Russia in 2016

Written by  //  December 25, 2016  //  Geopolitics, Government & Governance, Russia  //  2 Comments

Putin’s Secret Riches (video)
(BBC Panorama) Vladimir Putin has been accused of
corruption on a breathtaking scale.
His critics say he’s used his power to amass a secret fortune,
is the Russian president really one of the richest people in the world?
Pokemon-mad Russians hunt Ivan the Terrible with new app
Carnegie Moscow Center

25 December
In Russia, It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
By Sergei Guriev, chief economist, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
(NYT)  As the sanctions cut off Russia’s access to global financial markets, the government set out to cover the budget deficit by undertaking major austerity measures and tapping its substantial sovereign funds…. The government also adopted sound monetary policy, including the decision to fully float the ruble in 2014. Because of the decline in oil prices and large net capital outflows — caused by the need to repay external corporate debt and limited foreign investment in Russia — the currency depreciated by 50 percent within a year. Although a weaker ruble hurt the living standards of ordinary Russians, it boosted the competitiveness of Russia’s companies. The Russian economy is now beginning to grow again, if very modestly. …
Thanks partly to its near-complete control of the press, television and the internet, the government has developed a grand narrative about Russia’s role in the world — essentially promoting the view that Russians may need to tighten their belts for the good of the nation. The story has several subplots. Russian speakers in Ukraine need to be defended against neo-Nazis. Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad of Syria because he is a rampart against the Islamic State, and it has helped liberate Aleppo from terrorists. Why would the Kremlin hack the Democratic Party in the United States? And who believes what the C.I.A. says anyway?
The Russian people seem to accept much of this or not to care one way or the other. This should come as no surprise. In a recent paper based on data for 128 countries over 10 years, Professor Treisman and I developed an econometric model to assess which factors affect a government’s approval ratings and by how much. We concluded that fully removing internet controls in a country like Russia today would cause the government’s popularity ratings to drop by about 35 percentage points.
The current approach has served the government well enough, and it could still. Russia has become an indispensable nation in world affairs again, while managing to weather economic pressures which have now eased. At the same time, the government so far has shown little willingness to undertake the deep reforms needed to modernize and diversify the economy, and really spur growth.
The government recently unveiled its budget for 2017-19, projecting more major austerity measures. Expenditures will be cut by more than 10 percent in real terms over the next three years. Russia’s G.D.P. growth is forecast to remain below the global average. That hardly is a glowing performance, and so the government may well prefer to keep selling itself to the people by invoking not prosperity but geopolitics and national pride.
23 December

3000513 12/21/2016 December 21, 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with heads of the Russian Federation Council, the State Duma and relevant committees at the Moscow Kremlin. Sergey Guneev/Sputnik via AP

3000513 12/21/2016 December 21, 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with heads of the Russian Federation Council, the State Duma and relevant committees at the Moscow Kremlin. Sergey Guneev/Sputnik via AP

