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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #30

    Letter From the Editors: July 25-31, 2016



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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #30 Table of Contents

    Kremlin Unleashes Massive Government Reshuffle; Security Agencies Step Up Clan War; Donald Trump – Is He a Putin Agent or Unwitting Kremlin Toady?


    Things got a little topsy-turvy in Russian government and security circles this week as the Kremlin launched another round of sweeping personnel changes. The reshuffle saw many “old guard” governors and officials sacked and replaced with younger, mid-level bureaucrats. RBC suggests that Putin is giving his administration a face-lift ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The president is getting rid of ineffective administrators, but since in many cases they have deep-seated ties to him, and because the unwritten rule is that loyalists get an “honorary retirement,” the result is indeed very much a game of musical chairs, with cushy jobs for the officials who have fallen out of favor. The upshot is that more governors are former security officials. Mikhail Komin writes that these “general governors” will rule with an iron fist: “Their appointment means that the time of consolidation through negotiation is over; it is now time for consolidation through intimidation.” The new policy, Komin says, will be one of managed chaos, designed to instill fear and anxiety among the elite in order to keep them in line. The ultimate goal is to purge politically unreliable officials from all levels of government.


    A similar “purge” is taking the form of an “anticorruption campaign” in the security agencies. This week, the FSB arrested numerous Russian Investigative Committee employees on corruption charges, and the Federal Customs Service chief was arrested on bribery charges. The splashy arrests were part of what some observers consider an interclan war among Russia’s many security agencies. What makes the latest spate of arrests unique is that they are playing out in front of TV cameras. The flustered FCS head was shown with shoe boxes full of cash in a scene deliberately intended to publicly humiliate him.


    This clan war is Russia’s version of “checks and balances,” writes Yekaterina Shulman. Not only does it preclude a Turkey-style coup, but it minimizes the need for Putin to issue explicit orders: “What we think of as the Kremlin is surrounded by bureaucratic clans of varying degrees of proximity [to the president], and each one is trying to guess what the big bosses are thinking and act accordingly.” In other words, much of the flurry of bureaucratic and law-enforcement activity in Russia is driven by mid-level officials’ perceptions of Putin’s agenda. They are trying to climb the ranks and curry favor with the big man himself by doing what they perceive to be his bidding.


    US media outlets this week are having a field day suggesting that this is just what US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is doing – wittingly or unwittingly. They are coming up with all sorts of evidence connecting Trump to the Russian president – even going so far as labeling him “Putin’s puppet” – on account of his supposed business ties with Russia, his pro-Russian policy proposals and the Russian contacts of some of his aides. A recent breach of the Democratic National Committee e‑mail servers has also been billed as the work of Russian hackers, working to discredit the Democrats and tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Does this mean Russia and Trump are working together? A preposterous notion, says Vladimir Frolov. There is no way Trump was in on the e-mail hack, because he would not be privy to a top-secret Russian intelligence mission. Does this mean the Kremlin is rooting for Trump? Not necessarily. According to the analyst, the Kremlin is giving Trump good press coverage simply because he says positive things about Putin, and his agenda would directly and indirectly help Russia. But Moscow also realizes Trump is a wild card who could trigger global instability. So there you have it: He isn’t Russia’s “trump” card – we think. Something tells me this conspiracy theory won’t die quickly.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 6-12, 2017



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    Issue #6 Letter From the Editors
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    Kremlin’s Election Catch‑22; Trump and Putin: Bros or Foes?


    The Kremlin has an election problem. It needs to get Vladimir Putin reinstalled as president in the March 2018 election, but it needs voters to care about voting to show up to the polls. Right now, not many people do, since electoral outcomes seem generally predetermined making, voting pointless. So the goal is to get people interested in the election by perhaps giving voters enticing ballot options. But the problem is that Russians are politically illiterate, if you believe a federal official cited by RBC who says that except for the Duma faction leaders and a few high-ranking officials like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there are no other names recognizable to the voters. There had been talk that the Kremlin would try to get the perennial establishment opposition leaders to step aside and let younger, fresher faces run in the election, but according to RBC’s source, that is not going to happen.


