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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 12-18, 2015

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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
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    Russia’s Syria Strategy Under the Microscope; Findings of MH17 Disaster Probe Released; Russia’s Investment Strategy in Question

    Russia is now a few weeks into its air campaign in Syria. What’s Russia’s strategy, objective and endgame? Is it coming to the aid of its beleaguered Syrian ally? Is it seeking to take out ISIS before it gains a foothold in Russia? Is it trying to flex its muscles for the West and even drag it into a proxy war? Or is it mainly trying to distract attention from the Ukraine conflict?

    Pro-Kremlin pundits have an idealized vision of a five-month campaign that would end as soon as Bashar Assad’s ground offensive takes hold and ISIS is driven from Syria. According to Pyotr Skorobogaty, Russia’s goal is to push the radical Islamist fighters into Iraq, which is the US’s zone of responsibility, in order to make life difficult for Washington. He says that for its part, the US is trying to get as many Islamist fighters to go from Iraq to Syria, to make life difficult for Assad. So, in his analysis, this conflict is a muscle-flexing game between the Russian and the US militaries. Other commentators say the Syria intervention is really a hydrocarbons game between Russia and the US. Each side has a vested interest in securing the oil and gas fields currently under ISIS’s control.

    Kira Latukhina says, “Russia’s objective in Syria is to stabilize the legitimate government and pave the way to seek a political compromise.” According to Putin, this will be achieved militarily. He believes the US and its allies should simply turn the fight against ISIS in Syria over to him, especially since he has the permission of Syria’s government to conduct military operations in Syria – unlike other nations. The US should just tell Russia where the targets are, and Russia’s bombs and missiles will take them out, since the US and dozens of other countries are not getting the job done.

    Russia leveled similar charges against the Dutch Safety Board, which this week released its final report on the investigation into the causes of the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine. The DSB concluded that a 9N314M warhead fired from a 9M38 Buk surface-to-air missile system was responsible for the plane’s destruction, but, according to Rosaviatsia deputy director Oleg Storchevoi, investigators acted improperly by failing to consider crucial evidence supplied by the Russian side. Yulia Latynina, on the other hand, believes that the investigators didn’t go far enough. She says they should have assigned responsibility for the missile launch. The overly cautious conclusions of the investigators just validate Putin’s view that European politicians are spineless and weak.

    Disappointment and disagreement were also hallmarks of the annual “Russia Calling!” forum, held this week in Moscow. Russia’s economic elite debated the nature of the economic crisis (some even argued that Russia isn’t in crisis, even though the economy is experiencing about -4% growth) and discussed investment priorities under the new conditions. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov took issue with Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev for advocating higher investment in the oil industry. That longtime strategy isn’t working, Siluanov contended. Investment should instead be directed to other areas of the economy. However, judging by Putin’s reaction, it seems like the Russian budget will continue to prop up his oil-baron buddies. Georgy Neyaskin writes that popular buzzwords used during the forum – e.g., “structural reform” and “economic diversification” – have become nothing but hollow mantras with little real meaning or substance. What this indicates, and what no one talked about, he says, is the fact that Russia has no long-term economic strategy whatsoever. With so many unanswered questions about Russia’s game plans for Ukraine, Syria and the economy, one has to wonder what exactly goes on during Kremlin “strategy” sessions. Surely Putin can’t be flying by the seat of his pants, right?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 5-11, 2015

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    Issue #41 Letter From the Editors
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    All Right, That’s Settled! – Or Is It? The Winding Road From Donetsk to Damascus

    As Russia launches its first large-scale military campaign in the last 25 years, foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov urges Moscow to learn from the past experience of the West: “In the last decade and a half, the US and its allies have been increasingly active in the forcible settlement (I cannot bring myself to say final settlement) of regional conflicts – primarily in the Greater Middle East.” He uses two slightly different nouns for “settlement”: regulirovaniye (the ongoing process of trying to settle a conflict) and uregulirovaniye (the successful result of settling it for good). What a difference one letter can make!

    Military experts with extensive combat experience seem to agree with Lukyanov. Those interviewed by Novaya gazeta’s Irek Murtazin say that given the Syrian Army’s battle-weary state and the fact that the “enemy” is highly mobile and elusive, Russian forces could get bogged down for a long time trying to eliminate the threat of ISIS terrorism.