How Russia Looks To Gain Through Political Interference
“The assumption has always been that our institutions are strong enough to survive these types of challenges … But Mr. Putin has decided to test that assumption and will continue to do so as long as he can.” — William Pomeranz, Wilson Center
(PBS Frontline) Russia experts say that Moscow’s apparent attempts to interfere in the internal politics of the United States are a familiar sight. In Europe, Russia has been cultivating relationships with several far-right and far-left populist groups that are currently enjoying a surge in popularity. Closer to home, in post-Soviet countries, Russia has made bolder attempts to influence domestic politics, most clearly in Ukraine and Georgia.
… More recently, European nationalist, populist parties on the far-right and far-left in Austria, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece and Hungary have shown pro-Russian inclinations. … While Russia did not create the conditions for the rise of these parties, experts say it has moved to capitalize on their growing popularity and policies in order to benefit Russia and potentially destabilize the EU. As the Atlantic Council noted, “The Kremlin uses these Trojan horses to destabilize European politics so efficiently, that even Russia’s limited might could become a decisive factor in matters of European and international security.” …
For those on the far-right, Russia’s appeal lies in its strong defense of the state, its upholding of socially conservative values, and its rejection of internationalism, the West and America. Those on the left view Russia as an insurgent on the world stage that is anti-globalization, anti-Western and anti-capitalist to a certain extent.
National security agencies in the post-Soviet countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regularly reference the Kremlin’s involvement with pro-Russian groups in their countries. In June, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister accused Putin of trying to “divide and conquer” the EU through his alleged support of Euroskeptic parties, telling the Financial Times, “We have no doubt Russia is finding ways to finance this.”
In Brussels, leaders of the EU were scheduled to discuss covert Russian funding of Europe’s far-right and far-left parties in October. The Financial Times reported at the time that intelligence agencies in several countries had increased scrutiny of potential links to the Kremlin. U.S. intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that their warnings to European allies about Russia-backed hacking had come too late.
18 December
aleksandr-dughin_tintindThe Most Dangerous Philosopher in the World
(Big Think) The revelations about Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic Party officials, intending to vault Trump over Clinton, have added more fuel to an already-explosive and exhausting election cycle. Why would Russia do this, especially as it’s been revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely personally directing the operation? Enter Alexander Dugin, the political scientist known as “Putin’s Rasputin” or “Putin’s Brain”, as well as an occult fascist. He is also a sociology professor at the highly prestigious Moscow State University, a prolific writer, an advisor to key political and military figures and an articulator of a Kremlin-approved nationalist philosophy.
He has also been on the U.S. sanctions list following Russia’s takeover of Crimea for advocating the murder of Ukrainians, among other things.
It’s not that Dugin is personally responsible for the hacks that are currently being explained as Putin’s personal vendetta against Clinton. But Dugin’s influential philosophy aligns very well with what seems to have happened and provides a stunning window into this and future conflicts with Russia. There are likely much deeper motives behind Russian actions.
16 December
What we know about Russia’s interference in the US election
Everything we know so far about Moscow’s reputed involvement in the election that saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton
(The Guardian) According to US intelligence officials, Russian hackers made repeated attempts before this year’s election to get into major US institutions, including the White House and the state department. … Security experts believe two Kremlin-connected groups were behind the hacks. One was was from the FSB spy agency, the other from Russian military intelligence. Amazingly, they appear to have operated independently.
On Thursday, Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said he shared the view of US intelligence officials that Putin had directly authorised the hack. (Putin’s press spokesman dismissed the claim as absurd.)
Putin’s primary objective was probably to undermine the US election and create chaos. He may not have actually expected Trump to win. The president-elect is now likely to lift sanctions on Russia. This would delight the Kremlin.
1 December
Russia’s Path to Another Resurgence
(Stratfor) After enduring three years of a foundering economy and feuds with the West, things may be looking up for Russia. The Brexit vote in June exposed the deep discord in the European Union, giving Moscow a glimmer of hope that dissenting member states might break the bloc’s consensus on its sanctions against Russia in a future vote on their renewal. Though EU members decided unanimously in July to extend the measures, upcoming elections on the Continent could undermine the bloc’s unity. In the United States, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election has opened a potential path to warmer relations between the United States and Russia, and perhaps even an end to Washington’s sanctions on Moscow. The turning political tides in Brussels and Washington could give the Kremlin the leeway to increase its influence in the former Soviet Union, leading the countries in Russia’s periphery to re-evaluate their foreign policy positions.
Countries throughout the former Soviet Union have taken notice of the shifts occurring in Europe and the United States and are likely re-evaluating their positions with respect to the West as a result. In Moldova, the results of the Nov. 13 presidential election, which ushered the pro-Russia leader of the country’s Socialist Party into power, have already demonstrated the country’s ebbing interest in drawing closer to the West. Because Moldova’s parliament and prime minister still favor integration with the West, however, the president-elect, Igor Dodon, is unlikely to steer the country full sail toward an alliance with Moscow. Nevertheless, he will try to foster deeper economic and political ties with Russia. Georgia, too, has already begun to soften certain aspects of its stance on the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were at the center of the country’s short-lived war with Russia in 2008. Furthermore, in the wake of its own parliamentary elections in October, Georgia is also likely to increase its economic ties with Moscow in the coming year.
4 November
Russian Ultra-Nationalism: A Monster of Moscow’s Making
(Stratfor) Since taking power some 16 years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked tirelessly to bring about the return of conservative and nationalist values. His government has enthusiastically promoted the Russian Orthodox Church, depicting its patriarchs as the state’s moral compass. After suffering a period of neglect under the Soviet Union, over 25,000 churches and 800 monasteries have been built or refurbished during Putin’s reign. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has also launched a series of youth programs, the largest being Nashi, that teach conservative courses on politics, foreign policy and family values. Finally, after consolidating strategic economic sectors under its control, the government has presented itself as the people’s savior from the liberal, decadent oligarchs who once controlled the country’s resources.
