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

    Letter From the Editors: March 28-April 3, 2016



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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
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    Move Over, Miss Universe – Putin, Poroshenko and Kadyrov Vie for the Spotlight.


    Talk of world peace today is mostly reserved for beauty pageant contestants – the rest of the world tends to take a more cynical view. The only exception here is politicians, who have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating hopelessly optimistic campaign promises with bona fide threats. Let’s pretend for a minute that all the world’s a stage – and the top politicians this week are beauty contestants vying for the title of most daring, intransigent or hopelessly romantic.


    The first contestant: Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. He opted to skip the swimsuit competition, and stayed home from the Nuclear Security Summit taking place in Washington. According to his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, that was “due to a lack of cooperation with partners on this issue.” Apparently, Moscow is getting increasingly antsy about NATO’s decision to bulk up its forces in Eastern Europe, writes military commentator Vladimir Mukhin. And by all indications, no one plans to spare the Kremlin’s feelings. According to the US European Command, “While Russia has supported some common security efforts in counterterrorism and counternarcotics, these contributions are overshadowed by its disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors in Europe and its violation of numerous agreements.”


    So it’s just as well that Putin decided to skip a trip to Washington.


    Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev will be making his debut in Washington this year. In pageantry terms, he’s the fresh-faced Midwestern contestant who is just excited to be there. Why a personal invitation from President Obama? According to Azerbaijani political expert Rasim Musabekov, Aliyev was invited because “the US wants very much to ward off any potential attempts to illicitly transfer nuclear materials to Iran via Azerbaijan.”


    Our next contestant has had a rough couple of weeks – Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, who also heads to Washington this week. Alas, empty-handed. The political crisis in Kiev shows no sign of abating as an intransigent parliament digs in its heels on a key Minsk agreement requirement – Constitutional reforms. While there were some indications that Poroshenko and his team had managed to come to an agreement with enough political forces to form a new coalition, the potential allies can’t seem to agree on who will be prime minister. It doesn’t help that a substantial number of Supreme Rada deputies are ready to toss both the Minsk agreements and Ukraine’s separatist eastern provinces. But like a true beauty pageant vet, Poroshenko will just have to smile through the pain.


    Georgia may be the dark horse competitor this week, thanks to the overeagerness of Russia’s NATO representative, Aleksandr Grushko. The latter said that admitting Georgia to the alliance “would put Europe on the brink of a large-scale crisis.” Experts are confused as to why Grushko made that statement in the first place, since NATO already made it clear to Georgia that it has no chance of being admitted (despite heavy lobbying from the US and Poland). The diplomat’s remarks are actually a boon for Georgian politicians who want to play the “Russian threat” card in upcoming elections.


    Finally, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov got a good lead on the other contestants after Putin endorsed him for a third term. While many are unhappy with such a move, the Kremlin apparently believes that Kadyrov is keeping things under control in the once-troubled republic, a source explained. But has the situation in the North Caucasus really improved, wonders Sergei Markedonov? The lull in terrorist activity that came out of the Sochi Winter Olympics may be temporary, he says. But what happens when militants who left Russia to wage a holy war in Syria come home? Kadyrov’s crown may tarnish pretty quickly.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-2

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-15, 2017



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    Ringing in the New Year With ‘Fake News’


    The incoming US executive team took a swing at the reputation of the American press during their first press conference of the year, which took place Jan. 11. First, vice-president-elect Mike Pence used the phrase “fake news” to describe a recently published report on alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russian President Putin. Later in the conference, Trump himself interrupted a CNN journalist’s question by saying he didn’t want to speak to media outlets that publish “fake news.”


    The same week, another American institution – the intelligence community – had its reputation impugned, this time by Russian commentators. The Russian press had a field day with a controversial joint report by the NSA, FBI and CIA that claimed the Russian government had influenced the US presidential election (including by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail servers). Political analyst Vladimir Bruter, writing in Izvestia, identified five “fake premises” that underlie the report’s conclusions (for example, that Russia has a media presence in the US significant enough to sway domestic politics).


    However, Bruter does his profession a disservice by overstating the case: “[T]he NSA, the largest US intelligence service, essentially disagreed with the report’s contention that ‘Putin and the Russian government aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting [former] secretary [of state] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.’ ” If we look at the actual report, it reads: “All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”


    A more subtle distortion can be found in Izvestia’s coverage of the press conference mentioned above. Reporters Tatyana Baikova and Aleksei Zabrodin summarized as follows Trump’s response to a question about whether he believed the hacking allegations: “[T]he president-elect said that Russia could have been behind the attacks on Democratic Party servers.” According to The New York Times transcript of the conference, Trump’s response was more assured: “I think it was Russia.”


