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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #9-10

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 23-March 8, 2015

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    Issue #9-10 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #9-10 Table of Contents

    Ukraine’s ‘Rashomon,’ Starring Vladislav Surkov; Murder of Boris Nemtsov – Policy of Hatred on the March

    In Akira Kurosawa’s cult classic “Rashomon,” the film’s characters provide alternative, self-serving and contradictory interpretations of the same event. Something very similar is happening in Ukraine this week. Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich, who has been keeping a low profile since fleeing Kiev following mass protests on Independence Square last year, resurfaced on the pages of Argumenty i fakty to give his account of what happened. According to him, the shootings of protesters and security forces on Independence Square was the work of the opposition camp – currently running the show in Kiev – since opposition leaders stood to gain the most from his ouster.

    Now, the Kiev regime is sending radical nationalists to fight in the Donetsk Basin to keep them “away from the capital” so it can continue to destroy the economy and the average Ukrainians’ quality of life, laments the former president.

    Turning the page to Novaya gazeta, we see an entirely different take on those events. The newspaper published a memo supposedly given to the Kremlin in early 2014 that outlines ways for Russia to use the political crisis in Ukraine, which was in its early stages back then, to seize the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Allegedly written by Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev (who threatened to sue Novaya gazeta if it published the letter), it calls for working with the local elites to weaken Kiev’s influence and gradually integrate border regions into Russia. To give these steps legitimacy, the memo says it’s also necessary “to devise a PR strategy that would emphasize that Russia and pro-Russian political elites in southeastern Ukraine were forced to take this course of action as a response to the current situation.”

    Perhaps the current Kiev regime got a copy of this memo, because both President Poroshenko and Ukrainian Security Service chief Nalivaichenko directly accused Russia of instigating the crisis in Ukraine – through Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. According to Oleg Kashin, casting Surkov in such a diabolical light is a bit ridiculous – especially since the “testimony” against the Kremlin’s former PR chief is given by Ukrainian special forces officers who may have been culpable in the shootings of protesters during the very same events in Kiev.

    Nevertheless, Kashin also punches some very substantial holes in the Russian side’s attempts to laugh off the notion that it was behind the bloody events on Independence Square and the ensuing conflict. After all, Russia stood only to gain from the reigning chaos in Ukraine: It would get rid of Yanukovich (a less than reliable ally), get the Crimea and give Putin’s ratings a boost, all in one fell swoop.

    Another event that is drawing contradictory interpretations is the tragic killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The former member of Yeltsin’s reform team, shot a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, remained an uncompromising defender of civil liberties and freedoms in Russia. According to Novaya gazeta, his murder was the result of a “policy of hatred” cultivated by the Putin regime. And now, Kremlin spin doctors have let this terrifying genie out of its bottle. So will the Kremlin fall on its sword, samurai-style, and actually find and punish those responsible, thus admitting its patriotic agenda was wrong, wonders The Moscow Times? Or will it stick to its guns and step up violent crackdowns on the opposition? Whatever the outcome, political debate in Russia may have just ended with a bang.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 16-22, 2015

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    Issue #8 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #8 Table of Contents

    Moving Backward to an Old (Medieval) World Order?

    This week saw commentators scrambling to assess the ramifications of the recently signed Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements, the latest effort to achieve a peace settlement in Ukraine. Their analysis provides little room for optimism. Separatist leaders and the Ukrainian government began to backpedal and place additional provisions on the points hashed out in Minsk almost before the ink had dried. Does this mean more bloodshed in eastern Ukraine?

    Unfortunately, maybe so – according to Sergei Karaganov’s logic. In his opinion, the Ukraine conflict represents the converging point of long-standing dividing lines that threaten to tear apart the fabric of Europe and perhaps even start another world war. Is Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory finally playing itself out? Fyodor Lukyanov is inclined to agree, contending that the world is moving back to a pre-Westphalian order in which affairs are “dictated by tribal and religious affiliation.”