By stoking these long-dormant sentiments, Putin has managed to shore up his power base and create a moral mandate for Moscow’s domestic and foreign policy. Whereas the West could once accuse the Soviet Union of being a “godless nation,” the Russian Federation can now claim to have God on its side. This thinking has undergirded several of the Kremlin’s actions at home and abroad, including the passage of laws restricting homosexuality and pornography and the launch of interventions into Ukraine and Syria. But Putin’s ideological strategy has its drawbacks. Inflaming far-right extremism has given rise to ideologues who want to push the Kremlin further than it is willing to go. And, when the Kremlin balks at their demands, they are no longer shy about voicing their discontent.
26 October
New Cold War Chills Annual Kremlin Gathering of Foreign Experts
The best the two countries can hope to achieve for the next five to eight years is to establish agreed rules that avoid any inadvertent escalation, similar to the years of Cold War détente, an informal lunch of U.S. and Russian participants concluded.
(Bloomberg) The new Cold War is starting to look a lot like the old one, and Russian and U.S. foreign-policy experts at an annual gathering with Kremlin officials this week appear out of ideas on how to even start defusing it.
The risk that the world’s two nuclear superpowers might “sleepwalk” into a hot conflict is causing a rare degree of alarm among the specialists from across the U.S., Europe and Asia brought in for the Valdai Club’s week of discussions with Russian analysts and senior officials.
One senior official told of a Cabinet meeting where President Vladimir Putin reported on a “high risk’’ incident in which his military jets buzzed the U.S. Navy in the Black Sea. When some at the table cheered with phrases like, “they deserve it,’’ Putin shut them down, saying, “are you crazy?’’ according to the official, who spoke on Valdai’s traditional condition of anonymity.
The story, told in response to a question about why Russian state media have been stoking talk of war in recent weeks, highlights the difficulty of penetrating the thinking inside the Kremlin. It also fits a long tradition of Putin’s supporters arguing that the former KGB agent is a relative moderate by Moscow standards.
25 October
Russia Falls Into Old Habits
(Stratfor) For nearly eight centuries, Russia has been trapped in a loose cycle: It rises from chaos, returns as a regional and sometimes even global power, grows aggressive as the system cracks, and then collapses before rising again. The cycle is less about political choice than it is about geographic constraints.
[Some 10 years ago] Russia was clearly at the height of a boom, rebuilding itself into a stable and robust power. Today, the country is quickly descending into the next, less pleasant stage. The strategy that revitalized the country is becoming less effective, forcing Russia and its leaders to act more aggressively at home and abroad. Though still assertive, Russia is no longer acting from a position of strength. The country may maintain some semblance of strength for years to come, but its fragility will eventually become apparent, forcing it into the next phase of the cycle.
18 October
Pretty murky story, but so is the source
RT: NatWest denies shutting accounts of Russian TV channel
17 October
British Bank Abruptly Drops Russian Network RT’s Accounts
(NYT) Russia’s main English-language satellite network complained on Monday that its British bank was abruptly closing its accounts. The network, which reported on the decision, called it a British-government-sanctioned attempt to interfere with freedom of speech.
It was the latest controversy for the network, RT, originally and still commonly known as Russia Today. The broadcaster presents itself as an alternative to the Western media, but critics call it a Kremlin-financed mouthpiece that seeks to create an alternative to reality.
16 October
Aleppo, Ukraine, cyber attacks, Baltic threats: what should we do about Putin?
As crises mount, relations between the US and Russia are worse than at any time since the cold war
(The Guardian) Boris Johnson’s suggestion that Britain, the US and other allies are re-examining “military options” in Syria has sharply focused minds on a phenomenon western politicians have spent the last 15 years trying not to think about: post-Soviet Russia’s determined drive to re-establish itself as a major global power and the willingness of its ruthless and tactically astute leader, Vladimir Putin, to employ almost any means, including use of force, to achieve that end.
The foreign secretary’s remarks were condemned by Moscow as an attempt to whip up anti-Russian “hysteria” and were swiftly disowned by a nervous Downing Street. Johnson’s call for demonstrations outside Russia’s London embassy invited similar, retaliatory action against British interests in Moscow. The gaffe underlined his inexperience and lack of judgment.
But on Syria’s plight, and particularly on war crimes allegedly committed during the relentless “pulverising” of Aleppo, Johnson had a point. His comments served to highlight the much bigger strategic, security and diplomatic problem: what to do about Russia. …
Just in case Washington had not understood how serious Russia was, officials also declared Putin was considering reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. It is hard to think of a more defiant, taunting message to the Obama administration than conjuring the spectre of a new Cuban missile crisis.
Demonstrating that Moscow has other strategic partnerships that could be turned against Washington, Russian ships joined military exercises with China around the disputed South China Sea islands. It is also busily building up alliances with emerging powers such as South Africa and India, notably at this weekend’s Brics summit in Goa, while courting traditional American allies such as Turkey and the Philippines.
14 October
Putin, Syria, and Why Moscow Has Gone War-Crazy
By Joshua Yaffa
(The New Yorker) Projecting a half-lunatic readiness to blow up the world is, in essence, a cover operation: a way to make a lot of noise while the Kremlin goes about creating a lot of new facts on the ground, whether in Syria or the Baltics. Putin likely believes—perhaps correctly—that, for reasons of both character and political reality, Obama is unlikely to risk a potentially dangerous escalation with Russia during his final months of office. For Obama, Putin was always a nuisance and a mystery, better avoided and marginalized than confronted head-on—a logic that might hold doubly true in the lame-duck period. That gives Putin three months to work through his geopolitical wish list, trying to set in place a number of faits accomplis that will be hard for the next U.S. President to overturn.
11 October
Putin in Syria: Chechnya All Over Again
(NYT Opinion) The difference between Aleppo now and Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, at the turn of the millennium is that Western leaders are at least trying to save the Syrians trapped in the besieged city. A decade and a half ago, there were precious few diplomatic missions for the Chechens. Within months of taking power, Vladimir V. Putin had moved decisively to regain control of Chechnya — which had broken free of Moscow’s control in a brief but nasty war in the mid-1990s — and world leaders mostly just looked on. Otherwise, the picture is broadly the same. Mr. Putin knows now, like he knew then, that he and his proxies can’t win on the ground, so they are trying to solve their problem from the air. Where infantry won’t go, he’s dropping explosives.
