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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #29

    Letter From the Editors: July 14-20, 2014



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    Issue #29 Letter From the Editors
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    The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to show no end in sight. Several border incidents in the past week have raised the stakes for both Russia and Ukraine. Aleksei Leshchenko, vice-president of the Gorshenin Institute, says that the Russian government is taking a duplicitous stance on the situation: While Moscow says it advocates a peaceful settlement to what it calls a Ukrainian domestic conflict, in reality it is actively perpetuating violence it could easily stop. Russia continues to firmly deny any direct or indirect military involvement in eastern Ukraine, but armed separatists there are wielding advanced weaponry that presumably ordinary citizens would not have the knowledge to operate, raising suspicions that the military equipment and personnel involved in the fighting are actually from Russia. As if to prove that point, a Ukrainian military transport plane was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile (the separatists claim it was captured from Ukrainian forces), and Ukrainian authorities assert that Russian multiple launch rocket systems have repeatedly crossed into Ukraine to launch attacks on Ukrainian forces.


    In addition to its active military campaign, separatists in Novorossia, i.e., Ukraine’s rebellious Russian-speaking provinces, have also been busy working on formulating a more concrete political campaign, adopting a manifesto that reads like a founding document of a Soviet Union 2.0. The manifesto denounces capitalism and promises the nationalization of enterprises. Aleksei Gorbachov and Darya Garmonenko write that such talk certainly makes the separatists’ curators in Moscow wary. (Ironically, Russia’s economic system is becoming increasingly Sovietesque in its own right, according to Valery Zubov. Our second set of featured articles has his and other perspectives on some economic policy drama currently unfolding in Russia.) It is clear that while Putin is all for fueling pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine, the separatists’ political agenda does not fit into his geopolitical vision for the region. In fact, recent developments in Ukraine show that not all the cards are falling the way Putin would desire or intend. Could he have his back against the wall by a monster he created? The separatists are begging for more military and moral support, and Russian citizens, encouraged by Russia’s Communists and Liberal Democrats, are pushing their government to all but go to war with Ukraine on behalf of the rebels. The Kremlin may have set in motion a machine it would now like to stop.


    Meanwhile, Russian media are upping their attacks on the US, denigrating it for its allegedly overbearing attitude on the global stage. An Ekspert editorial points out the folly of Washington’s efforts to get the world to play by its rules, while Fyodor Lukyanov contends that US initiatives to promote American-style democracy throughout the world in the last decade have ultimately proven disastrous. The EU, Washington’s junior partner in the latest round of Russia-bashing, is also taking a drubbing in the Russian media, albeit not so soundly. Andrei Yermolayev chastises the EU for being too quick to see a political motive in all of Russia’s business dealings, particularly with regard to the South Stream pipeline, which Brussels wants shut down. Mikhail Krutikhin, however, writes that the Kremlin’s overblown, pie-in-the-sky economic projects are indeed nothing but political, and will ultimately put Russia in bondage to China. Not necessarily so, argues Andranik Migranyan: He views the Russia-China relationship as strong and based on mutual respect, which is more than can be said of Russia’s relations with the US. According to him, when he asked American panelists at a recent Washington seminar whether they see Russia as a “whipping boy or an errand boy,” they were hard pressed to say exactly how they view Russia.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #42

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 12-18, 2015



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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #42 Table of Contents

    Russia’s Syria Strategy Under the Microscope; Findings of MH17 Disaster Probe Released; Russia’s Investment Strategy in Question


    Russia is now a few weeks into its air campaign in Syria. What’s Russia’s strategy, objective and endgame? Is it coming to the aid of its beleaguered Syrian ally? Is it seeking to take out ISIS before it gains a foothold in Russia? Is it trying to flex its muscles for the West and even drag it into a proxy war? Or is it mainly trying to distract attention from the Ukraine conflict?


