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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #18-19

    Letter From the Editors:May 1-14, 2017

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    Issue #18-19 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #18-19 Table of Contents

    The Art of the Possible: Can Russia, Turkey, Iran and America Play Nice in the Peacemaking Game?

    In this Digest’s first feature, military analyst Andrei Akulov exclaims with jubilation: “What seemed to be unbelievable has finally happened! A pipe dream has come true! For the first time in six years since the Syrian conflict began, light is visible at the end of the tunnel. . . . On May 4, Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a memorandum calling for the establishment of safe zones in Syria during peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.” These zones are located in Idlib and Homs Provinces, the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, and the southern part of the country. They will be patrolled by military forces of the three guarantor states and others; and checkpoints around them will be guarded by rebel soldiers and government troops.

    Akulov’s reaction may seem a tad hyperbolic: After all, the Syrian settlement process has seen several ceasefire plans, including one brokered in the same city, Astana, in January. But there are indeed significant differences this time around. For one, representatives from both the Syrian government and opposition groups were closely involved in negotiations. What’s more, for the first time, an American official was present, too time: Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones.

    Although Washington officially endorsed the plan before, during and after its preparation, it still raised questions in some quarters. For example, several days after the memorandum was signed, Defense Secretary James Mattis fired off a series of questions at a press gathering in Copenhagen: “Who is going to be ensuring [that the zones] are safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them?”

    Yevgeny Shestakov surmises that the Trump administration is nervous about being left out of the game. His sources report that the Syria plan was a key part of the agenda when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: The Russian diplomat told his American counterpart about provisions that are not spelled out in the Astana memorandum.

    Vladimir Frolov portrays Lavrov’s trip to Washington – which also included a meeting with Donald Trump – as part of a series of impressive-looking Russian diplomatic encounters. For example, on the other side of the Atlantic, Vladimir Putin recently received visits from Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi; and he is soon to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow.

    After that may come Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with Trump at the G‑20 summit in Italy. Frolov points out that Moscow has a fine line to walk between pleasing Putin’s electorate and weathering some rough winds from the West. These include Germany’s toughened line on the Ukraine conflict, widespread accusations of domestic human rights violations, and the US’s criticism of Russia’s policies toward the Taliban, nuclear arms and more. To this list we should Emmanuel Macron’s recent victory in the French presidential election: The persistent negative coverage of the young populist in the Kremlin-supported press, coupled with a credible report of Russian hackers trying to interfere with Macron’s campaign, have not made Putin any new friends in Paris.

    Can Putin wrest some kind of victory from his upcoming meeting with Trump, while still giving the US leader some “tweetable deliverables” for his own constituents? Frolov predicts that Trump’s idea of “a ‘big deal’ may be replaced by agreements on certain topics where Moscow could, without much damage to itself, abandon its propaganda narrative and discreetly shift its position toward cooperation with the US.” An overly optimistic possibility? Well, as Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” After the notable level of multilateral cooperation in Astana this week, anything seems possible.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #17

    Letter From the Editors: April 24-30, 2017

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    Issue #17 Letter From the Editors
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    ‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’ – Understanding the Inner Workings of the Kremlin and the French Election

    While the French presidential election has only been through its first round of voting, and the Russian presidential election is a year away, some interesting parallels are already emerging between the two. The starkest difference is of course the number of candidates: The French election featured four leading candidates who “were virtually neck and neck in the polls,” making any predictions as to who will make it into the final round too close to call. Russia essentially has one candidate – Putin. And even he has yet to officially announce his bid, says Prof. Valery Solovei in an interview with The New Times. This ambiguity is feeding a behind-the-scenes power struggle within the elite: “If the candidate is Putin, there’s one agenda. If there’s a different candidate, the agenda is entirely different. It’s assumed right now that Putin is almost sure to run. Still, there’s a certain measure of uncertainty.”

    According to Solovei, the Russian elite are divided into two camps – the security clan and the technocrat clan. While the security clan has some old faces like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, the technocrats have fresh blood, as exemplified by Anton Vaino, the new presidential chief of staff (who replaced another political doyen, Sergei Ivanov) and Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s new domestic policy chief. However, according to the expert, these newcomers share a major flaw: Neither one has an independent agenda.