There are almost no journalists, politicians or activists in Russia pushing him to spare Aleppo’s civilians, just like there was never much sympathy in Russia for civilians trapped in Grozny while rockets were smashing the city. This kind of quiet on the home front is helpful for someone looking to win a conflict. If you can bomb a hospital, then another hospital, then two more, with hardly anyone in your own country publicly intervening to stop you, you are in a strong position.
Opposition against Russia’s Syria policy grows in EU and beyond
The EU may extend sanctions against Russia after its latest bombardments in Syria. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned that Russia was under threat of becoming a pariah nation
30 September
Syria war: How Moscow’s bombing campaign has paid off for Putin
“Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict come 2017.”
(BBC) “Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory,” [says Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute].
… it is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria.
At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the US and Russia are failing to find common ground.
But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard.
This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.
The United States was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.
27 September
A Voice Cuts Through, and Adds to, the Intrigue of Russia’s Cyberattacks
(NYT) Attribution in cases like these is a notoriously tricky business, especially when governments route their attacks through proxy servers like his or, in many cases, outsource espionage activities to criminal groups to maintain a measure of plausible deniability.
The investigation that led here began after the hacking of the state voting systems from June until August, what cyberanalysts say could be a bold bid by a resurgent Russia to undermine Americans’ faith in their electoral process. The F.B.I. published eight internet addresses used in the attack. The bureau did not name the states, but officials in Arizona and Illinois acknowledged that their computers had been hacked.
Attribution in cases like these is a notoriously tricky business, especially when governments route their attacks through proxy servers like his or, in many cases, outsource espionage activities to criminal groups to maintain a measure of plausible deniability.
5 September
Putin Claims Successor Must Be ‘Young But Mature’
(Newsweek) Putin, 63, has previously said he has not decided if he wants to spend another six years in the Kremlin, after his current term runs out. However, he dropped further hints that he and his inner circle have put in place a succession framework.
“I would like to highlight that in any case we are obliged to think about how we, and when I say ‘we’ I mean myself and members of my team in the government and the presidential administration, we must consider the future development of the country politically, internally and economically.
“That is why we are now working on a strategy of developing the economy, more than anything, of course, developing the economy after 2018,” he added, referring to Moscow’s recent decision to pass the next three annual budgets in one fell swoop this year.
Putin explained the move was intended to offer continuity to any future leaders, “while the job of the future president, the future government, will be to either agree or disagree and correct them or suggest something new entirely.”
23 August
And now this:
FBI investigating Russian hack of New York Times reporters, others
(CNN)Hackers thought to be working for Russian intelligence have carried out a series of cyber breaches targeting reporters at the New York Times and other US news organizations, according to US officials briefed on the matter.
The intrusions, detected in recent months, are under investigation by the FBI and other US security agencies. Investigators so far believe that Russian intelligence is likely behind the attacks and that Russian hackers are targeting news organizations as part of a broader series of hacks that also have focused on Democratic Party organizations, the officials said.
22 August
Putin’s ever-shrinking circle shows a return to Soviet politics
Putin’s new cadre of bureaucrats is absolutely dependent on the Russian president. Such insularity can only produce an echo chamber, not candid debate. One wonders if there is anyone left who can deliver bad news to Putin.
(Reuters) A changing of the guard is underway in Russia. It is occurring via presidential decree, however, not elections. Such an opaque process produces plenty of intrigue and speculation. What it lacks is real political options for voters and a chance for genuine change.
Reading the Russian tea leaves is a growth industry. But even among all the comings and goings, certain trends have become apparent.  Most notably, the people who built Putin’s system are on their way out, replaced by people of the system.
This may be a subtle distinction, yet it is a crucial one. The older generation brought a combination of intelligence, street smarts and toughness that was essential for surviving in the highly competitive, often chaotic, post-Soviet environment. In contrast, their replacements have only known the relative stability of the Putin years and remain largely untested in times of crisis. Their inexperience may yet come to the forefront.
20 August
More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead
(NYT) Used extensively in the Soviet era, political murders are again playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the most brutal instrument in an expanding repertoire of intimidation tactics intended to silence or otherwise intimidate critics at home and abroad.
Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has made no secret of his ambition to restore his country to what he sees as its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. He has invested considerable money and energy into building an image of a strong and morally superior Russia, in sharp contrast with what he portrays as weak, decadent and disorderly Western democracies.
Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.
18 August
Russia and Iran: Historic Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership
(Carnegie Moscow Center) Iran is no longer a sphere of influence for Russia and Great Britain, as it was during the nineteenth century, nor is it a junior ally of the United States as it was between the 1950s and 1970s. It is an independent regional power wielding influence from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from the South Caucasus in the north to the Yemeni port of Aden in the south. In its decades-long confrontation with the United States since 1979, Iran has proven its resilience. A Shiite, non-Arab Iran is a loner in a Middle East characterized by countries largely populated with Sunni Arabs, but Moscow recognizes that there can be few lasting outcomes in the region without Tehran’s participation or consent.
15 August
The Very Strange Writings of Putin’s New Chief of Staff
(The New Yorker) … last week Vladimir Putin changed his chief of staff, replacing an old K.G.B. colleague, Sergei Ivanov, with Anton Vayno, a younger, little-known bureaucrat who has been serving as deputy chief of staff. …
Vayno has also co-authored a book put out by an academic publisher in 2012. Called “The Image of Victory,” … Though fewer than a hundred and forty pages, the book appears to offer nothing less than a recipe for global domination. Written as a theory of everything, the book covers all of history and all of human nature, which makes it difficult to summarize. The basic idea, though, seems to be absolute triumph through the use of tactics from sambo—Soviet martial arts—in everything, especially in economics. … Sambo happens to be the sport in which the young Putin excelled before he took up judo and excelled in that. The sambo principle that Vayno seems to like is striking when the opponent least expects it.
3 August

