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Volume 72, Number 3 (January 13-19, 2020)
FEATURED NEWS STORIES
Putin Announces Constitutional Changes Click here to read more
Mishustin Replaces Medvedev as Prime Minister
THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Arkhangelsky: Instead of Striving to Make Victory Day Universal, Regime Is Pointing Fingers
OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES
Lavnikevich: Lukashenko Again Wants Oil Discounts From Russia in Exchange for Empty Promises
Abkhazia Head Raul Khadzhimba Steps Down Amid Protests
Moscow Talks on Libya Settlement Collapse Day After Truce Declared
Shumilin: Risk of Clash Between Russia, Turkey in Libya Remains High as Haftar Digs in His Heels
Author: Vladimir Frolov
UKRAINE FACES GEORGIAN SCENARIO: NORMANDY FOUR SUMMIT RESULTS
By Vladimir Frolov. Republic.ru, Dec. 10, 2019, https://republic.ru/posts/95421. Complete text:
The Normandy Four summit in Paris ended on a positive note, but without a breakthrough on the main political and military issues of Donetsk Basin settlement. Significant progress was made in several areas that don’t affect the Russian-Ukrainian “red lines” – enough so that all participants in the summit, and above all its host, French President Emmanuel Macron, could claim success, positive trends, improved personal contacts and the resolve to continue diplomacy in the Normandy format.
Nobody was interested in seeing the Paris meeting fail. At the same time, it was especially important for the Russian side to support the efforts of President Macron, who this year “sided with the forces of good” and became the main advocate of Russia’s interests in the West. Moscow was willing to take several steps for Macron to see his diplomatic strategy succeed. Macron called the meeting productive and Putin thanked him for his “initiative.” As a matter of fact, the main outcome of the summit is the agreement to meet again in four months.
The main cliff-hanger was whether the Russian side would show some flexibility in its tough stance and accept the proposal that Kiev had persistently made the day before to “upgrade the Minsk agreements” regarding the order of implementation of key provisions of the Minsk-2 agreement – for example, handing over control of the border with Russia to Kiev before holding elections in CDDLP and granting it special status. Judging by the summit’s final declaration and Putin’s statements, Moscow’s stance has not changed at all and the Kremlin has no intention of conceding to Zelensky on fundamental issues that are crucial for the final settlement (i.e., who will be the winner and who will be the loser). The Ukrainian leader is not seen as the last and best opportunity for the Kremlin to quit the game in the Donetsk Basin without losing face. Moscow is clearly not about to quit.
The day before, Kiev was gushing with ideas for modernizing the Minsk agreements – for example, insisting on handing over border control to international peacekeeping forces, or to certain “joint forces” consisting of “Donetsk Basin people’s militias,” OSCE forces and Ukrainian National Guard detachments. In addition, [Kiev] proposed transforming “people’s militias” into “municipal guards,” comprised of CDDLP residents who have not fought against Ukraine, as well as Donetsk Basin refugees living on Ukrainian territory (presumably Zelensky thus sought to prevent two DPR/LPR Army corps from turning into the “Donetsk Basin people’s militia”). There were also proposals undermining the Steinmeier formula to hold elections in the CDDLP under Ukraine’s current legislation (without passing a special status law) and that would coincide with the next local elections in Ukraine on Oct. 31, 2020. [Ukraine] proposed a creative approach toward amnesty: Kiev was willing to extend it only to CDDLP residents who have not fought [against Ukraine], which was unacceptable to Moscow. Also unacceptable were the Zelensky team’s efforts to revisit the special status issue, watering it down in a new law and including in the Constitution only a reference to “additional powers” for CDDLP (not describing them in detail, as provided for under the Minsk agreements and as envisioned in the current version of the special status law that Kiev has so far agreed to extend only for one year). All these attempts by Kiev to expand the summit agenda and force a discussion on “modernizing the Minsk agreements” were rejected. The Ukrainians knew that this would be the case [and] evidently counted on support from Merkel and Macron – and it was partially provided (Merkel sided with Zelensky’s ideas about handing over border control and withdrawing heavy [military] equipment before elections), but it is impossible to get Putin to change his stance. “The Minsk agreements must not be revisited.*** This is what is written there, [and they] should be implemented to the letter,” the Russian president said after the talks.
