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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #19-20

    Letter From the Editors: May 4-17, 2015

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

    Victory Day 2015: More Than the Usual Pomp Amid Not Quite the Usual Circumstances

    Russia marked the May 9 Victory Day holiday with more splendor than usual, significantly upping the amount of military hardware and soldiers participating in the military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. The reason for the extra helping of grandiosity in this year’s pageantry is that 2015 marks 70 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany. Also, the holiday serves as a convenient occasion for the Kremlin to score additional propaganda points by flexing some military muscle at a time when Russia is feeling threatened by the West.

    The curious phenomenon of honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend their homeland by proudly parading instruments of war has struck more than one Russian commentator as a bit peculiar. Aleksandr Rubtsov warns that “celebration of victory must not turn into a celebration of war, just as showcasing defense capabilities must not turn into a demonstration of militant aggression and pure parabellum.” He believes the Kremlin has co-opted the solemn commemoration of the tragedy of World War II by using over-the-top patriotic messaging to further its own self-serving ideology and agenda. Mikhail Zygar presents a detailed analysis of that messaging by parsing Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speeches over the years. He observes that Putin uses nuanced narratives of the victory over fascism to frame whatever concerns him in the present day, be it the threat of international terrorism, the overreach of a superpower in a unipolar world, the need to update the global security architecture or the resurgence of “fascism” in certain places (e.g., in Ukraine).

    While in the past the Red Square military parade has been a source of national pride by drawing large numbers of influential world leaders to Moscow, this year’s gathering featured only a handful of rather minor global leaders willing to associate with the beleaguered Vladimir Putin, in light of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and activities in Ukraine. The standout guest this year was China’s Xi Jinping, who in addition to reviewing the military parade also struck deals with Putin and other post-Soviet republic leaders during his visit to the region. Some analysts – Kirill Benediktov, for one – see the emerging Sino-Russian relationship as promising for Russia, while others, such as Georgy Kunadze, are wary of Russia becoming China’s junior partner. Yulia Latynina goes so far as to say: “China is not Russia’s ally. It’s the main beneficiary of the Russian authorities’ self-destructive policies.” Whatever the nature of China-Russia ties, something is definitely kindling between the two regional powers.

    Relations with Russia and the West, on the contrary, are fizzling out. US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian president in Sochi but found little common ground during their four-hour meeting. Putin also failed to make substantive headway on differences with the West during talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow. Vladimir Frolov predicts the same storyline will continue for the foreseeable future. This is especially true as long as there is destabilization in Ukraine, which is what Russia is seeking to maintain to its advantage, according to Sergei Taran.

    We can only hope that Putin does not share Othello’s tragic flaw, and that a modicum of common sense will prevail over fanciful suspicions about the post-Soviet space’s faithfulness to Russia fueled by cunning Iagos among Russia’s siloviki who want to paint the West as a villain. Otherwise, Russia’s leader might find himself echoing Shakespeare’s tragic hero: Farewell, pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war! Putin’s occupation’s gone.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/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 #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 24-30, 2016

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #43 Table of Contents

    Is the End of the Globalization Era in Sight?

    The past two weeks have been marked by a series of meetings about practical policy matters and their broader philosophical implications. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. The ministers reiterated the need for a political solution to the conflict and emphasized that the US and its coalition allies must convince the moderate opposition to dissociate itself from terrorists like Jabhat al‑Nusra. They also gave the US heat for preventing further intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

    It is Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko who has been catching heat at home since last week’s meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders in Berlin. Patience is wearing thin over the Minsk agreements, which a growing number of critics in Ukraine are saying should be abandoned. Poroshenko pushed back, asserting that the agreements are the only path to peace, but he also rejected the notion of giving up the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The next chapter in the Ukraine saga will be a road map for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements that the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers are to have ready by the end of November.

    Leading policy experts from around the world met in Sochi this week for the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s topic was about shaping the world’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the meeting were both defensive and cautiously optimistic. He issued his usual criticisms of the West for blaming Russia for all that is wrong in the world and using double standards. Commentator Andrei Akulov offers a laundry list of the accumulated grievances in Russian-US relations, which Putin hopes will improve under a new US president. Putin adopted a particularly strident tone as he rejected the “imaginary, mythical threats” about the Russian “barbarians”: “Russia has no intention to attack anyone. That is ridiculous. It is simply preposterous, foolish and unrealistic.” Putin repeated what has been his main foreign policy dogma throughout his leadership tenure: Russia wants to see a multipolar world where every country is equally respected and no country can “reshape the world order to suit its own interests,” which he intimated the US has been doing ever since the end of the cold war.

