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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #16

    Letter From the Editors: April 18-24, 2016

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    Issue #16 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #16 Table of Contents

    Navalny Takes on the CEC; Russia Ups the Ante With Antics Over the Baltic; and a Possible Homecoming for Savchenko

    Shel Silverstein’s poem “Hug O’ War” starts with the lines: “I will not play at tug o’ war/ I’d rather play at hug o’ war/ Where everyone hugs/ Instead of tugs/ Where everyone giggles/ And rolls on the rug.” You won’t find anyone rolling on the rug in Brussels this week, however. Despite the fact that the NATO-Russia Council has resumed its work following a two-year hiatus, the meeting ended up being the usual exchange of tired grievances.

    So why was this format resurrected, and why now? According to military expert Viktor Litovkin, it was mainly because of “the Russian military’s successes in conducting the antiterrorist operation in Syria.” Apparently, Washington was so bowled over by Russia’s show of strength that it finally saw the light and decided to treat it with a little more respect. Litovkin does not give NATO countries any credit, though – according to him, “the alliance is Washington’s fine-tuned military-political tool used to enslave and control Europe.” So he suggests starting a dialogue, but strictly with Washington. “As for Stoltenberg & Co., they should go have a smoke.”

    Another tug o’ war – this time in Russia – resulted in a slightly more amicable outcome. After candidates from Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation announced they were dropping out of local village council elections due to procedural irregularities, the CEC made a surprise move – it invalidated the election results. The brouhaha started after it was discovered that several hundred people had voted early. In a small village, that translated to a fairly large percentage of the votes. In addition, the opposition candidates noted other instances of fraud: “free rides for voters to polling stations” and “bribes in the form of property rights offers.”

    Newly appointed CEC chairwoman Ella Pamfilova sat down with Navalny’s delegates, but nothing came of the meeting. Or so it seemed. The next day, the CEC nullified the election results. Pamfilova claims the move had nothing to do with Navalny. According to the Golos election watchdog, she made the decision so that the controversy “is not used to discredit the CEC’s subsequent work and elections in general.” Still, a point for Navalny?

    Another tug o’ war – this one in the sky over the Baltic Sea – could have had much more serious repercussions. The US was incensed that two Russian Su‑24 jets buzzed the USS Donald Cook, flying just a few meters from the deck. The next day saw a similar provocation, when a Russian Su‑27 fighter intercepted a US Air Force RC‑135U reconnaissance aircraft. According to military expert Pavel Felgengauer, one wrong move could have ignited a very real war. Is the Russian military double-dog daring its US counterparts in a risky game with global repercussions? And how will the US respond?

    Ukraine may be winning its own tug o’ war with Russia when it comes to celebrity pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who was recently sentenced to 22 years in prison for the murder and attempted murder of a Russian journalist team. Since then, a lot of paperwork has been shuttling back and forth between the Russian Justice Ministry and its Ukrainian counterpart. Most experts and journalists believe that Savchenko will be exchanged for Russian servicemen Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev. This would explain why she did not file an appeal, writes RBC Daily.

    One person who says he is fed up with a tug o’ war is Aleksandr Lukashenko. In his typically flamboyant style, the Belarussian president said he refuses to be “Russia’s lackey,” and that it’s about time Moscow showed him some respect – perhaps in the form of an oil field, which Lukashenko proposed to barter for a tractor plant. “Let’s be friends,” Lukashenko concluded. Looks like someone is ready to roll on the rug.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #15

    Letter From the Editors: April 11-17, 2016

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    Issue #15 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #15 Table of Contents

    Putin Tones Down Foreign Policy Rhetoric; Fallout From Panama Papers Continues; Ukraine Gets New Cabinet; National Guard Sets Sights on Chechen Security Forces

    Putin adopted a decidedly different tone in his 14th annual call-in show, focusing on domestic rather than foreign policy issues. Vladimir Frolov writes: “The most important message to the outside world was that for the time being, Russia is done with foreign policy escapades aimed at securing its status as a ‘global superpower.’ ” The Russian president essentially told other nations that they have nothing to fear from his country if they treat it respectfully. He pressed that point home when commenting on US relations: “But if our counterparts [in the US] operate based on the false premise of being exceptional, they will always claim special status and special privileges for themselves. . . . They must set their imperialistic ambitions aside and be respectful toward their partners.”

    The Kremlin perceives the West’s negative attitude toward Putin as a lack of respect. According to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “The degree of Putinophobia has reached such a level that it is by definition impossible to say anything good about Russia, to talk about Russia’s successes.” His remarks were made in response to the leaking of documents revealing the shady financial dealings of the world’s rich and famous – the so-called Panama Papers. Journalists Dmitry Gavrilenko, Yevgenia Obukhova and Pyotr Skorobogaty suggest that the leak is a George Soros project to incite popular unrest in countries with regimes the US finds undesirable. In particular, they believe the goal is to discredit the Russian authorities ahead of the 2018 presidential election.

