between them and local Cossack communities. Russia’s war in Ukraine also risks solidifying anti-Russian sentiment in much of Ukraine’s population.

Regardless of these threats, the Kremlin continues to push ahead with its vision to remake Russian society and disrupt its border regions. Russian officials increasingly define Russianness in cultural terms, inviting minority groups to be absorbed more effectively. Highlighting the importance of revered “Russian” leaders, such as Joseph Stalin (Georgian) and Catherine the Great (German) showcase the important leadership roles that non-Slavs have played in Russian history. Russia has also shown initiative in using other elements of minority cultures to expand its influence abroad. Russia has been an observer state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Countries (OIC) since 2005, and Putin has promoted the idea of the “similarity of the Russian and ‘Islamic’ approaches to many international issues.” Chechen military personnel have been used in Russia’s military campaign in Syria, while Tatar minorities are often responsible for Russian diplomatic and cultural outreach to Central Asia.

The Kremlin has, however, suppressed minority languages in Russia. This policy forms part of its efforts to promote Russian movies, television, social media, literature, and other media forms to Russify other countries. In 1939, for example, more than 80 percent of all Belarus inhabitants spoke Belarusian at home. By 1989, that had fallen to 65 percent, and by 2009, almost 70 percent of Belarusians spoke Russian at home. In 2017, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko expressed open alarm over this linguistic evolution, declaring that “[i]f we lose our ability to speak Belarusian, we will cease to be a nation.” But Lukashenko’s need to defeat the widespread protests against him after the 2020 election only deepened his reliance on Russia. The use of Belarusian territory to assist in the invasion of Ukraine and Lukashenko’s cooperation with Putin will now completely isolate Belarus from the West, increasing its dependence on Russia further. The potential for even greater political, economic, and military integration between Russia and Belarus, formalized through the Union State, will only be further augmented by Belarus’ steady adoption of the Russian language.

But the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine will remain its most pressing imperative, and it has focused on efforts to alter and weaken Ukraine’s demographics. For example, the war has prompted millions of Ukrainian citizens to leave the country, and the longer they are away, the less likely they are to return. Reports on the forced transfer of Ukrainian minors from Ukraine to Russia have also been apparent since the beginning of the war, and roughly 20,000 Ukrainian children are estimated to have been sent to Russia, according to Ukrainian authorities. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for both Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children’s rights, in connection with the affair. It is unlikely that either of them will ever be prosecuted, while Russia has stated that the population transfers are part of a humanitarian response to young Ukrainians made orphans by the war. Reducing Ukraine’s population by creating refugees and bolstering Russia’s by transferring orphans further demonstrate the demographic aspect to the conflict.

With centuries of experience in using ethnicity and conflict to redraw borders, the Kremlin has aimed to reconceptualize Ukrainian statehood. Reinforcing the notion that Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are “one people” may help Russia expand its territory through conflict, and reverse its declining population by assimilating millions of potential Russians into the country. Whether this will be worth the consequences of sanctions and isolation from the West for the Kremlin will remain up for debate for the foreseeable future. A clear Russian defeat, however, would have disastrous implications for Russia’s territorial integrity, and would likely inspire greater calls for separatism in Russia not only from ethnic minorities, but also ethnic Russian communities dissatisfied with living under Moscow’s thumb. Thus, like Ukraine, Russia’s fate will depend on the outcome of the war and its ability to consolidate its diverse population once hostilities decline.

Source: Globetrotter

The right of Ukraine to retaliate by attacking Moscow?

The recent drone attack on a target in Moscow on May 30, 2023, seemed to showcase Ukraine’s increasing ability to strike deep into enemy territory in Russia.

According to the Guardian, President Putin accused Ukraine of engaging in “terrorist activity to provoke a reciprocal response.” However, Moscow did not specify how it would respond.

This drone strike occurred alongside Russia’s fourth wave of aerial attacks on Kyiv in recent days, resulting in the death of at least one person, the hospitalization of others, and the evacuation of a high-rise building in Kyiv.

According to Kyiv, at 11:30 a.m. local time on May 30th, 11 ballistic and cruise missiles were launched, but all of them were successfully intercepted.

The UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, made comments while visiting his Estonian counterpart in Tallinn before the NATO meeting in Oslo, Norway. He stated that Ukraine has the legitimate right to defend itself and project force beyond its borders for self-defense. However, he refrained from speculating on the nature of the drone attack in Moscow, emphasizing that his remarks were more general and not specific to the incident.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky declared that Ukraine was pleased to witness the Moscow drone attacks but denied any involvement.

Amidst the ongoing war of words, heavy fighting continues in parts of Ukraine bordering Russia. As spring arrives and the rivers thaw, the conflict shows no signs of abating. The question of when it will end weighs heavily on the minds of people around the world. Some African nations, including South Africa, as well as the EU nation Belgium, have proposed mediation between Russia and Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether sanity will prevail.

Ukraine Intercepts Barrage of Hypersonic Missiles

As Russia’s troubled invasion of Ukraine limps on, and the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s military machine are exposed, there was one weapon in Moscow’s arsenal that was supposed to be utterly unstoppable, impervious to any and all air defenses, the pride of the Kremlin: its Kinzhal or Dagger hypersonic missiles, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads.

They travel at more than five times the speed of sound, and represent the pinnacle of Russian weapon engineering. It was allegedly impregnable, a bulletproof weapon costing $10 million a piece, this fearsome blade.

However, 6 of those same missiles, launched in a ferocious barrage at Kyiv last night, alongside six Shahed drones, three Orlan drones, nine Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea, and three other ballistic missiles, were reportedly all successfully intercepted. In other words, the attack, lasting about 20 minutes and launched at just after 3 in the morning, was a spectacular failure.

The sustained barrage is estimated to have cost Russia some $120 million, at least. The Ukrainians called the attack “exceptional,” despite what they said was a perfect record of interceptions.

