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

    Letter From the Editors: March 20-26, 2017

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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
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    It’s Not Easy Being Green… But Somebody’s Got to Do It

    As Russia draws within a year of its next presidential election, opposition figures are coming forward to criticize the likely winner – Vladimir Putin. For example, Leonid Gozman in a Novaya gazeta commentary accuses him of gaining and maintaining public support through shameless deception: “Leaders who are ineffective or do not make the public’s well-being a priority are compelled to distort reality, creating an illusory world like that of the Wizard of Oz.” As if to reinforce the image of Putin’s Russia as the Emerald City, the media (both state-run and social) are buzzing with the story of Putin’s most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, getting splashed with green dye at a campaign event in Barnaul. Now some of Navalny’s supporters are playing the “green scene” to their advantage, smearing themselves with the dye and proudly taking selfies!

    Speaking of Oz, could Kremlin wizardry be behind the sudden disappearance of a 2014 letter in which then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich requested that his Russian counterpart send in troops to protect him from his own people who were protesting on Kiev’s Independence Square? The letter is shown in a video of a UN Security Council session, being read aloud by then-Russian UN rep Vitaly Churkin. Yet this week, both the Russian government and Yanukovich himself deny it ever existed. Now you see it, now you don’t! What about the man who was shown reading it? Churkin, too, alas, is no longer with us: He died suddenly of unexplained causes Feb. 20, just when the Ukrainian authorities were preparing to put Yanukovich on trial for high treason. Coincidence? What about the death of another potentially damning witness against Yanukovich – former Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov, assassinated outside a Kiev hotel on March 23?

    Even if it can’t stop Kiev from prosecuting Yanukovich, Moscow can at least pay it back in its own coin. Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin told Rossiiskaya gazeta this week that the IC is currently investigating criminal cases against officials in the post-Yanukovich government. The charges, explains Bastrykin (apparently quoting chapter and verse from the stack of law books on his desk), include “infringement upon the life and health of Donetsk Basin civilians,” involving “the use of weapons of mass destruction and other means and methods of warfare prohibited by international law.”

    Does framing the Ukraine issue this way play a part in a larger campaign on Russia’s part to raise its status in the international community? Could be. Mikhail Fishman and Matthew Kupfer write in The Moscow Times that Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine and Syria have combined with external factors – such as Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US and the declining anti-Russia trend in Europe to burnish the Kremlin’s global image. “These events have all catapulted Putin to the position of a powerful broker in the international arena and fulfilled the country’s longstanding desire for international influence.”

    But perhaps that influence has gone too far. Tatyana Stanovaya argues in Republic.ru that rumors about Putin attempting to influence the French presidential election have some factual basis. At the very least, there is a monetary trail connecting him with right-wing candidate François Fillon. Stanovaya predicts that Putin’s courting of the “new West” will backfire: “The Kremlin’s desire to ride a wave of new trends in the West, manifested in the rise of nontraditional and patriotically antiglobalist forces, will result in those forces gradually turning against Putin.”

    Still, why does Putin need a rosy future when there’s plenty of green to go around? Most Russians still have their emerald-colored glasses on, and the few who have taken them off are getting green splashed in their eyes in liquid form.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 13-19, 2017

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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
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    With Missiles Like These, Who Needs Frenemies?

    For those who believe time travel is possible, here’s hoping that 1983 was a good year, because it certainly feels like we’re returning to it: Not in terms of shoulder pads and upturned collars (although who wouldn’t want to rock that look again?) but nuclear hysteria. According to military expert Pavel Felgengauer, NATO and Russia are essentially in the same mess as in the early 80s, when American Pershings and Soviet Pioner missiles made Europe a very uncomfortable place to be. Eventually, given the American missiles’ superior accuracy, Moscow blinked first: “In the event of a preemptive (decapitating) strike, the top military-political leadership would have no time to safely evacuate from Moscow by helicopter, and it would be risky to take shelter from a surgically accurate nuclear warhead in a bunker. The chiefs did not intend to die, so the INF Treaty was signed, based on Reagan’s ‘zero option,’ ” Felgengauer concludes.

