Russia in 2013
Vladimir Putin is outflanking the west at every turn
The Russian president runs rings around the supposed liberal leaders of the west as he advances his authoritarian agenda
(The Observer| Guardian) This has been the year of Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy. The Russian president has made Barack Obama look like a conman’s stooge – a lame duck president so weak that he can barely waddle to the pond. Putin has managed to protect his client dictatorship in Syria – even after it broke one of the few taboos limiting man’s inhumanity to man by using chemical weapons. He has Edward Snowden, perhaps the most damaging leaker in recent history, under the vigilant eyes of his secret police in Moscow. He has out-manoeuvred the pro-European demonstrators in Kiev and bought off the Ukrainian government.
At home, his control over the state and civil society is so complete that he can afford to play the merciful tsar and release dissidents and his former rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Forbes magazine was not making a mistake when it called Putin the world’s most powerful person in 2013. However, the Centre for Strategic Communications, a thinktank for the Kremlin’s pet intellectuals, assessed his power more precisely last week when it acclaimed him “world conservatism’s new leader”. If you can rid yourself of the idea that being a conservative means merely supporting private enterprise, you will see what it meant. (December 2013)
Andrei Piontkovsky: The Four Stages of Putinism
(Project Syndicate) In 1970, Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik observed in Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? that “all totalitarian regimes grow old without realizing it.” Amalrik was right, and the regime established since 2000 by Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to fall apart – perhaps this year – for the same reason that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. … In a mere 13 years, Putin’s regime, with its grand ideological style, has passed through all of the stages of Soviet history, becoming a vulgar parody of each.
The first stage, that of creating the regime’s legitimizing myth, generates a heroic demiurge, the father of the nation. Whereas the Bolsheviks had the 1917 Revolution, the Putinists had the second Chechen war of 1999 and the bombings of apartment buildings in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk that year. Thus was born the myth of the heroic intelligence officer who protects Russians in their homes while terrifying the nation’s enemies. (27 February 2013)
The Wikileaks Cables That Anticipated the Russian Invasion of Crimea
(Slate) A 2006 cable under the name of Kiev Deputy Chief of Mission Sheila Gwaltney, who as it happens is now the highest ranking diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Moscow following the departure of Amb. Michael McFaul, warns of a possible Russian threat to Crimea – Ukraine’s “soft underbelly”:
Volgograd: many dead in second explosion in Russian city
At least 10 people killed in trolleybus explosion, the day after 17 died in suicide attack at the city’s railway station
(The Guardian) The consecutive attacks underscored Russia’s vulnerability to militants and will raise fears of a concerted campaign of violence before the Olympics, which start on 7 February in Sochi, about 430 miles south-west of Volgograd.
The Sochi Games are a major prestige project for president Vladimir Putin. Insurgents who want to carve an Islamic state out of southern Russia urged militants in a video posted online in July to use “maximum force” to prevent them being held.
Russian supreme court to review Khodorkovsky convictions
(Reuters) – Russia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will review two convictions against former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, including a ruling the Kremlin critic said was preventing him from returning to Russia despite a presidential pardon.
After more than a decade in jail when Khodorkovsky was widely seen as a political prisoner of Vladimir Putin, he was unexpectedly pardoned and set free on Friday and has been staying in Berlin since.
Russia’s 2013: the year in human rights
(Open Democracy) The amnesty, presidential pardon and resulting ‘celebrity releases’ might understandably overshadow the rest of 2013, says Tanya Lokshina. But it’s far too early to suggest they underpin a significant improvement in the rights situation in Russia
Mikhail Khodorkovsky -In from the cold
(The Economist) … Thirty-six hours earlier Mr Khodorkovsky, a former tycoon who became Russia’s most famous political prisoner, was still inside Penal Colony Number Seven, in Korelia, the north west of Russia, where he was serving his second jail term. The first one was in Siberia. His imprisonment lasted ten years altogether. … He speaks quietly and meaningfully, weighing every word and testing it for it true value and accuracy and sincerity. “I certainly earned the right not to say what I don’t think”. He sounds tough, but not angered and not broken. … He used this opportunity to the full—reading, writing, reviewing the values of his life and the fate of his country. He went in as a business tycoon who had crossed President Vladimir Putin. He came out as one of the most significant and dignified figures in modern Russian history. …
In the end, Mr Khodorkovsky’s release had more in common with the expulsion of dissidents—such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Vladimir Bukovsky—than it did with the return of Andrei Sakharov from exile in 1986, which signalled the seriousness of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. And as Mr Khodorkovsky says, whereas his arrest in 2003 symbolised Russia’s turn towards an authoritarian, corporatist state run by former KGB men, his release is not a symbol of the reversal of that trend. Rather, he says, “It is also a sign that Putin and some people in the Kremlin have become seriously concerned about Russia’s image. Whether this concern leads to a real change is a subject of intense fighting within the Kremlin.”
