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

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 1-7, 2016



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    Issue #31 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #31 Table of Contents

    Seeing Double: How Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Hijacked Politics


    Russian officials this week seem to be suffering from multiple personality disorder, like Sybil in the eponymous cult film. First case in point: The actual legal status of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company. According to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “Officially, this is not a state-owned company; that much is clear. But naturally, there are several viewpoints on the matter.” That sort of answer does not give much clarity. Meanwhile, Rosneft is still hoping to throw its hat in the ring when it comes to privatizing Bashneft – another state-owned asset. The company’s wishy-washy legal status means it adapts whichever “identity” is convenient for it (read: the Russian government) in a particular scenario, like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spawned by the bureaucracy machine.”


    Russia’s two most famous Igors – Sechin and Shuvalov – seem to be suffering from a similar condition. They just can’t decide whether they’re coming or going. Plainly put, despite calls for Russian officials to abandon foreign property and vacation only at home in Mother Russia, Shuvalov still owns a luxury apartment in London. Meanwhile, Sechin’s yacht (apparently named after his new young wife) continues to sail the seas of Europe, writes RBC Daily. Sechin is even threatening to sue Novaya gazeta and other publications for “disseminating materials containing inaccurate information.”


    Maybe Igor Ivanovich should relax. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, such media leaks are nothing but a rousing game of “bait the FSB,” meant to show “that even if it wanted to, the FSB would be unable to get its hands on these top officials and Putin’s closest friends.” Despite a spate of high-ranking arrests last week, it seems there still are people who remain off limits in Russia.


    The most famous multiple personality case this week does not hail from Russia. Rather, he is America’s own Donald Trump. Some Russian officials are clearly expecting him to be the deus ex machina that finally gets Russian-American relations out of their perpetual rut. They see “the Donald’s” promises to abandon the US’s NATO commitments and “take a look at” the Crimea situation as positive signals.


    Many experts, however, are not optimistic that Trump is the solution: “Proposing marriage does not mean getting married, but even if the conversation turns to ‘marriage,’ Trump is already on his third – and he has not been noted for fidelity, including in the political sense,” writes Pavel Demidov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. His colleague Mikhail Troitsky agrees: “I would advise Putin to be cautious with Trump. He is extremely unpredictable, and we don’t know who, for example, his national security adviser might be. What if he goes for someone really hawkish to prove to the bureaucracy he’s a mainstream guy?”


    Meanwhile, Russia’s complicated relationship with Turkish President Erdogan just got even more confusing. Once barely known outside of expert circles, Erdogan became the favorite cartoon villain of Russian television screens following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015. Then, things got even more complicated: Turkey aborted a coup attempt, and Erdogan apologized for the incident with the jet (not necessarily in that order). The Turkish president quickly went from villain to hero fighting a “fifth column.” So what’s a confused TV audience to think? According to Grigory Golosov, “Erdogan is neither good nor bad. He made an immense contribution to Turkey’s progress toward democracy. And as often happens, he is now also the biggest threat to Turkish democracy.” How is he a threat? “Since the failed coup, Erdogan’s political clout is so great that he could become a dictator,” writes Golosov. Looks like Erdogan now stands at a crossroads and will have to choose. Or does the Turkish president have a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of his own going on?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing 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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    Issue #19-20 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #19-20 Table of Contents

    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 #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 21-27, 2016



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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
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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 #31-32

    Letter From the Editors: July 28-Aug. 10, 2014



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    Issue #31-32 Letter From the Editors
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    Out of the Cauldron, Into the Fire: The Threats of Insurgency, Inertia and Isolation

     

    A key term in this week’s double portion of news from Ukraine is the Russian word kotyol, which has the literal meaning of “cauldron” but takes on a special sense in the realm of military tactics: In that context, it means “trap” or “encirclement.” In other words, if you try to get out – and even if you don’t – you’ll get burned. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Ukrainian Army troops landed in that very situation when they tried to secure the border between southeastern Ukraine and Russia. Battling their way along a narrow strip of territory, they found themselves hemmed in on all sides by separatist militia. However, this entrapment had an unexpected outcome: The soldiers turned to the separatists for help. Agreeing to lay down their arms, the troops were transported across the border into Russia, where they were given food, shelter and medical care. Eyewitnesses even reported that upon parting at the border, the Ukrainian soldiers embraced and shook hands with the insurgents!


