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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #13

    Letter From the Editors: March 28-April 3, 2016

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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #13 Table of Contents

    Move Over, Miss Universe – Putin, Poroshenko and Kadyrov Vie for the Spotlight.

    Talk of world peace today is mostly reserved for beauty pageant contestants – the rest of the world tends to take a more cynical view. The only exception here is politicians, who have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating hopelessly optimistic campaign promises with bona fide threats. Let’s pretend for a minute that all the world’s a stage – and the top politicians this week are beauty contestants vying for the title of most daring, intransigent or hopelessly romantic.

    The first contestant: Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. He opted to skip the swimsuit competition, and stayed home from the Nuclear Security Summit taking place in Washington. According to his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, that was “due to a lack of cooperation with partners on this issue.” Apparently, Moscow is getting increasingly antsy about NATO’s decision to bulk up its forces in Eastern Europe, writes military commentator Vladimir Mukhin. And by all indications, no one plans to spare the Kremlin’s feelings. According to the US European Command, “While Russia has supported some common security efforts in counterterrorism and counternarcotics, these contributions are overshadowed by its disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors in Europe and its violation of numerous agreements.”

    So it’s just as well that Putin decided to skip a trip to Washington.

    Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev will be making his debut in Washington this year. In pageantry terms, he’s the fresh-faced Midwestern contestant who is just excited to be there. Why a personal invitation from President Obama? According to Azerbaijani political expert Rasim Musabekov, Aliyev was invited because “the US wants very much to ward off any potential attempts to illicitly transfer nuclear materials to Iran via Azerbaijan.”

    Our next contestant has had a rough couple of weeks – Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, who also heads to Washington this week. Alas, empty-handed. The political crisis in Kiev shows no sign of abating as an intransigent parliament digs in its heels on a key Minsk agreement requirement – Constitutional reforms. While there were some indications that Poroshenko and his team had managed to come to an agreement with enough political forces to form a new coalition, the potential allies can’t seem to agree on who will be prime minister. It doesn’t help that a substantial number of Supreme Rada deputies are ready to toss both the Minsk agreements and Ukraine’s separatist eastern provinces. But like a true beauty pageant vet, Poroshenko will just have to smile through the pain.

    Georgia may be the dark horse competitor this week, thanks to the overeagerness of Russia’s NATO representative, Aleksandr Grushko. The latter said that admitting Georgia to the alliance “would put Europe on the brink of a large-scale crisis.” Experts are confused as to why Grushko made that statement in the first place, since NATO already made it clear to Georgia that it has no chance of being admitted (despite heavy lobbying from the US and Poland). The diplomat’s remarks are actually a boon for Georgian politicians who want to play the “Russian threat” card in upcoming elections.

    Finally, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov got a good lead on the other contestants after Putin endorsed him for a third term. While many are unhappy with such a move, the Kremlin apparently believes that Kadyrov is keeping things under control in the once-troubled republic, a source explained. But has the situation in the North Caucasus really improved, wonders Sergei Markedonov? The lull in terrorist activity that came out of the Sochi Winter Olympics may be temporary, he says. But what happens when militants who left Russia to wage a holy war in Syria come home? Kadyrov’s crown may tarnish pretty quickly.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 21-27, 2016

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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #12 Table of Contents

    Russia’s ‘Matryoshka’ Foreign Policy Doctrine: Distracting From One Problem by Creating Another

    One of Russia’s most enduring cultural symbols, the famous matryoshka nesting dolls, remind columnist Georgy Kunadze of Russia’s current foreign policy: “The annexation of the Crimea was ‘nested’ in a hybrid war in the Donetsk Basin; the former, in turn, was hidden in a military operation in Syria. Tactically, the Syrian campaign was intended to distract from one problem by creating another.” Russia’s foreign policy “dolls” seem to be multiplying, and it appears that President Vladimir Putin may one day have a hard time stacking them all neatly together.

    The world is still trying to figure out what to make of one of those dolls: the sudden withdrawal of Russia’s Aerospace Forces from Syria. But Aleksei Malashenko says the move really isn’t all that baffling. In fact, according to Orkhan Dzhemal, there is a very pragmatic reason for the withdrawal: Iran had promised to foot the bill for Russia’s military campaign in support of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad, but then it reneged, so Russia yanked its planes. Another factor in that decision was Iran’s refusal to cooperate with Russia’s initiative to get world oil producers to curb production in order to raise prices.