    Fyodor Lukyanov writes that the world is growing disillusioned with the universalistic message of globalization. Its promised benefits are failing to materialize, or are doing so in ways that many did not predict, leading to imbalances in the world political system and public sentiment. Lukyanov says that dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has turned into “global disorder”: the fragmentation of interests and objectives instead of their universalization.

    In addition to Ukraine and Syria, another symptom of that “global disorder” is the current US presidential campaign, where outspoken Republican candidate Donald Trump is breaking nearly every political convention, seemingly without losing any political capital. His populist message of drastic, reactionary approaches to hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration appeals to base fears about those issues and taps into the growing strain of disillusionment with globalization’s gospel of universalism. Lukyanov suggests that modern institutions founded on ideas of global governance built on consensus have failed to adequately address such fears – at least in the minds of many citizens. And so the task of existing global institutions, Lukyanov argues, is to prevent centrifugal and polarizing forces from creating more division and conflict on national and international levels. But he is not optimistic: “The scale of problems facing the world offers no hope that solutions will be found in the foreseeable future.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #38

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 14-20, 2015

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    Issue #38 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #38 Table of Contents

    Teach Your Children Well: This Week’s Lessons on Propaganda, Perception and Persuasion

    Commentator Aleksandr Shmelyov encourages us to look ahead to the aftermath of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine. Eventually, he writes, Kiev will be forced to reabsorb the separatist regions. But how can Ukraine peacefully integrate their inhabitants, most of whom are ethnically Russian? He makes an innovative suggestion: Try to turn them into “different Russians.” “Not imperialists, not xenophobes, not paternalists, not proponents of a ‘strong hand,’ but residents of a united Europe, no different from any other European people – except that they speak Russian.” The tools that Shmelyov recommends for this purpose are new media messages to counter Moscow’s propaganda; new songs, poems, books and movies to inculcate a different view of history; and “civic education in Russian-speaking schools, teaching children from the early grades how to be free citizens in a democratic state.”

    Call it what you will – indoctrination, spin, brainwashing or plain old “teaching” – but Nadezhda Arbatova’s piece in Nezavimisaya gazeta sums up the messages that Shmelyov wishes to counteract: “The annexation of the Crimea is now perceived by Russians as a perfectly legitimate move, and the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West over Ukraine are perceived as an attempt by the EU and the US to ‘bring Russia to its knees,’ to destabilize our country ‘by staging a color revolution through their agents of influence.’ We are witnessing unprecedented anti-Western sentiment in Russia today, largely as a result of media hype. Even the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin era was not so anti-Western.”

    The rest of this week’s news from Russia has plenty of other examples of the power of words – both positive and negative – especially when they resonate through the echo chamber of the mass media. Take, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he is sending military hardware and training specialists to help the Syrian government combat ISIS. Dmitry Drobnitsky, writing for Izvestia, portrays this decision as rising above conflicts with the West: “In essence, Russia is doing exactly what the US was doing/planning to do – providing arms and training, as well as political support. The only difference is that [Russia] is betting on much more reliable and determined forces than the US. . . . Assad’s forces and Shiite militants are clearly ready and willing to fight, given the proper support. This [decision] was a smart gambit that immediately paid off. It is hardly a coincidence that on the same day, London announced that is ready to see Bashar Assad as part of a transitional government.”

    Rossiiskaya gazeta chimed in with a media statement of its own by publishing an interview with the Syrian president himself. The fact that the piece ran to more than 5,000 words speaks for itself. We selected only a portion to translate into English, but it contains plenty of choice words from Assad about the messages that Europe is sending out to the world: “Western countries are crying over refugees with one eye and looking at them through the crosshairs with the other. The fact is these people have left Syria mainly because of terrorists, for fear of their lives and the consequences of terrorism. . . . As a result, people are fleeing from terrorism and looking for an opportunity to make a living in any other part of the world. This is why the West cries over refugees, while at the same time supporting terrorists since the outbreak of the crisis.”

    Another message on terrorism comes out of Tajikistan: President Emomali Rakhmon and the Prosecutor General’s Office have outlawed the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, with the help of a media campaign claiming that party members had attempted a military coup and supported terrorists. But experts like Aleksei Malashenko maintain that the IRPT was actually a bulwark against religious fanaticism and radicalism; hence, Rakhmon may be leaving himself exposed to truly dangerous extremists. For those who are tempted to use the power of words to create enemies, perhaps this is a teachable moment.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #36

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2015

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    Issue #36 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #36 Table of Contents

    ‘Three, Seven, Ace. Three, Seven, Queen.’

