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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #47

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 21-27, 2016



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    The View From the Kremlin – Living the Dream in a Post-Truth World


    In what could be called the Year of Backlash (with all the previous references to Brexit and Trump), 2016 continues to shock and amaze. On the heels of the surprising arrest of economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev last week, Russian commentators rushed to wrap their collective brains around the Igor Sechin Phenomenon. For better or worse, it looks like Putin’s ally from his days at St. Petersburg City Hall is upping the ante politically. But as Andrei Kolesnikov points out, Sechin is not a political figure – at least officially. He is merely the CEO of a state-owned corporation. However, he is rumored to have strong ties with law enforcement, and as we saw last week, he isn’t shy about using them.


    According to Yevgenia Albats, Rosneft is now officially taking on the powers of law-enforcement agencies: “What we are witnessing is not the merging of the state and business. . . but rather the merging of a repressive agency with the wealthiest state-owned corporation,” she writes. Is this the emergence of a corporate state in Russia, something that Benito Mussolini once ominously described as, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”?


    Vladimir Pastukhov takes Albats’ sentiments a step further. Yes, Sechin is currently ruthlessly asserting himself on the political arena, going after the so-called liberal establishment (as embodied by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin). But by showing that he is in a way bigger than Putin, Sechin could be setting himself up for a very big fall: “Sechin’s over-the-top pushiness could at some point force Putin to take response measures. And in that case, there will be no shortage of people willing to cut [Sechin] down to size.”


    Perhaps Sechin can only hope that Putin is too distracted with trying to figure out how to play his cards right in the Middle East to worry about interclan power struggles. With Donald Trump to take over the White House in January 2017, Moscow’s Middle East strategy is in disarray: While Trump vowed to make fighting terrorism his top priority, he also promised to take a tougher line with Iran – Moscow’s ally in Syria, writes Mikhail Troitsky. And one condition for normalizing relations with Russia could require Moscow to jump on the bandwagon and get tough with Tehran. What’s more, in order to move toward reconciliation, Russia would have to fundamentally alter its view of the US. For the past several years, Russian propaganda has successfully convinced the domestic audience that America is a geopolitical foe hell-bent on destroying Russia. So is it possible to shift gears and instead portray the US as a “positive force in international relations”? With a presidential election in Russia on the horizon, that would mean “abandoning an important lever of influence on voters,” says Troitsky.


    The view isn’t all bad from the Kremlin this week: Elections in Bulgaria and Moldova were a pleasant surprise, writes Gevorg Mirzayan. Both countries elected politicians who campaigned on improving ties with Russia: Bulgaria’s Rumen Radev does not position himself as either pro-European or pro-Russian, but rather an independent candidate. Moldova’s Igor Dodon, for his part, campaigned on a heavily pro-Russian platform, also proposing outlawing “unionism” (the movement to unite Moldova and Romania).


    Not to be outdone, European Parliament deputies rushed to stem the effects of Russian propaganda by adopting a controversial resolution that effectively lumps Russia together with ISIS and Al Qaeda, writes Aleksandr Mineyev. The resolution aims to fight propaganda that “undermines and erodes the European narrative based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.” But is the EU’s measure too little, too late, given that the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #46

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 14-20, 2016



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    A Week of Bewilderment, Befuddlement, Bemusement.


    Nothing can be taken for granted these days, it seems. Not after Brexit and Trump. The world is still processing – reeling over – Donald’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Experts are nervously contemplating the consequences of what appears to be a nascent era of populist backlash against establishment political figures, attitudes and institutions – and perhaps even more broadly, modernity. Whatever new era might be dawning, it will certainly be one of political and general uncertainty.