    Meanwhile, the masses are clearly getting restless (as the March 26 rallies have shown), and the same old TV propaganda just isn’t cutting it anymore. Even corruption – an issue that official television channels have consistently relied upon to mobilize the public – isn’t doing the trick, writes Tatyana Stanovaya. According to her, the wave of high-profile arrests that continues to this day (remember former economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev?) is being used by the FSB to establish control over the country. She points out that despite a wave of corruption exposés sweeping almost every agency in Russia, the FSB itself has so far remained suspiciously above reproach. The only official who has dared point the finger at it – the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Denis Sugrobov – just got 22 years in prison. Coincidence?

    As experts keep wondering whether Putin will run and whether the Kremlin’s “scorched earth” political policy will come back to haunt Russia once its perennial president finally departs (as Mikhail Khodorkovsky warns in an interview with Yevgenia Albats), the French have a little more certainty in their political future. It’s now clear that the final round will be a face-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Terrified of a Le Pen victory, the French political elite are rallying around Macron, writes Stanovaya. So by all indications, on May 7, he will clinch the presidency. This creates another headache for Moscow, which chose the path of maximum hostility with Macron in an effort to help François Fillon in the race. The Kremlin unleashed the full might of its propaganda machine against Macron – from spreading media stories about him being a “US agent” to hacking his party’s servers (as Macron’s campaign headquarters reported in March).

    But why go after a candidate who initially presented a conciliatory position on Russia, wonders Vladimir Frolov? After all, “when he declared his candidacy, Macron outlined foreign policy positions that were not hostile to Moscow. He argued that Russia must play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Syria. . . . He favored renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia.” Perhaps this is yet another cryptic move by the Kremlin’s secretive elite that mere mortals are not meant to understand.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #16

    Letter From the Editors: April 17-23, 2017

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    Issue #16 Letter From the Editors
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    Hot Seats and Cold Shoulders.

    Events this week have some in the hot seat and others getting the cold shoulder. The recent use of chemical agents in Syria is still generating competing versions of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun. Gevorg Mirzayan contends that Syrian President Bashar Assad had no rational motive for using chemical weapons and that the rebels had every reason to flip the chessboard by staging a provocation. He and Nezavisimaya gazeta make things hot for the US and the West, writing that Western versions of the attack are based on unsubstantiated reports and false claims that are being touted as the gospel truth by the Western media.

    Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had similar gripes about the media in a meeting with Vladimir Putin, his first audience with the Russian leader since media reports that Chechen law enforcement has been targeting members of the LGBT community in Chechnya. But what should have been a hot-seat meeting for Kadyrov ended with Putin once again showing him support. In contrast to Putin’s conciliatory tone with the Chechen leader, journalist Sergei Sokolov takes Chechen officials to task, writing that federal officials are not doing enough to dispel the notion that Kadyrov and Chechnya are above the law.

    Nor is the Kremlin dispelling speculation about Putin’s political future. Uncertainty about the president’s plans for the 2018 presidential election is causing the Russian elite to give each other the cold shoulder as they vie for political capital in post-Putin Russia. During a planning meeting for the 2017 Victory Day parade, an inter-elite struggle broke out in full color right in front of Putin, with officials trading accusations of disloyalty to the president. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that the elite are currently in a state of paralysis as they look for cues about Putin’s future.

    Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation is trying to make that future more certain, preparing nationwide rallies to put Putin in the hot seat and get him to bow out of the 2018 election. Konstantin Kalachov says the effort is short-sighted, unoriginal and doomed to fail, since efforts to discredit Putin without offering alternative policies will only flop and perhaps even benefit Putin.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan found himself facing heat from European politicians following a national referendum that narrowly gave him broader powers. European observers are not happy with the way the referendum was held, or the prospect that Erdogan will use his new mandate to bring back the death penalty. Experts say the EU will almost certainly now give Turkey the cold shoulder.