A child walks past a graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

A child walks past a graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Trump and Putin: A Love Story
The attraction is mutual, but history shows who’s really using whom
By David Remnick
(The New Yorker) Vladimir Putin is a cunning and cynical reader of his adversaries. He notices that Trump does not know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds, or what the “nuclear triad” is; that his analysis of Brexit was based in part on what might be good for his golf courses in Britain; that his knowledge of world affairs is roughly that of someone who subscribes to a daily newspaper but doesn’t always have time to get to it. Overwhelmed with his own problems at home, Putin sees the ready benefit in having the United States led by an unlettered narcissist who believes that geostrategic questions are as easy to resolve as a real-estate closing. Putin knows a chump when he sees one.
28 July
What the Kremlin Makes of Donald Trump
(The New Yorker) Why Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in the White House is not hard to parse. Yes, Putin and Trump have exhibited a certain affinity for each other—Putin has called Trump a “very colorful, talented person,” and Trump has returned the favor, declaring Putin “a leader, unlike what we have in this country”—and they share a political style that reveres strength, elevates cynicism to a virtue, and plays loose with the truth. But, for Putin and those around him, the best thing about Trump is simply that he is not Clinton. …
On Wednesday, Trump publicly called on Russia to locate the tens of thousands of e-mails that Clinton had deleted from her private server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing,” he said. Whether Trump was making a bad joke or a serious request for foreign espionage in the service of his campaign, [Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Putin turned critic] told me that Putin will consider the remarks “politically inappropriate,” a sign of immaturity and lack of discipline, which are attributes that turn him off.
Trump’s Putin love is starting to look like a defining aspect of his presidential run
(Daily Kos) Donald Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin may be about much, much more than Trump’s admiration for autocrats, blowhards, and anyone who says nice things about Donald Trump. Loyalty to Putin’s Russia may actually be a defining theme of Trump’s candidacy for president of the United States, and Putin’s Russia may be trying to help Trump out—with the leak of Democratic National Committee emails, for instance. Donald Trump’s and Vladimir Putin’s Shared Agenda Should Alarm Anyone Concerned About Democracy
21 July
It’s Official: Hillary Clinton Is Running Against Vladimir Putin
Fulfilling what might be the Russian autocrat’s dearest wish, Trump has openly questioned whether the U.S. should keep its commitments to NATO.
(The Atlantic) The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, has chosen this week to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a KGB-trained dictator who seeks to rebuild the Soviet empire by undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO, and ending America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower.
I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is employed by Putin—though his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was for many years on the payroll of the Putin-backed former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. I am arguing that Trump’s understanding of America’s role in the world aligns with Russia’s geostrategic interests; that his critique of American democracy is in accord with the Kremlin’s critique of American democracy; and that he shares numerous ideological and dispositional proclivities with Putin—for one thing, an obsession with the sort of “strength” often associated with dictators.
11 July
NATO reacts to Russia’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe
Esther Brimmer Former State Department Official: “This was an opportunity for the leaders to demonstrate that there was real support and backing, concrete actions to support the Eastern allies of the alliance. What we saw were that the United States and other important leaders within the alliance are showing that they will commit troops again to Europe.
We’re seeing the deployment of battalions in those countries that are most threatened by the new tensions with Russia. And it meant that the alliance still matters, despite the turbulence created by the Brexit vote in the European Union.
The alliance is, of course, both a political and a military alliance to defend the territory of the NATO allies. And, once again, we see that we need to have a military presence in Europe increased. As we know, there has always been a U.S. presence within Europe, which was happily reduced after the end of the Cold War.
However, now we see that particularly the Baltic states and others are concerned about their security, recognizing the threats made by Russia against those non-NATO countries to their east. Importantly, we see that, though, this is a multilateral commitment. We see that countries of four nations will lead the effort to station rotating battalions in the eastern part of the NATO countries.”
10 May
Gloom, doom, drift and decay: Russia set to stay mired in recession
(Emerging Markets) Russia’s woes are deeply embedded and the recession undermining the economy’s prospects could last for years, analysts tell Emerging Markets
“The era of super-sized oil revenues is over and the paradise of the mid-2000s isn’t going to return. Russia’s problems are all structural — a lack of investment in infrastructure, a high dependence on imports.
“None of these have been resolved, so the country is looking at a continued and protracted decay, lack of investment in infra, and high dependence on imports, these haven’t been resolved, so the country faces a long and protracted period of recession.”
The causes of Russia’s economic malaise run deep. Many fear they are incurable, at least by the country’s current, bellicose leadership. Western sanctions, imposed after the annexation of Crimea and a Russia-financed invasion of eastern Ukraine, continue to weigh on the country.
8 April
Those Who Are (and Are Not) Sheltered From the Panama Papers
(Stratfor) The Kremlin’s reaction to the Panama Papers actually anticipated their release. Nearly two weeks ago, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned journalists that a Western “information attack” on Putin was forthcoming but that it would not be factually accurate. On April 5, two days after the release, Peskov went a step further, denouncing the Panama Papers as a demonstration of “Putinphobia” and claiming that the journalists’ allegations were nothing new. Indeed, corruption charges against Putin and his close friends predate the president’s rise to power. By now, they have been assimilated into the Russian people’s mindset.