    Russia is not immune to surprising developments, it turns out. The biggest head-scratcher to come out of Russia this week was the middle-of-the-night arrest of Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was allegedly caught accepting a bribe from Rosneft for giving a “positive assessment that allowed Rosneft to purchase a controlling stake in Bashneft.” There are many eyebrow-raising elements to the case, writes Yulia Latynina. For example, the “bribe” allegedly occurred long after the deal to purchase the Bashneft stake was finalized; the wealthy cabinet minister was supposedly demanding the relatively paltry sum of $2 million in a multibillion-dollar deal; and Putin apparently was aware of the impending sting operation long before it happened, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Ulyukayev’s boss, only learned of the impending arrest the day before. The list of baffling aspects of the arrest goes on. Although not calling the charges patently false or a provocation (as Ulyukayev claims they are), many commentators nevertheless call the arrest politically significant, if not politically motivated.


    Andrei Kolesnikov says the arrest sends a wake-up call to the elite ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Stalinesque arrest of a top government official is sure to inspire the “loyalty of fear,” as Eva Hartog and Mikhail Fishman put it. The arrest also bolsters Putin’s image as a corruption crusader, and reeling in a big fish before the 2018 election cycle will definitely score him some points with voters, even though such a high-level corruption scandal will tarnish Russia’s reputation in general. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that Putin’s electoral platforms are always nothing more than slogans (such as fighting corruption) that serve to boost ratings but don’t become part of an overall strategy. With Putin, everything is ad hoc. So could Ulyukayev’s arrest be a shoot-from-the-hip solution to a political issue?


    The other sensational story to come out of Russia this week is that the Russian Supreme Court overturned the sentence of avowed Putin oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny in a 2013 embezzlement case. The decision enables him to run for elected office again. The unexpected decision was cause for celebration and suspicion. Some suspect that the Kremlin may actually need its bitter foe to run for president, to give Putin a credible opponent in the election. Others suggest that the Kremlin might be seeking to co-opt him.


    The fact is that Putin is entering what is presumably his last presidential election cycle. This has the Russian elite on edge and preparing for Russia without Putin. What awaits the elite amid the surging tide of populism and antiestablishment sentiment? Should Putin himself be worried about the upcoming election? After all, you can’t get much more establishment than the current Russian regime, right? But perhaps Putin doesn’t have much reason to be afraid. As Yury Saprykin writes somewhat facetiously, Putin turned out to be ahead of the political curve. Trump essentially used the same spin techniques to win the US election that Putin has been using for years in Russia: unsubstantiated statements, fake news and provocative clickbait. Restoring lost “greatness” is in vogue these days, and Putin is becoming something of a cult figure in the eyes of America’s alt-right and Europe’s far-right. Hopefully past greatness doesn’t mean the 1930s for Russia and more late-night arrests.

     


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #45

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 7-13, 2016



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    The Shock Felt Round the World: The Trump Victory and Its Reverberations.


    America is definitely the main focus of this week’s news from Russia. In our first feature, Russian commentators give their takes on how Donald Trump achieved his surprising presidential win and what it means for US democracy. Andrei Movchan argues that the sector that won Trump the election was neither the rich nor the poor, but the middle class, led by the small and medium-sized business sector. One observation shared by all of the commentators: The upset of Hillary Clinton, who represents a political dynasty, proved that democracy really does exist in America (although all of the writers acknowledge that Trump’s victory was narrow and that the Electoral College in a few swing states put him over the top).


    Dmitry Oreshkin writes in Novaya gazeta that Trump’s win is part of a “global backlash” exemplified by Brexit, European nationalism and the continuing popularity of Putin in Russia. However, making an implicit contrast with the latter, he concludes: “America has one distinct advantage – it isn’t afraid of making mistakes, since it always has a way of rectifying them through fair elections.”


    Speaking of Russia, how is Trump’s victory likely to affect it? Belying the sanguine tone of the analysts above, Mikhail Fishman writes: “The US political system has failed at its core. The bulwark of liberal democracy is sinking.” He acknowledges that this turn of events is good for Putin (who might “start seeing himself as the first among equals on the global scene”), but laments that it’s bad for Russia: “The hope for change in Russia has just been buried in the voting booths of Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.” Oleg Kashin riffs sarcastically on much the same theme, pointing out similarities between the conservative heartlands of America and Russia (he even uses the term “rednecks” to describe both!). The lesson he draws from Trump’s victory over the liberal Clinton is that the “creative class” – the progressive intellectuals who are numerically in the minority, in both countries – must find a way to connect with the “redneck” majority. He ends on a hopeful note: “The Americans***will likely solve [this problem], and we will look to them and solve it here, too.”


