Russia July 2019 –

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Vodka on the RocksRussia’s relations with the West are not about to get any better.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
US-Russian relations continue to deteriorate. Expectations on both sides are extremely low. Arms control is unraveling fast, with the Trump administration seemingly more likely to let the New START treaty expire within a year than to extend it. Opens Skies may be another agreement that US President Donald Trump would like to discard. The coming US presidential election might well result in new accusations of Russian meddling, which would lead to new sanctions against Russia.
Russia’s relations with Europe continue to disappoint. Expectations of a breakthrough or at least significant progress on Donbass, which were raised as a result of the Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019, have had to be significantly rolled back. It is possible that the line of contact in Ukraine’s east may see a prolonged lull in shelling and shooting, with more civilians freely crossing the line to go about their daily business and prisoners still kept by both sides returning to their families. What also seems probable, however, is a long-term freeze of the political status quo in Donbass. The [Minsk agreement], whose implementation is a sine qua non for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia, will remain unfulfilled. Moscow’s insistence on a special constitutional status for Donetsk and Luhansk remains anathema to Kyiv.
… Against this background, Moscow’s relations with – and public attitudes toward – a number of Eastern European countries, from Poland to the Baltic States to Ukraine, have reached new lows.
The bad news is that the Moscow-Washington confrontation will continue; the good news is that there will be some guardrails built around it. Russia’s relations with European countries will vary from the pragmatic, such as with France, Germany and Italy, to the highly toxic, such as with several Eastern European neighbors. The conflict in Donbass is unlikely to rekindle or escalate, but nor will it be solved anytime soon. Crimea will stay Russian, but will not be internationally recognized as such. There will be no hostilities in the Baltic Sea area, but hostility on both sides of the NATO-Russian divide will become more deeply entrenched. The Arctic will become busier commercially, but more militarized as well. The Balkans, while no longer an East-West battleground, will be a sandbox for small-time geopolitical games. The Eastern Mediterranean, however, is emerging as an area where Russia, again, is competing with the West.

20 – 23 January
Behind Façade of Transition, Putin is Creating a Corporate State, Pastukhov Says
“The empire which appeared to have receded into the past has struck back, becoming again the main principle of the state construction in Russia, one almost elevated into constitutional rank,” Pastukhov concludes.
(Windows on Eurasia) Having made certain concessions to the Russian parliament on the appointment of ministers, the Kremlin leader “made two enormous steps” in the opposite direction, first by elevating the status of the force ministers by means of putting their approval in a different category and second, by extending this principle to the regions as well.
What these changes mean, of course, is that “the distance between the real rules according to which Russia has lived for a long time and the constitutional Potemkin village” that Moscow has claimed to be operating under but hasn’t at least since Putin came to power “has been reduced.”
Putin names new Cabinet as key members of Russian government stay
Russian President Vladimir Putin formed his new Cabinet Tuesday, replacing many of its members but keeping his foreign, defence and finance ministers in place.
(Globe & Mail) The Cabinet shakeup comes as Putin has launched a sweeping constitutional reform that is widely seen as an attempt to secure his grip on power well after his current term ends in 2024.
Immediately after announcing the proposed changes last week, Putin fired Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who had the job for eight years, and named tax chief Mikhail Mishustin to succeed him.
On Tuesday, Putin issued a decree outlining the structure of the new Cabinet and named its members. He appointed his economic adviser Andrei Belousov as first deputy prime minister and named eight deputy prime ministers, including some new names, such as Dmitry Chernyshenko who was the head of the organizing committee for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov have retained their jobs. Siluanov, however, was stripped of his additional role of first deputy prime minister, which he had in the old Cabinet.
Other leading figures in the previous Cabinet, including Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev, also stayed.
Russia Prepares for New Tandemocracy
Putin’s proposed amendments to various roles amount to something resembling an insurance policy, which suggests that the president has already decided who his successor will be, though he may not name that person for another three years.
(Carnegie Moscow Center) President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address on January 15 made it quite clear that he will step down from the presidency in 2024—or earlier—as the Russian constitution requires, but only after he has put in place a system enabling him to influence his successor. This means a return to a tandemocracy like that seen in 2008–2012, when Putin stood down and served as prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev to adhere to the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms.
Just how much power the State Council will wield in the future is one of the biggest questions arising from Putin’s plans for constitutional reform. Most probably, its authority will be directly proportionate to Putin’s concern that the next president could break free of his control.