    Pro-Kremlin pundits have an idealized vision of a five-month campaign that would end as soon as Bashar Assad’s ground offensive takes hold and ISIS is driven from Syria. According to Pyotr Skorobogaty, Russia’s goal is to push the radical Islamist fighters into Iraq, which is the US’s zone of responsibility, in order to make life difficult for Washington. He says that for its part, the US is trying to get as many Islamist fighters to go from Iraq to Syria, to make life difficult for Assad. So, in his analysis, this conflict is a muscle-flexing game between the Russian and the US militaries. Other commentators say the Syria intervention is really a hydrocarbons game between Russia and the US. Each side has a vested interest in securing the oil and gas fields currently under ISIS’s control.


    Kira Latukhina says, “Russia’s objective in Syria is to stabilize the legitimate government and pave the way to seek a political compromise.” According to Putin, this will be achieved militarily. He believes the US and its allies should simply turn the fight against ISIS in Syria over to him, especially since he has the permission of Syria’s government to conduct military operations in Syria – unlike other nations. The US should just tell Russia where the targets are, and Russia’s bombs and missiles will take them out, since the US and dozens of other countries are not getting the job done.


    Russia leveled similar charges against the Dutch Safety Board, which this week released its final report on the investigation into the causes of the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine. The DSB concluded that a 9N314M warhead fired from a 9M38 Buk surface-to-air missile system was responsible for the plane’s destruction, but, according to Rosaviatsia deputy director Oleg Storchevoi, investigators acted improperly by failing to consider crucial evidence supplied by the Russian side. Yulia Latynina, on the other hand, believes that the investigators didn’t go far enough. She says they should have assigned responsibility for the missile launch. The overly cautious conclusions of the investigators just validate Putin’s view that European politicians are spineless and weak.


    Disappointment and disagreement were also hallmarks of the annual “Russia Calling!” forum, held this week in Moscow. Russia’s economic elite debated the nature of the economic crisis (some even argued that Russia isn’t in crisis, even though the economy is experiencing about -4% growth) and discussed investment priorities under the new conditions. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov took issue with Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev for advocating higher investment in the oil industry. That longtime strategy isn’t working, Siluanov contended. Investment should instead be directed to other areas of the economy. However, judging by Putin’s reaction, it seems like the Russian budget will continue to prop up his oil-baron buddies. Georgy Neyaskin writes that popular buzzwords used during the forum – e.g., “structural reform” and “economic diversification” – have become nothing but hollow mantras with little real meaning or substance. What this indicates, and what no one talked about, he says, is the fact that Russia has no long-term economic strategy whatsoever. With so many unanswered questions about Russia’s game plans for Ukraine, Syria and the economy, one has to wonder what exactly goes on during Kremlin “strategy” sessions. Surely Putin can’t be flying by the seat of his pants, right?


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #30

    Letter From the Editors: July 25-31, 2016



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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
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    Kremlin Unleashes Massive Government Reshuffle; Security Agencies Step Up Clan War; Donald Trump – Is He a Putin Agent or Unwitting Kremlin Toady?


    Things got a little topsy-turvy in Russian government and security circles this week as the Kremlin launched another round of sweeping personnel changes. The reshuffle saw many “old guard” governors and officials sacked and replaced with younger, mid-level bureaucrats. RBC suggests that Putin is giving his administration a face-lift ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The president is getting rid of ineffective administrators, but since in many cases they have deep-seated ties to him, and because the unwritten rule is that loyalists get an “honorary retirement,” the result is indeed very much a game of musical chairs, with cushy jobs for the officials who have fallen out of favor. The upshot is that more governors are former security officials. Mikhail Komin writes that these “general governors” will rule with an iron fist: “Their appointment means that the time of consolidation through negotiation is over; it is now time for consolidation through intimidation.” The new policy, Komin says, will be one of managed chaos, designed to instill fear and anxiety among the elite in order to keep them in line. The ultimate goal is to purge politically unreliable officials from all levels of government.