Peskov also called the papers an attempt to undermine Russia before its elections in September. In this, too, there is a hint of truth. Putin’s administration has been concerned about the possibility of protests after the elections, on a scale comparable to — or perhaps worse than — the mass demonstrations that followed the 2011 parliamentary elections. In the 2011 protests, corruption in the Kremlin was a central theme. Renewed corruption accusations could compound public resentment over the weak economy in Russia, fueling larger protests.
To reduce the risk of protest, the Kremlin is trying to turn the Panama Papers into a rallying point. Russian media and the government continually highlight this as another attack on the country and its president. After the West imposed sanctions on Russia, similar rhetoric was used successfully, reviving nationalism across the country.
7 April
Are the Russians actually behind the Panama Papers?
By Clifford Gaddy
(Brookings Institution) In sum, my thinking is that this could have been a Russian intelligence operation, which orchestrated a high-profile leak and established total credibility by “implicating” (not really implicating) Russia and keeping the source hidden. Some documents would be used for anti-corruption campaigns in a few countries—topple some minor regimes, destroy a few careers and fortunes. By then blackmailing the real targets in the United States and elsewhere (individuals not in the current leak), the Russian puppet masters get “kontrol” and influence.
18 March
Even As Russians Withdraw, Their Legacy in Syria Remainsrepublished with permission of Stratfor.
As the departure of Russian forces from Syria announced March 14 continues, evidence of construction at Russia’s main air base in the country demonstrates Moscow’s intention to maintain a military presence there. Imagery dated March 17 acquired by Stratfor of the Bassel al Assad air base in Latakia province and the naval base at Tartus highlights the ongoing Russian drawdown of its forces in Syria that Moscow contends will be largely completed by March 20.
The imagery not only shows that the Russians are still expanding infrastructure and facilities at the air base, but also that they have deployed additional assets in the past few days there.
Russia can make powerful Syria military comeback in hours: Putin
(Reuters) President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia could scale up its military presence in Syria again within hours and would still bomb terrorist groups there despite a partial draw-down of forces ordered after military successes.
16 March
Putin’s Syria Tactics Keep Him at the Fore and Leave Everyone Else Guessing
(NYT) By all accounts, Mr. Putin delights at creating surprises, reinforcing Russia’s newfound image as a sovereign, global heavyweight and keeping him at the center of world events.
In the case of Syria, the sudden, partial withdrawal more than five months after an equally surprising intervention allows Mr. Putin to claim a list of achievements without a significant cost to Russia in blood or rubles.
If the roughly 4,000 Russian troops centered on a contingent of about 50 combat aircraft had remained in Syria, Mr. Putin risked becoming just another proxy force fighting for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But Mr. Putin wanted to make his mark by forging a solution in Syria, rather than lingering long enough to validate President Obama’s contention that Moscow had jumped headfirst into a quagmire.
14 March
Explaining Putin’s surprise move to pull most Russian forces out of Syria
(Quartz) Just six months after shaking up the strategic calculus of the Middle East, Russian president Vladimir Putin has yet again shown his capacity to do the unexpected, ordering most of his troops out of Syria.
Details are still thin. But Putin’s main justification for diving into the five-year-old Syrian conflict in September was to save his main Middle East ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The pullout means either that Putin thinks that Assad’s rule is no longer threatened, no longer believes the Syrian ruler can maintain his grip on the fractured country, or doesn’t care if Assad falls. [See Comment below by Nick Rost van Tonningen for an alternative explanation]
Assad’s government, Syrian opposition groups, and other regional players are currently engaged in United Nations-led peace negotiations. Opposition groups are demanding that Assad’s departure is a precondition to any truce, and the UN says it [is] working toward new Syrian elections.
7 March
How Finland Became Europe’s Bear Whisperer
Helsinki has figured out how to stand up to Russia without provoking Putin’s wrath. Its neighbors call that appeasement.
Finland has so far remained an exception among Russia’s Western neighbors by continuing to reap the economic benefits of friendly relations without making any overt shows of force. How has Finland managed to keep the bear next door so tame? In interviews with Foreign Policy, top officials from the Finnish government say the secret for any small country bordering Russia is to find a way to stand up to Russian provocations without provoking it in return. See also (BBC) Russian menace pushes Sweden towards Nato
23 February
Questions Linger Over Russia’s Endgame in Syria, Ukraine and Europe
(NYT) The partial truce that Russia and the United States have thrashed out in Syria capped something of a foreign policy trifecta for President Vladimir V. Putin, with the Kremlin strong-arming itself into a pivotal role in the Middle East, Ukraine floundering and the European Union developing cracks like a badly glazed pot.
Beyond what could well be a high point for Mr. Putin, however, lingering questions about Russia’s endgame arise in all three directions.
In Syria, Russia achieved its main goal of shoring up the government of President Bashar al-Assad, long the Kremlin’s foremost Arab ally. Yet its ultimate objectives remain murky, not least navigating a graceful exit from the messy conflict.
In Ukraine, Russia maintains a public commitment to put in place a year-old peace agreement. Renewed fighting in the Russian-backed breakaway regions, however, suggests that Moscow seeks to further destabilize the Kiev government, already wobbly from internal political brawling.
In Europe, Mr. Putin wants to deepen cracks in the European Union, hoping to break the 28-nation consensus behind the economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin recently cranked up its propaganda machine to malign the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — viewed here as the central figure in the confrontation against Moscow — portraying her as barren and her country as suffering violent indigestion from too many immigrants.