    Today, the Russian General Staff is caterwauling that the 1987 INF Treaty was unfair, and both sides are accusing each other of violating it. The situation looks frighteningly familiar – the US is deploying bases in Romania and Poland, while Russia is threatening to station its Kalibr missiles in response (and perhaps has already deployed them in the Crimea).

    Is it any wonder that in this scenario, more and more countries want a couple of nuclear warheads of their own, just to be safe? Spooked by the Trump administration’s possible plans to leave Europe to its own devices when it comes to defense, EU officials are floating the idea of developing European nuclear deterrence, writes Andrei Akulov: “The nuclear deterrence plan proposes turning the French nuclear potential into a European nuclear deterrent.” Ukraine decided to jump on the bandwagon – Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said Ukraine wants its nuclear status reviewed. So if the EU decides to go nuclear, Kiev could be included in those plans. Given the EU’s growing decentralization (according to Pyotr Korzun, the EU today is a set of “mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests”), ensuring proper oversight could get complicated. Should we all learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

    Meanwhile, another nuclear wannabe state (at least until a couple of years ago) – Iran – finds itself branded as the regional scapegoat. Despite a nuclear deal brokered in 2015, the current US administration has accused Iran “of almost all Middle East problems,” writes Ravil Mustafin. Part of the reason, according to Mustafin, is that the US still can’t get over the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 hostage crisis and the debacle of a rescue operation that followed. In addition, Iran makes a convenient target for Trump – “On the one hand, it is important for the US president to show America that he is consistently fulfilling his campaign promises, and on the other hand, to take revenge on Obama, portraying him as a weak politician who can be easily duped.” Why not kill two birds with one stone?

    Washington’s newfound enthusiasm for scapegoating Iran is shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia – two frenemies that suddenly find themselves surprisingly aligned. The dissenter on the issue is Russia, which happens to be one of the parties to the Iran-Russia-Turkey coalition that brokered the shaky truce in Syria. While Moscow’s position is hardly surprising, the maverick in this game is actually Ankara: “A real godsend for Washington would be Ankara’s withdrawal from the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance, if not the alliance’s complete disintegration,” concludes Mustafin. Considering that Turkish officials have been making conflicting statements of late, clearly trying to play both sides, Washington may get its wish.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: March 6-12, 2017

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    Issue #10 Letter From the Editors
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    Stinker Jailer Soldier Spy.

    Russia’s most famous muckraker has raised another stink in Russia after landing his biggest if not smelliest fish to date – the prime minister himself. Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund this week released the results of an investigation that meticulously documents Medvedev’s lavish lifestyle, which includes the regular use of luxurious mansions and lavish yachts gifted to the charitable foundations of Dmitry Medvedev’s friends. The revelations come as no surprise to Russians. Everyone knows this is how the system works, writes Andrei Kolesnikov: “The oligarchy supplies the needs and wants of the ruling authorities who, in turn, protect the oligarchy from interference.” Kirill Martynov facetiously pities Medvedev, who he says is forced to accept the obligatory trappings of power in Russia at a time when it is trendy for the rich and powerful in the Western world (at least in Silicon Valley, Medvedev’s Mount Zion) to eschew extravagance in favor of personal asceticism. Russia’s leaders have no choice, writes Kolesnikov: “Money and luxury serve as the lifeblood animating Russia’s body politic. [Navalny’s investigation] has revealed that leaders can never get enough, and that they will cling to power until their dying breath. Because losing office would literally mean losing everything.”

    But while the Russian leadership jealously guards its “everything,” it has no qualms about taking away ordinary Russians’ “everything” – just ask Sochi resident Oksana Sevastidi, who was given a seven-year prison sentence on high treason charges in 2016 for sending a couple of text messages to a friend in Georgia in 2008 about seeing military equipment on railcars. Russia’s propensity for jailing is well documented. But it seems that even Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Sevastidi’s sentence was a bit extreme. He has just pardoned her on “humanitarian principles.” Another Sochi resident, Yekaterina Kharebava, sentenced to serve six years in prison on espionage charges in 2014 for sending a similar text message, is still in prison. Can she expect similar “benevolence” from Russia’s supreme power-holder?