    A similar “purge” is taking the form of an “anticorruption campaign” in the security agencies. This week, the FSB arrested numerous Russian Investigative Committee employees on corruption charges, and the Federal Customs Service chief was arrested on bribery charges. The splashy arrests were part of what some observers consider an interclan war among Russia’s many security agencies. What makes the latest spate of arrests unique is that they are playing out in front of TV cameras. The flustered FCS head was shown with shoe boxes full of cash in a scene deliberately intended to publicly humiliate him.


    This clan war is Russia’s version of “checks and balances,” writes Yekaterina Shulman. Not only does it preclude a Turkey-style coup, but it minimizes the need for Putin to issue explicit orders: “What we think of as the Kremlin is surrounded by bureaucratic clans of varying degrees of proximity [to the president], and each one is trying to guess what the big bosses are thinking and act accordingly.” In other words, much of the flurry of bureaucratic and law-enforcement activity in Russia is driven by mid-level officials’ perceptions of Putin’s agenda. They are trying to climb the ranks and curry favor with the big man himself by doing what they perceive to be his bidding.


    US media outlets this week are having a field day suggesting that this is just what US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is doing – wittingly or unwittingly. They are coming up with all sorts of evidence connecting Trump to the Russian president – even going so far as labeling him “Putin’s puppet” – on account of his supposed business ties with Russia, his pro-Russian policy proposals and the Russian contacts of some of his aides. A recent breach of the Democratic National Committee e‑mail servers has also been billed as the work of Russian hackers, working to discredit the Democrats and tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Does this mean Russia and Trump are working together? A preposterous notion, says Vladimir Frolov. There is no way Trump was in on the e-mail hack, because he would not be privy to a top-secret Russian intelligence mission. Does this mean the Kremlin is rooting for Trump? Not necessarily. According to the analyst, the Kremlin is giving Trump good press coverage simply because he says positive things about Putin, and his agenda would directly and indirectly help Russia. But Moscow also realizes Trump is a wild card who could trigger global instability. So there you have it: He isn’t Russia’s “trump” card – we think. Something tells me this conspiracy theory won’t die quickly.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 6-12, 2017



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    Issue #6 Letter From the Editors
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    Kremlin’s Election Catch‑22; Trump and Putin: Bros or Foes?


    The Kremlin has an election problem. It needs to get Vladimir Putin reinstalled as president in the March 2018 election, but it needs voters to care about voting to show up to the polls. Right now, not many people do, since electoral outcomes seem generally predetermined making, voting pointless. So the goal is to get people interested in the election by perhaps giving voters enticing ballot options. But the problem is that Russians are politically illiterate, if you believe a federal official cited by RBC who says that except for the Duma faction leaders and a few high-ranking officials like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there are no other names recognizable to the voters. There had been talk that the Kremlin would try to get the perennial establishment opposition leaders to step aside and let younger, fresher faces run in the election, but according to RBC’s source, that is not going to happen.


    Russia’s tired opposition faces are all familiar from the 1990s (LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proudly boasts he is running for president for the sixth time – a record in Europe), and they more or less all have the Kremlin’s blessing and march to the beat of its drum. In fact, the Russian Federation Communist Party and A Just Russia, which have not yet officially nominated presidential candidates, have said they are going to “discuss the issue with the Kremlin.” I guess they need Putin’s approval. So no matter who you vote for, you’re likely voting for Putin’s agenda.


    There are, however, a few brave politicians bucking the Kremlin line. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, another political old-timer, is rousing his base and reaching out to young voters with the message that Putin is living in the past and making a “shameful, harmful and criminal” land grab in Ukraine that does nothing good for Russia. Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition figure, who was just given another five-year suspended sentence in a retrial of a previous conviction, approves of the message but pokes fun at the messenger for being a 1990s throwback.


