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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #36

    Letter From the Editors: September 2-8, 2013

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    Issue #36 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #36 Table of Contents

    Door Closed on Syria? Letting the Navalny Genie Out of the Bottle; and Russia’s Big Brother Syndrome

    This week’s main theme could be summed up in one word – Syria. According to The Moscow Times, US President Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his “red line” policy. Desperate to sell the planned strike on Syria as a winning strategy, his administration is citing such “successes” as the NATO strike against Yugoslavia and the Iraq campaign – as if those could really be called successes, writes former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. He is echoed by military expert Fyodor Lukyanov, who points out the irony of Obama securing the 2008 presidential election victory due largely to the promise to end the Iraq campaign, only to turn around and risk getting the US bogged down in yet another long and pointless war five years later.

    Of course, Russia is not exactly faultless in the matter, Aleksandr Golts points out. It should have accepted Sen. Richard Lugar’s proposal a year ago to work together to bring the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under control. But Moscow turned down the offer. Is it too late to start cooperating on Syria?

    Perhaps not. In an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s Channel 1 television, Russian President Vladimir Putin underscored the primacy of international law on any decision regarding Syria, but also stated that Russia and the US have common goals. The world will watch with bated breath how the two presidents interact at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, since global security hangs in the balance, writes political analyst Boris Mezhuyev. And while issues such as gay rights are certainly important, they pale in comparison to the Syria crisis, which could unleash World War III. After all, writes the expert, the events leading to the start of World War I were eerily familiar.

    Putin’s interview also touched on relations with Russia’s CIS partner, Ukraine. Trying to sound conciliatory, Putin said that Moscow will respect whichever foreign policy vector Kiev chooses – the EU or the Customs Union. However, as Ukraine and Moldova inch ever closer to EU integration, Russian officials’ statements are vacillating between bribery (presidential adviser Sergei Glazyev said Kiev could get about $12 billion a year in reduced natural gas prices if it says no to an association agreement with the EU) to outright threats (unsurprisingly, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin advised Moldova “not to get left out in the cold” this winter, in a hint of more gas diplomacy to come). As its control over the post-Soviet space slips, Russia still insists on acting like a “big brother who has the right to punish other disobedient family members,” writes Vedomosti.

    In another attempt to “rein in” a troubled region, President Putin this week dismissed Far East Federal District head Viktor Ishayev, replacing him with tried-and-true Putinite Yury Trutnev, who was also given the title of deputy prime minister. Prior to that, the only other authorized representative to pull double duty was North Caucasus Federal District rep Aleksandr Khloponin. Political expert Aleksei Mukhin says the strategy of appointing Putin loyalists to posts in the government is all part of a stealth attempt to bring the cabinet under tighter presidential control using the institution of authorized representatives.

    However, the Kremlin may be losing control over the Moscow mayoral election. Presidential administration chief Vyacheslav Volodin’s pet project to introduce “top-down” political competition to give the election greater legitimacy may have opened Pandora’s box, writes columnist Andrei Kolesnikov. Since the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing in the Russian government, the situation has spun out of control and opposition candidate Aleksei Navalny has ended up with a much higher approval rating than Volodin and Co. figured on. So, will this latest flirtation with legitimate competition be scrapped? Or will it be the regime’s undoing?

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #28

    Letter From the Editors: July 11-17, 2016

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    All Quiet on the Western Front – on the Eastern Front, Not so Much.

    The much-anticipated NATO summit this week failed to bring any surprises. Just as expected, the hawks outnumbered the doves. While still speaking about a need for “constructive dialogue,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg still pushed for a tough stance toward Moscow, including reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank with four multinational battalions – one for each Baltic state plus Poland.

    Russian officials weren’t present at the meeting (unlike the 2012 summit, for instance). But a couple of Russian experts were, and their comments do not sound optimistic. Dmitry Trenin, director of the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center who spoke at an expert forum, said that the current situation is not similar to the cold war – it’s worse. “During the cold war, despite all the differences and hatred, we still had dialogue and respect, and now we don’t even have that,” the expert lamented.