    The most significant and sacred foreign policy doll is the annexation of the Crimea, which Pyotr Skorobogaty claims was a watershed moment in modern Russian history. But what has it brought Russia other than international sanctions? Skorobogaty says that while the annexation largely bolstered Putin’s ratings with the Russian public and fueled Russian patriotic sentiment, it also created a schism among the elite. And although the Western sanctions that followed initially gave Putin a convenient scapegoat for deep-seated socioeconomic woes that had been festering long before the operation to retake the Crimea was launched, Russians are now seeking accountability. They are demanding a more effective government. They want a country they can be proud of; a country worthy of their rekindled patriotic sentiment.

    But for that to happen, the international sanctions need to be lifted, because Russia’s socioeconomic conditions cannot improve otherwise. And the only way the sanctions are going to be lifted is if progress is made on the Minsk agreements, aimed at settling the Donetsk Basin conflict. Andrei Lipsky writes that although all the parties to the talks pay lip service to the agreements, almost every point of the documents is contested. He believes that many of these points hinge on Russia’s political will: “If Russia takes the first step toward compromise, the other parties may respond in kind. Otherwise, the conflict will drag on indefinitely, and we will be stuck in the dangerous situation of a half-war that threatens to escalate into a full-blown war at any moment.”

    An important aspect of the Minsk agreements is the fate of the prisoners taken by both sides in the conflict. Ukraine has insisted that Russia halt its prosecution of Ukrainian servicewoman Nadezhda Savchenko, who was detained for alleged complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists in Ukraine. This week, a Russian court finally sentenced her to 22 years’ imprisonment. Tatyana Stanovaya says Putin will use her release as a foreign policy bargaining chip. He will eventually exchange her to make it seem as if he’s contributing to the Minsk peace process. In other words, he’s going to make a “distraction” out of her.

    The problem, as Kunadze points out, is that although Russia’s foreign policy distractions have the aura of tactical victories, they will eventually lead to Russia’s strategic defeat, if not its disintegration. It might be time to start stacking those dolls back together.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 14-20, 2016

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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #11 Table of Contents

    Step Aside, Old Guard – New Guard Is Stepping In

    Throughout the world, the lines of power are being redrawn. Ukraine is one example. Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk has finally conceded he is willing to step down (after he retained his post by the skin of his teeth just a few weeks ago) – but the question is: Who will replace him? Meanwhile, President Poroshenko is reasserting Ukraine’s sovereignty in his new Security Concept, which emphasizes the need to protect the country from Russia’s attempts to destabilize it. Aleksandr Sharkovsky cautions that this is not so much a power move on Kiev’s part as a bid to win protection and economic assistance from the West: “Kiev’s calculation is obvious: to declare war on Moscow, engage in minimal hostilities and then immediately turn to the West for protection from the ‘Russian aggressor.’ Once the fighting starts, no one will be able to determine which side started it.” In other words, this already troubled corner of Eastern Europe could become the site of active confrontation between the age-old rivals, the USSR (oops, we meant Russia!) and the West.

    But speaking of that age-old confrontation, some people in Russia unapologetically long for the days of the Soviet Union. Dmitry Agranovsky speaks for that contingent in the March 17 issue of Sovetskaya Rossia: “To us, the Soviet Union will always be our motherland, and losing your motherland is like losing a loved one.” Agranovsky reminds readers of a series of referenda held throughout the Soviet republics exactly 25 years ago, in which the vast majority of voters supported the preservation of the USSR.

    One of the subjects on which Agranovsky waxes nostalgic is the power the immense nation used to have: “The Soviet Union was able to quickly mobilize and concentrate immense resources – military as well as economic – wherever necessary.” In the same vein, former prime minister of Russia Igor Ivanov writes that in the past, the equal strength of the US and the USSR, which dwarfed that of any other nations, maintained stability in the world. “During the cold war, relations between the Kremlin and the White House were the prime axis of global politics.” However, he continues, “in the 21st century, they are an important but far from defining element of the global international system.” Ivanov concludes that the former superpowers must make room for other players in the global arena.