    Coincidentally (or not?), Russia’s most notorious former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has just published a mission statement for his Open Russia organization that does not take any overt cues from America. In fact, the plan strictly depends on Russia’s domestic trajectory: Specifically, it assumes that the Putin regime will inevitably fall (sooner or later) and that Putin’s successor (no matter who) will fail to move the country forward. This impasse will set the stage for reforms, focused entirely on the domestic scene: a stronger parliament, independent courts and a demonopolized economy, to name a few.


    As for the international scene, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, makes his own predictions in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview: “The world today is standing on the threshold of changing from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.*** And this clash between the two geopolitical projects is also evident in US society, which clearly manifested itself during the presidential election campaign.” In other words, Trump’s victory means the US will step back from global military dominance (a stance that Ivashov sees as represented by the Hillary Clinton establishment).

    However, says military analyst Aleksandr Kanshin in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Trump’s victory will not prompt an “immediate U-turn” in US military policy. Will Trump disband NATO, given his strident criticism of the alliance during his campaign? Hard to say, Kanshin responds. “One can only hope that Russian-US relations would finally improve, including when it comes to global security issues.” Paradoxically, from a Russian standpoint, America’s electoral shakeup could make the world more stable. Stranger things have happened.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2016



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    To the Brink: From the Return of Checkpoint Charlie, to the Point of No Return in Russian-US Relations


    In an article dedicated to the current sad state of Russian-US relations, Dmitry Yevstafyev outlines four layers that comprise a healthy bilateral relationship: political contacts, diplomatic communication, interaction within the format of global institutions and, finally, unofficial contacts between former political “heavyweights” (think Robert McNamara and Yevgeny Primakov). Right now, all four links in the chain are broken. And while Yevstafyev blames “Twitter diplomacy” for ruining the age-old art of expert negotiators hammering out solutions away from the prying eyes of social media, it seems the author most laments the overall loss of our ability to communicate. Even in the 1970s, cold war confrontation proceeded along clearly established ground rules. The current situation is more reminiscent of the 1950s, “when Soviet and US tanks faced off near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and various scenarios for delivering preventive nuclear strikes were discussed.”


    In fact, with the threat of nuclear war looming larger than ever, the UN First Committee has approved a measure to ban nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t look like the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals are about to step back from the brink. Addressing a lack of trust between Russia and the US, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev laid the blame squarely at Washington’s door: “We cannot help but wonder what sort of categories Washington thinks in by placing Russia on a par with ISIS and the Ebola virus in its National Security Strategy.”


    Yet according to Aleksandr Golts, Moscow is hardly interested in coming to terms with Washington on nuclear weapons, since its nuclear arsenal remains the Kremlin’s main foreign policy tool. Whether it’s designing next-generation nuclear subs or leaking the allegedly “secret” Status‑6 nuclear weapon (as it did last year), Moscow is leaning heavily on one of the few tools left at its disposal. And just in case anyone thinks this is a bluff, Vladimir Putin has been hard at work dismantling “his earlier reputation as a rational man by constantly hinting that if push comes to shove, he is prepared to ‘press the button.’ ” Of course, using nuclear weapons to achieve superpower status instead lands Russia in the same camp as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But, as Golts warns, “When Kim Jong Un blackmails his neighbors with a few [nuclear] warheads, the result could be a regional catastrophe. Moscow’s nuclear blackmail could destroy the entire planet.”