    But perhaps such dour forecasts are exaggerated? One sign of improvement in US-Russian relations was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow. This is Kerry’s second trip in four months, writes Yevgeny Medvedev. In what experts see as highly unusual, Kerry is meeting with Putin personally – this is a major departure from protocol, since heads of state usually don’t engage with lower-ranking officials. According to sources, this is further evidence that Moscow and Washington are beginning to coordinate their actions when it comes to Syria. Secretary Kerry’s trip did not sit well with everyone – Pentagon officials were supposedly incensed with the Barack Obama administration’s “overtures” to Russia. Considering that this week, a Syrian helicopter manned by a Russian crew was shot down by rebels over Palmyra with a US-made antitank guided missile, it seems there is disorder in Washington’s ranks.

    This puts the extension of the New START treaty in jeopardy, writes Tatyana Baikova for Izvestia. By all indications, Russian officials are open to “the possibility of extending the treaty with the US on reducing strategic offensive weapons for five years,” but are expecting the US to pull something that would derail such an extension. After all, warned State Duma defense committee chairman Vladimir Komoyedov, “Obama is one of the most militant US presidents.”

    Meanwhile, former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov warns it would be a mistake to put off trying to lay a new foundation for Russian-US relations until there’s a new occupant in the White House. Unlike a lot of experts, Ivanov does not think that Republican candidate Donald Trump would make an easier sparring partner for Moscow, mainly due to a lack of political experience. “It is generally harder to work with foreign policy newcomers; lack of experience often results in inconsistency and unpredictability, which leads to subjective, emotional and sometimes wrong decisions, which are then very difficult to fix,” Ivanov writes. The former foreign minister also says that relations between the two countries must go beyond just interaction between heads of state. While such contacts are important, they “should be complemented by an extensive network of bilateral working arrangements in key areas of cooperation.”

    Moscow also needs to wake up and smell the coffee in Abkhazia, writes Konstantin Zatulin. While a referendum to hold early elections in the breakaway republic fell through, discontent is nevertheless brewing. Moscow shouldn’t expect eternal loyalty from Abkhazia following the 2008 war with Georgia – it needs to take concrete steps to improve the quality of life in the impoverished region. And it is already facing fierce competition from Georgia, which recently opened a medical facility on the border where Abkhaz residents are treated for free. The question is, what can Moscow do for its part? Unless it can answer that question, it’s going to have another disgruntled neighbor in addition to NATO.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 21-27, 2016

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    Russia’s ‘Matryoshka’ Foreign Policy Doctrine: Distracting From One Problem by Creating Another

    One of Russia’s most enduring cultural symbols, the famous matryoshka nesting dolls, remind columnist Georgy Kunadze of Russia’s current foreign policy: “The annexation of the Crimea was ‘nested’ in a hybrid war in the Donetsk Basin; the former, in turn, was hidden in a military operation in Syria. Tactically, the Syrian campaign was intended to distract from one problem by creating another.” Russia’s foreign policy “dolls” seem to be multiplying, and it appears that President Vladimir Putin may one day have a hard time stacking them all neatly together.

    The world is still trying to figure out what to make of one of those dolls: the sudden withdrawal of Russia’s Aerospace Forces from Syria. But Aleksei Malashenko says the move really isn’t all that baffling. In fact, according to Orkhan Dzhemal, there is a very pragmatic reason for the withdrawal: Iran had promised to foot the bill for Russia’s military campaign in support of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad, but then it reneged, so Russia yanked its planes. Another factor in that decision was Iran’s refusal to cooperate with Russia’s initiative to get world oil producers to curb production in order to raise prices.