Russia’s intensifying focus on East Asia.
Russia Strengthens Ties With Vietnam
This is the first of a three-part series about Russia’s intensifying focus on East Asia. Part 1 examines Russia’s traditional interests in the region and its closer relationship with Vietnam. Part 2 will examine Russia’s interests in Northeast Asia and its efforts to strengthen ties with South Korea. Part 3 will examine Russia’s relationship with India, including the countries’ shared interest in constraining China.
(Stratfor) Recent challenges in exporting energy to Europe have made an orientation toward Asia more desirable for Moscow. Russia’s economy depends on hydrocarbon exports, and while Western Europe is attempting to become less dependent on Russia by seeking new energy sources, Asian markets have large and indiscriminate appetites for energy.
Although Russia’s focus in Asia traditionally has been on China, Japan and South Korea, it also has ties to Southeast Asia, which remains a strategically significant — though not absolutely essential — area for Moscow’s efforts to extend its influence and energy exports eastward. Notably, Moscow recently struck a spate of energy and defense deals with Hanoi in an effort to strengthen their relationship, open up new markets for Russian energy and balance against China’s moves in Central Asia. Moscow’s moves into Asia through Vietnam are proceeding piecemeal, paralleling Russian moves elsewhere in the region.
Vietnam is the pivot point of Southeast Asia, occupying a key position along the major corridors that connect the Strait of Malacca with the Northeast Asian economies, as well as those connecting the northeast to the smaller, dynamic economies to the south. The country is directly accessible by sea from ports in the Russian Far East.
Vietnam has long been Russia’s closest partner in Southeast Asia, especially during periods in which both countries were seeking to balance against China. Historically, the country has been a major area of focus for China — either as a potential client state extending the Chinese coastline south or as a potential thorn in Beijing’s side. This is the essence of Russia’s interest in Vietnam.
Putin dissolves state news agency, tightens grip on media
(Reuters) – Vladimir Putin tightened his hold on Russia’s media on Monday by dissolving the main state news agency, seen by hawks as too liberal, and creating a new outlet to improve Moscow’s image under a more conservative editor.
The abolition of RIA Novosti, as well as international radio station Voice of Russia, and establishment of a news agency to be called Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) is part of efforts to strengthen the president’s authority after protests against him.
Anders Åslund: Ukraine’s Prisoner’s Dilemma.
(Project Syndicate) The European Union’s most important decision this fall will be whether to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine at the EU summit in Vilnius on November 28-29. …
Ukraine’s alternative would be to join a Russian-dominated Customs Union that includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. Membership would require Ukraine to double import tariffs on EU goods, at an annual cost equivalent to 4% of GDP; and it would not even guarantee free trade among its members (Russia already applies trade sanctions against Belarus and Kazakhstan). The Customs Union thus appears to be little more than a Russian neo-imperialist venture.
Meddling from Moscow has certainly focused minds in Kiev. Russia’s brief trade war in August frightened Yanukovych into pledging to fulfill all 11 of the EU’s legal and political conditions. These require Ukraine to overhaul its judiciary and law enforcement, and ensure greater adherence to democratic norms. The parliament currently is considering 15 bills along these lines, all of which have the full support of the main opposition parties.
Why does Putin deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? (+video)
His supporters say he ‘calms down hotheads’ and prevents war. The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded Oct. 11.
(CSM) A little-known Russian peace academy that counts several parliamentarians, diplomats, and academicians among its members has nominated President Vladimir Putin for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, claiming that his efforts to turn the momentum for US military intervention in Syria into an international peace process qualifies him at least as much as Barack Obama, who won the prestigious award in 2009.