    It turns out that Russia’s most popular politician may not even be from Russia. For a while, US President Donald Trump was being mentioned in the Russian media far more than Putin, leading Kirill Kharatyan to speculate what it is about Trump that’s so appealing to Russians. He says Trump’s blunt political incorrectness and brazen determination resonate with voters (these characteristics are partly what had enthralled Russians about Putin, before he started losing his mojo). Yury Saprykin agrees that there are a lot of similarities between Trump and Putin, including their manipulative rhetoric. However, he says that whereas Putin is covert and calculating, Trump is unabashedly public and wildly unpredictable, so “the hope of Russian patriots that Putin and Trump are on the verge of dividing the world in half and establishing something akin to a conservative international is a purely Russian aberration.” In other words, a bromance might not be in the offing. In fact, Saprykin says the cold snap in US-Russian relations just might get longer and colder.


    But we’ve got other things to worry about besides the climate change in Russian-US relations. Aleksandr Golts says the new US president is a loose cannon smashing through the global ship that had been bearing humanity toward rosy horizons on a liberal, progressive tack. Golts says that for Trump, there are no supreme values (like actual climate change) – only interests. Konstantin Simonov says progressives need to lash the cannon and get the ship back on the values course, but the problem is that progressives have too readily and for too long overlooked the shortcomings of their agenda – particularly globalization – to the detriment of those left behind. While Obama was a president who was perhaps too focused on the future, Trump is a president too focused on the past. We are left wondering: Is Trump a temporary eclipse, or have the planets drastically realigned in the political orbit?


    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #26

    Letter From the Editors: June 22-28, 2015



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    Issue #26 Letter From the Editors
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    To Fear or Not to Fear, That Is the Question.


    Unfounded or not, there seems to be plenty of fear to go around these days. This week, many Russian commentators and analysts were preoccupied by looming threats both hypothetical and real, be it ISIS, China, “color revolutions,” Ukraine or the US.


    ISIS, the most realistic threat in the lineup, is making inroads in Russia’s neighboring Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan, where, according to Arkady Dubnov, Moscow’s failure to ensure that the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan has a voice in local politics is creating a breeding ground for radical Islam. This virulent strain of Islam is also on the rise in the Caucasus region of Russia. Some Muslim youth in Russia, disillusioned with the sociopolitical and economic situation at home, see a brighter future in the ranks of ISIS, says Aleksandr Shumilin.


    China, next on the list of bugaboos and the subject of the third feature in this issue, is a bit of an enigma. The popular perception is that China is taking advantage of Russia’s relative weakness to make expansive inroads in Russia’s Far East. This is largely a misconception, say analysts Fyodor Lukyanov and Georgy Neyaskin, even though reports that a Chinese agricultural firm is about to lease large swathes of Russian farmland in Transbaikal Territory do little to assuage such fears.


    Color revolutions. Russia’s anti-Western spin doctors see them everywhere, and the West – the US in particular – is inevitably behind them, in their opinion. The latest country facing the threat of “revolution” is Armenia, where planned hikes in electricity prices are being met with fierce public opposition in the capital. Denis Tukmakov notes that it is students, not elderly pensioners – the social group most likely to be affected by the plan – who are gathering in the streets. What’s more, they are making uncomfortable connections between the rate increases and Russia, which is certainly direct evidence that the West is behind this, according to the journalist.


    Of course, when it comes to fears, the biggest is always open war, which these days is increasingly (and alarmingly) a real concern of top brass in NATO and Russia. A recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers ended with Russia and the alliance trading accusations of military posturing. In response to what it sees as increased Russian aggression, the North Atlantic organization is more than doubling the size of its rapid response force, and the US is positioning heavy military hardware in the Baltic states.


    This, of course, comes in response to perceived Russian interference in Ukraine, a country that is a hotbed for all sorts of fears, real and imagined. The newly appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Province, Mikhail Saakashvili, is concerned that separatist sentiment is rising in Bessarabia and will result in the declaration of yet another “people’s republic” in Ukraine. Meanwhile, former rebel commanders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics are saying that they don’t rule out a complete collapse of the Minsk agreements that are precariously preventing all-out war between Ukraine, Russia and the West.