    The most significant and sacred foreign policy doll is the annexation of the Crimea, which Pyotr Skorobogaty claims was a watershed moment in modern Russian history. But what has it brought Russia other than international sanctions? Skorobogaty says that while the annexation largely bolstered Putin’s ratings with the Russian public and fueled Russian patriotic sentiment, it also created a schism among the elite. And although the Western sanctions that followed initially gave Putin a convenient scapegoat for deep-seated socioeconomic woes that had been festering long before the operation to retake the Crimea was launched, Russians are now seeking accountability. They are demanding a more effective government. They want a country they can be proud of; a country worthy of their rekindled patriotic sentiment.

    But for that to happen, the international sanctions need to be lifted, because Russia’s socioeconomic conditions cannot improve otherwise. And the only way the sanctions are going to be lifted is if progress is made on the Minsk agreements, aimed at settling the Donetsk Basin conflict. Andrei Lipsky writes that although all the parties to the talks pay lip service to the agreements, almost every point of the documents is contested. He believes that many of these points hinge on Russia’s political will: “If Russia takes the first step toward compromise, the other parties may respond in kind. Otherwise, the conflict will drag on indefinitely, and we will be stuck in the dangerous situation of a half-war that threatens to escalate into a full-blown war at any moment.”

    An important aspect of the Minsk agreements is the fate of the prisoners taken by both sides in the conflict. Ukraine has insisted that Russia halt its prosecution of Ukrainian servicewoman Nadezhda Savchenko, who was detained for alleged complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists in Ukraine. This week, a Russian court finally sentenced her to 22 years’ imprisonment. Tatyana Stanovaya says Putin will use her release as a foreign policy bargaining chip. He will eventually exchange her to make it seem as if he’s contributing to the Minsk peace process. In other words, he’s going to make a “distraction” out of her.

    The problem, as Kunadze points out, is that although Russia’s foreign policy distractions have the aura of tactical victories, they will eventually lead to Russia’s strategic defeat, if not its disintegration. It might be time to start stacking those dolls back together.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 24-March 2, 2014

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    The ‘Language of the Cobblestone’: Echoes of the Past and Prospects for New Directions

    Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote in 1923: “The language of the cobblestone is clearer to me than the dove’s.” These words seem jarringly appropriate to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine: According to reports, the cobblestone has been a weapon wielded not only by frustrated protesters, but also by the so-called titushki – the young, athletic rabble-rousers hired by the authorities. Tragically, the language of firearms has spoken even louder: This week saw the first mass casualties of the last three months, as gunshots rang out from rooftops surrounding Independence Square and police opened fire with automatic weapons.

    By the way, readers should not be misled by the Mandelshtam quotation above. Revolutionary as the poet was in his own way, what he actually meant by “the language of the cobblestone” is the echoes of the past as preserved in physical artifacts. Now that the Olympic Games are over, economist Sergei Markov reflects on the pageantry of the opening ceremony, replete with physical reminders of Russia’s past (remember the onion domes, troikas, rocket ships?). Was Putin showing the glory of Russia for his own compatriots, as Markov contends, or was he striving to impress the rest of the world, as argued in a Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial? Experts interviewed by the Moscow Times speculate about whether the post-Olympic Russian world will be more lenient or more repressive.

    Speculations also abound in connection with this week’s news from the CIS. Two Americans – one a Senate staffer, the other a foreign policy researcher – visited Baku, where a Radio Liberty correspondent told them that Azerbaijan is on the brink of revolution, but also gave them a list showing that almost all oppositionists have ties to the ruling regime. Meanwhile, Georgia is concerned by a report that British diplomat Ryan Grist – who caused an international stir in 2008 by faulting Tbilisi for using disproportionate force during the five-day war with Russia – is about to be reassigned to Georgia as head of the EU Monitoring Mission. Speaking of reassignments, Grigory Mikhailov writes from Bishkek about a sophisticated network that recruits Kyrgyz youth to train in Middle East militant camps to fight as guerrillas elsewhere, including Syria.

