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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #31

    Letter From the Editors: July 27-Aug. 2, 2015



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    Issue #31 Letter From the Editors
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    It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s the Compulsion to Play the Game


     

    This twisted take on a familiar sports expression might describe the position of the Russian opposition as regional elections draw near. Several major nonestablishment forces – Aleksei Navalny’s Party of Progress, as well as the Republican Party of Russia and the People’s Freedom Party – have formed the impressive-sounding Democratic Coalition, but the group has faced repeated obstacles to getting on the ballot in many cities – from invalidated signatures to confiscated papers to criminal charges. But do these tactics signify real antipathy on the part of the Russian authorities, or (as Gleb Pavlovsky contends) are such moves part of a game among local elites vying to show off reactionary antics for the Kremlin?


    Or is this an even bigger game, one rigged at the very top? Oleg Kashin cautions readers not to misinterpret the federal authorities’ attitude toward dissenters: “If they wanted to stifle the opposition, they would do it. If they were scared, they would have started shooting long ago. In any case, there’s no such animal in Russian politics that we could unreservedly call an opposition. There are only people who for some reason take part in a series of predictable defeats.” Even so, he says, it’s better to think of Navalny & Co. as naïve dimwits than Kremlin collaborators.


    Speaking of collaboration: That’s just what some dissident Belarussian politicians are being accused of – by their fellow oppositionists. Unlike their Russian counterparts, they have not formed a like-minded coalition. In the absence of that leverage, some opposition leaders are urging colleagues to withdraw from the race, as their participation in it would help legitimize the ruling authorities. NG’s Anton Khodasevich comments: “Judging by the most recent statements, the confrontation could create a permanent rift in the camp of President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s opponents.” He quotes some especially biting remarks from firebrand journalist Irina Khalip: “[Longtime dissident] Anatoly Lebedko is dragging dead bodies from the crypt to help Aleksandr Lukashenko gain legitimacy and to get the world to recognize***the results of an ‘election,’ ” Apparently, she and others don’t want any part in a game with a predetermined outcome.


    In the international arena, Leonid Radzikhovsky also invokes the image of a game when analyzing mutual recriminations being made by Russian and American senior officials: Moscow says American policy is bent on regime change, while Washington says that Russia is the main threat to US national security. All of this rhetoric kindles an attitude of war – but, Radzikhovsky argues, that’s where the fun comes in. “Actually, freaking out about war***is more about getting a kick, a rush, than anything else. Deep down, everyone understands that no matter how much you scare yourself and others, this is nothing more than psychological games. That’s why we get such a thrill out of them.”


    Could that also be the impulse behind Russia’s new amendments to its Naval Doctrine? Suddenly, Moscow is emphasizing the importance of “blue water operations” – i.e., naval activity on the high seas, far away from home. According to military expert Maksim Shepovalenko, the Russian Navy’s balanced global posture is being replaced by a biased one that is “assertive in the West [Atlantic Ocean] and in the North, and cooperative in the East and the South,” allowing for greater coordination with the Chinese and Indian Navies. Meanwhile, it just so happens that the US recently revised its own Naval Doctrine to concentrate up to 60% of its forward-deployed warships and aircraft in the “Indo-Asia-Pacific Region.” At the same time, NATO continues efforts to expand eastward. And let’s not forget China, either: Shortly after the publication of Washington’s Naval Doctrine, Beijing published a white paper this spring expressing concern about increased US presence in the East China Sea and South China Sea. We can’t help wondering: If this is all a game, who will make the next move, and what will it be?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #17-18

    Letter From the Editors: April 20-May 3, 2015



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    Issue #17-18 Letter From the Editors
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    Know Thy Enemy (and Thy Friend): Recovery, Détente and Protection in Russia and the CIS


    With Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2016, many of Kiev’s supporters in Europe are concerned that the reforms they have been pushing for will not happen quickly enough. The IMF and other funders have already stepped up to provide 30 billion euros to shore up the economy, but Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk is asking for more: “The best way to win the war against Russian-led aggression is to make Ukraine a success story – to make Ukraine an example for everyone.*** We are not simply asking for money, meaning more loans to repay the ones we already took out. That doesn’t work. The best ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine is investments.” Will the West buy into this idea, and what will it expect in return?


    As Kiev continues to play up the theme of Russian aggression, Moscow’s public messages have been more conciliatory of late. For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a radio interview that Moscow is ready to cooperate with Washington on a common agenda, as long as the US does not dictate the terms. Putin said something similar last Saturday on a national news program. Vladimir Frolov compares this new foreign policy gesture to the Nixon-Brezhnev “détente.” However, he says, a key condition for Moscow is that the US stay out of Russia’s business (read: the entire post-Soviet space). “The problem with this proposal is that it comes from an alternate reality. No American president is going to have a discussion with Moscow about delineating spheres of influence.*** The time for such geopolitical deals is long gone, never to be seen again except on Russian TV.”


