Thursday, July 18, 2019

Election Update: Ukraine's Next Parliament

By Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party will likely enter a coalition government with the reformist Holos Party following the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election on July 21. This outcome would exclude political actors overtly favorable to Russia from the Government of Ukraine, but Zelensky will likely struggle to implement policies due to his government’s inexperience and remains vulnerable to external manipulation by the Kremlin. The U.S. must work to counter Russia’s influence in Ukraine and support pro-Western reformists in forming a stable and functional Government of Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political bloc will almost certainly win the upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election on July 21. Zelensky dissolved the Ukrainian Parliament during his inaugural address on May 21, forcing early elections originally scheduled for October 27.[1] His Servant of the People Party will likely dominate the election but fall short of a majority, requiring a coalition partner to form the next Government of Ukraine.[2] Four other blocs will also likely pass the five percent threshold required to gain seats in the Ukrainian Parliament: the pro-Russia Opposition Platform - For Life; the populist All-Ukrainian Union - Fatherland Party led by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko; former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party; and the reformist Holos Party.[3]

The pro-Russia Opposition Platform - For Life will likely increase its current share of seats in the Ukrainian Parliament by a few percentage points.[4] It will likely nonetheless remain in the opposition with no direct control over the Government of Ukraine. Zelensky has hardened his rhetoric toward Russia and has rejected a governing coalition with the Opposition Platform.[5] Yet he has not yet advanced concrete policies in support of this rhetoric, leaving open the possibility that he may still pursue future policies that advance the interests of Russia in Ukraine. The Kremlin will likely use the reorganized Opposition Platform to further advance these goals and act as a spoiler in the Ukrainian Parliament.

Zelensky will also likely reject a coalition with the pro-Western European Solidarity Party in order to distance himself from Poroshenko. He introduced a bill to the Ukrainian Parliament on July 12 that proposed extending lustration laws (originally banning officials from public office who worked for former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych) to May 19, 2019. The measure would thus extend the ban on public service to any officials who worked for Poroshenko.[6] Zelensky’s bill is a dangerous indicator of both his unwillingness to work with experienced policymakers and his susceptibility to proposing policies that indirectly favor the Kremlin.

Zelensky will likely form a coalition with the reformist Holos Party. He will likely pursue this partnership to strengthen his image as a reformer and distance himself from the current political establishment in Ukraine.[7] This coalition would prevent politicians overtly amenable to Russia from entering the Government of Ukraine but will still be open to manipulation and likely less effective than the previous Ukrainian Parliament under Poroshenko.

Zelensky could alternatively enter a coalition with Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, which would be a more dangerous outcome for the interests of the West. Tymoshenko has extended overtures towards a possible coalition with Zelensky and pledged that the Fatherland Party will not enter the opposition even if excluded from the next Government of Ukraine.[8] This coalition would create an avenue for the Kremlin to influence Zelensky through Tymoshenko (who has previously proven herself amenable to Russia). Zelensky’s desire to work with new political actors and distance himself from the political establishment, however, will likely lead him to form a coalition with the Holos Party over the long-standing and oligarch-linked Fatherland Party.

The next Government of Ukraine may maintain Ukraine’s path towards the West but will nonetheless be significantly more vulnerable to manipulation by the Kremlin. The Servant of the People Party is not running any incumbent parliamentarians and its list of candidates consists of a mix of reformers, friends and business partners of Zelensky, and allies of prominent oligarch (and key Zelensky backer) Ihor Kolomoyskyi.[9] The Holos Party is similarly running no incumbents and champions its status as a political outsider.[10] Their coalition would have a popular mandate for domestic reforms to tackle long-entrenched political and economic corruption. However, their collective lack of experienced policymakers and concrete policy proposals may stymie progress and grant opportunities for individual members to be swayed by the Kremlin.[11]

The next Government of Ukraine will also not break free of oligarchic influence despite the fact that it will not include an oligarch in a major elected position - a sharp departure from previous governments. Kolomoyskyi will not hold a formal post but will nonetheless wield outsized influence over Zelensky and the Government of Ukraine. He is not overtly favorable to the Kremlin but is likely to act to protect his own business interests by impeding reforms and supporting lucrative economic concessions to Russia.[12]

Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party will remain an easier target for external manipulation than the previous Government of Ukraine regardless of the specific outcome of 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election. The U.S should work with its partners in Europe to support reformists under Zelensky in their effort to enact sound reforms and insulate Ukraine from the Kremlin.

[1] “Ukrainian Constitutional Court OKs Parliament’s Dissolution, Early Elections,” RFE/RL, June 20, 2019,
[2] Oleg Sukhov, “Last Polls: Zelensky’s Party May Take Half of Votes in Parliament Election,” Kyiv Post, July 18, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[3] Ibid.
[4] [“Deputy Factions and Groups of the 8th Convocation,”] Ukrainian Parliament, Accessed July 18, 2019,
[5] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[6] Natalia Lebed, “What Does Zelensky’s Plan to Purge Ukraine’s Officials Mean?” 112 Ukraine, July 18, 2019, https://112(.)international/ukraine-top-news/what-does-zelenskys-plan-to-purge-ukraine-officials-mean-41817.html.
[7] Peter Dickinson, “Rise of the Zelennials: Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections Signal Generational Shift,” Atlantic Council, July 16, 2019,; Jonah Fisher, “Volodymyr Zelensky: Why Ukraine’s New President Needs Second Election Win,” BBC, July 16, 2019,
[8] [“Tymoshenko Stated that the Fatherland Party Will Not Be Opposition to the Current Government,”] UNIAN, June 10, 2019, https://www.unian(.)ua/politics/10581633-timoshenko-zapevnila-shcho-batkivshchina-ne-bude-v-opoziciji-do-chinnoji-vladi.html; “Batkivshchyna Willing to Set Up Coalition with Zelensky’s Party”, Interfax, June 10, 2019,
[9] Peter Dickinson, “Rise of the Zelennials: Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections Signal Generational Shift,” Atlantic Council, July 16, 2019,; Molly Montgomery, “In Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections, President Zelensky’s Party Is Likely to Dominate,” Brookings, July 15, 2019,
[10] [“Vakarchuk: New Party List Will Not Have Acting Deputies,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, July 19, 2019, https://www.pravda(.)
[11] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[12] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,

Russia in Review: Africa Campaign Update

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Author: Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin continues to develop closer military, economic, and political ties with African states as part of its campaign to mitigate sanctions and compete with the West. Russia hosted two major forums focused on cooperation with African states in mid-2019 ahead of the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019. The Kremlin used these forums to deepen its bilateral relations and multilateral engagement with states across Africa. The U.S. should work to compete more actively with Russia in Africa through greater economic engagement and a robust information campaign stressing the small scope and self-serving nature of Russia’s engagements in Africa. 

