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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 16-22, 2015

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    Issue #47 Letter From the Editors
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    What’s Assad Got to Do With It? From the Paris Attacks to Ukraine’s Ambitions – Everything.

    Vladimir Putin must be green with envy. Despite gracing the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year and being commander in chief of one of the world’s most powerful armies, Putin remains in the shadow of Bashar Assad. The Syrian president seems to be hanging on by a thread – and yet finds himself at the epicenter of virtually every event this week, from the horrific attacks in Paris to Ukraine’s economy.

    It’s no secret that Assad is the bone of contention between the West and Russia (together with Iran and its other “Shiite coalition” allies). Neither side had seemed willing to budge an inch. But when ISIS struck at the heart of Paris on Friday, Nov. 13, the parties to the negotiations got a serious wake-up call. According to political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, the West’s previous conditions for a Syrian settlement, which focused on Assad’s departure, “are no longer appropriate.” French President François Hollande immediately scheduled a visit to Moscow. An aircraft carrier group from the French Navy went to sea to join a detachment of Russian ships blocking the Syrian coast. The French leader is apparently no longer counting on his NATO allies to deal with the extremists who attacked his country, believes Oleg Odnokolenko. So why not meet with Putin, even if that means readjusting your position?

    Don’t hold your breath for a reconciliation, warns military pundit Pavel Felgengauer. Despite the attacks in Paris, the West and Russia remain divided by deep-seated mistrust. And again, everything hinges on the Syrian leader.

    Ironically, on the Syrian front, Russia’s and the West’s positions actually coincide in many ways, says expert Akhmet Yarlykapov. It is in the interests of both to prevent ISIS from capturing the Syrian and Iraqi capitals. After all, the propaganda value ISIS would win from capturing either of the cities, given their historic significance (Damascus is the historical capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, and Baghdad was the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate), cannot be ignored. The problem once again is Assad. Here, Yarlykapov advises that “Russia’s anti-ISIS policy should not become hung up on supporting Assad and definitely not become pro-Shiite.” Instead, Georgy Mirsky suggests a solution modeled on Lebanon, which has achieved a plurality of forces where the president is Christian, the prime minister is Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker is Shiite.

    Of course, the Syrian conflict has long ago spilled beyond that embattled country’s borders. Even Asia and the CIS are feeling the effects. Take, for instance, the launch of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, which is supposed to bring goods from China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and now possibly Ukraine. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, initially the “most promising routes were considered to be ones running through Russian territory, which has a land border with Kazakhstan.” But Western sanctions complicated matters. Now, Ukraine is offering to play the understudy: Odessa Province Governor Mikhail Saakashvili has suggested using the post of Ilyichevsk as the main transit hub.

    Will Ukraine’s dreams of taking Russia’s spot in the line-up pay off? If Moscow continues its support of the embattled Assad, it just might happen. As we know, Putin does not like to give up his own – just ask Viktor Yanukovich. In a slight departure from the Syrian theme, Slon magazine asks the question: Whatever happened to Viktor? And why is it that the former Ukrainian elite unseated by the EU rallies split into two groups – some have become fugitives, while others are successfully continuing their careers at home? Apparently, the “upstarts who owed their career entirely to the president fled the country immediately after the triumph of the EU rallies.” Those with something to offer stayed. Call it political karma.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 9-15, 2015

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    Issue #46 Letter From the Editors
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    What Are Russia’s Air Strikes Accomplishing in Syria?

    It has been six weeks since Russia launched air strikes in Syria, and the big question Russian commentators are asking now is: What does Russia have to show for it? Some are critical of Moscow’s overall objectives and the execution of its military campaign in Syria, citing mission drift, and some are even calling it a complete failure, likening it to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Vladimir Frolov believes that Russia has foolishly allowed itself to become entangled in a Shia-Sunni sectarian war. In his opinion, the air strikes have yielded few positive results and instead have only weakened Russia, putting its diplomatic efforts and international standing in jeopardy. The expert contends that Russia must focus its efforts on fighting ISIS and then on facilitating a political process that serves the Syrian people’s interests. Aleksei Fenenko agrees that Russia’s Syria strategy is flawed, but believes that Moscow should focus on supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad while continuing to work out a postwar political solution. Despite differences in their assessments, one thing Russian commentators agree on is that Russia must better define its goals in Syria.