    The continuing flurry of forces and interests within and around Syria prompts Fyodor Lukyanov to conclude that the Russian-led initiative to reach a settlement there has lost its momentum: It is time for diplomats on all sides to do some heavy lifting. In like manner, defense expert Vladimir Kozin faults the US for sticking to its guns on missile defense, thereby sapping the optimism that accompanied the signing of the 2010 START treaty. Kozin says it’s time for a “super New START deal” that would reshape the pattern of US missile defense. Perhaps in some cases, listening carefully to the echoes of the past can lead us in new directions.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #40

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 30-Oct. 6, 2013

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    Let’s imagine that, in the wake of the American Revolution, British loyalists in the Continental Congress had complained that the fledgling nation was going to rack and ruin, criticizing the emerging leader George Washington and enacting new laws that went against his ideas. Now, imagine that instead of tolerating dissent among the legislators (which certainly did exist), Washington had sent in the militia to dissolve the Continental Congress and written the Constitution to suit himself. America would be a different country today.

    In fact, it might be a lot like…Russia! For this scenario looks very much the way political commentators portray the post-Soviet political crisis of October 1993, as its 20th anniversary approaches. The opposing forces were the Communist-led Supreme Soviet and liberal firebrand Boris Yeltsin. In the words of an NG editorial this week: “October 1993 prevented late Soviet communism from transforming into a normal European social democracy.*** The Russian left became either part of the establishment or radicals, but not a real constructive opposition.”

    This historical background may shed some light on why the tone of political discourse in Russia is hard for Americans to fathom. Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov generously says in an interview that there is a place in government for the “law-abiding opposition” – as though it’s his prerogative to grant it access. Meanwhile, commentators outside government circles – not just wacko extremists, but mainstream journalists and pundits – talk on and on about ways to bring about peaceful political reform and leadership turnover – as though such things would never happen otherwise. According to Sergei Aleksashenko, the current authorities will keep on calling the shots until they either allow free elections or get forcibly kicked out.

    Speaking of kicked out – Greenpeace’s attempted “takeover” of an Arctic oil platform led to the arrests of all 30 activists aboard the environmental NGO’s ship – on charges of piracy. Interestingly, one Russian official is assuring the public that no piracy was committed – and that personage is none other than the avid outdoorsman (and president) Vladimir Putin! Yekaterina Kravtsova writes that Putin is playing the “good cop” (letting the investigators be the “bad cops”), while Greenpeace board member Artemy Troitsky points out that Arctic drilling is God’s gift (well, actually, the Russian taxpayers’ gift) to big oil. He also suggests that some of energy giant Gazprom’s profits go to line Putin’s pockets.

    The hard-working president is likely making more from his labors as a “galley slave” than the unfortunates in his country’s prison system. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (remember her? Pussy Riot?) is now on a hunger strike to protest slave labor conditions in her penal colony. This may be the only place left in Russia where money is doled out frugally (a mere 29 rubles a month). Meanwhile, Olga Kuvshinova faults the authorities for playing fast and loose with the Welfare Fund, the Pension Fund and social tax rates – clear signs that they have no idea what to do about the economy.

    The uncertain domestic economic picture contrasts sharply with the foreign policy scene, in which Russia is still basking in the role of savior. Granted, the Putin-Lavrov initiative to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is getting mixed reviews from Russian commentators. Semyon Novoprudsky reminds readers that even if President Assad scraps chemical weapons, that still won’t stop the civil war. Pavel Felgengauer points out that although Assad has been cooperative so far, the lethal chemicals are a hot potato that no one else wants to handle. Finally, Fyodor Lukyanov praises Moscow for moving the issue of chemical weapons beyond the confines of Syria (and beyond the troublesome question of who actually used them) to the realm of international security – for all of us. Judging from Lukyanov’s remarks, history will show that the US and Russia can be instructive examples for each other – in both the negative and the positive senses.