    On the domestic front in Kiev, a different kind of kotyol also sparked a precious moment of unity. After the main parties in the Supreme Rada dissolved the ruling coalition in late July (ostensibly to empower President Poroshenko to call new elections), the legislative body found itself unable to pass any new legislation. This impasse rekindled smoldering discontent among the Ukrainian populace, but held a silver lining: It prompted the president to rally lawmakers to launch long-awaited economic and political reforms.


    On the other hand, a no-exit situation by no means always yields such felicitous results. As the classic Chinese military strategist Sun-tsu wrote in The Art of War, an enemy will fight back hardest when cornered. Vladimir Putin knows this lesson well, from his own boyhood experience of cornering a rat in a stairwell. The Russian president is now proving that principle to the world by issuing a decree on food export restrictions against the West, in response to the latest round of economic sanctions imposed as punishment for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.


    This decree is far from the only Russian backlash tactic worrying the West. For example, Rory Stewart, chair of the defense select committee in the British House of Commons, expressed concerns that Moscow may avenge itself through cyberattacks, information warfare and the use of “irregular troops” (i.e., those without insignia, like the “little green men” who popped up in the Crimea back in February and March). Meanwhile, the Russian authorities seem to be going full steam ahead waging “information warfare” against their own people, according to oppositionist Vladimir Ryzhkov: By further tightening legislation on NGOs, lawmakers are sending the clear message that civil society is the enemy, whereas (Ryzhkov contends) organizations that uphold human rights and freedoms actually bolster the state’s legitimacy and effectiveness. We can’t help wondering how cyberfreedom advocate Edward Snowden feels about that, now that he has secured a three-year residence permit in Russia?


    Perhaps, still a Westerner at heart, he feels psychologically removed from the domestic and international clashes in which Russia is embroiled. These conflicts are certainly reverberating in the CIS countries, as Azerbaijan launches new aggressive maneuvers against Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan shies away from accession to the Customs Union. And yet, as an editorial in Ekspert argues, the US and Europe are oddly complacent as casualties mount up in Ukraine and elsewhere. Will the West be suddenly hemmed in by a world war, as it was exactly 100 years ago – or will it merely continue to stew quietly in an isolationist “cauldron” of its own making?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 10-16, 2014



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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
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    The Crimean Supreme Council’s declaration of independence on March 11 was a political shot heard round the world, as the autonomous republic gears up for a March 16 referendum to determine whether its people wish to join Russia. A Kiev court fought back against separatism by issuing a ruling to arrest Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov and parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov. Meanwhile, Crimean Tatars want no part of the referendum, although the newly installed authorities in the autonomous republic are offering unprecedented promises. On the Russian side, economic experts warn of the financial impact of Crimean annexation: Igor Yurgens tallies the losses from threatened Western sanctions, and Natalya Zubarevich explains the consequences of increased subsidies from Russia’s federal budget. Commentator Kirill Rogov says that the resulting long-term isolation of Russia from Europe would make the Crimea a “Trojan horse” for ordinary Russians: As in the Soviet days of “confrontation with the West,” it would lead to economic ruin – a technologically backward country driven by commodities exports.


    Aleksandr Rubtsov expresses a strikingly similar opinion in this week’s Russian News section, comparing the country to a nuclear dreadnought that is suddenly reversing direction in a “global regatta” of social and economic progress.