The Kremlin is intensifying its outreach to African leaders ahead of a planned Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019. Russia hosted two major forums focusing on Africa in mid-2019: the Russia-Africa Economic Summit on June 20 - 22 and the Russia-Africa Inter-Parliamentary Forum on July 1 - 3.[1] The Russian Security Council hosted delegations from Africa at the Ufa Security Conference on June 18 - 20.[2] The Russian Defense Ministry also invited many African leaders to its Army-2019 Forum on June 25 - 30.[3] The forums featured a number of senior officials including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergey Naryshkin. The Kremlin routinely uses international forums as a platform to foster personal high-level relations and state-to-state partnerships across the globe.[4]

The Kremlin will host its Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 24. The summit will likely focus on joint projects with the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as well as a potential free trade zone built on the existing African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which includes fifty-three member-states.[5] Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin stated that the forum would have “no precedent in the history of Russian relations with African states, including the Soviet period when relations were very active” with Africa.[6] The Kremlin is also planning to sign a memorandum of cooperation between the African Union and the Eurasian Economic Union - part of its broader effort to build constellations of international alliances centered on Russia.[7] These efforts will likely succeed (at least in part) as African leaders regularly express positive attitudes towards partnership with Russia.[8]

The Kremlin is using these forums and summits to build closer economic, political, and military ties with states in Africa.
  • Economic: Russia hosted a Russia-Africa Economic Summit on the sidelines of the African Export Import Bank (Afreximbank) Annual Meeting in Moscow on June 20 - 22.[9] The event marked only the second time that a non-African country hosted Afreximbank (China hosted it in 2012), signifying that Africa is prioritizing new economic cooperation with Russia.[10] Afreximbank signed at least six memorandums of understanding with investment and energy businesses in Russia at the Russia-Africa Economic Summit.[11] Medvedev also used the summit to stress the importance of cooperation in the mining, energy, agriculture, and telecommunication sectors between Russia and Africa.[12] Russia already held a relationship with Afreximbank. The Russian Export Center (which is already working on an industrial zone in Egypt) holds shares in Afreximbank and jointly funds projects in Sierra Leone, Angola, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.[13] The Kremlin is attempting to use these ties with Africa to increase bilateral trade, attract foreign investment, and compete with the economic influence and investment of the West in Africa.
  • Political: The Russian Duma hosted the Russia-Africa Inter-Parliamentary Forum on July 1 - 3, which included over three hundred parliamentarians from over thirty-eight states.[14] The Kremlin views these countries as potential supporters of its campaign to delegitimize the West and seeks their support to mitigate sanctions on Russia.[15] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov stressed in November 2018 that “Russia regards Africa as an important and active participant in the emerging polycentric architecture of the world order and an ally in protecting international law against attempts to undermine it.”[16] Russia also uses inter-legislative exchanges to build support for projects to expand its economic presence in Africa, promote educational cooperation, offer scholarships to study in Russia, and develop additional Russian Science and Culture Centers, which already exist in Egypt, Morocco, Zambia, Congo, Tanzania, Tunisia, and Ethiopia.[17] The Kremlin has presented itself as a strong global partner and regional ally to Africa, relying on its recent investments as well as historical relationships formed during the Soviet Union.[18] It also frames itself as a valuable partner in challenging international institutions, such as with its vocal support for lifting sanctions on Eritrea.[19] The Kremlin is willing to lobby on behalf of its major partners in Africa to garner their support in turn at the United Nations.
  • Military: The Russian Defense Ministry hosted the International Military-Technical Forum Army-2019 on June 25 - 30. Russia and Mali signed a military cooperation agreement at the Forum on June 25.[20] Shoygu also met with Malian Defense Minister Gen. Ibrahim Dembele and pledged support for stabilization in Mali on June 25.[21] Russia already has over twenty military cooperation agreements with countries in Africa including Sudan, the Central African Republic, Tanzania, and Eritrea.[22] Russia also hosted the Ufa Security Conference on June 18 - 20, which included talks on counter-terrorism and information security with officials from many African states including Egypt, Burundi, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, and Uganda.[23]
The Kremlin in particular is leveraging its ties with Egypt in preparation for the Russia-Africa Summit. Russia and Egypt held multiple top-level meetings to discuss regional cooperation and preparations for the Russia-Africa Summit in mid-2019. Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 29, and Putin thanked Sisi for Egypt’s role as a co-chair in organizing the Russia-Africa Summit.[24] Sisi is the 2019 Chair of the African Union (AU) and represents the AU at global summits, such as G20 and China-Africa Forum. He has stressed the importance of an African Free Trade Zone. Russia is likely attempting to use his position to establish favorable economic agreements with the African Union as well as individual states in Africa. Russia already holds significant economic leverage over Egypt.[25] It is currently building and recruiting for a Russian Industrial Zone in Egypt worth $200 million.[26] Lavrov and Shoygu also met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Mohamed Zaki in Moscow on June 24.[27]

The Kremlin’s investments have not yet produced tangible results for Russia in Africa. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin intends to use its campaign in Africa to alleviate the impact of sanctions and challenge the global standing of the U.S. and Europe.[28] It is advertising its efforts as support for “African solutions to African problems”, which is appealing to the major powerbrokers in Africa.[29] Yet the personal connections it is pursuing are unlikely to last due to the nature of the political scene in Africa. The U.S. should nonetheless carefully monitor Russia’s engagements in Africa due to the increasing strategic importance of the region in the global calculus of the Kremlin. The U.S. should engage in a robust information campaign highlighting the minimal investments and unreliability of Russia in Africa. The U.S. should also recognize that its primary competitors (such as Russia and China) are focusing on economic growth rather than humanitarian issues in Africa, and work to build support for similar initiatives from the West.

