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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 13-19, 2014

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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
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    What Vladimir Lenin Can Teach Us About Social Media

    What are the necessary ingredients for a successful revolution? According to Lenin, it’s the “telegraph, the post and the telephone.” Clearly, even back then, the Bolshevik leader understood that control over information is key to turning the tide in your favor. This week, world leaders stuck to that playbook, with varying degrees of success.

    The Russian side fired some decisive rounds in the information war via a media flurry of activity. President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev all gave interviews to four separate media outlets. Putin’s remarks included such bon mots as: “Unfortunately, many European nations are losing their immunity to the Nazi virus, an immunity that was acquired during the Nuremberg Trials.” The Russian president went on to lament that the Ukrainian crisis looks particularly troubling in this respect (remember Moscow’s official party line, that fascist forces orchestrated an unconstitutional coup in Kiev last winter).

    By comparison, Prime Minister Medvedev sounded downright conciliatory when he spoke with America’s CNBC. Medvedev’s focus was more on international law and the recent sanctions against Russia, which are going to hurt everyone, not just the country they are directed against, he said.

    But the prize for most bellicose rhetoric goes to Nikolai Patrushev, hands down. Speaking with Rossiiskaya gazeta, the Security Council Secretary called the recent tensions in relations with the West a “second cold war” and accused Western powers of plotting to “redivide the world” while keeping Russia in the periphery of global decision-making. Patrushev then took his theories a step further, saying that Washington is also trying to marginalize European powers that “have moved too close to Moscow.”

    If the above sounds like a page out of a 1970s edition of Pravda, then Novaya gazeta’s interview with Boris Litvinov, chairman of the Donetsk people’s republic Supreme Council, is another wrinkle in time. Litvinov discusses the breakaway republic’s planned government structure, lambasts Pyotr Poroshenko’s recently signed law granting the DPR special status – albeit as part of Ukraine – and outlines the DPR’s ideology (echoing Putin when he called for fighting “fascist ideology in all of its forms and manifestations”). Finally, collectivism is a running thread throughout the interview, conducted in the Supreme Council chairman’s hammer- and-sickle decorated office.

    Not to be outdone, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko also met with the press just ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting summit, where he will meet with Vladimir Putin. According to the Ukrainian leader, “It seems we have reached an agreement with the Russians about everything.” He also hinted that next week’s meeting will show how successful those agreements will be. Thus, experts concluded that some sort of private agreement has been reached between Moscow and Kiev.

    According to Aleksei Mukhin, the Milan meeting is strictly pro forma, since Poroshenko is locked in an electoral struggle back home and can’t afford to take any steps that would be perceived as caving in to Russia.

    So it seems that the media war of words is still failing to give any one side the upper hand. Well, what can you expect when “there are no live channels of interaction between the political systems of the European Union and Russia,” says Argumenty i fakty columnist Vyacheslav Kostikov. Despite today’s informational arsenal of “heavy howitzers of global television, the Internet and the capabilities of social networks,” these propaganda salvos are failing to reach their target. One can’t help but wonder, what would Lenin do?

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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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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    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 #36

    Letter From the Editors: September 2-8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #46

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 10-16, 2014

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    Two Presidents in a Boat, to Say Nothing of Ukraine

    “Loneliness and mistrust. Mistrust as the cause of loneliness, and at the same time, its consequence.” Those are the words columnist Andrei Kolesnikov uses to describe Putin’s current state. The same could be said of Russia in general. Finding itself increasingly isolated, Russia seems to be caught in a historical void, stuck between a past that will never return and a future that has failed to materialize. As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stanislav Belkovsky comments that Russia was a victor in the cold war – just like the US and Europe. After all, it was born out of the ruins of the USSR. So what went wrong? Why is the Russian leadership increasingly looking to the past, instead of the future? And who is to blame, Russia or the West? Both, maintains Konstantin Dobrynin. The West failed to welcome Russia into the European family, instead using the former empire’s weakness to its own advantage. Russia, for its part, got lost somewhere in the rubble of the Soviet Union. It failed to create a new identity for itself, hence the growing nostalgia for the past.

    The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics also find themselves increasingly alone. Kiev this week announced it was suspending budgetary payments to the breakaways – meaning pensioners and others in the LPR and DPR who had been receiving social welfare payments will lose all means of support, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. The LPR and DPR leadership was furious with the decision, accusing Kiev of backstabbing its own citizens. According to expert Aleksandr Kazakov, these budget payments were basically the only source of revenue for the quasi-republics.

    To gain recognition, LPR and DPR leaders set off on a “world tour” – or at least, to visit those countries that would have them (i.e., those that have poor relations with the US). That list includes Cuba and Venezuela. The latter recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but will it do the same with Novorossia? Hardly, says political analyst Aleksei Makarkin. Caracas recognized the breakaway Caucasus republics only after Moscow did – and this time, even Russia has yet to give full legitimacy to its pet project in Ukraine. So the LPR and DPR shouldn’t hold their breath.

