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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 20-26, 2017

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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #12 Table of Contents

    It’s Not Easy Being Green… But Somebody’s Got to Do It

    As Russia draws within a year of its next presidential election, opposition figures are coming forward to criticize the likely winner – Vladimir Putin. For example, Leonid Gozman in a Novaya gazeta commentary accuses him of gaining and maintaining public support through shameless deception: “Leaders who are ineffective or do not make the public’s well-being a priority are compelled to distort reality, creating an illusory world like that of the Wizard of Oz.” As if to reinforce the image of Putin’s Russia as the Emerald City, the media (both state-run and social) are buzzing with the story of Putin’s most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, getting splashed with green dye at a campaign event in Barnaul. Now some of Navalny’s supporters are playing the “green scene” to their advantage, smearing themselves with the dye and proudly taking selfies!

    Speaking of Oz, could Kremlin wizardry be behind the sudden disappearance of a 2014 letter in which then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich requested that his Russian counterpart send in troops to protect him from his own people who were protesting on Kiev’s Independence Square? The letter is shown in a video of a UN Security Council session, being read aloud by then-Russian UN rep Vitaly Churkin. Yet this week, both the Russian government and Yanukovich himself deny it ever existed. Now you see it, now you don’t! What about the man who was shown reading it? Churkin, too, alas, is no longer with us: He died suddenly of unexplained causes Feb. 20, just when the Ukrainian authorities were preparing to put Yanukovich on trial for high treason. Coincidence? What about the death of another potentially damning witness against Yanukovich – former Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov, assassinated outside a Kiev hotel on March 23?

    Even if it can’t stop Kiev from prosecuting Yanukovich, Moscow can at least pay it back in its own coin. Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin told Rossiiskaya gazeta this week that the IC is currently investigating criminal cases against officials in the post-Yanukovich government. The charges, explains Bastrykin (apparently quoting chapter and verse from the stack of law books on his desk), include “infringement upon the life and health of Donetsk Basin civilians,” involving “the use of weapons of mass destruction and other means and methods of warfare prohibited by international law.”

    Does framing the Ukraine issue this way play a part in a larger campaign on Russia’s part to raise its status in the international community? Could be. Mikhail Fishman and Matthew Kupfer write in The Moscow Times that Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine and Syria have combined with external factors – such as Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US and the declining anti-Russia trend in Europe to burnish the Kremlin’s global image. “These events have all catapulted Putin to the position of a powerful broker in the international arena and fulfilled the country’s longstanding desire for international influence.”

    But perhaps that influence has gone too far. Tatyana Stanovaya argues in Republic.ru that rumors about Putin attempting to influence the French presidential election have some factual basis. At the very least, there is a monetary trail connecting him with right-wing candidate François Fillon. Stanovaya predicts that Putin’s courting of the “new West” will backfire: “The Kremlin’s desire to ride a wave of new trends in the West, manifested in the rise of nontraditional and patriotically antiglobalist forces, will result in those forces gradually turning against Putin.”

    Still, why does Putin need a rosy future when there’s plenty of green to go around? Most Russians still have their emerald-colored glasses on, and the few who have taken them off are getting green splashed in their eyes in liquid form.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #11

    Letter From the Editors: March 13-19, 2017

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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
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    With Missiles Like These, Who Needs Frenemies?

    For those who believe time travel is possible, here’s hoping that 1983 was a good year, because it certainly feels like we’re returning to it: Not in terms of shoulder pads and upturned collars (although who wouldn’t want to rock that look again?) but nuclear hysteria. According to military expert Pavel Felgengauer, NATO and Russia are essentially in the same mess as in the early 80s, when American Pershings and Soviet Pioner missiles made Europe a very uncomfortable place to be. Eventually, given the American missiles’ superior accuracy, Moscow blinked first: “In the event of a preemptive (decapitating) strike, the top military-political leadership would have no time to safely evacuate from Moscow by helicopter, and it would be risky to take shelter from a surgically accurate nuclear warhead in a bunker. The chiefs did not intend to die, so the INF Treaty was signed, based on Reagan’s ‘zero option,’ ” Felgengauer concludes.

    Today, the Russian General Staff is caterwauling that the 1987 INF Treaty was unfair, and both sides are accusing each other of violating it. The situation looks frighteningly familiar – the US is deploying bases in Romania and Poland, while Russia is threatening to station its Kalibr missiles in response (and perhaps has already deployed them in the Crimea).