    Belarus explained its continued use of the death penalty in its first report to the UN since 1997 on civil and political rights in its country. Belarussian activists say the report is an attempt to take heat off Belarus by painting an erroneous picture of the real situation there.

    Some Russian legislators grilled Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for presenting an air-brushed picture of the situation in Russia as he reported on the work of the government in the State Duma. The prime minister essentially told deputies to quit whining and come up with realistic proposals to get the country back on the right track.

    Hopes that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would put Russian-US relations back on track were neither met nor dashed following his meeting with Kremlin officials in Moscow. Mikhail Troitsky says the Trump administration may be seeking to move from a cold-shoulder attitude to a more businesslike approach to Russia, but scandals putting the administration in the hot seat at home could keep bilateral ties on ice.

    And things are heating up under North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, but Moscow is not the one turning up the thermostat, writes Vladimir Frolov. The expert says Russia lacks the right tools in its foreign policy kit to effectively deal with the nuclear crisis on its borders, so it is giving everyone involved in the issue the cold shoulder, letting the West deal with the problem largely on its own.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #15

    Letter From the Editors: April 10-16, 2017

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    Issue #15 Letter From the Editors
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    Syria Hems Putin In: Is There No One to Lend Him a Hand?

    In 1840, Russian bard Mikhail Lermontov wrote one of his most famous and poignant poems, beginning with the line: “I’m lonesome and sad and there’s no one to lend me a hand.” Knowing Vladimir Putin’s fondness for Lermontov (whom he famously quoted at rallies in 2012), we wonder if this lyric is ringing in his ears this week? Judging from recent news, Russia is getting desperately short of friends.

    For example, a long-anticipated visit to Moscow from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not bring any gift-wrapped “big deals” (to use Trump’s oft-quoted phrase). Tillerson came to talk tough, rather than to extend a hand in equal partnership. Why? Both Vladimir Frolov and Fyodor Lukyanov say the Syria situation was the game-changer. Last week’s chemical attack, which most of the world attributes to Bashar Assad, showed that Russia either cannot or does not want to keep the Syrian strongman in check. In Tillerson’s words, Moscow is “either complicit or simply incompetent.”

    The Tomahawk air strikes launched by the US in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons seem to have isolated Russia even more. For one thing, most other countries – including Putin’s longtime ally, Turkey – supported the US action. Even China, generally leery of American aggression, did not object to the strikes, writes Vladimir Skosyrev. Furthermore, Aleksei Malashenko argues, the fact that Russian air defense systems (set up as part of the Aerospace Forces’ initial intervention in the conflict) did not stop the Tomahawks raises the question of whether Moscow was incapable of warding off the strikes – or chose not to. This doubt hurts Putin’s credibility in the eyes of the whole world. On the other hand, Malashenko writes: “Moscow simply can’t turn its back on Assad, because that would tantamount to acknowledging that its policy has failed – not just in Syria, but throughout the Middle East.”

    Russia has been blamed for failure in the halls of Strasbourg, too, – in this case, the complaints date back over a decade. The European Court of Human Rights found that Russian special forces botched the rescue operation during the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, in which dozens of Chechen militants took over 1,000 people hostage in a school. Because of the lack of coordination of security actions, the judges ruled, hundreds were needlessly killed during the chaotic standoff.

    A different standoff is centering around Chechnya right now: Since Novaya gazeta published a controversial story April 1 (covered in the last Current Digest), the republic has been coming under fire internationally for violating the human rights of its gay population. In response, Chechen clerics and officials called an assembly at the main mosque in Grozny that drew a crowd of over 15,000. The outcome of that gathering was a resolution vowing “retribution” against the Novaya gazeta staff. Journalists all over Russia know how harsh such retribution can be in the Caucasus.