[1] “26th Afreximbank Annual Meeting,” Afreximbank, July 5, 2019,; [“Olga Timofeeva: Our Task - Provide a Quality Start to Relations Between the Russian Parliament and the Parliaments of Every African Country,”] United Russia Bloc in the Russian State Duma, July 2, 2019,
[2] [“In Ufa, More Than a Hundred Countries Will Participate in an International Conference on Security Issues,”] Bashinform, June 17, 2019, http://www.bashinform(.)ru/news/1320499-v-ufe-bolee-sta-stran-primut-uchastie-v-mezhdunarodnoy-konferentsii-po-voprosam-bezopasnosti/; [“International Security Conference Held in Ufa,”] Nation News, July 4, 2019, https://nation-news(.)ru/458989-mezhdunarodnaya-konferenciya-po-bezopasnosti-proshla-v-ufe.
[3] [“General Information: International Military-Technical Forum ‘Army-2019’,] Army 2019, July 15, 2019, http://www.rusarmyexpo(.)ru/army2019/general_information.
[4] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,, p. 20.
[5] “African Continental Free Trade Area: A New Horizon for Trade in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 10, 2019,
[6] “Vyacheslav Volodin: Our Country Is Interested in a Mutually Beneficial Partnership with African Countries,” Russian State Duma, July 3, 2019,
[7] [“EEU is Planning to Sign Memorandum of Cooperation with the African Union at the Russia-Africa Summit,”] TASS, June 7, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/6523630; Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,, p. 30.
[8] “Speaker of the Parliament of the Republic of Zimbabwe: It Is Important to Turn Our Words into Concrete Actions,” Russian State Duma, July 2, 2019,
[9] “26th Afreximbank Annual Meeting,” Afreximbank, July 5, 2019,
[10] “African Bank Meeting Brings Opportunity to China,” Afreximbank, September 7, 2012,
[11] “Results of the Afreximbank Annual Meeting 2019,” Roscongress, June 24, 2019, https://roscongress(.)org/en/news/podvedeny-itogi-ezhegodnogo-sobranija-afreksimbanka-2019.
[12] “Results of the Afreximbank Annual Meeting 2019,” TASS, June 25, 2019, https://tass(.)com/press-releases/1065419.
[13] [“Priority Directions of Strategic Development of Russia – ‘International Cooperation and Export’,] Russian Export Center, July 15, 2019, https://www.exportcenter(.)ru/company/international-cooperation/; Andrew Mizner, “Afreximbank’s Russian Ties Strengthen,” African Law and Business, July 9, 2019,
[14] Maria Mikhailovskaya, [“Slutsky Talked About Wide Expert Representation at the ‘Parliamentary Development’ Forum,”] Parlamentskaya Gazeta, June 24, 2019, https://www.pnp(.)ru/politics/sluckiy-rasskazal-o-shirokom-predstavitelstve-ekspertov-na-forume-razvitie-parlamentarizma.html; [“Vladimir Putin: The Modern World Needs an Open and Free Exchange of Views,”] Russian State Duma, July 3, 2019,; “Humanitarian Ties Between Russia and Africa Are Entering a New Phase,” Russian State Duma, July 2, 2019,
[15] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019, p. 20; [“Why the World Needs Parliamentary Development: Five Tasks of Inter-Parliamentary Dialogues,”] Russian State Duma, July 9, 2019,
[16] “Development of Interaction Between Russia and African Countries Was Discussed in the State Duma,” Russian State Duma, November 19, 2018,
[17][“Olga Timofeeva: Our Task - Provide a Quality Start to Relations Between the Russian Parliament and the Parliaments of Every African Country,”] United Russia Bloc in the Russian State Duma, July 2, 2019,
[18] Nataliya Bugayova with Jack Ulses and Chase Johnson, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Africa,” Institute for the Study of War, October 28, 2018,
[19] “Russian Senior Diplomat, Eritrea President Discuss Lifting of UNSC Anti-Eritrea Sanctions,” TASS, October 19, 2018, https://tass(.)com/politics/1026946; “Russia Calls For Lifting Eritrea Sanctions - Lavrov,” TASS, August 31, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1019451.
[20] [“Russia and Mali Signed a Memorandum on Military Cooperation,”] TASS, June 25, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/6588923.
[21] “Russia Is Ready to Contribute to Earliest Possible Stabilization in Mali,” Russian Defense Ministry, June 25, 2019,
[22] Jakob Hedenskog, “Russia Is Stepping Up Its Military Cooperation in Africa,” Swedish Defense Research Agency, July 15, 2019,
[23] [“In Ufa, More Than a Hundred Countries Will Participate in an International Conference on Security Issues,”] Bashinform, June 17, 2019, http://www.bashinform(.)ru/news/1320499-v-ufe-bolee-sta-stran-primut-uchastie-v-mezhdunarodnoy-konferentsii-po-voprosam-bezopasnosti/; [“International Security Conference Held in Ufa,”] Nation News, July 4, 2019, https://nation-news(.)ru/458989-mezhdunarodnaya-konferenciya-po-bezopasnosti-proshla-v-ufe; [“Safe Conversations. What Siloviki from 119 Countries Talked About for Three Days in Ufa,”] Kommersant, June 20, 2019, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/4005772.
[24] [“Putin Spoke About Plans to Bring Relations Between Russia and Egypt to a New Level,”] RIA, June 29, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190629/1556037595.html.
[25] Hamza Mohamed, “Egypt’s Sisi Takes Over as New Head of African Union,” Al-Jazeera, February 10, 2019,
[26] [“Priority Directions of Strategic Development of Russia – ‘International Cooperation and Export’,] Russian Export Center, July 15, 2019, https://www.exportcenter(.)ru/company/international-cooperation/.
[27] The discussion included talks on removing a ban on flights to Egypt that Russia instituted after the downing of a passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015. The Kremlin lifted a ban on direct flights from Moscow to Cairo in April 2018. Its ban on charter flights remains in place. See: [“In Egypt, Announced the Resumption of Charter Flights from Russia Until the End of the Year,”] Izvestia, June 24, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/892221/2019-06-24/v-egipte-anonsirovali-vozobnovlenie-charterov-iz-rossii-do-kontca-goda; “Russia Plane Crash: Moscow Bans Egypt Air Flights After Jet Crash,” BBC, November 13, 2015,; “Air Service To Resume Between Russia, Egypt After Two-Year Suspension,” RFE/RL, April 11, 2018,
[28] Nataliya Bugayova with Jack Ulses and Chase Johnson, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Africa,” Institute for the Study of War, October 18, 2018,
[29] “Russian, Mozambican Diplomats Discuss Preparations for ‘Russia-Africa’ Summit,” TASS, June 17, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1064233.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Syria Situation Report: June 25 - July 9, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period June 25 - July 9, 2019. The SITREP highlights include the emergence of new insurgent groups in Western and Eastern Syria, al Qaeda terror plotting from Northwest Syria, and a U.S.-backed anti-ISIS clearing operation in Eastern Syria.

