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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #33

    Letter From the Editors: August 11-17, 2014

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    Issue #33 Letter From the Editors
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    Last Saturday was an anniversary of sorts for Russia. Aug. 9 marked 15 years since Boris Yeltsin’s fateful decision to appoint Vladimir Putin as his successor. This move essentially handed power over to the KGB and put Russia on a path of gradual devolution into a corrupt police state, says Andrei Malgin. But while these days it is popular to view Putin as a shrewd long-term strategist, Fyodor Lukyanov contends that Putin, generally speaking, hasn’t always been proactive, preferring instead to react to situations – frequently disproportionally. But an increasingly ideologically motivated Putin may be shifting gears since his most recent reelection.

    Russia’s undisputed shot caller rallied federal lawmakers in the Crimea this week to publicly thank them for their quick, lock-step efforts to facilitate the incorporation of the peninsula into the Russian Federation – “because we all deserve to meet here.” (He wanted to reward his loyal rubber-stampers with a chance to kick back and hit the Crimean beaches.) It was another patriotism-infused, over-the-top Putin love fest complete with appropriately outlandish comments by Kremlin court jester Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who opined about restoring the Russian empire, the imperial black-yellow-white tricolor as the national flag and “God Save the Tsar” as the national anthem. Putin officially pooh-poohed these ideas, but his mannerisms suggested he was inwardly tickled.

    Saying one thing but thinking or doing another seems to be characteristic of the Kremlin. For example, although Russia officially seeks peace in Ukraine, it continues to amass its troops on the Ukrainian border and supply rebels. Russia now wants UN authorization to send peacekeepers (or “peacemakers” – mirotvortsy, to use the Russian expression) into eastern Ukraine. The rest of the world, and even some of its few allies, are wary about what sort of peace Russia would “make” there and how. Incidentally, although Putin probably won’t get a green light from the international community to play peacemaker in Ukraine, he did manage this week to smooth ruffled feathers between longstanding rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia.

    Another regional leader, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, is hoping to try his hand at brokering peace in the Ukraine conflict: He wants the presidents of Ukraine and Russia to come to Minsk to agree to a peace deal he has worked out. In return, Lukashenko wants normalized relations between the EU and his country.

    Unfortunately, a peace deal seems unlikely as Kiev this week considered imposing sanctions on Russia. However, it is having trouble getting lawmakers to agree on relevant legislation. Other contentious issues before deputies include lustration and gas transit issues. Kiev continues to struggle to find a united position among divided political loyalties and agendas amid the ongoing civil war, which is currently going badly for Kiev. It recently lost its line of defense on Russia’s borders in a major blow to its efforts to halt the flow of weapons and fighters from Russia.

    While Russia has lashed back at Western sanctions with a ban on the import of certain food items from the West and a defiant, self-indulgent domestic spending spree (sorry, Russian taxpayers: Rosneft’s bottom line and venture capital investment are more important than your pension savings), its partners in the Customs Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, are not so eager to follow suit. Could the fledgling Union, with aspirations to become a more expansive Eurasian Union, be showing fault lines? Just what is your game plan, Mr. Putin?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #31-32

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: July 20-27, 2014

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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
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    Malaysian Airlines Jet Crash – the Personal Is Political; Why Image Is Everything in the Arms Trade

    With the tragic downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 this week, the Ukrainian crisis spilled far beyond its former localized framework. In the early hours of the disaster, the separatists (who control the territory where the doomed passenger jet fell) and the authorities in Kiev exchanged accusations over who is to blame for the deaths of 298 people. Experts point out that Buk multiple launch rocket systems, capable of reaching the jet’s altitude, are in the arsenal of both sides. The separatists are demanding that experts from Russia’s Interstate Aviation Commission handle the investigation, while Kiev wants international investigators, including those from Boeing, to take the lead.

    According to Pavel Felgengauer, only those directly complicit in the catastrophe will ever know what really happened. But he points out that the US military, which monitors the situation surrounding the Black Sea, has determined that the missile originated from rebel-controlled territory. So isn’t it time for the separatists to admit their heinous mistake in confusing a passenger jet with a Ukrainian military plane, instead of resorting to the far more malicious acts of evidence-tampering in order to cover up the truth? Sadly, the question seems rhetorical.