China gets stake in Russian potash giant to secure supply
(Reuters) – China acquired a 12.5 percent stake in Russian potash producer Uralkali (URKA.MM) in a deal that could help Beijing secure stable supplies of the soil nutrient, put new pressure on prices and reduce the chances of a Russia-Belarus cartel being revived.
The investment by China’s $575 billion sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp (CIC) CIC.UL is the latest twist in a saga that began when the world’s leading potash producer quit the lucrative sales partnership with Belarus in July and led to the company’s chief executive being jailed.
Putin says he can’t be sure Syria will comply with deal
(NBC) “I can’t say whether it will be possible to finalize these projects, but all that we have seen is reassuring that it will be done,” Putin told a gathering of foreign journalists, businessmen and policy experts. He added: “Responsibility for Syria lies on all, not just Russia.”
McCain slams Putin in Pravda: Who’s winning war of words?
First, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the US in The New York Times. Now Sen. John McCain has fired back on a Russia website, saying Mr. Putin is holding Russia back.
(CSM) Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin in an opinion piece published in the online version of Pravda on Thursday, saying the Russian leader uses corruption, repression and violence to rule in his own interest. (NBC) McCain says Putin ‘destroying’ Russia’s reputation in biting retort
Russia says U.N. report on Syria attack preconceived, political
(Reuters) – Russia denounced U.N. investigators’ findings on a poison gas attack in Syria as preconceived and tainted by politics on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of a report Western nations said proved President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were responsible.
Russia, which has veto power in the Security Council, could cite such doubts about proof of culpability in opposing future efforts by the United States, Britain and France to punish Syria for any violations of a deal to abandon chemical weapons.
It is of course a perfectly legal way to earn a corporate living, but we cannot help an ‘ugh!’ reaction:
U.S. public-relations firm helps Putin make his case to America
(Reuters) Ketchum Inc., the U.S. public-relations firm that has worked to burnish Russia’s image since 2006 … scored another public-relations coup: It helped place a Putin commentary in opinion pages of The New York Times, just as representatives from Russia and the United States were beginning to meet in Geneva to negotiate a plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. … Ketchum, a division of the Omnicom Group Inc. , has earned more than $25 million working for Russia, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Justice. It also has been paid more than $26 million since 2007 to promote Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company.
In 2007, Ketchum successfully lobbied Time magazine to name Putin its “Person of the Year,” according to U.S. Justice Department lobbying disclosure filings that show repeated meetings between Ketchum representatives and Time staffers.
Simon Tisdall: What Vladimir Putin’s address to Americans on Syria really means
The Russian president’s New York Times piece appears to offer friendship to Barack Obama while sticking the knife in
(The Guardian) Vladimir Putin’s highly unusual and razor-edged comment piece setting out his views on the Syria crisis, addressed directly to the American people and published by the New York Times, is a mixture of closely argued policy points and breathtaking political effrontery.
Even as he appears to offer the hand of friendship and co-operation to Barack Obama, the Russian leader repeatedly plunges the knife into the president’s wounds, not just on Syria but on a range of other sore points, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the UN and terrorism.
In bearding the US president on his home ground, Putin – who encourages an off-duty image of himself as a bare-chested, fearless tough-guy hunter and outdoorsman – seems to be trying to add Obama to his trophy bag, while simultaneously presenting himself as an altruistic global statesman.
What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria
A Plea for Caution From Russia by Vladimir Putin
(NYT op-ed) RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. (11 September)
What Putin Understands That Most Americans Don’t
As we examine whether or not Obama was playing chess, we should also examine whether or not, in this instance, he played against a superior opponent.
(The Atlantic online)Here is a reaction to the Putin op-ed on Syria, and resulting flap, from a reader who was born in the Ukraine, came to the U.S. as a child, and is now an American citizen living in California. I think it is worth reading. …
As we examine whether or not Obama was playing chess, we should also examine whether or not, in this instance, he played against a superior opponent. And we must then assess the damage this game did. Because Putin wasn’t writing to United States citizens, even as that was the premise. He was writing globally. He was writing for a world that is quite willing to accept the narrative of Americans quick to rush into war, quick to disrespect the Security Council, quick to disregard international law. And he is writing from a position of an alternative power.
What Putin’s op-ed forgot to mention
(Globe & Mail) There is not a single mention in Mr. Putin’s article, addressed to the American people, of the egregious crimes committed by the Syrian government and extensively documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry, local and international human rights groups, and numerous journalists: deliberate and indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians, executions, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests. His op-ed also makes no mention of Russia’s ongoing transfer of arms to Bashar al-Assad throughout the past two and a half years.