    Russia’s tired opposition faces are all familiar from the 1990s (LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proudly boasts he is running for president for the sixth time – a record in Europe), and they more or less all have the Kremlin’s blessing and march to the beat of its drum. In fact, the Russian Federation Communist Party and A Just Russia, which have not yet officially nominated presidential candidates, have said they are going to “discuss the issue with the Kremlin.” I guess they need Putin’s approval. So no matter who you vote for, you’re likely voting for Putin’s agenda.


    There are, however, a few brave politicians bucking the Kremlin line. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, another political old-timer, is rousing his base and reaching out to young voters with the message that Putin is living in the past and making a “shameful, harmful and criminal” land grab in Ukraine that does nothing good for Russia. Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition figure, who was just given another five-year suspended sentence in a retrial of a previous conviction, approves of the message but pokes fun at the messenger for being a 1990s throwback.


    It turns out that Russia’s most popular politician may not even be from Russia. For a while, US President Donald Trump was being mentioned in the Russian media far more than Putin, leading Kirill Kharatyan to speculate what it is about Trump that’s so appealing to Russians. He says Trump’s blunt political incorrectness and brazen determination resonate with voters (these characteristics are partly what had enthralled Russians about Putin, before he started losing his mojo). Yury Saprykin agrees that there are a lot of similarities between Trump and Putin, including their manipulative rhetoric. However, he says that whereas Putin is covert and calculating, Trump is unabashedly public and wildly unpredictable, so “the hope of Russian patriots that Putin and Trump are on the verge of dividing the world in half and establishing something akin to a conservative international is a purely Russian aberration.” In other words, a bromance might not be in the offing. In fact, Saprykin says the cold snap in US-Russian relations just might get longer and colder.


    But we’ve got other things to worry about besides the climate change in Russian-US relations. Aleksandr Golts says the new US president is a loose cannon smashing through the global ship that had been bearing humanity toward rosy horizons on a liberal, progressive tack. Golts says that for Trump, there are no supreme values (like actual climate change) – only interests. Konstantin Simonov says progressives need to lash the cannon and get the ship back on the values course, but the problem is that progressives have too readily and for too long overlooked the shortcomings of their agenda – particularly globalization – to the detriment of those left behind. While Obama was a president who was perhaps too focused on the future, Trump is a president too focused on the past. We are left wondering: Is Trump a temporary eclipse, or have the planets drastically realigned in the political orbit?


    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 17-23, 2016



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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
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    Taking the High Ground: This Week’s Lip Service, Laughs and Lectures From Russia.


    The “high ground” seems to be a running motif in this week’s Digest coverage: The Russian leadership has managed to stare down, tease and even lecture the political movers and shakers of other countries without drawing unwelcome attention to its own vulnerabilities.


    The most geopolitically grand gesture is that Putin attended the first “Normandy Four” meeting of 2016 in Berlin, thus showing that (1) he’s not an international pariah and (2) he’s in solidarity with the West in paying lip service to the Minsk agreements for settling the protracted conflict in the Donetsk Basin. At this point, implementing those accords puts more burden on Ukraine than Russia, as Tatyana Stanovaya points out: Kiev has a mountain of political and legislative work to do – for example, reforming the Ukrainian Constitution and working out a procedure for elections in the separatist regions – while Moscow has the luxury of simply waiting for it to hoe that row.


    Meanwhile, the Russian media are in a feeding frenzy over allegations that the US election is being rigged. Alex Gorka notes (with a mixture of incredulity and glee) that these allegations come from Republican hopeful Donald Trump in particular: “Just think about it – the leader of a major political party believes that the US voting system is flawed! The candidate has said that some people voted despite being ineligible, some cast ballots many times and some impersonated dead voters.” This last item likely elicits laughter from Russian readers, who are well acquainted with the analogous scam in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel “Dead Souls.” In addition, there must be a certain Schadenfreude with respect to recent history: Recalling the mass protests and claims of fraud that swept Russia after the 2011 State Duma elections, we can imagine that Trump’s allegations about the US system must be music to the Kremlin’s ears.