    Is there a way out of mounting mistrust, loneliness and bitterness? In an interview with Novaya gazeta, Ekho Moskvy radio station’s editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov remains optimistic about Russia’s future. Despite finding himself at loggerheads with the company’s management (Ekho Moskvy is owned by Gazprom Media), Venediktov said he did not see the station being closed down in the near future. He also believes help often comes from unexpected places – such as the ruling elite’s inner circle. As an example, he says both Khrushchev and Gorbachev came from the Politburo. So perhaps Russia’s next reformer is already a familiar face.

    Finally, political analyst Sergei Markov comes to the rescue of yet another lonely soul – US President Barack Obama, who recently suffered a humiliating defeat as Republicans took control of both chambers of the US Congress. In defending Obama’s policies, Markov points out that it’s time Russia paid the US president the respect he’s due. Only then can Russia and the US come together to end the crisis in Ukraine and address other mounting global problems. Ironically, it seems like Obama and Putin have found themselves in the same boat. The question is, what’s their next move?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: July 11-17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 8-14, 2016

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    Biggest Losers of the Week: Yatsenyuk, Medvedev and Kolokoltsev Battle It Out for the Title

    In the game of life – and big politics – there will always be winners and losers. But why should the former get all the attention? Take Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, for instance. He is the undeniable star of Ukraine’s latest political crisis. “Ukrainians consider the current cabinet headed by Arseny Yatsenyuk the worst government in the history of independent Ukraine,” writes Izvestia. His approval rating is at a “laughably low” 1%. And this despite the fact that Yatsenyuk’s National Front came in second in the 2014 parliamentary elections!

    The Supreme Rada has one week to decide what to do with this “political corpse” – that’s when Yatsenyuk will present a report in the Rada on the government’s work since December 2014. Following that, the deputies will have to decide whether to keep him around for another year, or kick him to the curb (along with the cabinet, which is just as unpopular).

    But not everything is as simple as it seems. For now, Yatsenyuk is drawing the people’s ire for declining living standards, continued government corruption and a lack of progress on privatization. But what happens if he is dismissed? According to Vitaly Portnikov, the other ruling coalition parties “will end up in a worst-case scenario: They will be held fully responsible for all of the executive branch’s further actions.” Meanwhile, given how quickly former economic development and trade minister Abromavicius went from zero to hero in the voters’ eyes following his resignation, Yatsenyuk could still rebuild his tarnished reputation just in time for early parliamentary elections. So the biggest loser of Ukrainian politics may have the last laugh yet.

    Will his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev be so lucky? Medvedev is tasked with getting United Russia into the Duma in the upcoming elections. Given the party’s declining popularity, it promises to be an uphill battle. What’s more, Medvedev gets to take the heat from the left – the Communists and A Just Russia – for a declining economic situation. And this time, United Russia is “headed by Medvedev, not Putin. All their criticisms will target the prime minister, while Putin will remain above the fray during a crisis,” writes commentator Tatyana Stanovaya.

    As if that weren’t enough, PM Medvedev got to be Russia’s envoy to the Munich Security Conference. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was basically laughed off the stage as he attempted to toe the official line and justify Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. This year, the atmosphere isn’t much cozier (let’s just say Sen. John McCain is one of the participants). But Medvedev is seen as “the West’s Russian sweetheart,” writes The Moscow Times. And his mission is to seek the end of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Even the Kremlin realizes this will not be an easy task: According to political analyst Mark Galeotti, “were the Russians expecting a diplomatic triumph, Putin likely would have gone.”

    The final biggest loser of the week is trying to keep a handle on things back home. Dubbed “the worst internal affairs minister in Russia’s entire post-Soviet history” by Oleg Kashin, Vladimir Kolokoltsev gets called to task for letting the Chechen branch of the ministry he supposedly oversees run rampant in the Russian capital. According to Kashin, the people who “get involved in the vilest criminal affairs report to Vladimir Kolokoltsev.” The murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov is just one instance that comes to mind. And no matter how Kolokoltsev may rationalize that terrifying trend, the fact is he no longer controls his subordinates. The tail is wagging the dog.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #10

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

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    Ramzan Kadyrov Rushes to Ukraine’s Rescue; and Germany’s Unenviable Position

    What do Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovich and Ramzan Kadyrov have in common? Besides a penchant for tightening the screws, the above troika shared their feelings with the press this week. Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, missing for a week (ever since he disappeared in Kharkov), resurfaced in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he gave  a press conference stating that he is still the only legitimate leader of Ukraine. Referring to the new government regime as “fascist thugs,” the exiled leader condemned their Western supporters and called for an end to the violence that has engulfed Ukraine.

    Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, not to be outdone, chimed in with a call to friendship among the peoples – Russian, Chechen and Ukrainian – on the pages of Izvestia. He also harshly condemned Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh for calling on Chechen outlaw Doku Umarov to intensify terrorist attacks against Russia.

    In a press appearance of his own from Novo-Ogaryovo, Vladimir Putin supported Yanukovich, lamented the difficult fate of simple Ukrainians over the past few geopolitically charged centuries, and offered his support to Yanukovich, as reported by Nezavisimaya gazeta. At the same time, Putin struck a conciliatory tone on the Crimea, stating that even though the Russian Federation Council this week authorized him to use force if necessary, that time has not yet come.

    Kiev doesn’t seem to be buying, however – the new government has announced a mass mobilization and training exercises to be held across Ukraine. Some experts, such as Viktor Davydov of the Moscow Times, are already comparing Putin’s appetites to those of Hitler and drawing parallels between the Crimea and the Austrian Anschluss. Yulia Latynina, always one to look on the practical side of things, draws up her own list of pros and cons on annexing the Crimea – and declares the price too high for Russia. Making the disputed peninsula a part of Russia is also going to pose some financial and purely infrastructural costs, writes Kommersant – from bringing pensions in line with the Russian average to figuring out how to bypass Ukraine to get gas and other necessities to the cut-off region.

    Finally, the Crimean crisis has spooked some of Russia’s CIS neighbors. Moldova, for instance, is calling on NATO troops to make sure that Russia doesn’t repeat the Crimean scenario with Transnistria – another long-simmering territorial dispute.

    The EU, on the other hand, is more spooked by the prospect of introducing sanctions against Russia, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. Germany in particular is going to feel the sting, since Russia happens to be the fourth largest partner for the German machine-building industry. Experts point out that Europe is being pressured into punishing Russia economically by the US – which has very little at stake, unlike the Europeans. Will economic implications triumph over political considerations? It can’t be ruled out. After all, to quote George Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 21-27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: April 24-30, 2017

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    ‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’ – Understanding the Inner Workings of the Kremlin and the French Election

    While the French presidential election has only been through its first round of voting, and the Russian presidential election is a year away, some interesting parallels are already emerging between the two. The starkest difference is of course the number of candidates: The French election featured four leading candidates who “were virtually neck and neck in the polls,” making any predictions as to who will make it into the final round too close to call. Russia essentially has one candidate – Putin. And even he has yet to officially announce his bid, says Prof. Valery Solovei in an interview with The New Times. This ambiguity is feeding a behind-the-scenes power struggle within the elite: “If the candidate is Putin, there’s one agenda. If there’s a different candidate, the agenda is entirely different. It’s assumed right now that Putin is almost sure to run. Still, there’s a certain measure of uncertainty.”

    According to Solovei, the Russian elite are divided into two camps – the security clan and the technocrat clan. While the security clan has some old faces like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, the technocrats have fresh blood, as exemplified by Anton Vaino, the new presidential chief of staff (who replaced another political doyen, Sergei Ivanov) and Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s new domestic policy chief. However, according to the expert, these newcomers share a major flaw: Neither one has an independent agenda.

    Meanwhile, the masses are clearly getting restless (as the March 26 rallies have shown), and the same old TV propaganda just isn’t cutting it anymore. Even corruption – an issue that official television channels have consistently relied upon to mobilize the public – isn’t doing the trick, writes Tatyana Stanovaya. According to her, the wave of high-profile arrests that continues to this day (remember former economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev?) is being used by the FSB to establish control over the country. She points out that despite a wave of corruption exposés sweeping almost every agency in Russia, the FSB itself has so far remained suspiciously above reproach. The only official who has dared point the finger at it – the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Denis Sugrobov – just got 22 years in prison. Coincidence?

    As experts keep wondering whether Putin will run and whether the Kremlin’s “scorched earth” political policy will come back to haunt Russia once its perennial president finally departs (as Mikhail Khodorkovsky warns in an interview with Yevgenia Albats), the French have a little more certainty in their political future. It’s now clear that the final round will be a face-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Terrified of a Le Pen victory, the French political elite are rallying around Macron, writes Stanovaya. So by all indications, on May 7, he will clinch the presidency. This creates another headache for Moscow, which chose the path of maximum hostility with Macron in an effort to help François Fillon in the race. The Kremlin unleashed the full might of its propaganda machine against Macron – from spreading media stories about him being a “US agent” to hacking his party’s servers (as Macron’s campaign headquarters reported in March).

    But why go after a candidate who initially presented a conciliatory position on Russia, wonders Vladimir Frolov? After all, “when he declared his candidacy, Macron outlined foreign policy positions that were not hostile to Moscow. He argued that Russia must play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Syria. . . . He favored renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia.” Perhaps this is yet another cryptic move by the Kremlin’s secretive elite that mere mortals are not meant to understand.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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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
    Issue #13 Table of Contents

    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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