    In Dmitry Butrin’s view, Russia is spearheading that movement, having essentially turned back the pages of history to the 16th century under the rule of “Grand Prince” Vladimir Putin. The commentator avers that Putin’s views are considered a priori pragmatic by the ruling elite (i.e., Putin’s inner circle of agents who act independently of political or governmental institutions), and any dissenting opinion is regarded as blasphemy. He writes that “the only truly protected value in today’s political environment is the president’s monopoly on political charisma in the country, which in reality strives for a traditional (and therefore, uncharismatic) mode of leadership.”

    As if seeking to dispel fears that he is an absolute monarch, Putin invited top economic advisers (including outspoken former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin) to his Novo-Ogaryovo residence to discuss anticrisis measures in what was billed as an open and broad discussion. Independent experts say there is not much the government could do to significantly dampen the economic shock stemming in part from international sanctions. It would seem that any proposed stopgap measures would largely fall short in the long run, and only political solutions (i.e., reforms) could adequately address the underlying problems. This would invariably require toning down the “Crimea Is Ours!” rhetoric. Incidentally – what, in fact, did the Crimea give Russia? And what did Russia give the Crimea? Nikolai Epple and Pavel Aptekar examine the situation there almost one year after its accession to Russia, and discover that not everything is sunshine and roses.

    While most of Europe has sought to distance itself from Putin over the last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seems eager to show himself a friend to the beleaguered Russian leader. Could Hungary join the Czech Republic and Greece in leading a countermovement in the West toward reconciliation with Putin?

    Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also sought to foster ties with traditional allies (and notable US unfriendlies) Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In a tour of these countries, he touted military-technical cooperation and generally paved the way for a greater Russian presence in the region, ostensibly to help these nations handle threats.

    Another region, this one south of Russia’s borders, facing imposing threats is Central Asia. The countries in this region face challenges from postwar Afghanistan, as well as an expanding ISIS. Both Russia and the West do not want to see unrest in that region, which might be why a bid to hold early presidential elections in Kazakhstan, widely seen as benefiting perennial incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev, is meeting little resistance from outside the country, not to mention within. Perhaps mitigating the threat of militant Islam could be one of the common goals Karaganov hopes could save Europe? At any rate, analysts say Central Asia is experiencing a “calm before the storm.” The intensity and duration of this and the other storms threatening the greater world, if they even materialize, remain open to speculation.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #7

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 9-15, 2015

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    Issue #7 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #7 Table of Contents

    Moscow Meets Minsk and Munich: Seeking Level Playing Field, Russia Gets Sand Kicked in Its Face

    This week was packed with high-level meetings: the Security Conference in Munich, then two back-to-back negotiation sessions on Ukraine in Minsk, which has suddenly acquired the status of a diplomatic capital. And let’s not forget that just before this cavalcade of conferences, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande made a detour to Kiev and Moscow. According to political analyst Sergei Stankevich, the blitz visits by Merkel and Hollande signal that the West is desperately trying to resolve the Ukraine conflict through diplomacy, not military action. These intentions for a peaceful settlement ended up crystallized in a new document adopted in Minsk: the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements (which had been signed in the same venue in September). The measures are accompanied by a declaration of support from Russian and Ukrainian leaders Putin and Poroshenko, as well as Merkel and Hollande. Strangely enough, Dmitry Kamyshev points out, none of those leaders actually signed the Package of Measures: The only signatories are from the OSCE trilateral contact group, plus the heads of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Meanwhile, argues Tatyana Stanovaya, Putin seems to have secured at least temporary legitimacy for the Nov. 2 elections in the separatist regions, as well as a de facto lifting of the West’s economic blockade.

    Despite these gains, Russian reportage on the Munich Security Conference could make one feel sorry for how Moscow’s diplomats and lawmakers were treated by their counterparts from all over the world – like the “bad kid” on the playground, teased and humiliated. One example given by Mikhail Zygar: In front of all assembled, US Senator Lindsey Graham asked for a show of hands to see who believed there were Russian troops in Ukraine. Everyone’s hand went up. (Except for the Russian hands, presumably.) Later, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the floor, attendees openly laughed at parts of his speech. Yevgeny Shestakov argues that the US and Europe are ganging up on Russia, blaming it unfairly for the escalation they created themselves by aiding and abetting the Ukrainian government in waging war against its own people.