    Even more rife than speculations about anti-Trump factors in the election are stories in both the Russian and American media that Putin is pushing for a Trump victory. This idea gathered steam during the summer, when Russian hackers released e-mails that compromised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s reputation. Adding fuel to that fire this week is Konstantin Kosachov, chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, who excoriates Clinton’s campaign article (published in Time magazine Oct. 13) titled “Why America Is Exceptional.” Kosachov labels the article “propaganda,” calls it “a culture shock” for the rest of the world, and even takes on a moralistic tone, making a thinly veiled reference to Nazi Germany: “[T]here have been no maxims of this kind and at this level probably since the 1930s and 1940s. We remember very well where talk about the ‘exceptionalism’ of one particular nation led the world at that time, and what price it had to pay.”


    Another Russian legislator who took the moral high ground this week was newly elected Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (formerly Putin’s aide), when he responded publicly to an invitation from PACE president Pedro Agramunt to resume work with the European parliament (from which Russia resigned last year after being stripped of its voting rights). While Volodin acknowledged the need for dialogue, he pointed out that Russia has no business participating in PACE without the right to vote: “Parliament is a place for discussion – a place for dialogue, for expressing viewpoints.” He added: “I mean, look at how the Russian parliament is structured. We have factions that don’t hold a majority, but participate in discussions on all issues.” The irony of this statement cannot be lost on informed Russian readers, who undoubtedly recall the infamous remark by Volodin’s predecessor, Boris Gryzlov: “The Duma is no place for discussion!”


    Honoring the Russian custom of using proverbs to sum up a situation, there are two that come to mind here: “Turnabout is fair play” and “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” We leave it up to you to choose which is more fitting!


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #45

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 7-13, 2016



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    The Shock Felt Round the World: The Trump Victory and Its Reverberations.


    America is definitely the main focus of this week’s news from Russia. In our first feature, Russian commentators give their takes on how Donald Trump achieved his surprising presidential win and what it means for US democracy. Andrei Movchan argues that the sector that won Trump the election was neither the rich nor the poor, but the middle class, led by the small and medium-sized business sector. One observation shared by all of the commentators: The upset of Hillary Clinton, who represents a political dynasty, proved that democracy really does exist in America (although all of the writers acknowledge that Trump’s victory was narrow and that the Electoral College in a few swing states put him over the top).


    Dmitry Oreshkin writes in Novaya gazeta that Trump’s win is part of a “global backlash” exemplified by Brexit, European nationalism and the continuing popularity of Putin in Russia. However, making an implicit contrast with the latter, he concludes: “America has one distinct advantage – it isn’t afraid of making mistakes, since it always has a way of rectifying them through fair elections.”


    Speaking of Russia, how is Trump’s victory likely to affect it? Belying the sanguine tone of the analysts above, Mikhail Fishman writes: “The US political system has failed at its core. The bulwark of liberal democracy is sinking.” He acknowledges that this turn of events is good for Putin (who might “start seeing himself as the first among equals on the global scene”), but laments that it’s bad for Russia: “The hope for change in Russia has just been buried in the voting booths of Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.” Oleg Kashin riffs sarcastically on much the same theme, pointing out similarities between the conservative heartlands of America and Russia (he even uses the term “rednecks” to describe both!). The lesson he draws from Trump’s victory over the liberal Clinton is that the “creative class” – the progressive intellectuals who are numerically in the minority, in both countries – must find a way to connect with the “redneck” majority. He ends on a hopeful note: “The Americans***will likely solve [this problem], and we will look to them and solve it here, too.”


    Coincidentally (or not?), Russia’s most notorious former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has just published a mission statement for his Open Russia organization that does not take any overt cues from America. In fact, the plan strictly depends on Russia’s domestic trajectory: Specifically, it assumes that the Putin regime will inevitably fall (sooner or later) and that Putin’s successor (no matter who) will fail to move the country forward. This impasse will set the stage for reforms, focused entirely on the domestic scene: a stronger parliament, independent courts and a demonopolized economy, to name a few.


    As for the international scene, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, makes his own predictions in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview: “The world today is standing on the threshold of changing from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.*** And this clash between the two geopolitical projects is also evident in US society, which clearly manifested itself during the presidential election campaign.” In other words, Trump’s victory means the US will step back from global military dominance (a stance that Ivashov sees as represented by the Hillary Clinton establishment).

    However, says military analyst Aleksandr Kanshin in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Trump’s victory will not prompt an “immediate U-turn” in US military policy. Will Trump disband NATO, given his strident criticism of the alliance during his campaign? Hard to say, Kanshin responds. “One can only hope that Russian-US relations would finally improve, including when it comes to global security issues.” Paradoxically, from a Russian standpoint, America’s electoral shakeup could make the world more stable. Stranger things have happened.


