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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #34

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 22-28, 2016

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    Rehabilitating Janus, Erdogan and Stalin

    The ancient Roman god Janus gets a bad reputation these days. Depicted as having two faces – one looking forward and one looking back – he is often mistakenly associated with duplicity. But while Janus may be two-faced, his intentions are actually much more noble. He traditionally marks beginnings and endings, and therefore transitions.

    So perhaps Janus inspired Turkish President Erdogan’s transition this week, when the latter brought Turkish troops into Syria? Experts are still flummoxed by Erdogan’s surprise move: After months of resisting Washington’s urgings to bring Turkish forces into Syria to help crush ISIS, he suddenly changed his mind. What’s more, he did so immediately on the heels of his “reconciliation” with Russia – and Putin personally. (Experts noted that Russia was the first country the embattled Turkish leader visited following the failed coup attempt in his native country.) It’s no secret that Erdogan is no friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime Moscow has been trying to support through its operation in Syria.

    But is Turkey’s offensive – colorfully named Operation Euphrates Shield – really targeting ISIS? According to Arabic studies expert Leonid Isayev, “The main target of the Turkish invasion of Syria is the Kurds. They are Erdogan’s biggest headache at the moment.” In Isayev’s words, “all Kurdish cantons in Syria could combine into a single territorial unit, extending along almost the entire Turkish-Syrian border.” Not exactly a dream scenario for Ankara, which has been battling Turkish Kurds’ push for independence since the 1980s.

    Maintaining independence while also fostering partnerships is also on Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s agenda, writes Kommersant. Left in the shadow of two countries with colossal geopolitical ambitions – the US and Russia – Finland is a little Janus of its own: Helsinki is trying to maintain its past neutral status while at the same time adjusting to new challenges. Increasingly anxious about Russia’s unpredictable behavior, Helsinki is nevertheless in no hurry to join NATO. In fact, according to a poll, only 22% of Finns support joining the alliance – with 55% against. However, the government is working on boosting security cooperation with the US and other Nordic countries.

    Meanwhile, tensions are also running high in the Crimea, where Russia alleges Ukrainian forces were plotting a terrorist attack. In another twist, Moscow seems to have toned down its bellicose rhetoric. Just after the incident, President Putin had called the Kiev authorities usurpers who continue to “steal from the people,” and urged the West to rein in “their clients.” Now, official government sources say “the possibility of delivering massive retaliatory military strikes against Ukraine is not under consideration,” political analyst Vladimir Frolov points out. In his opinion, the Kremlin realized that by escalating tensions, it was only shooting itself in the foot: Now that there’s talk of easing Western sanctions against Russia, the last thing Moscow needs is renewed tensions with Ukraine.

    Meanwhile, Janus seems to have forgotten Russia, which just can’t seem to transition past its own history. Namely – Stalin. Sixty years after his death, the great dictator’s ghost continues to haunt (and divide) the country, writes Oleg Kashin. But unlike the American Civil War, which created a stark divide between the North and South, the line between Stalin’s admirers and detractors is blurred: “When we argue about Stalin, people on both sides are actually very similar to each other. They have similar faith, except they believe in different things.” So much so that in Kashin’s opinion, Stalin has come to define Russia. He is both its ending and beginning, so to speak – a Janus in his own right. And if Russia wants to shake his ghost, the solution is to find “a system of core values that all of the people living in this country would share.”

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #33

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 15-21, 2016

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    Drama in the Kremlin, on the Campaign Trail, in Russian-Ukrainian Relations

    Winds of change are sweeping past the notoriously thick walls of Russia’s most famous citadel – the Moscow Kremlin. Longtime, high-ranking Putin associates are slowly but surely being replaced by younger technocrats. The most recent ouster has Kremlinologists gasping: Russian presidential administration head Sergei Ivanov – one of Putin’s most trusted associates and a close friend. His replacement is Anton Vaino, a young Kremlin official with a long, Kremlin-loyal pedigree (his grandfather was the top Communist in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic) and a technocratic resume (he began his climb through the ranks as a Kremlin record-keeper). What gives?