Indeed, it was a stunning demonstration of Ukraine’s vastly improved air defense systems, and underscores the challenges Russia faces, as Kyiv’s partners supply Ukraine with some of their most advanced military technologies.

In the past year, the government in Kyiv has received numerous Patriot air defense batteries from the United States, alongside a slew of other sophisticated systems donated from allied Western countries. Those defenses are increasingly frustrating Moscow’s attempts to terrify and intimidate the Ukrainian population, and were targeted last night in Russia’s failed bombardment.

One of those Patriot batteries reportedly suffered an indirect hit, but remains operational, according to Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat. The vaunted American system is merely one of many layered air defense systems now operating around the Ukrainian capital; each Patriot battery costs $400 million, with $690 millon for the missiles, totaling more than a billion dollars apiece.

For those living in Kyiv, it’s surely worth every penny.

The limitations of domestic repression

In related news, three of Russia’s top weapons scientists have been arrested and charged with high treason, provoking a rare outcry from Russian academics, who published an open letter denouncing the arrests. The three men worked on issues relating to hypersonic missile technology in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, and were well regarded in Russia’s academic research community.

Valery Zvegintsev, Anatoly Maslov and Alexander Shiplyuk worked at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, and are accused of passing classified secrets related to their research on hypersonic technology to China and Iran, apparently by publishing research in foreign publications.

Colleagues are adamant that the arrests were unjustified. Still, they’re neither the first nor the last Russians to be swept into Putin’s dragnet, as the Russian police state convulses in on itself, demanding victims.

In any case, they’re facing 20 years in a grim Russian prison colony, in an attempt to put the fear of god into scientists and officials working in Putin’s Russia, even as the CIA steps up its recruiting of Russian assets with a new video encouraging espionage, and a dark web address designed to mask the identities of spies and leakers.

The Kremlin has unleashed a wave of savage domestic repression since beginning its war in Ukraine, cracking down on what little remained of the free press and political dissent in authoritarian Russia, in moves that are reminiscent of Stalinist terror in the 1930s. At this point in Russia, you can be expected to be arrested for talking out of turn on social media, calling the war in Ukraine a war, or even mentioning the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and the Nazis prior to World War II.

Nevertheless, domestic repression doesn’t win wars, and stifling Russia’s best scientists working within the military-industrial complex is hardly a winning strategy. As the Russian scientists themselves noted in their open letter to the Kremlin, these moves threaten to “collapse” weapons research in Russia, at a most inopportune moment.

A dark portent of things to come

As Ukraine gears up for its long-expected counteroffensive, and worsening fissures appear in the Russian leadership, it’s unclear how Russia might stanch the bleeding on or off the battlefield. The regime in Moscow increasingly appears to be in disarray, hamstrung and lacking initiative, and no amount of domestic repression is going to solve its problems.

Rather, it’s clear that Vladimir Putin has launched what appears to be a catastrophic and unwinnable war on Russia’s border, a merciless invasion that has claimed an estimated 200,000 casualties in the Russian military alone, and untold suffering across a battered but undefeated Ukraine. Of course, the war also remains a menacing peril for humanity at large, as the world’s largest nuclear superpower finds its conventional military options more limited by the day, even as Ukraine’s capabilities steadily improve.

Now, Moscow appears to be facing significant challenges to its wartime strategy of inflicting terror on Ukrainian civilians with long-range bombardments like the one stymied last night in Kyiv. It’s yet another grim setback for the Kremlin, in its war of imperial aggression, launched without provocation or reason. It’s unlikely to be the last, as the Ukrainian military prepares what it hopes will be a devastating counteroffensive, designed to push the Russians out of their country once and for all.

Fault Lines in the Russian Military Structure

The Ukraine will be an extremely painful problem. But we must realize that the feelings of the whole people are now at white heat.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn acted as Russia’s moral conscience during his own lifetime, crying out against the cruelty of the gulag in his literature, and shaking the rotten totalitarian system to its very core, he seems to have been something of a prophet regarding Ukraine. As a Russian nationalist, he had complicated feelings about what was for him “a painful subject.”

“Russia and the Ukraine are united in my blood, my heart, my thoughts.”

And yet he spent enough time in the godforsaken labor camps with enough Ukrainians to understand their unquenchable desire for freedom, for independence from Moscow’s suffocating authoritarian grip. It was clear to him that, “We must leave the decision to the Ukrainians themselves.”

If nothing else, Ukrainians have made their wishes abundantly clear in this war, after 15 months of brutal combat, fighting what was once considered the second most powerful army on earth to a standstill outside Kyiv, before retaking Kharkiv, Kherson, and Lyman, and finally settling in for the winter along a largely static 600-mile frontline.

Quickly dispensing with Russia’s muddling springtime offensive, Kyiv is preparing to go back on its own offensive, in a campaign fueled by sophisticated heavy weapons from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and a host of other countries, in a push designed to throw the Russians onto their backs, and out of Ukraine for good.

The stakes are high.

However, Ukrainian forces have already begun making inroads on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the shattered city that’s taken on the mythical significance of Stalingrad, swallowing tens of thousands of soldiers into its fiery maw. These recent advances have caused significant anxiety among pro-war Russian bloggers, afraid they’re witnessing the beginning of Ukraine’s offensive, something Kyiv denies.

Meanwhile, the fractures in Vladimir Putin’s forces continue to widen.

The supply shortages and catastrophic troop losses continue to poison morale, as young Russian men continue to fight and die and kill for what seems to be an utterly lost cause. And yet, Putin clearly hasn’t relinquished his desire to subdue Ukraine, at nearly any insane cost, despite having suffered an estimated 200,000 casualties in his battered military machine, and inestimable damage to Russia’s global prestige.

Incredibly, drones recently appeared to bomb the Kremlin. Four Russian aircraft, two Mi-8 helicopters and two Sukhoi fighter jets, crashed and burned just inside of Ukrainian airspace in a single day near Bryansk. Putin’s mercenary chief is savagely belittling Russian generals, blaming the Ministry of Defense for the deaths of his soldiers, even as he’s consumed by his own treasonous intrigues, apparently offering to sell Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate information on Russian troop positions.