    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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    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 #1-2

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



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    Ringing in the New Year With ‘Fake News’


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #18-19

    Letter From the Editors:May 1-14, 2017



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    The Art of the Possible: Can Russia, Turkey, Iran and America Play Nice in the Peacemaking Game?


    In this Digest’s first feature, military analyst Andrei Akulov exclaims with jubilation: “What seemed to be unbelievable has finally happened! A pipe dream has come true! For the first time in six years since the Syrian conflict began, light is visible at the end of the tunnel. . . . On May 4, Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a memorandum calling for the establishment of safe zones in Syria during peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.” These zones are located in Idlib and Homs Provinces, the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, and the southern part of the country. They will be patrolled by military forces of the three guarantor states and others; and checkpoints around them will be guarded by rebel soldiers and government troops.


    Akulov’s reaction may seem a tad hyperbolic: After all, the Syrian settlement process has seen several ceasefire plans, including one brokered in the same city, Astana, in January. But there are indeed significant differences this time around. For one, representatives from both the Syrian government and opposition groups were closely involved in negotiations. What’s more, for the first time, an American official was present, too time: Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones.


    Although Washington officially endorsed the plan before, during and after its preparation, it still raised questions in some quarters. For example, several days after the memorandum was signed, Defense Secretary James Mattis fired off a series of questions at a press gathering in Copenhagen: “Who is going to be ensuring [that the zones] are safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them?”


    Yevgeny Shestakov surmises that the Trump administration is nervous about being left out of the game. His sources report that the Syria plan was a key part of the agenda when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: The Russian diplomat told his American counterpart about provisions that are not spelled out in the Astana memorandum.


    Vladimir Frolov portrays Lavrov’s trip to Washington – which also included a meeting with Donald Trump – as part of a series of impressive-looking Russian diplomatic encounters. For example, on the other side of the Atlantic, Vladimir Putin recently received visits from Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi; and he is soon to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow.


    After that may come Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with Trump at the G‑20 summit in Italy. Frolov points out that Moscow has a fine line to walk between pleasing Putin’s electorate and weathering some rough winds from the West. These include Germany’s toughened line on the Ukraine conflict, widespread accusations of domestic human rights violations, and the US’s criticism of Russia’s policies toward the Taliban, nuclear arms and more. To this list we should Emmanuel Macron’s recent victory in the French presidential election: The persistent negative coverage of the young populist in the Kremlin-supported press, coupled with a credible report of Russian hackers trying to interfere with Macron’s campaign, have not made Putin any new friends in Paris.


    Can Putin wrest some kind of victory from his upcoming meeting with Trump, while still giving the US leader some “tweetable deliverables” for his own constituents? Frolov predicts that Trump’s idea of “a ‘big deal’ may be replaced by agreements on certain topics where Moscow could, without much damage to itself, abandon its propaganda narrative and discreetly shift its position toward cooperation with the US.” An overly optimistic possibility? Well, as Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” After the notable level of multilateral cooperation in Astana this week, anything seems possible.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 13-19, 2017



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    With Missiles Like These, Who Needs Frenemies?


    For those who believe time travel is possible, here’s hoping that 1983 was a good year, because it certainly feels like we’re returning to it: Not in terms of shoulder pads and upturned collars (although who wouldn’t want to rock that look again?) but nuclear hysteria. According to military expert Pavel Felgengauer, NATO and Russia are essentially in the same mess as in the early 80s, when American Pershings and Soviet Pioner missiles made Europe a very uncomfortable place to be. Eventually, given the American missiles’ superior accuracy, Moscow blinked first: “In the event of a preemptive (decapitating) strike, the top military-political leadership would have no time to safely evacuate from Moscow by helicopter, and it would be risky to take shelter from a surgically accurate nuclear warhead in a bunker. The chiefs did not intend to die, so the INF Treaty was signed, based on Reagan’s ‘zero option,’ ” Felgengauer concludes.


    Today, the Russian General Staff is caterwauling that the 1987 INF Treaty was unfair, and both sides are accusing each other of violating it. The situation looks frighteningly familiar – the US is deploying bases in Romania and Poland, while Russia is threatening to station its Kalibr missiles in response (and perhaps has already deployed them in the Crimea).