    Is this discrepancy a mere nuance of meaning, or a sign that the Russian press is trying to make Trump look like a Russophile? Or at least not a Russophobe, like Barack Obama and his outgoing administration? Speaking of which – the latest outrage perpetrated by the latter (as reported in Vedomosti) is that it has expelled 35 Russian diplomats from US soil, in response to the evidence presented in the aforementioned intelligence report. However, the Vedomosti article emphasizes, Putin is not stooping to the level of a symmetric response, so as to leave the door open for friendly relations with incoming president Trump.


    Apparently, Putin is not the only one who wants to make nice with the American billionaire-turned-politician. Arina Tsukanova reports in the SCF Online Journal that Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko is paying a public relations firm called the BGR Group $50,000 a month to “strengthen US-Ukraine relations and encourage private US businesses to invest in Ukraine.”


    If we want to put a positive spin on that, we could call it “soft power.” What about the more objective arena of military power? Matthew Bodner reports that Russia has now scaled back its naval forces in the Syrian theater, shipping off a battlegroup led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. However, this big move was likely a symbolic gesture, Bodner argues: With ceasefire negotiations in the works, “Putin needed a gesture of good faith that would not severely compromise his military options in Syria.”


    Do stories like this represent the new face of news in a “post-truth” world? Well, hang on tight, Digest readers – the year is just beginning.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-2

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-17, 2016



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    Putin Seeks to Burnish Russia’s Image in Foreign Media, but Will His Messaging on Ukrainian, Syrian Crises Alter International Community’s Perception of Russia?


    Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his recent spate of media appearances by giving an interview to the German newspaper Bild. Common to this and his other messages to primarily foreign audiences is the Russian leader’s desire to clear the air with the West. In the Bild interview, he offers historical validation for annexing the Crimea and suggests that the West should change its attitude toward Russia, allowing it to pursue its own interests. However, Russia’s own recently revised National Security Strategy is quite anti-Western, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta, creating the perception that Russia is unwilling to change its attitude toward the West. It remains to be seen whether Putin will attend the Munich Security conference, but if he does, he had better be prepared to bring constructive ideas to the table regarding cooperation with the West, Vladimir Frolov writes.


    Commentator Yevgeny Gontmakher believes that a small window of opportunity for normalizing Russian-Western relations may be opening. He writes that many of the mistakes made during the immediate post-Soviet years concerning Russia’s European integration could be rectified if Russia is offered a special approach to European integration.


    However, a major sticking point in any normalization of Russian-Western relations is the status of the Donetsk Basin and the Minsk agreements for a ceasefire in the region. The contact group for Donetsk Basin settlement is meeting for the first time this year with a new Russian representative, Boris Gryzlov, who held a late-night meeting with Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenoko during a hasty visit to Kiev. The meeting raised eyebrows and hackles among some Ukrainian politicians, who complain that the president is discussing the future of the Donetsk Basin with Moscow behind their backs. Poroshenko, in an effort to put such fears to rest, reiterated that his administration is determined to get the Crimea back from Russia and said that the only acceptable political settlement in the Donetsk Basin is one that results in the complete restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied territories. Time will tell whether future meetings of the contact group will yield new hope for a settlement, and whether any agreements reached during these meetings will bring Russia and the West any closer together.


    Sergei Karaganov argues that despite the souring of relations with the West, 2015 was one of the best years for Russia’s foreign policy. He writes that Russia asserted its interests and made other nations more respectful of them and that it imposed new rules of the game on the West through its tough, principled stance. Karaganov even claims that, “on the whole, the Ukrainian conflict was a political victory for Russia”: It showed the weakness of the European security system and Europe’s institutions. He also believes that Russia’s Syria plans are working “beautifully” and that its antiterrorist operations in Syria are taking the edge off of the confrontation with the West. However, despite Karaganov’s positive assessment of Russia’s Syria operation, Vladimir Frolov maintains that Russia has actually tarnished its image in the Middle East by not remaining neutral in the growing Sunni-Shia divide.


    Whatever 2016 may bring, one thing is certain: It will yield more than a few differences in opinion regarding the many security challenges around the globe, as well as differences in attitude among the various players addressing those challenges.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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