    Laurence Bogoslaw

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #47

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 18-24, 2013

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    ‘With a Lever I Will Move the Whole World’

    According to this legendary boast of Archimedes, all one needs is a firm place to stand. In this week’s first feature, Aleksei Malashenko intimates that Russia’s diplomatic leverage in Damascus is promising, but it will be a challenge to gain a firm footing in this multipolar world. He predicts that Russia’s success in the Middle East will depend on the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

    Russia seems to be exerting quite a bit of leverage in Ukraine as well. How else can one explain Kiev’s sudden suspension of its preparations for a much-anticipated association agreement with the European Union? Indeed, Moscow has been holding out some sweet economic temptations. However, Yevgeny Kiselyov argues that in their heart of hearts, no one in Ukraine – neither President Yanukovich, the opposition, or even jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Timoshenko – really wants EU membership. Sergei Frolov claims, on the other hand, that Yanukovich is turning away from Europe because he needs Putin’s support to maintain his authoritarian power – and that need goes both ways.

    Our third feature continues a series of commentaries about how the military and law-enforcement establishment – particularly the Russian Investigative Committee – is exerting leverage on legislative decisions, which in turn affect economic ones: For example, as a Vedomosti editorial points out, the IC has drafted a bill to regain the right to indict businesses on tax charges – without relying on evidence from the tax authorities! In the same vein, Nezavisimaya gazeta cites a major constitutional change that will result in merging the Supreme Court and the Higher Court of Arbitration, thereby making the latter powerless in moderating economic disputes.

    Another triumph of the “security elite” was heralded by the appointment of former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov as the CEO of a division of state-run Russian Technologies. Pavel Felgengauer remarks that this resurrection is a signal to the Kremlin inner circle that Putin “won’t give up his own,” as long as they stay loyal and share any cash that may come their way (legally or otherwise). Speaking of sharing cash – Yulia Latynina tells of a new Duma bill that would obligate the government to seize Russians’ dollar accounts and forcibly exchange them for rubles (Latynina surmises that those Russians who happen to have Kremlin connections would get a much better exchange rate).

    The Putin elite’s leverage on private businesspeople extends beyond Russia’s borders, too, as shown by the IC’s success this week in extraditing Uralkaly CEO Vladislav Baumgertner on charges of abuse of power.

    One way that Russian legislation might exert some positive leverage on business is by tightening illegal immigration and requiring employers to pay migrant workers a fair wage – two recent regulations that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov touted in an interview this week. However, taking a cue from Kirill Rogov’s commentary piece, what if these laws are just another example of “domestic repression” being used to prop up a fundamentally corrupt regime? Does Russia have a firm place to stand to use its levers?

    Lost and Found in Translation. Sergei Markov, director of the Plekhanov Economic University, made the following remark on the potential association agreement between Ukraine and the EU (as rendered in our draft translation): “One could say that this agreement had an element of conspiracy.” Accurate enough, but we felt that the English quotation failed to convey the analyst’s wit –the Russian words he used for “agreement” and “conspiracy” were, respectively, dogovor and zagovor. It seemed a hopeless quest to discover two equivalents in English that could be so similar, but in the end we opted for poeticism over exactitude: we arrived at “political pact” and “political plot.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #34

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 22-28, 2016

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    Rehabilitating Janus, Erdogan and Stalin

    The ancient Roman god Janus gets a bad reputation these days. Depicted as having two faces – one looking forward and one looking back – he is often mistakenly associated with duplicity. But while Janus may be two-faced, his intentions are actually much more noble. He traditionally marks beginnings and endings, and therefore transitions.

    So perhaps Janus inspired Turkish President Erdogan’s transition this week, when the latter brought Turkish troops into Syria? Experts are still flummoxed by Erdogan’s surprise move: After months of resisting Washington’s urgings to bring Turkish forces into Syria to help crush ISIS, he suddenly changed his mind. What’s more, he did so immediately on the heels of his “reconciliation” with Russia – and Putin personally. (Experts noted that Russia was the first country the embattled Turkish leader visited following the failed coup attempt in his native country.) It’s no secret that Erdogan is no friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime Moscow has been trying to support through its operation in Syria.