    As is usually the case in high-risk games, the stakes are high and the odds are long for the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as they place bets to buttress their own positions.

    Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko recently made a high-stakes gamble in the Ukraine crisis by proposing a Constitutional reform bill that he hopes will bring the conflict in his country closer to resolution. However, legislative approval of the bill met with a protest in Kiev and a collapse of the ruling coalition. A group of about 1,000 angry citizens who think the new Constitution gives too much autonomy and credibility to the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics gathered outside the Supreme Rada building in a rally that eventually turned violent, leaving scores wounded and at least one person dead. After the controversial vote in the Supreme Rada, the Radical party announced that it was leaving the ruling coalition. Who knows if other parties will follow suit. At any rate, political acrimony is high in Kiev as politicians accuse each other of using the violence to press their own agendas.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing some gambling of his own. According to Dmitry Butrin, he is recklessly betting that oil prices will eventually rise and Russia will somehow miraculously rekindle economic growth without having to meet the criteria for lifting the Western sanctions. That’s not going to happen, the columnist writes. Aleksei Malashenko and Yevgeny Gontmakher concur. They say the writing is on the wall: Russia is heading for a meltdown if reforms aren’t implemented. The economy is set to tank, and the authoritarian regime is simply going to keep on tightening the screws. Meanwhile, the gap between Russia and the rest of the developed world continues to widen.

    Putin’s gamble that a strategic political and economic partnership with China will replace tainted relations with the West will not pay off either, writes Vladislav Inozemtsev. None of Russia’s oil and gas deals with China are panning out the way Moscow had hoped. Moreover, this bilateral interaction benefits Beijing significantly more than it does Moscow, the analyst says. Besides, Russia’s foreign policy moves are too irresponsible for China to lend Moscow its support, so it looks as if Putin’s dreams about a possible great Russian-Chinese alliance will ultimately fizzle out.

    Vladimir Frolov speculates that Putin may have another card up his sleeve if things get too hot for him. He may be betting on handing over the presidential baton to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yet again, perhaps as early as next year. The idea is that a President Medvedev 2.0 would bring a “reset 2.0
     in relations with the West. Although a long shot, the move might be one of the few ways Putin can save face.

    Another perennial gambler in the post-Soviet space, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, recently freed six political prisoners in a move calculated to curry favor and funding from the West, and get it to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election, former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich tells The New Times. In other words, this is just another illustration of Lukashenko’s traditional betting strategy of placing stakes on opposing players – the West and Russia – in an effort to reap maximum benefit for himself.

    Each of these leaders can only hope that their bet on what they think is an ace doesn’t turn out to be actually the queen of spades. You can never truly be certain your bet has won until all the cards are revealed. Just ask Aleksandr Pushkin’s hapless protagonist.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #50

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 8-14, 2014

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    Issue #50 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #50 Table of Contents

    War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.

    These words inscribed on the government building where Winston Smith works in George Orwell’s “1984” have been cited often (perhaps too often) to describe regimes where the state controls the media. And yet we couldn’t resist quoting them again here, because even a news headline in Slon.ru this week refers sarcastically to the “Ministry of Truth.” Truth be told, there is actually quite a bit of focus on media spin in recent news from Russia.

    The “1984” comparison above was inspired by the Kiev government’s newly created Ministry of Informational Policy. One of its functions will be to protect citizens from “incomplete, untimely or inaccurate information,” as well as manipulation tactics. Besides deflecting negative spin, newly minted information minister Yury Stets will also have the opportunity to create “national information products” (presumably, to help project a more positive image of Ukraine).

    Since the West has been overtly supporting the fledgling Kiev authorities, the underlying implication here is that the “bad” information about Ukraine must be coming from somewhere else, namely Moscow. The Western media have been leveling more direct accusations at Russia: For example, London’s Financial Times claims (as reported by Pyotr Iskenderov) that “the mass demonstrations that swept across Central and Eastern European countries in 2012-2013 against the development of shale gas deposits in Europe were financed by Russia – or, to be more precise, by Gazprom.” The governments of those countries (for example, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania) did not confirm those reports.