Click image to enlarge.

Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Author: Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways
  • The Kremlin is exploiting new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political inexperience and desire to end the war in Eastern Ukraine to achieve its preferred outcome in Ukraine – a risk previously outlined by ISW. The Kremlin will likely attempt to link Ukraine and Europe’s urge to pursue peace in Ukraine with its recent diplomatic gains in parts of Europe to push for a settlement that starts lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014.
  • Zelensky has reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to closer relations with the West. He likely does not voluntarily intend to empower Russia’s interests in Ukraine. His administration’s actions and inactions nevertheless create a favorable environment for the Kremlin, including a tolerant atmosphere for the return of Kremlin-linked actors displaced by the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
  • The Kremlin’s success in Ukraine is not inevitable. The upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections will provide an opportunity for reform-oriented professionals to unite and serve as a counterbalance to Russia in Ukraine. The U.S. should expand its support for reformists in both the Zelensky Administration and the Ukrainian Parliament. The U.S. should also work with its partners in Europe to prevent Zelensky from blindly walking into a deal with Russia that compromises Ukraine’s sovereignty. The U.S. must not allow the Kremlin to legitimize its aggression by playing mediator to a conflict in which it is an active belligerent.
The new Government of Ukraine might be setting conditions for future reconciliation to end the war in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ran for office on a core promise to end the conflict with Russia in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. He and his associates are now taking rhetorical steps towards that goal. Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Danilyuk stated on July 1 that the Government of Ukraine is “ready to integrate Donbas” under certain conditions including the disarmament of separatist militias led by Russia.[1] Danilyuk dismissed concerns that the reintegration could result in an enclave controlled by Russia inside Ukraine - a risk previously highlighted by ISW.[2] Meanwhile, Ihor Kolomoyskyi - a key oligarch who backs Zelensky - minimized the war in Eastern Ukraine as an “internal civil conflict” on July 4, mirroring the propaganda of the Kremlin.[3] Kolomoyskyi funded militias to counter the Kremlin in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 but he is likely now hedging his bets in anticipation of restored influence for Russia in Ukraine.[4] Zelensky and his associates have also stated that they would consider lifting the economic blockade on the Donbas.[5] Zelensky called for businesses to reinvest in the Donbas on June 20.[6] Ukraine’s Ukrzaliznytsia - the state-owned railway - included the potential restoration of service to the Donbas in its outlook for 2023.[7]

Zelensky is also setting conditions on the ground for a potential reconciliation with the Donbas. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) withdrew from the contested town of Stanytsia Luhanska in Eastern Ukraine on July 1 under a deal first signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2016.[8] The U.S., Europe, and Russia all welcomed the move, which Zelensky framed as a “fragile hope” for peace in the Donbas.[9] The deal nonetheless raised concerns among military officials and civil activists in Ukraine. One senior commander warned that the withdrawal created a tactical disadvantage for the UAF that the Kremlin and its proxies could exploit to escalate the conflict yet again in Eastern Ukraine.[10]

Zelensky has also attempted to build new momentum for a diplomatic deal over Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky and Putin held their first telephone call to discuss the War in Donbas on July 11.[11] He offered on July 8 to meet with Putin in the presence of the U.S., Britain, Germany and France.[12] Putin and Zelensky also both separately discussed resuming the Normandy Four Talks between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany in June 2019.[13] Putin has expressed a cautious willingness to work with Zelensky.[14] Ukraine and Russia have been discussing a meeting between the two leaders.[15]

The Kremlin will likely exploit these efforts to advance its preferred outcome in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin retains its long-standing strategic goals to prevent Ukraine’s integration with the West and pull it back into the sphere of influence of Russia. Russia intends to maintain its dominance over the Donbas - overtly or covertly - and thereby the Government of Ukraine. ISW has warned that the Kremlin intends to legitimize its proxies in Donbas within the official state structures of Ukraine. The Kremlin likely ultimately seeks a favorable political settlement that reintegrates a large and supportive bloc of voters back into the politics of Ukraine as a permanent lever of influence over Kyiv. It will likely offer superficial concessions and portray itself as a responsible international actor to achieve this preferred outcome. It will also likely amplify a narrative of “peace at all costs” through media in Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s vision of peace will undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine. Any degree of legitimization of its separatist proxies will also likely fuel polarization and civil unrest within Ukraine. It would set a number of dangerous international precedents, including the de facto legitimization of the invasion of a sovereign nation and the notion of truncated sovereignty for states in the former Soviet Union. It would set the standard that an aggressor can legitimize an invasion if it later manipulates the internal political dynamics of the victim to ‘accept’ its aggression.

The Kremlin will also likely capitalize on these efforts to lift or otherwise roll back international sanctions on Russia. Putin has a critical need to lift sanctions given the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, which is starting to affect his popular support and to some degree his inner circle of powerbrokers.[16] The Kremlin could advance this goal by exploiting the willingness of Ukraine and Europe to reach a settlement on Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin could similarly leverage other recent diplomatic gains in Europe. Russia and the West aligned over a new Government of Moldova in June 2019. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) later reinstated voting rights for Russia on June 25, marking the first reversal of an international constraint imposed on Russia after its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.[17] Slovakia’s Parliament is reportedly drafting a resolution declaring the need to end sanctions on Russia.[18] ISW has previously forecast that the Kremlin could reduce overt military tensions in the Donbas and broadcast this decision as a step toward peace in Ukraine. Putin could thereby undermine sanctions against his regime by shifting only his approach rather than his underlying goals in Eastern Europe.