    Following on the heels of the Panama Papers revelations, Russian state-run television company VGTRK aired a film accusing Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny of being a Western intelligence operative and of conspiring with Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder to arrange for the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian pretrial detention center. Darya Garmonenko questions the timing of the accusation, wondering if it is actually designed to divert attention from the Panama Papers, while Yulia Latynina says the accusations against Navalny are absurd and patently flawed.

    The publication of the Panama Papers only stoked an already seething political crisis in Ukraine, putting President Poroshenko in the hot seat. Ukraine’s Supreme Rada this week dismissed prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and appointed Vladimir Groisman to replace him. The vote did not come off without a hitch, however, as the Pyotr Poroshenko Bloc had to wrangle votes from unlikely sources to secure what was expected to be a straightforward vote. In another sign that fault lines might continue to plague Ukrainian politics, Groisman apparently failed to see eye to eye with the presidential administration on the roster for the new cabinet. As if Poroshenko didn’t have enough problems already, Odessa Province Governor Mikhail Saakashvili publicly confronted him over the slow pace of anticorruption reforms, hinting that if changes don’t happen soon, he and other reform-minded politicians might act to “change everything in the country in the fastest and most resolute constitutional manner.”

    Another revelation from last week still generating buzz in Russia is the announcement of the creation of a National Guard that would subsume some of the country’s numerous and varied security and law-enforcement agencies under the leadership of loyal Putin bodyguard Viktor Zolotov. Pyotr Zaikin, a former special ops officer with the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry’s Internal Troops, suggests that the move might be partly designed to purge and rein in Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces by placing them in a military command structure that reports directly to Moscow. In other words, the Kremlin may be launching a campaign to tie down loose cannons.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #14

    Letter From the Editors: April 4-10, 2016

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    Issue #14 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #14 Table of Contents

    It’s Not All About Russia: Fonseca, Frozen Conflicts, Finance and Force

    Back in 2013, Vladimir Putin published an open letter in the New York Times. He addressed it “directly to the American people and their political leaders,” admonishing them about the dangers of “American exceptionalism” – the idea that the world revolves around Washington and its decisions. This week’s news features – despite the fact that they focus on (1) an offshore financial scandal and (2) a frozen conflict – seem to give the same message right back to Russia: “It’s not all about you!” (No matter how much you may think it is.)

    Case in point: In the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, which implicated hundreds of thousands of offshore companies, one of the first comments made by Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was: “It is of course obvious to us that the target of such leaks was and is our president.” He went on to say that the scandal was timed to influence Russian voters as the election season gets in full swing. Grigory Golosov dismisses this idea with sarcasm: “[V]oters determine the election outcome in our country only to a limited extent. A much more significant role is played by the vote-counting process – a skill that the local authorities have down pat.” In a similar vein, Fyodor Krasheninnikov contrasts Russia with “developed democracies” like Iceland, where the prime minister’s implication in the Panama controversy cost him his job: “Only in those countries, information about the ruling class is capable of radically influencing the situation and resulting in a regime change at the next elections.”

    Another big splash of news this week again bypassed Russia: New fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed along the line of contact. Media reported dozens of casualties, as well as the destruction of helicopters and armored vehicles. Baku accused Yerevan of trying to seize Azeri territory; meanwhile, a high-ranking Armenian government official commented: “For Azerbaijan, the flare-up is a peculiar form of capital that can be monetized. Fighting usually breaks out along the contact line ahead of important international events involving the Azerbaijani leadership.” (Granted, the source did not specify what those might be.) Neither side is pointing the finger at Moscow in particular, but is it really on the sidelines? Vladimir Mukhin points out that Russia is the main military supplier for both countries, making billions (literally) left and right from arms contracts with the conflicting parties.

    On the other hand, one area where Moscow evidently prefers to stay on the sidelines is Afghanistan. In an interview with Izvestia, Zamir Kabulov, the Russian president’s special representative for Afghanistan, reported that the Afghan Armed Forces are not prepared to ensure their country’s defense and security without American troops, and without Russia’s state-of-the-art weaponry. When asked: “What can we do?” his response was: “Let them handle it.”

    Although Moscow may be staying out of conflict in Central Asia, it is apparently still being punished for its aggression in Eastern Europe. A Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial reports that the Russian government lost out on a $3 billion loan after the Obama administration warned US banks against lending Russia money. According to NG, this policy is connected to Western sanctions, leaving Moscow in financial isolation. This is the thanks it gets after brokering a ceasefire in Syria!

    Speaking of which, Yury Roks comments that this Syrian intervention – like the presence of Moscow’s “little green men” in the Crimea – is an example of how conflicts, from the regional to the international, are increasingly being resolved by military means, rather than civil conversations at the negotiating table. Maybe everyone involved in a spat needs to get the message: “It’s not all about you!”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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