None of this bodes well for Putin.

Still, he seems to be tolerating Yevgeny Prigozhin’s outbursts for now, being unwilling or unable to do anything to silence the man fielding what is perhaps Russia’s most effective battlefield formation in the Wagner Group. However, the problems continue to pile up and fester, and a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive can be expected to further debilitate the battered Russian ranks.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was on a whirlwind European tour last week, extracting promises of additional weapon systems and political support from governments in Berlin, Rome, London, and Paris. He finally secured critical long-range Storm Shadow missiles and drones from the British, armored vehicles and training from the French, and nearly three billion dollars in military aid from the Germans, a doubling of their commitment.

The Kremlin has already threatened “retaliation” for the long-range missiles, which are presumably causing significant anxiety in Moscow.

However, Zelensky continues to agitate for F-16 fighter jets from his most important backers in the Biden administration, who continue to resist sending them. Still, he’s gotten nearly everything else on his wish list, and analysts believe Ukraine is sufficiently armed to begin its next offensive.

“They all reek of expensive perfume”

Meanwhile, the world has been watching the war of words between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the upper echelons of Russia’s Ministry of Defense with a kind of horrified fascination. Prigozhin has posted scathing videos on social media, walking amid the bodies of his fallen fighters, calling out the Russian generals who “all reek of expensive perfume,” and who “think they will go down in history as victors while shaking their fat bellies.”

Rather, “They already went down in history as cowards,” according to him.

It’s the kind of fighting language usually reserved for one’s mortal enemies. However, as we’ve recently learned, Prigozhin has actually been consorting with Ukrainian military intelligence officers, meeting HUR agents in Africa, and offering to sell them Russian troop positions in exchange for a withdrawal from Bakhmut.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed those allegations as a “hoax,” which surfaced in Air National Guard Jack Teixeira’s leaks of classified documents on Discord. Prigozhin called the Washington Post a prostitute, said the newspaper was trying to smear him, and suggested the information came from Russian elites attempting to sabotage him.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying his feud with Russia’s Ministry of Defense and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, which has become a fixture online, as new videos of Prigozhin hurling slurs at them and other Russian generals make the rounds on social media daily. However, the Discord documents also suggest there’s some validity to Prigozhin’s complaints about ammunition shortages, what he aptly calls “shell hunger,” as his fighters die by the thousands in Bakhmut.

At a bare minimum, all this noise is a humiliating distraction, particularly as Ukraine prepares to mount its next offensive operations. At worst, it’s the kind of growing political power struggle that could make one believe that Vladimir Putin is no longer capable of controlling his subordinates.

For his part, Putin’s stayed at a remove from the bickering between his military leaders, appearing to rise above the turmoil, projecting an air of calm confidence. As has been frequently noted, Putin allows factions underneath him to duke it out for political reasons, a tactic that’s worked well for him, keeping him at the apex of Russian power for decades.

But disunity of command is an entirely different animal on the battlefield, especially when the war is going so dismally, and factions are openly attacking each other. Still, all these theatrics may not matter as much as Putin’s ability to: field fresh troops, supply weapons and ammunition, and keep the Russian economy hobbling along.

At this point, it’s likely the Kremlin would merely like to maintain the status quo: a mostly static war of attrition, while awaiting a more favorable geopolitical situation , and a fracture in the Western alliance backing Kyiv. This requires time, something Putin believes is on his side, particularly with elections looming in the United States next year, a contest that could deliver the White House to a Republican Party skeptical of America’s commitment to Kyiv, and friendly to Moscow.

Still more important is the capacity of Ukraine to disrupt the Russian military on the battlefield, to demonstrate forward progress, and deny Putin a war of attrition. At this point, there’s every reason to believe that Kyiv’s coming offensive is going to cause significant problems for the Russians, both on the battlefield and back in the Kremlin.

Biden can be charming. But Beijing should be wary of sequels

President Vladimir Zelensky’s tour of Rome, Berlin and Paris has been a success, securing for Ukraine significant additional quantities of weaponry for the upcoming offensive against Russian forces. The high water mark was Germany’s announcement of a new package of military aid worth an estimated €2.7 billion, which will be the country’s largest delivery of arms to Ukraine. 

The German package includes 30 Leopard-1 A5 main battle tanks, four new IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft rocket launchers, dozens of armoured personnel carriers and other combat vehicles, 18 self-propelled Howitzers and hundreds of unarmed recon drones. 

Zelensky said important decisions on “defending Ukrainian skies” were reached during talks in Italy on Saturday. In sum, Old Europe conveyed solidarity with Zelensky at a crucial juncture when all eyes are on the so-called Ukrainian offensive being the last throw of dice. 

Last week, Newsweek quoted Henry Kissinger predicting that he believes the Ukraine war is coming to a turning point and expects negotiations by the end of the year, thanks to recent efforts made by China. Kissinger said, “Now that China has entered the negotiation, it will come to a head, I think, by the end of the year. We will be talking about negotiating processes and even actual negotiations.”

Indeed, from all appearance, China has comprehensively outmanoeuvred the US over the Ukraine crisis. Last Friday, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing announced that China’s special representative on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, will visit Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France and Germany starting May 15 aimed at discussing a “political settlement” to the Ukraine crisis. Washington was not mentioned as part of Li’s itinerary, but Beijing instead prioritised the European capitals that have urged China to play a more active role in the Ukraine situation.

Meanwhile, by extending a warm welcome to Zelensky, Rome, Berlin and Paris have completely ignored the Top Secret US intelligence documents that have been recently leaked, which smeared the Ukrainian president as a maverick who says one thing publicly and an entirely different thing privately, who poses as moderate but in reality is an inveterate hawk escalating the war right into Russian territory, and so on. Apparently, European countries do not seem to go along with  Washington’s pressure tactic against Zelensky to escalate the war despite his grave reservations regarding Ukraine’s military preparedness.        