Zelensky likely does not voluntarily seek to advance the interests of Russia in Ukraine. His administration nonetheless is proving a favorable environment for the Kremlin. Zelensky has reaffirmed Ukraine’s preferred course towards deeper integration with the West and prioritized meetings with leaders from the U.S., Canada and Europe.[19] He has criticized the Kremlin for its aggressive policies towards Ukraine.[20] However, his lack of defined policy stances, his limited understanding of geopolitics, his acquiescence to the resurgence of powerbrokers linked to Russia, and the conflicting messages coming from his team (which often reinforce propaganda narratives pushed by the Kremlin) have created a permissive environment for Putin in Ukraine.
  • Former Kremlin-linked powerbrokers displaced by the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 are reestablishing themselves in Ukraine. Andrei Portnov - a key ally of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych - returned to Ukraine after five years in exile in May 2019 and stated his intent to move his business back to Ukraine.[21] Portnov and his associates are attempting to initiate a criminal investigation into alleged abuse of authority by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.[22] Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan has openly noted his longtime friendship with Portnov.[23] Meanwhile, the Odesa Prosecutor’s Office closed an embezzlement case against Yuriy Ivanyushchenko - another key ally of Yanukovych - on June 4.[24] The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office later reversed the decision.[25] Yanukovych’s former Chief of Staff Andriy Klyuyev attempted to register in the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections, sparking protests in Kyiv on July 2.[26] Bohdan blamed Poroshenko for the protests but did not take a stance against the return of Klyuyev.[27] Finally, the General Court of the European Union annulled asset freezes imposed by the EU on Yanukovych, his son, and five of his associates who fled Ukraine in 2014.[28]
These actors are likely taking deliberately provocative actions to test the threshold of public sentiment towards their agenda in Ukraine. The Kremlin might thus be setting conditions to either gradually return its influence or ignite popular discontent if it fails to advance its goals under Zelensky. Ukrainian activists are countering this resurgent influence but their long-term ability to sustain such resistance is not a given. Zelensky’s lack of pushback against these powerbrokers is helping to normalize the creeping gains of the Kremlin in Ukraine.

The return of former powerbrokers also poses a particular risk to good governance in Ukraine. These actors mostly hold revanchist agenda and populist policy goals antithetical to reform, as their fortunes depend on longstanding networks of corruption in Ukraine. They will most likely fall back on old habits that prioritize short-term benefits over the long-term health of the Government of Ukraine – a pattern that led to the Euromaidan Revolution. They will also likely try to sabotage integration with the EU and NATO in order to curry favor with the Kremlin.
  • The Kremlin is further contesting the information space in Ukraine. Russia-24 - a state-owned television channel - stated on July 7 that it would collaborate with Ukraine’s NewsOne to host a teleconference between Ukrainians and Russians entitled ‘We Need to Talk’.[29] The proposal sparked outrage across Ukraine and NewsOne cancelled the collaboration on July 8.[30] Meanwhile, Taras Kozak - an ally of Putin-linked Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk - bought a television channel in Ukraine in June 2019.[31] Kozak had previously acquired stakes in several other television channels linked to Russia in Ukraine in late 2018.[32]
The Kremlin is receiving indirect support in its information campaign from problematic statements by associates of Zelensky. Bohdan made a controversial statement about possibly establishing Russian as the official regional language in Eastern Ukraine on July 1.[33] Meanwhile, a parliamentary candidate from Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party criticized Ukraine’s decision to cut the water supply to the occupied Crimean Peninsula on July 7.[34] The Kremlin views the blockade as a major challenge to its governance of Crimea. It likely contemplated a military option to address the issue if Poroshenko won reelection in April 2019. The Kremlin will almost certainly exploit these and other similar messages in its propaganda to shape the political discussion in Kyiv regarding Crimea and the War in Donbas.[35]

  • The Kremlin is setting conditions to exert major energy pressure over Ukraine. Russia’s deal to transit gas through Ukraine expires in December 2019. Both Ukraine and Russia likely both prefer to reach a new deal. Ukraine will lose an estimated $3 billion per year if transit stops, while Russia risks falling short on its gas deliveries to Europe. The Kremlin is nonetheless setting conditions to ship natural gas without Ukraine.[36] Russia continues to push for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline to Germany, which would enable Russia to bypass Eastern Europe.[37] The Kremlin might not be able to abandon the transit deal with Ukraine at the end of 2019 but it will use the issue over the short-term to pressure Zelensky even as it builds the future capability to deny a major revenue source to Ukraine.
The 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections provide an opportunity for Ukraine to counter the influence of the Kremlin. Five political parties will likely win seats in the Ukrainian Parliament, namely Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party led by Zelensky (43%); the pro-Russian Opposition Platform - For Life (12%); the All-Ukrainian Union – Fatherland Party led by populist former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (9.4%); Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party (8.2%); and the new reformist Holos Party (8.3%).[38]

Zelensky might attempt to form a governing coalition with the reformist Holos Party or the populist Fatherland to distance himself from parties openly affiliated with Russia. Any gains for the populists would still indirectly advance the goals of the Kremlin in Ukraine. Ukraine nevertheless faces a moment of opportunity. Ukraine’s political parties face public pressure to include reform-oriented professionals in their ranks amidst the maturation of civil society in the wake of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.[39] This reformist cadre - even if dispersed among various political blocs - has the potential to safeguard Ukraine’s prospects and integration with the West even in the face of growing pressure from Russia.

The West should support reform-oriented professionals in the Government of Ukraine. The U.S. should work with its partners in Europe to prevent the Kremlin from normalizing its actions and removing sanction without reversing for its illegal aggression against Ukraine.