In Paris, Vladimir Putin had the stronger position: Any outcome would have suited him. If Zelensky accepted the Russian interpretation of the sequence for implementing the Minsk agreements, great: The conflict would be settled on Russia’s terms and the European Union would lift sanctions against Russia. If [Zelensky] did not accept the Russian terms and the talks ended in nothing, that would not be bad, either: It would be possible to accuse Ukraine of failing to implement the Minsk agreements (proposing that the EU lift anti-Russian sanctions in light of that), show good will and freeze the conflict by disengaging forces along the entire line of contact. [Russia] could even seek to normalize bilateral relations with Ukraine along the so-called “Georgian scenario,” where it’s possible to both keep a frozen conflict (which blocks Ukraine’s entry to NATO), and improve trade and economic relations.
Just before the Paris meeting, the Kremlin indicated through a leak to Kommersant that Russia would be willing to settle for either the full implementation of the Minsk agreements to the letter or a “Georgian scenario” with a frozen conflict. The issues of the transit of Russian gas and its purchase by Ukraine (“at a 25% discount”), which were discussed at a bilateral meeting between Putin and Zelensky, serve to restore Russia’s leverage along the lines of a Georgian scenario. Ahead [of the Paris meeting], there was a lot of talk in Kiev about restoring direct [commercial airline] flights [between Ukraine and Russia]; that step was not announced in Paris.
Putin’s immediate goal at the talks was to understand whether it was possible to additionally obligate Zelensky to implement the Minsk agreements according to the Russian scenario in order to determine further steps based on that new understanding. The final communiqué, which talks about the “full and systematic” implementation of the Minsk agreements and Ukraine’s commitment to incorporate the Steinmeier formula into law (this refers to the order of steps for holding elections in the CDDLP), shows that Putin has achieved [that goal]. Now Moscow will regard Zelensky’s signature on the communiqué as [Ukraine’s] firm international commitment to implement the Minsk agreements in the sequence that benefits Russia, while the agreement to hold the next Normandy summit in four months sets a rigid time frame for Zelensky. In Paris, Zelensky did not cross his “red lines,” but the subsequent logic of the negotiating process has already been established within a framework that suits Russia’s interests. Putin is holding the trump card – i.e., the text of the Minsk agreements.
As for the threats coming from members of Zelensky’s team that if Russia does not accept Ukraine’s ideas about updating Minsk-2 and changing the sequence of steps, Kiev would lose interest in Normandy format talks and begin to distance itself from the Donetsk Basin (“We will build a wall,” said Zelensky’s aide Andrei Yermak), Moscow does not take them seriously and views them as tactics to sway [Ukraine’s] Western partners.
In the final analysis, the summit’s results are rather modest. The most concrete agreement – the all-for-all prisoner exchange between Kiev and the DPR/LPR before the end of the year – had long been in the works and was merely announced at the summit. Launching the disengagement of forces and [military] hardware in three residential areas (in addition to the three where disengagement has already been completed) and demining the gray zone (as well as defortification, Putin added, so that the Ukrainian Armed Forces could not quickly return to the positions they had abandoned) is a major step toward freezing the conflict according to a Georgian scenario. However, the Ukrainian side refused to disengage forces along the entire line of contact, citing the impossibility of quickly withdrawing troops in all sectors. Granted, a full disengagement of forces in all sectors is possible before the end of 2020. In that case, the focus of the Normandy format negotiating process would be on establishing a stable frozen-conflict regime in a situation where there are no natural barriers between the conflicting parties in the form of wide rivers or high mountains. (There is a river a little further west – the Dnepr.) In Paris, the Russian delegation is said to have opened with its trump card, demanding that the special status be extended to all of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces, not only to the hard-won CDDLP. The message being sent to Zelensky is that Moscow, too, could take a creative approach to the Minsk agreements. At that rate, Novorossia is not too far off.