The Russian president strategically emphasizes the role of Islamic extremists in the Syrian conflict. Yes, many rebel groups have committed abuses and atrocities. Yet Mr. Putin fails to mention that it is the Syrian government that is responsible for shooting peaceful protesters (before the conflict even started) and detaining and torturing their leaders – many of whom remain detained – and that the continued failure of the international community to respond to atrocities in Syria allows crimes on all sides to continue unaddressed. In the same vein from Slate’s William Saletan:
Putin on Assad Face — The Russian president’s lecture about peace in Syria is all hypocrisy and lies.
Bill Keller Playing Chess with Putin
(NYT) On the list of principles compiled by the chess strategist Bill Wall, number 21 is “Do not make careless pawn moves. They cannot move back.” … Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to have played a careless pawn when he told a questioner at a news conference Monday that President Assad could avoid an American military strike if he agreed to have his poison gas placed under international control and ultimately destroyed.
By day’s end Kerry’s comment had become the Putin proposal, endorsed (sort of) by Syria and (wholeheartedly) by the U.N. secretary general. …
At this stage, though, here’s what Putin seems to have accomplished:
a) He has stalled and possibly ended the threat that his client thug, President Bashar al-Assad, will be struck by American missiles for gassing his own people. As long as the international community is debating the endless complications of finding, verifying and locking down Assad’s chemical arsenal, Congress and the allies have ample excuse to do nothing.
b) He has diminished the already small prospect that the United States will attempt to shift the balance in Syria’s war. That sound you hear is John McCain’s head exploding.
c) He has further demoralized the Syrian resistance, and strengthened the jihadi radicals among them, by demonstrating that American red lines mean little.
d) He has recast Russia – whose military helped the Assad dynasty create its chemical weapons program in the first place – as the global peacemaker.
e) He has, incidentally, assured continued Syrian demand for Russian-made “conventional” ordnance, so that the extermination of Syrian civilians can proceed by marginally less inhumane means.
f) While seeming to help President Obama out of a political fix, he has made the American president seem even more the captive of events.
Security Council action on Syria stalled again
A planning meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday was canceled after Russia’s envoy rejected a draft resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons proposed by France, which included the option for military action in Syria. World Bulletin (9/11), Al Jazeera (9/11), CBC.ca (Canada)/The Associated Press (9/11)
Kerry, Lavrov to meet on Russian proposal after Russia balks at plan for U.N. action
(WaPost) After near-constant consultations through Monday night into the morning, the United States, France and Britain agreed on the need to establish a legally binding chemical inspection regime backed by the authorization to use force if Syria did not comply with its terms.
By mid-morning, Russia had rejected a proposed U.N. resolution, announced by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and called an emergency Security Council meeting. Lavrov called the threat of military action “unacceptable,” and Russian President Vladmir Putin said a weapons deal would work only if the United States and others “tell us they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.”
In Putin’s Russia, an inconvenient hero at G-20
The leaders of the Group of 20 nations meet this week in a reconstituted 18th-
century palace just outside St. Petersburg. Almost entirely destroyed during World War II, it is more a replica than a reconstruction. But if there’s a ghost from the past walking its marbleized halls, it’s surely that of the palace’s most prominent former resident, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov… in today’s Russia, Konstantin is an inconvenient hero. Although he married young and had nine children, he was indisputably bisexual.
Putin warns West on unilateral Syria attack
Russian leader calls claims of government sarin gas attack ‘ludicrous’
(AP via CBC) President Vladimir Putin warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria, but also said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a UN resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.
Why Putin Just Can’t Quit Assad
(Slate) Russia’s opposition to military intervention isn’t exactly a big surprise, but Moscow’s willingness to go to bat for the Syrian regime so publicly throughout this conflict has still been striking. (Contrast it with the Chinese government’s far more subdued anti-intervention position.) Yes, the Russian government has longstanding ties with the Assad regime, lucrative commercial contrasts with the Syrian military, and fears about the growing strength of Islamist groups. But these don’t seem quite sufficient to explain Russia’s interest in the situation.