[1] [“We Want Full Realization of the Minsk Process. You Cannot Stand and Rest Your Forehead at the Same Time - Danilyuk,”], July 1, 2019,
[2] Valery Saakov, [“Danilyuk: Reintegration of Donbas Is Possible on the Conditions of the Minsk Process with UN Peacekeepers,”] Deutsche Welle, July 1, 2019, https://www.dw(.)com/uk/данилюк-реінтеграція-донбасу-можлива-на-умовах-мінська-і-з-миротворцями-оон/a-49430624.
[3] [“Kolomoyskyi on Who to Blame for Donbas: This Is an Internal, Civil Conflict,”] NV.UA, July 4, 2019, https://nv(.)ua/ukr/ukraine/politics/kolomoyskiy-nazvav-viynu-v-ukrajini-gromadyanskim-konfliktom-50030267.html.
[4] Alan Cullison, “Ukraine’s Secret Weapon: Feisty Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky,” Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2014,
[5] [“Zelensky Named the Conditions for Lifting the Blockade of the Donbas Region,”] Obozrevatel, July 8, 2019, https://www.obozrevatel(.)com/ukr/economics/zelenskij-nazvav-umovu-znyattya-blokadi-donbasu.htm; [“The Contact Group Agreed to Prepare for a New Truce in Donbas,”] TASS, July 5, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6511840; “Ukraine’s Envoy at Minsk Talks Proposes Lifting Economic Blockade from Donbas,” UNIAN, June 5, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/war/10576173-ukraine-s-envoy-at-minsk-talks-proposes-lifting-economic-blockade-from-donbas.html.
[6] “Volodymyr Zelensky Urged Business to Invest in the Restoration of Donbas,” Ukrainian Presidency, June 20, 2019,
[7] Denis Katsilo, [“ Has Acquired the New Strategy of Ukrzaliznytsia: What Awaits the State’s Monopoly?”] Liga.Business, June 18, 2019, https://biz.liga(.)net/all/transport/article/svobodnyy-rynok-i-poezda-na-donbass-samoe-vajnoe-iz-strategii-uz.
[8] “Spot Report by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM): Receipt of Notifications on Completion of Disengagement in Stanytsia Luhanska Disengagement Area,” OSCE, June 30, 2019,; “OSCE Confirms Completion of Forces’ Disengagement Near Stanytsia Luhanska,” Interfax, July 1, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/osce-confirms-completion-of-forces-disengagement-near-stanytsia-luhanska.html; “Latest from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), Based on Information Received as of 19:30, 27 June 2019,” OSCE, June 28, 2019,; [“Daynevo: Units of the People's Militia of the LNR Are Relegated from Positions in the Area of the Stanytsia Luhanska,”] TASS, June 27, 2019, http://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6601930; Joint Forces Operation, [“In Stanytsia Luhanska, Withdrawal of Forces and Means Took Place,”] Facebook, June 26, 2019,; [“The Headquarters of the Joint Forces Operation Explains: The Withdrawal of Forces in the Village of Luhanska – Not Weakening,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, June 26, 2019,
[9] [“Russia Urged to Implement the Agreement on the Dilution of Forces at Stanytsia Luhansk,”] RIA Novosti, June 28, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190628/1556006683.html; “Foreign Minister Maas on the Disengagement of Troops at Stanytsia Luhanska in Eastern Ukraine,” German Foreign Ministry, July 1, 2019, https://www.auswaertiges-amt(.)de/en/newsroom/news/maas-ukraine/2230596; “Zelensky: Disengagement in Stanytsia Luhanska First Step Toward Ceasefire,” UNIAN, July 1, 2019, https:/www.unian(.)info/war/10602003-zelensky-disengagement-in-stanytsia-luhanska-first-step-toward-ceasefire.html.
[10] [“The Disengagement of Troops Near the Village of Stanytsia Luhanska Created a Danger in Tactical Terms - Zabrodsky,”] ZN, July 5, 2019, https://zn(.)ua/UKRAINE/razvedenie-voysk-okolo-stanicy-luganskoy-sozdalo-opasnost-v-takticheskom-plane-zabrodskiy-322789_.html.
[11] “Zelensky, Putin Talk Donbas War and Prisoner Swap in First Phone Call,” Kyiv Post, July 11, 2019,
[12] Roman Olearchyk, “Ukraine’s Zelensky Calls for Putin and Trump to Join Peace Talks,” Financial Times, July 8, 2019,
[13] “Putin Agrees on Normandy Format to Settle War is Donbas,” Kyiv Post, June 29, 2019,; “Macron Says New Ukraine Peace Talks Possible Under Zelensky,” France24, June 17, 2019,
[14] “Russia Not Declining Contacts with Zelensky, Says Putin,” TASS, June 7, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1062750.
[15] [”In Russia, They Started Talking About Meeting Putin with Zelensky: A Possible Date is Named,”] Fakty, June 3, 2019, https://fakty(.)ua/307378-v-rossii-zagovorili-o-vstreche-putina-s-zelenskim-nazvana-vozmozhnaya-data; “Danilyuk Said that the Meeting of Zelensky and Putin is Real,” Goruduna, July 1, 2019, https(:)//
[16] [“Railway Shipments Are Down as Before Recession,”] The Bell, July 2, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/perevozki-rzhd-snizilis-kak-pered-retsessiej/; Marina Karpova, “Russian Supermarket Starts Selling Food on Credit,” Russia Beyond The Headlines, February 12, 2016,
[17] Denys Krasnikov, Jack Laurenson, “Ukraine Suspends Membership as PACE Reinstates Russia,” Kyiv Post, June 25, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/ukraine-suspends-membership-as-europes-parliamentary-assembly-reinstates-russia.html.
[18] Dmitri Laru, [“Friendship Resolution: Slovakia Prepared a Document on the Lifting of Sanctions,”] Izvestia, July 5, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/895424/dmitrii-laru/rezoliutciia-druzhby-v-slovakii-podgotovili-dokument-ob-otmene-sanktcii.
[19] “Canada Continues to Strengthen Ties with Ukraine, Says Trudeau,” Global News, July 2, 2019,; Volodymyr Zelensky, Facebook, May 2, 2019,