    Could it be that Russian leaders are finally starting to come to their senses? First, during last week’s meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin clearly struck a conciliatory tone, stating that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. Then, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that if controversial new antiterrorism legislation and the Law on Foreign Agents are being perceived so negatively by the public, then “for us, the government, that is a serious shortcoming.” Are these signs of a thaw? Hardly, believes political analyst Nikolai Petrov. “Instead of offering something positive, you first scare people with a bigger negative. . . . Then you dial back the negative, which makes them happy – not because you gave them anything, but because you took away less,” he explains.


    One big negative in the CIS this week is the Ukrainian public’s reaction to the asset declarations filed by Ukrainian officials. While the average Ukrainian is struggling to pay for groceries and other basic items, the powers that be are rolling in unprecedented luxury. Some of the items declared include: a church; a “ticket to space” worth $1.5 billion; as well as “collections of paintings, carpets, diamonds, antiques, yachts and airplanes, dozens of apartments and hundreds of hectares of land.” The public’s patience is clearly wearing thin, and “bitter sarcasm among the public could turn to aggression,” warns political expert Andrei Zolotaryov. So that ticket to space might come in handy after all.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 24-30, 2016



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    Is the End of the Globalization Era in Sight?


    The past two weeks have been marked by a series of meetings about practical policy matters and their broader philosophical implications. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. The ministers reiterated the need for a political solution to the conflict and emphasized that the US and its coalition allies must convince the moderate opposition to dissociate itself from terrorists like Jabhat al‑Nusra. They also gave the US heat for preventing further intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva.


    It is Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko who has been catching heat at home since last week’s meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders in Berlin. Patience is wearing thin over the Minsk agreements, which a growing number of critics in Ukraine are saying should be abandoned. Poroshenko pushed back, asserting that the agreements are the only path to peace, but he also rejected the notion of giving up the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The next chapter in the Ukraine saga will be a road map for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements that the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers are to have ready by the end of November.


    Leading policy experts from around the world met in Sochi this week for the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s topic was about shaping the world’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the meeting were both defensive and cautiously optimistic. He issued his usual criticisms of the West for blaming Russia for all that is wrong in the world and using double standards. Commentator Andrei Akulov offers a laundry list of the accumulated grievances in Russian-US relations, which Putin hopes will improve under a new US president. Putin adopted a particularly strident tone as he rejected the “imaginary, mythical threats” about the Russian “barbarians”: “Russia has no intention to attack anyone. That is ridiculous. It is simply preposterous, foolish and unrealistic.” Putin repeated what has been his main foreign policy dogma throughout his leadership tenure: Russia wants to see a multipolar world where every country is equally respected and no country can “reshape the world order to suit its own interests,” which he intimated the US has been doing ever since the end of the cold war.


    Fyodor Lukyanov writes that the world is growing disillusioned with the universalistic message of globalization. Its promised benefits are failing to materialize, or are doing so in ways that many did not predict, leading to imbalances in the world political system and public sentiment. Lukyanov says that dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has turned into “global disorder”: the fragmentation of interests and objectives instead of their universalization.


    In addition to Ukraine and Syria, another symptom of that “global disorder” is the current US presidential campaign, where outspoken Republican candidate Donald Trump is breaking nearly every political convention, seemingly without losing any political capital. His populist message of drastic, reactionary approaches to hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration appeals to base fears about those issues and taps into the growing strain of disillusionment with globalization’s gospel of universalism. Lukyanov suggests that modern institutions founded on ideas of global governance built on consensus have failed to adequately address such fears – at least in the minds of many citizens. And so the task of existing global institutions, Lukyanov argues, is to prevent centrifugal and polarizing forces from creating more division and conflict on national and international levels. But he is not optimistic: “The scale of problems facing the world offers no hope that solutions will be found in the foreseeable future.”


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #42

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 17-23, 2016



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    Taking the High Ground: This Week’s Lip Service, Laughs and Lectures From Russia.


    The “high ground” seems to be a running motif in this week’s Digest coverage: The Russian leadership has managed to stare down, tease and even lecture the political movers and shakers of other countries without drawing unwelcome attention to its own vulnerabilities.