    The Digest’s second feature explores perspectives on what repercussions Moscow’s recent actions could have on an international scale. Eduard Lozansky urges the West to engage positively with Russia to avert a repeat of the cold war. Sergei Markov is also concerned about a cold war, but a new kind: geopolitical, rather than ideological. He says the US should stop pushing its own economic agenda in Ukraine, and that both Moscow and Washington should support a neutral Ukraine. Disarmament expert Vladimir Orlov points out that as the West tries to oppose Moscow’s expansionism on the grounds of international law – by invoking the 1994 “Budapest memorandum” in which the US, Great Britain and Russia pledged to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine – it finds itself in a bizarre catch‑22: If Western countries support the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev, they implicitly acknowledge that the Ukrainian regime that signed the memorandum is no longer viable – and, therefore, the document itself is no longer valid. This loophole certainly gives the Russian authorities legal support – as if they didn’t already have overwhelming political support!


    As evidence of that support, Nezavisimaya gazeta’s Aleksandra Samarina and Aleksei Gorbachov recall the 446‑1 State Duma vote in favor of intervention in the Crimea. At the same time, they see signs that Russia’s nonparliamentary opposition opposes this policy, but is keeping quiet for now in anticipation of the Moscow City Duma elections in September. As if to belie this claim, Novaya gazeta published a strong statement this week by Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, in which he accuses the Russian authorities of trying to destabilize Ukraine by discrediting its fledgling government. In a similar vein, Yulia Latynina cites past examples to show how Putin is fabricating imaginary “fascists” (i.e., the new authorities in Kiev) to justify aggression in Ukraine. Georgy Bovt goes even further, claiming that Putin’s pragmatic concerns are being overridden by his thirst for power and revenge against the West, not to mention his paranoia about NATO expansion.


    Speaking of which, a Kommersant source in the US State Department says that it’s “basically a done deal” that the North Atlantic alliance will offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan (the next step toward full accession) if Russia annexes the Crimea.


    On the other side of the world, China and Japan are watching the situation closely. Both are wary of rocking the diplomatic boat with Russia, but China in particular does not want to shelve the economic development plans recently worked out with Ukraine.


    Stay tuned for further developments!


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

     

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #5

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2017



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    Issue #5 Letter From the Editors
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    Trump and Putin’s Phone Call Heard Round the World; With ‘America First,’ Who Will Get Left Behind?


    This week marked the first president-to-president telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Statements in the Russian media are positive overall: Legislators and commentators view Trump as determined to normalize relations with Moscow. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, is especially upbeat about antiterrorism accords that resulted from the conversation: “Without hyperbole, this is what the entire sober-minded world expects from Russian-American cooperation. In addition, these agreements offer hope for more wide-ranging antiterrorism cooperation as a whole. This is a serious shift compared to the course of the previous US administration, which essentially shielded terrorist groups in Syria to uphold its own interests in the region.” Duma Deputy Aleksei Pushkov is optimistic about economic cooperation as well, and praises the warm tone of the presidents’ talk. Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute for Political Expertise, is confident that Trump is genuinely interested in improving relations with Moscow and will actually deliver on his promises.


    The topic of anti-Russian sanctions was conspicuously absent from the Putin-Trump conversation. This stands to reason, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, since the sanctions are a symptom, not the cause, of the tension that has marred Russian-American relations for the last several years. Even so, Andrei Akulov reports that Europe has been abuzz about the sanctions since Trump’s inauguration. Now that Russian-American rapprochement seems imminent, European leaders are saying (and writing, and tweeting) that it’s time to lift the sanctions, especially since they have been economically detrimental to the Old World.


    Other countries, too, need to be wary of warming relations between Moscow and Washington. For example, Oleg Morozov of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee warns that for today’s Ukraine, the prospect is almost deadly. “The present Kiev regime, which emerged thanks to the support of the US State Department, may collapse under the weight of a Russian-US thaw.” Perhaps Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s fear of abandonment was what led to the sudden escalation of hostilities in the Donetsk Basin shortly after Putin’s conversation with Trump? This is what many Russian experts think. After all, even Kiev’s defense minister, Stepan Poltorak, acknowledged that it was the Ukrainian Army that “went on the offensive,” prompting heavy artillery shelling from both sides. Or, as Rostislav Ishchenko argues, was Kiev’s aggression merely a ploy for domestic support, to bolster Poroshenko’s faltering coalition in parliament?