However, on a parallel track, there are also signs of Washington also reviewing its earlier rejection of Chinese mediation. David Ignatius at the Washington Post who has been plotting the shift, exudes optimism in his latest column  that the 10-hour long “intense meetings” spread over May 10-11 in Vienna between the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s Politburo member Wang Yi “actually seemed to be creating a framework for constructive engagement.”

Ignatius estimates that “some shared space seems to have emerged during the long, detailed discussions between Sullivan and Wang… They appear to have found a language for superpower discussion, like what once existed between the United States and both Russia and China but has been lost.” 

On the other hand, Beijing has been betting that Germany, France and Italy who prioritise the recovery and growth prospects of their economies, hope to strengthen economic relations with China to bolster their economies — and are, therefore, inclined to pursue foreign policies that are different from the comparatively extreme policies of the US.

Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Friday that Chinese group XTC New Energy Materials will set up a joint venture with France’s Orano in the battery sector in the northern French port city of Dunkirk for an expected investment of $1.63 billion. The venture is expected to create around 1,700 jobs.

That said, Ignatius is an influential columnist with a long record of transmitting the US establishment’s diplomatic signalling. At its most obvious level, his column today highlights a high level of keenness on the part of the Biden administration to engage with China regarding Ukraine, which could have fallouts for the US-China relationship.  

Also, the Biden Administration seems to be pinning hopes that by engaging with China, it can create differences between Beijing and Moscow and drive a wedge into the Sino-Russian alliance. Ignatius claims that Moscow viewed with “dread” the Sullivan-Wang cogitations in Vienna. 

The Biden Administration’s revised hypothesis is that China’s objectives and priorities in the Ukraine situation are basically at variance with the Kremlin’s and, therefore,  the smart thing to do is to abandon Washington’s outright rejection of Xi Jinping’s peace initiative on Ukraine or berate China’s support to Russia but instead position the US as a cooperative interlocutor on peacemaking and nudge Beijing to put pressure on Moscow to compromise.

Fundamentally, the assumption here is that Russia can still be isolated on the geopolitical chessboard. 

But the big question remains: Is the Biden Administration in a position to overcome the influential body of opinion in the US who also happen to be in alliance with top officials in Ukraine’s corridors of power?

Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO (in the Obama administration) and currently the president of the influential Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote a hard-hitting opinion piece today in Politico after a visit to Kiev that “Putin’s strategic failure will only be complete if Moscow comes to understand that Ukraine is permanently lost — lost physically, economically, politically and strategically. And ensuring that failure should be the ultimate objective — not just for Ukraine but for the West too.”

His thesis is that the strategic case for including Ukraine in the West goes to the core of the current conflict and any alternative would only prolong the conflict and pose new security challenges for the western alliance system. Now, how is such an integration to be achieved?

Daalder proposes: “Even without a formal end to the war, let alone real peace, the US and other NATO countries need to make clear that they’re committed to Ukraine’s security and that they will explore interim arrangements — just as they did for Finland and Sweden — until it becomes a full member.” 

While the media attention is on the commencement of the so-called counteroffensive by Kiev, the locus of the Ukraine conflict is shifting to the NATO Summit on July 11-12 in Vilnius, Lithuania,  which is less than two months from now, to which Zelensky has been invited.

Zelensky’s current European tour — he has been to Finland and the Netherlands also in recent weeks — can be seen as the run-up to the Vilnius summit. Simply put, the foreplay has begun. It is not the Ukrainian counteroffensive, stupid! Russia — and China — should expect some nasty surprises. 

China shifts gear on Ukraine mediation


For all the noise out of Washington, more and more countries are integrating their supply chains with China. Even the UK Foreign Secretary is making overtures to China, while Zelensky had a “long and meaningful” phone call with Xi Jinping on Wednesday. Washington’s position, sanctions and all, is disintegrating.

It is too early to predict what will emerge out of the speech on Tuesday at Mansion House by the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly outlining the government’s position on China. The Global Times gave a cautious welcome

Clearly, Britain feels the urgency to dig its way out of the foxhole in which it found itself following the collapse of the Five Eyes attempt to ignite the Hong Kong protests. Britain cannot be far behind when the overall interests of European countries that enjoy deep mutually beneficial economic ties with the world’s second largest economy, are manifesting as reluctance to be dragged into becoming a vanguard that confronts China. (See my blog Who gains from a forever war in Ukraine?)  

That said, the timing is interesting. Cleverly’s speech came on the eve of the phone conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (at the latter’s request.) From its unique perch on the transatlantic axis, Britain can sense tremors that impact the geopolitics of Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine conflict, which are in some ways inter-connected. Britain is positioning itself. 

Contents of conversations at top leadership level are never publicly divulged and the overwhelming mass lies submerged, like icebergs breaking off glaciers. But the Chinese readout of Xi-Zelensky conversation on Tuesday exudes positive tone. 

Xi hailed Sino-Ukrainian relations as “strategic partnership boosting development and revitalisation of the two countries” and went on make a flattering reference to Zelensky’s personal role. Xi also stated China’s consistent position that “Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations.” Xi showed readiness in advancing the two countries’ strategic partnership with a long-term perspective. 

On Ukraine issue, Xi made three key points:  China’s “core stance is to facilitate talks for peace,” as enunciated in its position paper of February 24; Beijing intends to be proactive; and, dialogue and negotiation are the only way forward. 

The salience lies in Xi’s pointed reference to “rational thinking and voices on the rise” lately and that Kiev should “seize the opportunity and build up favourable conditions for the political settlement.” 

Xi kept his eyes on the ball and may have hinted that Zelensky can still win by a nose if only the risky, senseless idea of a “counteroffensive,” the germane seeds of which have been planted on his mind by Washington and London, is set side. 