    Another conflict zone that has already been bogged down for some time – both militarily and politically – is the Donetsk Basin. Some commentators are expressing optimism in the wake of this week’s Normandy Four negotiations in Paris, where the parties agreed to postpone implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements until 2016, and in the meantime to devise special rules by which local elections in the separatist regions could be held according to Ukrainian law. Even so, Vitaly Portnikov sounds a note of skepticism about the prospects of resolving the eastern Ukraine conflict. Portnikov’s tone is reminiscent of Lukyanov’s tone on Syria, and he even uses that same noun: “[E]ach new step of the Donetsk Basin settlement process – if there actually is a settlement instead of just a freezing of the conflict – promises to be very complicated.”

    To hear Nezavisimaya gazeta tell it, that’s just how Moscow would like it. An Oct. 6 editorial offers the theory that Russia is directing the Ukrainian separatists to make partial concessions, keeping the conflict “frozen” to give Moscow time to addresses the more pressing issue of Syria. However, the editorial also raises another possibility: Putin is propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in order to raise the geopolitical stakes with the West. In other words, as Russian planes strike Syrian targets, Putin can offer to let the West have its way with Assad if they let him have his way with Ukraine.

    Ivan Davydov also sees a link between Ukraine and Syria. In his biting commentary in The New Times, he portrays a “wag the dog” scenario in which the Syrian campaign is simply the next big thing to entertain Russian TV viewers and keep the fires of patriotism stoked. As evidence, he points out that three days before Russia’s Federation Council gave the go-ahead to being air strikes, the news program Vesti nedeli had shown war footage of Syria, interspersed with “indoctrinating commentary” about how Assad’s government was Russia’s key ally in fighting ISIS terrorists. Anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov had urged, “We had better stop them where they are.” Davydov’s conclusion: “Kiselyov announced the war three days before the Federation Council made the decision.”

    So, let’s get this straight – Russia is keeping the Donetsk conflict unsettled (i.e., frozen) because it has bigger fish to fry in Damascus? Or is the military campaign in Syria just a ploy to distract the world’s attention from Ukraine? Or perhaps a tactical maneuver to up the ante in Russia’s confrontation with the West, setting Ukraine aside to use later as a bargaining chip? Or a way to feed the Russian TV audience’s craving for new victories against external enemies? All of the above? These conflicting (geo)political interpretations are a bit – for lack of a better word – unsettling.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2015

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    Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave – Getting Lost on the Road to Yalta 2.0

    What do Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly, Russia’s military operation in Syria, and the seemingly stalled conflict in the Donetsk Basin all have in common? They all illustrate attempts to build a new world order. But can today’s leaders walk in the footsteps of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, who met in Yalta to create the present system at the end of World War II? Or are we no longer capable of building – only destroying? Experts are in disagreement.

    According to The Moscow Times, Putin’s much-anticipated UN General Assembly speech fell flat. Despite being heavily promoted by Russian state media as a historic event, the president’s speech failed to deliver “any surprises or dramatic new policy initiatives.” But that is not how Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, sees it. In his opinion, the Russian president “spoke powerfully, focusing on the big picture; he spoke in favor of peace.” Obama, on the other hand, floundered. According to Ivashov, this indicates that the global structure truly is shifting away from unipolarity toward multipolarity, and America is no longer calling the shots.

    This notion is echoed by Russia’s former foreign minister Igor Ivanov, who sees Putin’s references to Yalta as a warning. Despite its many flaws, the Yalta world order system created on the ruins of World War II “helped to save humanity from a new global conflict.” Since the end of the cold war, world leaders have “virtually destroyed the Yalta system, but have not managed to build anything new in its place.” The world is edging closer and closer toward catastrophe, Ivanov says, and Putin’s speech is a wake-up call.

    But is Russia itself to blame? Aleksei Arbatov admonishes world leaders for getting increasingly cavalier on the nuclear issue. While cold war-era politicians understood the catastrophic consequences of just one wrong move, today’s leaders came of age when tensions were at a record low. So they “don’t have the experience of previous generations who witnessed a number of extremely dangerous crises.” As a result, we see increasing nuclear saber-rattling from people who have little idea of what an actual nuclear war would bring to the world. And while the nuclear stockpiles of the US and Russia are relatively low compared to the cold war era, they are still “the equivalent of 60,000 Hiroshimas.” A nuclear war cannot be won, writes Arbatov, so it must never be fought. He says this issue could be the starting point for normalizing the frayed relations between Russia and the West (read: US).