    Meanwhile, Vladimir Pastukhov calls our attention to the Kremlin’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the tragedy. Putin was a bit too fashionably late in making a public statement on the incident, even for him. The Russian president’s knee-jerk reaction was to call his “friend Obama” to relay news that had already circled the world. Then, Putin issued a midnight statement – was it aimed at the Russian public? Or, given the timing, was it intended for the people of the US, Australia and Oceania? In his statement, Putin laid blame at Kiev’s doorstep by saying that the Ukrainian government is responsible for anything that happens on its territory – thus, the Russian president acknowledged that the self-proclaimed republics are still Ukrainian territory. According to Pastukhov, the series of tactical blunders shows that the Kremlin is very nervous – and it has every reason to be. Western public opinion has made a 180 literally overnight, and it blames Russia. So demands for a fair and unbiased investigation are all well and good, but the court of public opinion won’t wait – or listen, in this case.

    Perhaps reacting to this extremely unpleasant turn of events, Putin called for protecting Russia’s state sovereignty during a Security Council meeting. While stating that there is no direct threat to the nation’s security, the president said that Russia must respond appropriately to NATO’s expansion toward Russian borders and the plans to deploy a missile defense shield in Europe (the Kremlin’s favorite bugbear). This means increased military spending, writes Vladimir Mukhin, which will most likely come at the expense of economic development programs.

    Of course, if Russia’s arms trade balance sheet is any indication, weapons exports are bringing in record amounts of revenue. According to military expert Konstantin Makiyenko, despite its growing geopolitical isolation and increasingly outdated weapons stocks, Russia remains the No. 2 arms seller in the world – second only to the US. So what explains this incredible success in a very competitive market? Image. Thanks to its global swagger, Russia is seen as a maverick player, which attracts clients. Unlike France, for instance, which has far superior products but is seen as a lackey of Washington. So is Putin’s foreign policy swagger paying off after all?

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #29

    Letter From the Editors: July 14-20, 2014

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    Issue #29 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #29 Table of Contents

    The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to show no end in sight. Several border incidents in the past week have raised the stakes for both Russia and Ukraine. Aleksei Leshchenko, vice-president of the Gorshenin Institute, says that the Russian government is taking a duplicitous stance on the situation: While Moscow says it advocates a peaceful settlement to what it calls a Ukrainian domestic conflict, in reality it is actively perpetuating violence it could easily stop. Russia continues to firmly deny any direct or indirect military involvement in eastern Ukraine, but armed separatists there are wielding advanced weaponry that presumably ordinary citizens would not have the knowledge to operate, raising suspicions that the military equipment and personnel involved in the fighting are actually from Russia. As if to prove that point, a Ukrainian military transport plane was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile (the separatists claim it was captured from Ukrainian forces), and Ukrainian authorities assert that Russian multiple launch rocket systems have repeatedly crossed into Ukraine to launch attacks on Ukrainian forces.

    In addition to its active military campaign, separatists in Novorossia, i.e., Ukraine’s rebellious Russian-speaking provinces, have also been busy working on formulating a more concrete political campaign, adopting a manifesto that reads like a founding document of a Soviet Union 2.0. The manifesto denounces capitalism and promises the nationalization of enterprises. Aleksei Gorbachov and Darya Garmonenko write that such talk certainly makes the separatists’ curators in Moscow wary. (Ironically, Russia’s economic system is becoming increasingly Sovietesque in its own right, according to Valery Zubov. Our second set of featured articles has his and other perspectives on some economic policy drama currently unfolding in Russia.) It is clear that while Putin is all for fueling pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine, the separatists’ political agenda does not fit into his geopolitical vision for the region. In fact, recent developments in Ukraine show that not all the cards are falling the way Putin would desire or intend. Could he have his back against the wall by a monster he created? The separatists are begging for more military and moral support, and Russian citizens, encouraged by Russia’s Communists and Liberal Democrats, are pushing their government to all but go to war with Ukraine on behalf of the rebels. The Kremlin may have set in motion a machine it would now like to stop.