Sensing Zelensky’s receptiveness, perhaps, Xi proposed that China will “make its efforts for early ceasefire and restoration of peace.” Specifically, “China will send the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs to Ukraine and other countries to have in-depth communication with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

But no timeline was mentioned. Nonetheless, Xi has made a proactive move. What could be the calculus? At the obvious level, Xi has just had a series of interactions with European leaders who visited Beijing, which convinced him that “Ukraine crisis is evolving in complex ways with major impacts on the international landscape,” as he told Zelensky. 

Meanwhile, the leaked Pentagon documents exposed that disunity, distrust and divergences between the US, Europe and Ukraine are serious and keep worsening. On the other hand, Washington is not only the biggest obstacle to a ceasefire and peace talks but is nudging the western allies to rally behind its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China. 

This is where French President Emmanuel Macron’s extraordinary outburst in his interview with Politico, aboard Cotam Unité (France’s Air Force One) while returning from China after spending around six hours with Xi, becomes a defining moment.

To be sure, Macron’s stirring call that Europe should avoid “getting into a bloc versus bloc logic” resonated in Zhongnanhai — viz., Europe’s longing for strategic autonomy; Europe’s gnawing doubts and weariness of being a “vassal”; and Europe’s multiple challenges in social governance and its prioritisation of development and prosperity ultimately leaving it with no choice but to embrace Eurasia with greater connectivity, develop bilateral economic and trade relations with China, and rebuild ties with Russia. An avalanche of Chinese commentaries followed Macron’s remarks. (hereherehereherehere )

A clincher, however, would have been the recent leak of classified US and NATO documents on the Ukrainian military and Kiev’s much-anticipated “spring counteroffensive” (on which the US Department of Justice has since opened an investigation.) 

The documents exposed numerous disadvantages and shortcomings of Ukrainian military and gave way Washington’s top secret assessment that Ukrainian military is in dire straits after recent setbacks. Indeed, a pall of uncertainty and loss of self-esteem descended on Kiev, which is increasingly unsure about the steadfastness and reliability of Western support. 

Compounding these complexes were the leaked intelligence reports that the US “is also spying on Ukraine’s top military and political leaders, a reflection of Washington’s struggle to get a clear view of Ukraine’s fighting strategies.” (New York Times) Shades of Edward Snowden — this is how the US keeps its hegemony!  

Nonetheless, an editorial in Global Times  has written: “As time goes by, the international community has engaged in more cool reflection on this hot conflict. Especially, the willingness to negotiate among all parties is rising, and more rational voices are emerging in various European countries. In a sense, the window of opportunity for promoting a political solution to the Ukraine crisis has emerged.”

Xi swiftly followed through his conversation with Zelensky by appointing Li Hui, the deputy director-general of the department of Eurasia in the foreign ministry, to head China’s delegation for the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. It is a smart decision. 

Li Hui, one of China’s ablest Eurasia hands, had previously served as the envoy to the Kremlin for an extraordinarily long period of ten years (2009-2019). He is very familiar with both the Ukrainian and Russian situation, understands the psychology of Slavic peoples and, of course, he speaks Russian. 

The appointment of a special representative signifies a serious  attempt to activate mediation functions to build bridges. But there are formidable challenges. Russia welcomes anything that could bring the end of the Ukraine conflict closer, but the bottom line will be that it still needs to achieve the aims of its special military operation  in Ukraine.

Also, Russia does not see readiness on the part of the West for a peaceful settlement. There is sound basis to it, as Washington relies entirely on military solution and total victory. 

China-brokered negotiations will be a huge blow to the American strategy in Ukraine and if it gains traction, that will put the US on the back foot in Indo-Pacific as well. In the short term, therefore, pressure may only build up on Zelensky to launch the “counteroffensive.” 

Corruption in Ukraine: Comparing the Magnitude to the Afghan War


The Ukraine government, headed by Volodymyr Zelensky, has been using American taxpayers’ funds to pay dearly for the vitally needed diesel fuel that is keeping the Ukrainian army on the move in its war with Russia. It is unknown how much the Zelensky government is paying per gallon for the fuel, but the Pentagon was paying as much as $400 per gallon to transport gasoline from a port in Pakistan, via truck or parachute, into Afghanistan during the decades-long American war there.

What also is unknown is that Zelensky has been buying the fuel from Russia, the country with which it, and Washington, are at war, and the Ukrainian president and many in his entourage have been skimming untold millions from the American dollars earmarked for diesel fuel payments. One estimate by analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency put the embezzled funds at $400 million last year, at least; another expert compared the level of corruption in Kiev as approaching that of the Afghan war, “although there will be no professional audit reports emerging from the Ukraine.”

“Zelensky’s been buying discount diesel from the Russians,” one knowledgeable American intelligence official told me. “And who’s paying for the gas and oil? We are. Putin and his oligarchs are making millions” on it.

Many government ministries in Kiev have been literally “competing,” I was told, to set up front companies for export contracts for weapons and ammunition with private arms dealers around the world, all of which provide kickbacks. Many of those companies are in Poland and Czechia, but others are thought to exist in the Persian Gulf and Israel. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are others in places like the Cayman Islands and Panama, and there are lots of Americans involved,” an American expert on international trade told me. 

The issue of corruption was directly raised with Zelensky in a meeting last January in Kiev with CIA Director William Burns. His message to the Ukrainian president, I was told by an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the meeting, was out of a 1950s mob movie. The senior generals and government officials in Kiev were angry at what they saw as Zelensky’s greed, so Burns told the Ukrainian president, because “he was taking a larger share of the skim money than was going to the generals.” 

Burns also presented Zelensky with a list of thirty-five generals and senior officials whose corruption was known to the CIA and others in the American government. Zelensky responded to the American pressure ten days later by publicly dismissing ten of the most ostentatious officials on the list and doing little else. “The ten he got rid of were brazenly bragging about the money they had—driving around Kiev in their new Mercedes,” the intelligence official told me.