    But is Turkey’s offensive – colorfully named Operation Euphrates Shield – really targeting ISIS? According to Arabic studies expert Leonid Isayev, “The main target of the Turkish invasion of Syria is the Kurds. They are Erdogan’s biggest headache at the moment.” In Isayev’s words, “all Kurdish cantons in Syria could combine into a single territorial unit, extending along almost the entire Turkish-Syrian border.” Not exactly a dream scenario for Ankara, which has been battling Turkish Kurds’ push for independence since the 1980s.

    Maintaining independence while also fostering partnerships is also on Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s agenda, writes Kommersant. Left in the shadow of two countries with colossal geopolitical ambitions – the US and Russia – Finland is a little Janus of its own: Helsinki is trying to maintain its past neutral status while at the same time adjusting to new challenges. Increasingly anxious about Russia’s unpredictable behavior, Helsinki is nevertheless in no hurry to join NATO. In fact, according to a poll, only 22% of Finns support joining the alliance – with 55% against. However, the government is working on boosting security cooperation with the US and other Nordic countries.

    Meanwhile, tensions are also running high in the Crimea, where Russia alleges Ukrainian forces were plotting a terrorist attack. In another twist, Moscow seems to have toned down its bellicose rhetoric. Just after the incident, President Putin had called the Kiev authorities usurpers who continue to “steal from the people,” and urged the West to rein in “their clients.” Now, official government sources say “the possibility of delivering massive retaliatory military strikes against Ukraine is not under consideration,” political analyst Vladimir Frolov points out. In his opinion, the Kremlin realized that by escalating tensions, it was only shooting itself in the foot: Now that there’s talk of easing Western sanctions against Russia, the last thing Moscow needs is renewed tensions with Ukraine.

    Meanwhile, Janus seems to have forgotten Russia, which just can’t seem to transition past its own history. Namely – Stalin. Sixty years after his death, the great dictator’s ghost continues to haunt (and divide) the country, writes Oleg Kashin. But unlike the American Civil War, which created a stark divide between the North and South, the line between Stalin’s admirers and detractors is blurred: “When we argue about Stalin, people on both sides are actually very similar to each other. They have similar faith, except they believe in different things.” So much so that in Kashin’s opinion, Stalin has come to define Russia. He is both its ending and beginning, so to speak – a Janus in his own right. And if Russia wants to shake his ghost, the solution is to find “a system of core values that all of the people living in this country would share.”

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #49

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2015

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    Putin’s Message to the Federal Assembly: Rhetoric vs. Reality.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin used all the “right” words in his annual Message to the Federal Assembly when talking about Russia’s foreign and domestic policies. But how well does his rhetoric measure up to reality?

    Putin struck a largely conciliatory tone when discussing international relations, but he nevertheless lashed out at Turkey for shooting down a Russian bomber flying a combat mission in Syria. The president’s harsh words for Turkey come after the announcement of a series of punitive measures that include sanctions on Turkish goods and workers entering Russia and on Russian tourists traveling to Turkey (ostensibly to ensure “the national security and protection of Russian citizens from criminal actions”), as well as a decision to halt cooperation with Turkey on the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project. Even though Putin contends that, with respect to Turkey, Russia’s “actions will be governed, first and foremost, by our responsibility to our nation and our people,” Sergei Aleksashenko says that Russia’s sanctions will actually hurt Russia more than Turkey.

    Despite what Putin said in his address about enhancing Russia’s cooperation with international partners, Russian lawmakers seem eager to free Russia from the requirements of international laws, the very foundation of global relations. Recently passed legislation would give Russia’s Constitutional Court the power to decide if Russia must abide by the rulings of international courts. Also contrary to Putin’s rhetoric regarding greater engagement with other countries was his curt, off-topic speech at an international climate conference in Paris that, according to Tatyana Stanovaya, demonstrated just how much Russia has lost its edge in diplomatic maneuvering amid the recent geopolitical storms involving Russia and the West.

