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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
    Issue #5 Table of Contents

    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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