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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
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    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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    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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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 19-31, 2016

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    Goodbye for Now: The Most Memorable Moments of 2016.

    As 2016 draws to a close, most will agree that it was a year with more than its fair share of shocks, surprises and plot twists. Before the final curtain descends on this turbulent year, here are the seven most memorable events of 2016, in no particular order:

    Brexit. – Despite most expert predictions, UK citizens voted in June to leave the European Union. According to Vladislav Inozemtsev, continental Europe’s hysterical reaction to the UK’s possible withdrawal was partly to blame: “It’s hard to shake the idea that this hype about the importance of the moment turned out to be an additional factor that swayed the vote.”

    President Trump. – Not to be outdone, Britain’s former subjects pulled a stunt of their own in November, electing billionaire reality show host Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States. Once again, most polls got it wrong. But political expert Fyodor Lukyanov has a few words of advice for Mr. Trump: “You promised to ‘make America great again,’ and apparently your view of [a great America] is something like the ‘good old’ ’50s, when America was the winner in a terrible and just war; had authority; but had not yet learned political correctness. You won’t be able to return there, just as your opponent could not return to the ‘golden age’ of her husband, Bill [Clinton].”

    Arrest of Aleksei Ulyukayev. – The now-former economic development minister’s arrest on corruption charges came like a shot out of the blue: Not even his boss, Prime Minister Medvedev, saw it coming. Many experts saw the shadow of Rosneft CEO Sechin behind the brouhaha.

    Savchenko flies home. – Ukraine’s celebrity pilot convicted in Russia for the murders of two Russian journalists was exchanged for two Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine, arriving home on May 25. The Moscow Times predicted that Savchenko’s prickly personality will now become a thorn in the Kiev regime’s side. That prediction proved correct – last we heard, the Batkivshchina [Fatherland] party, which she joined, was working to expel her. 

    Navalny for president – or for prison? – Opposition activist Aleksei Navalny announced he is going to run in the 2018 presidential election. The announcement came after Russia’s Supreme Court overturned his earlier conviction for embezzling funds from the KirovLes timber company. But according to Tatyana Stanovaya, the Kremlin has crossed the invisible red line where anything goes, so the temptation to “squash [Navalny] like a bug” is stronger than ever.

    All not quiet in Montenegro. – Before it was accused of meddling in the US presidential election, Russia was implicated in an alleged coup attempt in Montenegro. According to the Montenegrin authorities, a group of Russian nationals planned to start a protest rally against the supposedly rigged parliamentary elections, set off a riot and even allegedly kill the prime minister. It’s the stuff John le Carré novels are made of.

    Murder of Russian ambassador to Turkey. – In a shocking conclusion to an already tumultuous year, Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was shot eight times at point-blank range by a Turkish security official on Dec. 19. The killer’s shout of “This is for Aleppo!” leaves not a shadow of a doubt that the consequences of Russia’s operation in Syria are starting to catch up with it.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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