    The most geopolitically grand gesture is that Putin attended the first “Normandy Four” meeting of 2016 in Berlin, thus showing that (1) he’s not an international pariah and (2) he’s in solidarity with the West in paying lip service to the Minsk agreements for settling the protracted conflict in the Donetsk Basin. At this point, implementing those accords puts more burden on Ukraine than Russia, as Tatyana Stanovaya points out: Kiev has a mountain of political and legislative work to do – for example, reforming the Ukrainian Constitution and working out a procedure for elections in the separatist regions – while Moscow has the luxury of simply waiting for it to hoe that row.


    Meanwhile, the Russian media are in a feeding frenzy over allegations that the US election is being rigged. Alex Gorka notes (with a mixture of incredulity and glee) that these allegations come from Republican hopeful Donald Trump in particular: “Just think about it – the leader of a major political party believes that the US voting system is flawed! The candidate has said that some people voted despite being ineligible, some cast ballots many times and some impersonated dead voters.” This last item likely elicits laughter from Russian readers, who are well acquainted with the analogous scam in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel “Dead Souls.” In addition, there must be a certain Schadenfreude with respect to recent history: Recalling the mass protests and claims of fraud that swept Russia after the 2011 State Duma elections, we can imagine that Trump’s allegations about the US system must be music to the Kremlin’s ears.


    Even more rife than speculations about anti-Trump factors in the election are stories in both the Russian and American media that Putin is pushing for a Trump victory. This idea gathered steam during the summer, when Russian hackers released e-mails that compromised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s reputation. Adding fuel to that fire this week is Konstantin Kosachov, chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, who excoriates Clinton’s campaign article (published in Time magazine Oct. 13) titled “Why America Is Exceptional.” Kosachov labels the article “propaganda,” calls it “a culture shock” for the rest of the world, and even takes on a moralistic tone, making a thinly veiled reference to Nazi Germany: “[T]here have been no maxims of this kind and at this level probably since the 1930s and 1940s. We remember very well where talk about the ‘exceptionalism’ of one particular nation led the world at that time, and what price it had to pay.”


    Another Russian legislator who took the moral high ground this week was newly elected Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (formerly Putin’s aide), when he responded publicly to an invitation from PACE president Pedro Agramunt to resume work with the European parliament (from which Russia resigned last year after being stripped of its voting rights). While Volodin acknowledged the need for dialogue, he pointed out that Russia has no business participating in PACE without the right to vote: “Parliament is a place for discussion – a place for dialogue, for expressing viewpoints.” He added: “I mean, look at how the Russian parliament is structured. We have factions that don’t hold a majority, but participate in discussions on all issues.” The irony of this statement cannot be lost on informed Russian readers, who undoubtedly recall the infamous remark by Volodin’s predecessor, Boris Gryzlov: “The Duma is no place for discussion!”


    Honoring the Russian custom of using proverbs to sum up a situation, there are two that come to mind here: “Turnabout is fair play” and “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” We leave it up to you to choose which is more fitting!


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #41

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 10-16, 2016



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    Cold War 2.0 to the Rescue – or How to Travel Back in Time Without Really Trying.


    Although Paris must be lovely in October, President Vladimir Putin is not about to stroll down the Champs-Élysées anytime soon – the French side canceled the Russian president’s visit this week. According to the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, this was due to the fact that the visit’s agenda was reduced to a minimum. One event that ended up on the chopping block was the opening of a Russian spiritual and cultural center in Paris, which French President François Hollande was supposed to dedicate together with Putin. What forced this move? Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, believes Paris was acting hurt because Moscow had vetoed the French side’s draft resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.


    The timing for the visit couldn’t have been worse, writes columnist Tatyana Stanovaya: “In the spring, when François Hollande invited Putin to Paris, Moscow was perceived as a player that was putting the rest of the world in the hot seat with its unrelenting battle against ISIS. . . . But during September-October, the defender against the terrorist threat turned into a bloody monster obliterating an entire city [of Aleppo].”