    Looking just a bit eastward in that region, to Kazakhstan, Putin might be questioning the allegiance of his longtime friend Nursultan Nazarbayev (who for decades has staunchly supported Kremlin policies, including integration initiatives like the Eurasian Union). This week, Nazarbayev published an article laying out the details of a plan to Romanize the Kazakh alphabet by 2025. Sure, one could say it’s only spelling, but some experts see the move as emblematic of a cultural shift. For example, regional analyst Yury Solozobov commented to NG: “Cultural affinity was one of three mainstays, along with energy and defense, that have bound all the CIS countries together with invisible ties. The fact that this framework is eroding is a very significant signal.”

    As Putin assembles his “new majority” in the run-up to next year’s election (they are bound to be quite a motley crew, according to Konstantin Gaaze), we can’t help pondering what Lermontov lyric he’ll use to rally them?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #14

    Letter From the Editors: April 3-9, 2017

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    Issue #14 Letter From the Editors
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    Troubles Rarely Singly Come – St. Petersburg Subway Explosion, Chemical Attack in Syria, Alleged Attacks on Gays in Chechnya

    If this week’s issue of the Digest is ever found in a time capsule, future generations would (rightly) think that the world had gone insane. First, a horrific chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed from 58 to 100 people and injured several hundred, by various estimates. A day earlier, a bomb exploded on the St. Petersburg subway, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more. The casualties could have been much higher, but another bomb was discovered before it went off. To top it all off, human rights activists are reporting that gays are being kidnapped and tortured across Chechnya by the republic’s authorities in an anti-gay witch hunt. All this news is almost too much to handle.

    But even in all this tragedy, a few rays of hope remain. Take, for instance, St. Petersburgers’ incredible show of strength in the face of tragedy. According to local journalist Angelina Davydova, “a spirit of solidarity electrified the city” following the subway blast as people opened their homes and offices to those stranded after the subway system was shut down. Meanwhile, Uber and taxis canceled fares to help people get where they needed to go. “There was almost no panic or anger. Many residents, having felt sad and lost, spoke about a clear need to help others. People were willing to share their pain and to provide emotional support,” writes Davydova. She attributes this growing social solidarity to the rise of grassroots movements and online connectivity.

    Given the importance of a (relatively) free Internet in Russia, any hint of government meddling creates a storm. After Aleksei Navalny blasted Russia’s top online news source, Yandex, for basically ignoring the nationwide protest rallies on March 26, the site claimed technical glitches were to blame. Still, many see state interference tactics at work here – some as simple as clogging online news feeds with government-backed sources, which affects the way aggregators gather and rank news stories.

    Aware that television is losing ground to online sources, the presidential administration is working on ways to make TV programming more popular again, writes Natalya Galimova. According to an RBC source, “[Television] needs to have more discussion of people’s future, the state of the economy and the situation in the country, so there is no gap between the television agenda and issues that actually concern people.” Currently, Russia is inhabited by two groups of citizens – those who get the news from TV and those who get it from online sources – and never the twain shall meet. This trend of having two mindsets in one country is dangerous, says political analyst Gleb Kuznetsov.

    Another social resource getting a makeover before the presidential election is the All-Russia People’s Front – an organization that has basically become a tool for the Kremlin’s personnel oversight, mostly tasked with making sure the regions toe the line. Now, this controversial group is about to be reinvented as a grassroots organization – which is how it was originally conceived.

    Looks like the Kremlin is going to need all the help it can get winning the hearts and minds of the electorate – or at least coming up with coherent explanations. Embattled Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is a shining example of Moscow’s official “see no evil, hear no evil” policy that explains away all accusations with flimsy excuses. Speaking to workers at a meat-packing plant, Medvedev tied to give his side of the story in response to the Anticorruption Fund’s damning viral video about him. But instead of a response, we got a “hodgepodge,” writes Ivan Davydov. Russian officials’ “explanations” always boil down to this simple formula: Deny allegations without addressing the issue, blame external forces seeking to destabilize Russia, repeat. But as comforting as escaping reality may seem – especially given the events this week – it just won’t cut it in today’s increasingly connected world.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #13

    Letter From the Editors: March 27-April 2, 2017

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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
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    Irate Putin Remonstrates; Europe’s Embattled Far Right Commiserates; Fed Up Russian, Belarussian Citizenry Demonstrates.

