Letter From the Editors

Our lead story is about the Russian Foreign Ministry’s move to recall its US ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow for consultations – a step that Russia has taken only a few times this century with any ambassador, and not with a diplomatic envoy to Washington since 1998. The trigger for Antonov’s recall was Joe Biden’s ABC News interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which the American president assented when the interviewer offered a description of Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” Rossiiskaya gazeta quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s reaction: “Some Western leaders have adopted a new technique – ‘fake diplomacy,’ or in some cases, even ‘freak diplomacy.’ ”

However, political analyst Dmitry Travin tells Novaya gazeta that such “diplomacy” is business as usual for Washington: “Henry Kissinger wrote . . . that in most cases, US foreign policy is determined by the domestic agenda. This was pretty much the case here. . .  So apparently, American voters have reached the point where they want their president to say something like that.”

Perhaps the same applies to Russian voters. Ivan Rodin calls Biden’s (implicit) remark a gift to Putin in bolstering electoral support: “[T]he Kremlin once again has a frenemy to help it ensure uncompetitive elections in a ‘besieged fortress’ situation. In other words, now there is no need to fabricate any scheme by Western intelligence agencies trying to destabilize Russia through their agents.” Of course, Rodin continues, this does not mean that the regime will take it easy on domestic dissenters – “on the contrary, repressions against them will only intensify.”

Case in point: Oppositionist Aleksei Navalny not only remains in prison, but is reportedly experiencing back and leg pains that are not being medically treated. What’s more, says his attorney Vadim Kobzev, Navalny is being subjected to torture by sleep deprivation: He is woken up for a “preventative roll call” eight times per night.

Lest Navalny’s continuing tribulations make him a hero in some Russians’ eyes, Moscow is taking no chances as it prepares for the State Duma elections, which are still almost half a year away. According to Andrei Pertsev, the ruling United Russia party has a playbook that includes nominating spoiler candidates, turning opposition events into a “circus,” and producing “disinformation aimed at stimulating conflict between parties and splitting them internally.” A United Russia strategy document even describes plans to create a Web site that mimics Navalny’s electoral recommendations, widely known as “smart voting” – except that this project has a slightly different name (umny golos in Russian, which means “smart vote,” as opposed to Navalny’s umnoye golosovaniye). The document overtly explains: “Voters who consume policy information superficially and plan to vote according to ‘smart voting’ recommendations may confuse [these] resources.”

The public can be choosy about ingesting media, but when it comes to medicine, we’re largely at the mercy of our governments. Which brings up what Danil Bochkov calls “vaccine diplomacy,” whereby some countries (notably Russia and China) have been exporting COVID inoculations abroad: “Moscow is doing this either in order to help post-Soviet allies, such as Belarus . . . and Armenia, or to reinforce relations with partners further afield, such as Venezuela, Syria, Iran and Serbia. The Kremlin is also seeking to spread its diplomatic clout within traditionally Western-leaning states, such as the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic.”

In Moldova, though, the US beat Russia to the punch (well, the shot): Svetlana Gamova writes that American Ambassador Dereck Hogan arranged for a batch of Pfizer vaccines to be delivered to Chisinau, despite the US’s previous refusal to supply other European countries. Why is the US taking such an interest in Moldova? Expert Anatol Taranu explains: “The upcoming [parliamentary] elections will be geopolitical: They will decide whether Moldova remains in Russia’s sphere of influence or turns forever to the West.” Apparently, even public health is not immune to foreign policy when it goes viral.