Russian Economic Resilience in the Wake of the Ukraine invasion


Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In response, the U.S. and EU, joined primarily by Japan, Canada, Australia, and South Korea, imposed one of the most far-reaching sanctions on Russia. While sanctions have already weakened the Russian economy following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, the widespread suspension of economic, financial, and trade relations with the West in 2022 and 2023 appears to have significant long-term implications for maintaining the country’s economic strength.

Since the early 2000s, Russia has experienced various economic fluctuations, some of which are due to global economic conditions. Similar to other countries, the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 and the demand and supply constraints of the Covid 19 pandemic hit the Russian economy hard. In addition, Russia has faced economic challenges since 2014 due to sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine. Average growth from 2014 to the present was 0.5 percent, with negative growth of 2.2 percent in 2022. Compared to the robust growth rates in the first half of the 2000s, which reached 8.5 percent in some years (Figure 1), it appears that the Russian economy will not reach this performance for a long time after the invasion. While the IMF estimate points to positive growth rates for 2023, other prominent international institutions and even the Russian Central Bank expect the economy to be in recession (Figure 1). On the other hand, the IMF’s expectations for the coming years are not optimistic. In March 2023, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva stated that the Russian economy is expected to contract by 7 percent in the medium term.[1]

As Russia’s main source of revenue is energy, Russia’s economic challenges are closely linked to the volatility of prices of and demand for its energy products. In 2021, energy products accounted for more than 50 percent of export revenues, 50 percent of government revenues, and nearly 20 percent of GDP and the European Union was the main consumer of Russian energy.[2] In 2022, major European countries, particularly Germany, continued to import oil and gas from Russia due to their heavy dependence on Russian energy, while making efforts to develop alternative energy sources. Germany increased coal production and extended the life of its remaining three nuclear power plants.[3] Still, Germany remained the largest importer of Russian fossil fuels after China in one year after the invasion. Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, France, Belgium, and other EU countries were still importing in 2022, but at a declining rate as Russian revenues from EU countries fell by about 85 percent.[4]

 In fact, the restriction on energy imports from Russia had a negative impact on EU countries, especially Germany. When the EU began imposing certain restrictions on exports to and imports from Russia in 2022, Russia retaliated by halting natural gas supplies to Europe by indicating equipment problems, maintenance needs, and gas leaks. [5][6]These restrictions have hurt not only the Russian economy but also European countries. The energy restriction contributed to a decline in Germany’s growth rate in 2022, and zero growth expectation in 2023.

As can be seen in Figure 2, Russian energy exports move in tandem with oil prices. In early 2022, oil prices began to rise, and Brent oil reached $123 per barrel and Urals oil $102 in June, leading to a significant increase in Russian export revenues. However, this increase did not last throughout the year, as oil prices fell in the second half of the year, which had a negative impact on Russian revenues. In December 2022, the European Union and the United States, along with other major countries, decided to impose a $60 per barrel price cap[7] on crude oil, which caused Urals crude oil prices to fall to $57 per barrel by the end of March 2023.[8](Figure 3). The prices of natural gas which is one of the main energy sources of Russia showed fluctuations similar to oil prices.[9]

Recent measures such as the EU ban on imports of Russian seaborne crude oil and refined oil products , which put into effect in December 2022 and February 2023, respectively, and price caps in late 2022 and early 2023 are expected to have a negative impact on Russian revenues. Already, Russian energy exports in February 2023 are down more than 40 percent year-on-year.(Figure 3)[10][11]

To counter these sanctions, Russia has sought alternative markets for its energy exports that did not comply with the European Union’s sanctions policy, and China has become a significant alternative market for Russia’s energy. While interdependence with the West was decreasing, Russia would become more economically and financially intertwined with China. However, the expansion of Chinese imports from Russia, India, and other countries would not compensate for the loss of European markets[12] for some time. It seems likely that the Russian economy will continue to experience a recession in the coming years, as IMF Managing Director Georgieva indicated.

The far-reaching sanctions against Russia have had a significant impact on the country’s financial system. Several Russian banks were excluded from the global financial system, the assets of oligarchs with close ties to the Russian government were seized, and a significant portion of Russia’s $300 billion in foreign exchange reserves out of $476 billion (excluding gold) held in banks in the U.S. and EU were frozen. These measures led to a loss of confidence in the Russian financial system and a 50% devaluation of the Russian ruble in just a month and a half. [13]In response to these measures, Russia announced in late March 2022 that “unfriendly” countries would have to pay for Russian gas in rubles. This decision prevented further devaluation of the ruble, and the ruble appreciated by mid-2022.To counter further blocking of its international reserves, Russia has increased its holdings of yuan and expanded its efforts to develop a digital currency. In fact, Russian de-dollarization policy has started before the invasion, mainly after the annexation of Crimea. Today, due to the sanctions, and Russian’s promotion of yuan;Dollar and Euro share in external transactions declined and the yuan’s share increased.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia had reached a substantial level of about $500 billion before the invasion, with various Western countries investing in the country. After the invasion, however, many of these countries expressed their intention to withdraw from Russia without sanctions requirements. In particular, large foreign companies that had invested in the energy and banking sectors either left the country or expressed their intention to do so. For example, BP, which owns 19.75 percent of Rosneft, Exxon, which had a significant joint venture with Rosneft in Sakhalin, and Shell, which was involved with Gazprom in the Sakhalin project, either transferred their ownership to the Russian government or to the oligarchs who have close ties to Putin, or declared their intention to do so. In addition, France’s Total Energies, which had invested in Novatek, and SocieteGenerale, which had a partnership with Rosbank, wanted to withdraw from these partnerships.It is likely that the transfer of their shares was or will be agreed on more favorable terms for the Russian partners. On the other hand, Russian companies have been forced to sell their subsidiaries in Europe, such as Gazprom’s gas storage facilities in Germany, Rosneft’s oil refinery in Germany, and Lukoil’s oil refinery in Sicily(Aslund, February 4, 2023).[14]

Overall, the invasion of Ukraine and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S., the EU, and other countries have had notable impacts on the Russian economy. The sanctions mainly targeted Russia’s energy exports and financial system, leading to a decline in export revenues and a loss of confidence in the financial system. Russia has tried to develop alternative markets and solutions in response to Western sanctions, but it appears that new markets and new financial systems, which are mostly inclined to China and India, are not a cure for its economic strength. Even if the military conflict is resolved, the anticipation of a new Cold War era between West and East suggests that a return to pre-invasion economic conditions may not be possible. The long-term impact of sanctions on Russia’s economic strength remains uncertain, but it is clear that the country’s economic resilience has been tested. Therefore, it is critical for the third parties to gain a comprehensive understanding of the long-term impact of the recent conflict and the consequences of the EU and U.S. responses on the Russian economy in order to adapt to the new economic and political dynamics.