    Putin is sick and tired of being portrayed in the West as a bad boy and accused of foul play in last year’s US presidential election. He made that abundantly clear at the March 30 Arctic Forum, where he called the endless accusations against Russia groundless and expressed hope that Russian-US relations would normalize as soon as possible.

    Columnist Dmitry Minin says it is US Democrats who are pushing the Russian election interference allegations with a McCarthy-like vengeance, but ultimately to their own detriment. And, he says, the Republicans had better not succumb to the “myth of Russians’ almost intrinsic hostility to Americans or the unrelenting threat to America’s security supposedly emanating from Moscow,” if they know what is good for them.

    But the Russian witch hunt in US press and political circles shows no signs of abating, and Trump himself is showing more ambivalence – to put it mildly – toward the Putin regime. Be that as it may, Putin is still very much the darling of some European conservatives who are rallying behind him and what he stands for, ahead of forthcoming European national leadership elections. Many right-wing party leaders think Putin is getting too much of a bad rap from their leftist colleagues. NG writes: “Apparently, he is the embodiment of a strong leader who protects his country’s interests, opposes illegal immigration, supports traditional values and morals, and finally, fights liberalism.”

    At the Arctic Forum, CNBC journalist Geoff Cutmore pressed Putin on Russia’s human rights record – in particular, the detention of demonstrators. In response, Putin harped about Western double standards. Russia has quite a bit of experience dealing with protests. In fact, the weekend before the Arctic Forum, thousands of people took to the streets all across Russia to protest official corruption. The rallies seem to have caught the attention of Russian authorities. Several ranking Russian politicians proposed opening a corruption investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the main object of protesters’ wrath.

    The Russian authorities were seemingly nonplussed by the unauthorized rallies and chose to respond somewhat mildly, writes Tatyana Stanovaya: “In the past, the Kremlin referred to protesters as the fifth column and US State Department agents; now, all of a sudden, it has started calling them proactive citizens with whom the government should engage in dialogue.” The upcoming Russian presidential election may be prompting the authorities to tread lightly and take a softer approach to protests, but this is only a tactical maneuver and a PR stunt, Stanovaya warns.

    On the same weekend as the anticorruption protests in Russia, authorities in Belarus were confronting nationwide antigovernment protests of their own, and the official response there was much less ambiguous. After weeks of rising tension in over a number of unpopular government decisions, the Belarussian authorities finally came down hard on protesters who were planning to use the annual Freedom Day celebration to protest their current lack of freedoms. The police response was quick and massive. The rally organizers were arrested days ahead of the rally, and downtown Minsk was cordoned off so that protesters could not gather at the rally location and march down Independence Prospect as they had planned. And activists at the Vyasna human rights center were temporarily detained so that they could not witness the detentions of protesters in downtown Minsk.

    Columnist Irina Khalip writes that Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is at the end of his rope, and predicts Belarussian citizens are going to keep on protesting. Lukashenko, who had become somewhat less of a pariah to the West of late, might soon be redonning (or pulling down tighter) the hat of a dictator – but perhaps no longer as the last one in Europe. Depends on who you might ask.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 20-26, 2017

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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
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    It’s Not Easy Being Green… But Somebody’s Got to Do It

    As Russia draws within a year of its next presidential election, opposition figures are coming forward to criticize the likely winner – Vladimir Putin. For example, Leonid Gozman in a Novaya gazeta commentary accuses him of gaining and maintaining public support through shameless deception: “Leaders who are ineffective or do not make the public’s well-being a priority are compelled to distort reality, creating an illusory world like that of the Wizard of Oz.” As if to reinforce the image of Putin’s Russia as the Emerald City, the media (both state-run and social) are buzzing with the story of Putin’s most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, getting splashed with green dye at a campaign event in Barnaul. Now some of Navalny’s supporters are playing the “green scene” to their advantage, smearing themselves with the dye and proudly taking selfies!