In a recent analysis for the journal International Affairs, Oxford Russia scholar Roy Allison argues that domestic and regional political factors may be weighing more heavily on the minds of Putin and his advisers. “Putin’s commitment to a global order which prizes the sovereignty of incumbent rulers remains to a large extent an external expression of his preoccupation with Russian domestic state order,” he writes. “It is an outlook rooted in the structure of political power in Russia and it is shared by those in the elite who have been empowered by Putin’s presidencies. It is central to understanding why, after the initial shock of the Arab Spring uprisings and dismay over the forcible overthrow of the Libyan regime, Putin has blocked diplomatic efforts to legitimize or assist the overthrow of Assad.”
Analysis: Putin sees chance to turn tables on Obama at G20
(Reuters) – Less than three months after Vladimir Putin was cast as a pariah over Syria at the last big meeting of world leaders, the Russian president has glimpsed a chance to turn the tables on Barack Obama.
The U.S. president’s dilemma over a military response to an alleged poison gas attack in Syria means Obama is the one who is under more pressure going into a G20 summit in St Petersburg on Thursday and Friday. … Denying as “utter nonsense” the idea that Assad’s forces would use chemical weapons when they were winning the civil war, Putin looked steely and confident.
After months of pressure to abandon Assad, he is sending a message to the West that he is ready to do battle over Syria in St Petersburg and sees an opportunity to portray the United States as the bad boy on the block.
Kick Russia Out of the G8
Glen Hodgson on how the G7 was a force for democracy, free trade, the rule of law, human rights, and press freedom. Then Russia came along.
(OpenCanada) With each passing week, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Russia does not share many of the core social and political values of Canada or the other members of the G8. From obvious economic cronyism and acute market distortion to open persecution of the gay community and support for the morally bankrupt Syrian regime, Russia is offside with the rest. As long as Russia is part of the G8, it will be difficult for that body to speak with one voice on some key global issues.
So why is Russia still a member of the G8? The answer is surprisingly simple: There is no easy or low-risk way to end its membership. …
Ironically, there is another global economic institution where sharp political differences among members may not matter as much. The G20 was created during the 2008 financial crisis, at a time of acute financial weakness in the United States and other industrial countries, in order to provide global support for economic and financial stabilization and stimulus. It brought key emerging markets into the fold and, therefore, offers an alternative forum for global economic policy discussion and coordination among countries with very different socio-political values and systems, including China, India, and Saudi Arabia. The G20, not the G8, would be the better forum for economic dialogue with Russia – but the die is cast.
Boycotting the 2014 Sochi Olympics Is a Really Bad Idea
(Bloomberg) If you’re the Obama administration, there are a lot of reasons to hate on Russia right now. Vladimir Putin’s regime is actively arming Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in his war against Western-backed rebels. The country continues to block international measures aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Last month, Putin signed a law that makes the public discussion of gay rights or relationships punishable by arrest or fines. And yesterday, despite the direct appeals of President Obama, the Kremlin granted asylum to the heretofore airport lounge-bound, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Russia Announces a Naval Buildup in the Pacific
(The Diplomat) Real Admiral Avakyants announcement came near the end of Russia’s massive snap military drill in the Far East of the country. Without prior notice President Vladimir Putin announced the exercise to his military commanders on July 12, the third such surprise drill he has ordered this year. The exercise reportedly included “160,000 servicemen, 1,000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships,” making it one of the largest ones Russia has held since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As The Diplomat noted last week, the drill was almost certainly meant as a signal to Russia’s neighbors to the east, primarily China and Japan. Indeed, a couple of Russia’s Tu-95 Bear H strategic bombers flew over the Sea of Japan as part of the drill for over seven hours, prompting Japan to scramble jets to intercept them as they approached Japan’s Hokkaido Island in the north. Separately, a reconnaissance plane flew over the Kuril Islands that Russia administers but Japan also claims.
A bizarre twist — conspiracy theories abound.
Sentence Suspended: Navalny Release Baffles Friends and Foes
On Thursday, Russian opposition blogger Alexei Navalny was handcuffed and hurried to prison after being convicted of embezzlement. On Friday, his sentence was suddenly suspended. Was it a minor courtroom error or a major Kremlin screwup?
Prison for Navalny: Putin’s Biggest Critic Convicted
(Spiegel) Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, was sentenced to five years in prison after a trial that has troubled observers.