    Is it any wonder that in this scenario, more and more countries want a couple of nuclear warheads of their own, just to be safe? Spooked by the Trump administration’s possible plans to leave Europe to its own devices when it comes to defense, EU officials are floating the idea of developing European nuclear deterrence, writes Andrei Akulov: “The nuclear deterrence plan proposes turning the French nuclear potential into a European nuclear deterrent.” Ukraine decided to jump on the bandwagon – Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said Ukraine wants its nuclear status reviewed. So if the EU decides to go nuclear, Kiev could be included in those plans. Given the EU’s growing decentralization (according to Pyotr Korzun, the EU today is a set of “mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests”), ensuring proper oversight could get complicated. Should we all learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?


    Meanwhile, another nuclear wannabe state (at least until a couple of years ago) – Iran – finds itself branded as the regional scapegoat. Despite a nuclear deal brokered in 2015, the current US administration has accused Iran “of almost all Middle East problems,” writes Ravil Mustafin. Part of the reason, according to Mustafin, is that the US still can’t get over the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 hostage crisis and the debacle of a rescue operation that followed. In addition, Iran makes a convenient target for Trump – “On the one hand, it is important for the US president to show America that he is consistently fulfilling his campaign promises, and on the other hand, to take revenge on Obama, portraying him as a weak politician who can be easily duped.” Why not kill two birds with one stone?


    Washington’s newfound enthusiasm for scapegoating Iran is shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia – two frenemies that suddenly find themselves surprisingly aligned. The dissenter on the issue is Russia, which happens to be one of the parties to the Iran-Russia-Turkey coalition that brokered the shaky truce in Syria. While Moscow’s position is hardly surprising, the maverick in this game is actually Ankara: “A real godsend for Washington would be Ankara’s withdrawal from the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance, if not the alliance’s complete disintegration,” concludes Mustafin. Considering that Turkish officials have been making conflicting statements of late, clearly trying to play both sides, Washington may get its wish.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 14-20, 2016



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    A Week of Bewilderment, Befuddlement, Bemusement.


    Nothing can be taken for granted these days, it seems. Not after Brexit and Trump. The world is still processing – reeling over – Donald’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Experts are nervously contemplating the consequences of what appears to be a nascent era of populist backlash against establishment political figures, attitudes and institutions – and perhaps even more broadly, modernity. Whatever new era might be dawning, it will certainly be one of political and general uncertainty.


    Russia is not immune to surprising developments, it turns out. The biggest head-scratcher to come out of Russia this week was the middle-of-the-night arrest of Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was allegedly caught accepting a bribe from Rosneft for giving a “positive assessment that allowed Rosneft to purchase a controlling stake in Bashneft.” There are many eyebrow-raising elements to the case, writes Yulia Latynina. For example, the “bribe” allegedly occurred long after the deal to purchase the Bashneft stake was finalized; the wealthy cabinet minister was supposedly demanding the relatively paltry sum of $2 million in a multibillion-dollar deal; and Putin apparently was aware of the impending sting operation long before it happened, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Ulyukayev’s boss, only learned of the impending arrest the day before. The list of baffling aspects of the arrest goes on. Although not calling the charges patently false or a provocation (as Ulyukayev claims they are), many commentators nevertheless call the arrest politically significant, if not politically motivated.


    Andrei Kolesnikov says the arrest sends a wake-up call to the elite ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Stalinesque arrest of a top government official is sure to inspire the “loyalty of fear,” as Eva Hartog and Mikhail Fishman put it. The arrest also bolsters Putin’s image as a corruption crusader, and reeling in a big fish before the 2018 election cycle will definitely score him some points with voters, even though such a high-level corruption scandal will tarnish Russia’s reputation in general. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that Putin’s electoral platforms are always nothing more than slogans (such as fighting corruption) that serve to boost ratings but don’t become part of an overall strategy. With Putin, everything is ad hoc. So could Ulyukayev’s arrest be a shoot-from-the-hip solution to a political issue?


    The other sensational story to come out of Russia this week is that the Russian Supreme Court overturned the sentence of avowed Putin oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny in a 2013 embezzlement case. The decision enables him to run for elected office again. The unexpected decision was cause for celebration and suspicion. Some suspect that the Kremlin may actually need its bitter foe to run for president, to give Putin a credible opponent in the election. Others suggest that the Kremlin might be seeking to co-opt him.