    Surprisingly, it’s perennial Kremlin critic Yulia Latynina who comes to Putin’s rescue on this point. She points out that Moscow and Damascus aren’t bombing Aleppo – they are bombing rebel-held east Aleppo. Meanwhile, the rebel forces are shelling the much more populous west Aleppo. Why does the city’s western part have a much greater population (with the resulting greater civilian casualties)? Because most people in west Aleppo are internally displaced refugees fleeing the rebel forces. In Latynina’s opinion, the so-called moderate Syrian opposition is a myth – they are just Islamists in sheep’s clothing. Meanwhile, the Syrian population is forced to flee from the rebels to government-controlled territory. “Imagine that you are an opponent of the Kremlin regime. And so one fine day, you look out the window to see that Moscow has been seized by foreign jihadists. . . . Who would you be with in this situation?”


    With the ceasefire agreement on Syria in shambles, Russia and the West have returned to the familiar logic of cold war confrontation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has admitted that a fundamental change has taken place in Russian-American relations. The military top brass – in this case, Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the US Army – went even further, stating that at this rate, war with Russia is all but inevitable. And while political analyst Rostislav Ishchenko notes that generals are always preparing for a war, preparations for such a possibility are clear as day.


    For instance, Russia has announced it intends to open (and in some cases, reopen) military bases abroad. Some proposed sites are Angola, Vietnam, Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt, Cuba, Nicaragua, Singapore and the Seychelles, a Russian Defense Ministry representative said. While reopening the radar station in Lourdes in Cuba is clearly a way to get back at Washington for bringing NATO to Russia’s backyard (as Moscow sees is), establishing a military base in Vietnam could bring Moscow problems with China, which considers the South China Sea its zone of interests, writes Aleksandr Sharkovsky.


    Given all the saber-rattling going on, whatever happened to the UN, you might ask? In an interview with Novaya gazeta, Soviet and Russian diplomatic doyen Anatoly Adamishin is rather blunt in his assessment: Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, global problems have been solved by Russia/USSR and the US striking a deal. So the UN’s role isn’t diminishing, since it was never all that strong to begin with. Today’s most pressing problems – from the Donetsk Basin to Syria – are no exception. It could be that the world has changed very little since the 1940s. No wonder a “cold war 2.0” seems inevitable.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #39-40

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 26-Oct. 9, 2016



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    Russia’s Syria Operation Turns One; Moscow Pulls Out of Nuclear Waste Recycling Agreement; Dutch Prosecutors Release Findings of MH17 Investigation.


    Sept. 30, 2016, marks the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and the question analysts are asking now is: What does Russia have to show for it? Not much, says Vladimir Frolov, who points out that while Russia saved the Bashar Assad regime from imminent collapse, it has helped him regain only about 2% of the territory he had lost since 2011. But perhaps more important than what Russia’s air strikes are doing for Assad is the signal they are sending to the West. Frolov suggests that Putin benefits from the current escalation of the conflict in Syria, as it offers the Kremlin a chance to demonstrate its military might and level the playing field between the two former cold war rivals. In essence, Syria is starting to resemble a 1970s-era proxy war between Washington and Moscow, says a Moscow Times source.


    As if to confirm its willingness to raise the stakes in the apparently unfinished rivalry for global superpower status, the Kremlin abruptly introduced a bill to withdraw from the Russian-American Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, prompted by Washington’s actions to change the military-strategic balance, destabilize the Russian economy and violate the rights of Russian citizens (according to an explanatory memo accompanying the bill). Moscow says that to renew the deal, “Washington must cut its military presence in NATO countries, lift sanctions, abolish the so-called Magnitsky [Act] . . . and pay compensation for losses Russia has suffered under the sanctions.” The goal of this blackmail, says Tatyana Stanovaya, is to give US President Barack Obama a “nasty parting shot” before he leaves the White House (and perhaps give Donald Trump a leg up in the US presidential race).