    As if to confirm Ivanov’s message, Aleksandr Shustov and Aleksandr Knyazev write about recent efforts led by Turkey and China to expand their diplomatic, military and economic presence in Central Asia. Many of these initiatives, both authors argue, are reducing Russia’s influence in the region.

    This contention brings us to the week’s main story: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, leaving regional forces to step in and prepare for a new alignment of power. Some may belittle the meaning of Moscow’s entire campaign – for example, Tatyana Stanovaya writes that the purpose all along was to show off Russia’s military capabilities and throw its geopolitical weight around. However, even Stanovaya acknowledges – and other commentators almost unanimously agree – that the Syria operation has revived Russian-American cooperation and elevated Russia’s standing in the world. For example, according to Viktor Litovkin: “[T]he very fact that collaboration exists between the two countries’ militaries shows that the Russians have forced the Americans to respect them.”

    So, these bipolar partners may not be calling all the tunes, but perhaps they are still leading the dance?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 29-March 13, 2016

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

    B-list celebrities: from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to the new Ukrainian gentry

    A Plan B is in the works this week. Most literally, this concerns the fragile Syrian ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia, which was signed by the Assad government and many of the rebel groups. While the ceasefire may be the first step to bringing the Syrian civil war to a halt after five bloody years, it also has its detractors. Namely, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel – each of these had their own agenda in the Syria conflict, writes Izvestia. For Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that agenda included curtailing Iran’s growing influence in the region; for Israel – a chance to get the Golan Heights.

    Saudi Arabia’s Plan B fell through, since it is engaged in Yemen and does not have enough forces to get involved on the ground in Syria. It could, of course, supply the rebels with man-portable surface-to-air missile systems, but according to analyst Gevorg Mirzayan, it would be severely reprimanded for doing so. Finally, Riyadh’s clout with other Gulf monarchies seems to be shrinking.

    Turkey, for its part, is in an even worse position than Saudi Arabia. Its only option to derail the ceasefire would be to bring in troops. Which is only possible if Ankara knows that Washington has its back – and Washington is not about to go along with such a plan.

    But do the Americans have Plan B of their own? According to Mirzayan: “How can there be any talk of a Plan B if the US does not even have a clear Plan A?” Indeed, what started as an attempt by Washington to curb the rise of Iran has turned into a very sticky situation – now that a nuclear arms deal has been reached with Tehran, the US has lost its original purpose for getting involved in Syria. Will Russia help it “save face” a second time, wonders Mirzayan, as it did with the Syrian chemical weapons deal?

    It would seem from that prognosis that Moscow is in a position where it doesn’t even need a Plan B. However, that is not the case, at least on the energy market. Crippled economically by historically low oil prices, Moscow is attempting to create a new oil cartel, writes Novaya gazeta. If the initiative to create “ROPEC” (you guessed it – Russia plus OPEC) is successful, Moscow may corner the global oil market. However, a lot of caveats remain, such as the ongoing “shale gas revolution” in the US. “While traditional oil producers may reach agreement among themselves, they would not be able to get independent US companies on board.” So much for that Plan B.

    A Plan B is also in the works for Ukraine, namely for Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk. Many experts and opposition parties now believe that Yatsenyuk was given a reprieve in order to push through a controversial land deal. Currently, Ukraine has a moratorium on the sale of land holdings – and with good reason. Given the shady dealings in the Ukrainian economy, many are worried that such sales would mean a few of the richest oligarchs would grab up all such land.

    However, in a televised address, Yatsenyuk proposed putting up 1 million hectares of Ukrainian soil up for sale. This had many experts speculating that Yatsenyuk was not speaking to the Ukrainian people, but to his American sponsors (like Monsanto), who are interested in acquiring said land – some of the most fertile in the world – and becoming the new “Ukrainian gentry.”

    “There are more and more complaints from Kiev that the West is making formal demands without considering the mood of the Ukrainian public,” Nezavisimaya gazeta writes. Indeed, once the people run out of patience, another protest explosion is a very real possibility. How about that for a Plan B?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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