9 January
The only winner of the US-Iran showdown is Russia
The heightened tensions between the United States and Iran over the killing of Qassem Soleimani offer Russia another opportunity to increase its influence in the Middle East, argue  Strobe Talbott and Maggie Tennis. This article originally appeared in Slate.
(Brookings) Beyond strengthening Russia’s position, the Soleimani strike contributes to Russia’s goals of driving a wedge between Washington and its partners and advancing global perceptions of the United States as volatile and belligerent. Moscow has already succeeded in undermining U.S. relations with Middle Eastern allies. The prime example is Turkey: Although Russia and Turkey were on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, they now jointly control operations in the north of the country after a remarkable October 22 agreement between Washington and Ankara to establish a “Syria Safe Zone” and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In reaction to Soleimani’s death, Turkey released a statement that it opposes “foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region.”
Moscow could also benefit if the U.S. strikes create more disunity between Washington and its European allies. Numerous U.S. decisions in the Middle East have frustrated allies, particularly its withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Reports suggest that the Trump administration even failed to warn Britain and other allies ahead of the strikes on Soleimani. If Washington does not heed its allies’ calls for immediate de-escalation, the United States could find itself further isolated on the world stage. Washington could incur additional damage to its relationships with European allies if Iran now hastens its pursuit of a nuclear weapon as a result of the strikes. Iran announced Sunday it would stop obeying all restrictions imposed by the Iran deal on its nuclear activities. Russia has been a vocal critic of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal and instead mount a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In fact, Moscow’s position has placed it on the same side as European powers like France and Germany opposing the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions.
For a while it seemed that Trump was trying to fulfill his campaign promise of a reduced U.S. presence in the Middle East. Now, it seems as if he’s trying to draw the country into another prolonged quagmire — whether as a distraction from impeachment proceedings or to force Iran to the negotiating table, it is too early to tell.
Russia, on the other hand, is left with the enviable position of capitalizing on the turbulent behavior of the United States in the Middle East, regardless of whether the United States and Iran go to war. Ultimately, U.S. actions will strengthen Russian leadership: first, by removing American competition, and second, by turning regional and global sentiment against the United States.


25 October
As Putin Era Begins to Wane, Russia Unleashes a Sweeping Crackdown
A wave of arrests against journalists, opposition activists, doctors and religious believers raises a question: Is this a police state in the making or just a highly dysfunctional one?
By Andrew Higgins, Moscow bureau chief
(NYT) … Her conclusion — that relentless repression by Russia’s security forces is radicalizing Russian youth — now has the journalist, Svetlana Prokopyeva, facing up to seven years in jail for “publicly inciting terrorism.”
The prosecution of Ms. Prokopyeva and other harmless critics comes against the backdrop of foreboding and uncertainty over what might follow Mr. Putin, who has anchored the system for nearly two decades. Even the question of whether he will depart as scheduled in 2024 is the subject of speculation, since he remains more popular than any opponent despite a dip in his ratings.
The resulting jitters, exacerbated by economic stagnation and mostly small but widespread protests that erupted this summer, have left Russia’s numerous law-enforcement bodies scrambling to prove their mettle against potential threats, no matter how puny, and secure their future in a country they all view as a fortress besieged by enemies at home and abroad.
In the aftermath of the protests, which were broken up with often brutal force by the authorities, law-enforcement agencies last week conducted nationwide raids on news outlets critical of the Kremlin and on the homes and offices of people affiliated with the opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny.
… Mr. Putin’s Human Rights Council, shortly before this week’s purge of its more outspoken members, noted in a statement that the question of why people turn to militancy was “one of the most acute and debated” issues in criminology, and that journalism should not be criminalized. The council said it had “carefully studied” Ms. Prokopyeva’s text and “did not see in it any signs of justification of terrorism.”