[20] Volodymyr Zelensky, Facebook, May 2 2019,; “Zelensky at Meeting with Freeland Confirms Ukraine’s Course Towards EU and NATO,” Ukrinform, July 2, 2019,
[21] [“Portnov Moves His Business from Austria: “We Need to Pay Taxes in Ukraine,”] UA1, June 6, 2019,; [“’Poroshenko Will Sit’: First Interview with Andrei Portnov in Kiev,”] Strana Ukraine, May 19, 2019, https://strana(.)ua/news/201882-vernuvshijsja-v-ukrainu-andrej-portnov-zajavil-chto-petr-poroshenko-budet-sidet.html.
[22] [“’Poroshenko Will Sit’: First Interview with Andrei Portnov in Kiev,”] Strana Ukraine, May 19, 2019, https://strana(.)ua/news/201882-vernuvshijsja-v-ukrainu-andrej-portnov-zajavil-chto-petr-poroshenko-budet-sidet.html; “SBI Starts Investigation into the Seizure of State Power by Poroshenko,” Interfax, June 2, 2019,; “Criminal Case Registered About False Claims by Portnov About Poroshenko's So-Called Crimes - Poroshenko's Lawyer,” Interfax, June 25, 2019,
[23] [“‘Portnov Is My Long-Term Friend’: Bogdan Spoke About Relations with the Ex-Regionalist,”] 5Ukraine, July 1, 2019, https://www.5(.)ua/polityka/portnov-tse-mii-bahatorichnyi-druh-bohdan-rozpoviv-pro-stosunky-z-eksrehionalom-194950.html.
[24] [“Stolen Government Funds and the Market: The Prosecutor's Office Closed the Case of Ivanyushchenko,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, June 4, 2019,
[25] [“Prosecutor General's Office Resumed the Investigation Against Ivanyushchenko – Source,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, July 9, 2019,
[26] Oleksiy Sorokin, “Yanukovych’s Top Official Tries to Run for Parliament 5 Years After Fleeing Ukraine,” Kyiv Post, June 24, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/yanukovychs-top-official-tries-to-run-for-parliament-5-years-after-fleeing-ukraine.html; [“Lawyer: Supreme Court Confirmed the Right of Andriy Klyuyev to Participate in the Parliamentary Elections,”] Interfax, July 1, 2019,; Daria Shulzhenko and Volodymyr Petrov, “Yanukovych’s Top Official Klyuyev, Blogger Shariy Approved to Run for Parliament,” Kyiv Post, July 2, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/yanukovychs-top-official-klyuyev-blogger-shariy-approved-to-run-for-parliament.html.
[27] [“Bogdan Recommends Referring the Question of the Registration of Klyuyev and Shariy in the Elections to Poroshenko,”] Interfax, July 3, 2019,
[28] “Press Release No 93/2019,” General Court of the European Union, July 11, 2019,; “EU Court Annuls Yanukovych Asset Freezes,” RFERL, July 11, 2019,
[29] Oksana Grytsenko, “Teleconference Idea Between Ukrainian, Russian TV Channels Sparks Outrage,” Kyiv Post, July 8, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/proposed-teleconference-between-pro-russian-channels-sparks-outrage-in-ukraine.html.
[30] [“Lutsenko: Everyone, from the Owner of NewsOne to the Host, Was Called in for Questioning,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, July 8, 2019,
[31] Vyacheslav Hnatyuk, “Russia-Friendly Lawmaker Kozak Buys ZIK TV Channel, Journalists Resign,” Kyiv Post, June 15, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/russia-friendly-lawmaker-kozak-buys-zik-tv-channel-journalists-resign.html.
[32] Kateryna Churilova, [“Taras Kozak Became the New Owner of the NewsOne Channel,”} Zaxid, October 5, 2018,
[33] Sergey Shcherbyna, [“Andriy Bohdan: I Would Allow Donetsk and Luhansk an Official Russian Language if They Will Be the Territory of Ukraine,” RBK, July 1, 2019, https(:)//
[34] [“‘These Are Our Citizens’: Candidate from Zelensky’s Party Said That Ukraine Is Harming the Residents of Crimea,”] Strana, July 7, 2019, https://twnews(.)at/ua-news/eto-nashi-grazhdane-kandidat-ot-partii-zelenskogo-zaiavil-chto-ukraina-vredit-zhiteliam-kryma.
[35] Ivan Grachev, [“Ukrainian Oligarch Kolomoisky: The War in the Donbas is our Internal Civil Conflict,”] Komsoloskaya Pravda, July 4, 2019,; [“Kolomoisky Called the Conflict in the Donabs Civil War,”] TASS, May 2, 2019, https(:)//
[36] Vladimir Soldatkin, “Record Russian Gas Sales to Europe Help Gazprom Profits Double,” Reuters, April 29, 2019,
[37] “Ukraine Loses $3 Billion per Year If Russia Gas Transit Ceased - Naftogaz CEO,” 112 UA, January 21, 2019, https://112(.)international/russia/ukraine-loses-3-billion-per-year-if-russian-gas-transit-ceased-naftogaz-ceo-36205.html.
[38] [“Monitoring Electoral Mood of Ukrainians: June 20-24, 2019,”] Rating Group UA, June 26, 2019, ratinggroup(.)ua/research/ukraine/monitoring_elektoralnyh_nastroeniy_ukraincev_20-24_iyunya_2019_goda.html; [“Monitoring Electoral Orientations of the Population of Ukraine,”] Center for Social Monitoring, 1 July, 2019,; Vyacheslav Hnatyuk, “Pro-Russia Opposition Union Reveals Candidates for Parliamentary Elections,” Kyiv Post, June 12, 2019, https(:)//
[39] “Parties Finish Selecting Deputies Candidates for Early Rada Elections,” Kyiv Post, June 12, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/parties-finish-selecting-deputies-candidates-for-early-rada-elections.html; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party Unveils Candidates for Parliament,” Kyiv Post, June 9, 2019,; “Names of First Candidates for Snap Elections from Vakarchuk’s Party Holos Announced” 112 UA, June 8, 2019, https://112(.)international/ukraine-top-news/first-five-candidates-for-snap-elections-from-vakarchuks-party-golos-reported-40544.html; “First Hundred Candidates on Servant of the People's Election List: Who Are They?” Interfax, June 12, 2019,