    The PMDA withdrawal announcement coincided with the publication of the findings of the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office inquiry into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. The Joint Investigation Team determined that the Boeing 777 was brought down by a missile fired from a launcher that had been transported from Russia to separatist-held territory, where the fatal missile was launched, and later brought back to Russia. Russian officials were quick to discredit the results of the investigation as biased, tainted and therefore unreliable. Vladimir Frolov writes that by implicating Russia only indirectly, Dutch prosecutors are offering Moscow what amounts to a deal: In exchange for being spared additional censure and more targeted retaliation for the incident, Moscow should condemn the separatists in eastern Ukraine and turn over those responsible for launching the missile. But Moscow doesn’t seem interested. It continues to discredit the work of investigators and blame Ukraine for the incident. At some point, this issue needs to be resolved one way or another, writes Frolov. And by not seeking a compromise, Moscow is signaling that it doesn’t care about the consequences of further international isolation and perhaps even welcomes it as an excuse to become even more belligerent in the standoff with the West.


    Unfortunately, the growing antagonism on both sides in the new cold war threatens the very foundations of global security. To quote Stanovaya: “Both sides are going for broke. Everyone’s patience is running out, and their nerves are stretched to the limit. This is the state in which most strategic mistakes are committed, often at the expense of entire nations and peoples. Russia and the US are both showing the world an example of how nations that aspire to create an international security architecture should not behave.” Let’s hope no mistakes are made.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #38

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 19-25, 2016



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    Questioning/Unquestioning Loyalty: A Gaggle of Alliances, Coalitions and Parties


    The most dramatic news story in this week’s Digest highlights the issue of loyalty. Barely a week after the US and Russia had (seemingly) established trust and brokered a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, US warplanes struck Syrian Army troops near Deir al‑Zour. American military officials quickly said the pilots had made a mistake, but Moscow even more quickly accused Washington of breaking the truce. Looking beyond this incident, the larger question of loyalty becomes even more complicated. For example, part of the American end of the ceasefire agreement was to prevent terrorist groups – specifically Jabhat al-Nusra – from infiltrating the ranks of rebel groups loyal to Washington. And yet, as Aleksandr Shumilin writes, the rebels themselves have been reluctant to disown Nusra: The group is considered the most effective opposition force, and it has burnished its image by cutting ties with Al Qaeda. One more ingredient in the mix is Turkey. Vladimir Mukhin reports that even while US-Russian cooperation on Syria was in full swing, Ankara’s Operation Euphrates Shield started getting more support from US special forces and US-led coalition aircraft. In fact, Mukhin blames pro-Turkish forces for breaking the ceasefire in Aleppo (in this case by attacking rebels, not Syrian troops).


    At virtually the same time as the precariously stitched together Geneva agreements were coming undone, United Russia was sewing up a victory in the State Duma elections. A preparatory move that had looked like democratization – i.e., doing away with party lists for single-seat districts, so that the Duma mandate would go to whatever candidate wins the most votes – played to the ruling party’s advantage: It won 90% of seats representing these districts. Now it holds a “supermajority” of 343 seats (75%) – well over the 67% required to make changes to the Russian Constitution. But does this mean that ordinary Russians are more loyal to the regime than they were in 2011, when tens of thousands protested on Bolotnaya Square? Not so, says political analyst Aleksandr Kynev: It’s just that the protest voters sat this election out, believing they couldn’t make a difference. Whether through loyalty or apathy, the voting results consolidate power firmly in the hands of the party that happens to include President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev.


    Another consolidation is rumored to be afoot in the Russian security and law-enforcement sector: The Kremlin might be planning to recreate the KGB in the form of a “state security ministry.” Who will lead it? According to Pavel Chikov, after the recent wave of high-profile arrests of law-enforcement officials, the “last man standing” is Russian Investigation Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin: “The concept of a Russian FBI, completely tailor-made for Aleksandr Bastrykin, could quite easily materialize . . . to handle the most significant categories of crimes against the federal government.” On the other hand, an anonymous source quoted by Kommersant questions the Kremlin’s loyalty to the longtime security boss: The authorities have supposedly “let him know that in the new system, he can expect only an honorary position with no managerial powers.”