26 August
Andrei Kolesnikov: Has Russia, Inc. Stalwart Chemezov Crossed the Barricades?
(Carnegie Moscow Center) It’s already entirely obvious that the regime has embarked on the path of more frequent and refined use of repression, and that the protests have been presented (and will continue to be so) by the Kremlin to the silent majority as the machinations of foreign powers. Sergei Chemezov’s comments on the public mood in Russia testify not to the specter of a thaw, but, on the contrary, to the fact that the clampdown is in full swing, and only individual members of the inner circle are apprehensive of the authorities’ new radical strategy of repression, which will provoke a new spiral in the war that is already de facto raging between the state and civil society.
20 August
Zelensky’s Flawed Choice of Tactics in the Donbass
(Warsaw Institute) Another phone call with the Kremlin, strange words about the death of Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbass, a request addressed to the French president regarding talks in the Normandy format – all of this does not bring Ukraine closer to ending the war in the Donbass. Volodymyr Zelensky seems to be trying to seize the initiative, however, his diplomatic efforts come off as chaotic and, in fact, further the Kremlin’s political goals. A few more months of such “softening” of Kyiv and Vladimir Putin may actually sit down for talks with Zelensky. However, then, the Ukrainian president will be in a much worse position and if he wants to achieve peace in the Donbass at all costs, it will come at a very high price. Entering into direct dialogue with Putin is extremely risky and, from Kyiv’s standpoint, it may also have a detrimental effect on the positions of Germany, France and the USA on the conflict in Ukraine.

11 August
Opinion: Growing discontent in Moscow poses challenge to Kremlin
As tens of thousands rallied on the streets of Moscow, Russia’s rulers reacted with violence and fear. Their worries are warranted, writes Miodrag Soric.
( Deutsche Welle) The protesters’ boldness has unsettled those in power, and the country’s rulers are reacting helplessly. Again and again the president and prime minister promise improvements like more money and higher wages. In reality, Russians’ standard of living has been falling for five years. Everyone knows it. They can feel it in their wallets.
Ultimately this is about more than just material things. Many ordinary Russians feel the government doesn’t represent or understand them.
Read moreOpinion: 20 years of Vladimir Putin destabilizing the world
Among the protesters were many liberal-minded youths calling for more freedom and western-style democracy, but there were also older Muscovites. They were carrying communist flags and mourning for the Soviet era, when, in their view, the state took care of its people. Old communists and young democrats — united by their certainty that this government is not taking them seriously anymore.
After 20 years, is Vladimir Putin’s untouchable image crumbling?
During Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power, polls have often shown Russians blame their government rather than their president for their problems. Amidst a new wave of domestic tension, that could be changing.

8 August
Moscow’s Crisis Is Now Russia’s Crisis
(Carnegie Moscow Center) By agreeing to the brutal suppression of peaceful protests about Moscow city elections, Mayor Sobyanin has submitted to collective responsibility. For Putin and the Kremlin, it is impermissible that elections can be lost. This is a message for Russia’s next parliamentary and presidential polls. … Moscow has lost its status as a special political enclave in the country. The crackdown on protest is being directed not by the mayor but from the Kremlin. Both Russia’s rulers and the opposition see the confrontation as a trial run for a bigger showdown in the parliamentary elections of 2021 and the next presidential election of 2024.

Letter from Moscow
Much has changed in Moscow’s capital, where feelings about Vladimir Putin are more mixed than you’d think.
By Jeremy Kinsman
(Policy Magazine) This isn’t the place for profound political analysis, but the one thing most people agree western comment has wrong is our prevailing belief that Putin decides everything as a top-down dictator, mostly concerned with his own power. In Russia, he is generally seen as the guy who pulled the country up off the floor. We call him right-wing and autocratic. Most Russians would peg him as a relative liberal because they know there are more lethal potential tyrants in the wings that Putin fends off.
Most see Putin as an arbiter of various competing and diverse interests. His job has been to restore Russia’s stature, pride, and performance and a large majority of Russians credit him with a good job on those. He oversees, fairly loosely, an increasingly professional and technocratic administration that is almost apolitical. It isn’t a vision of inclusive and participatory democracy but it delivers.
Again, contrary to Western sentiment about Russia, Putin’s external adventures get mixed reviews domestically. Russians I know are tired of the extended conflict with Ukraine (though they see the Crimea annexation as a justified retroactive adjustment to the way the USSR broke up in haste). They don’t view the alliance with Bashar al-Assad as a trophy to cherish. Russians now travel abroad a lot; they get that there is resentment over Russian meddling in other peoples’ politics. On these issues, Putin’s nationalist populism may be out of step with European-inclined Muscovites. People are proud when he plays the statesman and mediator, especially when compared to Trump the disruptor. They like it when he pushes back against US unilateralism but they like it best when Russia succeeds in strengthening international cooperation among regional allies like the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, and on disarmament. (July 2019)