    And hold power he does. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reminded us this week just how much military power Russia wields, in case those who say that Russia must be talked with from a position of strength (read: US Defense Secretary James Mattis) may have forgotten. NG writes that Russia has a “new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which can outmaneuver all existing missile defense systems and put 10 [metric] tons of nuclear warheads on target anywhere in the world, with enough range to fly over either the North or South Pole.”

    But lest Russia be accused of saber-rattling, it has invited NATO and EU countries to take part in Moscow’s International Security Conference to shore up rapidly eroding trust and cooperation on security matters. The list of already scrapped and close-to-endangered security agreements is long and worrisome, writes Andrei Akulov. But he feels “the time is right to launch a meaningful and comprehensive discussion on a continental security order. Respect for each other’s views and interests is a prerequisite for success.”

    Unfortunately, it seems Russia does not necessarily respect Montenegro’s interest in pursuing closer integration with the EU and NATO. Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic this week announced that a prominent Russian spy, Col. Eduard Shishmakov, led the attempted plot to assassinate the pro-EU and pro-NATO Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and overthrow the government on election day, Oct. 16, 2016. Russia quickly dismissed the astounding claim, but the new Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, says several NATO countries confirm Russia’s involvement in the coup attempt.

    Needless to say, this week’s news has all the drama of a John Le Carré novel.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8-9

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 20-March 5, 2017

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    Issue #8-9 Letter From the Editors
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    Friends, Enemies and Frenemies: Sorting Out Who’s Who in the Trump Era

    Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”

    In the long-standing friendship between America and the countries of the European Union, Donald Trump can certainly not be accused of stepping daintily. Months of insults and threats toward the Old World – calling the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” labeling NATO as “obsolete” and scolding its members for not paying their fair share for defense – have made leaders on the other side of the Atlantic understandably jumpy. The first feature of this week’s Digest focuses on a whirlwind tour made by key members of the Trump team with the aim of “seducing Europe” (to quote a Novaya gazeta headline). For example, according to Aleksandr Mineyev, Vice-President Mike Pence “praised the EU for its achievements in developing a common market, and marveled at the freedom with which goods, capital, services and people move within the EU. He noted the historic significance of EU enlargement, the introduction of a single currency, and the development of common approaches to security policy.” Even so, both he and Defense Secretary James Mattis backed up their boss’s warnings about NATO countries needing to ramp up their defense spending to 2% of GDP.

    Nezavisimaya gazeta editor in chief Konstantin Remchukov says that Pence’s remarks were anything but reassuring; if anything, they revealed turmoil within Washington, sending a deeply confusing message. Remchukov sums up recent conversations with Western political analysts as follows: “I’ve never seen them so discombobulated. These former prophets have nothing left of their old self-confidence. . . . [T]hey can’t predict anything. There’s a feeling that the cold war has reached an unexpected juncture.” Indeed, Fyodor Lukyanov warns that with Trump’s recent talk of making the American weapon arsenal the “top of the pack,” the world could be facing a “second nuclear century.” At least political analyst Oleg Shakirov sees some hope for East-West dialogue in the upcoming Russia-NATO Council meetings.

    Of course, an important issue between Russia and NATO is the Ukraine conflict. Curiously, despite an apparent impasse on the official level (where both Ukraine and Russia are using each other as an excuse for not implementing the Minsk agreements), a number of solutions have been proposed unofficially by Ukrainians in widely different circles. These include Radical Party Deputy Andrei Artemenko (who proposes leasing the Crimea to Russia), oligarch Sergei Taruta (who advocates for a special law reinstating regional Donetsk leaders) and good old former president Viktor Yanukovich (who submitted to West European leaders a plan to hold a Ukrainian referendum on the Donetsk Basin). Experts suspect a “Russian trail” behind most of these plans, especially the last one.