    Just west of Russia, another longtime loyalty is being called into question: Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko abruptly spoke out against the Eurasian Economic Union, of which he had been a staunch advocate for years. Evidently miffed by the Russian government’s intractability on gas prices, Lukashenko exploded at a recent meeting: “I’m sick of this – enough is enough. This can’t go on any longer.” Curiously, in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview just last week, Lukashenko emphasized unity with Russia as a fraternal nation. “Russians feel very much at home here [in Belarus], even better than that.” Perhaps he would agree with the classic distinction made by Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the nation all the time; loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37

    Letter From the Editors:Sept. 12-18, 2016



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    Issue #37 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #37 Table of Contents

    Truth Is Stranger Than Reality TV – Who Will Be the ‘Survivor’ of Geopolitics? 


    The wildly successful US reality television series “Survivor” is currently in its 33rd season. While this makes it a veteran in the world of television, that is hardly a record for the world of politics. In fact, the Digest has seen more than its fair share of reality TV drama unfold on its pages. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all.


    This week is no exception. Two tribes appearing to work together, at least as an ad hoc alliance, are Russia and the US, which seem to have reached a tentative deal on Syria. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, refused to release the text of the actual agreement, saying it contains very sensitive information, writes Vedomosti. They did, however, outline the general idea: An initial cessation of hostilities for 48 hours, “with an extension of another 48 hours, leading to permanent compliance with this truce,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference following the talks. The cessation of hostilities should hold for seven days. Then, a special center would be set up in Syria “to delineate terrorists from the moderate opposition.” The Russian Aerospace Forces and the US Air Force are planning to work in tandem to target terrorists in certain regions (while the Syrian Air Force would stay out of those areas).


    Experts are skeptical that the ceasefire will hold. The biggest issue is that it would be very difficult to distinguish the moderate Syrian opposition from terrorists. Moreover, the Syrian opposition views the agreement as a betrayal by Washington. Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, the deal makes Russia the winner. Not so, argues Carnegie Moscow Center’s Aleksei Malashenko: “Moscow made several significant concessions in the talks: Assad’s fate is not reflected in the documents, but he is prohibited to fly in [parts of] his own territory – this is a clear signal that his legitimacy is being undermined.” Clearly, lack of trust remains a huge stumbling block.


    Another part of the world swept by political turmoil and asset redistribution is Uzbekistan. After the death of perennial leader Islam Karimov on Sept. 2, acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has emerged as a major player trying to get control over Uzbekistan’s juiciest assets, writes Radio Liberty’s Umid Bobomatov. The acting head of state’s relatives control such cash cows as “foreign trade operations, bank transfers, textile production, the oil and gas sector,” and so on. Now, Mirziyoyev is gunning for assets belonging to the deceased president’s family. According to the Fergana news agency, the government is already looking for evidence of wrongdoing at a company belonging to Karimov’s son-in-law, Timur Tillyayev. An agency source claims that the company will eventually end up in the hands of Mirziyoyev’s sons-in-law.


    Meanwhile, no one is more adept at the reality TV world of politics than Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. In an interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta, Lukashenko talked at length about how he has managed to survive “in the middle of it all.” Being at the crossroads of Eurasian geopolitical games (or the “hammer” that is Russia and the “anvil” that is the EU, as he put it), maintaining a fragile balance is tricky. “So we should not be despised for talking with the West and we should not be pushed away from Russia. We were fated to be in the center, at this crossroads, [and] this is where we have to live,” Lukashenko said. The Minsk negotiating process on finding a resolution to the Ukraine conflict has certainly put Belarus at the center of the world’s attention. Now that the spotlight is on him, can Lukashenko outwit, outplay and outlast?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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