    Thus, the underlying message to the Russian public (and beyond) is that the West is an “enemy at the gates,” encroaching on the sovereignty of Russia. Moscow’s highest decision-makers have been sold on this idea, too: It is the cornerstone of the Defense Ministry’s 20-trillion ruble rearmament program. Yet, as Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin says in an interview with Novaya gazeta, NATO would never start a combat operation against nuclear-armed Russia, and Russia is now unlikely to send “polite little green men” anywhere else in Eastern Europe (as it did in the Crimea), since it is now facing sanctions and international isolation. So why is tension still escalating? Dvorkin ascribes this tendency to a “shared psychosis” between Russia and NATO, fed by the financial appetite of the defense industry complex.


    As an analogy to Russia’s public saber-rattling, Mikhail Fishman cites the rhetoric of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov – except that instead of being addressed to the West, it’s aimed straight at Moscow. Kadyrov recently instructed his security staff to “shoot to kill” Russian federal law-enforcement officers when they are on Chechen territory without his knowledge: “If you are the master of your territory, you should be in control. Enough is enough. We have been humiliated, insulted.” Sound familiar? One subtext here is that Russian FSB agents have been trying to ferret out who orchestrated the February murder of prominent oppositionist Boris Nemtsov. Their prime suspect, Ruslan Geremeyev – a big wheel in Chechen security circles – has remained mysteriously inaccessible. And now Russian media have suddenly reported the case is closed (presumably on orders from Kadyrov’s longtime patron, Vladimir Putin).


    Another Putin protégé, Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, also made remarks about sovereignty this week. First, he announced he will not go to Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, but will attend Belarus’s events instead. Then, he said in his annual address to parliament: “We are closely associated with Russia, we are brothers, but we want to live in our own apartment.” The question is: Will there still be a door between the apartments?


    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 #37

    Letter From the Editors:Sept. 12-18, 2016



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    Truth Is Stranger Than Reality TV – Who Will Be the ‘Survivor’ of Geopolitics? 


    The wildly successful US reality television series “Survivor” is currently in its 33rd season. While this makes it a veteran in the world of television, that is hardly a record for the world of politics. In fact, the Digest has seen more than its fair share of reality TV drama unfold on its pages. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all.


    This week is no exception. Two tribes appearing to work together, at least as an ad hoc alliance, are Russia and the US, which seem to have reached a tentative deal on Syria. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, refused to release the text of the actual agreement, saying it contains very sensitive information, writes Vedomosti. They did, however, outline the general idea: An initial cessation of hostilities for 48 hours, “with an extension of another 48 hours, leading to permanent compliance with this truce,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference following the talks. The cessation of hostilities should hold for seven days. Then, a special center would be set up in Syria “to delineate terrorists from the moderate opposition.” The Russian Aerospace Forces and the US Air Force are planning to work in tandem to target terrorists in certain regions (while the Syrian Air Force would stay out of those areas).


    Experts are skeptical that the ceasefire will hold. The biggest issue is that it would be very difficult to distinguish the moderate Syrian opposition from terrorists. Moreover, the Syrian opposition views the agreement as a betrayal by Washington. Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, the deal makes Russia the winner. Not so, argues Carnegie Moscow Center’s Aleksei Malashenko: “Moscow made several significant concessions in the talks: Assad’s fate is not reflected in the documents, but he is prohibited to fly in [parts of] his own territory – this is a clear signal that his legitimacy is being undermined.” Clearly, lack of trust remains a huge stumbling block.


    Another part of the world swept by political turmoil and asset redistribution is Uzbekistan. After the death of perennial leader Islam Karimov on Sept. 2, acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has emerged as a major player trying to get control over Uzbekistan’s juiciest assets, writes Radio Liberty’s Umid Bobomatov. The acting head of state’s relatives control such cash cows as “foreign trade operations, bank transfers, textile production, the oil and gas sector,” and so on. Now, Mirziyoyev is gunning for assets belonging to the deceased president’s family. According to the Fergana news agency, the government is already looking for evidence of wrongdoing at a company belonging to Karimov’s son-in-law, Timur Tillyayev. An agency source claims that the company will eventually end up in the hands of Mirziyoyev’s sons-in-law.