    On a more obvious level, Moscow has been treading rather undaintily with another of its fraternal nations, Belarus. The latest stomp, as reported in previous Digest coverage, is the abrupt imposition of border checkpoints between the two countries. Granted, Russia has gotten increasingly frustrated with its neighbor’s cunning “schemes and scams,” writes Republic.ru commentator Yevgeny Karasyuk: In recent years, Belarus has been smuggling a range of products both westward (Russian oil products disguised as paint thinner) and eastward (European apples, apricots and seafood to Russia, ducking the sanctions war with Europe). However, according to economist Aleksandr Chubrik, this covert trading is small potatoes compared to the value of duty-free oil Belarus has gotten from Russia over the years – a commodity that Moscow is starting to cut back on as it pressures Minsk to repay past debts to Gazprom. Such tactics seem to go beyond what Emerson meant by “rough courage.” We might ask: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 13-19, 2017

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

    The Autumn of the Patriarch – Collapse of Old Alliances and Putin’s Political Fatigue

    Commentators in Russia have been pulling out all the stops to keep the public’s tepid interest in the upcoming presidential election alive. That’s hardly surprising, given that Russia’s perennial regime has no surprises left. The fatigue is obvious – suffice it to recall that last week, Vedomosti reported that Donald Trump had eclipsed Vladimir Putin in the number of Russian media mentions.

    This week, Konstantin Gaaze divides the various political camps in Russia into three groups – the loyalist “Hail Caesar!” party, which essentially sees Putin as a sort of divine ruler; the iron-fisted “Police State Russia”; and “Metasmart Russia,” a sort of Russian geek squad more concerned about KPIs than political intrigue. All three are vying for Putin’s attention with competing platforms, and yet all have their own deep program flaws. So in keeping with current trends, the Russian president may just choose to stay the course after 2018. Gone are the days of reform-minded liberals like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, writes Gaaze. Instead, “Liberals no longer dream of major projects; their only concern is how to get through the day. So we can say without a hint of sarcasm that this seems to be the best option for Vladimir Putin’s fourth term.”

    Like an old timer who just wants to take a nap, the Putin regime seems to be closing in on itself.

    Perhaps trying to stir up memories of Putin’s glorious fire-and-brimstone days, Russian media outlets this week marked the 10-year anniversary of the Russian president’s controversial Munich speech. On Feb. 10, 2007, Putin shocked and awed the West with his diatribe against a unipolar world, raging against everything from NATO’s eastward expansion to the US’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Eastern Europe panicked. Western Europe chafed at the idea that it was merely Washington’s lackey. According to Vyacheslav Kostikov, the Munich speech recalled Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech of 1946, which is considered by many to be the start of the cold war.

    Ten years later, is the West starting to heed Putin’s warning about the dangers of a unipolar world? It would be a bit of a leap to attribute the rise of nationalist sentiment, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to Putin alone. But the trend is obvious – most commentators agree that the old world order is coming apart at the seams.

    A case in point is the collapse of old alliances, such as the Union State of Russia and Belarus. What began as a usual petty squabble over energy prices eventually grew into the reestablishment of border checkpoints between Russia and Belarus – and a media war. Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko apparently fears that Moscow has grown tired of him and wants to send him into involuntary political retirement. (Think Viktor Yanukovich.) According to Denis Lavnikevich, reports came out just before the new year claiming that Lukashenko had thwarted a “palace coup.” This is further evidenced by an unexpected purging of government ranks: “Late 2016 saw the dismissals of the head of the presidential administration and his first deputy; the deputy chiefs of the Armed Forces General Staff and the Internal Affairs Ministry; the head of the Border Committee; and a multitude of lower-ranking officials.” Allegedly, the Belarussian KGB was behind this housecleaning.

    Russia’s relationship with Iran is also starting to show cracks. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin scrapped his Tehran visit at the last moment, apparently in protest over Iran’s agreements with Airbus and Boeing to purchase civilian aircraft to the tidy sum of almost $30 billion. Apparently, Moscow expected Tehran to show some gratitude to Russia for its support over the years and invest in the Sukhoi Superjet instead, writes Oleg Odnokolenko. With Iran starting to play its own geopolitical game in the region, Russia is getting left out in the cold. What would Munich-era Putin have done?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 6-12, 2017

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

    Kremlin’s Election Catch‑22; Trump and Putin: Bros or Foes?