    According to Igor Yurgens, head of the Institute of Contemporary Development, such reconciliation is already under way. Take, for instance, the ill-fated Novorossia project – a darling of Russian pundits last year. Lately, says Yurgens, there is hardly a mention of it on Russian television channels. By all indications, the project has been scrapped. The Syrian issue is another point that could start a reconciliation, says Yurgens. Putin’s well-calculated move on the military operations in Syria demonstrated that the conflict in that region cannot be resolved without Russia. And just like the successful operation to remove chemical weapons stockpiles from Syria, the current Damascus gambit is an opportunity for Moscow and Washington to work together. Whether or not they will bury the hatchet is another question: Mutual mistrust, writes Vedomosti, remains the leitmotif of Russian-American relations. “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” – the words of Sir Walter Scott are unfortunately a perfect comment on modern geopolitics.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 21-28, 2015

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    Issue #39 Letter From the Editors
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    Putin Takes on Syria, Loses Interest in Ukraine, Hobnobs With Hollywood

    Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria has Rossiiskaya gazeta guessing that President Vladimir Putin may be preparing for a possible armed intervention in the war-torn country. According to commentators Pavel Felgengauer and Vladimir Frolov, the move could serve multiple purposes: Putin may be hoping to use the conflict in Syria to distract from the crisis in Ukraine and to mend ties with the West by drawing it into an anti-ISIS coalition. He may also be using the ISIS threat in Syria as a reason to support the Bashar Assad regime militarily and to indiscriminately take out the Syrian president’s Western-backed opponents.

    As for the conflict in Ukraine, prospects for a resolution also remain dim. The self-declared people’s republics are insisting on holding early elections this fall. The rebels’ position does not sit well with Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, who is again asking Western partners to send peacekeepers to the conflict zone. Konstantin Bondarenko writes that the next few months will test the mettle of the Ukrainian authorities as they race to meet Constitutional reform deadlines imposed by Western creditors, while at the same time attempting to quell increasingly vocal opposition from political rivals and discontent among members of the ruling coalition.

    Vitaly Portnikov says that because Kiev has so many other pressing problems besides eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, it may be best for Kiev to cut its losses, leave the separatists to their own devices and let Russia clean up the mess in the DPR/LPR. But it is by no means clear that Russia would accept responsibility for the future of the DPR/LPR or that it can even afford to. Moscow’s Ukraine strategy is in a stalemate, and Western sanctions continue to take their toll on Russia’s economy and elite, so perhaps the Kremlin is looking for a way to wash its hands of the problem.

    Moscow’s new approach may be simply to ignore the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Dmitry Medvedev, for one, seems to be paying little attention to it. Nezavisimaya gazeta comments that a policy article recently published by the prime minister largely overlooks the issue as the main factor contributing to Russia’s flagging economic growth and development. Instead, he focuses on policy changes that need to be made to incentivize the private sector to pursue free enterprise and jumpstart Russia’s economic growth. Medvedev’s article resurrects some of the rhetoric of the liberalization campaign he rolled out as president (which Putin promptly rolled back up after retaking the presidency). However, Tatyana Stanovaya warns us not to think that this indicates a “thaw” in Russia, or that Putin is ready for political or economic liberalization. No, the narrative in Russia is still antichange and anti-Western, she writes.

    No matter what Putin may think about the West, he certainly enjoys feting its movie and pop stars. Mikhail Zygar, in one of the more entertaining articles in this issue, gives us a peek at the Russian leader’s curious relationships with celebrities ranging from Steven Seagal to Sharon Stone. What’s behind his Hollywood fetish? Zygar says Putin is simply “assembling a personal collection of exotica”: He enjoys the personal attention from Western celebs and wants to feel in some sense a part of that crowd. Or maybe (and yes, my tongue is very much in check) he secretly dreams of landing a cameo role as an action hero in Seagal’s next flick? This would at least explain why he fastidiously maintains his physique and performs so many bare-chested stunts!

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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