    All-out war is very much on the mind of Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who recently accused the US of wishing that Russia did not exist. Is he off his rocker, or is he right to be shaking in his boots (perhaps more from Russia’s inadequacies than anything else, according to Tatyana Stanovaya)? Actually, he might not be the most delusional of Russia’s paranoid security officials. A certain Russian major general who claimed to have developed technologies to read the minds of Western leaders once said he discovered in the brain of then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright a pathological hatred of all Slavs. I don’t know what is more disturbing: that he made such claims or that they are earnestly believed by some Russians, including among the upper echelons of power.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #19-20

    Letter From the Editors: May 5-18, 2014



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    The protracted crisis in southeastern Ukraine took a bloody turn as scores of pro-Russian activists were killed and injured in Odessa when the building they were taking shelter in caught on fire during a skirmish with Ukrainian unity supporters. Some experts comment that Ukraine is edging closer to civil war, while others say that a de facto proxy war has erupted with neighboring Russia.


    Ukraine’s restive southeast made a bid to formalize its breakaway status by holding regional referendums on independence despite warnings from Kiev, the international community and even Russian President Vladimir Putin. What will the largely symbolic referendums accomplish?


    Not much, it seems. The standoff between the Donetsk Basin and Kiev shows no sign of abating. Both sides agree on the need for dialogue, but terms are another issue. To Kiev, the operation in the southeast is a legitimate “antiterrorist push” to neutralize a well-armed, professional and unidentified militia fighting on behalf of separatists. To the rebels and their tacit supporters in Moscow, it’s a “punitive military action” perpetrated by an illegitimate junta against a disaffected local population that is seeking greater self-determination. As long as the two sides refuse to come to terms (literally), effective dialogue of any sort remains elusive.


    The situation in southeastern Ukraine is burning more and more bridges between Russia and the West, including its closest European ally, Germany. Against that backdrop, Moscow is eagerly seeking to build them with China – both figuratively and literally. And while China’s recently announced participation in a project to build a transportation corridor between Krasnodar Territory and the Crimea across the Kerch Strait might be a prime example of the latter, Leonid Radzikhovsky writes that in order to achieve the former, Russia’s relations with its long-time UN Security Council pal must move beyond mere political-ideological sympathies to include significant interstate agreements. We’ll see if Putin manages to bridge some gaps during his upcoming visit to China.


    And while Moscow and Kiev certainly aren’t building any bridges in bilateral relations (outstanding gas debts and the terms of future gas deliveries continue to be a bone of bitter contention), Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko signaled that he was ready to shake hands with Putin to get the long-awaited Eurasian Economic Union off the ground


    Russians marked another momentous date amid the traditional May holidays. May 7 officially marked Putin’s 10th year as a Russian president (overall, his 14th year as Russia’s head honcho). And if his sky-high approval ratings are to be believed, that’s cause for celebration for many Russians. Indeed, according to recent polling data, most Russians feel surprisingly content with their lot in life despite less-than-rosy economic circumstances and a laundry list of broken Putin campaign promises. Radzikhovsky attributes Putin’s cult following to his channeling of Russia’s deeply rooted patriarchal archetype of a “father of the nation” who represents a living connection to Russia’s generations-old cultural traditions and imaginations.


    Sure, but the president also owes at least some of his political success to his cozy relationship with Russia’s military and security apparatus. Ex-KGB man Putin recently tipped his hat its way by appointing two members of the career security elite to top North Caucasus federal administrative posts that had previously been entrusted to civilians amid a wave of “excessive liberalism” under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential administration. Putin clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on. Besides, they seem like good guys to have around when threats are lurking at home and the near abroad. After all, Russians must not be allowed to entertain ideas of self-determination (certainly not separatism), and NATO is obviously on a quest to make further inroads into Moldova and Uzbekistan, right?