    Meanwhile, Russian media are upping their attacks on the US, denigrating it for its allegedly overbearing attitude on the global stage. An Ekspert editorial points out the folly of Washington’s efforts to get the world to play by its rules, while Fyodor Lukyanov contends that US initiatives to promote American-style democracy throughout the world in the last decade have ultimately proven disastrous. The EU, Washington’s junior partner in the latest round of Russia-bashing, is also taking a drubbing in the Russian media, albeit not so soundly. Andrei Yermolayev chastises the EU for being too quick to see a political motive in all of Russia’s business dealings, particularly with regard to the South Stream pipeline, which Brussels wants shut down. Mikhail Krutikhin, however, writes that the Kremlin’s overblown, pie-in-the-sky economic projects are indeed nothing but political, and will ultimately put Russia in bondage to China. Not necessarily so, argues Andranik Migranyan: He views the Russia-China relationship as strong and based on mutual respect, which is more than can be said of Russia’s relations with the US. According to him, when he asked American panelists at a recent Washington seminar whether they see Russia as a “whipping boy or an errand boy,” they were hard pressed to say exactly how they view Russia.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: July 7-13, 2014

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    Issue #28 Letter From the Editors
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    Separatism, Contraction, Expansion and The Power of Myth

    Separatism, Contraction, Expansion and The Power of Myth


    This week, the Ukrainian separatist movement appears to be flagging, as “people’s militias” have retreated from strongholds such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk; reports of infighting between local field commanders are also rife. A highlight of our Ukraine feature is a thought-provoking piece by Oleg Kashin (an outspoken journalist and blogger who became a household name in 2010 when he was beaten by unidentified attackers in Moscow); Kashin poses the question: What myths about the Ukrainian separatist movement will Russian propagandists immortalize in history books?

    Speaking of myths, Dmitry Oreshkin argues in this issue that far from being enigmatic and unpredictable, the logic of Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been perfectly consistent: The goal is to perpetuate the myth of the primacy of government. “And on top of all that, as an overarching idea, you have the figure of the leader. He is indispensable. . . . There has to be somebody who will lead, protect and inspire [people] in this difficult time, when internal and external enemies are closing in on our country in order to enslave and destroy it.”

    According to Georgy Bovt’s and Maria Yepifanova’s interpretations of recently adopted Duma laws, Russia’s legislators seem to subscribe to those myths as well. As examples, Bovt cites the law requiring all personal data of Russian citizens to be stored on Russian servers. Yepifanova gives a more comprehensive rundown: the abolition of mayoral elections, the criminalization of dual citizenship, and tougher restrictions on nonprofits, blogs and profanity (including the use of “obscene” language in music and film).

    In previous Digest issues, commentators have framed Putin’s foreign policy as an attempt to revive the myth of a “Soviet empire.” Fyodor Lukyanov says in his tribute to the late Eduard Shevardnadze that the Georgian statesman served his country so well in post-Soviet years that he is “perhaps the most vivid example that a ‘new historical community of Soviet people’ never did materialize.” And yet, as noted by Minsk journalist Irina Khalip (who, like Kashin, has been detained and beaten in the past for her outspoken reporting), Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko seems to be trying to scare the West with the Ukraine scenario, soliciting Europe’s protection so that Russia does not engulf its neighbor in “a new Iron Curtain and a new cold war.”

    The myth of Soviet rebirth seemed alive and well this week on our side of the Atlantic, too, as Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Cuba to discuss economic accords and military cooperation with the perennial Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, the current president. However, as Maksim Samorukov points out, the younger Castro’s reforms have already made Cuba an attractive market for big players like China – so, in a sense, Russia is way behind the curve.

    Lost and Found in Translation. In Oleg Kashin’s piece on Russian-Ukrainian events, we were faced with this sentence: “The Russian myth about Donetsk separatists most definitely will not include the word sliv [transliteration from Russian].” This noun is derived from a verb meaning “to pour out,” and is typically used in the fields of metallurgy, engineering and others. But Kashin was using the word in a slang sense; when you “pour out” your friends or associates, you abandon them to fend for themselves. One challenge in translating this expression is getting the tone right: It has to be contemptuous, morally condemning, but also a bit sarcastic. The second challenge is packing all that meaning into one word. We decided to sidestep the second challenge so that we could meet the first head-on. Our final version of the above sentence reads: “The Russian myth . . . will not include the phrase ‘left in the lurch.’ ”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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