    Russia’s CSTO and CIS allies have their own concerns about the Syria campaign. According to Aleksandr Karavayev, they are wary of supporting Russia’s actions in the Middle East. He says that former Soviet republics in Central Asia are unwilling to risk domestic tension and potential unrest among their Muslim populations if they were to fully back Russia’s operation in Syria. Karavayev believes many post-Soviet countries are taking a wait-and-see approach to the situation, perhaps even hoping to use it to reap dividends from current differences of opinion between Russia and the West.

    Those contradictions are currently riding quite high, and NATO officials are saying that they are increasingly concerned about an accidental or sudden outbreak of war with Russia, perhaps over Syria. Russia’s use of Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea to take out targets in Syria took many in the West by surprise. NATO Gen. Hans-Lothar Domröse says NATO has underestimated Russia’s military might and that Putin has even established complete dominance over NATO in certain regions. Russia’s large-scale snap military drills, instituted a few years back by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, also have Western defense officials on edge, especially since many of those drills involve Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the strengthening of those forces during a series of meetings this week in Sochi devoted to Russia’s Defense Ministry and the military-industrial complex. The Russian president is worried that the US is deploying its missile defense system all over the world not to preserve global security, but to achieve global military superiority. Although worried about the US’s growing military presence close to home, Putin insists that Russia is not aiming to enter an arms race with the US. Putin stressed in Sochi that the additions and upgrades to Russia’s Armed Forces are merely part of a plan approved 10 years earlier to help the country make up lost ground. Last year’s innovation was the creation of the Aerospace Forces, which are now carrying out the bulk of Russia’s air strikes in Syria. So, if Putin’s Syria operation is doing anything for Russia, it is serving to test its new military equipment and forces in actual combat conditions, and showing the US that Russia is a military power to be reckoned with. Who knows – maybe these have been Russia’s real objectives all along.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44-45

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 26-Nov. 8, 2015

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    Issue #44 Letter From the Editors
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    The Joy and Pain of Korban: Sacrifices in Ukraine and the Middle East

    The word korban has a hallowed tradition. In ancient Hebrew, it meant a sacrificial offering to the deity. Arabic qurban has the same meaning and comes from the same root. The etymological chain has since extended all the way into the heart of Russia: A traditional agrarian festival celebrated in the Udmurt Republic also bears the name korban.

    Some 2,000 kilometers southwest of Udmurtia, a different “Korban offering” seems to have taken place this week. As one of a series of sensational events surrounding the Ukrainian regional elections (including a siege of President Pyotr Poroshenko’s residence and sniper shots at the Prosecutor General’s Office), influential millionaire Gennady Korban was arrested in his luxurious Dnepropetrovsk apartment. According to Rossiiskaya gazeta’s Pyotr Likhomanov, this Korban was laid on the altar of political clout, not religious devotion: The theory goes that Poroshenko is settling scores with a powerful political rival, oligarch Igor Kolomoisky (whom he already removed as governor of Dnepropetrovsk Province), using Kolomoisky’s former chief of staff (Korban) to dig up some dirt from his past. Into the bargain, the president and his Solidarity party get to do some collateral damage to another competing political force, Korban’s right-wing UKROP party.

    Another group that might end up on the chopping block in Ukraine is the body in charge of the whole voting process. Central Electoral Commission head Mikhail Okhendovsky has already been summoned by the Prosecutor General’s Office to explain why the new voting process was so confusing that in some cities (Mariupol, for one), voters couldn’t cast their ballots at all.

    Such political sacrifices may be part of a bigger backlash, designed to get payback (or at least find scapegoats) for the ruling party’s poor showing in the elections. According to Sergei Zhiltsov, Poroshenko’s party garnered less than 20% of the vote across Ukraine, losing ground to pro-independence, anti-Russian forces such as Svoboda [Freedom] and Samopomoshch [Self-Reliance].

    In recent news from the Middle East, the Syrian conflict continues to exact sacrifices not just in political terms, but in flesh and blood. Vladimir Mukhin predicts: “Russia’s efforts will most likely be aimed at totally destroying the militant opposition, in order to compel it to engage in political dialogue. . . . [T]here is concern that Russia will be involved in settling the Syrian crisis for long years to come.”