    The Kremlin has an election problem. It needs to get Vladimir Putin reinstalled as president in the March 2018 election, but it needs voters to care about voting to show up to the polls. Right now, not many people do, since electoral outcomes seem generally predetermined making, voting pointless. So the goal is to get people interested in the election by perhaps giving voters enticing ballot options. But the problem is that Russians are politically illiterate, if you believe a federal official cited by RBC who says that except for the Duma faction leaders and a few high-ranking officials like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there are no other names recognizable to the voters. There had been talk that the Kremlin would try to get the perennial establishment opposition leaders to step aside and let younger, fresher faces run in the election, but according to RBC’s source, that is not going to happen.

    Russia’s tired opposition faces are all familiar from the 1990s (LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proudly boasts he is running for president for the sixth time – a record in Europe), and they more or less all have the Kremlin’s blessing and march to the beat of its drum. In fact, the Russian Federation Communist Party and A Just Russia, which have not yet officially nominated presidential candidates, have said they are going to “discuss the issue with the Kremlin.” I guess they need Putin’s approval. So no matter who you vote for, you’re likely voting for Putin’s agenda.

    There are, however, a few brave politicians bucking the Kremlin line. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, another political old-timer, is rousing his base and reaching out to young voters with the message that Putin is living in the past and making a “shameful, harmful and criminal” land grab in Ukraine that does nothing good for Russia. Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition figure, who was just given another five-year suspended sentence in a retrial of a previous conviction, approves of the message but pokes fun at the messenger for being a 1990s throwback.

    It turns out that Russia’s most popular politician may not even be from Russia. For a while, US President Donald Trump was being mentioned in the Russian media far more than Putin, leading Kirill Kharatyan to speculate what it is about Trump that’s so appealing to Russians. He says Trump’s blunt political incorrectness and brazen determination resonate with voters (these characteristics are partly what had enthralled Russians about Putin, before he started losing his mojo). Yury Saprykin agrees that there are a lot of similarities between Trump and Putin, including their manipulative rhetoric. However, he says that whereas Putin is covert and calculating, Trump is unabashedly public and wildly unpredictable, so “the hope of Russian patriots that Putin and Trump are on the verge of dividing the world in half and establishing something akin to a conservative international is a purely Russian aberration.” In other words, a bromance might not be in the offing. In fact, Saprykin says the cold snap in US-Russian relations just might get longer and colder.

    But we’ve got other things to worry about besides the climate change in Russian-US relations. Aleksandr Golts says the new US president is a loose cannon smashing through the global ship that had been bearing humanity toward rosy horizons on a liberal, progressive tack. Golts says that for Trump, there are no supreme values (like actual climate change) – only interests. Konstantin Simonov says progressives need to lash the cannon and get the ship back on the values course, but the problem is that progressives have too readily and for too long overlooked the shortcomings of their agenda – particularly globalization – to the detriment of those left behind. While Obama was a president who was perhaps too focused on the future, Trump is a president too focused on the past. We are left wondering: Is Trump a temporary eclipse, or have the planets drastically realigned in the political orbit?

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #5

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2017

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    Issue #5 Letter From the Editors
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    Trump and Putin’s Phone Call Heard Round the World; With ‘America First,’ Who Will Get Left Behind?

    This week marked the first president-to-president telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Statements in the Russian media are positive overall: Legislators and commentators view Trump as determined to normalize relations with Moscow. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, is especially upbeat about antiterrorism accords that resulted from the conversation: “Without hyperbole, this is what the entire sober-minded world expects from Russian-American cooperation. In addition, these agreements offer hope for more wide-ranging antiterrorism cooperation as a whole. This is a serious shift compared to the course of the previous US administration, which essentially shielded terrorist groups in Syria to uphold its own interests in the region.” Duma Deputy Aleksei Pushkov is optimistic about economic cooperation as well, and praises the warm tone of the presidents’ talk. Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute for Political Expertise, is confident that Trump is genuinely interested in improving relations with Moscow and will actually deliver on his promises.