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 3-9, 2014



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    Ukraine has been in the throes of political turmoil ever since its president, Viktor Yanukovich, switched the country’s integration orientation from the West to Eurasia last November. As demonstrations in opposition to that switch become more raucous and the list of protesters’ demands grows, speculation is rife that Ukraine could fall into political and social chaos, and even split along long-standing East-West fault lines. Is this a real and present danger or just overblown rhetoric? Our first set of featured articles provides a uniquely Russian perspective on the unfolding events.


    Integration issues are also a hot topic in Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova where opinions regarding the East-West vector are also vehement but internally far less divisive than in Ukraine. A referendum in the autonomy revealed that an overwhelming majority of Gagauz supports joining the Russia-sponsored Customs Union over becoming part of the EU. Most residents also favor declaring independence from Moldova if that country were to merge with Romania as part of a so-called “Greater Romania.”


    The topic of integration was also a point of contention this week among several Russian experts who, in a series of position articles, discussed the merits and shortcomings of various Russian integration and development models. While universally agreeing that Siberia and the Far East must be developed, the experts nevertheless differ on the philosophical aspects of development and integration: Should Russia turn away from Europe and toward emerging Asia? Should it focus solely on developing its own Eurasian Union? Or should it instead emphasize domestic development by promoting federalism, private initiative and entrepreneurship?


    In a separate article on the subject of Russia’s development, Semyon Novoprudsky compares life in Russia ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to life in the country ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finds some rather unsettling similarities – so much so that he feels the Sochi Games could in fact be the “swan song” of the Putin regime, just as the Moscow Olympics were for the Soviet regime. And although the KGB is now the FSB, commentator Andrei Soldatov assures us that its electronic surveillance of the Sochi Games will still be Soviet in scale, if not in spirit. (But don’t worry, phone tapping is for visitors’ and participants’ own safety, Kremlin media assures those travelling to Sochi.)


    This week, the US announced that its Aegis Combat System would be deployed to Europe aboard US Navy ships. It also confirmed its commitment to deploy missile defenses in Poland – a step that Moscow continues to view suspiciously. The US announcement comes as Russia tests a new medium-range missile and amid talk that Moscow might withdraw from the START and INF treaties, a move most Russian experts believe would be foolhardy, since that agreement benefits Moscow more than it does Washington. Commentator Aleksandr Golts says that this threat is merely another attempt by the Kremlin to blame the US for Russia’s problems and part of its incomprehensible policy of equating national security with the capacity to obliterate half of the US in the event that Russia is ever attacked by America.


    In what could be a harbinger of future Russian-US relations, Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia and coauthor of the ultimately ill-fated “reset” policy, announced he is leaving his post, along with his work in the Obama administration. Could his replacement indicate the future tenor of US policy toward Russia?


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor


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

    Letter From the Editors: April 11-17, 2016



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    Issue #15 Letter From the Editors
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    Putin Tones Down Foreign Policy Rhetoric; Fallout From Panama Papers Continues; Ukraine Gets New Cabinet; National Guard Sets Sights on Chechen Security Forces


    Putin adopted a decidedly different tone in his 14th annual call-in show, focusing on domestic rather than foreign policy issues. Vladimir Frolov writes: “The most important message to the outside world was that for the time being, Russia is done with foreign policy escapades aimed at securing its status as a ‘global superpower.’ ” The Russian president essentially told other nations that they have nothing to fear from his country if they treat it respectfully. He pressed that point home when commenting on US relations: “But if our counterparts [in the US] operate based on the false premise of being exceptional, they will always claim special status and special privileges for themselves. . . . They must set their imperialistic ambitions aside and be respectful toward their partners.”