    Speaking of Oz, could Kremlin wizardry be behind the sudden disappearance of a 2014 letter in which then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich requested that his Russian counterpart send in troops to protect him from his own people who were protesting on Kiev’s Independence Square? The letter is shown in a video of a UN Security Council session, being read aloud by then-Russian UN rep Vitaly Churkin. Yet this week, both the Russian government and Yanukovich himself deny it ever existed. Now you see it, now you don’t! What about the man who was shown reading it? Churkin, too, alas, is no longer with us: He died suddenly of unexplained causes Feb. 20, just when the Ukrainian authorities were preparing to put Yanukovich on trial for high treason. Coincidence? What about the death of another potentially damning witness against Yanukovich – former Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov, assassinated outside a Kiev hotel on March 23?

    Even if it can’t stop Kiev from prosecuting Yanukovich, Moscow can at least pay it back in its own coin. Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin told Rossiiskaya gazeta this week that the IC is currently investigating criminal cases against officials in the post-Yanukovich government. The charges, explains Bastrykin (apparently quoting chapter and verse from the stack of law books on his desk), include “infringement upon the life and health of Donetsk Basin civilians,” involving “the use of weapons of mass destruction and other means and methods of warfare prohibited by international law.”

    Does framing the Ukraine issue this way play a part in a larger campaign on Russia’s part to raise its status in the international community? Could be. Mikhail Fishman and Matthew Kupfer write in The Moscow Times that Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine and Syria have combined with external factors – such as Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US and the declining anti-Russia trend in Europe to burnish the Kremlin’s global image. “These events have all catapulted Putin to the position of a powerful broker in the international arena and fulfilled the country’s longstanding desire for international influence.”

    But perhaps that influence has gone too far. Tatyana Stanovaya argues in Republic.ru that rumors about Putin attempting to influence the French presidential election have some factual basis. At the very least, there is a monetary trail connecting him with right-wing candidate François Fillon. Stanovaya predicts that Putin’s courting of the “new West” will backfire: “The Kremlin’s desire to ride a wave of new trends in the West, manifested in the rise of nontraditional and patriotically antiglobalist forces, will result in those forces gradually turning against Putin.”

    Still, why does Putin need a rosy future when there’s plenty of green to go around? Most Russians still have their emerald-colored glasses on, and the few who have taken them off are getting green splashed in their eyes in liquid form.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #11

    Letter From the Editors: March 13-19, 2017

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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
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    With Missiles Like These, Who Needs Frenemies?

    For those who believe time travel is possible, here’s hoping that 1983 was a good year, because it certainly feels like we’re returning to it: Not in terms of shoulder pads and upturned collars (although who wouldn’t want to rock that look again?) but nuclear hysteria. According to military expert Pavel Felgengauer, NATO and Russia are essentially in the same mess as in the early 80s, when American Pershings and Soviet Pioner missiles made Europe a very uncomfortable place to be. Eventually, given the American missiles’ superior accuracy, Moscow blinked first: “In the event of a preemptive (decapitating) strike, the top military-political leadership would have no time to safely evacuate from Moscow by helicopter, and it would be risky to take shelter from a surgically accurate nuclear warhead in a bunker. The chiefs did not intend to die, so the INF Treaty was signed, based on Reagan’s ‘zero option,’ ” Felgengauer concludes.

    Today, the Russian General Staff is caterwauling that the 1987 INF Treaty was unfair, and both sides are accusing each other of violating it. The situation looks frighteningly familiar – the US is deploying bases in Romania and Poland, while Russia is threatening to station its Kalibr missiles in response (and perhaps has already deployed them in the Crimea).