    The fact is that Putin is entering what is presumably his last presidential election cycle. This has the Russian elite on edge and preparing for Russia without Putin. What awaits the elite amid the surging tide of populism and antiestablishment sentiment? Should Putin himself be worried about the upcoming election? After all, you can’t get much more establishment than the current Russian regime, right? But perhaps Putin doesn’t have much reason to be afraid. As Yury Saprykin writes somewhat facetiously, Putin turned out to be ahead of the political curve. Trump essentially used the same spin techniques to win the US election that Putin has been using for years in Russia: unsubstantiated statements, fake news and provocative clickbait. Restoring lost “greatness” is in vogue these days, and Putin is becoming something of a cult figure in the eyes of America’s alt-right and Europe’s far-right. Hopefully past greatness doesn’t mean the 1930s for Russia and more late-night arrests.

     


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #4

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 23-29, 2017



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    Issue #4 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #4 Table of Contents

    The French and Bon Jovi Agree: Don’t Expect Big Changes


    French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The expression even inspired a Bon Jovi song, so clearly Karr was onto something. Which leads us to ask: As major upheavals continue to rock the globe in 2017, how much are things really changing?


    For instance, the Astana talks on Syria concluded in the Kazakh capital this week. The talks, which were the result of a hard-won ceasefire engineered by Russia, Iran and Turkey (note the glaring absence of a certain well-known global player), failed to bring any major breakthroughs. Choosing to remain optimistic, most analysts said the fact that the talks took place is important in and of itself. According to Alex Gorka, the results of the Astana meeting were “significant enough to pave the way for resuming the UN-brokered intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Switzerland.”


    Weighing in with his own unique perspective, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky added that while the Geneva talks “resembled a political show for the press,” Astana managed to gather “actual field commanders who control the situation on the ground.” Still, even Vladimir Volfovich admits the talks themselves were fruitless. So much for creating a new format.


    Meanwhile, another event that kept commentators on the edge of their seats (or set their teeth on edge, depending on where they stand) was Donald Trump’s inauguration. But those tensions, just like the Astana talks, pretty much fizzled out. Senator Konstantin Kosachov, head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, worked himself into a tizzy predicting all but an armed revolt. And yet, the Donald was inaugurated without much hubbub – and with a fairly modest crowd in attendance. Now that Trump is officially the 45th president of the United States, are big changes really in store?


    According to Aleksei Fenenko, given the sorry state of US-Russian relations, it’s best for the two superpowers to stick to the tried-and-true agenda of minimizing the chance of an armed confrontation. Moscow and Washington have been in search of a positive agenda for the past 25 years or more – to no avail. The Obama administration tried to break the mold and “reset” relations. But as a result, writes Fenenko, “Russia and the US ended up with neither a negative agenda nor a positive one. . . . Therefore, what Moscow and Washington need now are not loud statements about a new ‘reset,’ but real steps to revive the negative agenda in their negotiations.”


    However, “stay the course” is not much of a campaign slogan. And both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are fans of splashy statements, so quietly resuming a policy of détente probably isn’t in the cards. Expert Tatyana Stanovaya warns that if the US starts meeting Putin halfway on anything, he will simply up the ante. “Russia’s interests are nested inside a giant matryoshka, where each demand has a new one hidden inside,” she writes. Trump the tireless deal-maker does not look like someone who would give with no take. There goes the start of that beautiful friendship.


    Events are also staying the course in Ukraine – chaotically, as always. In their constant search of someone to blame for all problems, the Kiev authorities are now focusing on oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, who is also former president Kuchma’s son-in-law. The cause of this latest manifestation of righteous rage is Pinchuk’s controversial article in The Wall Street Journal: Several Rada deputies claim it basically suggests Ukraine cut its losses as far as territorial integrity is concerned and cut a deal with Russia. Pinchuk claims The Wall Street Journal radically altered his title and condensed the article, “which influenced how readers perceived the text.” Pinchuk is hardly the first – or the last – influential Ukrainian businessman to end up in the hot seat, proving that Karr’s age-old adage still holds true. Here’s to staying the course in 2017.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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