    Yekaterina Kuznetsova says that Russia lacks true allies, and she attributes this to Moscow’s persistent resentment of its perceived mistreatment by other nations. “Our actions on the global arena are reminiscent of the actions of an old man who shuns young people who have a worldview to which he is unaccustomed and do not recognize his unquestionable supremacy,” she writes. She says Russia is unable to function as part of an international coalition because it always sees itself as the “center of the world, not a rank-and-file member of a coalition.” In her opinion, instead of real allies, Russia has a series of imaginary ones that she says will cost it more dearly to retain on the future.

    Although some experts were surprised by Putin’s unusually frank assessment of the dire condition of Russia’s economy, his rhetoric regarding business, and entrepreneurship in his Message also fell short of reality. In his Message, Putin said that greater trust must be built between the government and businesses, that more freedom should be granted to entrepreneurs, and that the government should listen to the people, and treat civil society and the business community as equal partners. However, some in Russia are instead seeing the growth of government at the expense of private businesses, entrepreneurs and civil society. Yekaterina Shulman comments that “the solution to every problem seems to be to create yet another government agency, with new officials and new powers.” The creeping bureaucratic overreach has not gone unnoticed by Russia’s long-haul truckers, who went on strike after a levy was imposed on them for every kilometer they travel.

    Putin’s latest Message to the Federal Assembly seemingly underscores the disconnect between rhetoric and reality that is par for the course in any political system anywhere in the world. But does that have to keep us from wondering whether Putin might ever become an exception to the rule, and that his enormous popular support and extensive executive powers might someday enable him to match noble words with noble actions?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #41

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 10-16, 2016

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    Cold War 2.0 to the Rescue – or How to Travel Back in Time Without Really Trying.

    Although Paris must be lovely in October, President Vladimir Putin is not about to stroll down the Champs-Élysées anytime soon – the French side canceled the Russian president’s visit this week. According to the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, this was due to the fact that the visit’s agenda was reduced to a minimum. One event that ended up on the chopping block was the opening of a Russian spiritual and cultural center in Paris, which French President François Hollande was supposed to dedicate together with Putin. What forced this move? Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, believes Paris was acting hurt because Moscow had vetoed the French side’s draft resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.

    The timing for the visit couldn’t have been worse, writes columnist Tatyana Stanovaya: “In the spring, when François Hollande invited Putin to Paris, Moscow was perceived as a player that was putting the rest of the world in the hot seat with its unrelenting battle against ISIS. . . . But during September-October, the defender against the terrorist threat turned into a bloody monster obliterating an entire city [of Aleppo].”

    Surprisingly, it’s perennial Kremlin critic Yulia Latynina who comes to Putin’s rescue on this point. She points out that Moscow and Damascus aren’t bombing Aleppo – they are bombing rebel-held east Aleppo. Meanwhile, the rebel forces are shelling the much more populous west Aleppo. Why does the city’s western part have a much greater population (with the resulting greater civilian casualties)? Because most people in west Aleppo are internally displaced refugees fleeing the rebel forces. In Latynina’s opinion, the so-called moderate Syrian opposition is a myth – they are just Islamists in sheep’s clothing. Meanwhile, the Syrian population is forced to flee from the rebels to government-controlled territory. “Imagine that you are an opponent of the Kremlin regime. And so one fine day, you look out the window to see that Moscow has been seized by foreign jihadists. . . . Who would you be with in this situation?”

    With the ceasefire agreement on Syria in shambles, Russia and the West have returned to the familiar logic of cold war confrontation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has admitted that a fundamental change has taken place in Russian-American relations. The military top brass – in this case, Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the US Army – went even further, stating that at this rate, war with Russia is all but inevitable. And while political analyst Rostislav Ishchenko notes that generals are always preparing for a war, preparations for such a possibility are clear as day.