Author: Pavel Felgengauer
NOBODY WANTS WAR
By staff commentator Pavel Felgengauer. Novaya gazeta, Jan. 10, 2020, p. 5. Condensed text:
In response to Iran’s “retaliatory strike,” the US president chose to limit himself to announcing new, tougher sanctions.
On the night of Jan. 8, the missile forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched a missile attack against US military targets in Iraq in retaliation for the death of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds force who was killed in a US Army drone strike on Jan. 3 near Baghdad International Airport on President Donald Trump’s order. . . .
Usually, to avoid direct retaliatory fire, Tehran uses all sorts of proxies – armed supporters abroad or terrorists. However, in this case the strike was delivered directly from Iran’s territory with Qiam 1 and Fateh 313-type tactical missiles with a range of over 500 kilometers. It is unknown exactly what kind of missiles the Iranians fired or how many. According to the IRGC, it was over 30, but the US military said it was less than 20.
The Fateh 313 is Iran’s newest solid-fueled tactical missile about which very little is known. The Qiam 1 is a liquid-fuel (heptyl [unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, UDMH]) missile, a North Korean (Hwasong 6) clone of the well-known Soviet R 17 missile with more than double the range and an upgraded, separable warhead. Locals found a discarded Qiam 1 engine assembly 20 km from the [US’s] Ain al Assad [air] base, took pictures of it with their cell phones and posted the images on the Web. There are unconfirmed reports that Iranian cruise missiles and (or) unmanned aerial vehicles with strike potential were also used in the assault.
The Qiam 1 has a 750 kilogam high explosive fragmentation warhead with a supersonic terminal velocity speed. It is a serious weapon system. IRGC representatives unofficially boast that the Qiam 1 and the Fateh 313 are precision-guided weapons and that the Qiam 1’s path can be changed midflight. Nevertheless, the IRGC’s Jan. 8 missile strike did not look very powerful. Many missiles missed their targets, and in Erbil, they failed to hit both the international airport and the US consulate. Not a single American was killed or injured either in Erbil or at the Ain al Assad base. But of course, the IRGC claimed that they had killed 80 Americans and injured 200. The number 80 has almost sacred significance for the Iranians today, since the Islamic republic’s population is precisely 80 million, so the number is used whenever possible.
Washington was pleased that there were no casualties; the State Department and the White House made up a story that the Iranians purposely missed their targets so as not to kill anyone. Trump liked that version very much, happily announcing that neither US nor Iraqi service personnel were harmed, that “only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” that “Iran appears to be standing down” and that it is now possible to move on to diplomatic methods of resolving the conflict. [Now the US can] make a mutually beneficial deal with Tehran to lift sanctions in exchange for [Iran] abandoning its nuclear and missile programs, as well as its aggressive expansion of the Shiite version of Islam.
Such a deal with the Iranian leaders is a long-standing goal of Trump, who honestly does not understand why it is wrong to calmly cash in on natural gas and oil exports together while enjoying bikini beauty pageants at glamorous hotels. Trump announced that he will punish Iran only with new sanctions, at the same time taking potshots at both his predecessor, [former US president] Barack Obama, and the late Soleimani. A sigh of relief was felt throughout the world, [including] in governments and stock exchanges: The crisis was resolved without war.
