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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #21

    Letter From the Editors: May 18-24, 2015

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    Issue #21 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #21 Table of Contents

    Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: Ukraine Finds Its Propaganda Trump Card, the Russian Elite Find Themselves in a Quandary

    Sometimes life really does imitate art, since many of the events happening this week in Russia and the near abroad could have come right off the page of a cheap spy novel. As the Ukraine crisis continues to spin its wheels with no solution in sight, Kiev has reported a media sensation: the capture of two Russian alleged GRU (Chief Intelligence Administration) agents. During questioning, the two captives said they are soldiers in the Russian Army sent to do “surveillance.” Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that they are no longer part of the Russian Armed Forces. Not surprising, writes Mikhail Tishchenko: Since Moscow has been adamant that there are no regular Russian Army troops in Ukraine, it can’t exactly admit the two men are on active duty.

    And this is something the Ukrainian side plans to use to its advantage: The message to Russian soldiers and volunteers joining the Donetsk Basin separatists is that the Kremlin abandons its own. Will this demoralization factor have an effect on the conflict?

    This concept is also food for thought when it comes to the Russian elite. In his article, the country’s most famous exiled economist, Sergei Guriyev, says the Russian economic forecast does not look good. What’s more, while the people may still be buying into the siege mentality and blaming the crisis on external forces, the elite know better. But since they have been painted into a corner by the Putin regime and often have conflicting interests, there’s no easy way out.

    One strategy, Guriyev writes, is to remain loyal to the regime, reap as many dividends as you can – and then? In the words of Madame Pompadour, “après moi le déluge.” The segment of the elite that isn’t interested in the “come what may” strategy can either join the opposition (pointless and dangerous), or leave. Guriyev cites Mancur Olson, who said that in certain situations, “the actions of each individual member of a group in his/her own interests cause the group as a whole (and each of its members) to lose.” So for now, the various clans within the elite are taking a wait-and-see approach.

    But it looks like the Kremlin is worried that this won’t be enough to dissuade regime opponents from consolidating. How else to explain a recent law on “undesirable organizations” just approved by the Duma, wonders Tatyana Stanovaya. It seems that the controversial law on foreign agents is not enough, since certain organizations – like Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia project – aren’t really subject to the “foreign agent” law. Then there’s popular opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who clearly isn’t into loyalty or leaving the country. Perhaps the Kremlin fears that Khodorkovsky and Navalny will join forces, and then who knows what could happen? The Bolotnaya Square protests clearly made an impression on Putin.

    Finally, certain commentators are also worried that the protests in Macedonia are also the work of devious external forces. Russian Public Chamber member Sergei Markov writes that the wave of protests in this Balkan nation is essentially the work of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, which is in cahoots with the NSA. Apparently, Germany has wanted a foothold in the Balkans since the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm, and this may be yet another attempt to make inroads by installing a puppet regime in Skopje. Plus there’s an added bonus: giving Greece’s left-wing government (and Hungary’s right-wing one) a good scare, writes Markov. Still not enough plot twists? The Russian official also cites the possibility of an Albanian plot: “Many Albanian leaders are promoting the concept of a greater Albania, which would be comprised of Albania, Kosovo, and parts of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.John le Carré, eat your heart out!

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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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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