Navalny considers the trial an act of revenge by the Kremlin. In his blog, he had accused Putin’s friends and confidants of corruption. In the 2011 parliamentary election, he went on the offensive against the governing United Russia party, which Navalny called the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.” Today, that phrase is known across the entire country.
In late 2011 and early 2012, Navalny headed the protests against Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Early this September, Navalny wanted to run in the Moscow mayoral race. If today’s verdict becomes final, his political career will be finished. According to a law passed by the Kremlin in 2012, someone who has been convicted of a crime cannot run for public office.
Russian Anti-Gay Bill Passed By Lower Parliament
A bill that stigmatizes gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality won overwhelming approval Tuesday in Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Hours before the State Duma passed the Kremlin-backed law in a 436-0 vote with one abstention, more than two dozen protesters were attacked by hundreds of anti-gay activists and then detained by police.
The bill banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” still needs to be passed by the appointed upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, but neither step is in doubt.
Ivan Krastev and Vladislav Inozemtsev: Putin’s Self-Destruction
(Foreign Affairs) In an effort to consolidate his power and drum up public support, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a major anti-corruption campaign. Despite its intentions, however, the policy could prove to be Putin’s demise
… Today, he faces his own rights-based problem: Russian elites believe that they are entitled to rob the country blind. Indeed, it is an essential part of their informal contract with Putin. They are so convinced of the sanctity of this bargain that they are ready to oppose the anti-corruption effort tooth and nail. Several Russian businessmen have already resigned from the senate in order to keep their foreign bank accounts. Others have tried to hide their money better. In the next two or three years, the anti-corruption campaign could puncture the myth of Putin’s power in the same way that Gorbachev’s abortive anti-alcohol campaign laid bare the weaknesses of the Communist Party
Russia’s Syria Diplomacy Is a Game of Smoke and Mirrors
(Moscow Times) Russia and the United States have agreed to bring together the warring sides for a peace conference in the coming weeks. Yet some fellow mediators suspect a Kremlin ploy to keep Assad in power — at least a little longer. On the battlefield, the momentum has swung Assad’s way and on Wednesday forces loyal to him retook the strategically important town of Qusair.
Leaked accounts of Moscow’s dealings with the opposition, promises to deliver Assad a potentially game-changing missile system and anecdotal evidence that Russians are training Syrian troops have widened the trust deficit between Russia and the West.
Nina L. Khrushcheva: Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin Love Life
Is Putin seeking to divert attention from his support for Syria’s government and from increased repression of his domestic opponents
(Project Syndicate) If Russians – particularly provincial Russian women – believe that a new First Lady will provide some humanizing, empathetic influence on the hard man of the Kremlin, they may be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. This could prove important as he initiates yet another bogus show trial – this time of the anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, now accused of embezzlement. But whether a new woman will help to soften foreigners’ perception of Putin’s cynical diplomacy and increasingly brutal rule is open to question.
Racism in Russia: How Moscow Capitalizes on Xenophobia
(World Policy Institute) Ethnic minorities in Russia suffer from both casual, routinized racism and officially sponsored discrimination, which finds expression in restrictive laws against internal migration, laxity in prosecuting hate crime offenders, and an increasingly polarizing public discourse.
North Caucasians’ identity does not fit the boundaries of a nation-state. But their plight is not only one of searching for identity—it is a question of survival, the ability to live at ease without threats of violence or the need to acquiesce to the domineering culture.
Until these issues are properly and fairly addressed, the North Caucasus will remain Russia’s “inner abroad,” as analyst Alexey Malashenko puts it. But more than that, it will remain the only place where sequestered and un-integrated minorities feel safe.
Insight: Russia’s Syria diplomacy, a game of smoke and mirrors
(Reuters Analysis) – Sitting at a long table in Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Syrian opposition leaders outlined a plan to protect Moscow’s interests if the Kremlin agreed to the removal of its longstanding ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
Throughout the meeting last July, one of many since the start of Syria’s civil war, Russian officials sat stony-faced. When the Syrians had finished, there was a long silence.
“The Russians listened but never spoke, and when we were done speaking, we were told that Moscow is dedicated to human rights and we were told to get on our way,” said Mahmoud al-Hamza, a Moscow-based member of the Syria National Council, who was present at several such sessions.
More than two years after the Syrian conflict erupted as part of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Assad is clinging to power thanks in large part to Russian diplomatic and military support.