    The Kremlin perceives the West’s negative attitude toward Putin as a lack of respect. According to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “The degree of Putinophobia has reached such a level that it is by definition impossible to say anything good about Russia, to talk about Russia’s successes.” His remarks were made in response to the leaking of documents revealing the shady financial dealings of the world’s rich and famous – the so-called Panama Papers. Journalists Dmitry Gavrilenko, Yevgenia Obukhova and Pyotr Skorobogaty suggest that the leak is a George Soros project to incite popular unrest in countries with regimes the US finds undesirable. In particular, they believe the goal is to discredit the Russian authorities ahead of the 2018 presidential election.


    Following on the heels of the Panama Papers revelations, Russian state-run television company VGTRK aired a film accusing Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny of being a Western intelligence operative and of conspiring with Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder to arrange for the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian pretrial detention center. Darya Garmonenko questions the timing of the accusation, wondering if it is actually designed to divert attention from the Panama Papers, while Yulia Latynina says the accusations against Navalny are absurd and patently flawed.


    The publication of the Panama Papers only stoked an already seething political crisis in Ukraine, putting President Poroshenko in the hot seat. Ukraine’s Supreme Rada this week dismissed prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and appointed Vladimir Groisman to replace him. The vote did not come off without a hitch, however, as the Pyotr Poroshenko Bloc had to wrangle votes from unlikely sources to secure what was expected to be a straightforward vote. In another sign that fault lines might continue to plague Ukrainian politics, Groisman apparently failed to see eye to eye with the presidential administration on the roster for the new cabinet. As if Poroshenko didn’t have enough problems already, Odessa Province Governor Mikhail Saakashvili publicly confronted him over the slow pace of anticorruption reforms, hinting that if changes don’t happen soon, he and other reform-minded politicians might act to “change everything in the country in the fastest and most resolute constitutional manner.”


    Another revelation from last week still generating buzz in Russia is the announcement of the creation of a National Guard that would subsume some of the country’s numerous and varied security and law-enforcement agencies under the leadership of loyal Putin bodyguard Viktor Zolotov. Pyotr Zaikin, a former special ops officer with the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry’s Internal Troops, suggests that the move might be partly designed to purge and rein in Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces by placing them in a military command structure that reports directly to Moscow. In other words, the Kremlin may be launching a campaign to tie down loose cannons.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #19-20

    Letter From the Editors: May 4-17, 2015



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    Victory Day 2015: More Than the Usual Pomp Amid Not Quite the Usual Circumstances


    Russia marked the May 9 Victory Day holiday with more splendor than usual, significantly upping the amount of military hardware and soldiers participating in the military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. The reason for the extra helping of grandiosity in this year’s pageantry is that 2015 marks 70 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany. Also, the holiday serves as a convenient occasion for the Kremlin to score additional propaganda points by flexing some military muscle at a time when Russia is feeling threatened by the West.


    The curious phenomenon of honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend their homeland by proudly parading instruments of war has struck more than one Russian commentator as a bit peculiar. Aleksandr Rubtsov warns that “celebration of victory must not turn into a celebration of war, just as showcasing defense capabilities must not turn into a demonstration of militant aggression and pure parabellum.” He believes the Kremlin has co-opted the solemn commemoration of the tragedy of World War II by using over-the-top patriotic messaging to further its own self-serving ideology and agenda. Mikhail Zygar presents a detailed analysis of that messaging by parsing Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speeches over the years. He observes that Putin uses nuanced narratives of the victory over fascism to frame whatever concerns him in the present day, be it the threat of international terrorism, the overreach of a superpower in a unipolar world, the need to update the global security architecture or the resurgence of “fascism” in certain places (e.g., in Ukraine).