    Military expert Vladimir Denisov, however, expresses a certain eagerness to join the fray – “this is combat action, for which we’ve waited a long time and prepared all our lives.” No matter what uniforms the fighters wear, it’s clear that saving President Bashar Assad’s regime will require sacrifices. However, some sacrifices will come from people who didn’t sign up for them. According to a highly publicized report from Human Rights Watch, Russian air strikes have already killed dozens of civilians, although commentator Oleg Odnokolenko says there is no hard evidence to support that claim.

    Meanwhile, an investigation of the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian Airbus A321 in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is homing in on clear conclusions, writes Tatyana Stanovaya: “[A]n act of terror, not a technical failure, is now believed to be the more likely cause of the downing of the airliner. An increasing number of reports, comments by experts and leaks point toward an explosion on board that resulted in . . . the eventual crash.” Stanovaya goes on the comment: “Ironically, the Russian government may also benefit if it is established that the plane was brought down by terrorists.” After all, this finding would support the Kremlin’s messages about “external enemies” and provide new reason for Russia’s involvement in the fight against ISIS. Does the end justify the sacrifice?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 19-25, 2015

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
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    The Trick to the Syrian Resolution Puts Putin’s Prestige on the Line

    According to Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts.” The first part is the Pledge, where the magician shows you an ordinary object. The second part is called the Turn, where “the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.”  Like a disappearing act. But “making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” That’s the third – and most difficult – part of a magic trick, called the Prestige.

    Syria is the great magic trick Putin is trying to pull on his audience. We saw the Pledge at the Valdai Discussion Forum, which took place in Russia this week. Even though the club’s initial purpose was to tell influential Western opinion makers exactly what was on Putin’s mind – so they could go spread the Gospel of Putin in their respective countries – the discussion club format has lost some of its prestige (excuse the pun) over the last few years, writes Grigory Golosov of Slon.ru. But this year, everyone was interested to hear about Syria. And Putin did not disappoint – the Russian leader outlined Russia’s position on Syria by stating that since Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria, Moscow was merely helping the legitimate authorities deal with a terrorist insurgency. No more, no less. Putin especially stressed that Russia was invited to participate by the Syrian government, unlike certain Western coalitions, which were crashing the party.

    Too bad that Putin’s entire premise is based on the faulty presumption that Bashar Assad’s power is legitimate, writes Golosov. After all, since the time of Aristotle, Western audiences don’t consider tyrants and usurpers legitimate.

    The Turn in this story is Russia’s continued military operation in Syria. Some commentators posit that it is already yielding impressive results – and on two fronts at once! First, the diplomatic victory, as signified by Bashar Assad’s visit to Moscow. According to Kommersant, by making the Syrian leader’s Kremlin visit public, Moscow is showing the world that the West’s attempts to ostracize Assad didn’t work. At the same time, the Kremlin is making it clear that it is an integral part of reaching a resolution in Syria.

    European leaders responded guardedly to the visit, while the US lambasted it in no uncertain terms: “President Putin***is the one who said that a political transition is absolutely needed in Syria. So we believe that the recent red carpet that was rolled out for Mr. Assad in Moscow was counterproductive to that goal. This is someone who has used heinous chemical weapons against his own people,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz.

    On the military front, expert Vladimir Mukhin says sophisticated Russian weapons like Russia’s Solntsepyok TOS heavy flamethrower are already scattering the rebels and winning back key locations. According to Novaya gazeta’s Irek Murtazin, Moscow’s operation is so successful that even the US-aligned Iraq is considering asking Russia for help in battling ISIS.

    But is that really the Prestige of this magic trick? Vladimir Frolov believes the real idea behind the Syria operation is for Russia to make diplomatic inroads before the entire house of cards comes tumbling down. The operation is nowhere near as successful as claimed, and Putin is on a ticking clock to convince the West, the Persian Gulf countries and the Syrian opposition to come together and finally reach a compromise. In the expert’s opinion, Moscow’s main goal is to “transform the Syrian conflict from a civil war into an antiterrorism operation, and to build a political settlement on that basis.” Will the Kremlin’s sleight of hand work? Or will the audience spot the man behind the curtain?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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