    Why was Ivanov replaced? Officially, his longstanding request to retire was finally granted, but his appointment to the specially created position of the president’s special representative on environmental protection, ecology and transportation looks somewhat like a blatant demotion and slap in the face, according to some experts. The speculation is that either Ivanov lost Putin’s trust, or he has become grossly incompetent. (The fact that many of Putin’s generation are advancing in age – both Ivanov and Putin are pushing 64 – might give credence to the latter theory). Andrei Kolesnikov says the fresh young faces are part of a Kremlin rebranding strategy ahead of crucial ballots – the September 2016 State Duma elections and more importantly, the 2018 presidential election. These young technocrats have impeccable bona fides and have climbed the ranks under Putin’s leadership – so for them, he is a sacred figure. Nikolai Petrov says this marks a qualitative shift in Russia’s new power system away from oligarchy to absolutism, as Putin’s pals who got wealthy from their “palace posts” are replaced by ambitious Putinite zealots eager to prove their acumen and their loyalty.

    Recent drama on Russia’s traditionally dull campaign trail is proving just as intriguing as the drama taking place behind the Kremlin’s walls. Columnist Oleg Kashin has picked up on an interesting fact overlooked by many: Most of the State Duma candidates backed by Putin archenemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation are being allowed to run in the election, largely without any pushback from the authorities. This is highly irregular, Kashin points out, since Kremlin enemies are not allowed to get anywhere near politics, much less succeed. Obviously, this move is authorized at the very top, so, to repeat the earlier question: What gives?

    There is no clear answer. Maybe the authorities don’t see Khodorkovsky as a threat, or perhaps they simply want to give that impression. Maybe they want to give the semblance of a competitive election in Russia, or maybe Putin is hoping to build a new relationship with the oligarch he so bitterly disgraced. Kashin says we will likely have to wait for a Kremlin insider to someday write a tell-all memoir before we find out.

    As if we didn’t have enough drama and intrigue, Russia is about to launch nuclear war on Ukraine – or so says the head of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Chief Intelligence Administration. The reason for the supposed impending nuclear attack is last week’s attempted incursion across the Crimean border by unknown gunmen from Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are vigorously trading and rebuffing accusations, and tensions and acrimony between the two countries have risen to the highest level in recent months. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has even threatened severing diplomatic ties with Ukraine, while Putin said it is pointless to continue holding “Normandy Four” meetings to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The heated rhetoric comes at a time when Russia and Ukraine are beefing up military assets on their common border. So as the latest drama unfolds, I’m not sure whether to tell you to grab your popcorn and settle in or to grab your bug-out bag and head for the hills – or a fallout shelter.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #32

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 8-14, 2016

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    From Eastern Europe to the Far East: The Sun Never Sets on American Influence

    The theater of the Ukraine conflict suddenly moved to the Crimea this week, as unknown gunmen attempted an incursion across the border, killing a Russian FSB operative and a Russian soldier. Amid mutual recriminations – the FSB accuses the Ukrainian side of orchestrating a terrorist act, whereas Ukrainian officials call the incident an FSB provocation – Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov looks beyond the obvious. He faults the US State Department for putting Kiev up to these acts of aggression: “The Americans are experts at how to spread ‘color revolutions,’ set people of different ethnicities against each other and play dirty tricks. And they are trying to do this in the Crimea. . . . Any conflict near the Russian borders is beneficial for Washington – regardless of who is involved or who will come out the winner.”

    Aksyonov is not the only one blaming the US for unrest in the post-Soviet space. Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the separatist Lugansk people’s republic, was the target of a homemade bomb detonated near his car. While recovering in a local hospital, he was quick to point the finger at US special services, as well as their counterparts in the Kiev government. Commentator Oleg Odnokolenko goes even further, citing a rumor that American operatives occupy a whole floor of offices at the Ukrainian Security Services.

    However, political analyst Taras Berezovets is more inclined to look for saboteurs within the LPR leader’s own ranks: “Plotnitsky has become a dangerous witness to the war that Russia has unleashed in the Donetsk Basin. At the same time, over the [past] two years he has significantly increased his financial weight and acquired numerous businesses [that he has] seized from local entrepreneurs. Given such spoils, Plotnitsky and his entourage no longer needed the war.” Moreover, adds Berezovets, some LPR militants began disobeying Moscow’s orders and killing Russian troops. “Plotnitsky was clearly opposed to such a course of events. And so he stood in the way.”

    One way or another, the Ukraine conflict – which many accuse Russia of instigating – is spinning way out of Moscow’s control. Writing in Novaya gazeta, Kirill Martynov likens Moscow’s escapades in eastern Ukraine to its Syria gambit, where its aggressive military actions spoiled ties with a previously friendly neighbor, Turkey: “A military operation that the Kremlin saw as a means to solve certain domestic objectives suddenly became a separate problem that sparked additional crises. As we know, that ‘Turkish knife’ was pulled out of the Kremlin’s back just recently.”