    Is it any wonder that in this scenario, more and more countries want a couple of nuclear warheads of their own, just to be safe? Spooked by the Trump administration’s possible plans to leave Europe to its own devices when it comes to defense, EU officials are floating the idea of developing European nuclear deterrence, writes Andrei Akulov: “The nuclear deterrence plan proposes turning the French nuclear potential into a European nuclear deterrent.” Ukraine decided to jump on the bandwagon – Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said Ukraine wants its nuclear status reviewed. So if the EU decides to go nuclear, Kiev could be included in those plans. Given the EU’s growing decentralization (according to Pyotr Korzun, the EU today is a set of “mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests”), ensuring proper oversight could get complicated. Should we all learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

    Meanwhile, another nuclear wannabe state (at least until a couple of years ago) – Iran – finds itself branded as the regional scapegoat. Despite a nuclear deal brokered in 2015, the current US administration has accused Iran “of almost all Middle East problems,” writes Ravil Mustafin. Part of the reason, according to Mustafin, is that the US still can’t get over the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 hostage crisis and the debacle of a rescue operation that followed. In addition, Iran makes a convenient target for Trump – “On the one hand, it is important for the US president to show America that he is consistently fulfilling his campaign promises, and on the other hand, to take revenge on Obama, portraying him as a weak politician who can be easily duped.” Why not kill two birds with one stone?

    Washington’s newfound enthusiasm for scapegoating Iran is shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia – two frenemies that suddenly find themselves surprisingly aligned. The dissenter on the issue is Russia, which happens to be one of the parties to the Iran-Russia-Turkey coalition that brokered the shaky truce in Syria. While Moscow’s position is hardly surprising, the maverick in this game is actually Ankara: “A real godsend for Washington would be Ankara’s withdrawal from the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance, if not the alliance’s complete disintegration,” concludes Mustafin. Considering that Turkish officials have been making conflicting statements of late, clearly trying to play both sides, Washington may get its wish.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #10

    Letter From the Editors: March 6-12, 2017

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    Issue #10 Letter From the Editors
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    Stinker Jailer Soldier Spy.

    Russia’s most famous muckraker has raised another stink in Russia after landing his biggest if not smelliest fish to date – the prime minister himself. Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund this week released the results of an investigation that meticulously documents Medvedev’s lavish lifestyle, which includes the regular use of luxurious mansions and lavish yachts gifted to the charitable foundations of Dmitry Medvedev’s friends. The revelations come as no surprise to Russians. Everyone knows this is how the system works, writes Andrei Kolesnikov: “The oligarchy supplies the needs and wants of the ruling authorities who, in turn, protect the oligarchy from interference.” Kirill Martynov facetiously pities Medvedev, who he says is forced to accept the obligatory trappings of power in Russia at a time when it is trendy for the rich and powerful in the Western world (at least in Silicon Valley, Medvedev’s Mount Zion) to eschew extravagance in favor of personal asceticism. Russia’s leaders have no choice, writes Kolesnikov: “Money and luxury serve as the lifeblood animating Russia’s body politic. [Navalny’s investigation] has revealed that leaders can never get enough, and that they will cling to power until their dying breath. Because losing office would literally mean losing everything.”

    But while the Russian leadership jealously guards its “everything,” it has no qualms about taking away ordinary Russians’ “everything” – just ask Sochi resident Oksana Sevastidi, who was given a seven-year prison sentence on high treason charges in 2016 for sending a couple of text messages to a friend in Georgia in 2008 about seeing military equipment on railcars. Russia’s propensity for jailing is well documented. But it seems that even Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Sevastidi’s sentence was a bit extreme. He has just pardoned her on “humanitarian principles.” Another Sochi resident, Yekaterina Kharebava, sentenced to serve six years in prison on espionage charges in 2014 for sending a similar text message, is still in prison. Can she expect similar “benevolence” from Russia’s supreme power-holder?

    And hold power he does. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reminded us this week just how much military power Russia wields, in case those who say that Russia must be talked with from a position of strength (read: US Defense Secretary James Mattis) may have forgotten. NG writes that Russia has a “new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which can outmaneuver all existing missile defense systems and put 10 [metric] tons of nuclear warheads on target anywhere in the world, with enough range to fly over either the North or South Pole.”

    But lest Russia be accused of saber-rattling, it has invited NATO and EU countries to take part in Moscow’s International Security Conference to shore up rapidly eroding trust and cooperation on security matters. The list of already scrapped and close-to-endangered security agreements is long and worrisome, writes Andrei Akulov. But he feels “the time is right to launch a meaningful and comprehensive discussion on a continental security order. Respect for each other’s views and interests is a prerequisite for success.”