    While in the past the Red Square military parade has been a source of national pride by drawing large numbers of influential world leaders to Moscow, this year’s gathering featured only a handful of rather minor global leaders willing to associate with the beleaguered Vladimir Putin, in light of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and activities in Ukraine. The standout guest this year was China’s Xi Jinping, who in addition to reviewing the military parade also struck deals with Putin and other post-Soviet republic leaders during his visit to the region. Some analysts – Kirill Benediktov, for one – see the emerging Sino-Russian relationship as promising for Russia, while others, such as Georgy Kunadze, are wary of Russia becoming China’s junior partner. Yulia Latynina goes so far as to say: “China is not Russia’s ally. It’s the main beneficiary of the Russian authorities’ self-destructive policies.” Whatever the nature of China-Russia ties, something is definitely kindling between the two regional powers.


    Relations with Russia and the West, on the contrary, are fizzling out. US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian president in Sochi but found little common ground during their four-hour meeting. Putin also failed to make substantive headway on differences with the West during talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow. Vladimir Frolov predicts the same storyline will continue for the foreseeable future. This is especially true as long as there is destabilization in Ukraine, which is what Russia is seeking to maintain to its advantage, according to Sergei Taran.


    We can only hope that Putin does not share Othello’s tragic flaw, and that a modicum of common sense will prevail over fanciful suspicions about the post-Soviet space’s faithfulness to Russia fueled by cunning Iagos among Russia’s siloviki who want to paint the West as a villain. Otherwise, Russia’s leader might find himself echoing Shakespeare’s tragic hero: Farewell, pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war! Putin’s occupation’s gone.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 15-31, 2014



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    Issue #51-52 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #51-52 Table of Contents

    Another year has flown by. The year 2014 was certainly anything but uneventful for Russia and the post-Soviet space. Many of the most significant events continue to dominate the headlines, most notably the crisis in Ukraine, as well as the ensuing falling out between Russia and the West. Indeed, rather than cooling down, the conflict in Ukraine seems to be only heating up.


    Ukraine’s Supreme Rada voted to renounce Ukraine’s nonaligned status and seek closer ties with the European Union and NATO in a move that has prompted many high-ranking Russian officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to view Ukraine as a potential military adversary. Kiev is also not backing down on its approach to breakaway regions in the east. The country’s National Security and Defense Council has been granted broader powers and its secretary, Aleksandr Turchinov, increasingly sees military force as the only means to resolve the conflict with separatists in the Donetsk Basin. Threats of renewed bloodshed come alongside tough economic austerity measures that might just push some Ukrainians over the edge, according to some analysts.


    Russia is facing tough economic conditions of its own as the ruble continues to slide following a drop in oil prices and increased Western economic sanctions. In his annual year-end press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed Russia’s dismal economy. He blamed the situation on external factors, not internal systemic failures, and chastised the efforts of the West to chain the “Russian bear,” and remove its teeth and claws, something Putin is not about to let happen. The Russian leader also sought to portray the drop in global oil prices as a boon to Russia’s economy, as it will force diversification away from the commodities sector. He also believes the Russia will “inevitably” bounce back in two years but provided no concrete specifics regarding how that might happen.


    Former Russian finance minister Aleksei Kudrin was a little less vague in his assessments of the Russian economy but was less than forthcoming about his political ambitions in an interview with The New Times. In addition to oil prices and Western sanctions, he blamed the economic downturn on Russia’s wanton spending habits and politics. He had “no comment” on whether he might seek a Russian leadership position in the future.


    The crisis in Ukraine has ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the West to cold war levels. The West continues to accuse Russia of backing the separatists in Ukraine and put pressure on Moscow for its annexation of the Crimea, and the Kremlin continues to defend its actions and policies.


    What’s most worrying is that behind the heated rhetoric, both sides are boosting military capacities. Russia’s chief of the General Staff has promised to revamp military forces, procuring “up to 100 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, up to 30 surface ships and submarines, and up to 600 armored vehicles” every year until the Russian Armed Forces are completely rearmed, by 2021 at the latest. Russia’s defiant stance has confounded the West, and in particular Europe, which is scrambling to find an appropriate response. Whatever that response might be, we can only hope that the words of T. S. Elliot ring true: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor


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