Figure 1: Russian Economic Growth

Figure 2 Russian Exports and Oil Prices[15]

Figure 3: Oil Prices and Russian Exports (Monthly)
















Why Ukraine Is Increasingly a Nuclear Headache for World Powers


On March 20, 2023, the British government confirmed it would supply Ukrainian forces with tank shells made with depleted uranium, which can “penetrate tanks and armor more easily due to its density and other physical properties.” The affair quickly reignited Western and Russian efforts to shape the global narrative regarding nuclear weaponry in the Ukraine war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the UK’s decision was part of the collective West’s “nuclear component” against Russia. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly responded by saying, “The only country in the world that is talking about nuclear issues is Russia.” On March 25, Putin announced that Russia and Belarus had reached an agreement to deploy Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.

The possibility of a nuclear standoff over Ukraine was not always as likely. By late summer 2022, there was hope that Russia and the U.S. could avoid nuclear brinksmanship. Both countries agreed to begin creating a successor to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) at the 10th Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in August.

But as the Russian military suffered significant defeats around Kharkiv and Kherson in the weeks that followed, this line of thinking declined. Numerous Russian officials, including Putin, began alluding more to the use of nuclear weapons. Putin also stated in late September 2022 that the U.S. had already created the “precedent” of using nuclear weapons in conflict when it dropped nuclear weapons on Japan in World War II.

Russia has, like other nuclear powers, spent billions of dollars upgrading its nuclear weapons program in recent years. The use of hypersonic Russian missiles to deliver a nuclear weapon behind the front lines in Ukraine, or deployment of a “tactical” nuclear weapon, a smaller, low-yield bomb to be used in battle, remains possible. The Kremlin could also conduct nuclear tests as a show of force and to send a message to Ukraine and the West that its threats should be taken seriously.

As Western officials condemned Russia’s nuclear posturing, Putin and other Russian officials in turn suggested that Ukraine might use a “dirty bomb,” an improvised nuclear device that spreads radiation, on its own territory. Western officials believed Russia would use such a false-flag operation to escalate its war efforts.

Speaking to the Russian Federal Assembly in February 2023, Putin announced Russia was suspending participation in the New START deal and would no longer allow the U.S. to inspect its nuclear arsenal. This had already been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In 2019, the U.S. meanwhile pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

Nonetheless, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments in November 2022 about avoiding the threat or use of nuclear weapons appeared to have a calming effect on the Russian leadership. And after the battlefield in Ukraine stabilized over the winter and Russia made small advances in the country’s southeast since, the fear of Russia using nuclear weapons declined further.

A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be the most likely scenario in which Russia would use nuclear weapons. But the Kremlin’s nuclear posturing is likely an attempt to inflame and control the narrative over nuclear weapons in Ukraine. By highlighting the UK’s provision of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine, Russian officials demonstrate to the domestic population the collective military threat emanating from the West. Meanwhile, Russia’s pointing to its own nuclear arsenal reinforces domestic perceptions of Russian strength and its right to employ “strategic deterrence.”

Alluding to the threat of nuclear weapons also forces the West to respond diplomatically. Western officials helped organize an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit to Ukraine in November 2022, for example, to ensure Ukraine did not have a dirty bomb and to undermine Russia’s claims. Moscow has also been increasingly resorting to tactics that threaten the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. On March 29, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi made his second visit to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant since the start of the war “to reduce the risk of a major nuclear accident.” Both Russia and Ukraine have accused one another of bombarding the facility since the start of the war.

While the threat of Russian nuclear weapons against Ukraine appears to have receded for now, the U.S. remains concerned over Russia’s ability to help other countries develop their nuclear weapons programs. Russian nuclear scientists (and those from other post-Soviet countries) gave significant assistance to North Korea’s nuclear program in the 1990s, helping it achieve its own nuclear detonation by 2006.

Today, the focus is on Iran, which is increasingly tied to Russia and China. After the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal in 2018, the U.S. no longer has as much leverage over Iran as it did eight years ago when the agreement was first reached. U.S. officials stated in November 2022 that Iran was seeking Russian help to develop its nuclear program if a new nuclear deal did not materialize.

Russia has housed Iranian enriched uranium as part of the JCPOA agreement since 2015, and U.S. foreign intelligence officials in March 2023 are alleged to have said that Putin had agreed to return it if a new nuclear deal collapses. With Russia’s current challenges in Ukraine, Russia also has less leverage over Iran than it did in 2015, and Iran is suspected to have pressed for the return of its enriched uranium in exchange for the weapons it has supplied Russia in recent months.

A nuclear-armed Iran would significantly undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and would require Washington to divert significant resources to the region, a notion that is obviously tempting in Moscow. But helping Iran gain nuclear weapons would cause a significant downturn in Russian-Israeli relations, leading to a likely destabilizing scenario for the Russian military in Syria. It would also invite the Israeli military and government to drastically increase their support for Ukraine, while spurring a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In January 2023, IAEA Director General Grossi stated that Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons. But Iran will likely only move forward with its nuclear weapons program with Russian and Chinese support. For Russia, prolonging negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program is a useful bargaining chip with the U.S. Helping forge a new nuclear deal would also help Russia portray itself as a responsible actor in world affairs after its reputation has been damaged because it invaded Ukraine.