As for [US] military bases suffering “only minimal damage,” Trump told a lie. Today, commercial satellites fly over the earth, capturing aerial imagery of its surface, and the desert province of Anbar is as clear as day. The Ain al Assad base sustained major damage, with buildings and hangars destroyed. Satellite photos show the missile strike was launched against the sprawling complex; the spread of hits was rather random, since the Qiam 1 has an accuracy of over 500 meters circular error probable. So no matter what Iranian propaganda might say, [the missile] is unfit for launching high-precision strikes. Without reliable and ongoing accurate satellite and aerial follow-up reconnaissance, the Iranians had simply no way of knowing exactly where US service personnel were located at launch to avoid hitting them. All of this is Washington’s fantasy resulting from a semi-intentional projection of its own military capabilities and decision-making protocols onto the adversary.
The Pentagon has a system of permanent satellite and aerial reconnaissance – both optical and radar-based. This is why the US military had advance warning of Iran’s missile assault; the missile attack early warning system in Ain al Assad worked as it should have, and service personnel took shelter in reinforced bunkers that the IRGC either knew nothing about or was unable to hit with its inaccurate missiles anyway. Word has it that the Iranians also notified friendly Iraqi groups about the imminent strike without indicating the exact location or time, and the Iraqis informed the Americans. However, by that time, the Yankees already knew everything from their own reconnaissance and missile attack early warning system. There were no attempts to intercept the Iranian missiles, since there is a shortage of Patriot and Avenger systems in the Middle East, and they were protecting other possible targets.
Following Soleimani’s killing, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution on the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including US and coalition forces, which had entered Iraq at the request of the Baghdad government to help fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (an organization banned in Russia – Ed.). However, a resolution is not a binding document but a recommendation with no deadlines or implementation mechanisms. Furthermore, there has been no full-fledged government in Baghdad since prime minister Abdul Mahdi resigned in early December after months of bloody antigovernment protests. Even though he continues to perform his duties, he cannot make a legitimate executive decision to expel foreign troops, so the Americans have no intention of leaving yet, especially considering that neither the Kurds nor the Sunnis supported the resolution.
Incidentally, the late Soleimani pushed for the US’s withdrawal from Iraq and eventually from the entire region. That is also the dream of his boss, the rahbar [the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Trans.]. So Trump was wrong when he said that Tehran is “standing down.” After the retaliatory strike, in which not a single American was killed, the rahbar and the IRGC look a little foolish. However, now they are likely to order their proxies in the Popular Mobilization Forces (Iranian-backed militia units, PMF) to spring into action – i.e., to create a “new Vietnam” for the US. After all, PMF fighters have to avenge their commander, [Abu Mahdi] al Muhandis [who was killed together with Soleimani – Trans.]. Meanwhile, the IRGC and the rahbar will pretend they have nothing to do with that or the US losses resulting from the people’s anger.
Author: Ivan Rodin, Olga Solovyova, Mikhail Sergeyev, Gennady Petrov and Tatyana Ivzhenko
PRESS CONFERENCE RESEMBLES LOTTERY SHOW
By Ivan Rodin, Olga Solovyova, Mikhail Sergeyev, Gennady Petrov and Tatyana Ivzhenko. Nezavisimaya gazeta, Dec. 20, 2019, p. 1. Condensed text:
This year’s edition of Vladimir Putin’s year-end press conference – his 15th – has confirmed that as always, the event’s primary purpose is to serve as a kind of therapy session for the Russian people. In this sense, the president’s big press conferences are increasingly starting to resemble his Direct Line [annual call-in] shows, which are also done in a Q&A format, except people get to ask questions directly. . . .
Glimpses into the future transfer of power.
Putin was asked about his take on discussions about the need and possibility of amending the Constitution. The question came from the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, so you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to connect the dots and figure out that the subject was suggested [to the media] beforehand as a recommended topic. This is further confirmed by the fact that the question consisted of two parts: not only about amending the Constitution, but also about making changes to Russia’s political system. In other words, Putin was asked to share his vision on the much-debated issue of the transfer of power.