    A shot fired in a different part of the world may have farther-reaching global consequences. As Peter Korzun reports, Iran carried out a medium-range ballistic missile test on Jan. 29 from a site near Semnan, east of Tehran. Iran claims the test did not violate the 2015 landmark UN resolution easing sanctions against Iran, because the missile is not designed to carry a nuclear warhead. However, US officials and legislators are calling the test unacceptable and vow to hold Tehran accountable. This attitude closely coincides with that of Trump, who has called the Iran nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever negotiated.” But can Trump’s attitude be changed by his apparently budding friendship with Vladimir Putin? According to commentator Andrei Ontikov, “Politicians and experts believe that Russia will be able to persuade the new head of the White House to keep Washington’s signature on the document, because that would allow the US to improve cooperation with Tehran on resolving other important issues for the Middle East region.” Of course, this would benefit Russia, too, which has been cultivating an alliance with Iran for years.


    Nevertheless, warns Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, Russia should not expect too much from Trump because “he’s an American president, first and foremost.” Lukashenko adds: “And he is not as stupid as many people think.” This dubious compliment may lead the rest of the world to wonder: If this man puts America first, which of us will get left behind?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 14-20, 2016



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    Step Aside, Old Guard – New Guard Is Stepping In


    Throughout the world, the lines of power are being redrawn. Ukraine is one example. Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk has finally conceded he is willing to step down (after he retained his post by the skin of his teeth just a few weeks ago) – but the question is: Who will replace him? Meanwhile, President Poroshenko is reasserting Ukraine’s sovereignty in his new Security Concept, which emphasizes the need to protect the country from Russia’s attempts to destabilize it. Aleksandr Sharkovsky cautions that this is not so much a power move on Kiev’s part as a bid to win protection and economic assistance from the West: “Kiev’s calculation is obvious: to declare war on Moscow, engage in minimal hostilities and then immediately turn to the West for protection from the ‘Russian aggressor.’ Once the fighting starts, no one will be able to determine which side started it.” In other words, this already troubled corner of Eastern Europe could become the site of active confrontation between the age-old rivals, the USSR (oops, we meant Russia!) and the West.


    But speaking of that age-old confrontation, some people in Russia unapologetically long for the days of the Soviet Union. Dmitry Agranovsky speaks for that contingent in the March 17 issue of Sovetskaya Rossia: “To us, the Soviet Union will always be our motherland, and losing your motherland is like losing a loved one.” Agranovsky reminds readers of a series of referenda held throughout the Soviet republics exactly 25 years ago, in which the vast majority of voters supported the preservation of the USSR.


    One of the subjects on which Agranovsky waxes nostalgic is the power the immense nation used to have: “The Soviet Union was able to quickly mobilize and concentrate immense resources – military as well as economic – wherever necessary.” In the same vein, former prime minister of Russia Igor Ivanov writes that in the past, the equal strength of the US and the USSR, which dwarfed that of any other nations, maintained stability in the world. “During the cold war, relations between the Kremlin and the White House were the prime axis of global politics.” However, he continues, “in the 21st century, they are an important but far from defining element of the global international system.” Ivanov concludes that the former superpowers must make room for other players in the global arena.


    As if to confirm Ivanov’s message, Aleksandr Shustov and Aleksandr Knyazev write about recent efforts led by Turkey and China to expand their diplomatic, military and economic presence in Central Asia. Many of these initiatives, both authors argue, are reducing Russia’s influence in the region.


    This contention brings us to the week’s main story: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, leaving regional forces to step in and prepare for a new alignment of power. Some may belittle the meaning of Moscow’s entire campaign – for example, Tatyana Stanovaya writes that the purpose all along was to show off Russia’s military capabilities and throw its geopolitical weight around. However, even Stanovaya acknowledges – and other commentators almost unanimously agree – that the Syria operation has revived Russian-American cooperation and elevated Russia’s standing in the world. For example, according to Viktor Litovkin: “[T]he very fact that collaboration exists between the two countries’ militaries shows that the Russians have forced the Americans to respect them.”