    The topic of anti-Russian sanctions was conspicuously absent from the Putin-Trump conversation. This stands to reason, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, since the sanctions are a symptom, not the cause, of the tension that has marred Russian-American relations for the last several years. Even so, Andrei Akulov reports that Europe has been abuzz about the sanctions since Trump’s inauguration. Now that Russian-American rapprochement seems imminent, European leaders are saying (and writing, and tweeting) that it’s time to lift the sanctions, especially since they have been economically detrimental to the Old World.

    Other countries, too, need to be wary of warming relations between Moscow and Washington. For example, Oleg Morozov of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee warns that for today’s Ukraine, the prospect is almost deadly. “The present Kiev regime, which emerged thanks to the support of the US State Department, may collapse under the weight of a Russian-US thaw.” Perhaps Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s fear of abandonment was what led to the sudden escalation of hostilities in the Donetsk Basin shortly after Putin’s conversation with Trump? This is what many Russian experts think. After all, even Kiev’s defense minister, Stepan Poltorak, acknowledged that it was the Ukrainian Army that “went on the offensive,” prompting heavy artillery shelling from both sides. Or, as Rostislav Ishchenko argues, was Kiev’s aggression merely a ploy for domestic support, to bolster Poroshenko’s faltering coalition in parliament?

    A shot fired in a different part of the world may have farther-reaching global consequences. As Peter Korzun reports, Iran carried out a medium-range ballistic missile test on Jan. 29 from a site near Semnan, east of Tehran. Iran claims the test did not violate the 2015 landmark UN resolution easing sanctions against Iran, because the missile is not designed to carry a nuclear warhead. However, US officials and legislators are calling the test unacceptable and vow to hold Tehran accountable. This attitude closely coincides with that of Trump, who has called the Iran nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever negotiated.” But can Trump’s attitude be changed by his apparently budding friendship with Vladimir Putin? According to commentator Andrei Ontikov, “Politicians and experts believe that Russia will be able to persuade the new head of the White House to keep Washington’s signature on the document, because that would allow the US to improve cooperation with Tehran on resolving other important issues for the Middle East region.” Of course, this would benefit Russia, too, which has been cultivating an alliance with Iran for years.

    Nevertheless, warns Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, Russia should not expect too much from Trump because “he’s an American president, first and foremost.” Lukashenko adds: “And he is not as stupid as many people think.” This dubious compliment may lead the rest of the world to wonder: If this man puts America first, which of us will get left behind?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #4

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 23-29, 2017

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    Issue #4 Letter From the Editors
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    The French and Bon Jovi Agree: Don’t Expect Big Changes

    French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The expression even inspired a Bon Jovi song, so clearly Karr was onto something. Which leads us to ask: As major upheavals continue to rock the globe in 2017, how much are things really changing?

    For instance, the Astana talks on Syria concluded in the Kazakh capital this week. The talks, which were the result of a hard-won ceasefire engineered by Russia, Iran and Turkey (note the glaring absence of a certain well-known global player), failed to bring any major breakthroughs. Choosing to remain optimistic, most analysts said the fact that the talks took place is important in and of itself. According to Alex Gorka, the results of the Astana meeting were “significant enough to pave the way for resuming the UN-brokered intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Switzerland.”

    Weighing in with his own unique perspective, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky added that while the Geneva talks “resembled a political show for the press,” Astana managed to gather “actual field commanders who control the situation on the ground.” Still, even Vladimir Volfovich admits the talks themselves were fruitless. So much for creating a new format.

    Meanwhile, another event that kept commentators on the edge of their seats (or set their teeth on edge, depending on where they stand) was Donald Trump’s inauguration. But those tensions, just like the Astana talks, pretty much fizzled out. Senator Konstantin Kosachov, head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, worked himself into a tizzy predicting all but an armed revolt. And yet, the Donald was inaugurated without much hubbub – and with a fairly modest crowd in attendance. Now that Trump is officially the 45th president of the United States, are big changes really in store?