The president’s answer, however, was laconic and fairly evasive. First, he repeated his favorite line about the Constitution being a living document, which should grow and develop along with the nation. “Yet I don’t think we should change the Constitution – I mean, rewrite it entirely – especially because there are some fundamental things enshrined in the current version that we have yet to fully implement. I’m referring to the first chapter. Personally, I think it’s off limits,” Putin said. This probably means that we shouldn’t expect a major overhaul of the Basic Law.
The president said he was aware of certain discussions among politicians and experts – for example, about redistributing some powers from the government to the parliament. Putin even mentioned the possibility of “making some adjustments to the scope of presidential powers.” On the other hand, he emphasized that any such changes would only be possible after a public discussion, and that all the proposed changes had to be thoroughly and carefully considered. This indicates that most likely, we shouldn’t expect any changes to the Constitution in the near future. Even Putin’s remark that he is not against removing the word “consecutive” from the clause setting a two-term presidential limit, which was initially perceived as breaking news, turned out to be old news after all.
For example, Putin said basically the same thing back in April 2012, after he was elected president but before his inauguration – i.e., while he was still prime minister. Putin said at the time it “made sense” to leave the words “two terms” but remove the adjective “consecutive.” This time, the president said that “perhaps we could remove this word.”
Curiously, Putin said that the idea to amend the Constitution came entirely from parliamentary parties, which, according to the president, are eager to play a greater role. Yet we should point out that it was State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin who has been the key proponent of this debate [see Vol. 71, No. 28‑29, pp. 3‑7], not opposition parties.
Federation Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, A Just Russia leader
Sergei Mironov and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir
Zhirinovsky were all excited about the president’s tentative proposal. United
Russia’s reaction, on the other hand, was somewhat reserved. Sergei Neverov,
the party’s faction leader in the State Duma, emphasized first and foremost
that Putin has rejected the idea of rewriting the Constitution. Senator Andrei
Klishas practically nipped the debate in the bud, saying there was no need to
remove the word “consecutive” from the text as long as the Constitutional Court
offers a proper interpretation of what it means in this context.
The president’s answers to other questions during the Dec. 19 press conference offered additional glimpses into the future transfer of power. For example, Putin was happy to answer questions about Russia’s relations with Belarus. It was obvious that he closely followed all the developments in the protracted talks on deeper integration within the Union State [of Belarus and Russia]. Granted, some of the arguments he used in responding to President Aleksandr Lukashenko – for example, his remarks about gas and oil prices – sounded somewhat obsolete. The Belarussian leader has moved on to more relevant things: For example, he is wondering how the two countries’ integrated economy will operate if [Belarussian and Russian] companies in this common territory have to purchase basic fuel at different prices.
On the other hand, Putin finally outlined the political terms for Belarus in public – and he did not mince words. For example, economic integration means not only having common tax and monetary authorities, but also certain supranational bodies adopting laws that would be binding for both countries. This could mean that the Kremlin will use unification with Belarus as a way to [keep Putin in power]. No wonder Putin completely ignored a reporter’s question, perhaps a joking one, about how the transfer of power would happen, who would end up in charge and whether Putin wants to head up a BelaRussia in 2024. . . .
Author: Ivan Rodin
State of the Transition Address: Constitutional Reform Will Result in Controlled Political Destabilization
By Ivan Rodin. Nezavisimaya gazeta, Jan. 16, 2020, p. 1. Complete text:
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s 16th Message to the Federal Assembly had two parts. The first part, as advertised, dealt with social issues. The president showed the people how he is personally looking out for them.
The second part was addressed to the ruling class. Putin explained how he wants to overhaul the current structure of government through a number of constitutional amendments. He started with an initiative that the Kremlin expects all the parliamentary parties to support – and they probably will. “International laws and treaties, as well as rulings by international organizations, can only be applied in Russia so long as they do not limit human rights and freedoms or contradict our Constitution,” the president said, unveiling his first amendment. He prefaced it by saying that the foundations of the constitutional system should remain unaltered, meaning there is no need to adopt a new Constitution.