    Is it any wonder that in this scenario, more and more countries want a couple of nuclear warheads of their own, just to be safe? Spooked by the Trump administration’s possible plans to leave Europe to its own devices when it comes to defense, EU officials are floating the idea of developing European nuclear deterrence, writes Andrei Akulov: “The nuclear deterrence plan proposes turning the French nuclear potential into a European nuclear deterrent.” Ukraine decided to jump on the bandwagon – Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said Ukraine wants its nuclear status reviewed. So if the EU decides to go nuclear, Kiev could be included in those plans. Given the EU’s growing decentralization (according to Pyotr Korzun, the EU today is a set of “mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests”), ensuring proper oversight could get complicated. Should we all learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

    Meanwhile, another nuclear wannabe state (at least until a couple of years ago) – Iran – finds itself branded as the regional scapegoat. Despite a nuclear deal brokered in 2015, the current US administration has accused Iran “of almost all Middle East problems,” writes Ravil Mustafin. Part of the reason, according to Mustafin, is that the US still can’t get over the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 hostage crisis and the debacle of a rescue operation that followed. In addition, Iran makes a convenient target for Trump – “On the one hand, it is important for the US president to show America that he is consistently fulfilling his campaign promises, and on the other hand, to take revenge on Obama, portraying him as a weak politician who can be easily duped.” Why not kill two birds with one stone?

    Washington’s newfound enthusiasm for scapegoating Iran is shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia – two frenemies that suddenly find themselves surprisingly aligned. The dissenter on the issue is Russia, which happens to be one of the parties to the Iran-Russia-Turkey coalition that brokered the shaky truce in Syria. While Moscow’s position is hardly surprising, the maverick in this game is actually Ankara: “A real godsend for Washington would be Ankara’s withdrawal from the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance, if not the alliance’s complete disintegration,” concludes Mustafin. Considering that Turkish officials have been making conflicting statements of late, clearly trying to play both sides, Washington may get its wish.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #10

    Letter From the Editors: March 6-12, 2017

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    Issue #10 Letter From the Editors
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    Stinker Jailer Soldier Spy.

    Russia’s most famous muckraker has raised another stink in Russia after landing his biggest if not smelliest fish to date – the prime minister himself. Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund this week released the results of an investigation that meticulously documents Medvedev’s lavish lifestyle, which includes the regular use of luxurious mansions and lavish yachts gifted to the charitable foundations of Dmitry Medvedev’s friends. The revelations come as no surprise to Russians. Everyone knows this is how the system works, writes Andrei Kolesnikov: “The oligarchy supplies the needs and wants of the ruling authorities who, in turn, protect the oligarchy from interference.” Kirill Martynov facetiously pities Medvedev, who he says is forced to accept the obligatory trappings of power in Russia at a time when it is trendy for the rich and powerful in the Western world (at least in Silicon Valley, Medvedev’s Mount Zion) to eschew extravagance in favor of personal asceticism. Russia’s leaders have no choice, writes Kolesnikov: “Money and luxury serve as the lifeblood animating Russia’s body politic. [Navalny’s investigation] has revealed that leaders can never get enough, and that they will cling to power until their dying breath. Because losing office would literally mean losing everything.”

    But while the Russian leadership jealously guards its “everything,” it has no qualms about taking away ordinary Russians’ “everything” – just ask Sochi resident Oksana Sevastidi, who was given a seven-year prison sentence on high treason charges in 2016 for sending a couple of text messages to a friend in Georgia in 2008 about seeing military equipment on railcars. Russia’s propensity for jailing is well documented. But it seems that even Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Sevastidi’s sentence was a bit extreme. He has just pardoned her on “humanitarian principles.” Another Sochi resident, Yekaterina Kharebava, sentenced to serve six years in prison on espionage charges in 2014 for sending a similar text message, is still in prison. Can she expect similar “benevolence” from Russia’s supreme power-holder?

    And hold power he does. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reminded us this week just how much military power Russia wields, in case those who say that Russia must be talked with from a position of strength (read: US Defense Secretary James Mattis) may have forgotten. NG writes that Russia has a “new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which can outmaneuver all existing missile defense systems and put 10 [metric] tons of nuclear warheads on target anywhere in the world, with enough range to fly over either the North or South Pole.”