    According to Aleksei Fenenko, given the sorry state of US-Russian relations, it’s best for the two superpowers to stick to the tried-and-true agenda of minimizing the chance of an armed confrontation. Moscow and Washington have been in search of a positive agenda for the past 25 years or more – to no avail. The Obama administration tried to break the mold and “reset” relations. But as a result, writes Fenenko, “Russia and the US ended up with neither a negative agenda nor a positive one. . . . Therefore, what Moscow and Washington need now are not loud statements about a new ‘reset,’ but real steps to revive the negative agenda in their negotiations.”

    However, “stay the course” is not much of a campaign slogan. And both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are fans of splashy statements, so quietly resuming a policy of détente probably isn’t in the cards. Expert Tatyana Stanovaya warns that if the US starts meeting Putin halfway on anything, he will simply up the ante. “Russia’s interests are nested inside a giant matryoshka, where each demand has a new one hidden inside,” she writes. Trump the tireless deal-maker does not look like someone who would give with no take. There goes the start of that beautiful friendship.

    Events are also staying the course in Ukraine – chaotically, as always. In their constant search of someone to blame for all problems, the Kiev authorities are now focusing on oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, who is also former president Kuchma’s son-in-law. The cause of this latest manifestation of righteous rage is Pinchuk’s controversial article in The Wall Street Journal: Several Rada deputies claim it basically suggests Ukraine cut its losses as far as territorial integrity is concerned and cut a deal with Russia. Pinchuk claims The Wall Street Journal radically altered his title and condensed the article, “which influenced how readers perceived the text.” Pinchuk is hardly the first – or the last – influential Ukrainian businessman to end up in the hot seat, proving that Karr’s age-old adage still holds true. Here’s to staying the course in 2017.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #3

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 16-22, 2017

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    Issue #3 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #3 Table of Contents

    Making Sense of US Presidential Politics, Shifting Alliances in Syria, International Politics, Rosneft Privatization Schemes.

    The Russian press continues to weigh in on the change of executive power in the US, assessing the impact of both the incoming and outgoing presidents on Russia’s interests and bilateral relations.

    Aleksandr Gabuyev offers a withering criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency, attributing his failures to a hands-off administrative style and reticent personality, and calling him a “nauseating bureaucrat.” Gabuyev says that Obama would only get involved on issues that interested him personally, leaving those that didn’t to lower level officials to deal with as they wished. After the failure of the Obama-initiated reset in US-Russian relations, Washington essentially washed its hands of Russia, Gabuyev contends.

    Trump is definitely no bureaucrat (though certainly nauseating to many), and he is a fresh if not welcome change for Moscow. But Russian commentators are still trying to figure out just what the change means for Russia. Trump’s top advisers and cabinet figures have differing, even contradictory, views on Russia, making Trump’s Russian strategy hard to pin down. Vladimir Frolov believes Trump may try to use arms reductions as a safe starting place for negotiations that could be tied to a host of other issues such as the Crimea, Ukraine, sanctions, Syria, etc. – offering Russia rock-bottom deals on fundamental issues in exchange for Russian cooperation in fighting terrorism. The Moscow Times writes that the Russian and US presidents are in many respects soul mates, sharing a common worldview and opinions: “They both seem to believe that the world’s liberal order merely hides the Western establishment’s personal interests under a disingenuous mask of values.” So will Putin and Trump join forces to bring the “liberal order” to heel? And if Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, will she join them? Considering what she told Izvestia reporters in an exclusive interview, she very well could.

    Oddly enough, it might just be the leader of China who stands up against a Trumpian world order. Nikolai Epple writes that Xi Jinping was the only responsible leader railing against protectionism, and voicing continued support for globalization and international cooperation at a recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. This strikes Epple as an almost comical role reversal: China is now lecturing the rest of the world on openness?!