Russia and the United States have agreed to bring together the warring sides for a peace conference in the coming weeks. Yet some fellow mediators suspect a Kremlin ploy to keep Assad in power – at least a little longer.
Russia has not yet sent S-300 missiles to Syria: Putin
(Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin dismissed criticism of Russian arms sales to Damascus on Tuesday but said Moscow had not yet delivered the S-300 missiles that Western governments say could prolong Syria’s civil war.
Putin defended Russia’s stance on Syria after talks with European Union leaders, criticizing them for not extending an embargo on member states selling weapons to Syrian rebels and warning against any foreign military intervention in Syria.
Putin headhunts economy minister, strengthens Kremlin – sources
(Reuters) – The reshuffle will also mean a further downgrade for Dmitry Medvedev to the role of a technocrat prime minister with no strategic control over policy, analysts said.
Putin, who is pushing for looser monetary and fiscal policy to drive economic recovery, has shown growing impatience with Medvedev, whose government last year adopted budget reforms that set limits on spending and borrowing.
Russian arms ‘to deter foreign intervention in Syria’
(BBC) Russia says it will go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and that the arms will help deter foreign intervention.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the missiles were a “stabilising factor” that could dissuade “some hotheads” from entering the conflict.
Russia also criticised an EU decision not to renew an arms embargo on Syria.
Not Your Average Chechen Jihadis
Since the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were identified as ethnic Chechens, the national conversation about the incident has focused on the connection between the violence and terrorism in Chechnya. Here’s why that is the wrong model.
… In the long term, the Chechnya link will probably end up being less important than, oddly, the Syrian one. In blocking further international involvement in the Syrian crisis, Russian officials have long maintained that Syrian rebel groups are dominated by al Qaeda affiliates, whose victory in the Syrian civil war will have dire consequences for the region and beyond. Now, Russians have already begun to portray the Tsarnaevs as an unlikely link between Boston and Damascus. There are somewhere “between 600 and 6,000” Chechens from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria, said Kotliar in a recent interview with Russian media, “and from what happened in Boston, perhaps Americans will finally draw the lesson that there are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, no ‘ours’ and ‘yours.’” Keep arming the Syrian rebels, the argument goes, and sooner or later you will have to face the consequences of a Syria overtaken by Islamist radicals.
That might not be a bad line of reasoning, especially given what we know about the complicated mix of ideologies and motivations inside the Syrian opposition movement. And after Boston, Moscow now has an additional argument, however tenuous, against greater international involvement in Syria.
CBC: Experts divided on Russian connection to Boston bombing
Lone wolf or Muslim militants? Authorities trade theories on Tsarnaev brothers
Chechnya and the bombs in Boston
(The Economist) Chechnya itself, the site of two wars and the historic homeland of the Tsarnaev family, has, at least on the surface, been pacified under the eccentric and brutal rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s 36 year-old president. Funded by billions of dollars sent from Moscow, Grozny has undergone a startling reconstruction. The Chechen capital is now intersected by wide, grassy boulevards (especially the main thoroughfare, now called Prospect Putin) and fountains spray arcs of water lit by colored lamps, making it a surreally pleasant place to take a stroll. There is a whiff of Las Vegas in the air, cut by the odor of Pyongyang. The rise of Mr Kadyrov has unleashed an ironic, if not nightmarish, turn of events for the republic: in a desperate bargain to fend off the separatists of the 1990s, the Kremlin has allowed Chechnya to become a kind of self-ruled and foreign territory of which the original separatists could only have dreamed.
How Vladimir Putin Could Help Boston
(Slate via Newsday) … if—and this is a very big if—the Tsarnaevs had ever been in touch with Chechen radicals or with Islamists elsewhere who have ever been in touch with Chechen radicals, then Putin’s spy agencies have a record of it.
Putin has another reason for getting engaged in this probe. The 2014 Winter Olympics are taking place in Russia—specifically in Sochi, near the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, only 300 miles from Chechnya. Putin’s biggest political and public-relations nightmare is a terrorist attack disrupting his Olympics, his grand moment on the world stage.
U.S. and Russian counterterrorism agencies already have a history of cooperating in tracking common enemies. If a joint effort plays some role in shining light on the Boston bombers’ motives or wider networks (if there are wider networks), that would strengthen these ties considerably—and possibly enhance the safety of the coming Olympics.