    Meanwhile, no one is more adept at the reality TV world of politics than Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. In an interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta, Lukashenko talked at length about how he has managed to survive “in the middle of it all.” Being at the crossroads of Eurasian geopolitical games (or the “hammer” that is Russia and the “anvil” that is the EU, as he put it), maintaining a fragile balance is tricky. “So we should not be despised for talking with the West and we should not be pushed away from Russia. We were fated to be in the center, at this crossroads, [and] this is where we have to live,” Lukashenko said. The Minsk negotiating process on finding a resolution to the Ukraine conflict has certainly put Belarus at the center of the world’s attention. Now that the spotlight is on him, can Lukashenko outwit, outplay and outlast?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 18-24, 2014



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    This Week’s Winners and Losers: Poroshenko, Russia, Putin and Belarussian Pineapples


    In any war, there are winners and losers. But that distinction is getting increasingly difficult to make in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. This week, the parties to the conflict sat down at the negotiating table yet again (never mind the failed negotiations earlier in the summer). While some critics bemoaned these attempts as nothing but beating a dead horse (Russia won’t back down on the Crimea, while Kiev will never accept its independence, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta), others are more optimistic. Fyodor Lukyanov, for one, points to the fact that the negotiations are taking place outside of the public sphere. If this enables the sides to put emotions aside and actually resort to some good old-fashioned diplomacy, then maybe not all is lost, he maintains. Expert Igor Semivolos, on the other hand, says that Moscow is simply stalling for time, fully aware that Ukraine’s economy is on the verge of collapse and that sooner or later, Kiev will be forced to make concessions. But even he agrees that the mere fact that talks are taking place (and involve highly placed EU representatives like Catherine Ashton) is already a positive sign.

    Meanwhile, as the human and economic toll of the war grows steadily with each day of the conflict, a solution can’t come quickly enough. By some estimates, 100 soldiers and 50 civilians are killed every day in Donetsk Province alone. These estimates are also most likely understated, since recordkeeping has been rather slipshod in the war-torn region, writes Vedomosti.


    The cost of the conflict is quite great for Russia, too. According to Aleksandr Shmelyov, the so-called “Russian spring,” with its rallying cries of “the Crimea is ours!” and claims of a Russian rebirth, has actually done more harm than good to the “Russian world.” Take, for instance, the fact that many people in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan who used to call themselves Russian are so disgusted with the Ukraine mess that they no longer identify with the Motherland. And instead of bringing Ukraine closer into Russia’s orbit, the “Russian spring” has brought NATO bases in Ukraine even closer to reality.


    Of course, the one true winner here is Putin – by managing to fragment society, and particularly the nationalists and liberals, he has ensured that his hold on power is secure. No wonder Slon.ru dubbed him Fortunato Putin (in a nod to deposed Argentine president Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who launched the disastrous invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982). Of course, unlike his Argentine counterpart, Putin actually came out on top: The Russian opposition is now nonexistent, the people are rallying around the Crimea, and Kiev is about to be backed into a corner thanks to its mounting economic woes.


    There is another winner in the Russia-West standoff. That someone is perennial Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is already looking for ways to cash in on the exchange of sanctions between the EU and Russia. After Moscow barred food imports from the European Union (a move that has already cost Lithuania’s dairy industry 70 million euros), Minsk suddenly found itself in a position of go-between. Belarussian officials are already meeting with their Polish counterparts. On the agenda: sneaking Polish apples into Russia with Belarussian labels on them. What’s more, according to Novaya gazeta, Russia has already seen an influx of thousands of dollars’ worth in “Belarussian” pineapples. Money really does grow on trees in Belarus, apparently.


    So this week’s round, paradoxically, goes in Moscow’s favor. And as long as Minsk keeps those Belarussian mussels coming, it emerges the winner, as well. Stay tuned for a rematch!


    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

     

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37

    Letter From the Editors: September 9-15, 2013


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    “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. . . . [W]e must not forget that God created us equal.” – Russian President Vladimir Putin


    Putin addressed these words to “the American people and their political leaders” in an op-ed published in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 2013. The piece as a whole was an appeal to the US not to use force against Syria in response to the use of toxic gas, but rather to get on board with Russia’s proposal that Damascus hand over its chemical weapons. The irony of this gesture toward America was not lost on many political pundits: For example, Mikhail Minakov argues that the post-Soviet world has come to imagine the West as its moral and political conscience – and yet here is the leader of Russia lecturing the West on the dangers of war.


    Nonetheless, Moscow’s proposal to Damascus was a bold and effective diplomatic move. Fyodor Lukyanov frames it as a win-win for everyone: The US saves face by not having to back up its threat of force, or back down from it; Syria gets to make a gesture of goodwill; and Russia gets to be the country that saved the world from a major war.