The target audience for these achievements is the Russian populace, partly to distract people from their deepening economic woes.
Kerry to Russia: War in Syria ‘Can Get a Lot Uglier’
(Foreign Policy) Secretary of State John Kerry conceded Tuesday he cannot guarantee Russia will stick to a new Syrian cease-fire plan that Moscow and Washington jointly agreed to this week. But he warned that the U.S. military was considering a “Plan B” and would continue supporting rebel efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the absence of Russian cooperation.
11 February
The race for survival pits the EU against Putin’s Russia
George Soros
(The Guardian) The fact is that Putin’s Russia and the EU are engaged in a race against time: the question is which one will collapse first.
The Putin regime faces bankruptcy in 2017, when a large part of its foreign debt matures, and political turmoil may erupt sooner than that. The president’s popularity, which remains high, rests on a social compact requiring the government to deliver financial stability and a slowly but steadily rising standard of living. Western sanctions, coupled with the sharp decline in the price of oil, will force the regime to fail on both counts.
Russia’s budget deficit is running at 7% of GDP, and the government will have to cut it to 3% in order to prevent inflation from spiralling out of control. Russia’s social security fund is running out of money and has to be merged with the government’s infrastructure fund in order to be replenished. These and other developments will have a negative effect on living standards and opinions of the electorate before the parliamentary elections this autumn.
9 February
Russia’s Syria dilemma
(Al-Monitor) Could the Syrian army’s recent military successes against rebel forces, and its possible conquest of Aleppo, be too much of a good thing for Moscow? After the suspension of the Geneva III talks, this is an important question for Russian leaders to consider.
5 February
Russia Has Few Options for Turning Its Economy Around
(Stratfor) Low oil prices have thrown a wrench in many of the world’s economies, but perhaps nowhere more so than Russia. Depressed energy prices have sent the value of the Russian ruble tumbling and inflation soaring, and much of the Russian population is struggling to make ends meet.
2 February
Could sanctions spur Russia’s ascent to agricultural superpower?
(CSM) Since the end of the Soviet era, Russia’s agricultural industry has languished. But with sanctions now keeping European goods out of the Russian market, small domestic farmers are stepping up.
1 February
U.S. Fortifying Europe’s East to Deter Putin
(NYT) Though Russia’s military activity has quieted in eastern Ukraine in recent months, Moscow continues to maintain a presence there, working with pro-Russian local forces. Administration officials said the additional NATO forces were calculated to send a signal to President Vladimir V. Putin that the West remained deeply suspicious of his motives in the region.
“This is not a response to something that happened last Tuesday,” a senior administration official said. “This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.”
Report from Grozny
Ramzan Kadyrov and PutinPutin’s Dragon – Is the ruler of Chechnya out of control?
Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, rules the republic as his own private fiefdom but remains unquestionably loyal to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin
(New Yorker February 8 & 15, 2016 Issue) Since 2001, to keep the peace, the Russian government has flooded Chechnya with cash, including at least fourteen billion dollars for postwar reconstruction. Today, more than eighty-five per cent of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow. Another untold sum comes from an opaque fund named after Kadyrov’s father, which is financed by business owners and public employees—who are informally required to pay a portion of their income to the fund—and by Chechen oligarchs paying tribute to Kadyrov. The fund, in turn, disburses money for everything from repairing local hospitals to sending Chechens to Mecca for the hajj. Chechen officials have said that donations to the foundation are voluntary, but a staff member at a public institution in Grozny told me that as soon as the workers’ salaries are deposited they get a call from a superior, asking for around thirty to fifty thousand rubles, or four to six hundred dollars. The fund, an indulgence granted to no other Russian governor, frees Kadyrov from complete financial dependence on the Kremlin. …
Since succeeding his father, Kadyrov has wrested power not just from the Russian generals and intelligence officers who once oversaw Chechnya but also from internal rivals hailing from other prominent Chechen clans. In this, he resembles Putin, who built what has been called a “vertical of power” across the whole of Russia under his centralized authority. Chechnya is far smaller and more homogenous, so Kadyrov’s power is even more pronounced.
Chechen leader Kadyrov posts video of Russian opposition leader in gun sights
Mikhail Kasyanov, whose co-leader of Russian party was gunned down a year ago, says video by Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leader is ‘direct threat of a murder’
(The Guardian) Last week, Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister, called on deputies at a parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to prepare a special report on the Nemtsov murder investigation and warned that Kadyrov’s comments, labelling the opposition “enemies of the people”, marked a broader crackdown on regime critics. During the trip, he also told the exiled Crimean Tatar leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, that Crimea would eventually be returned to Ukraine.
27 January
Lights Out for the Putin Regime – The Coming Russian Collapse
By Alexander J. Motyl
Sooner or later, Russia’s time of troubles will end. After the dust settles, a smaller and weaker Russia and a host of newly independent non-Russian regions-turned-states might make for a more stable world, at least inasmuch as Putin’s Russia, which has become a major threat to world peace, will have disappeared and rump Russia may finally abandon the imperial aspirations that enabled Putin to come to power.
Whatever the outcome, the best immediate guarantee of stability and security in the post-Putin, post-Soviet space will be Russia’s current non-Russian neighbors, in particular, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. If they are strong, much of the damage will be contained. If they become weak, the damage will spread to the West. The best time to strengthen them is now—before the deluge.