    For instance, Russia has announced it intends to open (and in some cases, reopen) military bases abroad. Some proposed sites are Angola, Vietnam, Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt, Cuba, Nicaragua, Singapore and the Seychelles, a Russian Defense Ministry representative said. While reopening the radar station in Lourdes in Cuba is clearly a way to get back at Washington for bringing NATO to Russia’s backyard (as Moscow sees is), establishing a military base in Vietnam could bring Moscow problems with China, which considers the South China Sea its zone of interests, writes Aleksandr Sharkovsky.

    Given all the saber-rattling going on, whatever happened to the UN, you might ask? In an interview with Novaya gazeta, Soviet and Russian diplomatic doyen Anatoly Adamishin is rather blunt in his assessment: Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, global problems have been solved by Russia/USSR and the US striking a deal. So the UN’s role isn’t diminishing, since it was never all that strong to begin with. Today’s most pressing problems – from the Donetsk Basin to Syria – are no exception. It could be that the world has changed very little since the 1940s. No wonder a “cold war 2.0” seems inevitable.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 24-30, 2016

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #43 Table of Contents

    Is the End of the Globalization Era in Sight?

    The past two weeks have been marked by a series of meetings about practical policy matters and their broader philosophical implications. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. The ministers reiterated the need for a political solution to the conflict and emphasized that the US and its coalition allies must convince the moderate opposition to dissociate itself from terrorists like Jabhat al‑Nusra. They also gave the US heat for preventing further intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

    It is Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko who has been catching heat at home since last week’s meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders in Berlin. Patience is wearing thin over the Minsk agreements, which a growing number of critics in Ukraine are saying should be abandoned. Poroshenko pushed back, asserting that the agreements are the only path to peace, but he also rejected the notion of giving up the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The next chapter in the Ukraine saga will be a road map for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements that the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers are to have ready by the end of November.

    Leading policy experts from around the world met in Sochi this week for the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s topic was about shaping the world’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the meeting were both defensive and cautiously optimistic. He issued his usual criticisms of the West for blaming Russia for all that is wrong in the world and using double standards. Commentator Andrei Akulov offers a laundry list of the accumulated grievances in Russian-US relations, which Putin hopes will improve under a new US president. Putin adopted a particularly strident tone as he rejected the “imaginary, mythical threats” about the Russian “barbarians”: “Russia has no intention to attack anyone. That is ridiculous. It is simply preposterous, foolish and unrealistic.” Putin repeated what has been his main foreign policy dogma throughout his leadership tenure: Russia wants to see a multipolar world where every country is equally respected and no country can “reshape the world order to suit its own interests,” which he intimated the US has been doing ever since the end of the cold war.

    Fyodor Lukyanov writes that the world is growing disillusioned with the universalistic message of globalization. Its promised benefits are failing to materialize, or are doing so in ways that many did not predict, leading to imbalances in the world political system and public sentiment. Lukyanov says that dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has turned into “global disorder”: the fragmentation of interests and objectives instead of their universalization.

    In addition to Ukraine and Syria, another symptom of that “global disorder” is the current US presidential campaign, where outspoken Republican candidate Donald Trump is breaking nearly every political convention, seemingly without losing any political capital. His populist message of drastic, reactionary approaches to hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration appeals to base fears about those issues and taps into the growing strain of disillusionment with globalization’s gospel of universalism. Lukyanov suggests that modern institutions founded on ideas of global governance built on consensus have failed to adequately address such fears – at least in the minds of many citizens. And so the task of existing global institutions, Lukyanov argues, is to prevent centrifugal and polarizing forces from creating more division and conflict on national and international levels. But he is not optimistic: “The scale of problems facing the world offers no hope that solutions will be found in the foreseeable future.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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