    Indeed, there is ample evidence cited in our first feature that Russia and Turkey have mended fences. Granted, some experts, including Vladimir Frolov, ascribe this rapprochement to their shared status as pariahs in the eyes of the US and Europe. Apparently, as Frolov argues in Slon.ru, the ill feelings go both ways: After last month’s coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdogan demanded that his political opponent, cleric Fethullah Gulen, be extradited from his residence in Pennsylvania. The Americans refused; in addition, some US officials publicly complained that Erdogan was now purging the Turkish military ranks to root out dissenters. “Secretary of State John Kerry added fuel to the fire by threatening to expel Turkey from NATO if the purge continues. . . . All this created an atmosphere of conspiracy paranoia in Turkey, firmly putting it into people’s minds that the US was involved in planning the coup (70% of people believe it).”

    The accusations against America don’t stop there. Yury Tavrovsky claims in an NG commentary piece that Washington recently used its “soft power” to discredit both Russia and China almost simultaneously: the former through the recent doping investigations of Russian athletes; and the latter through a decision in The Hague rejecting Beijing’s claims to territory in the South China Sea.

    Anyone afraid that the US has lost its greatness? Well, take heart by reading this week’s Current Digest!

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #31

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 1-7, 2016

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    Seeing Double: How Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Hijacked Politics

    Russian officials this week seem to be suffering from multiple personality disorder, like Sybil in the eponymous cult film. First case in point: The actual legal status of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company. According to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “Officially, this is not a state-owned company; that much is clear. But naturally, there are several viewpoints on the matter.” That sort of answer does not give much clarity. Meanwhile, Rosneft is still hoping to throw its hat in the ring when it comes to privatizing Bashneft – another state-owned asset. The company’s wishy-washy legal status means it adapts whichever “identity” is convenient for it (read: the Russian government) in a particular scenario, like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spawned by the bureaucracy machine.”

    Russia’s two most famous Igors – Sechin and Shuvalov – seem to be suffering from a similar condition. They just can’t decide whether they’re coming or going. Plainly put, despite calls for Russian officials to abandon foreign property and vacation only at home in Mother Russia, Shuvalov still owns a luxury apartment in London. Meanwhile, Sechin’s yacht (apparently named after his new young wife) continues to sail the seas of Europe, writes RBC Daily. Sechin is even threatening to sue Novaya gazeta and other publications for “disseminating materials containing inaccurate information.”

    Maybe Igor Ivanovich should relax. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, such media leaks are nothing but a rousing game of “bait the FSB,” meant to show “that even if it wanted to, the FSB would be unable to get its hands on these top officials and Putin’s closest friends.” Despite a spate of high-ranking arrests last week, it seems there still are people who remain off limits in Russia.

    The most famous multiple personality case this week does not hail from Russia. Rather, he is America’s own Donald Trump. Some Russian officials are clearly expecting him to be the deus ex machina that finally gets Russian-American relations out of their perpetual rut. They see “the Donald’s” promises to abandon the US’s NATO commitments and “take a look at” the Crimea situation as positive signals.

    Many experts, however, are not optimistic that Trump is the solution: “Proposing marriage does not mean getting married, but even if the conversation turns to ‘marriage,’ Trump is already on his third – and he has not been noted for fidelity, including in the political sense,” writes Pavel Demidov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. His colleague Mikhail Troitsky agrees: “I would advise Putin to be cautious with Trump. He is extremely unpredictable, and we don’t know who, for example, his national security adviser might be. What if he goes for someone really hawkish to prove to the bureaucracy he’s a mainstream guy?”

    Meanwhile, Russia’s complicated relationship with Turkish President Erdogan just got even more confusing. Once barely known outside of expert circles, Erdogan became the favorite cartoon villain of Russian television screens following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015. Then, things got even more complicated: Turkey aborted a coup attempt, and Erdogan apologized for the incident with the jet (not necessarily in that order). The Turkish president quickly went from villain to hero fighting a “fifth column.” So what’s a confused TV audience to think? According to Grigory Golosov, “Erdogan is neither good nor bad. He made an immense contribution to Turkey’s progress toward democracy. And as often happens, he is now also the biggest threat to Turkish democracy.” How is he a threat? “Since the failed coup, Erdogan’s political clout is so great that he could become a dictator,” writes Golosov. Looks like Erdogan now stands at a crossroads and will have to choose. Or does the Turkish president have a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of his own going on?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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