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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2016

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    Issue #44 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #44 Table of Contents

    To the Brink: From the Return of Checkpoint Charlie, to the Point of No Return in Russian-US Relations

    In an article dedicated to the current sad state of Russian-US relations, Dmitry Yevstafyev outlines four layers that comprise a healthy bilateral relationship: political contacts, diplomatic communication, interaction within the format of global institutions and, finally, unofficial contacts between former political “heavyweights” (think Robert McNamara and Yevgeny Primakov). Right now, all four links in the chain are broken. And while Yevstafyev blames “Twitter diplomacy” for ruining the age-old art of expert negotiators hammering out solutions away from the prying eyes of social media, it seems the author most laments the overall loss of our ability to communicate. Even in the 1970s, cold war confrontation proceeded along clearly established ground rules. The current situation is more reminiscent of the 1950s, “when Soviet and US tanks faced off near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and various scenarios for delivering preventive nuclear strikes were discussed.”

    In fact, with the threat of nuclear war looming larger than ever, the UN First Committee has approved a measure to ban nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t look like the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals are about to step back from the brink. Addressing a lack of trust between Russia and the US, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev laid the blame squarely at Washington’s door: “We cannot help but wonder what sort of categories Washington thinks in by placing Russia on a par with ISIS and the Ebola virus in its National Security Strategy.”

    Yet according to Aleksandr Golts, Moscow is hardly interested in coming to terms with Washington on nuclear weapons, since its nuclear arsenal remains the Kremlin’s main foreign policy tool. Whether it’s designing next-generation nuclear subs or leaking the allegedly “secret” Status‑6 nuclear weapon (as it did last year), Moscow is leaning heavily on one of the few tools left at its disposal. And just in case anyone thinks this is a bluff, Vladimir Putin has been hard at work dismantling “his earlier reputation as a rational man by constantly hinting that if push comes to shove, he is prepared to ‘press the button.’ ” Of course, using nuclear weapons to achieve superpower status instead lands Russia in the same camp as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But, as Golts warns, “When Kim Jong Un blackmails his neighbors with a few [nuclear] warheads, the result could be a regional catastrophe. Moscow’s nuclear blackmail could destroy the entire planet.”

    Could it be that Russian leaders are finally starting to come to their senses? First, during last week’s meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin clearly struck a conciliatory tone, stating that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. Then, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that if controversial new antiterrorism legislation and the Law on Foreign Agents are being perceived so negatively by the public, then “for us, the government, that is a serious shortcoming.” Are these signs of a thaw? Hardly, believes political analyst Nikolai Petrov. “Instead of offering something positive, you first scare people with a bigger negative. . . . Then you dial back the negative, which makes them happy – not because you gave them anything, but because you took away less,” he explains.

    One big negative in the CIS this week is the Ukrainian public’s reaction to the asset declarations filed by Ukrainian officials. While the average Ukrainian is struggling to pay for groceries and other basic items, the powers that be are rolling in unprecedented luxury. Some of the items declared include: a church; a “ticket to space” worth $1.5 billion; as well as “collections of paintings, carpets, diamonds, antiques, yachts and airplanes, dozens of apartments and hundreds of hectares of land.” The public’s patience is clearly wearing thin, and “bitter sarcasm among the public could turn to aggression,” warns political expert Andrei Zolotaryov. So that ticket to space might come in handy after all.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #23

    Letter From the Editors: June 6-12, 2016

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    Issue #23 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #23 Table of Contents

    Follow the Leader on a Geopolitical Scale: Who Will Be the Last Player Standing?

    A game of “follow the leader” is afoot in Eurasia and beyond! In Eastern Europe, EU countries and NATO members are currently following Washington’s lead, if you believe officials like Igor Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Council’s international affairs committee. In his opinion, “We might have doubted the Europeans’ death wish (read: willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of US interests)***but the aviation training program for German, British and Belgian pilots shows that they will soon be flying aircraft with tactical nuclear weapons on board.”   

    Apparently, NATO’s continued eastward expansion and ramped up military presence in the region is putting Moscow a little bit on edge. Such anxiety isn’t reserved for staunch Putinists: Even Mikhail Gorbachev said that “the window to a nuclear-free world that was cracked open in Reykjavik in 1986 is being slammed shut and locked down before our very eyes.” The two largest nuclear states – the US and Russia – are quick to point the finger at each other. According to Gen. Philip Breedlove (now-former commander of US forces in Europe), “Russia***represents a long-term threat to the very existence of the United States and its partners in Europe.” For his part, President Putin’s response to calls for easing geopolitical tensions was brusque, as always – “We weren’t the ones who started it.”

    Meanwhile, in their own game of “follow the leader,” nations like China, North Korea and Pakistan are taking a wait-and-see approach on ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty: If the US hasn’t done so yet, why should they, wonders military expert Viktor Litovkin.

    Military confrontation aside, some states are beginning to gang up on Russia economically by throwing a challenge to its “national treasure” – Gazprom. This week, Poland announced it will seek independence from Russian gas after 2022, when its contract with Gazprom expires. Warsaw is joining two other unsatisfied customers – Minsk and Kiev – in their struggle to get a price reduction. Many experts believe such statements are merely part of a negotiating game. “Europe has no alternative to Russian gas for the next two to three years,” says expert Ivan Andriyevsky. But after that, it’s anyone’s game, and who knows who will play the lead.

    That is why Russia needs to get serious about building bridges with China, writes Yekaterina Zabrodina. Following a recent Valdai International Discussion Club meeting, it became clear that relations with the West continue to remain frosty at best, so hopes for quick normalization have been dashed. However, a recent forum in Shanghai showed just “how many discrepancies and misunderstandings there are” between Russia and China, says international affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov. If Russia is serious about its turn to the east, it has its work cut out for it.

    On the steppes of Central Asia, a shocking act rocked the seemingly stable Kazakhstan to the core: Gunmen attacked two gun shops and a military base. The unofficial death toll stands at 30. Meanwhile, both the Kazakh authorities and experts in Kazakhstan and beyond are flummoxed by this brazen act. Who was behind it, and what was their motive? Theories range from a Russian trail to ISIS involvement. But most experts and commentators agree that this incident highlighted just how much Kazakhstan – a prosperous and calm nation, compared to its neighbors – is dependent on the Yelbasy, its national leader. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is nearing 75, and as Oleg Kashin puts it, “Kazakh political stability is still limited by how long the founder of the Kazakh state is going to live.” That is indeed a game of “follow the leader” that could end very badly.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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