Friday, July 5, 2019

Russia in Review: North Korean Denuclearization

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Authors: Mason Clark and Andrea Snyder

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is expanding its campaign to establish itself as a great power by attempting to supplant the U.S. as the primary mediator in denuclearization talks on the Korean Peninsula. The Kremlin held numerous meetings with the leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and China in April – June 2019, likely to lobby for its preferred multilateral format for negotiations with North Korea. South Korea remains committed to the U.S. and its involvement in denuclearization talks with North Korea, but it is likely amenable to increased influence for Russia on the Korean Peninsula.

The Kremlin likely intends to supplant the U.S. as the primary mediator in denuclearization talks on the Korean Peninsula. Russia and China have held weeks of meetings as part of an effort to establish a new multilateral format for negotiations with North Korea. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in his first state visit to Moscow on April 24 - 25, 2019.[1] Putin emphasized the need to provide reciprocal security guarantees on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the denuclearization of North Korea.[2] Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev simultaneously met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 25.[3] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later invited South Korea to join a “new Russian - Chinese initiative” to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula during a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on June 17.[4] Putin and Moon further discussed North Korea at the G20 Summit on June 28.[5] Putin also discussed the Korean Peninsula during a series of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 25, June 5, and June 14.[6] Xi later held his first state visit to North Korea on June 20 - 23.[7] Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin later met with senior military officials from North Korea on July 3.[8] 

The Kremlin has dismissed efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump to settle the conflict with North Korea.[9] Russia has instead proposed a series of “reciprocal steps” including a suspension of nuclear and ballistic missile tests by North Korea in exchange a suspension in military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea.[10] The Kremlin first proposed this plan in October 2017. The U.S. has rejected this proposal in favor of its goal of the complete and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.[11] The Trump Administration has nonetheless considered cost-cutting measures that include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, but only as a cost-cutting measure rather than a concession to North Korea.[12] The Kremlin will likely try to capitalize on this expressed willingness to withdraw in its efforts to shape talks on North Korea. 

South Korea has appeared favorable towards an increased role for Russia on the Korean Peninsula but has not yet committed to the negotiation proposals from the Kremlin. Moon welcomed the involvement of Russia in the peace process with North Korea on April 25.[13] Russia and South Korea also announced their intent to create a free trade zone for investments and services on June 17.[14] Moon nonetheless remains supportive of talks between the U.S. and North Korea, including a meeting between Trump and Kim in the Korean De-Militarized Zone on June 30.[15] Moon is likely amenable to the format proposed by Russia and China due to its similarity to as his softer ‘Sunshine Policy 2.0’ focused on constructive cooperation with North Korea. Yet North Korea and South Korea have both not yet released an official response to the initiative and the Kremlin is likely still lobbying for its preferred format. 

The Kremlin desires to expand its diplomatic ties with South Korea to advance its wider strategic objectives on the Korean Peninsula, including framing itself as a successful international mediator, building strong economic ties with both Koreas, and limiting U.S. influence in East Asia.[16] The Kremlin seeks trilateral infrastructure cooperation with both North Korea and South Korea, and frames economic cooperation as a means to resolving the problems on the Korean Peninsula.[17] It will likely use these deals to subvert sanctions on both North Korea and Russia through expanded trade with South Korea.[18] 

The Kremlin values gaining recognition as a successful arbiter as part of its campaign to restore its status as a global great power.[19] The Kremlin’s attempts to insert itself as the primary mediator for the Korean Peninsula expands this campaign into the Asia-Pacific. Russia has created parallel diplomatic formats in multiple theaters to challenge the U.S. and the West, including the Astana Talks on Syria, negotiations with the Taliban on Afghanistan, and the Palermo Conference hosted by Italy on Libya.[20] 

The Kremlin’s efforts to interject itself on the Korean Peninsula threaten U.S. interests in East Asia. Putin is not a trustworthy partner on the denuclearization of North Korea. He will likely exploit his involvement in any negotiations to expand his economic influence on the Korean Peninsula, subvert sanctions on Russia, and reduce the U.S. presence in South Korea. The withdrawal of the U.S. from South Korea would erode national security and eliminate strategic basing in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. must ensure that Russia does not undermine the existing political process on North Korea at the cost of its interests in East Asia. The Kremlin’s proposal may prove unsuccessful, but it can still claim a victory if it is able to pull South Korea closer into the diplomatic sphere of influence of Russia.

[1] [“Russian-North Korean Negotiations,”] Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60363.
[2] [“Press Conference Following Russian-North Korean Talks,”] Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60370.
[3] “Moon Says N. Korea-Russia Summit to Help Promote Regional Peace,” Yonhap, April 25, 2019,
[4] “Russia, China Activate Korean Talks Ahead of G20,” RFE/RL, June 17, 2019,
[5] “Putin, Moon Jae-in Discuss Situation on Korean Peninsula,” TASS, June 28, 2019, https://tass(.)com/economy/1066193.
[6] “Vladimir Putin Arrived in China,” Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60373; “On June 5, Vladimir Putin Will Meet with President of China Xi Jinping,” Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/press/announcements/60658; “Meeting with President of China Xi Jinping and President of Mongolia Khaltmaagiin Battulga,” Kremlin, June 14, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60753.
[7] Sasha Ingber, “Chinese President Xi Jinping to Visit North Korea This Week,” NPR, June 17, 2019,
[8] [“Interaction Between the Defense Departments of the Russian Federation and the DPRK Intensified,”] Russian Defense Ministry, July 3, 2019,
[9] John Power, “Trump-Kim Summit 2019: Collapsed Talks a Risk for North Korea with Silver Linings for China and Japan,” South China Morning Post, March 1, 2019, https://www.scmp(.)com/week-asia/politics/article/2188273/trump-kim-summit-2019-collapsed-talks-risk-north-korea-silver; Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee, “North Korea Executes Envoy to Failed U.S. Summit - Media; White House Monitoring,” Reuters, May 30, 2019,
[10] “Seoul Invited to Join Russian-Chinese New Initiative on Korean Peninsula, Says Lavrov,” TASS, June 17, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1064125.
[11] “Lavrov to Discuss ‘New Russian, Chinese Initiative’ on Korean Peninsula with Visiting South Korean FM,” RFE/RL, June 16, 2019,
[12] Mark Landler, “Trump Orders Pentagon to Consider Reducing U.S. Forces in South Korea,” New York Times, May 3, 2018,
[13] “Moon Says N. Korea-Russia Summit to Help Promote Regional Peace,” Korea Herald, Apr 25, 2019,
[14] “Russia, South Korea to Formally Start Free Trade Zone Talks, Says Lavrov,” TASS, June 17, 2019, https://tass(.)com/economy/1064214.
[15] “Pompeo Optimistic on North Korea Talks as Former Official Calls It PR Stunt,” RFE/RL, June 30, 2019,
[16] [“Statement by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea Kang Kyung-hwa,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, June 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3686129.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Fredrick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,
[20] Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses, “Russia in Review: August 14 - 20, 2018,” Institute for the Study of War, August 21, 2018,; Jack Ulses and Catherine Harris, “Russia in Review: August 21 - 28, 2018,” Institute for the Study of War, August 29, 2018,; Lorenzo Tondo and Patrick Wintour, “Italian Summit on Libya in Disarray as Trump and Putin Stay Away,” The Guardian, November 21, 2018,