    This is an “exceptional” situation for Moscow (we hope the Russian president will pardon the expression). This week also saw an exceptional situation in Moscow: On Sept. 8, voters had an opportunity to choose between at least two mayoral candidates who had a fighting chance – incumbent Sergei Sobyanin and oppositionist Aleksei Navalny. Navalny lost, as expected, but (as Sergei Rusev put it) the elections were fair and the sky didn’t fall. Strong showings by opposition candidates in other cities on the “single day of voting” embolden some to say that the majority United Russia party is losing its edge for good. Vladislav Inozemtsev even calls for a new opposition platform, which he calls “non-united Russia.” Even so, there are suspicions that the ruling elite have more resources in reserve to use in future elections. For example, Konstantin Simonov maintains that United Russia pulled its punches in the regional elections, but “from now on, the authorities are going to bring their best game.”


    On the international scene, one country that’s not pulling punches is China. Recently elected President Xi Jinping just completed a triumphant round of visits to Central Asia, where he signed a series of partnership agreements that will result in new oil field development, pipelines, railroads and other projects. This proactive foreign policy – some commentators even call it aggressive – decisively pulls together the tentative and fragmentary inroads that China had been making in the region, writes Aleksandr Knyazev. By contrast, he calls Russia’s policy “unfocused.”


    We could draw a parallel here to Moscow’s treatment of Belarus this week. Witness the confusing push and pull between fuel and energy minister Arkady Dvorkovich and Rosneft head Igor Sechin: The former announced a cutback in oil supplies to Minsk, then the latter almost immediately contradicted him.


    Partnership relations between big and small countries can be challenging. As Putin says, we are all created equal, but (to quote George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) some of us are more equal than others.


    Laurence Bogoslaw

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #7

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 13-19, 2017



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    The Autumn of the Patriarch – Collapse of Old Alliances and Putin’s Political Fatigue


    Commentators in Russia have been pulling out all the stops to keep the public’s tepid interest in the upcoming presidential election alive. That’s hardly surprising, given that Russia’s perennial regime has no surprises left. The fatigue is obvious – suffice it to recall that last week, Vedomosti reported that Donald Trump had eclipsed Vladimir Putin in the number of Russian media mentions.


    This week, Konstantin Gaaze divides the various political camps in Russia into three groups – the loyalist “Hail Caesar!” party, which essentially sees Putin as a sort of divine ruler; the iron-fisted “Police State Russia”; and “Metasmart Russia,” a sort of Russian geek squad more concerned about KPIs than political intrigue. All three are vying for Putin’s attention with competing platforms, and yet all have their own deep program flaws. So in keeping with current trends, the Russian president may just choose to stay the course after 2018. Gone are the days of reform-minded liberals like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, writes Gaaze. Instead, “Liberals no longer dream of major projects; their only concern is how to get through the day. So we can say without a hint of sarcasm that this seems to be the best option for Vladimir Putin’s fourth term.”


    Like an old timer who just wants to take a nap, the Putin regime seems to be closing in on itself.


    Perhaps trying to stir up memories of Putin’s glorious fire-and-brimstone days, Russian media outlets this week marked the 10-year anniversary of the Russian president’s controversial Munich speech. On Feb. 10, 2007, Putin shocked and awed the West with his diatribe against a unipolar world, raging against everything from NATO’s eastward expansion to the US’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Eastern Europe panicked. Western Europe chafed at the idea that it was merely Washington’s lackey. According to Vyacheslav Kostikov, the Munich speech recalled Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech of 1946, which is considered by many to be the start of the cold war.


    Ten years later, is the West starting to heed Putin’s warning about the dangers of a unipolar world? It would be a bit of a leap to attribute the rise of nationalist sentiment, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to Putin alone. But the trend is obvious – most commentators agree that the old world order is coming apart at the seams.


    A case in point is the collapse of old alliances, such as the Union State of Russia and Belarus. What began as a usual petty squabble over energy prices eventually grew into the reestablishment of border checkpoints between Russia and Belarus – and a media war. Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko apparently fears that Moscow has grown tired of him and wants to send him into involuntary political retirement. (Think Viktor Yanukovich.) According to Denis Lavnikevich, reports came out just before the new year claiming that Lukashenko had thwarted a “palace coup.” This is further evidenced by an unexpected purging of government ranks: “Late 2016 saw the dismissals of the head of the presidential administration and his first deputy; the deputy chiefs of the Armed Forces General Staff and the Internal Affairs Ministry; the head of the Border Committee; and a multitude of lower-ranking officials.” Allegedly, the Belarussian KGB was behind this housecleaning.


    Russia’s relationship with Iran is also starting to show cracks. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin scrapped his Tehran visit at the last moment, apparently in protest over Iran’s agreements with Airbus and Boeing to purchase civilian aircraft to the tidy sum of almost $30 billion. Apparently, Moscow expected Tehran to show some gratitude to Russia for its support over the years and invest in the Sukhoi Superjet instead, writes Oleg Odnokolenko. With Iran starting to play its own geopolitical game in the region, Russia is getting left out in the cold. What would Munich-era Putin have done?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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