The second amendment can be described as the “nationalization of the elite.” Top government officials will be banned from holding dual citizenship or having any close ties with other countries. In addition, presidential candidates will now be required to have maintained continuous residency in Russia for 25 years. The third amendment came as no surprise: As expected, Putin proposed dropping the adverb “consecutively” from the provision limiting a president to two terms. Once again, Putin said that this amendment was not too important, which made his critics even more confident that, on the contrary, it is very important.
The president’s fourth constitutional initiative was not that much of a surprise, either. “I think the Constitution should set forth the principles defining the entire system of governance, with different government and municipal bodies working effectively together,” Putin said. He also said that local self-government bodies should be given more authority and real power. However, the president did not go into any details.
Halfway through the list of proposed amendments, the president mentioned an initiative ostensibly for the people. The Constitution will now clearly state that the minimum wage cannot be lower than the living wage. In fact, Russian law already has this norm, so the amendment will change nothing, except the Constitution will now appear more socially oriented. In addition, it will now guarantee “decent pensions” for retirees. The president added that this should include regular adjustments for inflation. What he failed to explain is how those adjustments can make the current pensions decent.
The rest of the amendments were intended for the political class and were the most obscure. When you change the balance of power among the various branches of government, it is always important to clearly understand each branch’s scope of authority, and most importantly, to understand the procedural nuances of the new mechanisms of interaction among the various branches and government agencies. For example, to boost the role of governors, the Constitution will now include a section on the State Council, which Putin said will have an appropriate status and role. But that status and role are as yet unclear. On the other hand, that is not the key question here. The thing is, with few exceptions, governors are no longer some local up-and-comers; most of them are caretakers sent by Moscow. In other words, the president is creating an entity that will be made up almost entirely of his own people. And if the State Council gets a lot of power, its chairman will wield a lot of influence, too.
In other words, Jan. 15 was the beginning of a process called a transition – or transfer – of power. Most pundits believe that as a result of this process, Putin will leave his current post while retaining control of the country. The reasons behind all the other amendments that Putin proposed in his speech become more apparent if considered from that angle. For example, instead of giving the nod to the president’s nominees [as it currently does – Trans.], the State Duma will have the right to independently appoint the prime minister and all cabinet members. The president will be obliged to confirm them, Putin noted, but then he spoke about the next amendment: the unconditional right of the head of state to dismiss both the head of government and any ministers. But not a single word was said about who would nominate prime ministerial candidates for the State Duma.
At the same time, the heads of the military, security and law-enforcement agencies will still be appointed by the president, but in consultation with the Federation Council. The same procedure can be used to appoint regional prosecutors, Putin said, because prosecutorial oversight should remain firmly in the hands of the federal government. Incidentally, senators will now have the power to dismiss Supreme and Constitutional Court justices – again, only at the president’s request. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court will now have the power to block any bill from taking effect – again, at the president’s request.
At the end of his speech, Putin mentioned the people once again and announced that all his proposed amendments, as well as any others that may appear later, must first be approved by the people – and that the proposed amendments may change significantly during that process. Immediately after the speech, government officials and politicians started debating whether public approval meant calling a referendum. For example, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin initially claimed that Putin did propose holding a referendum, while Central Electoral Commission chairwoman Ella Pamfilova insisted that the president had something else in mind. The nonestablishment opposition immediately started complaining that if the vote takes place online, the Kremlin would definitely rig the results. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the possibility of calling a referendum but did not explain what will happen instead. Rumors circulating in the Duma have it that all the amendments will be adopted this summer.
This means, first, that gubernatorial elections will be extremely fierce, and second, that the 2021 Duma campaign will be a real battle. In other words, Putin’s initiatives have quickly resulted in political destabilization. But the abrupt resignation [on Jan. 15] of Dmitry Medvedev’s government demonstrated that the Kremlin hopes to keep this unfolding crisis under control.