(Foreign Affairs) Crimea and the Donbas are economic hellholes and huge drains on Russian resources. The war with Ukraine has stalemated. Energy prices are collapsing, and the Russian economy is in recession. Putin’s punitive economic measures against Ukraine, Turkey, and the West have only harmed the Russian economy further. Meanwhile, the country’s intervention in Syria is poised to become a quagmire.
Things are probably  much worse for Russia than this cursory survey of negative trends suggests. The country is weathering three crises brought about by Putin’s rule—and Russia’s foreign-policy misadventures in Ukraine and Syria are only exacerbating them.
First, the Russian economy is in free fall. … Second, Putin’s political system is disintegrating. … Third, Putin himself, as the linchpin of the Russian system, has clearly passed his prime. Since his catastrophic decision to prevent Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2013, he has committed strategic blunder after strategic blunder.

21 January

LONDON - NOVEMBER 20: In this image made available on November 25, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on November 20, 2006 in London, England. The 43-year-old former KGB spy who died on Thursday 23rd November, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin in the involvement of his death. Mr Litvinenko died following the presence of the radioactive polonium-210 in his body. Russia's foreign intelligence service has denied any involvement in the case. (Photo by Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images)

LONDON – NOVEMBER 20: In this image made available on November 25, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on November 20, 2006 in London, England. The 43-year-old former KGB spy who died on Thursday 23rd November, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin in the involvement of his death. Mr Litvinenko died following the presence of the radioactive polonium-210 in his body. Russia’s foreign intelligence service has denied any involvement in the case. (Photo by Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin Probably Approved Killing Of Ex-Agent Alexander Litvinenko, UK Judge Says
Former agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea laced with radioactive poison in 2006.
In his 326-page report, Owen said based on the evidence he had seen, the operation to kill Litvinenko was “probably” approved by then-FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, now head of Putin’s security council, and by Putin.
The judge laid out the overwhelming scientific evidence against Lugovoi and Kovtun, including a trail of radiation that stretched from the hotel teapot to the sink in Kovtun’s room and even the Emirates stadium, where Lugovoi attended a soccer game.
He said the case for Russian state involvement was circumstantial but strong.
Russia’s Litvinenko Is Just One Of Many Silenced Kremlin Critics
At least 56 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992
17 January
Putin’s self-destructing economy
By Vladislav Inozemtsev, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow.
(WaPost) The Russian economy suffers from both the effects of diminishing oil revenue and growing bureaucratic pressure, not to mention the country’s paranoid foreign policy. … with the Russian economy now totally subjugated to politics, and the latter becoming more illiberal, there is little hope for recovery, even if sanctions are lifted and oil prices return to more normal levels.
Russia has weathered crises before, but neither in 1998 nor in 2008 did so many foreign companies abandon their investments. With its “counter-sanctions” against the European Union, tension with Turkey and proclamations that international treaties are overridden by ever-changing Russian law, the government has discouraged domestic and international investors from expanding. In the past year, more than 20 Western corporations, including Opel, Adobe Systems and Stockmann, have terminated their Russian businesses; around 30 production facilities owned by foreigners have been closed. Net emigration from Russia rose from 35,000 people a year from 2008 to 2010 to more than 400,000, by preliminary estimates, in 2015. I do not see any signs that all these trends might change.
Russian economic crisis drives people to the soup kitchens
The impact of the economic crisis is now noticeable in everyday life in Russia. Many are now living below the poverty line. The number of people seeking help is rising. DW’s Philipp Anft reports from Moscow.
(Deutsche Welle) The Russian economy is certainly not running smoothly. …
Just recently, the Russian finance minister, Anton Siluanov, announced a 10 percent cut in overall government spending. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly declared that the economic crisis has come to an end, but according to a recent survey, more than half of Russians expect the situation to deteriorate. Inflation is high already; the ruble exchange rate to the dollar and euro has suffered a steep drop.
Food in particular has become significantly more expensive recently. The statistics office in Moscow has noted a price increase almost 13 percent compared with the end of 2014 for Russian household shopping carts. The price of some products, such as canned fish, pickled cucumbers and mayonnaise, has even gone up 30 percent.
Blame everyone – except Putin
Some say it is the doing of shadowy figures in the government, while others blame the heartless business world. Karina, for example, says the public administration is to blame, as it has forgotten the poor and that almost nobody cares about people with no money. One person, however, is not to blame: Vladimir Putin. “He is a good president,” says Karina and continues, “But he cannot take care of everything.
16 January
Russia Finance Minister: budget to be short of over $38 billion at current oil price
(Reuters UK) The oil price slide has also put pressure on the rouble, which is down over 50 percent versus the dollar since oil prices started a relentless drive downwards.
But Siluanov said the rouble had weathered the worst because oil prices could not fall as far as they already have from their previous peak.
“Our main export commodity, as we have already discussed, fell in price by four times,” Siluanov said. “One can hardly expect prices to fall four times further compared to today’s level.”
He added that Russia could have to use part of its National Wealth Fund (NWF) to cover the budget deficit in 2016, if measures were not taken to bring Russia’s budget in line with the new oil price reality.
12 January
Putin: too early to discuss asylum for Syria’s Assad
(Deutsche Welle) Putin has said it is too early to discuss Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down. Until a new constitution and elections are held in the war-torn country, Russia would continue to back the regime, he said.
11 January
Putin: US and NATO want to ‘sit on the throne in Europe alone’
Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his policies in Ukraine and Crimea and slammed NATO expansion and the United States. He also said he trusts German Chancellor Angela Merkel.</p>

2 Comments on "Russia in 2016"

  1. Diana Thebaud Nicholson January 31, 2016 at 2:02 pm ·

    One of Wednesday Night’s European observers comments:
    It looks as if Putin is now testing where to start a suitable local conflict to direct the attention of increasingly dissatisfied Russians to an outer threat. The opening of the Russian-Finnish border for Afghan and African “refugees” is worrying enough. However, … the Russians have shown some back-pedaling as they usually do when you put your foot down.
    Now it seems to be Turkey, where a Russian jet has again violated the Turkish air-space. What is peculiar is, that Putin is picking up the gauntlet of a NATO partner.
    Whatever, he certainly is getting worried with a withering economy caused by effective sanctions and low oil-prices.
    The clock is ticking and the leadership might change, but Russia will not.

  2. Nick Rost van Tonningen March 21, 2016 at 10:56 pm ·

    Re Russian troop withdrawal from Syria
    This move likely was financially-, not politically/militarily-, driven12; for the last thing he needs is this ongoing (US$4+MM/day?) financial drain on the Russian Treasury. So he took a leaf out of the US playbook, i.e. to ‘unilaterally declare victory & go home’13. Rather interestingly, this move came the day before the latest round of ‘peace talks was to start in Geneva & two days after Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, took Staffan de Mistura, the UN Envoy to Syria, to task for having the temerity to tell Russia’s RIA Novosti News agency that one of the negotiations’ key points would be the implementation of UN-observed parliamentary & presidential elections within 18 months. In his previous, 2000-2008 stint at the Presidency Putin benefited from high single digit GDP growth and, although in 2009, the first year of Medvedev’s ‘seat-warming’ interregnum, it cratered 25+%, it thereafter resumed such rapid growth on the back of high oil prices that in 2013, after Putin had resumed the Presidency, GDP was 25% above its 2008 level. But, while, even before the oil price fell off a cliff in mid-2014, his Finance Minister had warned him that, while his (grandiose) plans required 5% GDP growth, he would be wise not to count on more than 2%; he has since gotten negative 3.8% growth in 2014 & negative 3.7% in 2015; i.e. GDP is now 89% of what the Finance Minister had told him to expect & 84% of that needed to fund his plans.
    Nick Rost van Tonningen

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