    So, these bipolar partners may not be calling all the tunes, but perhaps they are still leading the dance?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: July 6-12, 2015



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    Russia in Crisis Mode: The ‘Presumption of Trust’ and the Quest for Geopolitical Standing.

    The first feature of this week’s Current Digest focuses on a series of laws adopted during the Russian State Duma’s spring session. One of the more controversial of these gives the police expanded powers to use force, cordon off areas and use other measures to protect public order. These powers rest on the “presumption of trust” in law-enforcement officers to use their judgment to deal with unforeseen situations.


    Oleg Kashin comments that such legislative initiatives “would be appropriate only in a prerevolutionary situation” and “give off a very ominous impression amid today’s placid domestic situation.” Furthermore, he adds, the criteria for using force are so loosely defined that President Putin could at any moment turn the police against any of his obedient followers (such as State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who made the news this week by referring to Western leaders as “sad clowns”).


    Curiously, Ukraine seems to be moving in a similar direction when it comes to the “presumption of trust” in law enforcement. In the wake of the recent appointment of Valery Gritsak as head of the USS (a security veteran who seems to enjoy trust in many quarters, judging by praise from right-winger Dmitry Yarosh, Georgian-president-turned-Ukrainian-governor Mikhail Saakashvili, and others), word has it in Kiev that an array of bills are in the works to expand the special services’ powers in various arenas.


    Elsewhere in the CIS, Russia is hoping to win the trust of Tajikistan as it solicits the Central Asian republic’s accession to the budding Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow is even granting a measure of amnesty on some migration violations – mainly to Tajik students enrolled at Russian universities. But Dushanbe is holding out for more, such as a pledge from Russia to help build the Rogun Hydroelectric Station.


    On the global stage, Putin drew some attention this week by reaching out by phone to several European leaders, including Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (who subsequently called his main creditor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel). The Russian leader’s overtures are a bid for worldwide trust, argues Tatyana Stanovaya: They are part of “the global standoff in which Putin assigns himself the role of the great force of good, justice, spirituality and order.”


    In what could be seen as another manifestation of trying to win the trust of the world – or at least a major part of it – Russia hosted a dual BRICS/SCO summit in Ufa. Fittingly enough, it took place during the very days when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was hosting its Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Finland (an event to which six prominent members of the State Duma, among them Naryshkin, were excluded). The timing of this event supports Dmitry Trenin’s contention that having been spurned by the West, Russia is now trying to align itself with the “non-West.” However, Trenin cautions, in doing so Russia cannot be so presumptuous as to assume that the rest of these countries will rally around it to oppose the US and Europe. They all have their own interests, based on values that may be more different from Russia’s than Russia’s are from the West’s.


    At the same time, Russia cannot confine its own interests to the (geo)political. It has the more mundane issue of day-to-day survival to think about, too. Hence the development of economic ties with China, including the controversial possibility of leasing land to the PRC in Russia’s Far East (characterized by Yulia Latynina as “giving up Russian land and Russian sovereignty to pay for China’s support of the current regime”). In the interests of material well-being and political stability, can Moscow presume to trust Beijing?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • New Issue Highlights

    Current Digest of the Russian Press #10 (March 3-9, 2014)


    Tatarstan ‘Peacemaker’ Delegation Gets Chilly Reception From Crimean Tatars


    Delegations from Tatarstan have been frequenting the Crimea of late for talks with the local authorities. Find out why the latest Kazan ‘peacemaker’ delegation got a chilly reception on the embattled peninsula.


    Why Germany thinks sanctions against Russia are a bad idea


    As possible EU sanctions against Russia loom, Berlin has the most at stake if they go into effect (for starters, Germany’s trade exports with Russia have doubled since 2009); here’s what else Germany stands to lose.


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