27 – 29  July
Opinion: The Kremlin fears its own people
Russian police reacted with force and arrested more than 1,000 people during opposition protests in Moscow. As the nervousness of Russia’s rulers increases, so does the courage of its opposition, writes Mirodrag Soric
(DW) Millions have now seen the images of the beaten demonstrators; they have caused outrage, in Russia and across the globe. Western companies that continue to invest in Russia — including Siemens, BASF subsidiary Wintershall and Daimler — need to take a good hard look at themselves. Anyone supporting Putin’s regime in Russia will soon have to defend that stance closer to home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the elite surrounding him are ever more fearful of their people. And with good reason. The government is accountable for a worsening in the Russian standard of living in recent years. The economy is stagnating, infrastructure is crumbling outside the major cities and educated young people are leaving Russia in search of better prospects. And ever since the so-called pension reform, millions of older voters also feel betrayed by the state.
That’s why political opponents are being frozen out of the vote. That’s why the media is being controlled, and why independent journalists are being persecuted. The Kremlin fears protests like the devil fears holy water; it’s a typical reflex of the powerful in authoritarian states.
As people fear less, the powerful fear more
Alexei Navalny discharged from hospital despite doctor’s opposition
(BBC) Alexei Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition activist – and one of President Putin’s most vocal critics.
That’s why news of a sudden illness makes headlines.
Especially if it’s a sudden illness contracted in a Moscow jail.
There’s been no confirmation that Mr Navalny was poisoned. But his doctors – and his supporters – are keen to know what sparked such sudden symptoms.
Russia’s Alexei Navalny may have been poisoned: doctor
(DW) A Russian doctor has said the opposition leader’s symptoms suggest that he might have been targeted with a “toxic agent.” Berlin has urged Moscow to release over 1,300 prisoners arrested during Navalny-backed protests.
Navalny developed what authorities described as an “allergic reaction” while serving a 30-day jail sentence for promoting a banned protest march.
Navalny, a critic of President Vladimir Putin and the most visible face of Russia’s opposition movement, is regularly arrested for calling on protesters to demonstrate against corruption and non-liberal government policies.
He challenged Putin in the 2018 presidential elections but failed to make a stand after a Russian court banned him from participating over a criminal conviction for alleged financial crimes that he described as politically motivated.

Hundreds arrested at Moscow demonstration for free elections
Recent wave of Moscow protests was sparked by move to ban all but a few opposition candidates vying for city council.
(Al Jazeera) More than 500 people, including opposition leaders and city council election candidates, were arrested on Saturday as police cracked down on an unsanctioned demonstration for fair elections.
Hundreds of riot police and members of the national guard were dispatched to the centre of the capital, closing down streets near the planned protest site at city hall and rerouting demonstrators and bystanders.
The number of detentions, monitored by the independent OVD-Info group, was still growing after about 3,500 people had gathered. Prominent political figures were forcefully put into vans before the protest could start amid scuffles.
Nearly 1,400 detained in pro-democracy protest in Moscow – largest number of arrests in a decade

18 July
Storied Russian Miniatures Dwindling in Face of Icon Revival
Once upon a time, the small, picturesque Russian village of Palekh gained fame far and wide for producing religious icons.
Then one day, a revolution came and its adherents, growling, “There is no god,” banned such art.
Hundreds of artists eventually learned to adorn lacquer boxes instead, painting scenes from Russian fairy tales or romanticized versions of country life.
These delicate miniatures made the village famous anew, especially after foreign collectors plunked down tens of thousands of dollars buying an art form considered uniquely Russian.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church revived icon painting. It is miniature art now facing extinction.

12 July
Europe’s security watchdog reveals key evidence in the Nemtsov murder investigation
This week brought a potential breakthrough in the investigation of Russia’s most high-profile political murder in recent memory, the 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — or, rather, it would have, if Russian law enforcement had any intention of investigating it seriously.

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