    The Trump presidency and a potential new world order are not the only puzzles Russian analysts are trying to solve. This week, Pavel Felgengauer delved into the increasingly convoluted fight in Syria, focusing on a curious alliance that has formed in the fight for al‑Bab. In trying to drive ISIS from the city, Russia is now engaged in joint operations with its would-be foe, Turkey, which is providing support for Free Syrian Army detachments – which, in turn, are considered terrorists by Syrian President Bashar Assad (doggedly backed by Russia). The battle with this odd configuration of forces is being fought a week before a much-anticipated round of negotiations in Astana, where the strange bedfellows (Russia, Turkey and Iran) hope to mediate a Syrian peace agreement while carving out a greater role for their countries in the region, writes Aleksandr Shumilin.

    Meanwhile, journalist Aleksei Polukhin has been busy wading through last month’s Rosneft privatization deal, which is turning out to be messier and messier. He discovered that not only does it involve shady, hastily thrown together conglomerations of international investors and financiers, but it turns out that the loan to cover the majority of the purchase amount may have come entirely from Russia’s own Foreign Trade Bank (VTB). And get this: Former Russian economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was unceremoniously arrested at Rosneft headquarters for allegedly soliciting a bribe, is on VTB’s oversight board. So, what sort of sense are we to make of that?

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-2

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-15, 2017

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    Issue #1-2 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #1-2 Table of Contents

    Ringing in the New Year With ‘Fake News’

    The incoming US executive team took a swing at the reputation of the American press during their first press conference of the year, which took place Jan. 11. First, vice-president-elect Mike Pence used the phrase “fake news” to describe a recently published report on alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russian President Putin. Later in the conference, Trump himself interrupted a CNN journalist’s question by saying he didn’t want to speak to media outlets that publish “fake news.”

    The same week, another American institution – the intelligence community – had its reputation impugned, this time by Russian commentators. The Russian press had a field day with a controversial joint report by the NSA, FBI and CIA that claimed the Russian government had influenced the US presidential election (including by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail servers). Political analyst Vladimir Bruter, writing in Izvestia, identified five “fake premises” that underlie the report’s conclusions (for example, that Russia has a media presence in the US significant enough to sway domestic politics).

    However, Bruter does his profession a disservice by overstating the case: “[T]he NSA, the largest US intelligence service, essentially disagreed with the report’s contention that ‘Putin and the Russian government aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting [former] secretary [of state] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.’ ” If we look at the actual report, it reads: “All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”

    A more subtle distortion can be found in Izvestia’s coverage of the press conference mentioned above. Reporters Tatyana Baikova and Aleksei Zabrodin summarized as follows Trump’s response to a question about whether he believed the hacking allegations: “[T]he president-elect said that Russia could have been behind the attacks on Democratic Party servers.” According to The New York Times transcript of the conference, Trump’s response was more assured: “I think it was Russia.”

    Is this discrepancy a mere nuance of meaning, or a sign that the Russian press is trying to make Trump look like a Russophile? Or at least not a Russophobe, like Barack Obama and his outgoing administration? Speaking of which – the latest outrage perpetrated by the latter (as reported in Vedomosti) is that it has expelled 35 Russian diplomats from US soil, in response to the evidence presented in the aforementioned intelligence report. However, the Vedomosti article emphasizes, Putin is not stooping to the level of a symmetric response, so as to leave the door open for friendly relations with incoming president Trump.

    Apparently, Putin is not the only one who wants to make nice with the American billionaire-turned-politician. Arina Tsukanova reports in the SCF Online Journal that Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko is paying a public relations firm called the BGR Group $50,000 a month to “strengthen US-Ukraine relations and encourage private US businesses to invest in Ukraine.”

    If we want to put a positive spin on that, we could call it “soft power.” What about the more objective arena of military power? Matthew Bodner reports that Russia has now scaled back its naval forces in the Syrian theater, shipping off a battlegroup led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. However, this big move was likely a symbolic gesture, Bodner argues: With ceasefire negotiations in the works, “Putin needed a gesture of good faith that would not severely compromise his military options in Syria.”

    Do stories like this represent the new face of news in a “post-truth” world? Well, hang on tight, Digest readers – the year is just beginning.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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