    Unfortunately, it seems Russia does not necessarily respect Montenegro’s interest in pursuing closer integration with the EU and NATO. Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic this week announced that a prominent Russian spy, Col. Eduard Shishmakov, led the attempted plot to assassinate the pro-EU and pro-NATO Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and overthrow the government on election day, Oct. 16, 2016. Russia quickly dismissed the astounding claim, but the new Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, says several NATO countries confirm Russia’s involvement in the coup attempt.

    Needless to say, this week’s news has all the drama of a John Le Carré novel.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8-9

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 20-March 5, 2017

    PDF Downloads:
    Issue #8-9 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #8-9 Table of Contents

    Friends, Enemies and Frenemies: Sorting Out Who’s Who in the Trump Era

    Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”

    In the long-standing friendship between America and the countries of the European Union, Donald Trump can certainly not be accused of stepping daintily. Months of insults and threats toward the Old World – calling the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” labeling NATO as “obsolete” and scolding its members for not paying their fair share for defense – have made leaders on the other side of the Atlantic understandably jumpy. The first feature of this week’s Digest focuses on a whirlwind tour made by key members of the Trump team with the aim of “seducing Europe” (to quote a Novaya gazeta headline). For example, according to Aleksandr Mineyev, Vice-President Mike Pence “praised the EU for its achievements in developing a common market, and marveled at the freedom with which goods, capital, services and people move within the EU. He noted the historic significance of EU enlargement, the introduction of a single currency, and the development of common approaches to security policy.” Even so, both he and Defense Secretary James Mattis backed up their boss’s warnings about NATO countries needing to ramp up their defense spending to 2% of GDP.

    Nezavisimaya gazeta editor in chief Konstantin Remchukov says that Pence’s remarks were anything but reassuring; if anything, they revealed turmoil within Washington, sending a deeply confusing message. Remchukov sums up recent conversations with Western political analysts as follows: “I’ve never seen them so discombobulated. These former prophets have nothing left of their old self-confidence. . . . [T]hey can’t predict anything. There’s a feeling that the cold war has reached an unexpected juncture.” Indeed, Fyodor Lukyanov warns that with Trump’s recent talk of making the American weapon arsenal the “top of the pack,” the world could be facing a “second nuclear century.” At least political analyst Oleg Shakirov sees some hope for East-West dialogue in the upcoming Russia-NATO Council meetings.

    Of course, an important issue between Russia and NATO is the Ukraine conflict. Curiously, despite an apparent impasse on the official level (where both Ukraine and Russia are using each other as an excuse for not implementing the Minsk agreements), a number of solutions have been proposed unofficially by Ukrainians in widely different circles. These include Radical Party Deputy Andrei Artemenko (who proposes leasing the Crimea to Russia), oligarch Sergei Taruta (who advocates for a special law reinstating regional Donetsk leaders) and good old former president Viktor Yanukovich (who submitted to West European leaders a plan to hold a Ukrainian referendum on the Donetsk Basin). Experts suspect a “Russian trail” behind most of these plans, especially the last one.

    On a more obvious level, Moscow has been treading rather undaintily with another of its fraternal nations, Belarus. The latest stomp, as reported in previous Digest coverage, is the abrupt imposition of border checkpoints between the two countries. Granted, Russia has gotten increasingly frustrated with its neighbor’s cunning “schemes and scams,” writes Republic.ru commentator Yevgeny Karasyuk: In recent years, Belarus has been smuggling a range of products both westward (Russian oil products disguised as paint thinner) and eastward (European apples, apricots and seafood to Russia, ducking the sanctions war with Europe). However, according to economist Aleksandr Chubrik, this covert trading is small potatoes compared to the value of duty-free oil Belarus has gotten from Russia over the years – a commodity that Moscow is starting to cut back on as it pressures Minsk to repay past debts to Gazprom. Such tactics seem to go beyond what Emerson meant by “rough courage.” We might ask: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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