But Washington is also concerned over Russian efforts to aid China’s nuclear program. In December 2022, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom, began sending nuclear fuel to China’s fast breeder nuclear reactor on Changbiao Island, expected to be functioning by the end of 2023. U.S. military officials fear the reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, will be used by China to rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal, as well as to dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top nuclear energy provider by the 2030s.

In addition to the billions of dollars of deals it has around the world, Rosatom is also essential to the U.S. nuclear power industry. Russia accounts for almost half of global uranium enrichment capacity, and the U.S. depends on Russia for both uranium supply and enrichment services. Kazakhstan meanwhile accounts for 35 percent of U.S. uranium supply, and its industry works closely with Rosatom. Several European countries’ nuclear industries also remain reliant on Rosatom, preventing the West from sanctioning the company.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin has alluded to the use of nuclear weapons in the country and undermined the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. But growing Russian nuclear collaboration with countries like China and Iran and the reliance of the U.S. and European countries on Rosatom show the multifaceted nuclear threat Russia poses to Western interests. While the risk of nuclear weapons being used by Russia remains low, Moscow has numerous ways to cause nuclear headaches in Washington and Brussels.

Credit Line: This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Why EU Strategic Autonomy Apart from the U.S. Is Currently Impossible


Among the wreckage the riots that have convulsed Paris may leave in their wake include President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform; Macron’s ability to effectively govern for the next four years; and, quite possibly, the Fifth Republic itself. As The New York Times reported in March, protesters have been heard chanting, “Paris Rise Up…We decapitated Louis XVI. We will do it again, Macron.”

But another, less noted, casualty of Macron’s high-handed attempt to impose a neoliberal “reform” opposed by large pluralities of French citizens, may well be the idea of European strategic autonomy on matters relating to defense and foreign policy.

Hall Gardner, a professor of international relations at the American University of Paris tells me in his view, “Macron saw himself as the mediator between Russia and the West, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and seeming refusal to compromise hurt Macron’s international credibility, while Macron’s apparent inability to foresee the extent of French social protest against his proposed reforms in the French system of retirement reveal him to be a weak leader, who is not in touch with his citizens, so that Putin will attempt to play the Far Right and Far Left, and increasingly the Center, against him, so as to reduce French diplomatic and military support for Ukraine.”

“At the same time,” says Gardner, “the domestic crisis in France is so deep that it will weaken Macron’s efforts to play a constructive role in building an all-European foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia, the U.S. and other states.”

Macron had been pushing the concept of strategic autonomy for years, and during his first campaign for president in 2017 he pledged to “bring an end to the form of neoconservatism that has been imported to France over the past 10 years.”

From the perspective of American restrainers, this should have been welcome news; after all why, eighty years after the end of the Second World War and thirty years after the end of the Cold War is the United States, with $31 trillion in debt, still subsidizing the defense of Europe, which has over 100 million more people and a GDP of roughly $18 trillion?

But then the war in Ukraine came, and with it, a swift and effective effort by the Biden administration—through any means necessary—to impose a strict discipline among its NATO allies.

And so, in the aftermath of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, strategic autonomy’s future began to look bleak and the riots in Paris have now only served to further drive a stake through its heart.

Some might argue, however, that EU leaders are in fact pursuing a strategy of strategic autonomy as a result of the war in Ukraine. After all, European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton’s recently announced plans to transform the European Defense Industry Reinforcement Through Common Procurement Act (EDIRPA) into a vehicle through which the EU can meet the new defense requirements for the war in Ukraine. Still more, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in his much-heralded “Zeitenwende” (“Turning Point”) speech of last year, pledged €100 million in new defense spending.

But an increase in spending—something the Americans have, after all, been demanding of its European partners for years—is not an alternative strategy. The fact is, the war in Ukraine has consolidated American hegemony in Europe. Firstly, the financial and military contributions to Ukraine by the United States dwarfs the contributions made by EU member states.

And then there is the curious non-reaction by the leaders of the Germany parliamentary coalition, the Social Democrats (SPD) to the destruction of Nord Stream 2. As the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies recently wondered:

“How long the German government can remain as subservient to the United States as it has now promised to be is an open question, considering the risks that come with Germanys territorial closeness to the Ukrainian battlefield – a risk not shared by the U.S.”

After conversations with German parliamentarians and activists from across the political spectrum over the past week, one comes away with the impression: Quite a good deal longer.

In Germany, the appetite for a freer hand in the formation of their own national security policy exists in pockets (on the part of the Left that still understands the value of Ostpolitik, and the far-right) but is nowhere evident among the political establishment and still less among Scholz’s coalition partners, particularly the bellicose Greens, who now seem to relish their role as a proxy for the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Yet over the long term, Germany’s economic, energy and national security interests will likely dictate it come to reject (or take a polite pass on) American demands to sign up for the now looming global confrontation between Western democracies and Eurasian authoritarian regimes led by China and Russia.

Over time, Ostpolitik (The “Eastern Policy” of normalized relations with the communist states of Eastern Europe pursued by German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and early 1970s) may have a second life after all, given the German industry’s dependence on cheap natural gas and its ever-increasing trading ties with China: In 2021 two-way trade between Germany and China hit a record $320 billion.

But as things now stand, with Paris distracted by a populist revolt, Washington—with the enthusiastic backing of Warsaw, London, Prague, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, and the foreign ministry in Berlin—is exercising a kind of hegemony on the continent not seen since the days when President Reagan, against vast popular protests, placed Pershing II missiles in West Germany in late 1983.

To his great credit, Macron realizes—as did his model, the great Charles de Gaulle—that protracted U.S. hegemony over Europe is both unsustainable and indeed, given Washington’s ever-deepening involvement in the Ukraine war and the new cold war posture it has taken with regard to China, dangerous. But now he is likely helpless to pursue his favored alternative strategy.

In the end, a politically stable France and German buy-in are the two foundational prerequisites for strategic autonomy to succeed. And as of this writing, there is neither.

Credit Line: This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA).

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