President Obama has been exploring avenues for another “reset” of Russian-American relations. At least when it comes to counterterrorist operations, Putin is too. Depending on how the next few hours or days go, Boston may serve as an opportunity for these two powers to start over.
Canadian’s firm used in huge Russian tax scandal
Caribbean agency helped set up offshore companies connected to $230M scam
(CBC) And now, for the first time, secret files obtained exclusively in Canada by CBC News reveal how a Canadian-run offshore company in the Caribbean enabled the transfer of some of that money into a labyrinth of shell corporations around the world in a scandal known as the Magnitsky affair.
Russian politician’s resignation leads to Canada and Magnitsky case
Spreading scandal draws in billionaire Vitaly Malkin, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail.
(Toronto Star) Some analysts say that the scandals have sparked action from the Kremlin at a time when Putin’s popularity has slid, and a purge of suspect officials may be underway.
Gorbachev denounces ‘attack on Russia citizens’ rights’
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has denounced new laws passed in Russia as an “attack on citizens’ rights”.
In an interview with the BBC, he called on President Vladimir Putin “not to be afraid of his own people”.
Mr Gorbachev also criticised Mr Putin’s inner circle, saying it was full of “thieves and corrupt officials”.
The laws include fines for organising unsanctioned protests, stiffer libel penalties, a wider definition of treason and restrictions on websites.
In January, Human Rights Watch accused President Putin of unleashing “the worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history” since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012.
The group also said he had overseen “the swift reversal of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s few, timid advances on political freedoms”.
A number of opposition leaders have been arrested since major anti-government protests began to be staged in Moscow and other big cities following the disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011.
Six Decades Later: Stalin Cult Alive and Well in Russia
(Spiegel) Josef Stalin ruled the early years of the Soviet Union with torture, show trials and vast numbers of executions. Yet today, many Russians are willing to forgive this brutality. They see him as a hero for consolidating power and modernizing the country.
The Past, Present and Future of Russian Energy Strategy
(Stratfor) The future of Russia’s ability to remain a global energy supplier and the strength the Russian energy sector gives the Kremlin are increasingly in question. After a decade of robust energy exports and revenues, Russia is cutting natural gas prices to Europe while revenue projections for its energy behemoth, Gazprom, are declining starting this year.
Russia holds the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas and continually alternates with Saudi Arabia as the top oil producer. The country supplies a third of Europe’s oil and natural gas and is starting to export more to the energy-hungry East Asian markets. The energy sector is far more than a commercial asset for Moscow; it has been one of the pillars of Russia’s stabilization and increasing strength for more than a century. The Kremlin has designated energy security as the primary issue for Russia’s national security, especially since recent changes in global and domestic trends have cast doubts on the energy sector’s continuing strength. Read more: The Past, Present and Future of Russian Energy Strategy | Stratfor
Back to the future as G20 comes to Russia
(Reuters) – Group of 20 policymakers have an ideal chance in Moscow this week to ponder whether monetary policy largesse will blunt their will to carry out the economic reforms needed to put global growth on a sustainable footing.
The world’s largest oil producer has, through much of the Vladimir Putin era, been minting money as its central bank bought up hundreds of billions of export petrodollars, and the government spent its way out of the 2009 slump.
But the side-effects — political complacency, declining competitiveness and a misallocation of capital towards conspicuous consumption and prestige projects — increasingly outweigh the benefits to Russia’s $2.1 trillion economy.
Margaret Evans: Grozny’s makeover can’t mask Chechen menace
Abuses being committed in the name of achieving stability in Russian republic
In [Ramzan] Kadyrov, Putin gets a leader who has pledged to rid Russia of its militant “problem” in Chechnya and to use his private army to hunt down and kill Islamist militants still based in the hills around Grozny.
Analysts say that the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi look set to cement the increasingly co-dependent relationship between Putin and Kadyrov even further.
“[Kadyrov] knows that Putin depends on him for keeping that territory reasonably stable, or rather at least the instability within his territory,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
See: The Caucasian Dark Circle (Project Syndicate, 31 May 2011) The violence in the North Caucasus is becoming less a serious regional conflict and more an existential threat to the entire Russian Federation – an evolution that reflects almost all of the mistakes, failures, and crimes of the post-Soviet leadership.