    Of course, the Russian energy industry has good reason to be nervous about competition: Global oil prices are dropping, and so is the value of the ruble. President Vladimir Putin and his economic team have been trying hard to spin this development in a positive way: Now Russian-made products will be able to undersell the competition! On the other hand, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appeared on live TV this week to deliver a more sober message: “To be honest, strictly speaking, we have never rebounded from the 2008 crisis.” Might this statement trigger a new “information war” within the Russian elite?

    Incidentally, any readers who are tempted to think that such propaganda battles are exclusively the province of the former Communist Bloc should take a look at the Ukraine Freedom Support Act passed by the US Congress this week. Section 8 of the bill presents an initiative for “increasing the quantity of Russian-language broadcasting into the countries of the former Soviet Union in order to counter Russian Federation propaganda,” with the priority targets being Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

    Lost and Found in Translation. One of the aspects of Dmitry Medvedev’s live interview that caught economic analysts’ attention was his use of the Russian term devalvatsia. It’s a cognate of “devaluation,” but can have two meanings: not only the standard sense of “devaluation” (i.e., a deliberate policy by the government to make the domestic currency less valuable, often by printing more money) but also “depreciation” (i.e., an involuntary process whereby the currency loses its value). Instead of glossing over what’s happening to the ruble as devalvatsia, Medvedev explained that he was using the term “in the sense of an economic process, as the weakening of the exchange rate***of the national currency.” Should Medvedev be praised or rebuked for counteracting the notion that “ignorance is strength”?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #41

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 6-12, 2014

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    Issue #41 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #41 Table of Contents

    Russian-Western Tensions: It’s All About Shoe Size, People

    The situation in Ukraine continues to be somewhat of a head-scratcher. A shaky ceasefire has curbed most of the major fighting ahead of some important elections in Ukraine and the breakaway regions in the Donetsk Basin. However, Kiev accuses the separatists of violating the ceasefire terms and Moscow of maintaining a destabilizing military presence in the region. Pavel Felgengauer says Russia is in fact withdrawing most of its troops from Ukraine, in order to let the separatist militias experience some crushing defeats – you know, so the separatist leaders understand who’s boss, because Moscow doesn’t necessarily share all of their aspirations. All the Kremlin wants is simply a land route to the Crimea, not a fully independent “Novorossia.” But at what cost?

    In his first interview since being placed under house arrest, Russian oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny says Russia has shot itself in the foot by taking the Crimea and making a bitter enemy of one of Russia’s few remaining natural allies. Journalists Konstantin Gaaze and Olga Shamina write that not only did Moscow make a serious geopolitical blunder, but it did so at a very inopportune time – right when Russia’s economy was starting to falter. That makes the self-inflicted wound doubly painful.

    But hey, no sacrifice is too great when enemies are all around and the common cause is clear: revitalizing Russia’s past superpower mojo and putting the arrogant West in its rightful place. (Washington has crossed a line through its unilateral, winner-take-all foreign policy that undermines trust in interstate relations, claims former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov.) Indeed, a wave of patriotic “nuclear euphoria” is sweeping Russia, writes Aleksandr Golts. However, the military expert comments that the Russian nuclear arsenal is nowhere near as mighty as Russia’s delusional warmongers portray it to be. Leonid Radzikhovsky sees similar miscalculations in Russia’s assessment of its superpower status. To paraphrase the political analyst: Russia is unable to fill the shoes it longs to wear, but is too big for the much smaller shoes the West has picked out for it – and that’s a problem for both sides, but especially for Russia, if it absolutely insists on wearing the oversized shoes.

    The “shoe size” issue has many analysts suggesting that serious changes could be “afoot” in Russia. Gaaze and Shamina believe that Russia’s economic and foreign policy problems require a domestic political breakthrough. Some government officials suggested to The New Times that Putin is about to crack down on the “liberal” government and expand his powers, and that the Kremlin will “dot all the i’s” in that plan next month. Navalny says the situation will continue to deteriorate until Putin is gone. Konstantin Simonov says the West may be engineering such a scenario by pushing the Russian people or elite to turn on Putin. And Boris Mezhuyev contends that Putin is balancing between an increasingly wishy-washy elite and conservative hardliners, and so stepping down would be the worst thing he could do for Russia. Instead, he argues that Putin needs to find a more close-knit circle of trustworthy confidants to secure “the future of a sovereign civilization that rose up against a Western dictatorship.”

    One thing is clear: No one stands to benefit from the current tension in international relations and its potential consequences – that is, except Islamic State fighters, writes Georgy Mirsky. It seems that if Russia and the West could agree on anything these days, it is that the jihadists’ international footprint must grow smaller.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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