    International dissatisfaction with Russia is making itself felt in the domestic arena as well. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev overtly linked today’s grim economic picture to the annexation of the Crimea, warning the parliamentary parties that helped take over the peninsula last year that they must now share accountability for the consequences. Andrei Sambros says (with a dash of sarcasm) that Medvedev is “taking political responsibility” – in effect, by throwing parliamentary opposition parties under the bus. (Given the Moscow locale, perhaps we should we say “streetcar.”) Will the prime minister end up (figuratively) like the unlucky Berlioz in Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” – with his own head rolling?

    Despite Moscow’s persecution complex, it is apparently not completely friendless, judging from Czech President Milos Zeman’s remarks in a Feb. 8 interview. He says there is a group of countries within the EU that are against anti-Russian sanctions – including not only his own republic, but also Germany, Slovakia and Hungary.

    Russia seems to have won a new friend outside Europe, as well. Putin just returned from Cairo, where he and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el‑Sisi negotiated promising agreements on economic and energy cooperation. Expert Irina Mokhova says: “At a time of particularly strained relations with the West, Russia wants to emphasize its role in the Middle East: to show that our country is respected and trusted, no matter how much its opponents want to ignore that.” In other words, Western Europe is not the only playground in the world. The Sahara has a bigger sandbox, anyway.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 2-8, 2015

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    Issue #6 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #6 Table of Contents

    Of Cabbages and Rat Kings – Can Parties to Ukrainian Conflict Ever Break Free From Each Other?

    In a Medieval throwback, Russia, the West and Ukraine increasingly resemble a sort of “rat king,” tangled together by their tails to the bitter end as the conflict in Ukraine continues to spin out of control. The main battle rages near the Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo, where Ukrainian troops are desperately trying to avoid ending up in yet another “cauldron” as separatist forces threaten to cut off about 9,000 soldiers from any reinforcements. If the offensive to trap the units succeeds, Kiev will be forced to accept the terms imposed on it by the unrecognized republics and Russia, says Ukrainian political analyst Dmitry Dzhangirov.

    One of the main reasons for the rebels’ successful offensive is the low morale of the Ukrainian troops. This fact has been openly acknowledged even by the Ukrainian top brass, who note an increase in draft dodging during the latest wave of mobilization. But the word on the street (as expressed by a Kiev cab driver who received a draft notice recently) is that the conflict is all politics. “First we’re advancing, and then we get orders to die silently without returning fire, because we supposedly have a unilateral truce. What truce? If this is not a war, is it a truce with terrorists? That’s just nonsense!” the taxi driver summed up his take on the situation to Nezavisimaya gazeta.

    Seeing an opportunity, President Putin said Ukrainians who don’t want to fight are welcome to come to Russia. The Russian government is also considering legally extending the length of stay for Ukrainian migrant workers already residing in Russia.

    But there’s still a group that is more than ready and willing to fight – members of various nationalist volunteer battalions. Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh told journalists that these battalions are looking to create a central coordinating structure to streamline operations, while an organization calling itself the All-Ukrainian Battalions Brotherhood recently held a rally on Independence Square, demanding everything from an end to deputy immunity to a law on impeaching the president. The nationalists are getting increasingly politically ambitious, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta, and may soon turn on the Kiev regime. Can Poroshenko and Co. placate this increasingly powerful radical force?

    Apparently, Putin had some advice for his Ukrainian counterpart on that front, as well: He proposed a Chechen scenario for Ukraine in dealing with the restive southeastern regions. Maksim Vikhrov echoes the Russian president, saying that Kiev’s ultimate dream is to “find a rat king among the separatists who could establish order in the region in exchange for budgetary compensation.”

    Showing once again that it’s better at giving advice than taking it, Moscow failed to find a rat king of its own in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Despite a few voices warning against stripping Russia of the right to vote, PACE nevertheless went ahead with the controversial decision. State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin bemoaned Europe’s shortsighted decision in a lengthy open letter in Rossiiskaya gazeta, but said he remains optimistic that relations will improve in the future.

    One glimmer of hope for Russia is Greece and its newly elected SYRIZA party. According to experts, Greece’s increasingly anti-EU stance (including on Russian sanctions) could become a bargaining chip for Moscow, which is considering providing financial assistance to Athens. The rat king just keeps getting bigger.

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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