    But lest Russia be accused of saber-rattling, it has invited NATO and EU countries to take part in Moscow’s International Security Conference to shore up rapidly eroding trust and cooperation on security matters. The list of already scrapped and close-to-endangered security agreements is long and worrisome, writes Andrei Akulov. But he feels “the time is right to launch a meaningful and comprehensive discussion on a continental security order. Respect for each other’s views and interests is a prerequisite for success.”

    Unfortunately, it seems Russia does not necessarily respect Montenegro’s interest in pursuing closer integration with the EU and NATO. Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic this week announced that a prominent Russian spy, Col. Eduard Shishmakov, led the attempted plot to assassinate the pro-EU and pro-NATO Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and overthrow the government on election day, Oct. 16, 2016. Russia quickly dismissed the astounding claim, but the new Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, says several NATO countries confirm Russia’s involvement in the coup attempt.

    Needless to say, this week’s news has all the drama of a John Le Carré novel.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8-9

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 20-March 5, 2017

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    Issue #8-9 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #8-9 Table of Contents

    Friends, Enemies and Frenemies: Sorting Out Who’s Who in the Trump Era

    Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”

    In the long-standing friendship between America and the countries of the European Union, Donald Trump can certainly not be accused of stepping daintily. Months of insults and threats toward the Old World – calling the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” labeling NATO as “obsolete” and scolding its members for not paying their fair share for defense – have made leaders on the other side of the Atlantic understandably jumpy. The first feature of this week’s Digest focuses on a whirlwind tour made by key members of the Trump team with the aim of “seducing Europe” (to quote a Novaya gazeta headline). For example, according to Aleksandr Mineyev, Vice-President Mike Pence “praised the EU for its achievements in developing a common market, and marveled at the freedom with which goods, capital, services and people move within the EU. He noted the historic significance of EU enlargement, the introduction of a single currency, and the development of common approaches to security policy.” Even so, both he and Defense Secretary James Mattis backed up their boss’s warnings about NATO countries needing to ramp up their defense spending to 2% of GDP.

    Nezavisimaya gazeta editor in chief Konstantin Remchukov says that Pence’s remarks were anything but reassuring; if anything, they revealed turmoil within Washington, sending a deeply confusing message. Remchukov sums up recent conversations with Western political analysts as follows: “I’ve never seen them so discombobulated. These former prophets have nothing left of their old self-confidence. . . . [T]hey can’t predict anything. There’s a feeling that the cold war has reached an unexpected juncture.” Indeed, Fyodor Lukyanov warns that with Trump’s recent talk of making the American weapon arsenal the “top of the pack,” the world could be facing a “second nuclear century.” At least political analyst Oleg Shakirov sees some hope for East-West dialogue in the upcoming Russia-NATO Council meetings.

    Of course, an important issue between Russia and NATO is the Ukraine conflict. Curiously, despite an apparent impasse on the official level (where both Ukraine and Russia are using each other as an excuse for not implementing the Minsk agreements), a number of solutions have been proposed unofficially by Ukrainians in widely different circles. These include Radical Party Deputy Andrei Artemenko (who proposes leasing the Crimea to Russia), oligarch Sergei Taruta (who advocates for a special law reinstating regional Donetsk leaders) and good old former president Viktor Yanukovich (who submitted to West European leaders a plan to hold a Ukrainian referendum on the Donetsk Basin). Experts suspect a “Russian trail” behind most of these plans, especially the last one.

    On a more obvious level, Moscow has been treading rather undaintily with another of its fraternal nations, Belarus. The latest stomp, as reported in previous Digest coverage, is the abrupt imposition of border checkpoints between the two countries. Granted, Russia has gotten increasingly frustrated with its neighbor’s cunning “schemes and scams,” writes Republic.ru commentator Yevgeny Karasyuk: In recent years, Belarus has been smuggling a range of products both westward (Russian oil products disguised as paint thinner) and eastward (European apples, apricots and seafood to Russia, ducking the sanctions war with Europe). However, according to economist Aleksandr Chubrik, this covert trading is small potatoes compared to the value of duty-free oil Belarus has gotten from Russia over the years – a commodity that Moscow is starting to cut back on as it pressures Minsk to repay past debts to Gazprom. Such tactics seem to go beyond what Emerson meant by “rough courage.” We might ask: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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